After touring the major cities of Western Europe for the past six weeks, I’m finally home; ready to start writing about the sights, the people, and my experiences; and hopefully inspiring others to get out and see the world, too.
From Lisbon to Prague, Rome to London, I criss-crossed that continent back and forth with a Eurail ticket in my pocket and a backpack on my shoulders, trekked to the landmarks everyone expects to see and immersed myself in Europe’s old-world cultures, enjoying the food and drink everywhere I landed. Needless to say, it was an amazing vacation – a set of experiences that will remain strong in my memory for the rest of my life.
With all of that said, however, traveling abroad can sharpen the focus of what’s different at home and how much we take for granted as normal in our day to day American lives. I’m not talking about longings for luxury – after all, I knew that living out of a bag and sleeping in youth hostels for half a summer would entail some degree of discomfort. And in fact, most of Europe’s cities are developed, modern, world class metropolises, and first-world conveniences were hardly a concern.
1) Cold, thirst-quenching drinks
I was always thirsty on the road, and borderline dehydrated at first until I figured out that I’d have to adapt to a different set of liquid consumption practices. I never actually figured out how most people consume their liquid intake, because apparently drinking water is not a public event. Only tourists seem to require the very essence of human life at regular intervals. I had to actively scout for water bottles on the shelves of convenience stores, which I eventually learned to hold onto and fill up at a bathroom sink, or, in rare cities, at a water fountain. These fountains are not drinking fountains, per se – just spouts that pour water at knee or shoulder level and where you can fill up with clean water. The locals mostly seem to use these to wash their faces.
If it’s hard to find a drink of water, it’s harder to find a cold one. Most beverages in Europe are simply served a few degrees cooler than the air. The sink faucets pour hot water or warm water – your choice – and when eating at a restaurant, you have to ask for water if you want any. It is rarely served chilled, never with ice, and usually in a very small glass. I got the impression that it’s impolite to ask for more, but I could be wrong about this as I was unable to deduce a number of subtle niceties under the influence of my mirage-inducing thirst.
Coca-cola bottles mysteriously cloud and sweat like they’ve been kept on ice, but they haven’t been. A lot of beer is poured at room temperature or, if the bar advertises cold beer, basement temperature. And if you order a cocktail, you might reasonably expect one or two ice cubes that just quickly dissolve into the alcohol. One night a guy from the Netherlands was arguing that a cold drink here must be the same as in the US, and I could hardly hold back from laughing. The first time someone asked me if I would like ice in my drink was on the airplane back to New Jersey.
It wasn’t a big deal, for the most part. I actually don’t like ice in my drinks because of the watering down effect, and I got used to warm drinks pretty quickly. I never knew how ridiculously cold we like our drinks in the US, and it was one of the comforts of home that I ended up missing.
2) Forming lines
From jumping on the line into a sight-seeing attraction to waiting in a bathroom queue, securing a spot to go anyplace crowded is an exercise in vigilance. People kind of mash up in front of an entrance and push their way to being next, disregarding the unspoken entitlement of those who actually arrived first. Traveling solo was a weakness at times like these, because entire families would push to meet up with someone who had casually cut to the front. I usually just slid back ahead of the invading party, and hardly anyone seemed to think any of this behavior unusual or rude.
It was particularly noticeable in the cities like Prague and Berlin. One former Soviet tour guide explained the phenomenon this way to me. He said that the capitalist mentality is an individualist one, a first come first serve orientation to the world where each person secures a place in line and casually accepts his rank and social position in the hierarchy of who goes first or last. The (former) Soviet mentality is a collectivist one, where it is generally understood that the whole group has convened to enter a facility or visit an attraction or to purchase something at roughly the same time, and it doesn’t matter who goes first because everyone is there for the same reason. The people who go first are the ones who ought to be first, not necessarily determined by arriving first.
I’ll admit – there seems to be a lot more time in Europe to stand around waiting. There’s hardly ever a rush to do anything. For an American like me, though, who wanted to see as much as possible in a limited amount of time, this practice was fairly annoying, and I prefer to line up while waiting. I longed for home where my mantra, “better three hours too early than a minute too late” actually means that I’ll be among the first to enter someplace.
I am not prissy about bathrooms. In my mind, they are functional spaces designed for taking care of business. I’ve stayed in some older American hotels where the online reviews complain about how small the bathrooms are, only to find that they are perfectly reasonable if you’re simply using the bathroom for its intended purpose. I’ll never understand why some people need so much space to get ready in the morning.
With that said, a lot of European bathrooms are discomfortingly, disproportionately small. The bathroom is called the W.C. everywhere you go because for the most part it is literally just a water closet that has been there since the building was put up several hundred years ago, with plumbing installed sometime in the last century or two. You can brush your teeth over the sink while showering; or you might have to awkwardly adjust your legs to fit on the seat. I don’t mean that you’re merely unable to stretch your legs; I’m talking about bending your knees into yoga positions while you’re sitting on the toilet.
There are relatively few objects in the room with you, too. Soap? Maybe. Toilet seat? Usually. Mirror? Hah! In some places you can’t flush the toilet paper (no, not even then) but there may not be a trash can, or a plunger, presumably because there’s no room. Let me know if you figure out what to do in that situation.
Of course, this wasn’t every bathroom. Just a lot of them. The average bathroom was small by American standards. I continue to hold my stance that Americans are way too accustomed to an unusually large amount of bathroom space. I’ve just come to appreciate a “tiny” American bathroom even more after traveling through Europe.
4) First floors
Maybe this is getting picky, but it took me a pretty long time to stop getting off elevators on the wrong floor. At first, I didn’t understand why I constantly seemed to be off by one, but eventually I realized that the “ground floor” is not the same as the “first floor.” The first floor is above your head when you walk in.
After realizing the error of my ways, there was the difficult task of remembering the distinction whenever I climbed into a lift, and finally, after learning to think about what floor I was actually on, second guessing whether or not I had pushed the right button.
I understand that calling the ground floor the first floor is entirely an American quirk, and that anywhere else we should have to adapt to the local behavior, but unlike inches and ounces, I think our floor numbering actually makes a lot more sense than the world’s. Anyway, I’m glad to not waste any more time standing around like someone who hasn’t figured out elevator technology yet.
5) Knowing how to walk around outside
I was never able to nail down exactly how to appropriately walk around. It sounds ridiculous now, but every city had its own culture for how to walk around the block. In the US (at least in the northeast) I understand pedestrian culture. I’m able to walk around New York City without so much as a shoulder bump, and safely cross the street, yet all over Europe I constantly felt in danger of being trampled, pushed, hit, smacked by a car, run over by a bike, and – worst of all – delayed.
Yes, the walking pace is slower. There are a lot of tourists gazing around, stopping in the middle of the path to look at a window or a map, and generally damming up the flow of foot traffic. I was guilty of that myself more than a few times, but it wasn’t just tourists slowing down the walking pace. There is a difference between trying to figure out how to get somewhere, and taking a long time to get there. When I asked for directions, the estimated walking time was always longer than my reality after the fact. Over and over again I seemed to be the only one passing around an especially slow moving group. To be sure, the trains run on time, the shops open when they’re supposed to, and if you’re meeting someone at 10:15, that’s when they’ll be there. Keeping appointments is not a problem. I suppose people just leave more time to get where they’re going, because they hardly rush. How quaint.
Bike lanes are real, and they’re usually on the sidewalk. I kept thinking at first how luxuriously wide the sidewalks were until I realized that one side was reserved for bikers. It can be hard to realize that you’re walking in a bike lane until you hear a terrifying “ring-ding” behind you at the last minute when you have to leap to safety.
There are other circumstantial road rules that take some getting used to. For instance, in some places (I’m looking at you, Germany), there would be zero cars in sight on a lonely road, but a mob of people waiting at a street corner waiting for the “don’t walk” signal to flip to “walk.” I grieve for the hours of peoples’ lives used up standing on street corners.
In other places, people walk shoulder to shoulder across the sidewalk and seemingly refuse to move over when someone comes the opposite way. Eventually I stopped worrying about bumping into pocket books and elbows when I was all the way over and still had no room to walk through untouched. In London, it became necessary at some point to mark at each crosswalk in which direction to check for the cars coming, because they drive on the left side of the road and everyone looks the wrong way.
In the end…
Traveling Europe was an experience that opened my eyes and ears to different languages, a broader sense of history, and unique cultures. It helped me appreciate not only the European character, but the American one as well.
What do you think?
What American cultural traits do you take for granted?
What did you find surprising about European culture?
Are there different comforts of “home” even within the United States?