No matter where you grew up, going to another country and experiencing its culture can be weird for anyone. Just take a look at these experiences some folks shared of European travel – you may wind up appreciating home life more than you thought…
1. Any Race
Multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity. The image of Europe I had in my head before I first came here is that it’s filled with white people, and that’s pretty much it. What an amazing surprise when I came here and saw people of all kinds of ethnicity and culture. I have never seen anyone of African descent before in my life. This was how I learnt how a Frenchman is not just a white dude, but could be of ANY race and cultural heritage, who identifies his first language as French. Same goes with a Dutch person, a Brit, and so on.
2. Street Signs
Lack of street signs. The signs are mostly general directions and since they use roundabouts instead of intersections, I’m not sure how it could be any more confusing for someone that doesn’t know the lay of the land. GPS is the only way. But don’t count on seeing the name of the street anywhere.
3. Days change
So, having lived in Netherlands, and travelled around a bit of Western Europe for the past one and a half years, I have experienced a wide variety of culture shocks, ranging from minor to intensely surprising. However, this is the one which shocked me the most, and still confuses me sometimes: Long days during summer and short days during winter
As someone from India, a country close to the equator, the sun sets at around 18:30–19:00 in the summer, and at around 17:30–18:00 in the winters, so there is very little noticeable difference in the length of the day. Here in Europe however, especially further north, in the summers, the sun sometimes sets at 22:00, or even at 23:00 or later! It’s even later in the northern regions of the Scandinavian countries. This also means the sunrise is quite early, at around half past 4 in the morning. The other extreme in the winter – sunrise at 08:15 and sunset at 17:15 or so. This was extremely weird on those days when I had classes from the morning to the evening, so there were some days when I saw little or no daylight.
Sometimes, even now, I find it hard to get to grips with this; in the summer evenings, when I return from the supermarkets or a dinner out with friends, it’s still bright outside and it feels quite weird!
4. Walk about
The cities were actually walkable! I’m sure there are walkable US cities, but the “Atlanta area” covers about 132.4sq miles, with a population of less than 500,000 within the city limits. Compare that to Paris— 40.7sq miles, with a population of about 2.224 million as of 2014. The pedestrians in London, Paris, Edinburgh, Berlin, to name a few, were a shock to me. Even calmer cities like Geneva and Rome were lively. In Atlanta, I might walk a couple of blocks without seeing anyone in the middle of the day.
“Please, thank you and sorry” People use these 3 words abundantly. At restaurants, waiters are asked like this, “can you get me a pizza, please?” They’re thanked when they bring something. This is also applicable to any laborers. Sorry, is used whenever needed.
6. Fluent in English
Language – words like boot, chips, shag, nappy, napkin. Even though in the US we may take a year or two in high school of French, German, or Spanish we really don’t learn the language because we don’t get a chance to use it. Great to find out most people spoke better English than anything we know.
7. Major class system
I had no idea how much class is discussed in the UK. Just from listening to comedy programs I was pretty surprised. I was also confused over people’s negativity to being (or being perceived as) middle class. (See any joke directed at Jack Whitehall lol) In the U.S. we talk about it as if everyone’s middle class whether or not it’s true. So I viewed it in a positive or neutral light. it took me a while to realize that the UK actually had a rigid class system and upper class people had money since like the dawn of time. I mean I knew that existed but I didn’t think it still had societal relevance.
8. Immaculately kept
People take care of their houses here; but public property is treated like a dumpster. Seriously. I’ve rarely been inside a home in the Czech Republic that wasn’t beautifully kept. Czechs with houses spend lots of time in their yards/gardens planting flowers and bushes and keeping it all up: this makes for some beautiful homes. The houses are built with great attention to detail and constructed to last a century or more. Amazingly well built. Windows are underlined with rows of cheery flowers and everything just looks great.
Even the smaller flats in the [unattractive] apartment blocks that some people live in are cozy usually comfy and people pay attention to making them look nice and airy. They have a special system where everyone on the floor and building take turns to sweep and keep the entry halls and stairwells spic and span.
But if I go downtown to the centre where the shops are it’s a bit of a mess: cigarette butts, wrappings, a bit of graffiti that is never painted over. Lawns in parks or surrounding apartment blocks go unmown for what would be an unacceptable amount of time in the US…
Tremendous amount of spontaneity relating to art, culture, music, etc. No such thing as street musicians in Singapore, and in Indonesia most buskers are poor, doing this just to get money. In Europe, street artists are so good at their craft! Whether they’re playing guitar and singing, or painting portraits, it’s all done with such love and care. Standard is pretty high. True they do it for the money as well, but that’s not the only reason. They want to share their art with people in the streets, and this is a big part why they’re doing it.
Even as a teenager I could tell the difference, and I found it so inspiring. It was also the first time I saw amazing street art. Graffiti is a severely punishable offence in Singapore, who doesn’t even allow chewing gum, and in Jakarta, they’re all just tags and scrawls. In Europe you see beautiful artwork and gallery-grade paintings all over public places!
10. Culinary arts
Distinct culinary practices. Every country had a distinct culinary experience. French pastries, London’s array of pub foods, Italian pizza and gelato, German bratwurst. I know, I know, I’m grossly oversimplifying. But every place had a distinct food-culture. Problem was, I couldn’t find anything resembling a taco or tamale in most cities. Or good Chinese takeout. But doner kebabs kept me satisfied for the time being.
11. Young smokers
I was pretty surprised that just outside my school tons of middle and high-schoolers would smoke like it was nothing. I only knew about some smokers in my high school in the US (never in middle school!!) and they would never smoke in front of everyone like that. You would probably get suspended for smoking on school property in the US, but in France, it wouldn’t be surprising to share a smoke with your teacher!
12. Much much smaller
Cars stood out as much much smaller. Many smart cars and tiny vehicles on tiny roads. I was driving in England which was already a shocker being on the other side of the road, but had to drive through narrow metal posts going through an old village. The car barely squeezed through. In Amsterdam one of the vehicles looked like a toy.
13. High quality
In European cities, I can go to the markets and buy enough high-quality ingredients to make a nice meal for two for around $20 – 25. In the U.S., I’d be hard pressed to walk away with the same stuff for less than $30 – 40, and the quality of many ingredients would be inferior, to boot. It’s terribly interesting to see how the prices of certain products reflect local markets and habits: at the supermarket in one Swiss town, I was able to find good Alpkäse (alpine cheese) and fresh produce for astoundingly low prices, while cans of beans or mushrooms were about five times more expensive than in the U.S. In Europe, it is affordable to eat fresh. Processed and packaged foods often cost more, not less, which is backwards from the way many U.S. markets work. Europe is a cook’s heaven, and a microwave warrior’s hell.
When I first moved here I was hanging out with a young crowd; still at university or around that age. I was surprised to find out how badly low-paid workers were treated. Stories of having worked for weeks and then being refused wages, mass sexual harassment and general abuse of workers were rampant. I’ve moved into different social spheres since then and I think that a lot of these things have changed in the last decade, but it was clear that the most unfortunate had far less respect for their own labor than in the USA, where many of these practices would have reported to the Better Business Bureau. Maybe this has changed. But the poorest workers here live on shockingly low wages. Happily, the middle class is actually pretty big: most people make the average wage, which is livable and comfortable.
15. Traffic signals
Traffic rules: Coming from India, I was surprised that even pedestrians need to follow the traffic signals. It was even more liberating to see that no more matter be it a Mercedes, Audi or a BMW, the driver comes to a screeching halt, if he has to, at the zebra crossings. That never happens back home.
16. Early dinner
Early dinner. I guess this is more common in Western Europe. I have noticed the Dutch, and even some people in Germany, happen to eat dinner at around 17:00 or 18:00. As an Indian, this is quite early! We normally have some snacks at around that time, and eat our dinner at around 20:00 or so. So I was surprised when I visited some of my friends’ places and they had dinner quite early.
17. Suburban sprawl
Something like suburban sprawl can be observed here and there in Europe, particularly around the very largest cities, but it’s of a different nature and is much less prominent than it is in the U.S. On my first visit to France, I remember being absolutely shocked to see that when cities end, they stop, and then the countryside begins. Things that ought to be near each other in the major cities usually are, and there is a logic to why things are located where they are. Also, Europeans don’t often unceremoniously rip down historic structures just to make room for prefabricated commercial buildings. Fascinating concept!
Freedom of children and the elderly. Elderly women going about their business in Rome, riding bikes in Amsterdam. In Berlin parks and the Paris metro, I saw children running about with their friends, unattended by adults. Now compare this to the U.S. Helicopter parents everywhere. In high school, I had friends whose parents required them to text them whenever they got somewhere. I had (female) friends whose parents wouldn’t let them ride in cars with female drivers (?!?!) Parents here wouldn’t dream of letting their children loose on the city.
19. Nightly news
The news in Europe is what the US news used to be about 30 or 40 years ago-free of talking heads giving their own opinions. CNN Europe and Sky TV don’t have any shows with anchors à la MSNBC or FOX or CNN even-it’s just news and sports and weather updates with nothing else. An anchor might give a throwaway opinion on something in between news stories, but it’s not an hour of discussion and analysis with a particular political bent like the US.
20. Religious freedoms
I am Russian and was never raised to believe in God. I was always atheist but I learned to avoid this question growing up in the US. People would become pretty aggressive if they found out I was atheist, and many would try to “save” me. If someone did ask what my religion was, I often just said I was a Christian to avoid conflict.
In France, it is the complete opposite. Wearing any sort of religious symbols (such as a small cross necklace) is prohibited in schools. Most of the people I know here actively resent religious and I have not met a single person that has tried to “show me the light” in all of my 8 years living here.
Europeans tend to dress more stylishly and “up” for everyday activities than Americans do. The difference isn’t drastic, but it’s definitely noticeable until you get accustomed to it. I found that locals reacted much differently to me when I wore slacks and a collared shirt than when I was knocking about in shorts and T-shirt. In Europe, gym clothes are usually only for the gym, although you may see many college students dressed “down,” especially in the summer months.
22. Kiss hello
Greeting new people, esp. the opposite sex – this is something I still find hard to get used to, because it is not really the same in different European countries! When I went to Switzerland, whenever I had to meet my Swiss friend’s girlfriend/mother/other female friends, I had to get used to a new greeting – three cheek kisses on alternate cheeks (either left-right-left or right-left-right). I found it rather hard to get used to at first! I think the three-kiss greeting exists here in Netherlands too, when you meet a woman, and I still don’t know how different the greetings are in other countries! Bottom line – very confusing for a foreigner!
23. Weather updates
I got into the habit of checking the weekly weather updates and would feel extremely happy on days that it would be sunny and warm. I would see even more happier people than myself who would just lay on the parks or town centers soaking in the sun right from the afternoons upto nights with little cares for anything around. They seemed to be in bliss!
24. Quality time
People eat out at restaurants to have some quality time with friends and family. They will order a drink and sit for hours and talk to each other and after sometime they will order a meal. A family dinner on a weekend may last up to 3 hours easily.
In India, people go out to eat, just eat. They sit in a restaurant, order food, food arrives, 20 minutes and dinner is over. In that 20 minutes, everybody concentrates on eating, they barely talk.
In Europe, even after finishing your meal and paying bill, you can sit and talk, nobody bothers you. In India we always have waiting lines outside good restaurants.
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