Europe was fabulous, Europe exceeded all expectations. And while my month there corroborated certain preconceptions — Europeans really do seem to be less materialistic and more considerate than Americans for the most part — it was also full of surprises, and the surprises weren’t always pleasant. Here are 10 things I learned to appreciate more about life in the U.S.
- Cheap gas
Americans bitch and moan that the end of the world is surely nigh if gas prices inch up above 3 bucks a gallon. Europeans routinely pay in the neighborhood of 1.50 euros per liter, which translates to between 6 and 7 dollars a gallon. Just glad I didn’t have to do any driving over there. No wonder you see so many of those cute little cars that look like roller skates with a thyroid problem.
2. Clothes dryers
All of the hosts we stayed with had washing machines, but not one had a clothes dryer. Instead, the norm was to use clotheslines or drying racks. This made it a challenge for us to avoid skunking up our wardrobe, as we packed very light and were eager to hit the streets in the morning rather than hang around and wait for our hanging laundry to dry. Our usual drill was to wash socks and underwear, and maybe another item or two, by hand in the bathroom at night and then hang them on or near the radiator to dry until morning. The only clothes dryers we saw were in laundromats; as far as residences were concerned, they appeared not to have been invented yet.
3. Cheap laundry
We patronized two laundromats during our trip – one in France and one in Italy. Each time, washing and drying one small load set us back 7 euros, or almost 8 dollars. That’s about double what we’d normally pay at home.
4. Decaf coffee
In most heavily populated areas of the U.S., you can saunter down to your local supermarket and find a decent selection of decaf coffee grounds, often organic/water process/fair trade/ shade grown/ socially responsible brands. In most European markets, you’re lucky to find even instant decaf; and when you do, it’s likely to be (I kid you not) Nescafe. Order a cup of the stuff in a café and you might get a reaction as if you’d just requested the sap of an old boot. If the establishment serves decaf at all, the default mode will be to hand you a thimbleful of decaf espresso – unless you specify “americano”, in which case they’ll finish filling the cup with hot water and charge you extra. (And chances are the boot sap would have tasted better.) The exception was Italy; I ordered about half a dozen cups there, and all of them were outstanding – even in a train station. I wish the Italians would teach the rest of Europe a thing or two about brewing beans.
5. Hand sanitizer
Not unheard of in Europe, but not nearly as ubiquitous as it is in the U.S. You have to buy it at a pharmacy, and you’ll probably find only little pocket-size bottles at two or three times the American price. I went without any for a week, and during that time I caught a cold. Coincidence?
6 Smoke-free breathing
As in the U.S., there are many smoke-free restaurants and other indoor establishments. But there are plenty of public places where people do smoke. It’s prohibited on trains – which doesn’t stop some folks from doing it surreptitiously in the WC – but people are allowed to puff away on the platforms and inside the stations. And Europeans in general, and Italians in particular, seem to smoke much more than Americans. It’s often hard to walk down the street without getting a face full of someone’s exhaust.
7. Free public toilets
Surprisingly, there are a few in Paris, though you really have to know where to look. In other tourist hotspots, you have to pay to pee – usually anywhere form half a euro to a euro, though in Venice the going rate for going is 1.50 euros. Some pay toilets are automated, and it might be possible to just wait until someone else exits and quickly sneak in. But most of them have a cashier on duty, and they tend to take their job very seriously. You might be able to stealth it into a McDonald’s or Starbucks (yes, they’re everywhere over there too) but many of them have a keypad on the toilet door, and you have to get the code from the barista. Amsterdam offers a partial alternative, but it’s rather awkward and quite sexist. The city has a few public urinals with minimal screening (see photo), so if you’re male and you don’t mind airing your utensils on a (very busy) street, have at it. If you’re not male, you’re S.O.L., sis.
8. Cashiers who weigh produce
After you’ve picked out your tomatoes and apricots, you have to weigh them yourself, on a scale that prints out a sticker the cashier can scan. No sticker, no checkout. Period. And if that’s not lazy enough for you, you’ll also probably see the cashiers sitting rather than standing.
9. Larabar and other dietary staples
Even in the U.S. decent “health food” bars are hard to find, because they’re mostly sugar. I prefer the many varieties of Larabar, because it consists of just fruit and nuts, prepared in a very tasty fashion. It’s a satisfying and convenient snack on the go. In a pinch, I’ll settle for anything approximating it; but in Europe, it was difficult to find such snacks even of the sugar-laden breed. When I finally did find a good brand (unexpectedly, it was in Poland, and priced very reasonably) I really stocked up – the cashier must have thought I was one of those kooky Alex Jones fans bracing for the apocalypse. (Other staples that we never found at all included oatmeal and powdered milk.)
10. The English language
One of our hosts in Paris, who happened to be a linguistics professor, referred to English as the new “lingua franca”. That’s a rather ironic comment, since the phrase translates almost literally (or at least etymologically) as “French language”. But fortunately for us, he had a good point: wherever we went, English seemed to be a second language for most people (in Amsterdam, it’s reportedly 95 percent). Even the panhandlers quickly clue in that you’re American, and switch in mid-solicitation to fluent English. Not everyone could speak it, but when it mattered most – in train stations, at the bank, at the post office, in museums, or just asking directions on the street – we always found someone who at least spoke it a little. This unquestionably prevented some significant inconveniences and probably even a missed connection or two.
We are not among those insular Americans who believe that everyone else in the world should learn English to accommodate them; prior to visiting Japan a few years ago, we studied Japanese for several months. But this time we only had 3 weeks to prepare, and 5 languages to deal with (not counting our brief exposures to Czech and Icelandic). We made a valiant stab at mastering a few basic phrases in each language, but in the end we were grateful that our mother tongue has married into such a far-flung extended family.