4 Myths and 2 Curious Observations on Living in Europe

As a first-timer moving to Europe, I had some preconceived notions flavored with a touch of unfortunate misinformation and a bit of pure ignorance. I had already had the opportunity to experience US life from its various regions – the vibrancy of New York, the lovely accents of the South, the wide open spaces of the Midwest, and the beach life of South California.  But European life and cultural nuances were largely a mystery to me.

American education, or at least mine up until university, didn’t concentrate much on Europe. These days with our vast communication systems the world is a much smaller place. I however didn’t have much information besides some rather stereotypic notions regarding life across the pond.  So, following are my personal 4 Myths on living in Europe debunked and 2 Curious Observations duly noted.

Myth #1: Most everyone speaks English.  Though Europeans tend to study English as as second language more than Americans study anything as a second language, one cannot expect English understanding in a new country. Yes it’s true that many shop and restaurant workers, especially in the city tourist areas, do speak enough English to conduct transactions. Though Czechs in particular will feign no English knowledge, especially if you are being a pushy tourist. (But we’ll get to the Customer Service topic in another post.) This leads me to one of my pet peeves as an expat, that is the insistence of some expats to refuse to learn the native language or at least give it a try. As I mentioned previously, I made a point to study at least perfunctory Czech lessons before arriving.  And I carried phrase and translation books with me constantly the first couple years. I find it quite arrogant of someone residing in a foreign country to expect the natives to speak his or her native language. Though, even still in a restaurant when I try to order in Czech, they’ll likely respond in English or hand me an English menu. I usually politely refuse and try to muddle through in Czech, much to their bemusement.

Myth #2: You’ll make lots of new friends.  I’m the type of person who tends to make friends quite easily, though sometimes too much like an eager puppy. I smiled and said hello to the neighbors I met in the hallway and lobby of my new flat my first week here, but received averted eyes and shufflings past me. Even my cheery ‘dobry den,’ the local greeting, was largely ignored. The bartender at a favorite pub I still frequent likes to remind me of meeting him the first week I arrived in town. As it was the first primarily English speaking pub I’d found, I had gone there the first 3 or 4 days. By the 5th day when I met this particular bartender on his first shift of the week, I asked “Who are you?” “Dave,” he replied, “who are you?” “Well I’m a regular here!” I proudly, and erronesously, proclaimed. In hindsite I now know one cannot be a regular anywhere for at least a few months…

There is also the transient expat nature of the larger European cities. In Prague, many people come for an adventure, a year-long stint of English teaching, or on a job track. I’ve found that when I do find someone that I begin to bond with through similar activities, work, or at the neighborhood pub, that person inevitably moves on. The good news is I’m developing a circle of friends around the globe I can visit. The challenging part is developing a comfortable social structure. I started out here more or less autonomous. I didn’t really know anyone. In time the locals do warm up. I had heard that Czechs in particular are slow to befriend expats. I totally understand that now, given the flux of expats that come and go. However I’m starting to enjoy new Czech friends and even smiles in my building lobby from my neighbors.

Myth #3: The toilet paper is cheap and scratchy.  This sort of goes hand-in-hand (maybe not the best term when speaking of tp) with the misconception that Czech Republic is in Eastern Europe (another notion from my misbegotten early education). No, no, no. It is quite firmly planted in Central Europe. Perhaps the Russian countries and even here when it was Czechoslovakia under Communist regulations, the toilet paper allotted in the waiting lines was more inexpensive fiber. And some country pubs have the relatively scratchy stuff, but it’s akin to rural American gas station bathroom fodder. Though of course it’s going to cost a bit more, multi-ply and lovely scented toilet paper is readily available here.

Myth #4: Everyone drives on the left side of the road.  Ok, every European expat that reads this is laughing at me. Go ahead, I’m pretty embarrassed that I originally blindly believed this. I guess I never paid attention that much watching foreign films. As I had never traveled abroad nor had any of my friends or family, it was never really considered. I had this crazy idea quickly dispelled when my American friend picked me up at the airport in his Skoda with driving wheel on the left.

In addition to dispelling Euro Myths, I also wanted to mention 2 Curious Observations I had in the first couple months here. Because they are both curious enough to deserve much more attention, I’ll note them here and go into detail under future topics.

Curious Observation #1: European jobs feature usually 5 weeks of holiday per year. We would call it vacation days in the US. And in the US the average is 5 days, maybe 10 days after a couple years tenure. The first week at my first job here in a call center, my manager and I stared at each other incredulously as he said 5 weeks and I told him I was used to American 5 days. It’s a huge lovely part of European living. I like how it emphasizes the Euro culture of enjoying life. I’ll have more to say about this when I post about the employment scene overall.

Curious Observation #2: Black socks and sandals are totally acceptable. This one may be more specific to the Czechs. While it’s mostly men, I’ve seen this on older women as well. In fact the Czech fashion sense also deserves its own full post. Wait until you hear about what I saw at the beach.