European Cultural Oddities

July 12, 2012 46 Comments »

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.

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