Americans- 15 Things to Prepare You for Travel to Europe
I get asked a lot of questions by my fellow Americans about travel abroad but the one that consistently comes up, no matter what the topic is, “What do they think of Americans?” The answer is easy: not much, meaning that mostly, British news aside, continental Europe doesn't really focus much on America unless there's big news. Americans are mostly known laughingly as the “bus people,” the strange folks who insist on touring in groups on buses with fellow Americans in sort of a sanitized version of touring so as not to interact with the real people who live there. And I'm afraid, quite embarrassingly, it's pretty true. Just know, if you decided to “brave it alone,” they do not for the most part, bite. And also, Europe is not one big country. There are 50 countries on this continent, 28 in the EU (so far), and we've barely tapped the surface on them all and the diversities they possess. However, having been around for a while now, there are some noticeable differences from America. If you're not prepared, you'll be thrown a bit, or at best unable to pee. So take notes and avoid those tourist buses!
1. Don't Expect a Lot of Smiles
Americans are sort of famously known for smiling. Like, all the time. Hey, we're a super friendly bunch. But most Europeans don't smile unless there's a specific reason to smile. They are in no way unfriendly at all, just not gratuitous smilers. It's OK, you'll get used to it.
2. Do Expect to Pay to Pee
Public restrooms are almost never free, not even at train stations or airports. Restaurants provide free restrooms but they're not open to the public. Expect to pay anywhere from .20 to $1 in local currency for the privilege. You might not like the notion but here's the thing, I've been in American public toilets and they're almost always disgusting. Paying for restrooms is paying to have someone clean those restrooms regularly so you will almost always walk into much cleaner toilets. And (cue the angel choir)...there will be always be toilet paper. So carry change.
3. Don't Expect the Same Food Freebies
Forget portion sizes; I've been given way bigger plates in Britain in some restaurants than I've ever seen in the U.S. What doesn't happen in Europe are those little ancillary things we've come to expect in America: water (with ice, no less) that appears without asking, salads or soups that just show up before the meal, free refills on soda and iced tea, bottomless bread baskets...it just doesn't happen. That's OK, you're not going to starve, and honestly, those salads are kind of worthless, nutritionally speaking.
4. Don't Expect the Same Table Service at Restaurants
You know how the wait staff just always comes to your table and anticipates your needs before you even have them? Not so here. You need to get their attention when you want something. They are, to be clear, not lazy. Far from it. But they do assume you would like to be undisturbed until you tell them you need something. They rely on the partnership for a successful meal, not a master/slave situation.
5. Don't Expect to Tip
But for that “leave you alone until you need something” service, don't expect to tip much. They all earn living wages (and have health care) and don't live their lives for your tips. Beer, wine, bar service...just pay the bill. If you've been to a restaurant and they've given you great service, 10% is fine, otherwise a little extra change will do if you feel the need to tip. Do check gratuity practices for each country before you go, as every country has its own expectations.
6. Don't Expect Them to Speak Your Language
Don't get me wrong, they all pretty much know how, it's just not their go-to language. And while we're on this subject, here's my biggest pet peeve of all for Americans and for Brits: try. Just try. There is nothing more arrogant than a country who expects everyone who visits to speak English but also expects every country they visit to speak English. Please don't be that person. Just...try.
7. Don't Expect Clothes Dryers
If you're AirBnB-ing or just need to do laundry, you'll fall over when you realize than most places do not have dryers. In fact, America is about the only country that believes clothes must be tumble dried. The rest of the world hangs their washing out on a line or, if the weather is inclement, on the radiators inside. It's economical, it's really wonderful to smell line-dried clothing, and there's no need to panic. Just plan a bit to allow air drying.
8. Do Expect Different Outlets
Britain and Ireland have different outlets to Europe (here UK), and all of them have different outlets to America. Adapters are available that won't fry your electronics; just a quick pack and you're all set. One item that you might be tempted to pack but probably shouldn't: your American hair dryer. It will look like an F-16 on afterburners for 5 seconds before it melts the plastic. I know firsthand about this. If you travel with a hairdryer, make sure it is a multi-country unit, buy a cheap one upon arrival, or let it go and relax. Hey, you're on vacation!
9. Don't Expect Large Appliances
Everything is huge in America- the fridge, the washing machine, the stove- everything. The European models look like an Easy Bake oven by comparison, but you'll get used to filling a smaller fridge and baking a smaller turkey in no time. Don't worry, it’s cool. And while you’re at it, you might want to download a free temperature conversion app. 200 degrees C is NOT 200 degrees F!
10. Do Expect Smaller Distances to Take a Little Longer
I had a friend who wanted to visit for 7 days and in that time visit the Highlands, Welsh castles, London, Dover, and did I have any other suggestions to fill her time. I did; pick one because that itinerary’s impossible. This goes for the continent as well. There is no I-35 or I-10 or anything even remotely close to that here. The Autobahn is fast but it doesn't cover the continent, so be reasonable. Twelve miles in almost anywhere America is about half as long as 12 miles nearly anywhere else in Europe. Plan accordingly and forget about cruise control; you won't be needing it, but you will need to brush up on your standard transmission shifting skills.
11. Do Expect to Recycle Everything
Except for a few bright spots, the US lags woefully behind continental Europe in recycling. Even Britain is very much caught short in this area. Recycling bins for all manner of plastic, glass, paper, and biodegradable are available every few meters so there's no excuse. You don't have to carry that empty Coke can or even your dog's poop bag more than a few steps anywhere on the continent until you find a suitable bin. It's brilliant.
12. Do Expect Mass Transit to Be the Primary Mode of Getting Around
We just don't need a car. There's no good reason to have one. Mass transit works here, and it works well. Intercontinental train service works here too, and it also works well (with only a few exceptions). Bicycles are very, very, very welcome here, and even they work well and have their own express lanes. It's amazing, affordable, clean and easy to master.
13. Do Expect Dogs...Everywhere
In pubs, in restaurants, in shopping malls, in buses and trains and subways, dogs are literally everywhere. Unlike America, Europeans, with few exceptions (we're looking at you, Spain and Portugal), are very relaxed with dog existence and when it's time to travel or socialize or shop, just grab the dog and off you go. And you thought we were weird taking Chelsea everywhere? No! We're the normal ones; she meets more of her friends than we do ours when we go out!
14. Don't Expect Europeans to Be Impressed You're American
America is great, I love it, it's a wonderful country, present political clown car aside. But that doesn't mean that every other country is a third world piece of shit. In fact, it's embarrassingly NOT true. What is true is that Americans are generally far more impressed that they're American than others are impressed that they are. I've never heard anyone shout, “We're number two!”, mainly because no one thinks America is number one. It's OK, we're still lovely people. There are just lovely people in other places too.
15. Do Expect to Be Impressed They Do Many Things Better
There are a few healthy lessons America could take from its European counterparts: transportation, caring for the earth, amazing sports with far more ravenous fans than American sports fans believe they are, and many more politically charged provisions that America just doesn't wholly offer but are considered basic human rights in Europe. Is it better here? Well, it's not nice to compare; in some ways yes, and in some ways no. But we think we'll stick around. After all, Chelsea has a date at the pub with some friends so we've got a subway and a bus to catch. Auf Wiedersehen/Arrivederci/Ciao/Adijo/Do widzenia/hej då/Adios/Cheers!