I’m no expert when it comes to places outside of New York State, but I have visited Europe several times over the last few years. In honor of those visits, I thought it’d be fun to share all of the things I learned upon my arrival in foreign countries. Or rather all of the ridiculous mistakes I made when I first arrived. Trust me there were a lot.
1. There are many ways to flush a toilet
In the U.S., most toilets look the same. In Europe, every toilet feels like a puzzle you have to solve. I’ve seen toilets that flush by pulling on strings that hanging from the ceiling (which I assumed belonged to the lights). There are toilets that flush by pressing a pedal on the floor, which I only figured out because it looked like a sewing machine pedal. There are toilet seats that don’t stay down unless you sit on them (preventing you from doing the appropriate public restroom squat women are so accustom to). My personal favorites are the little flush/ big flush buttons, which always make me laugh since we don’t have poop vs. pee flushers here in the U.S.
2. Showers are not a luxury but a necessity
This is another area where I feel like an alien in the bathroom. Most of the showers in Europe aren’t difficult to figure out how to turn on. It’s figuring out how not to flood the entire room while using it that’s so tricky. Some don’t have curtains; some barely have a door to keep water from spraying everywhere. Some are just freestanding pedestal tubs with a showerhead. In others the showerhead is so low that you have to kneel down just to fit under it. Every shower is an adventure. My favorite was the one with a string hanging from the ceiling.
Of course I pulled on it because my curiosity got the better of me (yes, I’m that person). When nothing happened I was a tad disappointed to say the least. I tried it again after a few minutes and heard my boyfriend running back and forth across the apartment. Apparently it was connected to the doorbell in case of an emergency, so while I continued to shower my boyfriend continued to answer the door for no one.
3. You can’t leave the hotel with your room key
Weird, I know, but you have to hand your room key to the concierge before leaving the hotel (even if you are only leaving for an hour). You’ll notice room keys often have a very large (and sometimes heavy) key chain because the hotel does not want you to take the key with you. Maybe they fear you’ll lose it or make a copy. I felt ridiculous as I continuously forgot to hand my keys in and got stopped by the concierge upon each exit.
On being in a rush…
4. Things close down at lunch time
This applies specifically to Spain and Italy where things close down in the middle of the day. I mean everything closes. Restaurants, stores, sightseeing. Everything stops so that everyone can have a break in the middle of the day. As a tourist, you will be extremely annoyed because this is prime time to see the city and eat lunch. As a local, you’ll wonder why this doesn’t happen everywhere. The people of Europe know how to relax, and as a New Yorker, I can tell you that we do not. Learn how to slow down and you can enjoy this mid daybreak too.
5. No to go cups for coffee
You’ll have a hard time ordering a cup of coffee to go. People in Europe don’t sprint from place to place and grab a coffee in between to keep up the energy. Coffee in Europe is sacred. If you are ordering a coffee, chances are you plan to sit there and enjoy it for at least a half hour. If you’re in a rush, you may stand at the counter which acts a bit more like a bar. You can quickly sip your espresso and be on your way. But even in a rush, no one spends less than 15 minutes in a café.
6. Dinner takes two to three hours to eat
Ready for a quick bite to eat? Think again. The first dinner I ever ate in France took three hours! The waiter seated us and then took a half hour to get our drink order. I know what you’re thinking, and no the place wasn’t crowded. It took another half hour before our appetizers arrive. A half hour after that our dinner arrived. Another hour of excruciatingly slow service prompted our waiter to clear our plates. By the time dessert came around we were ready to pass out in bed because it was almost 11:00 pm. It took about 3 days for us to relax enough to appreciate the three-hour meals. No one was rushing us. We could sit back and enjoy every morsel.
On paying for things…
7. Sometimes you have to pay before you order
One of the first places I ever visited was Italy. My boyfriend and I rented a car in Rome and drove all the way to Bologna on the first day we landed. Along the way we stopped at a small sandwich shop, which was extremely confusing to say the least. We were in an area where no one spoke English, and I don’t know any Italian. I tried to order a sandwich by pointing to one of the pre-made sandwiches in the case, but the gentleman working there wouldn’t give it to me.
He managed to say, “pay” while pointing across the room at a register. I then proceeded to get in line where I struggled to tell the man what I wanted to order because I could no longer point to the sandwich I wanted. Finally, I was handed a receipt, which I passed along to the man making sandwiches, and he handed me my food.
8. Public toilettes aren’t free
Yup, you read that right. Always, and I mean always have change on you. Going into bathrooms feels like entering the subway in NYC. You have to pay a toll to get in. It’s usually very cheap, but sometimes even restaurants you are eating at will charge for the restroom.
9. Wifi isn’t free and isn’t always available
In NYC you can go to almost any Starbucks or hotel and get free wifi. In most places in Europe you have to pay for it. In Italy, we had to pay either by the day or by the minute. We constantly had to check our countdown to see how much time we had left. We only used it to check work emails, respond, and log off. The cost to web surf was not worth it.
10. You don’t need to tip
This is a little better known, but you do not need to tip in Europe. Waiters and waitresses are paid fair wages so that they do not need tips. In the US, wait staff can be paid below minimum wage and tips are needed to survive.
11.) Almost all museums are free (or at least cheap)
That’s right. You don’t have to pay $25 for every museum you enter. You can see as many as you want while on a budget! Large museums like the Louvre can cost nine euros, but in London you can walk from museum to museum without spending anything.
On differences in food…
12. Ordering a latte means ordering a milk
Yes, I have done this before. If you order a latte you are ordering a glass of milk. You’ll either want to order an americana or a café au lait. If you do accidentally order warm milk, simply order a shot of espresso to go with it, but be prepared for the waitress to laugh at your mistake.
13. Breakfast is cold cuts, cheese, and bread
You won’t find eggs for breakfast in Europe. You won’t even find a lot of places that serve breakfast at all. Most countries eat meats, bread, and cheese for breakfast. In France you may get a baguette with jam. In London, you can score some fried tomatoes and baked beans. I will say that you should order an orange juice as almost all the countries serve fresh squeezed! If you’re desperate you can usually find breakfast served in heavy tourist areas. One of the first things I crave when I come back home is fried eggs and bacon.
14. Salads aren’t a thing
Yes, you can find a salad in Europe. No, you probably won’t like it. I never realized that salads are really an American dish. In most countries in Europe salad is simply lettuce with oil on it. That’s it. If you’re lucky you may score some tomatoes. In tourist areas, you may find salads advertised, but the few times I tried to order a salad I was extremely disappointed. If you’re tired of eating carbs, try a caprese salad or another local dish. Don’t (and I repeat) don’t order a salad. London is an exception to the rule as I’ve had a few good salads there.
15. Limited selection of foods
Options are a little more limited in Europe when it comes to selection. One of the biggest differences I noticed was in milk. In a US supermarket there are at least 6 options for milk (whole, low fat, skim, reduced fat, fat free, soy, almond, etc.) In Europe you’ll have a hard time finding the milk section in a supermarket because there aren’t many choices. Often times, I’ve only seen one kind of milk. Either that or I’m really bad at reading labels. I will say the milk tastes a lot better there.
16. Burgers must be well done
I ordered a burger in a pub in London and when I said “medium well” (yes I order them overcooked) the waiter informed me that I’d have to sign a waiver. I looked at him incredulously until my boyfriend explained that mad cow still exists in Europe! No wonder people love American burgers. You don’t have to feel the fear of dementia looming over you while you eat one.
Although there were plenty of other things I learned when stepping foot into other countries, these are the things that stood out to me the most. Whether they were funny like ordering a warm glass of milk or embarrassing like standing in a bathroom for ten minutes unable to flush the toilet, they were all some weird version of an adventure.