Traveling the world, learning languages, and immersing myself in new cultures.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

12 Things This American Can't Stand Living in Europe

First, I know Americans are quick to lump every country in Europe together, despite each country's distinct culture, language, and traditions. After traveling around the various countries, I have found some commonalities that I would say are relevant to Europe as a whole, although I've pointed out the biggest offenders.

As a foreigner in Europe, I do my best to be open-minded and try to avoid ethnocentricism as much as possible. But, I have certain ideas of how things should be, and based on my experiences living and traveling around Europe, some of my ideals clash with the reality here. Below is a list of some of those things I just cannot bring myself to accept as normal way of life. They are not so grave to make me want to leave, but they are really annoying. Behold, the 12 things this American can't stand living in Europe, in no particular order.

1. Smoking 

Biggest culprit: Non-EU countries (but still everyone) 

People smoke in the U.S., but there is a very clear distinction of where they can smoke. Also, Americans don't seem to smoke so much socially, in public settings, because there is still a bit of negative stigma with smoking. In Europe, there is no stigma. People who don't smoke now, probably did before, and even if they didn't, the smoke doesn't bother them. You can see kids and teens, adults and the elderly, here smoking in public and no one bats an eye. It's not wrong or right, it's just normal to them.

The EU has recently banned smoking in all public places indoors (cafes, restaurants, libraries), which I saw go into effect in Belgium, in 2011. It was a slow reception, and in some places, they still don't adhere to the law. But, for the most part, people comply. One issue is, in Europe, outdoor cafes are really popular, as they should be since they are awesome (especially since we only have 12 nice days a year in Brussels). But nothing ruins my outdoor cafe experience like the smell of smoke. Call me hypersensitive or whatever, but I can smell smoke 500m away, and it will bother me!

In the non-EU countries, smoking is everywhere! On my trip to Serbia, I got sick and my non-smoker friend who is used to smoke, caught the flu because of over exposure to smoke. In the 30 and under crowd, it seems like 9 out of 10 smoke. On several of the basketball teams I played for, players on the team smoked, and some of them at halftime!

2. Paying to use the toilet 

Biggest culprit: Bars, clubs, truck stops, and public places in Western Europe 

A basic human function, using the restroom, has been deemed business worthy and capitalizable in many countries in western Europe (i.e. Germany and west of it). Truck stops, public parks, movie theaters, and even the cafe which I am already patronizing, often have a fee to use the restrooms, usually no more than 0.50€. It is usually labeled something like, "to keep the toilets clean", but many times, it will be the nastiest toilet you've ever seen. How ridiculous is that!?

Some restaurants or cafes will allow the toilets free for customers, but require passers-by to pay the fee. And there is always a little 90-year old lady there to allow/deny you access to the hallowed bathroom. I'd rather use the exhibitionist toilets for free!

3. Expensive, the Euro is 

Biggest culprit: Brussels, Scandinavia, and major cities in western Europe 

Paris, Rome, London, Copenhagen, all make sense that they would be expensive because they are major tourist cities. On a more personal note, Brussels is ridiculously expensive and for no good reason, other than gouging the thousands of diplomats here (your tax dollars, by the way, NATO and EU countrymen). I wont offend the Belgians, because many of them complain the housing, taxis, and food are way overpriced. Belgium also has the highest taxes in Europe, almost 55%. My feeble dollar does not go very far here (Sri Lankan rupee earners in Europe know what I'm talking about).

For some reason (I'll let you guess why), Spain and Portugal, though in the west, are fairly cheap. Madrid is surprisingly affordable, as is Lisbon. Even tourist destinations like Palma de Mallorca, don't reach the costs of Oslo and Stockholm.

Also, different things are expensive in different countries. While a 33cl beer in Norway will run you 10€, that same beer in Romania will be 1.50€. Bathrooms on the German autobahn are 0.50€, yet free on the Spanish autopista. In Brussels, a 2 sq meter apartment with 2 roommates, will run you 1000€ and in Warsaw, you can get your own 100m place for the same price. Google most expensive cities in Europe and all of them are in Scandinavia and western Europe.

4. Poor customer service 

Biggest culprit: Tourist attractions, utilities, public services (town hall, registration) restaurants, cafes 

Some of this is cultural, and some is the business' disregard for quality service. In most restaurants, the wait staff don't want to disturb you, so if you are ready to order or need the bill, you may have to flag the server down to come help you. They aren't ignoring you, but respecting your space. That's fine with me.

But, a majority of the poor customer service stems from the lack of training and lack of incentives. Utility companies usually have monopolies so they really don't "need" your business, but you don't have any other choice. In restaurants, servers do not work for tips, so if you are happy with them or not, does not affect their salary; they have no monetary incentive to be nice. In many tourist destinations, they know that you want to see whatever sight, more than their terrible customer will deter you, plus there are 5,000 people behind you that they still need to give poor service to. I have never seen any business in Europe bragging about it's great customer service.

I have, believe it or not, received excellent customer service in Europe, usually in a place where the employees are happy with their jobs, and it is always a pleasant surprise. But, now that I've been here so long, the over-the-top happy-go-lucky wait staff in the U.S. has become irritating. A server who smiles when they take my order, but doesn't check up on me every 13 seconds, would be my ideal server. (See #9 for more poor customer service)

5. Stores not open late or weekends 

Biggest culprit: Western Europe 

24-hour Walmarts have spoiled people like me. If I need something for a recipe, and it's 11pm, I like to be able to run down to the store and pick it up. In western Europe, not only is that likely impossible, but if you didn't do your shopping by 8pm, you may be out of luck. Oh, you'll be smart and go before work? Nope, because stores don't open until 9-10am. So, this forces everyone to do a majority of their shopping on Saturdays, which is the worst and most chaotic day to do any shopping, but its the only time you can go, so you do. Then, on Sunday, pretend to be Italian-American and "forget about it!" Nothing is open. Don't get robbed or have a house fire... kidding... sort of.

I did discover in eastern Europe, specifically in Bucharest, Romania, that Carrefour (Walmart of Europe) stores can be open 24 hours. Occasionally, in Belgium and France, I've seen a gas station with a small grocery attached, be open 24 hours, but with very limited selection. 24 hour restaurants are rare and is usually McDonald's or a kebab shop (Oh, how I miss IHOP and Denny's).

6. Water is more expensive that beer 

Biggest culprit: Western Europe 

I know, I know, "Boo-hoo, beer is so cheap and I'm sad about it, and I should man-up and like it" is probably what beer lovers are thinking. I can't be the only one who doesn't like it. I've met thousands of Europeans and at least two of them didn't like beer either. Granted, one was pregnant, and the other was a baby... but that's beside the point.

 So, if you are a beer drinker, Europe is an amazing and cheap place to be: 2€ for a 50cl beer (except in Scandinavia). If you don't drink beer, but prefer juice or soda or water, prepare to pay 3.50€ per 50cl. Don't even try to order water at a bar or they might kick you out. I know how much continental Europeans hate when foreigners (mainly Americans and British) come to Europe and get wasted and act crazy, but they are enabling it with their low prices! Instead of assuming the Americans would have some sort of self-control and pace themselves with all that cheap, strong beer, maybe raise the prices, and resolve some of this financial crisis? (That got eerily political at the end, insert fake smile/uncomfortable emoticon here)

7.  Bagging your own groceries 

Biggest culprit: Europe 

Wow, I never realized how lazy I was until I got to the store and was patiently waiting for a bagger to show up and put my groceries in a bag. The cashier then asks me if I want to buy a plastic bag for my stuff. No, I want the free bags. Oh, those don't exist? I suppose the bagger doesn't exist either then? Hmmm.

And bagging groceries is not really a big deal until the older lady in front of you holds the line up for 20 minutes, while she bags her weeks' worth of groceries. So you're waiting, and the cashier just stares at you and you stare back. No one there to help her. There is nothing anyone can do until she has removed her items. The line is 15 people long because only one register is open on the busiest day of the week.

Now, it's your turn and you are frantically trying to bag your groceries as the cashier scans them, so you don't also hold up the line and get all of the death stares of disapproval for holding up the line, which only exists in your head, because the locals are used to it and don't seem to mind.

8. No love for the handicapped 

Biggest culprit: Historical buildings

I'm not handicapped, but sometimes I like to use a handrail on slippery stairs. As I was learning french, I was often upset that closed captioning is not offered on every channel. Maybe I come from a culture that overkills the accommodation concept, but in Europe, the rhetoric is very much "sorry that you are handicapped, but I'm not going to do anything to make it easier on you." The fact that sites like this exist, tells it all.

Buildings do not all have ramps in front of them and braille is not on every single sign. A lot of the old monuments and relics have not been outfitted to accommodate. I've climbed many monuments, praying that I don't slip and fall to my death (Tower of Pisa, St. Olav's Church). In apartment buildings there are often no elevators. Imagine living on the 7th floor, you have a bum hip, and 10 bags of groceries. They deal with it though. You see it from the handicapped people, that they have this resolve and just make it work the best they can. However, at Decathlon (sporting goods store), there are like 20 handicapped parking spots. Go figure.

9. Language barrier 

Biggest culprit: Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal 

This is one of my favorite things about Europe, as it helps me learn new languages. But sometimes it is very counter-productive, since I cannot learn every language. English is the international language and so many people speak it. However, at some stores or cafes, some choose not to speak english because they are not confident or don't care to. It is not until you butcher their language so badly that they will reluctantly switch to their perfect english to give you poor customer service.

In the communal houses (town halls) of Brussels, its a government mandate that the flemish commune public servants will only speak flemish, because they want the french speakers to learn flemish. They are fluent in english, but because they want the french speakers to suffer or learn flemish, they will only speak flemish, even to non-french speakers. Talk about trying to prove a point! 

10. Americans not equals 

Biggest culprit: Sports leagues, job market 

So, prejudices exist everywhere, but I find that here in Europe, there is a sense of nationalism in each country against foreigners (particularly Americans). Not necessarily in a negative way, but as a precaution to keep foreigners from flocking to whatever country and taking over, maybe? For example, in some professional sports, there can only be a certain number of Americans on each team.

Finding a job in Europe, for Europeans, is akin to taking flint and steel wool and some sticks, and trying to light a fire while it's raining. Finding a job in Europe, for Americans, is akin to taking flint and steel wool and some sticks, and trying to find gold on the moon. I don't even know if that analogy makes sense, but it is really hard to find a job. I understand it is similar for EU nationals trying to get jobs in the U.S. so I don't expect much sympathy on this one.

11. Body Odor 

Biggest culprit: Everyone who doesn't shower or wear deodorant 

So, au natural is a thing. But, one would assume in all first world countries, that deodorant is accessible and affordable, and that a majority of people would use it. Yeah... no. Go on any crowded metro in any major European city and learn that is not the reality. And, a little body odor after a long day of work is expected, but when you and I are the only two on the bus and I am at the back and you are all the way in the front, and your essence is melting my nose hairs, that is the point when you should have used some deodorant. Sometimes people will walk past you and their smell sucker-punches you in the nose.

I've been told that some doctors in Germany and Belgium (but I'm sure elsewhere in Europe) advise patients to take showers only a few times per week, and to avoid using chemical deodorants. If you are going to be in a crowded place, doctor's orders do not apply!

In the U.S. it is easy to see who will have B.O., as appearances tend to tell a lot about hygiene, so you can avoid them. In Europe, it could be a well dressed person, who smells terrible, and you won't know until its too late. Maybe the visual cues that are absent make it seem like B.O. is more prevalent here? And, I cannot be truthful if I don't say that many of the offenders are of African descent, but if they speak the language and see the deodorant commercial, they have no excuse! Only thing worse is...

12. Smoking 

Since I didn't prioritize these, I want to drive the point home about smoking by listing it on here twice. It is just everywhere and smells so awful! Any building you walk into, you will first have to traverse a cloud of smoke. Even when driving down the street, you can smell the smoke from the 5 cars in front of you with people smoking out the window. It's on everyone's clothes and is just inescapable.

Bonus inconveniences

1. No air conditioning 

This is really terrible in the summer. My first year in Germany, there were several fatalities of the elderly, due to heat, and lack of air conditioning in people's homes.

2. Electricity is really expensive

I try not to waste electricity no matter what continent I am on, but electricity is super expensive in Europe. Don't leave the electronics on or you may find yourself taking out a loan to pay the catch-up electric bill!

What do you think?

This list is based on my experiences and I'm curious if you agree of disagree. For the non-Europeans, what experiences you've had? For the Europeans, how do you feel about these, or the alternatives, from other cultures? Thanks for reading!

Also, check out 7 Reasons This American Loves Europe

(all images used in this post are from other sources and not my own)



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