Unless you’re taking a domestic trip, vacationing usually immerses you into a culture vastly different from your own. It gets infinitely more complicated in Europe, where practically every country has different cultures with their own unique customs and attitudes. Americans usually find themselves at least a little surprised at just how different the culture is in Europe where so many fellow Americans were born. From frustration over having to pay to use the loo, to running from riled-up football fans, to falling in love with every scrap of food you see, being a European tourist certainly comes with its fair share of surprises. These American travelers shared the most bizarre and interesting encounters they had while traveling through Europe. Have you ever seen any of these?
45. Walk Hard
A few weeks ago, I walked to France from Switzerland. I got a coffee, then walked to Germany. Then walked back to Switzerland. Whole thing took about 75 minutes. There were no border guards, no passport checks, no lines or gates or anything. Just a flag when you cross the border and a sign reminding you to use Euro over Swiss Francs. It was as easy as walking to another town in the same county in the same state back home.
Long ago, we had something similar growing up in Upstate NY. There were small paths where you just kept driving and realized you were in Canada when the signage changed to kilometers. Most of those roads are gone now, or at least no longer show up on Google – and crossing over a guarded border is relatively easy/quick – but still.. how we don’t have a similar agreement with Canada is beyond me.
44. Fire And Ice
43. Okay, That’s Weird…
One thing I saw when I was traveling in Rome has stuck with me for years. I had gotten off the subway in a location that was more centrally located for tourism (Colosseum, etc.), and as I was walking up the steps I noticed a homeless man with an infant child. Feeling sorry for him, I gave him a few Euros and went about my touristy day. Upon my return to the same subway station early in the evening, I recognized the same homeless man, with an entirely different infant child. I’m sure of it.
I spent most of that night staring at the stars, wondering what kind of sick underground baby rental service was going on in the homeless community in Rome. I also wonder if I should have done something, even though I had no proof.
42. I Thought We Had A Deal!
This happened in Rome, at the Trevi Fountain.
This dude approaches my wife and hands her a rose. He tells her it is a gift. My wife said thanks. Then he turned to me and asked for €50. Wait, what? That’s not how gifts work. He said if I didn’t pay, then he should be able to take my wife to his hotel room. I laughed and told him he had about 10 seconds to get out of my sight.
41. Icy Hot
I visited Iceland. Other than the awe-inspiring landscapes, the most surprising thing was that there was not one unattractive Icelander. I’m certain they’re out there, but goodness gracious. Every gas station we stopped in, the cashier was 5’7-6’3 and beautiful/handsome.
If I stop into an Atlanta gas station, there’s a greasy man who looks as though he ate the previous greasy man and usurped the cash-box.
40. Second Hand
39. Big In The UK
I was in London for a few months. My first night there, I was stopped by two young women on a street who heard me talking to my friend. They asked me if I was American and I said yes. When asked which state, I told them I was from California. They immediately gasped and asked for a picture with me and my friend. I posed the hang loose sign and all, and was surprised that Californians were treated in such high regard.
Turns out that was a one time thing, and no one in London really cares who you are.
38. Dublin Drivers
I got up early every morning to sit outside and watch rush hour traffic in Dublin. Now, in the U.S., we have super wide streets, multiple lanes for turning at intersections, and ONE PERSON can ruin the whole operation.
In Dublin, you’ve got narrow lanes, bus stops directly across from each other, a bike lane THROUGH THE MIDDLE of an offset intersection, and a bike swap station just next to it.
And every morning, it was smooth as silk. I was there for four days, and I only heard a couple of horns honking. If someone cut into traffic or across it, everyone made room and carried on with their lives. The buses arrived at their stops simultaneously more than a few times, nearly blocking the road, but nothing ever came to a complete stop. It was beautiful.
Here at home, we have I-81, three lanes wide in each direction, and an unexpected lane change blows everyone’s mind for 5 miles.
37. Stockholm, Not Stalk Home
36. Keep The Change
I was studying abroad in the Netherlands and got sick. I went to the doctor’s office at UVA’s clinic (but wasn’t an UVA student). He let me right in, checked me out, wrote me a prescription, and I got it filled.
That was all there was to it. Need a doctor; go to a doctor; get help. The prescription cost me about €10. That was all I paid for the whole ordeal.
35. Red Alert
The French weren’t nearly as rude to me as I thought they’d be. The Germans however…
Also, wasn’t ready for nude beaches and what I would later come to know as the red light district of Amsterdam. Young me didn’t really understand why there were women in underwear just standing in the windows. I just thought they were like public dancers or something.
34. Italian Sign Language
I was in Rome. We were walking around with our guide when we saw these two guys yelling in the streets. I mean these guys were losing their minds on each other. One of the guys gets right in the other guys’ face, and makes what I can only describe as the rock sign with his hand.
I asked our tour guide what the sign meant and he said that it meant that the guy was a cuckold.
33. If A Tree Falls…
31. Fill That Passport
30. Small But Smiley
Why is Paris so dirty? Why is the Mona Lisa so small?
In London — what in the world is this “lemonade” stuff? And is that really a tiny little portable bathroom sitting in the middle of the sidewalk?
15-year-old me only knew what she saw in movies.
29. Wherever You Rome
In Rome, the little mopeds are crazy. They make crazy American drivers look normal. They park anywhere and go anywhere they can fit at, at what seems like any speed they like.
The tour bus I took would only let you out against a wall because when they used to let people out on the street an American was struck while stepping off the bus.
And smoking. The amount of smoking in Europe was a major culture shock for me.
28. You Kiss Your Mother With That Mouth?
I went to Denmark for a work trip. One night I went to a dinner party at one of my coworker’s homes. They mostly spoke English for my benefit, but gradually slipped back into Danish as the evening went on. I didn’t mind; I’ve traveled quite a bit. It was interesting to hear the occasional English word peppered in.
But at one point, a woman was talking, and a very clearly enunciated explicative came out in the middle of a sentence. I don’t know much Danish, but she seemed to be using it like we would use “thingamajig”. No one else seemed to blink an eye.
27. Go To Ze Zoo
I made some interesting observations during my time in Germany.
I was eating at a restaurant and when the family eating at the table beside me left, their dog appeared from under the table and left with them. Completely caught me off guard.
An old man in my village sat on the same bench with his arms crossed every single day and stared angrily at me every time I drove by. Sometimes it would be 2-3 times a day. One day, I decided to go park and sit beside him. As soon as I approached he yelled at me in German and walked off. No idea why he hated me.
I was in Berlin and studying their train map, trying to figure out how to get to the zoo. A little old German man walked up to me asked me if I was American. I told him I was and he proceeded to go to the zoo with me and tell me all sorts of random factoids about it. Then we went to a local bar and partied together while he introduced me to everyone as his “new friend from America.”
Mostly people are just really nice.
26. Tow To Tow
When I was living in Munich I parked in a no-parking zone accidentally. I came back to find my car missing. I asked a nearby police officer where to pick it up.
They helpfully just towed it around the corner to a legal spot.
What the heck in a good way.
25. A Fleet Of Street Scrubbers
Every night in Spain around 3 a.m., this MASSIVE fleet of street scrubbers, vacuum-mobiles, and water hoses appeared and cleaned the entire city for about an hour. It was like 100 people every night just cleaning the city. The following morning, all of Salamanca was spotless. It was magical.
24. Insane Italian Drivers
In Italy, there is virtually no threshold for how much distance should be left between a speeding car and any obstacles (including pedestrians) it is zooming past.
A bus driver will rush down a narrow cobblestone street with about a centimeter to spare between the sides of the bus and any parked cars, walls, ancient monuments, or playing children.
23. No Infestation Of Insects
For me, it was a lack of insects in England. Not that they don’t exist, but I’m from Michigan with lots of swampy land around me. When I showed up at my dorm and saw there was no screen on my window, I was just thinking about all of the bugs that are gonna get in my room. I got one fly the entire month stay there.
22. A Back-Alley Criminal Fight
Getting ready to leave Sofia, Bulgaria, and got to witness three men in suits having a kicks-only fight in an alley at like 11 a.m.
Even when punching would have sealed the deal, or when the target was too close to be effective with footsticuffs… only kicks.
Asked another guy watching and he just said: “I think they are criminals.”
I laughed, but was left with more questions. What made him think they were criminals? The suits? The kicking? The alley?
21. Unbelievably Uncensored German Television
I’ve posted this before, but nudity in broadcast TV was very surprising. It wasn’t even a “necessary for the story” situation, just a margarine commercial with a naked woman swimming in a lake and stepping out of the water to eat some bread. During primetime. I know American TV is kind of prudish that way, but it was a pretty shocking way to learn how different Germany is.
20. The Massive Baby-Carrying Birds
We were driving through Spain, and to the side of one of the roads, we noticed these MASSIVE bird nests in the high power electrical towers. They were at least twice the size of eagle nests that I had seen. And there were so many of them!
Then we saw these giant birds in them! We stopped by the side of the road and tried to take some pictures (didn’t have a great zoom lens, sadly). But no one else was stopping. It was so odd. We are accustomed to at least a few people stopping to watch the osprey, eagles, or other birds where I’m from.
So a few days later, we are chatting with a German tourist, and we bring up the birds…
I think she thought we were joking until we pulled out the pictures. Then she started laughing.
“Storks. Those are storks. Of course, don’t you know that? They are everywhere and such a nuisance. Don’t you have storks in America?”
Then she looked confused. “Well, if you don’t have storks, who brings the babies in kid’s stories?”
“Um… how does that work?”
And that was when we realized that the story of the storks makes a whole lot more sense when storks are nesting on every chimney, tree, or tall place…
19. Incredibly (And Terrifyingly) Dedicated Italian Soccer Fans
Going to a soccer game in Italy. When buying a ticket, they needed to know which team I was rooting for to determine where I could sit. Then, during the game, people were setting things on fire.
18. Germany’s Obsession With Keeping It Green
I lived in Germany for 8 years from 1992-2000 (ages 4-12). I didn’t realize it until I moved back to the states but there were recycling bins on EVERY street corner. It wasn’t just a green bin, then a trash can, it was a giant blue bin. One section for green glass, one for brown glass, one for clear glass, one for plastic, and one for paper.
Oh, and going to a German school, students took public transit. There wasn’t such a thing as a school bus.
17. The Incredibly Rich And Inescapable History
It was subtle at first, but it eventually boggled my mind how old everything was and it was still integrated into everyday life. Like in the U.K., having a beverage in a pub that had been in the same spot since the 11th century, or eating dinner at a restaurant in an 18th-century cathedral. Or in Prague, going to a club in a 14th-century stone cellar or staying a hotel/brewery that had been operating since the 15th century.
The oldest building in my vicinity is from the 1750s (which is prehistoric by U.S. standards), but, like, someone in Europe sees a building that is half a millennia-old that no one is using and they’re like, “let’s turn this into a disco.” I loved it.
16. The Hysterical Irish Stereotype
Not American, but Canadian.
First time I went to Ireland, I go through customs and the agent says to me, “business or personal?”
“Oh yeah, what’s up?”
“Visiting the in-laws.”
“First time in Ireland?”
“Well, why ya standin’ around? Go get to a pub.”
15. Iceless In The Netherlands
I went to the Netherlands for a music festival over the summer last year. The night before I went to a show, I met a Scottish guy who came over and said, “you look American.” I replied “yes,” and he immediately started talking about American politics and the military. It was weird how he assumed I was completely knowledgeable about all upper-level government doings but otherwise was a chill dude.
Also, the fact that there’s no air conditioning. I didn’t realize it wasn’t standard and was melting in my hotel room.
Lastly, how uncommon asking for ice is. I’ve never gotten stranger looks than when I would ask for a drink with some ice. One person at the festival had to confirm she understood me.
14. Scotland’s Incredible Government Confidence
In Scotland, there was an explosive threat at a local gas station. The news anchor that was covering it interviewed locals about how they felt about this terrifying event. EVERY response fell along the lines of “I don’t know much about that, but I’m sure the government is taking care of it… back to my day.” The faith in the government and not wanting to butt in blew my mind.
13. Beyond Awkward Disneyland Encounter
Seeing an elderly Chinese tourist pull down her grandkid’s pants so he can take a poop on the sidewalk. It was in the entrance of Disneyland in Paris.
12. Super Secure Quitting And Firing Rules
In Germany, they have to give something like 60 days’ notice if they are planning to fire/planning to quit a job. For some reason that seemed so crazy, but I realized being fired with no notice whatsoever is pretty screwed up and we should have a similar system. Also, how great their recycling system was. And also, I didn’t realize the water closet was the bathroom until after my trip. I felt stupid. Really stupid.
11. Inebriated, Chill, And Cop-Cooperative Crowd
I am from the New York/New Jersey area, and have seen firsthand how out of control sporting events can get. Guys (mostly) getting inebriated, vandalizing property, throwing cans and bottles, fighting, etc.
So when a group of friends went to Germany for Oktoberfest some years ago, we also wanted to see a football (soccer) game. So we got tickets to see Bayern Munich vs. some other German team in what, I think, was a meaningful game (we went more for the experience vs. being huge fans).
Game is great. I think the score was 5-1, so lots of action. The energy in the stadium was undeniable. Fans singing, jumping around, yelling for the entire game. Game ends. Munich wins. Begin the march to the subway station.
Virtually an entire stadium, it seemed, exited to go to this one nearest subway stop. There are 4, maybe 5 cops standing at the entrance steps. Uh oh. This is going to be a huge problem. THOUSANDS of people, lots of them intoxicated, heading toward these 5 cops at this one exit. It’s going to be a disaster. Some guys started peeing on a fence within their view. Then, as we watched nervously, the crowd reached the cops and… just… stopped.
Everyone stopped. No one fought. The guys peeing finished up their business, zipped up, and joined the queue. Cops let enough people by to fill the first train, then the rest stopped, and so on and so forth until our group went.
It was incredible. That scene couldn’t happen in America. Maybe this was an anomaly. But picturing an event at Madison Square Garden, there’s an army of state troopers to keep order in addition to local cops, undercover cops, event security, etc. and brawls and things still erupt with regularity. This was amazing to us. We still talk about it years later. That was some respectful, organized and orderly stuff.
10. Grumpy Yet Thoughtful German Elders
Spent a summer in Germany.
They had the cleanest/safest/best-tasting tap water, but nobody drank it and they called it toilet water.
Also, the older people in village seemed super grumpy and mean and would never smile or respond if you said “hello” or “good morning,” but if you asked them a substantive question, like how to get to the museum, they would spend 15 minutes telling you the fastest way to get there, the scenic way to get there, everything interesting you should do on the way there, why that museum isn’t actually that good and you should go to this other museum instead, all the different ways to get to the better museum, and where their grandmother used to live before the war.
9. Epic Eats, Pushy Shopkeepers, And Rich Culture
The littering in a lot of places really blew me away, especially France. Part of this is due to the amount Europeans smoke, because at times in Paris the cobblestone felt paved with cigarette butts.
The quality of the fast food surprised me. Everything from the street vendors to chain fast food like McDonald’s was better quality than anything I’d gotten in Canada.
The people at every tourist site trying to sell you their wares was new to me. Knew it was coming, but was still surprised by how widespread it was. Really took me by surprise when I saw some of them pulling the water bottles that they sell out of the sewers in the morning, though it makes sense in hindsight.
Prague was even cheaper than what I had been told. Was great to be eating like a king without spending much which was refreshing after some of the more expensive countries.
Munich blew me away by how well culture and modernization were integrated. Definitely my pick for the city I wanted to live in the most.
8. The Plight Of Poorly-Mannered Americans
I went on an honor roll trip with a few peers and some older students. This was a little over a decade ago, while I was in middle school. We traveled through France, England, then Scotland.
At first how rude people were to Americans just surprised me. Thought all that was exaggerated. I speak French (much better back then), and noticed a lot of shopkeepers talking smack just when we would enter a store. I always turned us right back out of those ones. Much older guys were super bold about trying to talk to us too, which I found uncomfortable.
Then it eventually started to make sense. People treated us like they were expecting abusive ignoramuses or fawning idiots because holy crap, other Americans we saw earned it. Saw a lot of inebriated and disorderly-looking arrests and belligerent arguing. This surprised me a lot, since other Americans claim to be the pinnacle of class while traveling abroad.
7. Insanely Cheap Healthcare
When I️ visited the hospital and had X-rays done, spoke with two doctors and was triaged by a nurse, all with no health insurance, and my total bill was 24 euros. Then I️ had to pay 10 additional euros for some painkillers, again with no insurance or anything.
6. Jaw-Dropping Fresh Octopus Encounter
Had a positive “what the heck” moment in Greece in the eastern Peloponnese where I saw a guy walk down to the end of a pier and throw an actual trident into the Aegean and pull out a wriggling octopus. Dude walked up the beach and handed it over the deck railing to a chef.
5. The Chilled-Out Nature Of Sundays
When you realize that everything is closed on Sunday, because Sunday is sacred. Not in a religious way necessarily, but in an “our free time is sacred” way. Took a train through the German countryside on a Sunday and the fields were just full of people doing stereotypical free time activities: afternoon strolls, kites, model airplanes, fishing, etc.
4. A Tear-Jerking Moment Of Connection
In my early 20s, on my first trip to Europe, I took an Italian ocean liner, New York to Genoa. My big moment was going out on the deck on morning 6 for the foggy passage through the Straits of Gibraltar. Europe emerging through the mist on my left and North Africa on my right, coupled with the awareness of how many voyagers throughout history had sailed through that passage (including my Italian grandparents traveling in the other direction), gave me chills.
3. Angry Airport Security
I had this really naive idea that everyone in England would be polite and charming. So when the lady checking our passports in the airport made my 15-year-old son cry, I was surprised and upset. I didn’t know we were supposed to approach the person together since he was underage. He certainly didn’t know. I still don’t understand why she yelled at him.
2. Heart-Warming Swedish Hospitality
I went to Sweden on a vacation package. I stayed at a wonderful historic hotel for part of the trip that had a restaurant inside of it. Part of our package called for a free dinner at the hotel and we had asked that it be the night we arrived.
We arrived and got settled in our room and then went to check out the restaurant. As soon as we walked in, there was no one there, only a hostess. She immediately said they were expecting us and we could sit anywhere. There was no one else in this gorgeous, ornate restaurant. A waiter came out and said they had prepared a special meal for us. We asked why it was so empty and he said the restaurant was closed one day a week and today was that day.
We were shocked, we apologized profusely and told them that we had booked through another company and would have just scheduled it for another day. He said it was no problem and we had some free extras such as wine and dessert. The main course ended up being a huge piece of meat, which we jokingly said must have been because we were big fat Americans. No one rushed us, we had a great time, and after we left they closed the restaurant for the night.
It was a totally crazy moment because if you booked something like this in America, they’d either force you to reschedule or just have the restaurant closed with no explanation.
1. A Frustrating Umbrella Exchange
One time in Rome, it started pouring. As I sought shelter, I saw an older man selling one single umbrella. Strange as it was, I needed that umbrella, so I haggled with him and settled on 3 euro (he had the upper hand in that transaction).
I wander over to a coffee shop to dry out for a little bit. When I go to leave, the umbrella is no longer in the bucket by the door. Upset at myself for being so trusting, I head into the rain again. Guess who I see? The same old man selling the same umbrella. I try to confront him about stealing back my umbrella, but he claims not to remember our interaction at all. It’s pouring and I have a number of miles to walk, so I go through the same charade with him again to re-procure the umbrella.
At least this time he took 2 euro…