As an American visiting Europe, you might be tempted to think, “They’re just like us, aren’t they?” Well, that’s true up to a point, but you might be surprised at how many differences there really are. And while some are subtle, others are quite stark. Here’s a rundown of the major culture shocks that await you when you’re on the other side of the Atlantic.
20. You can order a beer and Big Mac
One place you don’t go if you want to drink beer is McDonald’s, right? It’s a family restaurant, and liquor is a no-no. But when you’re in Europe, you can think again. McDonald’s restaurants in France, Greece, Spain and Portugal all serve beer, so you can relax with your burger and wash it down with a brewski. Now that’s a happy meal.
19. Blink and you’ll miss your train…
In the U.S., Amtrak trains chug along at their own speed. Sure, you’ll get to your destination eventually – but not in a terrific hurry. But when it comes to railroad transport, the Europeans have much more of a sense of urgency. Indeed, trains regularly exceed speeds of 200 mph. In Italy, for example, you can span the 134 miles between Milan and Bologna in just 53 minutes.
18. The afternoon nap is a way of life
How many American employers allow you to stop work at lunchtime for a few hours’ break before returning to work in the late afternoon? Not many, if any. But in Mediterranean European countries the siesta is widely observed. It’s especially popular in Spain, Italy and Greece – so don’t be surprised if businesses are closed in the afternoon.
17. Europeans speak your language
As sweeping generalizations go, “Europeans can speak foreign languages and Americans can’t” is one that at least has some truth in it. Indeed, more than half of Europeans know a second language sufficiently well to have a conversation in it. In the States, on the other hand, only around a quarter of the population can speak a foreign tongue well enough to converse in it.
16. But the English don’t speak your language
In fact, many Europeans speak and write in American English, picked up from U.S. movies and TV shows. However, in the U.K. you’ll find that there are many differences, lending credence to the old saying that the U.S. and U.K. are “two nations divided by a common language.” A few examples: pants are trousers, the restroom is the loo, a cookie is a biscuit, and a car’s hood is a bonnet, while the trunk is a boot. Clear?
15. Europe is home of the big cheeses
Let’s face it, American cheese is not the most inspiring of foodstuffs, with popular brands including Velveeta and Cheez Whiz. France is the number one country for cheese, with President de Gaulle famously asking in 1962, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” Some say France actually has almost 1,000 cheeses, while Italy weighs in with 450 varieties.
14. There are meals between meals
In Spain they eat tapas – small individual dishes of delicacies such as squid cooked in its own ink, marinated sardines and specially cured ham. Meanwhile, in Britain some people have afternoon tea, taken around 4:00 p.m. This meal, neither lunch nor dinner, includes delicately cut cucumber sandwiches, cakes, savory tarts and – of course – as much tea as you can drink.
13. Europeans dare to bare
It is perfectly normal on beaches and poolsides in countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Greece for women to go topless – and nobody gives it a second thought. Nudist beaches are also commonplace, even away from the warmer climes of the Mediterranean in Britain. However, don’t get the idea that you can strip off anywhere; make sure it’s acceptable where you visit.
12. History lessons are longer
Of course, First Nations people have histories stretching far back in time, but for many Americans written history didn’t really start until the 18th century. Yet for Europeans in cities such as Rome, Athens and London, history is counted in thousands of years rather than hundreds. And perhaps the most surprising thing to an American is that most residents of these ancient cities take this completely for granted.
11. More miss Mass
Compared to God-fearing Americans, most Europeans are not that religious. In the U.S., 22 percent of people go to church on Sundays. In France it’s 15 percent, in Britain it’s around 10 percent and in the positively godless Netherlands it’s less than 6 percent. More than half of all Americans think that to be moral you need to believe in God. But only 20 percent of people in France, Britain and Spain agree with this idea.
10. Somehow, Europeans live longer
What is it with Europeans? They drink more, they smoke more and they’re less religious, but infuriatingly, they apparently live longer than Americans. People in no less than eight European nations – including Italy, Sweden and the tiny Pyrenean nation of Andorra – live, on average, until they’re 82, with the Swiss hanging in there until they’re 83. Yet the average American can only expect to live until he or she is 81.
9. Metric is kilometers ahead
The U.S., Myanmar and Liberia are the only three countries that still officially eschew the metric system. Europe, on the other hand, is determinedly metric. One exception is beer in the British Isles, which is sold in imperial pints. Confusingly, however, these are not the same as U.S. pints. Still, the good news for keen beer drinkers visiting the U.K. – and Ireland – is that pints there are about 20 percent bigger than in America. Cheers!
8. Europeans are slimmer
Many Americans visiting Europe have the impression that Europeans are slimmer. Well, it turns out it’s not just an illusion. Unfortunately, Americans are, on average, more obese than their friends on the other side of the pond. In fact, around one third of U.S. citizens can be classed as obese, while just over a fifth of Europeans fall into the category.
7. Sport is a whole new ballgame
Americans love sport. So do Europeans, but not the same ones. Baseball is almost unheard of, and you won’t find many people to discuss its finer points with in European bars. In Britain, you’ll find plenty of cricket fans, but how many Americans understand the game? American football is generally not understood, although rugby is popular in Britain, Ireland, France and Italy. Soccer is the most popular sport in Europe by a long chalk – but of course, they simply call it football.
6. Europeans have a passion for fashion
Swinging London, chic Paris and stylish Milan are all cities where the natives care about clothes. Standard-issue American baggy sweatpants, sloppy T-shirts and battered baseball caps will not make you a style icon in any European city. Nor will shorts worn with sneakers and ankle socks. You might just need to smarten up a bit if you want to blend in with style-conscious Europeans.
5. Europeans have more drive to walk
Unlike many American cities, European metropolises are great places to explore on foot. Lots of historic city centers in Europe are at least partly pedestrianized, and locals are generally more inclined to walk than ride. Indeed, a study from the University of Tennessee and Rutgers University found that, on average, Americans only walk 87 miles a year, while Europeans cover 237 miles. Perhaps there’s a clue to America’s obesity problem right there.
4. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em
The U.S. used to be a nation of smokers, but not anymore, with less than one in five Americans regularly lighting up. But it’s a different story in Europe, where more than a quarter of adults are still puffing away. If you really want to see some lung-busting smoking, go to Greece, where a bold 32 percent are defying modern health advice.
3. Life moves at a slower pace
Americans will find that many of the European destinations they visit have a very different pace of life to that found in most parts of the U.S. Things are just a little bit slower, there’s more time to savor the moment, and people are just not in so much of a frenetic hurry. Best advice? Go with the flow.
2. It’s a battlefield
One thing that Europe had in abundance during the 20th century was armed conflict on its soil. Quite a few of the beautiful historic cities you’ll visit had to be completely rebuilt after the ravages of the Second World War. And you can still see remnants of the war’s impact in some parts, such as old pill boxes and fortifications, especially along the coasts of Britain, France and Belgium.
1. You may have to “spend a penny”
Shouldn’t going to the restroom, or the loo in Britain, the pissoir in France and el baño in Spain, be free? Maybe, but in Europe that’s not always the case. In most cafes and restaurants it won’t cost, but you’ll find there are charges for using the restroom in many public facilities and especially in train stations. So be sure to carry some small change in case you’re caught short and need to “spend a penny,” as the British politely say.