Napkins, Ice, Toilets, and Passports

Allow me to indulge in some trans-Atlantic compare/contrast’ing. I was back in Texas and Chicago for a few weeks recently, so of course noticed some difference between Europe and America. It’s the tiny differences that stack up. Talking about them can be an annoying tic of expat people. But, whatever. It’s been over two years since I’ve been back, and here’s things that stand out:

All the small talk - now that I understand most of the talking I overhear (unlike in the Netherlands), I’m hearing all the small talk people have. “How’s the weather?” “ooohhh, yeah? you’re from the UP too!”, rolling over their 401(k) to an IRA, and that kind of thing. That said, even though I barely know it, hearing Spanish is so nice. It used to surround me, growing up, and it’s so rare to hear it in Europe. (I mean, except in one of the countries, obviously).

Free napkins - I joke a lot about how spare Europe is when it comes to food. No free drink refills, no free ketchup or mayo, no free anything. But in the States, all those small things are free (or refillable). Napkins are the most notable. When you order food in Europe, they assume (or act like) all you’ll need is what Americans would call a cocktail napkin, or even the equivalent of two sheets of toilet paper. Those thin, toilet paper like napkins are often paired very poorly: with those cones of fries topped with a cup full of mayonnaise. In the states, you get more napkins than you can deal with: thick, large, almost sensuous napkins. Having lived with napkin poverty for four years now, like my depression era grandparents, I hoard these extra napkins in my bag.

The border - going through passport control in the States is a shocking experience. The agents there are very official, brusk, and, well, not very nice and welcoming. “What are you bringing back?” they stonely ask me when I say I’m coming from Amsterdam. My answer is always the same: “uh…stroopwafels…?” which is always true. That straight-faced gruffness is sort of, unfortunately, the culture of government officials with guns in the States, and it’s really not something you realize until you experience similar people abroad. When you enter the Netherlands (and the UK), for example, the people look the same, sometimes even more militaristic, but they’re so much more friendly. The passport control people in Schiphol wear big bullet proof vests, uniforms, and have guns. The men often have military haircuts and often steel arms (based on the commentary I read - rather have read to me by my wife - in Facebook expat groups, they could make very profitable cheesecake calendars)… but they’re so friendly. They’ll joke with me about not knowing enough Dutch, and even say “welcome home!”  

Bikes - well, I mean, there’s no bike lanes out here in the suburbs, obviously. In Chicago, there were bike riders, but they mix with the cars. When I make a right turn in the rental car, I find myself dramatically looking for a bike coming up on my right, an instinct you built up in the Netherlands. I laugh a little bit each time because, you know, there’s no bike lane, no bikes to look for there. Crosswalks are similar: in the US, crosswalks without a stop-light are mostly meaningless. In Europe, if someone is standing/waiting at a crosswalk, traffic stops: they’re actual things there. Austin has some pretty beefy bike lanes on some streets - I’m curious to see how much they’re used. Seems cool.

Trucks - I one of the highest status levels with Avis, so our rental got upgraded from a mini-van to a full on Chevy Suburban. This is a huge - MASSIVE - “car.” Up here in DFW, it doesn’t stand out too much though. The Suburban would be impossible to use in the Netherlands - it just wouldn’t fit in the cities, you wouldn’t be able to park it anywhere. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been able to park it in the garage in Chicago either. I had a Ford Explorer there and driving around in the parking garage was a little scary not he tight turns. In contrast, the most numerous cars in Europe are what we used to call “hatch-backs” and station wagons.

Ice - we have endless ice in America. Europe likes to put one or two cubes of ice in your drink (that you get no refills on), but ice in the US is everywhere. We bought a bag of ice at Sonic twice, maybe we’ll do it again. I’m reminded of long passages in early Hunter Thompson where he lays out his method for rum drinking: fill a tall glass with ice and pour rum over it. I mean, simple recipe, but when you’re used to little to no ice, it seems like a treat. (I won’t be drinking a tall glass of rum, don’t worry.)

Empty Space - especially when it comes to Texas, there’s so much empty space. This could be huge yards and parking lots, parks, or just land left alone. I don’t know if this is true, but around Europe I often thing “well, this place has been full of people for thousands of years, so they’ve sort of taken over everything.” Which is to say “nature” in Europe is mostly man-made and engineering. Most all of the trees in the Netherlands line up perfectly and are the same height. This is especially true in regions of Europe that were leveled in the second war. The States has so much empty space that it has “true” nature.

Friendliness - it’s a myth that Europeans are not friendly, especially when it comes to Germans. People in Europe, day-to-day, are totally normal and friendly. What I mean by this is, like, if you’re in a big city and people are on the go, they might be stone-faced, but this is the case anywhere. You find bored teens checking you out at the grocery store, have light conversation with people walking the dog, and so on. I can see that, especially in Amsterdam, the locals can be mildly intolerant of tourists. Perhaps this accounts for some attitudes Americans have about Euro friendliness. This notion of European briskness and friendliness is a turn it on its head issue: Americans are comically overly friendly. We have a much different baseline for everyday interactions. One of my favorite jokes, which I read first in The Culture Map is this: in Russia, there is a saying “when you see someone walking down the street who’s smiling, they’re either one of two things: an insane person…or an American.” Now, Europeans might be - OK, are - more forward in telling you their opinions or calling out putting lipstick on a pig. This might be another source of the American perception that Europeans are less friendly comes with: they speak their mind and call you out more frequently. I don’t know - and once you understand that it’s just, like, conversation, it’s kind of nice.

Tap to pay - while there’s a more tap-to-pay terminals in the US then when we lived here, there’s not that many compared to Europe. You can tap-to-pay everywhere, even at the hot dog stand in Europe. If you had Apple Pay setup on your phone (or whatever), you wouldn’t really need your wallet at all. I’ve had to swipe and insert my credit card many times. I forgot you sometimes have to put in your zip code at the gas pump. Weird! That said, I don’t think I’ve had to sign anything yet.

Pay-at-the-pump - one of the more bizarre things in Europe is that you have to go into the store to pay for gas. There’s really no pay at the pump. You could go into conspiracy theories about this: people buy more if you force them to go in, it employees more people. I don’t know - I think it might just be a culture thing. Pay at the pump is great, it’s awesome - it’s the only way to live!

Toilets - one of the most baffling, frustrating things about Europe is the lack of public, as us Americans would say, “bathrooms.” About the only place you can pee in public is at a restaurant, or Ikea. Stores don’t have toilets, even the biggest grocery stores. And if there is a toilet, you usually have to pay 50 cents or a euro for it. This might be fine except that Europe is increasingly a cashless city, so who carries coins? (Shopping carts aren other problem here - apparently there’s a huge shopping cart burglary problem in Europe because they chain them together and require a 50 cent deposit to get one.) Peeing in Europe is a problem. I mean, do they expect people to just pee in the bushes? And what about those people who are not equipped with the necessity equipment for easily peeing in the bushes? In the States, most any public establishment has free to use toilets - sorry, bathrooms. And people don’t care if you use them! Sure, in downtown areas there might be signs about “for customers only” and occasionally keypad locks on the bathroom doors but…those are weird exceptions and mostly ignored. I don’t know, man: Europe, figure your shit out so we can…shit.

It’s hot - Chicago, of course, is not hot. But, yes, even this time of year, Texas is warm. In Austin, of course, it’s also muggy, the air is thick. I’m interested in seeing how my 8 year daughter responds to this - I think she was young enough when we left that she won’t be used to the heat.

Dress - in Austin, people dress very, er, casual. I too am just wearing an old t-shirt and shorts. It’s hard to compare to Europe because the weather is (see above) different. When it’s cooler, you can dress in pants and a jacket, which sort of makes you look more dressed up without even trying than a that t-shirt and shorts. There’s an old clothing store ad in Austin that went something like “Austin, where women dress to go out and men dress like they’re mowing the lawn.” So far, it looks like that maxim has crossed gender lines now. I make no judgement here. Wear what you dig.

Beef - listen, beef is Europe is not good. Here, you can buy a cheap, regular cut of meat and it’s always great. I think in Europe, the beef is healthier, the cuts are different…and it ends up being more like turkey than beef.,, @cote,,