Observing Differences

This is a post by Jenny

While traveling in Portugal, Italy, and Spain, we noticed some big difference between Europe and the U.S. I would say some are for the better and some for the worse, but I’ll let you decide (with some of my own thoughts interjected in!).

“Chiuso per ferie”
In Italian, that means “closed for holiday”. For David and I, that became our mantra when we went somewhere that turned out to be closed. It is fairly common for businesses (esp restaurants) to close down for a few weeks or a month (usually August) to take a vacation. When we arrived in a small Tuscan hillside town, the first 10 businesses we walked by had “Chiuso per Ferie” signs up (which we quickly looked up in our translator). We were worried we wouldn’t be able to get anything to eat (luckily, the gelataria was open!).

On the one hand, it totally sucked for us and was annoying that things were closed. On the other hand, how awesome is it that closing up and chilling for a month is a cultural norm?! Along with being closed for vacation, businesses were usually closed for a couple of hours in the afternoon and on Sundays.  Americans seem to think it’s ridiculous/not economically sound, but how amazing would it be to think of yourself having a whole month off to recharge your batteries? Sundays devoted only to family and rest? Economic-ecoschnompic – I’ll take less money and productivity for more time for the things that matter in life (i.e. enjoying it!).

To save money, we did a fair amount of grocery shopping. You can’t touch the fruit with your hands – you’re supposed to wear a provided plastic glove. A lot of the local people arrived and departed with wheely cart things to transport their groceries, which are only used by old ladies and poor people in the U.S. And, it’s assumed that you will bring your own bags. They don’t put your stuff into bags unless you ask them to, and you pay for each plastic bag you take. How awesome is that? The bags are actually of high quality so you don’t need three of them for every item you buy, it encourages people to bring their own, and overall cuts down on waste!











We saw a plethora of public drinking fountains in all 3 countries we went to. They were used by tourists and locals alike – with people drinking out of them like a bubbler, and other people filling water bottles or large jugs (with some water being more coveted than others). Sure is refreshing, convenient, and cheap when you need something to drink!

Don’t mess with me when I’m hot and cranky! (and sunburnt?)

Air Conditioning

In this case, I would say I am a totally spoiled, intolerant American who can’t handle a little heat (and now I understand how the U.S. uses so much more energy than the rest of the world). Barely any places we visited in each country were air conditioned – except our hostels (which we intentionally got). In the US, almost all public places – museums, restaurants, stores, trains, buses, transport stations are air conditioned. You can easily just step in somewhere to cool off. That was not the case in Portugal, Italy, or Spain. And it was so hot, I almost died – and that’s after tolerating 100 degree humid weather in Cambodia. I want to be ok with not having much AC – saving so much energy and pollution – but sometimes, it’s just too hot and I want to eat indoors in a cold place instead of on a sweltering patio.

Showers & Toilets
If you’ve been following the blog, you might think I have an obsession with foreign bathrooms. I swear I don’t. It seems to be normal for the bathroom to have a toilet and a separate bidet. The shower head also is not a mounted to the wall, but rather a hose you can move around or mount in a hook – convenient for cleaning yourself and the shower!

Hello cycletrack for me and my bike!
Hello cycletrack for me and my bike!


Lots of bikes in Florence











The cars are all really small. Smart cars aren’t a weird spectacle like at home, and people with kids don’t feel the immediate need to have a huge van or SUV. The roads can be narrow and spaces tight, so small cars make sense (not to mention the astronomical price of gas, which I think is currently over $8/gallon). The train and bus systems are (mostly) reliable, efficient, and inexpensive. We were able to travel up and down all of Portugal – the whole country – by bus. I am ridiculously envious of Europes bus and train system – and how completely feasible it is to travel around the continent without a car.

We all know I LOVE BIKES. I love them. And so do Europeans apparently. In Florence, bikes were everywhere. In almost every city we visited in Spain, they had a bike share – San Sebastian, Barcelona, Valencia, and Bilboa. Santander had a bike path leading to the airport! Many cities we visited had bike infrastructure – separated paths exclusively for bikes, bike lanes, etc. People of all different types were on bikes. When we road to the market in Tuscany, the bike rack was full, and the old woman getting off her bike next to us had brought her cane with her! I can’t begin to talk about the envy I feel for the social integration and acceptance that bikes have in European society – anyone can ride, wearing whatever they want, on a bike of any working order – without a helmet. After being hit by a car three years ago and feeling like my helmet saved my life as I know it, I am a bit of a helmet fanatic. But I didn’t wear a helmet in Europe, and it felt ok – they don’t use them and their speeds and road/bike network design bikes minimize the danger of crashes. I’m in love with the idea of instead of wearing a helmet to protect your head for when you get into an accident, instead prevent that accident from happening in the first place…and I digress..

Midnight? Why not have a jazz band in the street?


The date is written with the day first, then the month, then the year. So today, November 14, 2012 is written as 14/11/12. I believe this is actually the norm all over the world except the US. I found myself easily transition into reading and writing the date this way (and found it foreign to write it 11/14/12 when I got home – how fast we adjust to something!).

The same was the case for the time. When spoken, the time is said the same way as in the U.S. – i.e. eight fifteen at night is said that way. However, in writing, they use a 24 hour clock – so instead of 8:15pm, the time is written as 20:15 – eliminating the need for am or pm. I adjusted to this pretty quickly, though I did find myself doing the math or getting confused in the afternoon and evening hours.

Beautiful outdoor cafes


For women, at many of the beaches we visited, wearing a top at the beach is completely optional. There’s nothing weird or gawking about it. For men, bathing suit briefs or square cut shorts were normal as well.

Futbol (soccer) is super, ridiculously huge. And it was fun to watch and cheer on the home towns for the Super Copa when we were in Barcelona and Valencia (but it’s really all about Barca & Real Madrid).


Don’t get me wrong Boston, I love you, but oh Europe, how I miss you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s