For the past fifteen months, I’ve been living abroad. My excuse to go a-wandering was to get a Master’s degree, but it’s a Master’s degree in poetry so I’m not really fooling anyone. You take a lot of pictures and you learn many things when you’re living in another country. Here are some of the photos and lessons I gathered in my travels.
20 Peculiar Things About Being an American Abroad
#1: You can’t hide the fact that you’re not from around here.
I tried so hard to blend into the local crowd, but I failed almost immediately. The good thing is that most of the time, this is the opposite of a problem. There aren’t many Americans in Turkey, and that meant that most of the Turkish people I met wanted me to try this food or that dance, sometimes with mixed results.
#2: There are some downsides to being a foreigner.
There are a few unusual things that happen when you’re a foreigner. The on-campus bar at my university in the UK had discounted drinks for Americans during the 2016 election night. A few months after the elections, a man on a Paris street heard me speaking English and pulled me aside to ask me how I felt about how things turned out. While I was in Turkey visiting a museum, a group of high school students asked me to pose for a picture with them for their online newsletter—just because I was an American.
#3: Castles are just strewn about all over the place.
There is a reason there are castles everywhere in Europe. That reason is the countries in Europe have been around long enough to build freaking castles. Everywhere I went, there was a castle. My university was right next to a castle. Some of the walkways and parks are old castles. It’s a bit strange to think that the streets you are walking on are older than your entire state back home.
#4: Buildings are tall, they do not sprawl.
Another thing we take for granted in the USA is space. Europe is dense, very dense, and those old streets and buildings make expansion almost impossible. This means that apartments, clothing stores, groceries, cafes, and most other buildings have at least two, very narrow floors. If you go into a McDonald’s in Paris, you’re probably going to have to walk up a few flights of stairs before you can find an open table.
#5: The streets are beautiful and will break you.
There is a timeless quality about the streets in the oldest European cities. They are often cobbled with small stones, in circular patterns that are as pleasing to the eye as they are murder on your feet. You will walk for hours on these lovely, uneven lumps. Still. Very nice to look at.
#6: Breakfast and dinner are not what (or when) you are expecting.
In France and Italy, breakfast is at most a baguette and some coffee. In Greece and Turkey, breakfast is slices of cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheese and maybe some meat or boiled eggs, all on little plates. Dinner in Europe is much later than in the USA, from around 6:00 pm in the UK to as late as 8:00 pm in France.
#7: The weather is odd and you are not ready for it.
It’s easy to take for granted that other places do not have four seasons like they do in my hometown. Most of the people I met had never seen actual snow, and everyone seemed to think a blizzard was a light coating of frost. I brought my huge winter jacket with me for no reason and laughed at how 60° F meant marshmallow jackets and scarves to the natives while I went around in a t-shirt.
#8: I will never complain about traffic in the USA again.
One of the reasons getting a car in Europe is impractical is because the traffic is a death trap. Some places do not have traffic lights or even lanes. The drivers must have a hive mind to know when to turn because I never saw any indicators. Want to cross the street? Just wait for the inevitable jam and pick your way around cars that have inches of space between them. Fun times!
#9: The Metro/Underground is wonderful and terrifying.
The best tip I can give a European traveler is figure out the public transport. Each is uniquely convenient and terrible. A line in the Underground in London might go to two or three separate locations, depending on which train it is. In Ankara you wave down buses that pull up everywhere (even alongside the highway). The Paris Metro was my favorite system, but almost daily Metro strikes meant that I was always late.