Most people know Europe has certain cultural features in common. We have the metric system, write dates DD/MM/YY, pay with the Euro (mostly) and use the 24-hour clock. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Endless little country-specific variations and local superstitions exist between lands to keep you on your toes. I’ve stumbled across quite a few while living in or exploring various locations. Here’s a random selection I’ve woven into my European crime novels: The Beatrice Stubbs Series.
How many kisses?
In Spain, Portugal and Italy, two kisses – one on each cheek – are common, even between colleagues or someone you’ve just met. In Switzerland, people kiss three times. The Brits usually shake hands or hug friends. When it comes to France, it varies from region to region – as this Mental Floss map shows – but you’re pretty safe with two.
Greetings are complicated and depend on the level of formality. Note that many European languages have two words for you – the formal and informal. Tu/vous in French, du/Sie in German, tu/você/or third person in Portuguese, and you need to be invited to switch to informal address.
When arriving at a party in Europe, check the protocol. My instinct is to stand back and let the host introduce me. In Switzerland, you are considered stand-offish if you don’t go round and say a brief hello to everyone on arrival.
“He Opened My Fridge!”
The importance of punctuality divides the north and south of the continent. Arriving more than five minutes late in the north is considered rude. Arriving too early is worse, as your hosts will be stressed and unprepared. In Italian cities like Milan or Bologna which are more formal than Rome or Naples, half an hour’s delay or longer is tolerated.
When visiting someone’s home in countries like the Czech Republic, Scandinavia and Belgium, take off your shoes as soon as you come in the door. Many homes provide guest slippers.
If you happen to be the guest of a Ukrainian or Russian, don’t whistle, no matter how good the vodka is. Whistling indoors or even in the car is a taboo, summoning bad luck on the place or whistling away your money.
Wait to be served. Helping yourself is considered impolite. Chantal from Ticino still hasn’t recovered from the time a visitor walked into her kitchen and took a beer from the refrigerator.
According to most Europeans, starting to eat without wishing each other Bon appetito, Buon provecho or En guete makes one look like a barbarian. By the same token, when you raise your glass to say Cheers, Prost or Santé, make eye contact with each person as you chink your glass of wine or beer to theirs. If you fail to do so, say the Germans, you will have seven years bad sex.
As a general rule, Europeans use both hands and a knife and fork to eat a meal, even a burger. People take a proper lunch break and go to a restaurant or café to eat. My continental business students were shocked at the UK’s sandwich-at-the-desk routine.
If someone wants you to pass the salt, place the salt cellar within their reach but do not try to put it into their hand. Particularly in southern countries, this is regarded as bad luck or a debt that can never be repaid.
Cocoa & Pyjamas or Beer & Patatas Bravas?
Unlike Anglo-Saxons, where people tend to inhabit a bar or restaurant for the entire evening, other cultures keep on the move. In San Sebastian, you stop at one bar for a drink and a pintxo with anchovies, move on up the street for another slice of tortilla, drop into a café near the sea for a coffee and enjoy one last drink in a favourite haunt.
Whereas in Brussels, the Hague, Zürich or Vienna people eat around seven or eight o’clock, in Madrid or Lisbon you usually venture out somewhere between ten pm and midnight.
European restaurants and cafés don’t fill soft drink glasses with ice or offer free refills of your coffee. If you want seconds, you’ll have to pay for them. On the subject of coffee, Europeans like it strong. Two New Zealanders visited me in Portugal and had terrible trouble sleeping, until I discovered their caffeine intake.
In Naples, you can’t book a table at the best pizzeria. You queue in the street, dodging mopeds with the crowd, and when they can fit you in, they will. It’s chaotic yet organised so that as many people as possible can enjoy a pizza they will never forget. Move on to a bar for a coffee or a grappa and take the kids – they’re always welcome.
As for attitudes to alcohol, check out this map of legal drinking ages across Europe.
Europe’s complicated history has left us jaw-dropping architecture, distinct culinary identities and individual geographical quirks. It’s an extraordinary place to explore, where you never stop learning.
In your adventures, what unexpected oddities have you encountered?
All images courtesy of Unsplash
Learn more about The Beatrice Stubbs Series here