At some point, you’ve probably imagined what it might be like to live in a foreign county. Thoughts that may have crossed your mind: “Think of all the adventures that I’ll have! The food that I’ll eat! The places that I’ll see! “ I’d venture to guess it wasn’t: “I really gotta pee, but I don’t have 50 cents…damn it.”
Yep, you have to pay to use the restroom in many parts of Europe. Weird, right?….I thought so, too. So, if the thought of the upcoming presidential election season scares you or you’re just looking for a summer vaca, park it here first.
As many of you know, I packed my bags in July, 2015, and sailed off into the sunset, moving to Germany with real-life Prince Charming (still pinching myself). While life abroad can be amazing (it’s practically German law that you have to eat bread multiple times a day), it’s not without its challenges. If you’re anything like me (I lived in my American bubble for 26 years), you may be unprepared for some of the cultural and day-to-day differences that you may experience while living or traveling abroad. Luckily, I’ve taken care of the trial and error and compiled a fool-proof list so that you’re not caught off guard when ‘nature calls.’ Following with our theme here, let’s begin:
1. Using a public restroom
As previously mentioned, most public restrooms require a small, attendant “fee” – this generally ranges from 50 cents to 1 Euro (though some work on the ‘honor system.’) While it’s not always the case that these restrooms are necessarily cleaner, however, it is a guarantee that they will be manned by an angry, old woman, watching your every step to the “collection plate.”
There have been times when I reached into my pocket and found myself empty handed. In these situations, I had to wait until Frau Roz replaced a roll of toilet paper to sneak by or pulled the old “Sorry…I speak no German…” mad dash/walk-of-shame without paying. I justify it by telling myself that she’ll assume I’m just another “rude American” and that I can’t change an entire continent’s opinion one toilet at a time.
Lesson One: Always Carry Coins
Paying to pee can be the least of your worries; sometimes it’s hard to even find a restroom. Well, at least it was for me until I figured out that words like “restroom” or “bathroom” don’t really translate. Most will be identified with WC, which stands for “Water Closet.”
Water Closet…that sounds like some new age, hippie parent timeout: “Seraphina Rose, we need you to go meditate in the Water Closet and think about what you’ve done.” Nope, that gets a Boop.
Europeans also use the word “toilet” a lot, which I’ve always thought was a touch crass – akin to “The John,” “Crapper” or “Ralph the Big White Phone” (Yes, yes I did just quote Mary Kate and Ashley’s Passport to Paris).
Lesson Two: Learn “Where is the Water Closet/Toilet?” In Every Language
If you’ve managed to find the toilet AND pay to use it, you’re ready to face your final challenge: Big or Small Button?
Okay, this is probably way less intimidating to most people than it was for me, but toilets in Europe come equipped with two “flush option” buttons, instead of a handle. In the beginning, probably out of the discomfort and confusion of my new environment, I just violently pushed both buttons and went on my merry way. It wasn’t until my husband explained: Little button for #1, big button for #2.
I’ve come around to the idea of the buttons, as it actually makes for a convenient and “polite” way of talking to a co-worker/roommate/spouse about the safety of entering the room after a “sit it.” ….“Did you big button or little button?”
Lesson Three: Use The Appropriate Button
Speaking of #2, on to our next topic:
This is a tough one, as it often requires a deeper knowledge/understanding of each individual country/culture. But, if you do your research, you’ll realize that Europe is kind of like your friend group when you’re planning on having a ‘Girls Night Out’:
She thinks that unless you’re 5 minutes early, you’re late: Switzerland – And get a watch by the way…a Swiss one.
She’s totally confused when you arrive 5 minutes early or 5 minutes late. Why would you throw away 5 perfectly good working minutes being early? And if you’re late, she’s offended that you’ve wasted her time: Germany
She says 6:00, but that really means “6:00ish;” she doesn’t care too much if you’re going to be 15 minutes late because she likely is too: U.S.A./UK
She texts, “I’m walking out the door,” but she’s actually just hopping in the shower. She’ll show up 2 hours late, sprinting in, breathing heavily, “Traffic was crazy, huh?!”: Spain
She texts you about how excited she is to get together for dinner on Tuesday. She shows up at the restaurant on Friday, “Where’s everybody at?”: Greece
Lesson Four: Know Your Audience
I never thought that shopping would be so challenging. You go into a store, you see something you like, you buy it…right? Uh…kind of.
Finding the right store:
Our whole lives we’ve been conditioned by advertising. Television, magazines, newspapers and the internet teach us the power of branding. We know that Levis are jeans, Scotch is tape and Kleenex are tissues. Traveling abroad, you don’t always have the luxury of knowing these ahead of time, especially if you’re not in a major city. While this can be an exciting adventure if you find yourself in a great, little boutique with the perfect dress for that upcoming wedding. It can also cause some confusion when you walk into an “Orion,” hoping to find your nephew a telescope for his birthday, and realize they forgot to add “adult” in front of “toy store.”
Finding the right medicine: (Disclaimer: Girl Talk Ahead)
Have you ever needed something embarrassing from a pharmacy? In the States, you can find most non-prescription items on the stock floor. This means that one can easily hide a box of tampons, Monistat or Ex-lax under a Family Size pack of Snickers and a Cosmo and do a quick self-checkout without anyone being the wiser. Not-so in Europe.
Most pharmacies are set up so that you have to consult a pharmacist before buying anything stronger than a pack of tissues. This makes certain trips painfully awkward. If you’re struggling to learn your nation’s language (like yours truly), conversing during these times can prove challenging. While most pharmacists are fluent in English, some only have basic language skills. This means you must speak clearly:
Me: “I need plantar wart remover, please…”
Pharmacist: *Looking confused* “What kind of WART?”
Me: “WART… ON FOOT… PLANTAR.”
Pharmacist: “Ah, yes, plantar WART…one moment please.”
Me: *Desperately avoiding eye contact with the judgemental old lady in line behind me.*
I’ve also discovered that only in America can you easily purchase a bottle of Tylenol fit for a lifetime of pain relief for a family of 82. The number one request from friends abroad is to “bring back pain killers.” Europeans call aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, etc. “pain killers,” which makes it feel extra contraband-ish.
Before we move on, can someone explain to me how an entire continent of modern, educated and innovative people have not come around to the idea of tampons with applicators? Seriously…why?
Lesson Five: BYOT – Bring Your Own Tampons
Finding the right condiment:
If you live in the continental United States and don’t have a drawer in your house that looks like this, consider your American Card revoked. For the rest of us, please sit down, because what I’m about to tell you, may shock you…
…YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR CONDIMENTS.
I know, it feels blasphemous just typing it. But your days of rolling through a fast-food drive-through, knowing that your Dollar Menu order comes with a 6-month supply of ketchup, are over.
As an American this photo looks like your average side of fries. As a German, all I see is €€€.
Each pack of ketchup, mayo, mustard or curry sauce (a magical mix of curry powder in sweet condiment form) sets you back 25-45 cents. You can imagine my reaction when the clerk at McDonald’s handed me my Big Mac Meal with one packet of ketchup.
Me: *Confused as to how I’m channeling Oliver Twist right now?* “Please, Sir, could I have some more?”
Clerk: “How many packets would you like?”
Me: “Um, three should be fine.”
Clerk: “That will be €1.35, please.”
Lesson Six: Also….BYOK – Bring Your Own Ketchup
Finding the right food:
One of the best things about visiting a new country is experiencing each nation’s cuisines. In the U.S., we’re a bit spoiled in that we have the opportunity to cross the culinary globe in many our own hometowns. But, there’s nothing like getting it straight from the source. However, trying out ‘wiener schnitzel’ at a local restaurant is one thing, but figuring out how to shop for groceries is a whole other ballgame.
I’ve found that shopping for food can, in many ways, be quite helpful in learning your country’s language (for me – German). You can easily identify things like fruits and vegetables and pair them with the corresponding word:
Onion = Zwiebel
Apple = Apfel
Garlic = Knoblauch… Okay, we’re figuring this out.
Next up, the staples:
Bread = Brot
Eggs = Eier
Milk = Milch… easy enough…
Oh wait, there’s a couple types of milk:
Fett Arme Milch = Fat… something… Milk…
Butter Milch = Butter Milk… I’m a genius…
Frische Dickmilch = Fresh………………………….
*Looks around* “Anybody else see this?” *Now getting nervous that you’re spending too much time in the Dick Milk section…*
*Awkwardly grab at anything else, pretending like you were just browsing… Banana and… pumpkin yogurt, yep that’s what I came for…*
Lesson Seven: Download Google Translate
Now that you’re home and you’ve figured out how to make a meal with your Onion, Apple and experimental yogurt flavor, it’s time to take out the trash. You just throw it in a bag and take it to the street, right? … Nope. If there’s something most Europeans, Germans in particular, take seriously – it’s their trash.
Before moving to Germany, I must admit, as a red-blooded, flag-waving, hand-over-my-heart American, I could probably count the amount of times that I recycled on my hands. The point being – I just didn’t do it. I know I’m not alone. According to the EPA, the U.S. recycles roughly 34% of it’s waste, compared to countries like Austria, Germany and Belgium, which each come in at around 60%. In the U.S., recycling isn’t “cool,” there’s little to no incentive aside from impressing the bra-burning, responsibly-sourced-boxed-water-drinking, uses-a-typewriter-for-her-Post-it-notes chick you met on Tinder last week.
Even if you have committed to “limiting your carbon footprint,” Europeans don’t stop at paper and plastic. In my apartment building we have a bin for:
Paper (and don’t you think about throwing away that envelope without removing the plastic window)
Plastic/Metal (man-made materials/synthetics)
Organic Materials (food scraps, garden trimmings, etc.)
“Restmull” (which translates to “rest trash’ – anything that doesn’t fit in the other categories or mixed trash)
You’re not finished yet, there’s a separate bin down the street for recycling glass bottles and jars, 3 bins to be exact:
But wait, there’s more! This is where European recycling numbers make a lot of sense: You get paid to recycle.
Yep, you heard that right – you can bring home cold, hard cash for recycling. You know the embarrassing number of plastic, water bottles you have cluttering your back seat? Well, those bad boys can bring you up to $0.25 cents, a pop! While this may not seem like a lot, it adds up – and makes you feel better about that $5 latte when you pay for it in “Flaschenpfand” or German for “bottle deposit.”
Flaschenpfand can be such a lucrative gig that some people spend their afternoons dumpster diving or trolling big events to collect bottles. It’s such a common occurrence that most people don’t throw their bottles into the recycling bin, they set them next to it for the “bottle collectors” to easily be able to pick up when making their rounds. Flaschenpfand machines can be found at liquor/grocery stores; you can even use it as a cash credit the next time you’re stocking up on dickmilch.
Lesson Eight: Recycle EVERYTHING
Have you ever woken up early on a weekend, just in time to get in your car and drive to a Chick-Fil-A, then sat and cried because it’s Sunday and they are closed?
Imagine that, but apply it to everything. Countries like Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Turkey, Hungary and Switzerland have strict laws regarding the ability of retail stores to operate on Sundays.
Were you thinking of cooking a nice family meal on Sunday but forgot some ingredients? Well, sorry, you’re SOL – grocery stores are closed. Do you have an appointment first thing with your boss on Monday and need to print some documents but you’re out of ink? Boop, you’re fired.
While it’s a nice concept, in theory, to give workers a day to rest and to afford time for cultural or familial activities – it really, really sucks. Now I want Chick-fil-A…
Commandment Nine: Keep The Sabbath Holy*
*I know it’s Commandment Eight, but I’ve got a rhythm here and this post is already pretty sacrilegious…
It’s always a smart idea to read up on each country’s cultural ideals and unwritten “rules” so that you don’t find yourself unknowingly breaking them. Living in Germany, I could write an entire post just on rules alone, but I’ll stick to a few of the interesting ones that I’ve learned along the way:
- Crossing the street:
Germans take crosswalks VERY SERIOUSLY. It is an unwritten (and written) rule that jay-walking is STRICTLY forbidden and Germans will not shy away from calling you out in public (especially old grannies). They believe that it sets a bad example for children and creates an unsafe environment in a country that is known for its fast cars and unlimited speed zones. A proper German, under no circumstance, will cross the street without the “Ampelmännchen,” i.e. “little traffic light man.”
The Ampelmann is such a part of German daily life that he has become a pop-culture icon and can be found on merchandise everywhere, especially in Berlin.
I’ve seen the rule so adhered to that I swear you could stick a German in the desert and they’d stay put until someone built them a traffic light and turned it green.
- No recycling after 8PM:
Remember how you have to separate your glass into 3 different recycling categories? Well, you only have until 8PM to do it. If you’re even a minute late, you’ll often find a finger-waving, old lady barking at you for violating the noise law (if you’re not sensing a trend here – old German ladies like to yell at you/judge you for everything).
- No shoes in the house:
Most Germans do not wear shoes in the house and you must play close attention to this as a guest. Some households keep their shoes outside the door or some have a “shoe wardrobe” just inside the door for shoes. It is always a good idea to bring a pair of socks if you are arriving to a dinner party in a pair of heels, etc. Some houses even have designated “house shoes” for guests.
This took me a while to get used to. It also confused me. Germany is stereotyped as a country full of white people, but the only people I’ve seen wearing house slippers are my black friends’ Dads. I guess Birkenstocks are making a comeback these days, maybe the Germans are on to something?
- Waiting in line
For whatever reason, Germans love waiting in lines. They will form a line anywhere, I mean anywhere. I don’t know how they watch concerts – I’m sure they would feel more comfortable standing in a line and waiting patiently for each attendee to have an individual moment to listen to the music.
What do Germans love more than waiting in line? Beating you at forming a new line. If you’re waiting at the grocery store and a new clerk comes to open her register, prepare yourself to be elbowed in the face by any and all shoppers so that they can be first to ring up their Haribo and Marlboros.
Yep, people still smoke here.
Lesson Ten: Follow The Rules
So, there you have it folks – my Top Ten Lessons for surviving life abroad. Now put those passports to use and report back about what you find challenging abroad.