Growing up, all of us has heard about American exceptionalism. Even in Europe, we saw signs daily of American culture. But there were striking differences in many things. Without getting into a political discussion of such things as universal health care, gun crime, there were many other striking differences, many preferable to us.
On the negative side, there continues to be a lot more cigarette smoking there. If you are sensitive to cigarette smoke, it permeates the air everywhere. As we noted, it is not unusual to see male and female police smoking on the job.
Healthier eating habits seem more pronounced. Fresh markets are all over the place, and produce seems fresher and more plentiful. The one exception might be the high consumption of “processed meats” like hams. One very small grocer in a tiny Tuscany town ( a small chain but about 15% the size of a large supermarket here) had 100 large prosciutto hams hanging on a rack for sale. But a recent study suggested that the overall Mediterranean diet might mitigate some of the problems these processed foods can cause.
The quality of food seems higher, with even the smallest butcher shop full of really great looking meats. Nearly every coffee shop even in the dingiest train station offers only one kind of orange juice, fresh squeezed. They all also have pastries that seem top notch. The beautifully decorated stand up coffee bars seem like a nice daily tradition for people who seem to take it just a little bit easier. The many sidewalk cafes, where chairs are all directed at the sidewalk for people watching, or perhaps to catch a little sun, is another example of this.
Lunch and dinner menus don’t seem to change like they do in the US. We were never offered or presented a bill at the dozens of places we ate at all over Europe. Even in the busiest of places, where you would think the proprietor would desire a faster turnover of tables, never a bill until and unless you ask. Don’t be in a hurry because even then it can take some time.
Tipping is still appreciated but not expected or in any manner solicited. If you use a credit card, there is no way you can add a tip. A few restaurants on heavily trusted areas may add a 5-10% service charge, but that is an exception.
In our nearly one dozen apartments, we often had washing machines but only one dryer. Europeans think it odd that we consider a dryer as an essential utility even in the poshest of accommodations. They prefer the freshness of air dried clothes, so, of course, you see lots of clothes drying on clothes lines off apartment balconies.
The difference between US and Europe in mass transit is enormous. Trains, trams, subways, buses are packed all day and night nearly everywhere and service is so frequent, you generally don’t need to consult schedules beforehand.
Most grocery stores remain smaller, with butchers and produce stores, for example, thriving in smaller towns. Sometimes, they have strange locations. In Paris, not far from the Champs-Elysees, we were directed to a substantial grocery store, on two floors, in the back of a fancy clothing store, without signage. But, not too many years ago, tourists had to rely on the many internet cafes that have all but disappeared.
Although cell phones have had a longer and stronger presence in Europe than here, we noticed that internet everywhere seemed slower.
Although Europe covers less than half of the size of the US, It is truly amazing how many different languages and cultures exist so close together. This means that more people speak more languages, and, at times, it is truly impressive how so many can speak several languages.
In large and small ways, like anywhere, there are definite differences among the various countries and regions. In orderly Copenhagen, even bicycles have their own roads and traffic lights and pedestrians get agitated if visitors cross, even a quiet street, before you get a green light. In chaotic Rome, it’s a whole different world.
Things remain smaller in Europe, with apartments, cars and waist lines the best examples. Families still seem to spend more time outdoors than in front of the TV. There is a lot more government presence, different types of money and a differing sports interest.
We certainly can learn from each other, but it’s always good to be home and do what we are used to.