In my wandering, I’ve noticed many things about Europe that differ from the daily life I’m used to in the United States. I started putting together a list because I didn’t want to forget the extreme and the slight but fascinating variations in culture. I am sure there will be many more differences for me to acknowledge as I continue along, but here is what I have gathered so far.
- Taco Bell: When I was in Spain, I noticed the options for sides were a bit different than what I was used to on my seldom but definite late night drive-threw experiences. They give the option of spicy fries, nachos or a side salad with a meal; I’m used to two extra tacos with my tacos!
- KFC: Before my trip over the pond, I read on a few American blogs that there wasn’t any fried chicken in Europe. I don’t eat fried chicken, but I wanted to state for the record that this is just NOT TRUE! Pretty much every major city I have been to had a KFC, and if they didn’t, there was some American tourist driven establishment marketing fried chicken. Also, KFC’s French fries are exactly like McDonalds fries.
- McDonalds and Burger King: They serve beer. It’s pretty great. Their menus are pretty much the same, but a bit more expensive depending on the city. It’s also good to pop in there if you need WiFi and a free bathroom, they tend to always have both.
- Subway: The mayonnaise is different and I hate it (she typed with a disgusted scowl on her face remembering the day this was discovered). They have some interesting choices for sandwiches in certain areas though.
- Europeans don’t seem to have as much of an obsession with refrigeration as Americans do. They do not refrigerate eggs which really threw me for a loop, or fresh vegetables most of the time which wasn’t quite as shocking. Sandwiches made with salted meats and cheeses are not typically refrigerated because they really don’t need it, but I realized that is was just something I wasn’t used to seeing.
- The sandwiches are a bit different now that I mention it, and vary drastically depending on where you are. There are however, always sandwiches. Some are the same as back home if you’re running into a store to grab something pre-packaged like turkey and cheese or egg salad, but I have seen some pretty out-there hoagies that I would have never thought to make myself (like eggs and potatoes).
- CARBS, CARBS, and more CARBS. Bakeries are everywhere. Doesn’t matter where you are, you walk a mile and you will pass a few bakeries; honestly more than a few and they all smell amazing. Before you even get to the door you get hit with pure sugary goodness or warm bready goodness that tends to induce a Pavlov’s dog kind of reaction. Either way, it is not good for those of us with weak will powers against delicious baked things.
- There is peanut butter! Another thing I read on a few American blogs and heard first hand regarding the “comforts of home” that you wont be able to find in Europe. You can find pretty much anything if you really look for it. Higher-end grocery stores tend to have a small “American” section that includes peanut butter. I’ve also found entire stores that have just American products (overpriced of course) where peanut butter can be found.
- I had a hard time finding sour cream in grocery stores. I would see it on menus, but rarely in a store. I may have been looking in the wrong sections, looking for the wrong kind of packaging, or the areas I was in just didn’t really have use for it with their local cuisine. Either way, tough to find but not impossible.
- There isn’t such an alcohol stigma here. Call me old, but I would get carded constantly in the U.S. and have not once been carded anywhere in Europe. The legal drinking age is usually below 18, and I am sure I don’t look younger than 18, but just generically the attitude around it isn’t as control or terror driven. Now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if they had any prohibition type movements like the U.S. did? I am sure some places must have, but that may be part of the reason the U.S. is so strict with alcohol. I feel like the severity of underage drinking in the U.S. makes it more attractive to young people as a rebellion, where here it is so much more casual that its almost not desirable.
- I smell more marijuana being smoked on the streets of Boca Raton, Florida than I do here in Europe. Every once in a while I will walk past someone and smell it, but its very rare. I haven’t been to the Netherlands yet where you can get THC products for recreational use, but generically people aren’t sparking things up any more than in the U.S. as far as I can tell.
- Not sure if it is a good thing or bad thing, but I haven’t seen one drug dog so far. Not in any airport, train station…no where. I would see them constantly back home, but I did also live in one of the rehab capitals of America, so that could have something to do with it.
- Craft beer, and specifically craft beer breweries are a huge thing coming up in American right now. I do find some places that sell craft beer in Europe, but haven’t found many tap rooms. I could just not be in the right places yet, but to the naked eye it doesn’t seem to be as much of a booming industry here as it is in the states.
Arts and Culture
- Something I quickly grew to love about French train stations are the half grand pianos available for anyone to play. The talent that comes through is just incredible, and makes the hours of waiting during SNCF railway strikes a bit easier. They are also in amazing condition and pretty well tuned. I even got up the courage to sit down and play for a while in the Toulouse station.
- There are “give one take one” libraries in many of the major cities. If you’ve never heard of this, it is basically a container of some kind, usually what looks like a repurposed dresser sitting in the middle of a bustling city, containing whatever books have been left there. You leave a book and take another to read for yourself. It’s a great system, one that I think should be much more encouraged.
- There are so many free or relatively inexpensive museums. It is almost tiresome how many there are across Europe. Of course some may be considered much more grand than others, and those are usually more pricey, but it is easy to be surprised by the gems found in free museums.
- Everything is older than your brain can really comprehend. You’re walking down a street and see a stone with the date 1785 perfectly carved into it. You realize that compared to so many other things in Europe, that street is fairly new! Museums are incredible for transporting you to another place in time. Some of the artifacts are so beyond the grasp of time for me and I am sure many others. I am often surprised how incredible the architecture was, and how well many of the foundations still hold to this day. Some of course stand stronger than others, but walking through castle ruins that have original tile inlaid, or being able to get up close on massive sculptures of angels with perfectly executes expressions, is often so baffling that it isn’t until after I have left that I really understand what I was seeing.
- You can find art literally anywhere. Look at the sidewalk, the walls, the hills, the tables. There is so much culture infused in everything, old and new. Streets are lined with stones of different colors making endless patterns and images. Plants are tended to and grow in abundance, as well as wild flowers that give a pop of color to so many scenes. I find it quite impossible to be bored where there is always something new to take in and reflect on.
- Curbs on sidewalks are not as common as they are in in the U.S., but the streets are often so small there is no room for a curb or any distinctive sidewalk. You can easily be walking in the street or bike lane and not realize it if you aren’t paying attention. That is, until someone starts honking or cursing at you. I only made this mistake once! I even had to walk back down a road the way I came because the car coming towards me wouldn’t have room to get through without potentially taking me out.
- The roads are often reversed which I am sure most people know. I was actually surprised by how many were not reversed though! When backpacking this can be a little discombobulating because you’re going from country to country and don’t always know which way is which. I just stick to looking both ways no matter what, but many times there are arrows and words on the roads reminding pedestrians which way to look before crossing.
- Driving on the opposite side of the road wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Driving on very narrow roads where the speed limit is 70mph however was terrifying.
- Pharmacies, appliance stores and grocery stores do not mix. In the states you can go to Walmart (gags in disgust) and find all of these items and then some in the same place. Here the grocery store has groceries and maybe some toiletries. The home goods store has your home products. The beauty stores have beauty products. The pharmacies have the good stuff. Rarely are these establishments mixed.
- There are small convenience stores, or corner stores if you will, but they are usually crazy overpriced and I only resort to buying something in one if I am in an extreme rush. If you have time, it is always worth waiting until you can make it to an actual store and save yourself quite a bit of money.
- I stay in a lot of AirBNBs and they typically all have a washer they don’t mind me using. They usually do not have a dryer though, which means hang drying your clothes and hoping they are dry before moving on to the next place. I brought a clothes line with me, so I don’t have to depend on the host have sufficient space for all of my and their things to be hung. It has come in handy every time I have done laundry. I would highly recommend bringing one if you plan on backpacking Europe.
- When it comes to language barriers, I thankfully haven’t had much trouble. Between modern technology (translation apps) and the fact that English is the most commonly shared language, most people can speak enough of it to get by. There are almost always options for English on ATMs and other automated machines, as well as the English translation listed in smaller writing under most directional signs. I still try however to speak the native language when I can, even if I butcher it and end up laughing at myself.
- Hostels. I have mixed feelings about them for many reasons, but I honestly wish they were as abundant in America as they are here. AirBNBs can often be found for near the same price as a bed in a hostel, but with the added benefit of a private room. You don’t however really meet other travelers that way, and free breakfast or activities isn’t not really a thing. I like to flip back and forth between the two depending on how burnt out I am on sharing a room with other people, and also based on availability and price. I tend to spend less money in a BNB because I am not drinking with people I just met or going out as much, but I tend to not see as much either. When I need down days to just relax, I find BNBs to be an amazing alternative.
- Before I get into this topic, I want to preface it by saying that I feel streaming TV and movies is completely a lifestyle; hence why it is under this section! If you want to stream from Netflix, Hulu, xfinity, etc., I would highly recommend getting a VPN service to ensure you can access all the things you want. You can connect to a U.S. server, and get everything that is offered by those networks to Americans. You can alternatively connect to a European country’s network and do the same. It also protects your information when you are using shared WiFi networks which important, unless you don’t care about getting your identity stolen while traveling.
- I really hope the U.S. public transportation system can get up to par with Europe one day. You can get pretty much anywhere by bus, train, metro or even planes here. The systems are pretty easy to use and affordable, something that I will miss a great deal when I return to the states.
- Customs is different for each country, the person checking your information, and how you are traveling. When flying, the major cities tend to scrutinize a bit more than smaller cities. When I flew into a small city in France, the attendant barely glanced at my passport and didn’t say a word. When I flew into London I was interrogated for almost twenty minutes before being let through. If you are traveling between countries by train, they are very relaxed as long as you have all your documentation. I think it also depends on how you carry yourself and the mood of the person you are dealing with. If you seem suspicious, they get suspicious. If you seem impatient, they get frustrated. Just keep cool and know your plans. Be confident but appreciative.
- Something specifically to note about trains is that the gates are usually not announced until about twenty minutes before the train is due to board. However if you don’t already have a ticket or reservation, it is good to arrive about an hour early (I usually show up two hours early because free WiFi and I don’t mind waiting) just in case you have to wait in line to buy a ticket.
- The point above is especially important for EuRail pass holders. I have one, and for the amount of traveling I am doing it is well worth it (a different city every 2-3 days for three months), but you have to really plan out your destinations and schedules, be ready to make changes to your plans, and arrive early. If I can, I try to book trains that require a reservation the day I get to a city. For example, if I arrive somewhere on Tuesday and will need a reserved train on Friday to get to the next city, I go directly to the ticket counter an sort it out then instead of waiting until the day I am supposed to travel. Doing this gives me so much peace of mind because I know my seat is guaranteed.
- There are strikes happening all the time. They can obstruct your path and drastically change your travel plans. Look for notices of strikes everywhere you can. They can be pedestrian strikes that block bus routes, or they can be strikes held by the actual people of the transportation system, stopping operations. Either way, this needs to be planned around and constantly acknowledged, which is really the point of the strikes in the first place.
I commend you for reading this far if you have! I am sitting in the train station audibly clapping for you and people are staring. Something only you have the privilege of knowing because you my friend, are a dedicated reader. I write this blog because I want to remember and share my experiences with others.
Europe is an amazing place, and backpacking has been well worth the hard work for so so many reasons. I can’t wait to continue this journey, and it honestly feels like I am already running out of time. If you have the drive at all to see other places, DO IT! It is not for everyone, but if a little voice is calling to you to travel, don’t shut it out. Set goal and make it happen or yourself. Even if it is not everything you expect it would be, you will always remember that little voice you didn’t listen to.
This entry was written in Nice, France. Till next time, au revoir!