That’s a great question. I am sure that every Expat American that lives in Europe has an opinion, how about I share mine?
I should start by sharing some information that will give you background information about me.
1. I am from the desert of Arizona. Hot. Dry. Beautiful. 3rd Generation born in Arizona. For Europe, 3rd generation born in one area could be a small joke===but, in the States, that’s quite the accomplishment!
2. We moved to Poland in 2001. That’s 12 years after the Berlin Wall was opened. When we first arrived in Poland, we did not get to travel freely within Europe even though the Wall had fallen. There were still two border crossings to go West. We had to stop at the Polish border and allow for Polish border guards to rifle through all of our luggage. Then we had to do the same thing as we entered Germany. Sometimes border crossing took 3 hours. And, yes, we saw many people escorted off of the trains with their passports.
Another fact: American or other Western European Countries’ Passports were very hot commodities often stolen or sold. If you had a passport that allowed easier travel, then you had more opportunities for work. We have known people that have bought illegal passports, been caught using them in varying countries to try and find work, and have found themselves in prison because of this.
You should know the majority of the people that participated in these crimes were people with the best intentions—people looking to work. Work hard. And save so that they could send money to their families. It doesn’t make it right—but after living in what was once a country with unemployment raging in some cities at the extremes of 20-40% (in the days when we first arrived), I did have great compassion on those that simply wanted to find work.
*Again—I do not condone illegal measures, I am just sharing facts*
3. We came without knowing anything but “Byc or not byc.” Which is the funny way to say in half Polish/half English the phrase “To be or not to be…” I think you probably need to speak Polish to giggle at this one.
Anyhow, since we came to Poland without any Polish during a time when hardly anyone spoke English, we lived a life of loud words with lots of hand gesturing and crazy facial expressions or animal sounds to get what we wanted.
For example, if we wanted some beef but didn’t see any behind the butcher counter, we would say, “Czy Pani ma MOO?” (Do you, Ma’am, have any MOO?)
You would think we would attract a whole lot more smiles, but we did move to an Eastern European country, so we mostly just got blank stares ;)
Figuring out everything from how to ride a tram, to buy a train ticket, to shop for milk—everything was extreme amounts of work. We are so thankful we had friends to help lead us along the way. The rest of the time we just suffered humiliation at attempts on our own.
Well, without further can’t hardly sit still in anticipation, ready to read it…Here is my Top 10 List of What It’s Like to Live in Europe as an Expat American:
I will go backwards from 10 to 1. But please know that I do not succeed at all 10 of these.
10. Grocery Shopping.
Bring extra money to buy your grocery bag!
Oh, and don’t forget to pack your own groceries, QUICKLY! As fast as the grocer is throwing them at you, separate and shove into the bags you just bought (unless you are amazingly fantastic at always having extra plastic shopping bags with you).
And never forget your coin for the use of the shopping cart. Otherwise your arms spilleth over or fall to the floor. Depending on whether the grocery store HAS a spare basket for you to use (a carry one) or not (some don’t). So NEVER…and I repeat NEVER…forget your coin to use the grocery cart.
Okay—shopping ALL around is quite the experience. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Funny labels, different foods, small stores, personal packing, plastic bag buying, grocery cart renting experience. When I got to the States and started to pack my own groceries the “bagger” was a little upset that I was taking over his job. Oops. Habits are hard to hand over.
In the end, I am a rather fast separator, packer, and general bag buyer (I guess I have only accomplished 2 of the 3 needed grocery skills in Europe—I still end up buying a bag EVERY SINGLE TIME).
But, in the end, I have mastered grocery shopping and, therefore, my family eats in Europe. Phew.
9. Know how and make your own jam, pickles, pickled items, fresh bread, sausage, and borscht!
You will learn to love cabbage, mushrooms, beets, and repeat. On top of that, sweet pickles will be considered an unhealthy treat while salted pickles will be what’s good for you!
In other words, your bread will only last a day, you will eat loads of cheese, and your palette will greatly change yet increase!
Bring on the snails, please! And pickled herring. Oh, and where is the blood sausage? Yes! Put it on top of bulgar wheat. And, no, not that white cheese—the blah blah blah fancy one over there.
In fact, as long as there are potatoes, wheat, and cabbage in Europe, everyone on this continent will survive. Oh, along with dill.
It’s a continent of culinary genius! For sure. And I L.O.V.E. eating here.
8. Dress like you meant to wear it! And then walk like you mean it.
Seriously, Europeans are so fashionable. But, and here’s the secret. They have stockings, funky shoes, scarves, sometimes hats, skinny jeans, and second-hand skirts and throw it all together with a little bit of mascara and a few accessories, looking like fashionistas.
My husband and daughter are amazing Europeans. Disclaimer—neither are European. But they put on clothes daily (So now you know that they are REALLY not European. Smile and wink kind of joke) and voile! They look amazing.
My daughter wears whatever shoes she wants with short skirts and leggings and then a sweater and allows for her hair to blow in the breeze. Then she boldly walks to school and smiles. She is gorgeous and natural and looks like she belongs.
My husband accessorizes his outfits with a fitted sports coat and the right belt, throwing a scarf around his neck and grabbing his leather work satchel when he leaves. It’s as if GQ dressed him for a photo shoot.
Then there’s me. For some reason, my love affair with my flip flops prevent me from accessorizing properly. Therefore, I will remain the staunchly proud American and take gorgeous photos of the European fashionistas that reside under my same roof.
Even my 2 and 1 year olds are already rocking the right shoes, hair, and fedora hats.
I’m glad that when we’re out in public, there only appears to be one tourist in the group—that’s ME!
No, seriously. If you want my advice: throw it on and wear it boldly and proudly! Wear less makeup! And allow your hair to flow naturally.
Pair that with leather shoes and just the right hat, and there you have it!
You’ll do really well in Europe.
7. Be Quiet.
No, seriously. Be quiet. Unless there is a football game on television, a festival going on in town, or a really drunk singing German nearby (no offense, Germans), be quiet.
This day to day life of walking and shopping and talking and playing is VERY quiet.
I walk outside and the birds fly away. I am pretty sure that I scare most every European on the continent the minute I walk out the door.
My American voice soars the clouds.
My daughter hides. My husband shushes me. My small ones are the only ones that smile. They still don’t know any better.
Perhaps it’s because Europe is considered the civilized people while we Americans are the wild outlaws. Who knows?
But my daughter tells me often that I am too boisterous for this nation.
She is right. But as long as they accept my volume I’ll try and overlook their staring.
So, shall we call it a tie?
Europeans chime in with a probable “No!” But, if you are American, you hold your ground. Because if there is one thing America has taught you, it’s how to stay strong.
Actually, that’s a fantastic trait of both countries/continents. I just voice my strength in a louder volume, causing my daughter and husband to run for the forest where they will then find everyone in Poland on a peaceful family walk. In silence.
But don’t worry—I’m used to it. I’m just not sure it is mutual.
6. Appreciate the old.
There is nothing more beautiful than the old. When I was in the States, I walked or drove in awe at all of the shiny and new. It was beautiful. And I loved every moment. But there were times when I was looking for the cobblestones or the old homes or the buildings with ivy crawling.
I was looking for the chimneys blowing smoke and the cracks in the walls.
There is nothing wrong with shiny America, but there is something surreally stunning about lovely and lived in. Quaint. And peaceful.
And the castles. Now, mind you, there is a palace or a castle like every 15 minutes, so my daughter told me in the car the other day, “WHY do you have to point out the window ALL THE TIME?!” Apparently the thrill of a castle or palace does not resonant as strongly when a child grows up in this culture. But to the never-ending foreigner—ME—I LOVE the turrets I see around every bend!
In the end, America will always be the far younger and shinier cousin country. And Europe the elegant, older family member.
My vote will always be: Arizona Deserts 1; Polish architecture 1. TIE!
The weather, of course, sends it from a draw to an Arizona win. But that’s just my opinion.
And, since we are mostly talking about architecture, I would have to ultimately say that Europe and its history of brilliant places and buildings takes the cake.
So, who wins? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s up to each individual to judge that one.
5. Shop Europe!
My daughter got so frustrated when we were in the United States. She began looking at EVERY item and would proclaim, “WHY IS EVERYTHING FROM CHINA?”
She was proud to be in America but very sad that she could hardly find anything at all that was truly American.
In Europe, however, even though products from China are slowly creeping into stores, you will overall find most items proudly made in Europe.
America, take a hint!
4. Drink REAL Coffee. Not brown water!
My husband and I were in the United States when we asked for some coffee at a restaurant. The server brought us brown water. We tasted it and thought, “What did we do to deserve such torture?!”
It was disgusting.
To be fair, we had not been in the States for many years at that point, so we had forgotten that brown water in the States is what they refer to as “Coffee”.
Coffee my foot!
You get better coffee at the gas station in Italy then you get at most places in the United States.
Just saying—weak, cheap, and flavorless brown water is not coffee. America, take this lesson from Europe. Stronger is better.
And it will definitely MAKE YOUR DAY!
3. Prepare for the onslaught of Tourists. And, no, they are NOT all Americans.
Europeans are GREAT European travelers. But, if you think about it, it makes SENSE! Europe is geographically not the largest continent. Yet is has a million and one countries. Therefore, to go on vacation, you can cross two borders in one day.
I think that we often believe as Americans that we are the only tourists in Europe. We’re not.
And, don’t let the Europeans give you a hard time about speaking English. Because, guess what. When they cross the borders for their vacations, they generally have to speak English in their country destinations, too.
But—and these are what I wouldn’t mind most American tourists hearing loud and clear—don’t be rude and obnoxious and demanding. And DON’T put down America at every conversation with a foreigner.
There are a whole lotta countries in the world. No one knows them all. So no need to apologize for your desire to travel the world and yet LEARN about it while you travel.
That’s okay. And, when all is said and done, after you are home, you will know more because you were there.
Come and enjoy Europe. You’ll leave with a new zeal and zest for life after you do.
And definitely come to Poland. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest countries you could ever experience! No joke. And see you here soon.
2. Kissing is Good!
Just come prepared to kiss. Many and multiple times. Do not be shy. And carry breath mints.
I have not met a European yet that does not greet with lovely kisses. On the cheeks. 1, 2, 3 times or more!
Some, depending on the celebration, on the lips!
So, come to Europe and pucker up, for you will get kissed.
1. Climb the Stairs!
As much as they are constantly renovating and revamping, Europe is one big castle. Lots of cobblestone. Lots of small streets. Lots of stairs.
And very tall buildings. Without elevators or escalators.
But with stairs.
Our office is on the 3rd floor. I think nothing of it when I grab my bag, my lunch, my coffee and hike the stairs.
But, when I am in the States, to even go to the 2nd floor of a building, I head over to the elevator and wait.
And while I wait for the elevator, I could have walked up and down the stairs a couple of times. Yet I still wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.
Yep! As active as America is, we are still, in the day in and day out activities, still rather inactive.
Like driving to school or the grocery store. When, technically, they are but a 10-20 minute walk away.
What’s it like living in Europe?
It’s one big walk.
And we like it that way!
How about you? Are you an expat American living in Europe or perhaps another country? What do you agree with? Disagree with? Please share!