First Time in Europe? Seven Things That May Surprise You

    Most of us expect to encounter cultural differences when we travel to other countries. Yet, when confronted with these differences, we are always caught off guard. If this is your first time in Europe, here are seven things that you may not expect:

    Nothing Is Complimentary

    America is literally the land of free: free refills, free shopping carts, free bred and butter in the restaurants, free ketchup at McDonalds, free toilet paper in the public bathrooms, etc. etc. You don’t realize how many freebies we get in the USA until you travel to Europe. In fact, we’ve got so accustomed to getting complimentary things, that we began expecting them everywhere we travel. 

    Siesta Time is Sacred

    S’il vous plait, monsieur, my husband got locked up in the botanical garden,” I try to explain to the man who runs a small pub in Eze Village, right below Jardin Exotique d’Eze. He looks at his pocket watch, then turns to me and smiles: “It’s lunch time, the garden is now closed.” “How about my husband? Can you call anybody and ask them to unlock the gate?” I asked. “I can’t, but they will reopen in two hours, don’t worry.” At least he spoke English so that I could understand what was going on. Nonetheless, I was shocked. For the first time in my life I realized how seriously Europeans take their siesta time. 

    Image of a man doing his Siesta in Europe

    There are a few countries in Europe where siesta is sacred, like Spain, Italy, France, Greece, or even Germany. But no matter how popular siesta may be among the locals, for tourists and visitors it’s always a nuisance. Not many people expect to find the gift shop or clothing boutique closed for two-three hours right in the middle of the day.


    The Bathroom Privilege

    Coming from America, one might assume that public restrooms should be free and easily accessible for everyone, rather than a privilege. But Europeans seem to have a different opinion on the matter. Free toilets in Europe are about as rare as the hen’s teeth. No wonder public urination in subways stations and public parks is through the roof! If this is your first time in Europe, make sure to always carry some small change in your pocket. In case nature calls. Also, never pass up a bathroom, even if you used one just half an hour earlier. 

    You may find free bathrooms in department stores, museums, theaters or cinemas, but even there you’ll have to tip the cleaner. There are also free bathrooms in restaurants, cafés and bars, but unless you are a customer you can’t use them.

    You should also know that paid restrooms don’t necessarily mean soap, water, towels, or even toilet paper. In fact, you might simply just find a hole in the ground flanked by two platforms for your feet. If you come across a “Turkish Toilet” don’t panic, just squat. 

    Image depicting a Turkish toilet


    Nude vs. Prude

    If you travel to Europe in summer, get ready for some nudity. And don’t think just billboard advertisements, newsstand magazines, or TV programs. Of course, you are not very likely to see naked people walking down the street, (although that’s not totally impossible either), but there are some places where clothing is optional, like in some German saunas.

    If you visit a public bath, hang out at a beach or in a park , you will discover that Europeans are very relaxed about nudity. On a beautiful sunny day in Germany, for instance, nakedness abounds. From the public parks in big cities, to the countryside lakes and mountain trails, people of all ages find it very normal to shed their clothes off.


    Europeans Smoke Like Chimneys

    It’s hard to imagine there’s anybody in the world today who hasn’t heard of the damaging effects of smoking. So much has been discussed and debated, researched and published, analyzed and advertised. But Europe missed the news. In 2015, lung cancer death rates among European women overtook those of breast cancer. But no health warnings or statistics have been enough to keep Europeans from their cigarettes.

    Image depicting a smoker with a cigarette

    In Europe people smoke almost everywhere: restaurants, cafés, on the streets, at home, at the theater… Smoking is a sort of a culture: you can’t take your coffee without a cigarette, or enjoy a night out without smoking. Many bar and café owners fear that banning smoking will scare their customers away. Although in many European restaurants indoor smoking is prohibited, the patios and terraces are still jam-packed with smokers. When I travel to Europe I am constantly exposed to suffocating smoke. My eyes start burning, my throat gets itchy and I always end up with headaches. But when I mention my dismay over the heavy smoking, people get very defensive. 


    Cross at Your Own Risk

    If traveling for the first time to Europe keep in mind that drivers don’t always yield to pedestrians. In my experience, people in Western European countries are more likely to stop at pedestrian crossing. But the further East you move, the more cross-the-street-at-your-own-risk policy applies. In fact in countries like Romania, the red light doesn’t matter too much. Even if you are crossing at green light, drivers who violate the law will honk at you to move out of the way.

    Image of an aggressive driver yelling at pedestrians
    photo credit: Aggressive Female Driver via photopin (license)

    Dinner Is A Late Night Affair

    If you are planning to visit Europe, get used to eating late at night. Unlike in the USA where around 10 p.m. restaurants are ushering the last customers out, in Europe dinner starts around 8 p.m. or even later. In some countries like Spain, most restaurants don’t even open till 9:00 p.m. If you get hungry earlier, you’ll have to settle for some tapas in a bar. 

    Image depicting people dining late at night in Europe
    photo credit: Éole Parisian diner via photopin (license)

    Generally, all mediterranean cultures tend to eat dinner very late, sometimes as late as 11 p.m. 

    Many of these cultural differences may not come as a surprise if you traveled to Europe before. Still, every time I go back and rediscover some of them, I am dazed. No free toilets?

    What did you find surprising about travelling in Europe?