By: Sydney Scheiter
When traveling to Europe, there are some things you know to expect. For example, you know that if there is a France vs. Spain soccer game on while you’re in Spain, you better root for Spain at the bar, or face GBH (grievous bodily harm). When you’re in London, don’t talk about how you think Will and Kate are overrated. And when you’re in Italy, you know to prepare for a diet consisting totally of carbohydrates. The thing is, there’s stuff you can’t know til you go. So I’ve been commissioned to enlighten you.
The things you need to know in order to avoid frustrating yourself and the locals
- If you order water at a restaurant, it will be bottled water, and it won’t be free. Why this is, I still don’t know. It’s usually a euro or two, so it won’t break the bank, but keep this in mind when choosing h2o in an effort to save money. It never hurts to ask for tap water when you’re out to eat. It’ll be free if it’s available, but consider yourself lucky if you’re able to get it. Suggestion: carry a reusable water bottle in your bag (sorry, guys) in case you’re dying of thirst but don’t want a whole bottle. (Also not free: ketchup at McDonald’s. Europeans don’t get Americans obsession with it.)
- Like water, public restrooms typically come with a price. Ranging from 50 cents to a euro, it just depends where you are. I’ve found, however, that many of the toilettes in Europe are far cleaner than those in America, because there’s often an attendant collecting your money on the way in, and he or she keeps it tidy. Also: even if the restroom seems to be free, it’s good form to leave a coin or two in the tip tray on the counter. Supermarkets have found a way to capitalize on your forgetfulness—by charging for the grocery bags you didn’t bring. Think green and take a reusable bag with you, or face the consequences of 5-10 cent plastic bags.
- Also at the supermarket… when you buy produce, you’ll weigh it and sticker it yourself. Or else you’ll be yelled at in another language by the check out lady. Don’t worry, though, it’s easy. Just look for the number on the sign above your apples, set the fruit on the tray, and punch the correct button.
- Going out in groups is fun. Paying together isn’t always. Be prepared at restaurants and bars to pay as a group if you sit with one. It’s also a good idea to have cash handy. Unlike at Applebee’s, servers in Europe are nearly never willing to collect eight different credit cards and charge you individually. For me it’s always been easiest to designate someone as the money collector, and have them make change for everyone in your party amongst yourselves. And at a bar, if you order six shots of tequila, prepare to pay for them together. Holding up the line in a crowded bar so you can each have change is a major faux pas. Just don’t.
The things you need to know in order to avoid being lost and lookin’ a fool:
- What side of the road do they drive on over there, anyway? Here’s the thing, the United Kingdom (England, Scotland & Wales) and Ireland are not attached to mainland Europe. Therefore we can consider them apart from France, Spain, Italy, etc. when it comes to driving. The U.K. and Irish drive on the left hand side of the road, opposite of America. Mainland Europeans drive on the right. Now you know.
- When my mom was visiting me in Rome once, she asked how I ever knew the name of the street, since there were no street signs. The thing is, I’m a genius. Actually, the thing is that the signs are attached to the sides of buildings. Need to know where you are? Head to a street corner and look up at the nearest wall for a sign.
- Ground floor = 0. The first floor is up a flight of stairs.
- Toilets in both public and private restrooms have two flush buttons. Luckily I had a French teacher in high school who taught me this. The smaller button produces less water for occasions when less water is required. The larger button produces more water for times when (a’hem) more water is needed.
- When strolling and snapping photos, make sure to keep an eye on the sidewalk in front of you. Occasionally someone on a moped will find the traffic too much to bear and use the sidewalk instead of the road. More than occasionally, dogs mistake the sidewalk for grass and forget to clean up after themselves.
- Walking between bars with a beer in your hand is illegal a lot of places in the US. Conveniently for us, it’s legal a lot of places in Europe. While there’s no set rule for the whole continent, check in with the locals. If they’re partying in a piazza, you can too. PDA at a mall in Atlanta is gross. PDA at a park in Rome is everywhere. Plan to see everyone from teens to grandparents loving on each other in public. It’s not taboo. I once asked an Italian why he was willing to make out with his girlfriend at the bus stop. He answered with a confused “Why should I not?”
- Toplessness embarrasses Americans. Most Europeans are okay with it, though. Don’t be surprised if you go to a beach and half or more of the women are wearing only bikini bottoms. Do your best not to stare, it’s no big thing for them. And women of all ages do it. Similarly, men of all ages wear Speedos. Again, try not to stare. It’s not big thing for them (no pun intended).
As you can see, Europe isn’t simply America in another language. There are so many little things that make each culture unique. Embrace it and try not to spend too much time being annoyed; this is what being abroad is all about… When in Rome, do as the Romans do.