Moving to Europe: 10 lessons learned in 5 years
As an American who moved to Europe, I try to write about the lessons we have learned, what you need to think about when moving to a new country, and so on. It’s not the easiest thing to do and I love being able to help others since we have already been through this process. Now, 5 years into this journey of living in Europe, we want to share with you how our eyes have been opened and our views have changed.
Living abroad teaches lessons that there just isn’t any other way to learn. We’ve learned how, as Americans, we see the world differently than others do. We’ve learned how to assimilate into various cultures a bit easier. We feel like we have grown as people and feel a little more like we are part of this big world.
Adapting to European life, specifically Western European life, has its challenges. The majority of our encounters are in the Netherlands, so not all of these attributes are meant to be stereotypical of all Europeans. In fact, the countries are so different is one of the biggest lessons we have learned. More on that later.
We are a loud bunch
We (Americans) can be pretty darn loud. Yes, there are other loud cultures as well, but man, we really stick out in restaurants when in northern and western Europe! We’ve learned to keep our voices a bit lower when speaking. It’s a culture that is less about showing off and getting the last word and one of collaboration.
It’s most notable in groups who just aren’t aware of how loud they can be. They are just having fun, and it’s not a big deal. But, it is something we are aware of and have made a conscious decision to try to fit in a bit more by being quieter…except when drinking with a group of friends — then everyone is loud!
Meaning of tipping
Yessss, let’s get to a hot topic early on. Tipping in the United States goes way back for some not-so-good reasons. It’s a cultural thing that you are either for or against. But, the simple fact is, across most of America, those tips are the only thing servers get paid (after taxes). They live on that money.
In Europe, people are paid a living wage. This means that you tip purely based on service/food and not on knowing that your server gets paid next to nothing. Even then, it’s usually rounding up to the next Euro or 5%-10% of the bill. Showing you can tip more than 10% isn’t necessary and is, honestly, just showing off. Sometimes you don’t even need to tip! Yes, REALLY!
There has been an issue in some parts of Europe (the most touristy parts) where people expect a tip because of people from countries that are used to tipping 20%, do that abroad as well. Learn the local customs and stick to it. It’s tough at first. I know! It was hard for me, too.
To be clear, you won’t offend anyone by tipping, but sticking with the local traditions is better in the long run.
Overtourism is a problem
Overtourism is a buzzword, for sure. But it also helps visitors understand their impact a bit more. We live in Amsterdam — arguably the best city in the world. Yes, I said it. I want everyone to experience it, but in a responsible way.
What is overtourism? Simply put, it’s when there are too many people in a small area of any city. Sometimes it’s a lot of people not contributing to the local economy, or the local businesses catering more to visitors than its own residents. Some reasons for this are cruise ships and cheap airlines.
I am a big advocate for travel, so how can you see the must-see sights and still be a responsible traveler? I’ll cover this more in-depth in a future post, but the basics are to stay in proper hotels and B&Bs, book tickets early + skip the line if possible so you can see more in less time, find locals shops and restaurants and patronize those (instead of cheapy touristy shops), and get outside of the city center. Then, discover destinations that aren’t packed to the brim with visitors.
For visitors to Amsterdam, check out and/or stay in Haarlem, Leiden, Rotterdam, Monnickendam, etc and take the train into Amsterdam for the days you are sightseeing. Discover new neighborhoods, too! Amsterdam North is up and coming, and the East is a cool spot to really be among the locals.
Europe is not a country
Ok, honestly, I never thought that, but I know that many people may think of Europe as a country and the countries more like the states in the United States. I get it. The whole of Europe is about the same size as the whole of the United States. But they are autonomous countries.
Not only are there very specific cultures (and food) in each country, there are specific cultures within these countries! Southern Italy and Northern Italy are worlds apart, just ask any Italian. It’s worth exploring every nook and cranny. Seriously, visiting one major city will not give you a feeling of all of Europe. Every city is incredibly distinct. Some I jive with and some I don’t.
Can you imagine someone going to NYC and thinking they know the entire USA? It’s laughable, right? Keep in mind that cities have a mind of their own and rarely represent the national culture, get outside the cities to really get to know the country.
Many cultural changes begin with the United States
No matter where you are in the world, the United States is talked about. I found this hard to believe at first because when’s the last time another country was the topic of your conversation (not including travel)? It’s one of the first places where you can see cultural shifts — for good or bad.
You get asked a lot of questions when you are an American abroad. It might be whether the things they see in movies are true, if the news is accurately portraying the goings-on of the country, or how you feel in their country.
Also, fashion tends to move from the U.S. over to Europe. Sometimes I find it hilarious to see people wearing American branded clothing or just the “American” style because it’s so specific. That’s because in many countries they have their own distinct styles, so the combination is what makes it extra interesting.
Everyone cares about United States politics
Similar to the cultural changes, everyone talks about American politics because they have a worldwide impact. It’s a bit weird but it’s just how the world works, literally!
Vacation days and work-life balance are key to a happy life
Work-life balance is so so so so so important! Should I emphasize that any more? It’s SO FRIGGIN’ important! The funny thing is, I thought 35 hours was full-time all over Europe. Not in the Netherlands! I went from 40 hours to 32 hours (4 days/week) in my day job before I became a full-time blogger and everything was definitely cut. My pay and vacation time was reduced by 20%. It was a sad day but felt very necessary.
The main difference between the U.S. and Europe, you have the right to expect a work-life balance. If you aren’t seeing that, then ask. If you think a boss is expecting you to always be available, make it clear that it’s not okay–and that’s considered okay! Be open and honest. In the Netherlands, we have a contract system so you don’t have to worry about getting fired for wanting to have an open conversation.
Funny story, Sean was still in an American mindset when he started working in Amsterdam. He stayed late trying to finish a project more than a few times. Then, his colleagues gave him an intervention and pointed out that if he kept doing that, then it would become expected of everyone. That’s not fair. That’s not work-life balance and you aren’t paid extra. The other issue was that if he was staying late every day (and if others did the same), it was a signal that they needed to hire someone to do the amount of work they expect.
Makes sense now, right?
Sense of equality with no judgments is good for society
Individualism is paramount in the United States, but in the Netherlands, there’s a culture of making sure everyone has the basics and there is a sense of community. To take that a step farther, it’s actually pretty hard to determine who is wealthy in the Netherlands. Buying flashy things and showing off isn’t very common. The CEO of booking.com went home on her scooter. Seriously no big deal. Granted, you need enough money to buy a scooter, but I have plenty of friends from teachers, to office workers who own scooters. It’s an investment and you don’t need a car, so it’s worth it.
We don’t feel like we have to keep up with the Jones’. We are free to be ourselves without judgment. How would you feel knowing that literally nobody cares what you are wearing or how you did your hair? Freeing, isn’t it? Personally, I love it. It means I don’t have to feel guilty for not putting on makeup to go out. Of course, there is that possibility of running into someone you know, but even still, they’ll accept you for who you are. No need to get dolled up unless YOU want to.
Individual responsibility is expected
We recently read a news article about a man who was growing hot peppers on his back deck in the United States. He went on vacation and the neighborhood kids had a contest to see who to eat the most peppers–without knowing they were super hot peppers. A kid ended up in the hospital and now the parents want to sue the guy growing the peppers. First of all, WHAT?! Secondly, that would never happen in Europe. Those kids actively went to trespass and steal from their neighbor. They should know better and there is no expectation of that neighbor should label his peppers or secure his area so nobody can get in.
Sure, there are signs in some places telling you what not to do when you’re in Europe. Usually, it’s because it affects the community. There are rarely railings along the canals in Amsterdam to prevent people from falling in. You have a responsibility to know how to be around water. Same with cars. They park right on the edge of the canal sometimes and there are no signs reminding you to “Watch out!”. The photo above is more of an exception than a rule since it has a small railing at the water.
We truly value this, now. Adults are treated as adults, and adults are expected to take care of their children in all aspects of safety. But they also teach children very early on, about respecting the water and how to stay safe without having to be over their shoulder 24/7. This produces capable adults that use common sense to get through life.
Directness makes life easier
Dutch directness is a well-known phenomenon, but they aren’t the only culture that had adopted this. And no, directness does not always mean rude…well, I guess it can in some instances, but there is a difference.
As a Southerner, being direct took a while to get use to when it was directed at me. It took even longer (which I’m still not good at) to be direct to others. It is so much easier to say what you mean and mean what you say versus walking on eggshells hoping the person gets your hints. When I have friends over and I want to go to bed, I can say, “Alright guys, I’m gonna have to kick you out because I’m tired.” Instead of yawning, casually mentioning you’re starting to get tired and you have to get up early, blah blah blah. Just.Make.It.Happen.
Differences in people and cultures are what makes life exciting and interesting. We love it and it’s one reason we love to travel. We observe, we learn, and we adapt. Sometimes I have a harder time adapting than others, but it’s all part of the adventure.
You may disagree with some of my observations about American culture or European culture (mainly Dutch culture), but this is how I see things through my lens. I’d love for you to share any observations you’ve had in Europe. What did you love and what just rubbed you the wrong way? Looking forward to hearing your responses!
Wishing you joy and travels!