Europe, Inside My Head

European Cultural Oddities

44 Comments 12 July 2012

clothes hang on a line in Italy

I've grown used to the fact that Europeans don't use dryers

Travel in Europe for me is pretty easy compared to the rest of the world. However – easy should not be confused with uninteresting. Europe challenges me to dig deeper, look harder, observe more to find the subtle cultural differences that exist between European culture and my own..

I sometimes feel like my magic super power is to be able to see minute, mundane differences in cultures and how people live their daily lives. It’s one of my favorite parts of travel to let my mind loose on a new culture and amuse myself with the oddities. I don’t know that this super power really provides me much in the way of fighting evil, but it does make my travels entertaining.

After spending 4 months in Europe this spring – the longest time I have ever spent in Europe – I was finally able to see and experience our cultural differences beyond the obvious (old buildings, narrow streets, no tipping, no dryers and round-abouts).

Two-handed eating

There is one huge difference that I notice immediately upon arriving in any European country – how utensils are held and used. Europeans are two-handed eaters – the fork and knife are used equally therefore you need to have one in each hand at all times when eating a meal in Europe. This is something that I’ve tried to master for a long time now and I’m happy to say on this trip I have finally practiced enough that I can have a whole meal while holding my knife in my right hand and my fork in my left hand(with the back of the fork pointing to the ceiling) using each to manipulate and move the food into my mouth without ever putting them down or switching hands.

holding a fork

The correct way to hold your fork in Europe

a fork and knife is used to eat breakfast

Eating like a European

I’m not joking when I said this has taken months of practice for me to learn and get used to. I studied the people around me at restaurants and in homes. I analyzed how they hold and leverage their utensils and see how they eat with the back side of their fork. As Americans – we typically hold our utensils and eat with our dominant hand. We also tend to use the side of our fork as a knife – cutting food with the side of the fork and then picking it up with that same fork and hand. By the way – if you ask a European to use the side of their fork to cut something – it’s just as foreign to them as me learning to eat with two hands. They are baffled at how we would do this and it’s simply uncomfortable for them.

No Super Sizing

cups of coffee

Coffee with milk served in what Americans would consider a tea cup

There’s not much about America’s super sizing that I miss when I travel in Europe. Their portion sizings are much healthier. However there is one thing that is miniature that aggravates me greatly – coffee. Yes, I know more espresso is served in Europe and espresso is normally drunk in very small glasses – that’s not different. However even when you order regular coffee (filter or latte’s) they are also served in small cups. There are no such things as mugs or a coffee refill in Europe. Once again reminding me how as an American we have grown up on excess.

Dressing Is Not Provided

oil and vinegar on the table

Oil and vinegar is always on the table

When ordering a salad, don’t expect the waiter to ask you for your choice of dressing. Salads are dressed with oil and vinegar only – and the two bottles normally sit on the table of every restaurant. The salads are typically served with a lemon wedge too. I find it actually refreshing that you don’t have to choose a dressing AND it’s a much healthier way to dress a salad! Imagine how much space they save in their grocery stores without 50 kinds of salad dressings!

Let There Be Light – But Only When It’s Needed

All over Europe it seems that lights are on motion sensors – hotels, bathrooms, and hallways. It’s a great way to save energy and only have the lights used when someone is actually in the area. This is one thing I wish we would adopt in America – it’s simple and smart. However – the only downside is that I have been caught many times in bathrooms where the lights go out while I’m peeing and it’s pitch dark. You quickly learn that a wave of the hand will turn them back on – but I’ve heard tourists scream more than once when the lights go out in the bathroom stall!


Changing Hands

I notice that when I’m in Europe and buy anything at a market or shop they prefer you to lay your money down on the counter instead of handing it to them. And then the cashier does the same and puts your change down on the counter or a special little curved change dish sitting on the counter. Europeans don’t like to place change directly into your hand – even if you are holding it out in front of them ready to receive your change. It takes me a while to get used to – as I’m often initially pissed off and baffled at why they ignore my hand that is clearly extended to them to receive the change. But in the end it is more hygienic I suppose! And considering I see Americans all over the world using their anti bacterial hand gel all the time – you’d think that we would embrace this!

money and coins

Don't use your hands!

Water Works

When going to dinner at a restaurant you’ll notice bottles of water on everyone’s table – virtually no restaurants serve tap water. You can’t just sit down at a table and expect them to bring you your menu plus glasses with ice and water – in Europe that would be very strange – and really unthinkable. In fact if you ask for water at a restaurant they will bring you bottled water. And normally they will ask you if you want it with gas or without. Fizzy water seems to be the norm in Europe. This is one cultural difference that I don’t really like. As a budget traveler I don’t like to have to pay for water at every meal – but then again it beats having to tip 20%!

Have you spent a lot of time in Europe – what cultural oddities have you found?

And to turn the tables a bit – this is an excellent article on 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America.  I agree wholeheartedly with this post and I found that it was able to put into words in an honest way what I’ve observed for the last 6 years of traveling and how I feel and worry about my own culture which [most days] I love.

Your Comments

44 Comments so far

  1. Very good points! It took me a while to get used to eating with two hands too, and I prefer this method now. There are two things that don’t really apply to France.

    Salads always come with dressing. In fact, I believe every single restaurant in France uses the same oily mustard dressing, which is delicious, but very hard to avoid.

    As for water, while you will never get ice (French people think that ice-cold water is bad for your body), if you ask for a “carafe”, that’s code for tap water, and you won’t have to pay for it.

    • Markus says:

      About the money:

      It is about fraud. If you put the money on the counter, the customer and the salesman can both see the amount that has been exchanged, otherwise you might claim you didnt receive enough change. Interesting to note: especially in smaller stores you will see registers with clamps, the salesman will put the bank note into the clamp and look for your change, this way you cannot say you gave him a different banknote.

  2. Gigi says:

    Also, dogs are allowed almost everywhere in Europe (including fancy restaurants and trains) and they’re happy to bring your dog some tap water. ;)

  3. Jannell says:

    Love this post. You are so right! One thing I wish America would adopt is the tankless flash water heater. Instead of heating gallons of water 24-7, just turn on the electric heater for instant hot water. Brilliant! While I’ve mainly seen this in Southeast Asia and India, I have spotted a few of them in Europe.

  4. Great list! I have always loved Europe.
    Since my world travels I have changed in many ways but am proud of these 2 points:
    - I NO longer buy dressing at all anymore and always just use olive oil and balsamic vin. So much better than those bottles with 50 ingredients in them!
    - I rarely use the clothes dryer anymore and always just air dry!! It saves me money and saves the environment too. It’s a luxury we don’t really need!

  5. Melvin says:

    I find it very strange and unpolite if people don’t eat with both hands… hahaha

    And it’s so more efficient! Ask a German! ;-)

    • Sherry says:

      You Germans – go ahead and break the rules once – it feels great! Seriously though – it took a ton of practice to learn how to eat like you guys…made me eat much slower too!

    • Jeanette says:

      I totally agree! I couldn’t imagine eating with one hand only … and I’m Canadian. But perhaps this is thanks to my Dutch parents.

    • Adnan Kekhia says:

      some people adopts to the European style when eating in restaurants and formal gatherings while at home they use the american way and use the fork alone to cut the food. strange combination but true .. lol

  6. Carmel says:

    Eating with both hands took me some time, but I find I still do it quite often. Not always, but sometimes.

    I like the energy saving things they do, but I’ve also had the lights turn out on me and it is a bit disconcerting when you don’t know how to turn them back on.

    When I lived with my host family in Spain, they didn’t understand why I wanted cold water. The water in Granada was clean, so we drank it from the tap, but my host mom used an old Disaronno bottle to put some water in the refrigerator for crazy old cold-water drinking me. She was sweet about it.

  7. Hugo says:

    If you’re in a Portuguese restaurant or cafe, “water” is bottled, “a glass of water” is tap. When I travel I usually ask for a “bottle of water” (I’m picky with the taste, and we have excellent waters in Portugal) so I’m not sure if it’s the same in other countries.

  8. Laura says:

    I don’t use a knife, even with meat, unless I have to. I would have a very difficult time eating with both hands. One of the things I noticed in my limited time in Europe, was how Germans are such strict rule followers. As a jaywalker, they wouldn’t dare cross the street if it says don’t cross. My tour guide said she was whacked in the knees with a man’s cane once who refused to let her cross the street. My German friend told me that it’s a bad image for children. When she came to the States she was hesitant to walk on the grass in many places and when I climbed on some statues or old cannons at memorials she was stunned. I don’t think I would do well living in Germany :)

    • Eric says:

      Yes, Germans are known throughout Europe as people who love to stick to rules. In fact my father told me this story that during the occupation of Netherland in WO2 (I’m Dutch btw) it was always very easy for the resistance to make German soldiers walk into a trap/ambush. The resistance just had to put some sign somewhere that said it wasn’t allowed to trespass so that they had to take a different road. They would always listen :) (not sure if it’s true but it wouldn’t surprise me ;))

  9. We are off to Europe in September so this is all good to know. Thanks!

  10. Andrea says:

    One thing that took some getting used to for me was the grocery store/supermarket policy that they won’t bag your groceries for you. You have to do it yourself, which I don’t mind but it’s always a scramble for me to pack my groceries in time before the next person needs my “space” for theirs. I just think it would be easier if they filled at least one bag as they went. In Norway there are two specific cultural norms I’ve noticed: first, people take their shoes off when entering someone’s home; second, there are many versions of ‘thank you’ (takk) and people say it a lot. For example, it’s common to say “Takk for sist,” when you see someone again, meaning “Thank you for the last time [we saw each other].”

    • Richard says:

      In The Netherlands, a very common word is “Alstublieft” (abbreviated “a.u.b.”) There’s not a direct translation into English, but it is used in several ways. Typically, it’s used to say “please,” such as “may I have a glass of water, alstublieft?”

      If you give or hand over something to someone, in the process of doing so, you’re likely to say “astublieft,” as in “here you go.”

      It’s also used to reply to someone when they say “thank you,” and you reply “astublieft,” which kind of translates into “you’re welcome.”

      It’s a very polite and respectful term, and I heard it used a lot (I used it a lot). When you mentioned “thank you,” I thought of the response I might give in Dutch!

      • Richard says:

        Oops…just a quick correction…..I noticed I misspelled the word a couple of times. It is “alstublieft,” as spelled in my first paragraph.

  11. Richad says:

    Hi, Sherry.

    Just typed a long response, but unfortunately, I accidentally exited out of your site! So, here it goes again.

    I’ve notice every thing you mention, except for the money changing. I’ll have to look for that next time I go.

    As far as eating with 2 hands, I’ve long done that….probably goes all the way back to my first trip to Europe in 1986. I just find it completey natural, now.

    I kind of like the water thing, although I don’t like the idea of paying for it….but, I’ve really grown accustomed to and like water mit gas….the sparkling kind! It’s also hard to get ice in your drinks. I’m not quite sure why, but someone once told me that when you order a “small” or a “large” or whatever, Europeans expect to get a certain quantity. After all, I have noticed that many glasses in Europe have a line on them indicating how much volume of liquid there is up to that line….say, perhaps 10 deciliters. You want to pay for a full 10 dl, not for any ice! Don’t know if this is true, but it makes sense.

    Another thing I noticed is that I don’t think Europeans drink nearly the amount of soda we do. Before I went to work in The Hague, I had really cut down on soda, but when I went to work there, I really noticed it. I don’t think you could buy soda in the vending machine at work. Having said that, one of my favorite drinks in Germany is Spezi….a mixture of Cola and orange soda.

    Gigi, you’re right about the dogs. I’ll never forget the first time I went to Europe ( Switzerland and Paris), people brought dogs into very nice restaurants!

    And, Laura, I’ve also noticed that Germans are strict rule followers. However, I think Germans also have a habit of cutting in front of you in grocery store lines. No offense to Germans….Germany is one of my favorite countries!

    In certain countries, I have noticed that people tend to eat salads after the main meal, unlike here.

    Further, there are differences in eating times, especially for dinner. The Dutch seemed to eat fairly early and, in fact, it seemed hard to find a restaurant opened late. I often worked late and wanted to eat after I left the office. There were a couple of restaurants I went to often, ones that did stay open close to 10:00 PM.

    But, Spain is a different story. I really liked Seville….you could go into a nice restaurant at 10:00 PM, and there might not be many people in there, but when you walk out, close to midnight, many restaurants are packed!

    Another thing about restaurants, at least in Germany, is that German restaurants tend to have very large tables. You can walk into a restaurant and sit down at one, next to someone who is already there eating. Or, if you sit alone, someone will eventually come and sit next to you. I really like this….I’ve had many nice meals just talking with someone I didn’t even know at the dinner table.

    I’ll mention one other thing…..not so much an “oddity,” as it is a cultural difference or tradition. And, that is Christmas markets. These are open air markets around Christmas time where you can buy food, drinks, crafts, and gifts. In the 4 years I lived in The Hague, I went at least 3 times to the one in Dusseldorf, Germany, one of the biggest in Europe. I went at least twice to the one in Prague (very nice). In 1998, when my sister and husband also lived in Europe, I went to visit them over Christmas in Berlin and went to the one there. I just really like these Christmas markts….if it’s cold, like it usually is, it’s always nice to get a mug of gluhwein….hot, mulled wine.

    I’m rambling again….but I just love Europe. I really wish we had some of the cultural things Europe does. If I weren’t for friends and family, I might just move back there!

  12. Wil says:

    Europe is culturally diverse.

    I think I’ll go to Mexico and write about how different things are in America!

  13. Violeta says:

    As European, I’m amazed at the fact that Americans don’t use both hands for eating. It’s the first time I’m thinking about this: you are right, I have the fork in one hand and the knife in the other for the entire time of the meal, unless I eat something that doesn’t need cutting.

    I love your leading photo! No, most people here don’t use laundry dryers, at least not in Romania, where I’m from.

    • Sherry says:

      Actually if you really pay attention to how we use our fork in America is quite amazing. We do use it for a knife at least 50 % of the time. I caught myself doing it tonight at dinner and then reminded myself to pick up my knife and do it the European way!

  14. I’m half English and have always eaten with two hands, and it’s always made me laugh that my US friends found it so amazing. To me it’s just easier than picking my knife up and putting it down every five seconds.

    The water thing is true in Chile too, and I don’t like it. You can ask for a glass of tap water, but the waiters often look at you like you’re an alien.

    • Sherry says:

      I have to admit – after going through the difficult process of retraining my mind and hands on how I eat – it is much more efficient. However I still have trouble with some things and go back to my old ways! Practice!!

  15. Edna says:

    In France, restaurants are required by law to provide tap water if requested (sorry I forget the source, but I’ve found it to be true in all the restaurants I’ve been to anyway). So they all serve it — all you have to do is ask for “une carafe d’eau”.

  16. Great post – never realized all those things were special for Europe!

    One thing I found odd (being originally from Russia even though living in Germany for the past 3 years) is restaurant opening hours. For example in the mediterranean countries lunch and dinner times and menues are fixed and if you didn’t manage to have lunch until 2:30 – 3:00 pm, you’ll most likely have to wait until dinner, which is not before 7:00 – 7:30 pm. In Russia almost any restaurant would be serving any food they have on the menu throughout the whole day. You can have your steak for breakfast or omelette for dinner – pretty handy!

    I had another small cultural shock when going for a barbecue with my German friends for the very first time. Germans would always make a list of general things they need (water, drinks, bread, salads, etc) and decide who brings what upfront. In addition to that everyone brings their own meat and any special drinks (beer, wine, etc) they want to have during the party. In Russia we would just stop at the supermarket before going to the barbecue and buy everything in one go. Total cost would be always evenly split between all the participants irregardless of what / how much people eat / drink. Being slightly shocked by the pragmatic approach at first, now I find it very convenient and much more prefer it to the Russian way :-)

  17. Neil says:

    I’m English, and hate paying for bottled water since tap water is perfectly potable – I just as for tap water with ice, and can’t remember the last time this was a problem!

    I also found it weird when, having asked an American friend to remove her shoes (I’d do that automatically on entering someone’s house – shoes are for outside!), she said she found it odd… Cultural differences are woderful’

    • Sherry says:

      Yes – the remove shoe thing is really important in Asia – but I didn’t notice it as much in Europe. Regardless – we don’t do it in America – so it’s quite foreign to us!

  18. Eric says:

    Haha, I find this so funny to read. (I’m from Netherlands & lived here my whole life, been in almost 10 other European countries (I got here through Mark’s site)).
    I never knew that Americans eat differently, & serve ‘supersize’ coffee, although I have never experienced the thing with the change.

  19. Jeanette says:

    Interesting post. I find it odd that you think these are oddities. Interesting perspective which appears to me to be very American. Glad you had a chance to discover and enjoy Europe.

  20. Mark H says:

    As an Australian, we seem to fall somewhere in between based on the cultural list. Interesting list of differences. I recall travelling to the US for work (or travel) always resulted in ginormous meals which needed to be moderated to avoid blowing out while away.

  21. Scott says:

    The double pillow.

    I’m in Spain for 6 weeks on an academic fellowship, so I have an apartment (piso) in Alicante, Spain with my wife and son. I like many of the differences here: small cars, mopeds, buses, trains, trams, metros, hang-drying clothes, the market (love markets). I especially like the metal window shades they have here in southern Spain.

    While I can’t speak for Europe as a whole (I’m with Wil on the idea that Spain is not Europe any more than Mexico is America), the one thing I have trouble with here is the double bed pillow. Our furnished apartment has a double bed for my wife and I. It also has a double pillow…that is, it’s some 5 ft. long. In the US we’d call it a “body pillow.” I much prefer having two pillows for a bed for two people.

    We experienced this same shared pillow cultural norm in France a few years ago too. For me this is an “oddity” I can’t get used to.

    • Sherry says:

      Scott – Thanks for reminding me of the double pillow!!!! You are so right – I always thought that was odd! I am a solo traveler so I never had to navigate how you’d use it for two people but that would be very difficult. I never understood that and you are right I mainly saw that in Spain. Also – another country specific observation is the lack of a top sheet in Germany and Austria. They only use a bottom sheet and them a duvet – there is no other top sheet. Plus – in Germany they use washing mits instead of a square wash cloth.
      Thanks for chiming in – you started my day with a laugh!

  22. Rachel says:

    I’ve definitely noticed some of these differences having lived in the UK for last 8 years, but not all. In many ways the UK floats between American and European cultural norms (though some folks don’t think of the UK as part of Europe in many ways).

    Higher end restaurants will ask if you want bottled water (and differentiate between ‘still’ or ‘sparkling’) but most will provide a free jug of tap water if you ask. Some dress it up with ice and slices of lemon or lime, but if they don’t they can provide ice if you ask.

    Bedding-wise it’s almost exclusively duvets and fitted sheets, though for the times it does get warm enough it would be nice to have a flat sheet.

    I’ve made an effort to eat with both utensils, and I have improved, but most of the time I still just use my fork.

  23. Esther says:

    I am from the Netherlands and in my childhood my (grand)parents never allowed me to drink during dinner. They said it makes you not finish your plate (also no water).
    Leaving food is (was) not done. Maybe because of times past when life was more difficult and food expensive or not available (1940-1945).
    Soda or lemonade was something you only drank in small glass maybe once a week.

    I have spend quite some time in the US, and I understand the differences.
    Cultural differences I noticed most: burp out loud is not so much frowned upon in the US.

    And (in general) Americans are much more patient waiting in line in the supermarket. Even when bagging groceries takes a couple of minutes.
    That reminds of the special people who are there to bag your groceries.
    I always felt very uneasy when they start packing your stuff. At Shop ‘n Bag they even walked to your car and put it inside your car. Wow. Unreal ;-)

    I just happen to notice the long nails in the US, also in restaurants by the staff. One time I witnessed a customer at a restaurant fish-out a fake nail from between the ice cubes of the free water.Ahhhhh
    The ice cubes in the US are sometimes just to much, so my teeth would hurt :)

    But I like Americans being more polite in general. They often say Excuse Me. That is good. I was so annoyed when I got back to Holland. It’s so rude to bump into somebody and not say anything at all.

    Interesting post!

    • Sherry says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on America – that is great! Yes – I often am baffled why they don’t have someone in Europe to bag your groceries!

  24. kebman says:

    I have no problem using the side of my fork to cut food. Must mean I’m from a more barbaric part of Europe, like Norway. Also, how I hold the fork is highly dependent of context and type of food. At a fancy restaurant I might act a little more proper, but back home I cut it and even mash it whichever way I like it (depending on the dish). I may even throw the fork and knife away altogether and use chopsticks!

  25. Cédric says:

    So much different cultures, different people, places to be and to see. Difficult to choose !
    Even between neighbours as France and Belgium there are numerous différences…

    Interesting site for us europeans, as we need to learn “How to” in USA, it will be in 2014 for me, just a few months left to improve my English and learning to drive maybe “quietly” a car !

  26. Pippa says:

    I really can’t get over the fact that Americans only use their forks to eat with! I have never heard of anything like it. It is considered awful table manners for anyone over the age of five to do it here (Denmark) and I remember getting lectured about that quite a bit when I was younger.

    A thing I’ve noticed from my trips to America is how nice and polite everyone is. And talkative to. My friends and I were trying the All American “roadtrip” from New York to San Francisco and we were stopping at diners a lot, again to try being American and get the feel of it. And almost everyone asked where we were from and some telling us about their heritage (some were Danish in fact). It was such a pleasant experience since you do NOT talk to strangers were I’m from. Not because you’re frightened to do so or any thing, there is just some sort of mutual agreement of not bothering one another (not that I find people talking to me bothering).

    A thing I’ve been a little bit unpleasantly surprised by was that everything contained sugar. I was once at some diner in Nevada, I think, and the burger I had was sweet. A burger is not supposed to be sweet. A dressing on a salad is not supposed to be sweet either. Popcorn should be salty, not sweet. And the portions were massive! I have never experienced something like it!

    I think conclusion is that everything is just sweeter in America. Both the food and the people.
    I apologize for my little ramble.

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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