Culture Shock: It’s The Little Things

I’m not especially prone to culture shock. I’m willing to try new things and go on adventures (it’s why I’m here). Mostly it’s just an adjustment period until I establish new habits and preferences. In a way the bigger differences are easier to deal with because there’s fewer of them and you can retreat from them at home. But all the little things that are different add up to make even your own apartment seem foreign sometimes.

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When you take a language class, there are always little culture lessons they give to you along the way. Tips to help you understand the language or get around when you visit another country. “The second floor is the first floor.” “Train travel is very common.” “Steak tartare is a thing.” But there are a lot more little things you start to notice when you spend a lot of time in a place, and especially when you establish a home there. Some are kind of neat, others take some getting used to. For example:

They speak French here

Now, this one may seem obvious. But my mind wasn’t ready for how pervasive French was (only because I didn’t stop to think about it). English language TV channels aside from BBC are on premium TV packages. Eurosport is in French. Getting sports broadcasts in English means shady business or VPNs. Delivery men, landlords, and customer services reps often don’t speak English. If you’re lucky, the automated phone menu will have an English option. Bills, even electronic ones, are written in French. If there’s a mistake on my cable bill, I’m willing to let twenty bucks slide just because I want to avoid linguistic confrontation. English audio movies play in the local theater, but you are SOL if there’s spoken French or Russian or Huttese that would have had English subtitles in the States.

There’s a different internet

Well, not entirely. You can still go to the same old web sites, mostly. But some of them may change their content or restrict you. Netflix has different shows and movies (no Star Trek =( but it has Orphan Black =D). Google starts up in Dutch until you change it (that one’s confusing the first time it happens). The Belgian Ikea web site isn’t available in English, even though they have English versions of their web site. And forget about all those online boutique stores you know about, like ThinkGeek, Quantum Mechanix, NewEgg, Sector111, Linear Edge, and Adorama (ok, maybe the boutique stores I know about), because ordering from them will involve at least $40 shipping and a 30% import tax. At least Steam still works, and Amazon France will do one-day delivery to Belgium…for most things.

Prices are all-inclusive

Speaking of shopping, listed prices here actually make sense. If something in a store says it will cost 5 EUR, you will give the cashier five Euro and you will get to have the thing. There’s no extra tax, there’s no tipping. They tell you what to pay and you pay it. So simple! Oh, and things will actually cost exactly 5 Euro! Not 4.99, not 4.95, not 4.87 (which actually becomes 5.37 because taxes, so now you have to break a 20 and carry around all the stupid change instead of just handing over your last five). Five point zero zero Euros. Small things will often be priced to the nearest tenth of a Euro (i.e. 3.70) do you don’t end up carrying pennies around.

And because the smallest paper bill is a five, you’ll want to carry your coins around more, so you can often easily make exact change. European wallets include coin pouches for this reason, and there’s not so many giant change jars or leave-a-penny trays. The big grocery stores don’t always adhere to this, I guess because competition is fiercer for every penny of savings on every item. Sometimes sales will screw it up (10% off of 13.50 becomes 12.15). Big box stores will still knock a dollar off an even hundred to make things seem cheaper (my TV was 599 EUR…but at least it wasn’t 599.99). It’s a pretty good system.

They care a lot more about environmentalism

Energy efficiency is a selling point on a lot of things. Appliances and electronics have an official efficiency rating. It’s displayed much more prominently than in the states, and is more detailed. You can filter by this criteria in online stores. But more than that, I’ve seen parking garages and Ikea proudly declare their CO2 output as a way of convincing you to use their services. This I found odd. CO2 output is not usually one of the leading factors in deciding where I park, but I guess that’s illustrative of a larger attitude.

Restaurants are different

Chains are uncommon. The only American chain I’ve seen is McDonalds, and even then only two of those. The only European chain I’ve seen more than one of is Quick (which is basically Belgian McDonalds). There are not any equivalents to the American-style restaurant chains like Chili’s or TGI Friday’s. As such, it is a little more of a crap-shoot when eating out in an unfamiliar town. I once went to a restaurant in Brussels called “Drug Opera” which had a nice beer selection and served decent pizza. Another time I went to a hotel restaurant in France where someone in our party ordered a sausage that smelled and tasted like the bowels it was made of (do not order l’anduillette).

Also unlike the US, if “bar,” “pub,” or “cafe” is in the name of the restaurant, do not expect food. Snacks at most. If you’re lucky, they will have exactly one specific item of any real substance. This is often rather disappointing, because a place might be great for the atmosphere and beer list, but they haven’t got food to order, so it’s not really a good place to go out for dinner. But, beer can be found in almost any restaurant you eat at. And because it’s Belgium, it’s frequently a beer worth drinking. This is a country where the local college bar stocks a selection of fine trappist ales.

Plus, Shawarma/Durum places are just about on every street corner in Belgian cities. Sometimes they have weird names like “Snack Acquarium,” but then you see a sign that says “Durum Kebab” and you instantly know exactly what you’re getting into. I’ve eaten at four different Shawarma places just in my town and there’s probably a dozen more to try. They’re even more common than friteries (places specializing in french fries). If you need a quick meal and don’t know the area, just look for a durum, it won’t be far away.

The flavors you get while eating out are also in general slightly blander than you get in America. Less sweetness, less savoryness, less juicyness, less spicyness. Not a lot less, but enough to leave you just slightly unsatisfied without really knowing why. You see this most in breakfasts. A good breakfast in America (for me at least…) usually involves lots of syrup and butter and pancakes and bacon and maybe some nice cake-like muffins. Delicious. Here it’s all very sensible. Some eggs, a bit of fruit, toast, maybe a croissant. Some butter or jam if you’re feeling adventurous. Belgian waffles are a dessert in Belgium. There are certain other things you just won’t find, like good ribs or chicken wings (nooooooo! Maybe I just need to look harder).

Opening hours

Stores are not open late. Nor are they open early. They are open precisely as long as they mean to be. Sometimes restaurants have long breaks between standard mealtimes, so there’s nowhere to sit down for a snack when you finish a hike at 2:30. Sometimes you have to leave work early to make it to a shop that closes at 6. If you need something from a larger store, you better get that done before 8 (which can be an issue if the store is in Brussels). You’re not going to come home from work to eat dinner and then get a lot of errands done. Most places are closed on Sunday, too, so make sure you’re stocked up on whatever you need on Saturday afternoon.

24 hour clocks

Speaking of “hours,” 24-hour clocks are standard practice here. I’ve been using 24-hour clocks for a long time myself, so I don’t have a lot of adjustment to make there. But I’m still trying to figure out how to implement that in conversation. In America I always used a.m./p.m. in conversation and planning with people. In the French language lessons I’m taking, times are “dix-neuf heures” or the like. But speaking English in Belgium? I have no idea whether to say “meet at nineteen o’clock” or “nineteen hours” or “nineteen hundred” or just “nineteen.” Or maybe I just stick with “seven”? I’ve mostly been using the 12-hour format so far.

Level numbers

Ground floor is zero. Basement is -1. Above ground is 1, 2, 3, etc. Makes incredible sense to anyone that has done any programming. But I’m still getting used to it conversationally. Someone will direct me to the “first floor,” and it might take me a moment to realize I need to look for the elevator instead of the office I was going to. “Second floor,” and I just get in the elevator and push ‘2.’ Easy enough. Unless I go up one flight of stairs and wander around confused for five minutes until I realize I needed to go up *two* flights of stairs. Oops. I just know I’ll give someone the wrong floor number someday when I’m giving directions.

Apartment fixtures are slightly different

  • Appliances are smaller. Notably the oven and fridge.
  • Kitchens have smaller sinks, no disposals
  • Windows don’t have screens
  • Light switches are reversed, so flipping down is on, up is off
  • Electrical outlets sometimes come in singlets
  • There are fewer outlets overall than in US apartments. Some of my walls don’t have any!
  • Toilets have two flush buttons, one big and one small (they do what you think)
  • Toilets are often in a separate room from the shower. As in, the shower room has no toilet in it.
  • Showers have detachable handheld nozzles
  • Central air is uncommon

None of these things really matter, it’s just all a little bit off, like living in a parallel universe.

New stores

Say you want to buy a TV. Or a toaster. Or bedsheets. Or a hammer, or a bicycle chain, or patio furniture, or camping gear. Where do you go? Well, I know what the answer isn’t, because Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and The Home Depot do not exist here. Finding alternatives is not so simple as googling “The Home Depot, but in Europe.” Nor is it as simple as searching for “hardware store,” because, like I said before, they speak French here. Doing a translated category search (if you can figure out what the correct translation is) will give too many results. You can’t just ask a local, because they don’t know what The Home Depot is (“Do they sell homes there?!”). You could ask where to buy a hammer, but maybe they’ll just point you to a little place down the street, but that place doesn’t also sell torque wrenches. Knowing where to buy things is something that I took for granted in America, but it comes from a lot of experience.

I have some experience with this, having changed grocery store regions a few times. Going from Wegmans-land to Virginia I spent a few weeks sussing out weather I wanted to shop at Farm Fresh or Food Lion or Kroger, and more months after that figuring out where to get certain specialty items. Plus every time I moved I checked out the local bike shops. Moving to Belgium is like that, but for everything. This will take some time.

Brands

Like the stores, brands here are also all different. I touched on this in my shopping post, but there’s more to it. Like with retail stores and electronics manufacturers, years of experience go into knowing, for example what brand of toilet paper to use. Quilted Northern does not exist here, so you’re back to square one for determining which material you trust to both clean effectively and maintain an intact barrier between your hand and poop. A frightening proposition! The same (but with less dire consequences should you chose poorly) goes for many things. Paper towells, window cleaner, dish detergent, frozen foods, trash bags…All these and more are only available with unfamiliar brands, and it’ll take some trial and error to find the good ones.

Packaged food is slightly smaller

Not by a lot, just 5-10% usually. Beer and soda comes in 330 ml, not 355. Slices of bread are just a little bit smaller. Pizzas are three inches smaller. 4-packs of things instead of 6. So I’m always finishing drinks just a little before I want to, and getting hungry more often than I’m used to. Or maybe that’s because I’ve been walking 4 miles every day.

Comfort Food

Then there’s the comfort food. This is probably the biggest issue to get over, because it’s foreign-ness inside my apartment, where otherwise I would be retreating from “being in Europe” for a while. Many foods, drinks, and condiments I had a lot of in the states I just can’t find here. “Comfort food” is maybe not quite the right term, but any familiar food means a lot more to you when you can’t find it. Examples:

  • Frank’s Red Hot
  • Froot Loops
  • Pop Tarts
  • Root Beer
  • British Beer
  • German Beer
  • Kraft Mac & Cheese
  • Mountain Dew
  • Sour Cream & Onion Potato Chips
  • 1% milk
  • Fried chicken
  • Hot dogs
  • Sweet relish
  • Corn dogs

Some of these have alternatives, some may yet be found, some I can bring back from a visit to America, some maybe I can order online, but some I will just have to do without.


I’ve maybe written a bit much for now, even leaving out a few points. At the end of the day it’s all just slightly different and takes a little getting used to. The days of real culture shock and homesickness are largely over thanks to the tools and communication offered by the internet. You can translate anything nearly instantly, research whatever questions you have, call home whenever you want, and still play games online with friends, but Europe is still a new & different place, and new & different places always take some getting used to.

Author: haveracecarwilltravel

Moved from America to Belgium in early 2016 (mostly for the racetracks) and brought my Lotus along for the ride. I also enjoy putting my D7000 to good use.

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