Very often, Europeans think “vegetarian” means “no red meat” or “not much meat.” If you are a strict vegetarian, you’ll have to make things very clear. Write the appropriate phrase, keep it handy, and show it to each waiter before ordering your meal.
For inexpensive Italian eateries, look for the term osteria, tavola calda, rosticceria, trattoria, pizzeria, or “self-service.” Panini (sandwiches) calda (toasted) if you ask are cheap and widely available. A meal-sized pizza (sold everywhere for less than $10) and a cold beer is my idea of a good, fast, cheap Italian dinner. For a stand-up super bargain meal, look for a Pizza Rustica shop, which sells pizza by weight. Just point to the best-looking pizza, and tell them how much you want (200 grams is a filling meal). They weigh it, and you pay for it. They heat it, and you eat it.
University cafeterias. (often closed during summer holidays) offer a surefire way to meet educated, English-speaking young locals, with open and stimulating minds. They’re often eager to practice their politics and economics, as well as their English, on a foreign friend. This is especially handy as you travel beyond Europe.
Consider the “tourist menu.” (Menu turistico in Italy, menu touristique in France), popular in restaurants throughout Europe’s tourist zones. This fixed-price meal offers confused visitors a no-stress, three-course meal for a painless price that usually includes service, bread, and a drink. You normally get a choice of several options for each course. Locals rarely order this, but if the options intrigue you, the tourist menu can be a convenient way to sample some local flavors for a reasonable, predictable price.
Eat hearty in Scandinavia. This is Europe’s most expensive corner. Fill up at the breakfast smorgasbord (usually included in your hotel cost). Keep your eyes peeled for daily lunch specials called dagens rett. If you order an entree, get extra vegetables (usually potatoes) by asking for seconds. The cheapest cafeterias often close at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. Many pizzerias offer amazing all-you-can-eat deals, and tempting salad bars. Fresh produce, colorful markets, and efficient supermarkets abound. Picnic!
At most European restaurants, the price of drinks can spoil your appetite. Ask for tap water in Britain, l’eau du robinet in France, Leitungswasser in Germany, acqua del rubinetto in Italy, and agua del grifo in Spain. In other countries, just do the international charade: hold an imaginary glass, turn on an imaginary tap, make the sound of running water, drink up, then smile.
In European groceries and open-air markets, most food is priced by the kilo. (About two pounds). Watch the scales while your food is being weighed. It’ll show grams, which are thousandths of a kilo. If dried apples are priced at 2 per kilo, that’s almost $3 for 2.2 pounds, or about $1.35 per pound. If the scale says 400 grams, that means 40 percent of 2 (or 80 Euro cents), which is about $1.15. In Italy, 100 gams (about a quarter-pound) are called an etto. Be careful, as specialty items are sometimes priced per 100 grams. Look for “kilo,” “kg” (kilogram), or “100 grams” listed next to the price. Whether you understand the numbers or not, act as though you do. In European supermarkets, it’s a snap to buy produce. Try the easy push-button pricing system. Put a banana on the scale, push the button that shows a picture of a banana (or the banana bin number), and a sticky price tag prints out. Voila!
Be Wary if no prices are posted at an outdoor market. Market merchants in tourist centers routinely rip off tourists. Find places that print the prices. Assume any market with no printed prices has a double price standard: one for locals and a more expensive one for tourists. In Europe, morning markets offer mountains of delectable fresh fruit. If you want only one or two pieces, many merchants refuse to deal in small quantities. Roughly estimate the cost of what you want. Hold out the coins in one hand, the fruit in the other. Rarely will a vendor refuse your offer.
Milk-drinkers in Europe can check the carton for the local words for whole or light, such as voll or lett. Cold milk is rare in most countries. Avoid the “long life” kind of milk; sold off the shelf, that needs no refrigeration. This milk will never go bad or taste good.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.