Po-tay-to, Po-taw-to

We have been in the U.S. for three weeks. In that time, I have been reminded of some of the differences between the U.S. and Europe. Differences that are more subtle than the obvious ones of language and culture.

However, once upon a time, these differences seemed just as strange to me as the sound of a foreign language being spoken by the population around me.

(Just as, when I returned to the US from my first international and study abroad experience in Spain, I was bombarded by English, my brain grabbing at and soaking up conversations around me, on overdrive after focusing so intently to make sense of just one teeny, tiny Spanish conversation.)

Over the years, these differences have become muted, forgotten. Except, that is, when I return to the U.S. and something happens to make them rear their little heads again.

Such as date formats. In Europe, dates are written DD/MM/YY, not MM/DD/YY. Normally, I don’t reflect on this. However, when I was buying milk the other day, I was shocked to find that the carton I had picked up had expired over a month ago! While this might be a possibility in some locations (I won’t mention where, just be on watch if you travel abroad…always check expiration dates), that is not the case in the U.S. (at least, it’s not supposed to be…never say never…I did watch Food, Inc. after all). It took me a moment to realize that the 08/06/12 date indicated that my milk would not only not be a curdled mass of smelly goo but would actually last well beyond our departure date.

And take numbers. Just to make sure one continent distinguishes itself from the other, decimal and commas are switched. For example, one thousand dollars and one cent in the U.S. would be written $1,000.01, but in Europe it’s $1.000,01.

And, of course, while 220-240V serves electrical needs across the pond, here we stick with 110-120V. Forgetting that little fact of life will ensure a fried appliance. The smell of which, take it from me, will linger for days. Is there anything worse than the smell of burnt electrical appliances? Okay, singed hair is pretty stinky, too. Or lighting up the wrong end of a cigarette. Not that I would know.

Then there is the treatment of floors, or stories. In the US, we have the ground floor, also known as the first floor. In Europe, the ground floor is floor 0. You don’t hit the 1st floor until you go up one story. This doesn’t seem like it would be such a big deal. But it’s amazing what kind of confusion this little data point can cause when logistics come into play.

Some other differences:

There are no screens on windows in Europe (and as England doesn’t have mosquitoes – can you imagine such a wonderful thing? – they almost don’t need them…although apparently they do have some tiny flying thing which is bothersome). I keep thinking this is a potential multi-million-dollar idea, to market window and door screens. Then I wonder if there is some secret I have not yet been let in on as to why such a mature continent lacks such a practical thing?  I mean, really. Why are there no screens?

Also? You can’t turn right on a red light. Not that such a thing has ever stopped me. I turn right on red. It makes sense after all. And, no, I haven’t been caught. Yet.

The way one eats is different, as well. First, finger food is, ahem, a bit frowned upon. (And don’t even try to order a doggy bag in a restaurant…you will be regarded with a look that would shame a cockroach…in France, you might even be escorted from the restaurant).

And when one uses utensils – highly recommended, even for pizza and hamburgers – the knife is held in the right hand, the fork in the left, and that is where they remain. None of the cutting, knife down, fork switching business in Europe.

Which brings me to kissing. When people greet each other in Europe, they generally kiss each other on both cheeks. (And the Dutch kiss 3 times…I have even known some Belgians who kissed 4 times, a practice that definitely makes one dizzy, all that swerving back and forth between cheeks…and if you start kissing on the wrong cheek?…disaster).

This means that I am often puckering up to plant one on an American’s second cheek just as they are pulling away from our customary one-kiss (or no-kiss) hug. I have also been known to cut short the 2-, 3-, and 4-cheeked kiss process and keep a European locked in a bear hug. Yes, they do struggle to be released. I blame it on my slowness to respond to a change in environment. In either case, the results can be a bit embarrassing.

Other differences are just a matter of practice. Meaning that there is probably a rule that says we should do them here in the U.S. but habits of behavior have dictated otherwise.

Such as crosswalks and pedestrians. I can’t tell you how many pedestrians in Sweden I have almost plowed down because they set off across the street – sans any light with the helpful green man indicating it was time to walk – and fully expected my approaching vehicle to stop. I don’t know who was more surprised: me, at having people step out into the middle of the road (those white stripes painted on the road actually mean something?) or, the pedestrians, at seeing my car bearing down on them.

Swedish drivers apparently do stop.

I do, too.


(What did I know? Where I am from, automobiles rule.)

Also, cookies. They don’t exist in mainland Europe. What they call “cookies” are dry, crumbly things that snap into a zillion little pieces when you try to bend them. In America, our cookies could do yoga. They beeeennnnddd. They are ooey-gooey and melt-in-your-mouth just as Martha Stewart intended them to be.

(Which reminds me, there is a ooey-gooey-sugar cookie with my name on it, compliments of our lovely neighbor, so I need to wrap this up soon.)

I won’t even start on language. And I am not talking the differences between Italian and English. I am talking American English vs. British English. That’s a whole other blog. Suffice it to say, if a Brit asks you for a “rubber”, they are not getting fresh, they just want an eraser. And don’t have an American tell a Brit how to dress – or vice versa – because while clothing terms may appear to be the same, they indicate very different pieces of apparel.

BTW, a Brit would actually laugh if they read the paragraph above because many don’t consider that “American” and “English” should be used in the same term. But the jokes on them. Because although they do, admittedly, sound much more posh than we colonials, there is one overriding, jokes-on-them truth:

They sing with an American accent.

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