The other day I was listening to a travel podcast where at the end of the show, listeners call in with their questions. On this particular episode, a guy on the line made a joke about a “law” in Europe against serving ice cold beverages. He was joking, but also cheekily bemoaning his lack of a Coke-induced brain freeze on his Spanish vacation.
Anyone who’s lived outside their home country or traveled a fair amount would probably scoff at his comment. But, it got me thinking. No matter which culture is yours, you can’t help assuming that “things” are done in a certain way. Normal is subjective so of course, it’s surprising to see life done differently.
As my wheels kept turning I realized there were a ton of things that weren’t a “given” when I moved abroad. Keep reading for a few.
My love of American bathrooms probably warrants its own blog post. Whenever we have visitors I always feel like a mom, reminding everyone to go before we leave the house or restaurant. I’ve not seen plentiful public restrooms anywhere else like I have in the U.S. You can simply waltz in and use one, with no need to make a purchase. Even better, you can bet they’re clean, with ample TP, and soap. Oh gosh and our flushes—no need for a TP bin here! They’re so strong you could probably whoosh away an iPhone7+.
My first concerns with planning a trip are more along the lines of what is affordable or what sites I most want to visit. That makes sense since the U.S. ranks among the strongest passports in the world (meaning we can easily travel without worrying about applying for a visa). The simple luck of my nationality wasn’t even on my radar until a few years ago when we made friends from other countries and heard their stories about how hard it was for them to travel abroad.
I actually go both ways on this one, but sometimes you only have an hour to sit down in a restaurant before other plans. When that’s the case, there’s no better place to dine than in the U.S. I love being greeted quickly and cheerfully at a restaurant. And that menus and drinks come before you can put your napkin in your lap. However, I’m sure diners from foreign countries are completely horrified at the way American servers perch the check at the edge of the table while they’re still finishing dessert. Wait, doesn’t the “whenever you’re ready” make them feel like they can linger?
Going to the ATM and having nothing but 50€ bills is almost enough for a panic attack. Every time I use a big bill somewhere besides a gigantic chain store I say a prayer. Even here in Madrid. I will apologetically lay my 50€ bill on the counter only to have a clerk ask me for something smaller. If I don’t have a smaller bill, I get asked for the coin portion. Or if I have enough coins to round up to the whole. Only once we’ve been through this whole rigmarole do they begrudgingly parcel out some scraggly old bills that look like they were trampled in Pamplona and 10€ in coins.
A good cocktail
Cocktails weren’t invented in the U.S., but Americans definitely took them to the next level (I like this article that says in the early days, Americans put their “big-balled swagger” on European mixology). We did the unthinkable by mixing spirits and wine, thereby creating the martini and my personal favorite, the manhattan. You can definitely find good cocktails abroad. However, if you like American whiskey or a particular style of drink you may have to look a little harder.
It seems like no topic is off limits in American conversation—people will freely offer how much they paid for something, ask you what you do for a living or tell you all the details of their family histories. They’ll give you a tour of the house and even let you use the bathroom (I just read that in France it’s impolite to use someone’s toilet at a dinner party!). I have to concede that we do take this too far—ahem, reality TV—but for the most part, I like our footloose and fancy-free attitude in this area.
I’ve talked about this multiple times (look here and here). Ideas about what constitutes being “on time” vary widely by culture. Cody and I showed up to a Bogotá barbecue 45 minutes late—which almost killed us—only to find the host wasn’t even home (out getting a haircut) and his wife was in the shower. Gah, this one is still giving me all kinds of trouble!
In a previous post, I mentioned my shock at how late businesses open in Madrid—when the heck do people do their errands?! When I think about it, though, convenience is a driving force in American culture. We have fast food, easy returns, and 24-hour gyms. You can get practically anything from a drive through—seriously, I once bought booze from a drive-up window! While that may be pushing it, there is something to be said for being able to get or do whatever you want, whenever you want.
I couldn’t help but laugh during one of the presidential debates when Donald Trump called American airports third world. We may be outgrowing them, but the sheer amount of national and international traffic an old airport like Washington Dulles handles each day makes the third world comment laughable. Compared to developing countries, our pocked and potholed roads are nice. Our power doesn’t go on and off at whim. Everyone has hot water, and you can drink it too! Even “developed” countries don’t necessarily have the same level of comforts that exist in the U.S.
Ok, so none of these is exactly earth shattering. I suppose I could have thrown in some scary stories about bathrooms in India or uncomfortable conversational moments where I unknowingly asked super personal questions. Anyway, now it’s your turn! Which cultural “givens” have you taken for granted? Shoot one out in the comments below!