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Eight things on my year abroad in Europe that completely threw me off guard

These lessons really put the shock in culture shock


Before I start, I should preface that I’ve lived in Asia for most of my life. Because of this, Europe was already very alien to me. You see, there are some cultural differences you can expect when you live abroad, but then there are some that literally evoke visceral confusion. At the risk of sounding like a “Gap yaaah” girlie, here are eight things I discovered during my year abroad in Belgium that really did make me question how differently our continental neighbours lived.

1. Europe is small??

Do you remember that time you found out that the maps we use messed up the “real sizes” of countries? Hearing about it years ago, it sounded weird to me and led me down this weird map-related rabbit hole, but I forgot about it until I moved to Brussels. When I used to live in South India, driving from my city (Chennai) to the nearest big city (Bangalore) took about eight hours. So, imagine how shocked I was when I found out Amsterdam was literally a two hour bus ride and Paris a four hour journey from Brussels. Thank our Father who art in heaven: Flixbus. Speaking of which….

2. Buses are super savers

I know this is true more or less everywhere, but I just wasn’t ready for the prices I was going to be paying. The trip to Amsterdam I mentioned before? €20 return. The Paris trip? If you book early enough, €7 one way. Who’s taking my uni grades and making them my transport costs? I have to say though, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I once had a bus cancel on me 10 minutes before my trip back to Brussels which proved to be more chaotic than I cared for.

3. Dude, where’s my passport?

Speaking of all this travel, I was shocked to find out how little my European friends cared about their passports. Some didn’t know where they were, some straight up didn’t have them and some didn’t care enough to renew their old ones. This privilege, of course, is a direct result of the Schengen zone that most of the EU countries are in. Implemented in 1995, the zone makes it easy enough to carry your ID around and cross borders with no questions asked. It’s made everyone’s lives a lot easier, (including mine) and thankfully helped me avoid the hours I usually spend sitting at immigration when I fly back home to Asia.

4. Beers over spirits any day of the week

This one’s more specific to Belgium, but people really don’t care for spirits. They much prefer beers. It’s a weird thought until you find out popular beers in Brussels usually contain anywhere between six per cent to 11 per cent of alcohol for way cheaper than your spirit-based drinks. If you’re drinking a cheeky Duvel for €3.30, you’re getting 33cl of 8.5 per cent alcohol in you. Any beer that’s a “quadruple” is hitting you with a hard 11 per cent. So, if you’re moving into Europe, get rid of your off-brand vodka at pre-drinks and buy a six-pack instead. Disclaimer: You might end up waking up in cold sweats with an odd craving for purple-coloured alcohol and activities that you would traditionally do in a circular fashion.

This one’s more specific to Belgium, but people really don’t care for spirits. They much prefer beers. It’s a weird thought until you find out popular beers in Brussels usually contain anywhere between six per cent to 11 per cent of alcohol for way cheaper than your spirit-based drinks. If you’re drinking a cheeky Duvel for €3.30, you’re getting 33cl of 8.5 per cent alcohol in you. Any beer that’s a “quadruple” is hitting you with a hard 11 per cent. So, if you’re moving into Europe, get rid of your off-brand vodka at pre-drinks and buy a six-pack instead. Disclaimer: You might end up waking up in cold sweats with an odd craving for purple-coloured alcohol and activities that you would traditionally do in a circular fashion.

What are they putting in the water that’s making cyclists so intense? I didn’t really grow up in cities with cycle lanes so in fairness it took some adjusting to build my spacial awareness. But when I tell you the cyclists are out to get me, I mean it. I’ve developed a sixth sense for knowing when I’m wandering into a cycle lane. But these cyclists genuinely spawn out of nowhere. They swerve around you or ring at you like little passive-aggressive school bells.

6. Lighters spark friendships

I know it’s such a stereotype that everyone in Europe smokes, but it’s kind of weird how accurate that generalisation is. Where people are rolling tobacco, buying industrials or even smoking disgusting cigarillos, you’ll always find someone having a little smoke al fresco. Once you get past the second-hand smoke, I’ve discovered that these smoking areas are actually great social settings. Having a lighter on me at all times, despite me not being a smoker, has made it easier to break the ice with strangers. Obviously, don’t be weird and hang out in smoking areas waiting to pounce on an opportunity to engage in some semblance of social interaction.

7. To bise or not to bise

I’ve watched enough TV to know that the cheek kiss is a common greeting in Europe. If you’re not a cultural scholar like me, “la bise”, as the French call it, is a greeting to your friends or relatives with a variable number of kisses on the cheek. Typically, this is just pressing your cheek against someone else’s and making what I can only describe as a mwah sound with your mouth. Now I was mentally prepared for this to exist, but in practice, I was nowhere near prepared. You see, I’m a meet-someone-and-go-in-for-a-hug kind of person. So when I engage my hug-greeting-mechanism I do not anticipate other people getting into bise mode. I get my arms out, they get their face out, and it’s a clash of awkward greetings. Not the first impression you want to be making.

8. British tourists vs. the EU

A lack of European integration is a huge issue that the European Union is facing. If you’re going to throw all these countries together into a supranational union, you really can’t expect them to all agree on everything. Despite this, I think the number one thing driving European integration is the collective hatred of British tourists. Apparently, the British tourist export is not always welcomed by locals. This dislike is so integrated into culture that some countries even have slang for it. For example, “balconing” is a term in Spain used to describe the phenomenon of tourists getting drunk and falling out of balconies.

So, it’s safe to say that my misadventures with social norms in Europe have been as equally emotionally distressing as they were educational. Admittedly, I’ve been lucky enough to integrate pretty well. As every day goes by, I stray further away from Greggs but inch closer and closer to the boulangerie.

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