Friday, October 16, 2015

Cultural Differences In Europe

 In Paris along the Seine
The traveling I have done in the past, if you eliminate the seventies, has taken place in what is commonly referred to as the Third World. There, of course, there are a myriad of cultural differences depending on the country and the culture. But I didn't expect to find much of that in Europe where Deborah and I were the downscale peons descending from the much derided and lauded USA.

But things are done differently over there in subtle ways. One that came totally out of left-field and was explained to me by a gay male couple we were staying with in Belgium was that people don't commonly use wash cloths for their faces there. They thought my request for one was quite exotic. This seemed bizarre to me because I had bad acne as a young person and my washcloth was a bathroom staple. "How do women take off their make-up?" I inquired. They just...and Paul pantomimed sprinkling water on his face with his hands. I did notice that tissue boxes were often next to the sinks as well.

Asking for tap water at restaurants can be a dicey proposition, even without a drought. In France they will do it if you ask for "l'eau du robinet" water from the faucet. It will never have ice though. Ice is reserved for mixed drinks only. In Belgium they will run you out of the country if you ask for free water with a meal, but the Belgians will run you out of the country for a lot of things. A coffee-shop owner in Bruges was not going to let me sit with Deborah while she drank her espresso without ordering something. I refused and told him he was being unrealistic. He became furious but did not call the police. I had the whole scenario in my head, "Tourist arrested for refusing to order drink." I told him I was just going to sit with my wife while she drank her coffee. He stormed out of his own shop when I suggested he lighten up.

Beer and wine tended to be cheaper and more readily available than water, even in libraries. By ten in the morning folks were politely swilling beer in cafes, especially in Amsterdam. Never ask to be directed to a "Coffee Shop" unless you want to smoke marijuana. Cafes serve coffee, coffee shops are smoke to get high joints. When our host, Indra complained that some travelers make her apartment smell like a coffee shop, I thought dark roast, yum! But that's not the smell she was referring to.

A true sore point for me in Europe has to do with the fact that I can't go for more than about an hour and a half, two hours max, without emptying my bladder. When we visited museums or historic sites, this was not an issue, but for exploring neighborhoods it was. Public bathrooms were only in cafes and many cafes would only let you use them if you bought something. Buying a drink is counter-intuitive if your goal is to pee less! Belgians were fanatics about this, the French might give in but the Dutch were the least rigid if you gave them a good reason. Department stores or clothing stores did not have bathrooms. It makes me wonder about the capitalist history of making the shopper comfortable which must have been an evolutionary part of US culture. One store that did have a restroom charged .50 euros to use it (about 60 to 75 cents, depending on the exchange rate, but you had to have exact change).

All in all, I did have a great time running around France Belgium and the Netherlands. But now that I've returned, I do have a renewed appreciation for the land of the free, bathrooms and water that is.