10 Ways American Expats are Surprised in Europe

Moving from America to Europe sounds pretty glamorous. Crowns, cobblestones, and castles—what’s not to like? But even though it’s just a jump over the Atlantic, Americans can find some traits of European cultures surprising.

1. Socially acceptable behavior

In some European cultures like Romania, Russia, and Bulgaria, it’s perfectly acceptable to spit and blow your nose directly onto the sidewalks. It’s also okay to urinate in public.

But don’t think that means anything goes. In those same countries, it’s not good to sit on the ground, especially concrete. Not only is it cold but it’s also quite dirty, as mentioned above. Sometimes it’s forbidden to walk on the grass in a park, not because Europeans are party poopers, but because that’s where their dogs do their business.

2. Politically Incorrect Behavior

Americans in Europe won’t read about many lawsuits against unfair or dangerous activity. The common sentiment is that if someone is ignorant enough to get hurt or taken advantage of, he or she probably deserves it. Although this fosters a freeing environment, it has drawbacks, like open prejudice. Prejudice is especially harsh toward anyone of darker skin, whether Turk, African, or Roma (Gypsy). There’s also a general lack of respect for women in Central, Eastern, and Southern European cultures.

3. Parenting Advice

Europeans don’t have a problem correcting anyone’s parenting skills in public. If you’re doing it wrong, you should be told, they believe. This happens a lot in winter. Staying warm is important for health, according to Europeans, so they usually err on the side of caution and layer up their kids (and yours).

The idea of discipline is also quite different. Punishment often involves hitting, pinching, and shaming. Scandinavia is the exception, where spanking is a crime. Parenting is one area where families can draw positive attention to themselves. Good family relationships are admired and provide conversation starters with other parents.

4. Weather

Many Americans hail from hot climes where iced tea and air conditioning are a must. But Europeans drink hot tea, and opening a window will suffice for some cool air. And because winter days are short up north, it’s not uncommon in Europe to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Fortunately, Europe’s weather also boasts long summer days and milder temperatures.

5. Lack of Modesty

When the sun finally comes out, kids at public pools or even in park fountains bare it all, and workers on lunch breaks visit parks en masse to catch a few extra rays—the higher the skin to sun ratio, the better. Changing clothes in front of everyone at the beach, pool, or gym is just fine. In fact, being modest makes you seem prudish and overly concerned about what others think. Most locals seem to be quite happy with their bodies, warts and all.

6. Shoes

Strangely, the shoe can be a real cause for stress. Street shoes aren’t allowed inside the house, so it’s the host’s responsibility to provide house shoes for visitors in many places. Some public buildings like schools, gyms, and doctor’s offices also forbid wearing outside shoes inside.

You must wear shoes outdoors—being barefooted isn’t an option. When you’re seated, it’s a real no-no to let the bottom of your shoes touch another person or someone’s seat, which makes sense when you think about how dirty sidewalks are. Even though Europeans walk a lot, shoes are a fashion statement, so boots, dress shoes, or even heels are normal. Americans are easily identified by their sneakers.

7. Transportation

Many cities like Prague, Amsterdam, and Madrid have great public transportation and limited parking for automobiles, so riding trams, buses, and subways is normal. Americans are notorious for making too much noise and taking up too much space on public transit. Europeans are more reserved in tight quarters, and they believe one more person can squeeze in before the door closes, maybe even two.

In many cultures you should always give your seat up for the elderly, and if you don’t, they will often, forcefully, tell you to move. This is especially true of the Russian babushka (grandma), who is a force to be reckoned with.

8. Shopping

Customer service is improving in Europe, but in many places, especially formerly Communist countries, the customer is treated as a bother. Cashiers want exact change, and they will shrug their shoulders and send you away if you can’t produce the right amount. Products are often behind the counter, so you have to ask for what you want. This is almost always the case in pharmacies, which can lead to some embarrassing language learning experiences.

Strollers, with babies in them, can be left outside when a parent is shopping, with no concern for child safety. In fact, bringing strollers into a store isn’t feasible because there just isn’t enough room. Most stores have a hitching post nearby where dogs can be leashed, so the babies have some company.

9. Restaurants

Don’t be surprised if you see dogs in restaurants. Waiters may even bring dogs a dish of water, but that’s the only water they give away. There’s no free tap water or unlimited refills for you. Ice isn’t usually given, and if you’re brave enough to ask for it, you might get one or two pieces.

The good news is tipping isn’t required, and no one is going to hurry you out. Europeans enjoy their meal times and expect you to be there a couple of hours. And though restaurants in European Union countries are becoming smoke-free, secondhand smoke is often a side dish to any meal in the Balkans.

10. Friendships

In colder climate countries such as Poland, Czech Republic, and Russia, people aren’t outwardly friendly, which makes it hard to get to know them. Once you do, though, their friendship goes deep and lasts a lifetime.

Americans are often seen as superficial because we ask, “How are you?” without really wanting an answer. If you know a European well enough to ask how they are, they will tell you—in detail—and expect you to do the same. These relationships make the transition worth it.


Nicole Leigh is a writer for IMB based in Prague, Czech Republic. She and her family have lived in Europe for twenty-two years and have come to love it, quirks and all.