Remember Sting’s song Englishmen in New York? Well, I can tell you this much, it’s a huge cultural difference between the two continents, and yes, you can really feel like an alien sometimes, luckily with the globalization, the gaps are starting to diminish, but until then, here is my list of noticeable differences when you are traveling to the US from Europe.
In the US this is just another way of saying hi, none really wants to know how you are, it’s just a polite way of starting a conversation. In Europe, asking someone how he/she is, is usually the start for the broader conversation about what the person is doing.
One of my favorite aspects about the US is the cultural mix, the diversification and the unique beauty that each of the individuals brings. Working for a company that promotes diversification and equal rights gave me also the opportunity to work with different people coming from different grounds. Furthermore, big cities as New York and Chicago will impress any European for sure.
- Smiles and compliments with no hidden reasons
In Europe, people are more composed and don’t really interact with strangers, also when they do, they keep their distance. In America it’s the opposite, people smile back at you and offer you compliments, without having an agenda. I was in TJ Maxx trying on a pair of shoes and this lady told me that she loves the color and those look really great on me. She was also a costumer, so she didn’t gain anything from trying to sell the shoes, she was just very nice and unfortunately, you don’t get to see this very often in Europe.
- Everyone is willing to help you
This point goes very well with the one above. Have to say that whenever you need help and ask for it, everyone is willing to lend you a hand. They would all stop what they are doing and try to figure a way of helping you. Also, being in this mindset, makes you change your behavior.
- Fast and heavily processed food served in HUGE portions
The food was the hardest area for me to adjust. It is true that I didn’t eat a lot in the high-end restaurants, but more of the budget ones, yet the heavily processed meat, the sugar and the amount of grease that it’s used, made my body react in a not so pleasant way. Usually, when I am abroad I make an exception and don’t really watch what I am eating, yet after 2 weeks in the US, I was anxious to get home and have a real meal, made with real meat and with raw vegetables. Seeing it from outside, the fact that fast food business is booming and that people eat that much unhealthy food is a bit scary.
- Tips are a must and prices don’t include the taxes
Tipping in Europe is one of the nice to have in the northern countries, more expected in the southern ones, but not mandatory. In US tipping is a must, also the fact that you have to tip up to 25% of the check is also a big shock to anyone traveling there. Maybe it’s because we usually only tip 10-15%, or because we feel like we are obliged to do it, that makes this practice very hated by most Europeans. If tipping is mandatory, it should be added to the check, also while I was with Work and Travel and waitressing, the wage that I was getting was half of the minimum because I would get tips, and this made me feel like I wasn’t actually paid by the restaurant but by the customers.
Another odd thing is the taxes not being included in the price, I would never actually know how much I would get to pay at the counter because of it. I think the US is the only place in the world that I’ve seen this.
In Europe, we don’t really care about talking politically correct everywhere we go. When we are out with friends we usually make jokes and none gets offended since those are only for fun and are not meant to upset anyone. In the US people are more composed and try to stick to the rules all the time because they are afraid someone might get offended. Although I do understand that limits have to be kept, I feel like the world has become this place where anything you say can and definitely will be used against you.
- Everyone says they are sorry for about anything
The most commonly used word in the US has to be ‘sorry’. Everywhere you go if you encounter a person that tried to go around you, that person will say sorry. If you are passing someone in the store, they will say sorry. I somehow feel like the word is being so abused that it lost its main purpose, that of saying sorry when you really feel sorry for something. Let’s be honest you are not sorry for wanting to get to the other side of the road. If you step on someone’s foot, yes you will say sorry, but not for passing near another person.
- Water with ice even in the winter
I visited Chicago 2 times during the fall and winter seasons. Anyone who’s ever been to Chicago knows that it is extremely cold and windy, so you can all imagine my surprise when I saw water with ice cubes everywhere I went. Also, when I asked the waiter to switch my water with ice cubes with just water they were a bit surprised.
- Flip-flops and sandals in the winter, because why not?
The temperature in Chicago in March is a very low one, the wind making it feel like a lot less, yet on Saturday everyone was out parting and some of the people were wearing sandals to match their outfit. This girl from the street was wearing a very short dress and some pumps, while I was covered in fabric and still feeling as if I will freeze to death. Also at the airport, as we went out, we saw a lot of people wearing flip-flops, perhaps at their departure, it was nice and warm, but at the destination, it was so cold that I wasn’t feeling my fingers although I was wearing gloves.
Coming from a country where healthcare is automatically paid from one’s salary, ER services are always free and when someone doesn’t have a job still receives medical care, it was a big shock to see how the American system works and it’s pricing. Clearly, we cannot compare the quality of the services that are given across the ocean and in Romania, but still, it surprised me that many people cannot afford a decent healthcare subscription. While I was traveling to Chicago, in the plane I sat next to a guy that told me he when into the ER room on his knees just so that he wouldn’t pay 2000$ for the ambulance to come and pick him. He said that even if he has health insurance, that wouldn’t cover all the expenses so he just took an Uber. Another thing that surprised me, where the number of commercials that I saw, especially in the subway, for medical research made on humans. When I asked my colleagues about this, that said that many people are signing up for those programs because they are offered apart from money, healthcare insurances.
- It’s easier to procure heroin than antibiotics
I was “lucky” enough to catch a cold while I was in the US, it got so severe that I started to cough pus and knew that I was in need of some heavy medication. Since I know that during the winter I get this pretty often and I know the medication I need, I asked people where can I get some antibiotics. It was then that my colleges told me that in the US it’s way easier to buy heroin than antibiotics and that those are almost never prescribed unless absolutely needed. In Romania, in case of severe cases, as I was, you can get the antibiotics for 72h medication even from the Pharmacy if the pharmacists consider that you really needed it. I have to say that it took me almost 2 weeks to heal with the regular, very light medicine.
- Drugs are sold in the supermarket
All supermarkets in the US sell drugs, even if those are the ones that don’t need a prescription, have to say that this looks very odd from someone coming from Europe, where drugs are only sold in pharmacy’s and the person selling them has to have a college degree in pharmaceutics in order to offer you information or suggestions regarding what medication you should take. Also, what is up with the 300 pills ibuprofen jar?
- Homeless people are a real issue
In 2011 when I first visited the US, I didn’t really notice the number of homeless people that were wandering the streets of New York, perhaps it was because I was to focus on the city or because of the fact that their number was a lot lower, but in the last 2 years, at least in Chicago I got to see a lot of them. What surprised me even more, was the fact that most of them were young, perhaps in their 30′, yet they were standing in the severe cold. Nowadays we get to see a lot of people begging on the streets of Europe, but their number is not as high, furthermore, most of them have a home, yet they are begging to try to get some easy money, so they are not really homeless. Most countries in Europe offer them housing during the winter, and only a few of the beggars are young. For me, this was one of the most difficult things to see and pass by.
- The entertainment is a must on about anything
When it comes to entertainment I have to say that America does it best, from a simple meal at the restaurant where the waiter will do anything to make you feel good, to the games that have a show designed to entertain the masses. It was the first time I got to see a basketball game in the US and I have to give it to them, the show from the breaks was a great one. Every minute was used to make the audience want more and come back. After seeing this, I definitely want to see more.
- Fashion is affordable for everyone
On one of the weekends, I got the chance to go to one of the outlet malls from outside Chicago. Many big brands have outlet stores over there, and the prices are amazing. I have to say that I was very jealous of American people that they can buy designer items at such great prices making fashion and quality pieces affordable to everyone. Next time I visit Chicago I want to be more prepared since honestly I was very surprised by the brands and the discounts you can get.
Each place you visit will make an impact over how you see the world, as a foreigner in the US, I have to admit that it struck me at first. The different mindset and cultural diversity are one of the most amazing things you get to experience. Also, it doesn’t matter how many times you visit the same place, there is always something more to do and to explore. I don’t know yet if I will return to Chicago, but I am hoping that I will since there are still a lot of things on my list. Even if it will not be this same city, I will definitely return to the US, since I believe there are still a lot of places and experiences that I want to have.