There’s a reason Europe is such an attractive travel destination: the entire rainbow of European culture is easily accessible to outsiders – one trip can expose you to dozens of ways of life.
What’s in this post about European culture?
For four months, Stephen and I spent most nights in other people’s homes, trying out their lives. It’s kind of like trying on another person’s clothes — a little awkward but exciting too, full of possibility.
It’s not exactly news that European culture and North American culture are strikingly different. And though America is unarguably the greatest country on Earth and Canada is perfect in every way, including our Prime Minister (please note the sarcasm), we can always learn to be better.
European Social Life
Beer, Wine, Everything’s Fine (France, Italy, Czechia)
“Shall we have wine with dinner?” isn’t really a question in Europe — it’s a given. The only valid excuse for not drinking wine with dinner is that you’re having a beer.
And because of that, in European culture, wine and beer are almost as affordable as water. In Czechia, beer is actually cheaper than water.
(Of course, this isn’t true in Scandinavia, where a beer costs about the same as a small car. Could that be why Scandinavians are so depressed?).
In many European cultures, drinking is done daily, but in a regulated way. With our Italian friends, we might drink three bottles of beer between four people on an average night. In Europe, drinking a little alcohol every day doesn’t mean you’re an alcoholic (like it does at home), it just means you’re human.
What do you think, North Americans? Might we be a little happier if we dropped the judgement and started drinking a little more?
You could start by taking our DIY bike tour of craft beer breweries Vancouver! →
Europeans Cultivate The Art of Getting Fresh (France)
In Paris, we stayed in an apartment in Saint Germain des Prés. Less than a block away there was a wine store, a cheese store, a meat shop, and a produce store. There were two boulangeries in the SAME building we stayed in and our Paris-based friends complained (only half joking) that they had to cross the street to buy fresh bread.
French people don’t go to the supermarket and load their carts up with all the packaged long-life food they’ll need for the next month, they pop into the shops every day to buy what they’ll eat that day. That is why food in France is better than almost anywhere in the entire world.
In North America, it can be hard to find local food, but if you have a farmer’s market or an artisanal bakery nearby, stop in find out just how great food can taste.
Looking for more inspiration for your European trip? Check out:
European Culture is Social
Then a strange thing happens: they order a wine or a beer and then sit and talk.
For the most part, people do not stare at their phones or watch “the game” on TV (unless it’s the World Cup). Instead, they laugh and talk for a while before heading home for the evening.
The art of conversation is a beautiful thing and one that is almost lost in North America. I hope we can get it back again.
Breakfast Doesn’t Have to Involve Cartoon Characters
In Canada and the US, we have been trained (by Mr. Kellogg) that breakfast equals mass-produced cereal from a cardboard box. The box must feature cartoon toucans or tigers and claim to be “natural” and “healthy” while really being packed full of salt, sugar, and processed GMO corn.
(All of this cereal madness has an extremely dark underbelly, by the way.)
In Britain, the cereal craze has taken over completely and Germany has a minor fixation with Muesli, but that’s about as far as it goes.
In Paris, you eat fresh bread and pain au chocolat for breakfast. In Italy, you eat cookies (yes, really) or brioche. In Germany and the northern countries, you probably break your fast with sliced cheeses, meats, and a few cucumbers.
This just goes to show that it’s OK to branch out on breakfast foods… but never ever skimp when it comes to coffee and tea.
Going Outside is a Year-Round Activity in Europe (Netherlands, Finland)
On our way to Europe in February, Stephen and I had a longish layover in LA. We escaped the airport and went to get a burger at Veggie Grill, one of our favourite places to eat in LA. It was about 28 degrees outside, so we decided to sit on the patio – only to discover that all the patio heaters were going full blast.
What the hell?!? So much for Veggie Grill’s dedication to protecting the environment.
When we got to Groningen in Northern Netherlands a few weeks later, the temperature was hovering just above freezing. And yet, as soon as the sun came out, restaurants lined the sidewalk with their tables and chairs and people happily sat outside, sipping a glass of wine and soaking up the vitamin D.
We love the culture of sitting outside whenever you please! No patio heaters needed.
It’s Always Bike-to-Work Weather in Europe (Amsterdam, Berlin)
Cycling is huge in Vancouver. On a sunny day, you’re likely to see more bikes rolling along your street than cars. But, when the rain clouds close in (which they do a lot in Vancouver), the roads become choked with gas guzzlers and bikes are put away in the garage. Apart from a few hearty souls, most Vancouverites haven’t quite made the transition to full-time no-car cyclists yet.
Now, let’s go to Berlin, in February, at night, in the pouring rain. Here we see hordes of cyclists zipping up and down the city’s amazing array of cycle paths.
Don’t miss our 10 Reasons to Love Berlin (and One Thing I Hate) →
What about Amsterdam, at any time of year? Most people don’t own cars. Bikes are so common that every home has two or three parked outside.
Our friend Harriet, who spends her work day taking meetings all over town, does it by bike. Yes, even in the rain. Even in a hailstorm. And this is normal behaviour.
In Copenhagen, there are so many bikes that bike traffic is becoming a problem all on its own. Even in London, where the infrastructure is still weak and the roads are narrow and twisted, two-wheeled warriors are starting to take over.
All that is to say that the European culture of cycling is alive and well — and awesome!
And then you go to LA, where it’s perfect cycling weather 99% of the year. Almost no one rides a bike. There’s barely any cycling infrastructure and it’s dangerous with all those giant trucks on the road (and all the drivers whacked out on weed and Vicodin). So what could be the world’s best cycling city is still a car-choked nightmare.
C’mon governments of America, get it together already! If you build it, they will come.
(P.S. Special shout out to Portland where people move house by bicycle and happily cycle around in a snowstorm.)
If It’s More than 20 Minutes Away, It’s Too Far (Paris)
When we were in Paris, we were invited to several people’s homes. As they were giving directions, they’d invariably apologize for living so far out of the centre. Then we’d discover that we could easily walk to their place in 20 minutes or less.
Um, you do know we lived in LA, where a 20-minute walk didn’t get you to the nearest coffee shop, don’t you? Even in Nanaimo, a tiny city, everything was at least a 10-minute drive away. The close-quartered, super-social, apartment living in Paris makes our sprawling suburbs — where everyone has at least 4 bedrooms and spends 1.5 hours a day commuting to work — look utterly ridiculous.
Public Transport Should Actually Transport the Public
Unlike LA (or to a lesser extent Vancouver, Toronto and many cities in the US), public transport in Europe kicks ass. It’s usually far easier to get across town by taking the metro, or the tram, or the bus (or all three) than it is to get in the car. Why? Because public transport is properly funded, properly run, and it really works.
It’s also generally easy, affordable and fast to get from city to city or country to country by bus or train. This makes it super simple to travel without a vehicle and still see the sites (or get to your business meeting on time).
Have you read about our adventures on the public bus system in India? Fun! →
Tiny Cars Make Sense
Because of our driving-focussed society, Americans and Canadians still seem to have a bigger is better mentality when it comes to cars.
In Europe, cars are all about practicality. In Torino, the home of Fiat, every other car seems to be a tiny Fiat of some kind or other. Smart Cars are taking over in London and Paris. Even the familiar models from back home come in a diminutive version for Europeans.
Here, where gas and space are at a premium, the only choice is to go small or stay home.
Unfortunately, in North America, the system is set up so that if you drive a small car, you’re less safe on the roads, because there’s always the threat of being smashed into by a behemoth SUV or Ford F150. North Americans are waging a vehicle arms race, armouring ourselves with heavier and heavier vehicles. We stack the decks in our favour so we’re more likely to kill than be killed.
The solution? Gas taxes. In Europe, one study suggests, the premium on gas has influenced the move to smaller cars, while the cheap gas prices in the U.S. have had the opposite effect. Another option is better design; this study found that “manufacturers can reduce vehicle mass without necessarily compromising safety.”
Until then, though, it might be best just to take the bus.
Home Life in Europe
Communal Living is Where It’s At (London & Paris)
Last year when we lived in Canada, I noticed that when I told friends we lived in an apartment, they reacted with… surprise? shock? pity? I’m not sure what it was exactly – but you can be damn sure no one was congratulating us on our situation.
The funny thing is, our situation was GREAT! We had more than enough space, lived close to the ocean and to family, and didn’t have a giant mortgage hanging around our necks.
In European cities, living in an apartment is not only accepted, it’s the only choice. And guess what? Whether you’re a single person or a family of four, you can still live in an apartment and be totally happy!
As a side note, even if you live on the fifth floor, chances are you’ll have to walk up the stairs to get home (elevator not included).
Think how much money and commuting time could be saved in North America if only we stopped mortgaging our grandmothers for a 5-bedroom house in the suburbs and just lived in city apartments a few minutes walk from everything? Communal living is one area where European culture has really got it right!
How Many People Really Need to Pee at the Same Time?
Speaking of 5-bedroom houses… In North America, real estate has really gotten out of hand. A three-bedroom house (if you can find one that small) also must have three bathrooms, at least. In Europe, people live in a two- or three-bedroom apartment quite happily with ONLY ONE bathroom. I know! Crazy right?
To get around the “waiting” scenario, many bathrooms are separated into a washing room and toilet room. A much simpler solution than installing one bathroom for every person in the house.
Just Say No to Taking a Tumble
I’ve often wondered why, in England, the dampest country on Earth, no one owns a dryer (which the English adorably call “tumble dryers”), yet in Los Angeles, where it is perpetually hot and dry, people throw their clothes in the dryer after every load.
The English, along with most other Europeans let nature (or the radiator) dry their clothes. Yes it is far less convenient, but it’s much better for the environment and your electricity bill.
North Americans, we’re not asking you to dry your clothes outside in a rainstorm, but maybe on a sunny summer day, take a cue from European culture and let nature replace your electrity sucking clothes dryer.
Cleanliness is a Group Effort
Despite their tiny apartments and small houses, almost all of our friends also employ someone to take care of the house cleaning, the ironing, and even the laundry.
Admittedly, most of our friends in Europe are middle class and work in full-time professional jobs. Then again, most of our friends in Canada and the US are the same, but it’s rare for them to hire a house cleaner. I think this stems from middle-class guilt — we don’t like such a blatant reminders that we earn enough to pay someone else to do our “dirty” work.
But it just makes sense to hire someone to help you out; it even makes sense if you don’t have a ton of disposable income.
First of all, house cleaners are pros at their work, so they’ll clean your house better than you ever could while freeing you up to pursue your own work. Plus, you will be hiring another person, supporting their entrepreneurial spirit while helping their small business survive – win win.
The European culture of hiring pros to clean your house just makes sense!
Don’t Leave Your Guests with Cold Feet (Italy)
This one is a rather self-serving… but we love it. We’ve discovered that in Italy (as in most European countries and Canada), it’s common to take off your shoes when you enter someone’s house. Too right, since our streets, and by association our shoes, are covered in bacteria and toxic crap.
Our Italian friends don’t leave us with chilly feet like we experienced in England and the Netherlands, though. Instead, they pull out a big basket of slippers and allow us to take our pick.
This is definitely a practice we’ll adopt if we ever decide to settle down!
I’m not saying European culture is perfect. I’m sure there are lots of things we North Americans could teach them… I’m just having trouble remembering right now what those things are.
Share With Your Friends
Get 101 Travel Tips
Get our free ebook, 101 Travel Tips for Mindful Adventurers. It’s packed with our best tips for saving money, planning for travel, booking flights and accommodation, traveling sustainably, and staying on the road for longer! We ask for your email address so we can send you an email about once every month with our latest travel tips, destination advice, and personal stories about life on the road.