9 Unexpected Experiences of an American Student Living Abroad

For my entire life, I have lived on the north shore of Massachusetts. In November of 2016, I decided to do something different and chose to go to Spain and Portugal for Thanksgiving break. Then, in the fall of 2017, I moved to Italy for four months. Currently, I'm going on my fifth week living in Ireland. Each experience was unique, inspiring, and life changing. However, it was not always smooth sailing. So here's my list of items that were the most shocking parts of visiting a new country and culture.

1 Grocery shopping

In America, we get used to having massive, 20+ aisle grocery stores with every item you could imagine on the shelves. To say I was shocked the first time I shopped at Conad in Florence, Italy would be an understatement. The shops in Florence are small, and the selection (from an American's perspective) even smaller. And, you're allowed to bring your dog into the store! That is never allowed in the US. What I learned, though, was how much processed food I ate from home. In Italy, there's no Lucky Charms, no macaroni and cheese, no Ben and Jerry's. Looking back, I am so grateful that I was forced away from the unhealthy habits I had in America, because now I eat so much healthier.

2 Ordering food at a restaurant

Every country has different traditions for how food is ordered. In Spain, we struggled to find anywhere with the kitchen open before 8:00 PM. We soon learned about tapas, which soon became something I enjoyed so much that I wished for it back in the US.

In Italy, ordering meant truly being patient and waiting for your waiter. Yes, you could signal them, but just because you caught their attention does not mean they will come immediately. Sometimes, we'd ask for our check and wait thirty minutes for it to come. In America, that would be considered unforgivable service. But in Italy, I soon came to enjoy being able to truly relax at a meal and not have to worry about the waiter trying to get you out of the restaurant so that tables keep getting rotated.

This cat joined us for lunch in Greece

Ireland is the closest to America that I have experienced, where the waiter does come and check in on the tables. However, I was shocked at first by the lack of instruction when you enter the restaurant. In America, there is almost always a sign saying "Please wait to be seated" or "Seat yourself." In Ireland, there's none of this hand holding.

3 Doing laundry

Washing machines, to my shock, are completely different in Europe compared to the ones in the US. Yes, they still perform the same functions, but trying to use the machines at first was quite an experience. In Italy, rather than words like "hot," "cold," "spin cycle," and "soil levels," it just had symbols. And when my roommates and I searched the symbols on the internet, the manual was in Italian! Eventually, we figured it out, but it was definitely not something I thought I would have to relearn how to do. In addition, my Italian apartment did not have a drier, so we had to adjust to letting our clothes hang dry.

4 Getting around

Where I come from, everyone drives a car to get from A to B. In my experience abroad, though, I have learned that people often opt to walk, take public transportation, or a ride a bike/scooter. In Florence, there just wasn't enough room on the roads for cars. In fact, it was often a lot faster to walk to a destination rather than take a taxi due to traffic.

5 Cooking

I learned at a young age to cook my own meals, but something I was not prepared for was converting all the measurements. In America, we use cups, tablespoons, ounces, and pounds. In Ireland, they use a different cup, liters, and kilograms. In addition, there's the conversion of Celsius to Fahrenheit.

6 Not getting lost

In America, in my experience, streets are labeled fairly clearly. The streets also remain with the same name, even if it is for a long stretch. In main European cities, I learned things are not the same. Street names can change after a few blocks, and there are not necessarily any street signs. In Florence, the street names were sometimes placed on the sides of the buildings. Streets also don't follow the standard block format of many American cities and suburbs. I learned to get around by learning the relative location of landmarks.

Home ❤ Via @the_whereami

A post shared by Lovin Dublin (@lovindublin) on

7 Smoking

In America, the culture around smoking cigarettes has become increasingly negative. In fact, places like New York City have limited how many places can sell cigarettes and increased the price of them. I have come to learn, though, that Europe does not have the same outlook on smoking. In Italy, outdoor seating meant that customers could smoke while enjoying their meal. I have not experienced nearly as much smoking in Ireland, but it still far more than what I am used to back in the states.

8 Drinking culture

I knew going abroad meant being allowed to drink, but I did not realize how relaxed the drinking culture in Europe was. In the US, you can get ID'd at bars even if you're in your 40's. I was 19 when I first went to Spain, and I was quite shocked that I never got ID'd once. The only time I got ID'd last semester was in a grocery store in Split, Croatia. This semester, I get ID'd at grocery stores and occasionally at the front door of a bar.

9 How other cultures regard Americans

I first went to Spain and Portugal right after Trump was announced the president elect. We were warned that people abroad might treat us poorly because of this vote, so I was ready for the worst. To my shock, not once did the presidential election get brought up by someone from Spain or Portugal. During my semester in Italy, my professors were genuinely curious about life in America. What we ate, the slang we used, and, yes, how Trump got elected. No one said terrible things to us--it was simply curiosity. My semester in Ireland is very different, meaning less curiosity and more bluntness. I have received comments about Americans thinking they're "all that" and about how entitled we can act. And yes, Trump is brought up a lot more here than any other place I have been. Still, I take no offense to it. The comments and curiosities of other cultures are an interesting perspective to listen to and learn from.

Planning to spend some time in Europe?

A homestay provides the most authentic experience.

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