Americans in Europe, Don’t Be Shocked!

September 7, 2015
Americans in Europe, Don't Be Shocked!

So, you want to travel and experience the world in its entirety, and you’re doing it!  It was a long time coming, surely, and now it is time to go see the world outside of your own.  This means you must take the good with the bad, the ebbs and the flows, the flaws and the awes.  There will be wonderful moments that make you feel complete and full of life, and there will be challenging ones that will make you homesick. The trick is to maintain your wanderlusting self all the way through and to remember that every difficult experience makes you a better traveler–and more importantly, a better person.

There will be wonderful moments that make you feel complete and full of life, and there will be challenging ones that will make you homesick.

Since I quit my job and left to go travel, I have been through hellish experiences that made me panic, cry like a baby or call Mom for a pep talk, and trust me, you will go through them, too. But (and this is important!), at the end of each situation I realize how strong I am.  When you travel alone, you are forced to just figure it out–on your own.  

To take away some of your upcoming culture shock, there are some things we Americans in Europe should expect and not expect.  So, don’t be shocked, but here is what I have learned in Europe so far: 

1. Customer service, as you know it, doesn’t exist.

The customer is not always right, so don’t act entitled.  It will get you the exact opposite of what you want or need.  We are spoiled with a very customer service (tipping) based culture in America.  Many other countries do not have this norm and you will not receive the same service you may get back home.  Being snappy/stern to your waiter when your meal is 30 minutes late at a restaurant back home may earn you a free appetizer; in Europe, it may earn you a very uncomfortable meal with even worse service than you were getting in the first place.  Remember, you are not in your comfort zone here, and that’s one reason why you’ve chosen to travel.

2. Restrooms may lack the essentials. 

Restrooms with toilet paper, soap, water and towels can be a novelty.  Also, many restrooms are gender neutral.  

3. Water is NOT a basic human right.

European restaurants will charge you for water.  You can ask for tap water (be careful with that, though) but some places will not serve anything other than paid bottled water.    

4. Don’t expect English to be the language of the world.  

Yes, there are many English-speaking people around the world and usually someone who can help you, but it is pompous and rude to expect that everyone speaks English.  I have really struggled with this one.  I highly recommend learning a few phrases in the language of the country you plan to visit.  Locals appreciate a little effort.  

5. Skin and sex are not taboo topics in Europe.

Sunbathing topless will get you a lot of strange looks in the States, but in Europe, it is the norm.  Yesterday, I saw two naked men and countless topless women on a beach in Barcelona (and it was not even the nude beach).  The good news: no tan lines and feelings of liberation!

6. Food is just not the same–and that’s a good thing!

My recent example: thinking I wanted a “piece of home” by going into Starbucks for my usual iced coffee and finding out they “don’t do that here.”  Stay away from the American chains.  You had access to them at home.  Now, venture out and around and try as much authentic, local food and drink as possible.  Fun fact: no one in Europe knows what ranch dressing is.  Whoa.

7. Hold on to your money, honey.  

Prices are more fluid outside of the U.S.  Oftentimes you can negotiate a better deal.  Trying this has pushed me out of my comfortable credit-card-swiping zone and I am getting better at it!  

8. Schedules?  

What’s that?  America is notorious for its overworked, over-planned and over-scheduled masses.  Don’t be too taken aback when you see the rest of the world does not operate on the same time frame as you.  Be flexible and enjoy the ride.  

While the little things listed above will make you stop and take a minute to get your bearings in your new environment, perhaps the most shocking thing you will encounter is yourself.  You will surprise yourself every single day with what you are willing to do to survive and to keep pursuing your dream.  You will get through very long, excruciating travel days, uncomfortable situations and hard times, and you will change on the spot.  Soon you will look in the mirror at a new version of yourself–a better, stronger version.  

You will discover all of these things and so much more as you travel in a new place.  The beauty lies in the differences you’ll find from your world back home and in having new experiences.  While “culture shock” is a very real thing and can shake you to your core sometimes, the gifts traveling can bring you are worth any temporary discomfort.  Put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.  If I can do it, anybody can!  Life is out there in every size, shape, color, language and culture.  Get out there and see it all!


Photo for Americans in Europe, Don’t Be Shocked! by Unsplash.

About Heather Ditmars

Heather is a former Cosmetics Executive from California who pursued the “American dream” her whole life, gaining pretty things and poor materialistic priorities- while working far too many hours and putting off her desire to see the world.  By the end of Summer 2015, Heather quit her job, sold everything, packed up what she could fit in her parents attic and booked a one way flight to Europe.  She is currently contributing writing for travel websites, running her own Blog “Wander World by HD,” and women’s travel group, “Wander Women.”  She has traveled throughout five countries so far and will continue on to Eastern Europe, India, South East Asia and Australia throughout the next two years.

2 thoughts on “Americans in Europe, Don’t Be Shocked!

  1. September 9, 2015

    When I moved to the UK from Belgium, I also encountered a few small culture shocks. Tipping is normal in the UK, so customer service is better in the UK than mainland Europe. You’re right about the toilets, I only noticed it when visiting Belgium after a few years of living in the UK. They’re quite dirty, unisex and more often than not, you have to pay to use them! (But at least, there are no gaps between the doors, so they’re more private than American public toulets).

    One thing I have to disagree on is the topless/naked sunbathing. It’s not really normal in Europe, and I was quite shocked to see so many naked people in Barcelona. You wouldn’t really see this anywhere else (or well, the beaches I’ve been to in Belgium, UK, Italy and Greece, I’ve never seen anyone sunbathing naked, only in Barcelona).

  2. Marie
    September 8, 2015

    GREAT article! I know you’ve met my daughter Amanda, who is also on a year long journey AND has inspired me to venture out of the states and my own comfort zone. Here I come Italy!! Thanks for the great tips and I look forward to future posts. #keeplivingyourdream

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