Nothing is more excruciatingly painful than smiling through your bright red cheeks and mortifying gut feeling after you piss someone off because you have no clue what they are asking you to do, however nothing is more rewarding than having a fully fledged conversation with someone in their own native language. I have aced tests that came with all nighters, I have nearly passed out to win a race (I’m not that athletic in the first place), but nothing makes you wanna jump up and down and scream with joy quite like overcoming cultural differences. And before I even go any further – let me define for you what cultural difference is, because I looked right past it before I arrived in Europe.
It’s not the fact that no one wears shorts, or the long, weird, 7-hour time difference, or even the fact that you have to pay to use a public restroom. It’s the social interactions. Proper etiquette – like saying “excuse me,” or smiling at someone walking down the street. That doesn’t exist here; in fact, it’s weird. And if you’re gonna do it, then you might as well write, “I’m an American,” on your forehead. It’s learning to make yourself comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations. Can I help you prepare? Not really, but I can give you a few tips to make these awkward encounters worth your while.
Be courteous – learn their language.
If a German were to come to America and speak nothing but German, obviously they would be in trouble. It even may come off as rude that they didn’t attempt to learn a lick of English. Same goes for us. It makes a world of difference when talking to someone if you attempt to speak in their native language. No matter how stupid you may sound, it’s words that are familiar to them, and that counts for something. Prior to arrival to a country, learn, at least, the necessities; hello, excuse me, where is.., thank you, etc. Your relief is just as strong as their sense of respect for you for trying.
Don’t expect anything.
A smile that isn’t returned doesn’t mean that this stranger on the street doesn’t like you, it means they’re just happy enough with themselves that they don’t feel the need… apparently. (I don’t understand it either). Americans have a way of at least acting like we are friendly. Europeans don’t. Why should they have to smile at strangers? They don’t owe them anything. They do not treat strangers as we do, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t nice – just a totally different way of going about their social ques. The first few times may leave you a little butthurt, but it happens to everyone. Nothing personal, shake it off and cut it out with the smiling.
If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
Of course it’s ridiculous to ask to go backstage in a foreign country, and the mind will always jump to the conclusion that the answer IS no. However, it may not be. Do you think we would be hanging out with Alabama Shakes after their concert if we decided, “Hey, forget it, let’s just go home and call it a night,”? I’ll answer for you; no, we wouldn’t have. You came to Europe for a reason – to explore. Everyone was young at one point in their life, and everyone knows how exhilarating it is to act on your intuitions. You’ll never get to see that extra tour in the museum, or meet your favorite singer, or faun over the backroads in that city you’ve been dying to see; if you don’t ask. Squeaky wheel gets the grease, as my mom would say.
Try the weird things on the menu.
If something different is on the menu, and popular in the area, chances are it’s their specialty and you probably will like it. Typical foods that you’re used to are not made the same way here. Try the specials now, or forever be unsatisfied by a less desirable version of the plate that you can’t get outside of Europe. That fried tarantula is never gonna be seasoned the same way as you could try in Budapest (dare ya). That vending machine fast food from Amsterdam may not taste that great, but sometimes it’s just the story you get to tell. Potatoes are supposed to be served as hashbrowns with breakfast, but trust me… Do NOT pass up the potato omelette in Germany. Thing could easily be compared to heaven in your mouth.
BEWARE: Balance food and exercise.
Vacation is vacation – a time to splurge. But vacation for one week is extremely different than vacation for 6 weeks. Bread is so good, but it’s dangerous. Italian food isn’t just a thing in Italy… the pizza here is to die for. Take advantage of all the different foods around, but in moderation, also. Take the stairs, walk instead of take the train, and do not eat dessert everyday. (You’ll be tempted). Switch it up from beer sometimes and maybe even get that salad. Because if you don’t, I guarantee you will begin to notice, and no one wants to be the person that comes back from Europe 10 pounds heavier.
The more conservative, the safer.
Leave your crop tops at home. Don’t even think about your favorite jean shorts. And your super flattering body-con dress that you love to wear out? Yeah, don’t even bother. There’s no need to fill your suitcase with things that will barely be worn. Jean shorts will make it out a few times, when it is scorching hot out and there’s no other option, but buy a pair where you are, if necessary. Crop tops? No. I’m uncomfortable even thinking about how many dirty looks you would get if you were to walk around in that. A pair of printed pants and a v-neck is always a safe bet. Perhaps jeans and a tank top with a lace bralette – you’re golden. For warmer weather, sundresses are a great go-to.
Keep a journal.
Pictures capture the beauty, but 5 years from now you won’t remember sitting outside on that exact window ledge at 5 a.m. with a blanket watching the sun come up and the night life of Prague die down. Even during the best moments of your life, the memories become altered. It is so dyer important to write down your experiences. There is so much that happens to you in your time traveling, that even some of the best times will seem minuscule in the end. Going back and reading your entries will provide you with the chance to relive and reminisce on all of your incredible experiences while traveling. (Ugh and there are SO many).
The farther you get out of your comfort zone, the more rewarding your trip will be in the end. It may not seem like it at the time, but looking back you will 100% see a significant change in yourself. Whether it is a sense of understanding for culture, a new outlook on life, advanced acquired social skills, or a new European style – there will be something different. This is the trip of a lifetime, and it’s important to not let anything pass you up. You can (and will) fall in love with so many things – the country, people, culture, food, language – so enjoy it. And I cannot stress enough… TRAVEL!!! Go everywhere you can. This world is so much bigger than we can ever perceive, and the people in it are so beautiful.
And remember – you’re never too far from home.