I, a born and raised American girl, was fortunate enough to receive a summer research fellowship in Austria. While I've been here, I've traveled on weekends and have had the opportunity to visit some amazing places. In addition to Graz, Austria, where I am living, I've been to Croatia, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia (so far). I've learned from my time here how different the culture is from America. So, for better or for worse, I'm here to let you know the ins-and-outs of maneuvering the European way-of-life based on what I've learned from my own personal experience!
1. So many people smoke cigarettes...
Packages to roll your own cigarettes in Trieste, Italy. (Notice how the morbid photos are upside-down!)
Cigarettes are everywhere! I feel as if the cigarette culture in the United States has died down after they were banned from restaurants and with the rise of e-cigs, but cigarettes are still going strong in Europe, and almost everyone does it.
2. ...and the cigarette cartons are super morbid
Some beautiful cigarette cartons in Graz, Austria
Not only are the cigarette cartons everywhere, but they also have morbid photos of deformed limbs, deteriorated lungs, crying children, and other unsettling images on them. It must be to discourage you from buying them. Who knows? All I know is that it is very unpleasant to look down during a walk and see a deformed baby on a littered cigarette carton.
3. Sparkling water is all the rage
Some sparkling water in Venice, Italy
It is more common to drink sparkling water than still in Europe. If you go to the grocery store, you'll see that the carbonated selection is far more extensive. If you simply order "water" at a restaurant, they'll bring you a bottle of sparkling and an empty glass. (Pro tip: make sure you say tap water)
4. They drink from the sink everywhere
My getting tap water from a spigot in Graz, Austria.
The asking for tap water brings me to my next point: drinking from the sink is totally normal. Just bring your to-go water bottle with you and fill on up. Even in big cities, it is safe. In fact, most places have spigots in busy spots for you to refill on the go. I know there are some cities back in the U.S. where I'd never drink from the tap! This also explains why the still water section of the grocery store is so minimal. BUT, if you do get a bottle in the store, it is probably HUGE. 1.5-2.0 liters is the norm.
5. The alcohol culture is different...
My friends and I in the Austrian Alps on a trip with the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). Check out the beer waterfall in the back!
Mini shot-sized bottles of liquor are always by the check out at the grocery store. The wine and beer sections are always massive. (Oh yeah, they can sell beer, wine, and liquor all in one store!) If you're not having a beer or a glass of wine with your lunch and dinner, you're probably the only one. People drink beers all the time! Even mid-day at work to celebrate something. They don't drink to get drunk like many people in the U.S.A. Instead, they drink to celebrate and enjoy.
6. ...and you may have to pay a deposit...
Often, a drink will be uncharged a certain amount, such as one or two Euros, and when you bring back the cup or mug or glass, you get your deposit back. This is especially prominent in Germany, but I've seen it a few times in Austria well.
7. ...and so is the coffee culture
A macchiato (I think?) with a biscuit in Trieste, Italy.
Okay, this is probably the BIGGEST difference between Europe and the United States. Europeans do coffee totally different. In the United States, we're used to filling up our huge tumblers of coffee and drinking multiple big cups a day. You can add any flavor creamer you want in the U.S. You can even pop into Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks for a large iced coffee. None of that happens here. (Well yeah there's a few Dunkin' and Starbucks locations, but they're way different.) There are plain creamer and different kinds of milk. No flavors (except caramel, on the rare occasion). What you order depends on what kind of milk you want. Basically, there's espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, and latte. That's it. I'd tell you the differences, but I still have no idea. You add your own sugar too. Also, the volumes are ridiculously tiny. You get a little baby teacup and a saucer when you order a coffee, as opposed to a big to-go cup back in the U.S.A. I was shocked when I arrived in Munich for a layover, ordered a large coffee, and received a 0.3 L teacup with a spoon and a biscuit! Oh yeah, sometimes you get a biscuit with it too, and you usually get a glass of water (tap) as well. Ice coffee really isn't a thing. If you ask for "ice coffee," you will most likely get hot coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Make sure if you're getting coffee on the gone that you explicitly say "to-go."
8. McDonald's is different in each country, but they're all way more boujee
This McDonald's in Bratislava, Slovakia is advertising this delish-looking burger with so many things on it. Wow.
The McDonalds are NICE. They have fancy tap-to-order menus and each country's menu has something a bit different. In Austria, you get a beer with your meal, and they have schnitzel burgers! In Slovakia, they ova black buns and white buns...and they have SHRIMP burgers. Sign me up! Anyways, McDonald's is low-key classy over here.
9. But the McCafe situation is the same in each EU country, yet very different from the U.S.A.
Check out this boujee latte, cappuccino, and chocolate croissant from a McCafe in Budapest, Hungary. Ok McDonalds. We see you.
Back in the United States, each McDonalds has some McCafé items that you can order with your meal. Nope. Not in Europe! McCafé is a whole separate shebang. Some McDonalds have McCafé's inside, while some others don't. You order separate; there are special McCafé-only kiosks, and a complete separate counter and register. At a McCafé, you can get a plethora of fancy pastries and some traditional European coffee.
10. Commas and periods are swapped for numbers
If you want to write a decimal, you use a comma. If you want to write a number in the thousands, you use a period. For example, half a liter of beer is 0,5 L. A one-thousand-dollar plane ticket is 1.000.
11. Grocery Bags
Americans are used to going to the grocery store and leaving with a million plastic bags. Not in Europe! They don't bag your items; they just shove them to the end of the register. You don't get bags (unless you buy one of course). Most people carry out their items, or put them in a backpack, or bring a reusable shopping bag. A plastic bag in Europe is super big and durable and costs about €0,15-€0,50 depending...but nobody ever buys more than one or two.
12. Bathrooms cost money
A bathroom in Munich, Germany that charges one Euro for entry.
Unlike America, most public restrooms cost to use in Europe. This is frequent in parks, beaches, and even chain restaurants like McDonald's. The price can range anywhere from €0.15-€1.50. Also, bathrooms are usually found in the basement of places!
13. Tipping at restaurants isn't the norm
And if you are at a place where you are expected to tip, it will be included on your bill. (If it isn't it will say "please tip" but I only saw this once, in Croatia) Apparently, they pay waiters and waitresses here an actually decent wage, so there is no need to tip!
14. And nothing is taxed either
If you order something from a menu or buy an item that says costs €5.00, your bill and receipt will say €5.00. There is no calculating the sales tax as we do in the U.S.A.
15. English is a connector language
Everyone knows at least a little English, and most people can speak it very well. If two people come from countries with different languages, such as Germany and Italy, they use English as a "connector" language to communicate with each other, because everyone is at least somewhat familiar with it.
16. Grocery store culture is different—no superstores
So. Many. Spars. (And the is just one grocery chain!)
You can't run to Walmart or Target to get absolutely everything you need as you can back home. Instead, you go to the specific store designated for what you need. Plates? Go to the kitchenware store. Shampoo? Go to the body care/ lotion store (BIPPA). Food? Go to one of the grocery stores found on literally every block (Spar, or Billa). The grocery stores are everywhere and are usually very small and only carry essential food items.
17. Public Transportation is critical, and very different
Many cities have a very efficient tram and/or bus system. There are way less cars on the road than there are in America because less people feel the need to drive because the public transport suffices. However, they do not operate the same as they do in the U.S.A. If you want to enter the NYC Subway, you must put your Metro card with money on it into the machine and go through. Here, they work on a trust system. They don't check your ticket when you get on, they just trust that you bought one. And randomly, (but very infrequently I'd say) someone will come around and ask to see your ticket. This has happened to me only twice so far and I've been in Europe for two months! But that doesn't mean you shouldn't buy a ticket- because if you're caught without one, you get a hefty fine. It is just interesting how you don't have to insert it when you get on.
18. Fast Food chains don't line the streets, but family owned kebab places do
One of many gyros I've consumed in Graz, Austria
Kebabs, gyros, and falafel are Europe's "fast food" in a sense. These little fast food restaurants are everywhere and have the rotating meat just ready to be shaved off.
19. Many American luxuries aren't fancied here
American luxuries such as air conditioning, clothes dryers, superstores, etc. can be hard to come by over in Europe. They live a simpler lifestyle that doesn't contain as many instant gratification items that Americans are so used to.
20. There is no hot sauce
I have SCOURED this continent for some hot sauce, and I cannot find it. They have spicy chili sauce, spicy ketchup, Tabasco and Sriracha, but no straight up hot sauce like Cholula or Frank's Red Hot. If you're the type of person who puts hot sauce on everything (like me) bring a bottle with you!
Side note: I found ONE place in Budapest that had wings (because nobody eats wings here), and I asked for some sauce, and they said no!!!!!!
I hope you enjoyed this article! Thank you for reading!