While backpacking Europe, I was often asked what differences I saw between the United States and Europe. Although it’s hard to pigeonhole the entire 50 states or the diverse 28 countries that make up the European Union, these are a few differences I noticed while travelling.
1. Grocery stores
In Europe, grocery stores are much smaller, functioning like small, neighborhood markets rather than giant super stores like in the U.S. You usually have to weigh your fruit and print out the tag before buying it. You also buy less food at a time and don’t use plastic bags, often bringing bags or backpacks from home. In the U.S., we tend to buy enough food to last over a month while in many European countries they only buy food for a few days to a week. In countries like Germany or Austria checking out is quick and efficient, and it helps to have exact change. You might not chit-chat with the person checking you out like in the southern U.S. Only a hello and thank you, and you’re on your way. One of our German friends told us when his mom came to visit him in the States she couldn’t understand why people at the supermarket kept trying to talk to her. She thought they were very strange.
2. Air conditioning
Most Europeans don’t use it. Many don’t even have fans in their homes. Although temperatures usually stay mild, when we were in France and the Netherlands they were experiencing a heat wave of 40 celsius or 104 F. It’s unusual to find homes with A/C and when German friends of mine came to study in the U.S. they often became sick from the constant change from hot to cold.
In Europe they’re tiny compared to the U.S. People keep things for a week or two and then replenish their stores. My fridge at home was nearly four times the size of my Austrian friends’. Also, they don’t usually have ice makers on the outside like many fridges in the U.S. In Europe, people don’t really use ice. It isn’t often offered at restaurants where they also don’t have free refills.
4. Public Transportation
This is a huge difference. Where I live in rural Texas, if you don’t have a car, you’re not getting anywhere unless you have a friend with a car. There isn’t a bus or train system that goes near where I live. Taxis are nearly nonexistent. Biking to school or work is unrealistic since it takes 30 minutes to get into town with a car. In Europe the train system is extremely convenient and most major cities have a decent metro and bus system. Also, flights from country to country are quite cheap. I have friends who fly from Germany to Ireland for 30 euros or less. Also, it seems like everyone has a bike. Biking lanes are well-marked and there are spaces on the train and metro to take your bike. People move from city to city with relative ease, and you can get a train or bus ticket at a kiosk minutes before your departure and be in another country in less than an hour. With gas being so expensive in many countries, bikes, trains and buses are a necessity.
Although the public transportation system is quite good, they still have issues with delays and workers’ strikes. But overall travel is quite convenient and affordable.
This is one of the biggest differences with cost being the largest factor. In many countries like Germany and Austria, higher education is free.
When I told my Austrian and German friends how much I paid for university they couldn’t believe it. When they heard that ivy league schools could cost $70,000 per year and that parents have to start saving for their kids’ education before they’re even born, they were shocked. “How does anyone afford that?” they asked. “Usually they can’t,” we explained. “They have to take out loans, get scholarships, apply for financial aid and work while they’re studying.”
I have a friend who’s studying to be a doctor in Germany, and the government is actually paying for her to go school. Meanwhile, my friends who are medical students in the States will be paying exorbitant student loans for the rest of their lives. Also, many high schools in Germany and Austria are more comprehensive and in-depth than in the States. While many high schools in Texas are geared toward getting students into college or to take a standardized test like the TAKS, STAAR or SAT, high schools in Germany and Holland have different levels depending on what you want to do in life. If you want to go on to higher education you would go for a school that prepares you for gymnasium. If you wanted to do a vocational school after high school, you would get into a track for that. Also, compared to some U.S. high schools (including my own) schools in Germany are more advanced. My friend Lea studied a year in Texas and went back to high school in Germany where she actually repeated the grade because our school was behind hers.
Another interesting difference between U.S. and French schools for instance is the idea of the “high school experience.
“So did you really have like all those cliques, like the nerds and the jocks, popular people?” my French friend Noemie asked. She and her sister Marjorie were amazed that we had things like prom and sports, elements they saw in popular movies like “Bring It On.” I was surprised they didn’t have that in their schools “We just went to school and learned. Everyone got along with each other and at the end of the day we went home. If you wanted to do sports or extra activities you did that on your own time,” Marjorie explained. That sounded refreshing since in Texas, I felt too much of an emphasis is put on sports teams and winning rather than academic values or exercise and healthy living. Students are conditioned to win at their sport but often at the expense of health or more important pursuits. Some young football players in Texas even died from head trauma while others sustained injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Students in France still play sports or take dance lessons, but it’s more of a hobby instead of an integral part of their educational experience.
6. Attitudes to gap year and studying abroad
Since the U.S. education system does often seem like a rat race to secure a job, there’s less emphasis on taking a year off to travel or study abroad. Just 10 percent of U.S. students will study abroad in their academic career. Meanwhile, European students are encouraged to study abroad and even get paid for it. With programs like the Erasmus program, exchanges are frequent and often a rite of passage. I have an Austrian friend who will soon study in Holland while another has completed internships in Spain and Peru. Another spent a year in Serbia while others go to Germany. A big reason is the proximity of other countries: someone in Austria can reach Germany within an hour by train. Meanwhile in the U.S. it can take over 24 hours just to get to the other side of the country. Also, we don’t have a solid exchange program with nearby countries like Canada or Mexico. Many study abroad programs exist but they depend on your university, major and will power to learn abroad. With university costs so high, students feel they can’t afford to take a semester to study abroad. However, it’s actually extremely doable. I spent the same amount on a semester in Costa Rica that I would’ve spent on a semester at home in Texas. Also, the benefits of studying a language in its native country will last me for the rest of my life. Although less students in the U.S. choose to do a gap year on study abroad, it’s more affordable and beneficial than they know.
7. Learning languages
The priority of learning languages is one of my biggest pet peeves about U.S. culture. While most Europeans are at least fluent in two languages and working on another by their late high school years, people in the U.S. often have difficulties with just English. Europeans begin learning English or a secondary language much earlier in life than in the U.S. school system, and it shows. I took four years of Spanish in high school but could barely say two words when I studied abroad in Costa Rica. Language learning should begin much earlier, in elementary school, and should be encouraged throughout the educational system. My friend in Austria speaks German, Austrian German (which is slightly different), Spanish and English. Her brother speaks German, Austrian German, Serbian and English. While my classmates in the U.S. never get past “hola” with their Spanish, students in European countries are nearly multilingual before they enter university.
8. Sex Education
When I met up with a former German classmate who studied in Texas during high school, he mentioned the thing that really surprised him about U.S. culture was the amount of teen pregnancy. My friends from France asked us about the popular TV show “16 and Pregnant,” wondering if girls really did start having babies at 14. In Europe, sex education is mandatory and effective. Parents and schools are more open with children about their bodies and health. Sex and healthy relationships are not taboo subjects, and they teach more than abstinence-only education. I understand why some parents want abstinence-only education, but we see from reality that it isn’t effective and can lead to harmful consequences like a spike in sexually transmitted diseases.
9. Relationships and marriage
Another difference is the age that people get married and decide to have children. In my culture, terms like Ring by Spring- the idea that you need to be engaged by your final spring semester at college- are prevalent. I’ve had relatives tell me I need to start thinking about marriage because my biological clock is ticking. When I told some friends in Germany, Austria and France this, they were shocked. “That’s crazy! You’re only 22!” Many Germans and Austrians don’t get married until their early or mid-30s and some don’t get married at all. Although it’s not the same across every country, there did seem to be less pressure on my friends to get married or be in a relationship than in the U.S. In fact, compared to when I traveled in the States, hardly anyone asked me if I was in a relationship at all. Many young Europeans are focusing on work, study and travel; marriage and children are the furthest things from their minds. Of course this isn’t true of all people. The Romani people in countries like Slovakia often get married at ages like 14 and 15, and start families soon afterward. Also, my Austrian friends mentioned in smaller villages people may get married at a younger age.
When people found out we were from Texas, this is one of the first questions they asked: “So do you have guns?”
According to the Small Arms Survey: “with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to roughly 35–50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.”
After all, the U.S. has the highest gun ownership rate in the world with 88 guns per 100 people. “Even the second country in the world, Yemen, is significantly lower with 54.8 per 100 people,” reports the Guardian.
So it wasn’t uncommon to be asked if we had guns. My family doesn’t own firearms but many family members and friends do. Hunting is a huge hobby in Texas, and this week I heard people at my church talking about getting their concealed weapons’ licenses.
This is quite different from some countries including the U.K. where even the police force don’t carry guns, and there are strict laws on who can own and carry firearms. I’ve heard Europeans say although they hitchhike and travel by car quite extensively in Europe, they would never hitchhike and road trip in the United States because of the firearms. My German friend’s dad told us after 30 years of hitchhiking he was only terrified in the U.S., when two men pulled a gun on him in Colorado.
According to a PBS report, “the U.S. also has the highest homicide-by-firearm rate among the world’s most developed nations (OECD), though some analysts say these statistics do not necessarily have a cause-and- effect relationship.” Today, gun control is a topic often up for debate at home and abroad.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to compare 50 diverse states with a continent of 51 equally diverse countries. Most of these observations are based on conversations with locals and friends from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, France and Belgium as well as my experiences growing up in Texas and living in Virginia. However, from what I’ve noticed, these were a few of the biggest differences between the U.S. and Europe.