Although I love writing about New York, I thought it’d be fun to share some advice from my past travels. Let me start by saying that I’m definitely no expert when it comes to places outside of New York State. I have visited Europe several times over the last few years, and in honor of those visits I thought it’d be fun to share all of the things I learned upon my arrival in foreign countries. Or rather all of the ridiculous mistakes I made when I first arrived. Trust me there were a lot.
1.) There are many ways to flush a toilet
In the U.S., most toilets look the same. In Europe, every toilet feels like a puzzle you have to solve. I’ve seen toilets that flush by pulling on strings that hanging from the ceiling (which I assumed belonged to the lights). There are toilets that flush by pressing a pedal on the floor, which I only figured out because it looked like a sewing machine pedal. There are toilet seats that don’t stay down unless you sit on them (preventing you from doing the appropriate public restroom squat women are so accustom to). My personal favorite are the little flush/ big flush buttons which always make me laugh since we don’t have poop vs. pee flushers here in the U.S.
2.) Showering can be a challenge
This is another area where I feel like an alien in the bathroom. Most of the showers in Europe aren’t difficult to figure out how to turn on. It’s figuring out how not to flood the entire room while using it that’s so tricky. Some don’t have curtains, some barely have a door to keep water from spraying everywhere. Some are just free standing pedestal tubs with a shower head. In others the shower head is so low that you have to kneel down just to fit under it. Every shower is an adventure.
My favorite was the one with a string hanging from the ceiling. Of course I pulled on it because my curiosity got the better of me (yes, I’m that person). When nothing happened I was a tad disappointed to say the least. I tried it again after a few minutes and heard my boyfriend running back and forth across the apartment. Apparently it was connected to the doorbell in case of an emergency, so while I continued to shower my boyfriend continued to answer the door for no one.
3.) You can’t leave the hotel with your room key
Weird, I know, but in several hotel I went to I had to hand my room key to the concierge before leaving the hotel (even when I was only leaving for an hour). You’ll notice room keys often have a very large (and sometimes heavy) key chain because the hotel does not want you to take the key with you. Maybe they fear you’ll lose it or make a copy. I felt ridiculous as I continuously forgot to hand my keys in and got stopped by the concierge upon each exit.
On being in a rush…
4.) Things close down at lunch time
This applies specifically to Spain and Italy where things close down in the middle of the day. I mean everything closes. Restaurants, stores, sightseeing. Everything stops so that everyone can have a break in the middle of the day. As a tourist, you will be extremely annoyed because this is prime time to see the city and eat lunch. As a local, you’ll wonder why this doesn’t happen everywhere. Europeans know how to relax, and as a New Yorker, I can tell you that we do not. Learn how to slow down and you can enjoy this mid day break too.
5.) It’s hard to find to go cups for coffee
You’ll have a hard time ordering a cup of coffee to go. The places I went in Europe, people didn’t sprint from place to place and grab a coffee in between to keep up the energy. Coffee is sacred. If you are ordering a coffee, chances are you plan to sit there and enjoy it for at least a half hour. If you’re in a rush, you may stand at the counter which acts a bit more like a bar. You can quickly sip your espresso and be on your way. But even in a rush, no one spends less than 15 minutes in a café. In the U.S. almost all coffee is served in a to go cup unless you’re in a fancy cafe. Even if you plan to sit there, it’s still made “to go.”
6.) Dinner takes two to three hours to eat
Ready for a quick bite to eat? Think again. The first dinner I ever ate in France took three hours! The waiter seated us and then took a half hour to get our drink order. I know what your thinking, and no the place wasn’t crowded. It took another half hour before our appetizers arrived. A half hour after that our dinner arrived. Another hour of excruciatingly slow service prompted our waiter to clear our plates. By the time dessert came around, we were ready to pass out in bed because it was almost 11:00 pm. It took about 3 days for us to relax enough to appreciate the three hour meals. No one was rushing us. We could sit back and enjoy every morsel. I also found this common in Germany, Spain, and Italy.
On paying for things…
7.) Sometimes you have to pay before you order
One of the first places I ever visited was Italy. My boyfriend and I rented a car in Rome and drove all the way to Bologna on the first day we landed. Along the way we stopped at a small sandwich shop which was extremely confusing to say the least. We were in an area where no one spoke English, and I don’t know any Italian. I tried to order a sandwich by pointing to one of the pre-made sandwiches in the case, but the gentleman working there wouldn’t give it to me. He managed to say “pay” while pointing across the room at a register. I then proceeded to get in line where I struggled to tell the man what I wanted to order because I could no longer point to the sandwich I wanted. Finally, I was handed a receipt which I passed along to the man making sandwiches, and he handed me my food.
8.) Public toilettes aren’t free
Yup, you read that right. Always, and I mean always have change on you. Going into bathrooms feels like entering the subway in NYC. You have to pay a toll to get in. It’s usually very cheap, but sometimes even restaurants you are eating at will charge for the restroom.
9.) Wifi isn’t free and isn’t always available
In NYC you can go to almost any Starbucks or hotel and get free WiFi. A lot of the places I went in Europe you have to pay for it. In Italy, we had to pay either by the day or by the minute. We constantly had to check our countdown to see how much time we had left. We only used it to check work emails, respond, and log off. The cost to web surf was not worth it. In the countries we rented apartments, we always made sure there was free wifi before renting.
10.) You don’t need to tip
This is a little more well known, but you do not have to tip in all European countries. Waiters and waitresses are paid fair wages so that they do not need tips. In the US, wait staff can be paid below minimum wage and tips are needed to survive. That being said, it is still polite to tip anywhere you go, and you should always look up the countries tipping etiquette before visiting.
11.) Almost all museums are free (or at least cheap)
That’s right. You don’t have to pay $25 for every museum you enter. You can see as many as you want while on a budget! Large museums like the Louvre can cost nine euros, but in London you can walk from museum to museum without spending anything.
On differences in food…
12.) Ordering a latte means ordering a milk
Yes, I have done this before. Yes, I felt stupid about it. If you order a latte, you are ordering a glass of milk. You’ll either want to order an americana or a café au lait. If you do accidentally order a warm milk, simply order a shot of espresso to go with it, but be prepared to feel pretty silly while the waitress laughs at your mistake.
13.) Breakfast is cold cuts, cheese, and bread
Eggs don’t seem to be common for breakfast. You won’t even find a lot of places that serve breakfast at all. Most countries eat meats, bread, and cheese for breakfast. In France you may get a baguette with jam. In London, you can score some fried tomatoes and baked beans. I will say that you should order an orange juice as almost all the countries serve fresh squeezed, and it is the best I ever had! If you’re desperate you can usually find breakfast served in heavy tourist areas. One of the first things I crave when I come back home is fried eggs and bacon.
14.) Salads aren’t a big thing
In most countries, I found that salad is simply lettuce with oil on it. That’s it. If you’re lucky you may get some tomatoes. In tourist areas, you may find salads advertised, but the few times I tried to order a salad I was extremely disappointed. If you’re tired of eating carbs, try a caprese salad (Italy), asparagus (Spain), or another local dish depending on where you are. I did have a few good salads in England.
15.) Limited selection of foods
Options are a little more limited when it comes to selection. One of the biggest differences I noticed was in milk. In a U.S. supermarket there are at least 6 options for milk (whole, low fat, skim, reduced fat, fat free, soy, almond, etc) and there are at least 5 different brands for each. In Europe you’ll have a hard time finding the milk section in a supermarket because there aren’t as many choices. Often times, I’ve only seen one kind of milk. Either that or I’m really bad at reading labels. That being said, the milk tastes a lot better there as does most of the food, and I rarely miss the overwhelming options back home.
16.) Burgers must be well done
I ordered a burger in a pub in London and when I said “medium well” (yes I order them overcooked) the waiter informed me that I’d have to sign a waiver. I looked at him incredulously until my boyfriend explained that mad cow still exists here! No wonder people love American burgers. You don’t have to feel the fear of dementia looming over you while you eat one.
Although there were plenty of other things I learned when stepping foot into other countries, these are the things that stood out to me the most. Whether they were funny like ordering a warm glass of milk or embarrassing like standing in a bathroom for ten minutes unable to flush the toilet, they were all some weird version of an adventure.
What would you add to my list? Write what you learned on your first trip abroad in the comments.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.