North Vs. South
Northern Europe is a fair bit more rigid and more expensive than southern Europe, with the dividing line being a latitudinal line that runs through Torino, roughly. So above that line, in the northern parts of France, in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands and the United Kingdom for example, there are more rules that people are expected to know and obey. A classic example of this is crossing the street in Germany. There may be no cars in sight, but if you cross a street before you see the light indicating you may walk, you’ll get an evil stare from anyone who happens to notice, because you did not follow the rule. In Italy or Spain however, anything goes. If there is a ‘walk’ light at all, it’s regarded as more of a suggestion than something absolute.
In the north when you set an appointment with someone, no matter how far in advance, it is considered confirmed, and you must be on time. In southern Europe, you’ll want to confirm your meeting beforehand, and expect that your guests may well be late. In the north you may easily get a ticket while driving a car, if you roll a foot over a crosswalk. In the south, in the unlikely event you got stopped for a similar infraction, you’d stand a pretty decent chance of talking your way out of the ticket.
I once had some Germans over to my home to watch a movie, that happened to have been downloaded from the internet. When the terms and conditions came on the screen, the Germans spent a good 10 minutes reading every word. They believe they are always expected to know the rules. Can you imagine an American doing that? Hardly. Italians or Spaniards wouldn’t have bothered either. Basically, in northern Europe, society is based on rules and regulations. In southern Europe, the rules are adaptable based upon the situation at hand.
East Vs. West
As you travel east (and south) from Germany, through Italy and eastern European countries, prices tend to decrease. As you go west from Germany, prices keep going up. The same beer that costs six Euros in England may cost just 2 Euros in Romania.
While you’ll want to know the traffic laws specific to whatever countries you are visiting, certain rules and conventions are pretty universally observed throughout the continent. For example:
- On most highways, the left lane is used for passing alone. Everyone knows this, and so once a driver passes another car they immediately move over. What a nice change from the U.S., where observance of this rule sometimes seems inversely correlated to a driver’s age.
- Roundabouts are found everywhere. One simply yields to cars already in a roundabout, and then enters the circle.
- All motorcyclists must wear helmets. In spite of the stereotypical image of young Italian couples traversing the countryside by scooter, hair blowing in the wind, helmets are mandatory in all European countries.
- For better or worse, in most countries motorcycles can share traffic lanes with cars. It does get a little scary for the motorcyclist at times…
- You may park a motorcycle in all kinds of places, including on the sidewalks. Just pay close attention so as not to park in any pedestrian zones. Look for where other motorcycles are parked, and stay close to those areas.
- Foreigners are normally required to pay traffic fines on the spot, when they are issued. This can come as quite a shock to the unprepared, but know that police officers will escort you to the nearest ATM to collect a fine. If you don’t have the money, they may take your vehicle! And fines can be quite steep – as high as 1,000 Euros for speeding in certain locations. Granted you’d have to be exceeding the speed limit by an insane amount to get that steep of a fine, but still, it’s good to know.
- On the plus side, it is somewhat rare to see people being ticketed for traffic offenses. In 9,000 miles and 2 and-a-half months of riding my motorcycle throughout Europe, I saw just two officers issuing tickets along the roads and highways. That’s not bad at all, especially when you consider it might only take a few hours or even minutes of driving in the U.S. to see the same.
Knowing some of these facts in advance may save you some time, and help keep you from annoying your gracious hosts.
In many parts of Europe, ice is rare – deal with it. You may unfortunately need to drink a soda or beer at lukewarm temperature. Sure it sucks, but you know how the saying goes :”When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Insisting on ice when there is none to be found will only irritate those around you.
Most households are equipped with a washing machine, but few have dryers. Most people hang their clothing out to dry on lines outside or sometimes in basements. This isn’t usually a problem, unless you need to wash your clothing and leave shortly after. Note that if you plan a day or two in advance, you can arrange to have your laundry done by a laundry service for a very reasonable fee. You won’t find laundromats in small towns, but they do exist in bigger cities.
Electrical outlets differ in nearly every country. If you expect to plug in a hair dryer in different countries, you may want to invest in a multi-country outlet converter. If you are just going to one or two different countries, you can pick up a cheap country-specific converter at a convenience or grocery store.
Refrigerators are smaller, so don’t expect to store much. Part of the reason for this however, is that fresh food is more abundant and more frequently served throughout Europe, so people just don’t have a need.
Central heat is common, but air conditioning is not. In northern Europe the summers are short and not very intense, so there is less need. Even when people do have air conditioning, they don’t run it 24/7 as in parts of the U.S., due to high fuel costs.
Americans are used to free tap water in restaurants, but in Europe that will not happen. Restaurants only serve bottled water, so you have to pay for it. The tables are smaller in average. The parking spots are smaller in average. The people are smaller in Average. 🙂
It’s possible to travel throughout Europe much more anonymously than in the U.S. In the states for example, you need identification just to get on a greyhound bus. In Europe, you rarely need to show ID unless you are getting on an airplane. As an American citizen you are also rarely required to register in a given country upon entrance. Italy has a law to this effect, but it doesn’t seem to be enforced. Russia is the exception – they still prefer to keep closer tabs on foreigners.
The legal drinking age in some European countries is as low as 14, with supervision by an adult. And you can often buy beer in Europe in places where you cannot in the U.S., like at movie theaters. It may not be as cold as you’d like, but at least you can drink. Enjoy!