Europe and England after a year away

Back when we used to blog regularly, one of our favourite themes was reverse cultural shock, or perhaps not shock, but at least things about the US that stood out to us in starker contrast after we’d been away for an extended period of time.

Well, as I’ve recently just spent three weeks in the UK, France and Switzerland after having moved away from the Olde Worlde about a year earlier, it seems fair to note some of the cultural idiosyncrasies that either had faded from memory, or that stood out more this time, as a visitor:

1. Walking distance

I knew one person in Washington who walked to work. Upon returning to London, I remembered that, despite the city having much better public transport, and becoming always more cycle-friendly, many of my friends walked to work every day, even those for whom ‘work’ was several miles away.

I also had forgotten how, at most Tube stations, there is an area map, overlaid with concentric dotted circles, showing what is within a 5-minute, 15-minute and 25-minute walk. Certainly, the 25-minute radius (and maybe even the 15-minute one) wouldn’t be necessary in the US, because something that is a 25-minute walk away is generally not within our walking distance. Of course, Europeans can’t compete with, say, women in rural Africa, but still, they seem to enjoy a good walk a bit more than most Americans.

2. Open windows

One imagines this house would burn down quite easily if someone were smoking.

Well, it’s kinda open

Just as Brits’ and Europeans’ sense of tolerable walking distance seems to be rather longer,their range of acceptable temperatures seems to stretch much lower. Keep in mind that I was in London over New Year’s, and in France and Switzerland from early to mid-January. Nevertheless, almost everyone I stayed with opened their windows for some portion of the day; granted the temperatures were generally above freezing, but well below the point any American would think of cracking them open.

Depending on where in the US you live, you might have no more than a few dozen days during the year when your windows are open; the rest of the time it’s either too hot, too cold, or (more likely) you just prefer the sweet, artificial feel of blasting heat/AC.

3. The smoking

One reason so many people Europeans crack open a window is to air out a room whilst smoking. I remember now that, when my grandma had visited us in London, she commented on how many more smokers there were, and I guess I do remember being a bit surprised that some of my Continental friends who were otherwise young-green-healthy types nevertheless smoked.

But upon returning, I was almost overwhelmed by the tobacco clouds. Granted, they were much more pronounced in France and Switzerland, but even in London, I was reacquainted with the sight of antsy bus and train passengers preparing a cig, anxiously tapping their fingers, and positioning themselves to light up the moment they stepped off the bus or train.

Obviously, there were plenty of other differences that I remembered and was happy/resigned to discover again. But traveling is always full of new surprises, even when you’ve visiting places you thought you already knew!


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