Splitting the ticket

The first time I had dinner with a Croatian was in Oklahoma at an Applebee’s. Applebee’s is famous for serving mediocre food with mediocre alcohol. Nothing says meh, like overcooked, rubbery ribblets (a word Applebee’s invented) and cold 3.2 beer. In rural Oklahoma, my Croatian pal found Applebee’s to be the closest thing to civilization north of I-44. So much so, that he seemed to order half of the menu. Sides of french fries, starters of fried onions and buffalo wings clogged our table, like the grease clogging the other patrons’ arteries. Drinks, dinner and desert, it all came our away.

And this annoyed me. I had been duped into this “type” of situation before. You go out to eat with someone and they order a bunch of “shared” appetizers and then you end up paying for half of it. I didn’t want honey-glazed buffalo wings with a side of honey mustard. I didn’t really want the Applebee’s version of guacamole. What I wanted was to order my hamburger and beer, eat and drink, and then pay my $11.54 share of the bill, plus tip. A quarter into my Croat buddy’s ordering and our bill had well exceeded my budget. So, rather than enjoy in the near infinite amount of offerings, I brooded and simmered in my own broth of thrifty resentment.

Then the bill came and to my surprise senor Croatian payed for EVERYTHING. My internal record scratched, the rhythm of my world was off, the music stopped: I was shocked. What just happened? I replayed the whole meal in my memory’s reel to reel and chagrined. Now it all made sense. His insistence that I order more and more food, the sheer abandon with which he had the waitress bring us drinks. He wasn’t try to trick me, he was... being a host. Holy Crap! I’d read about this kind of thing in books. You know, where someone invites you somewhere and treats YOU because THEY invited YOU. And I? I had just sat there nursing my beer and picking at my hamburger, fearing to eat any of the appetizers less I be damned to pay my share of the bill like Persephone was damned to spend three months a year in Hades.

Now, how we Americans insist on bill splitting seems just so silly, so petty, that it can only really be described as MISERLY. Objectively speaking Americans have more income than most Croatians, and yet when the bill comes we take out our smart phone calculators and divvy up the amount like a bunch of penny-pinching accountants. Here is an example of the extent to which this cultural tick permeates our society. After I turned 18, my own father and I used to split the bill over a breakfast. Shouldn’t a son feel obliged to buy his father a meal now and then? And shouldn’t a father buy his son breakfast? The answer is: yes. Why didn’t we trade treating each other? I HAVE NO IDEA. Of course the irony is (and this is one of those core epiphanic ironies that once grasped is akin to crossing some kind of cultural Rubicon): We Americans, with more, spend like we have less, while Croatians with less, spend like they have more. What?

I think part of it concerns our strong desire to avoid, as much as humanly possible, being beholden to anyone. This kind of ambition explains why, when I first became familiar with the Croatian way of paying, I saw it just as some kind of score keeping. I HAVE to buy YOU a coffee because YOU bought ME a coffee; we HAVE to buy YOU dinner because YOU bought US a dinner; I bought YOU an ice cream so YOU BETTER buy ME one! And to a certain extent this is how it goes, but its not as precise as my inner accountant imagined it. I’ve learned that the obligations created by paying for a friend’s coffee are more nuanced than a clear quid pro quo. They are felt, not thought. It’s like returning a catch rather than paying off a debt. You toss me the ball and wait to see if I toss if back. As the game gets going we no longer keep score. We come to enjoy playing just for the simple sake of playing (or paying).