Thursday, January 28, 2010

Everything's Different and Nothing's Changed

Stephanie of Bonjour Madame asked me:
Since you have lived in Europe and the states, I would love to know the differences in little things like social what do people do for fun over there. And also the food, what are the big differences and habits? 
Well, if the title gives it away, it's a difficult answer.  We lived in Britain which is whoa trendy, the youth are an interesting lot, and the food can be very similar, and often heavier than American food.  The club scene is really big for teens and young adults (because you can drink from the age of 18 there is a younger crowd going out on the town there than here).  Girls tend to wear things that reveal far more than their bodies are in shape for or their modesty should allow for.  Boys tend to dress either like an upscale player or a downtown thug.  Simple enough, right?  Neither G nor I were into the club scene (G because he's more the quiet type, and me because I had already pretty much gotten that out of my system thanks to my college years) and instead went to pubs where there was drinking and even dancing at some, but not the hot nightclub the trendy kids went to.  I still enjoy an upscale night club, but prefer places with velvet seating and top shelf vodka.  Oh, and the ability to actually hear the people I am conversing with.  

There is one thing I've found to be true, however, and that is that the lifestyle you lead is one you choose.  For instance we found that when we picnicked at the Abbey there were shockingly many others who did the same.  Families who brought their kids and relaxed while playing football (soccer), older people who sat on the benches with friends or spouses and conversed and ate, teens who lounged in the grass with friends.  Britain is a very social culture, so pubs are family places, and a really good time.  Market days are huge opportunities to people watch because there is such a vast variety of people that you really can watch any type of person in a short amount of time.  Young lovers buying flowers, older women and men negotiating the produce, children licking up dripping cones of freshly made ice cream.  In a lot of senses the places G and I chose to spend time are an idyllic version of the world.  My favorite shop for clothes in the UK was a place where everyone who worked there knew me, we conversed with others in the store, and I could get valuable opinions on outfits and different ways to wear pieces.  Same for the restaurants we frequented, we tended to be known well and it was helpful in getting good food and lively service.

The food there is debatable.  Pub food is heavier, but who would turn down fish n chips just because of a little grease?  The more trendy food places served your "fusion" type foods.  For the most part any modern country has the same variety of food as the US.  There was a really good sushi place in Cambridge (oh, and for anyone who's curious, Cambridge is a great "walking" city, so easy to explore), and French and true Italian food is big for chain restaurants (such as Cafe Rouge and Strada).  The only thing I think they top us on is Indian food, because the Indian community is so big there, and it is all amazing!  We did get to try more things like Argentine cuisine (due to the population in Brandon, Suffolk) and Turkish kebab houses are everywhere as well.  I think I'm having a hard time explaining myself since we moved to the Baltimore/D.C. area and we haven't had any problem finding those sorts of places (including kebab houses) here. (Hence the title)  I would say though, that the culture around food there is different than here.  Even children and teens enjoy their food.  Sure you have KFC inching it's way in, but it definitely caters to the lower economic population from what we saw.  Teens would have their 18th birthday parties at restaurants like Cafe Rouge, which while a chain had private rooms and champagne and were more like cafes that just happened to have more than one.  

Britain, like much of Europe operates on a slower pace than America.  They take their hour or two for lunch.  Shops close down by 5 for pretty much everything, except the mall, it closed at 8 except around Christmas.  Grocery stores opened late on Sunday and closed by 4, if they were open at all!  The country as a whole is much more respectful of the need to not work yourself to death.  And the longer lunches were great for people watching as well, since you would see friends and lovers meet up for a bite.  In a lot of ways it really was like watching a British movie.  

I'm not saying the country is perfect (I am not a huge fan of their government's need to put their nose into absolutely everything), but the people were usually quite lovely and fascinating to watch.  Because they still do so much like they have for forever (markets, bicycles on long country roads, closing down for every holiday under the sun) and are not apt to change any time soon, it's a relaxing feeling of once you figure the pace out you know what to expect.  Coming back to the U.S. has been very jarring at times.  We're a more convenient country, can grab a quick bite to eat.  But we also no longer seem to understand how nice it is to just take a breath and slow down.  I know G's biggest annoyance when we moved back was servers in restaurants bringing us our bill before we'd asked.  It does feel as if you are being asked to move along, mid-conversation.  And who in their right mind wouldn't do this to customers in a business where most of your money is made from the patrons!  

I know I've rambled a bit, but the best answer, Stephanie is that their culture is slower.  They relax more, they stroll more, they eat more courses even at chain restaurants.  They celebrate more (all these restaurants have special menus for Christmas and New Years----oh, and they call it Christmas, not Holiday!), sending out certificates for free bottles of champagne for your birthday with your meal (of which we took advantage of and have noted for when we move back!).  They have people who are more specialized (cobblers, tailors, butchers, bakers), and are very knowledgeable about their profession (knowing where to send us for pigeon if they didn't carry it).  As for the food, the variety of what people eat is much greater than here, whereas many people look suspiciously upon "ethnic" foods, there that is such a huge part of their culture as a whole!  

Has anyone else noticed similar things while traveling Europe?  Anything you think I'm wrong about?


  1. After living and working in Europe for a while I have to say I agree with everything you've written, except for a few minor things - which I think are only different because I'm coming from an Australian perspective, not an American one.

    We have such a diverse range of foods available in our main cities, from all different ethnic cultures that I thought the UK was a little behind us in that area - but I agree their Indian cuisine (both in quality and the quantity of places it was available) far exceeded what was available here.

    Our drinking age is 18 here too, so I didn't notice such a difference in the drinking/pub scene as you did, but I agree complete on the quality of life issue! I think Australia may currently be half way between the US and UK on that issue? (Meaning that we are similar to the UK in work behaviour, as we inherited alot of it at our original settlement years ago, but that as immigration has occurred and our closer relationship with the US has meant we are adopting many more of their habits and work practices). A such, I too noticed (and appreciated!) the UK/European attitude of working those hours you are required to do so, and then leaving to have a life. There was no "brownie points" for staying later/working through lunch/working on the weekend - in fact people would think you were a bit sad if you didn't have plans! (and they didn't have to be big plans - watching the boyf play cricket and having a picnic on the side, or sitting in one of the Common's reading, or going to a pub (that are more like cafes) and having an afternoon wine and catch up with friends.

    I really liked that - and the fact that no one was made to feel guilty for having a life outside of work. (I realise the following observations are not true of all professions in the UK (especially banking and law), but are a summary of what I observed over my time there.

    And the fashion! I loved that most people put more effort into dressing - skirts and dresses were seen as normal day wear, not a sign that you had dressed up.

    Oh! I'm starting to miss it......

  2. Wow, thanks for the response! I get what you are saying and I learned a few new things. I did notice this on my short trip to Europe that it was a slower pace, people were outdoors, and stores were not open at all hours of the night. I enjoyed it so much. I think were I live it's not as rushed as a more cosmopolitan area of the US. We love our food here and lunches and dinners linger even if you are supposed to be at work. There is just this unwritten rule that it's ok to take a little longer.

  3. I am born in Europe and lived only here so far. While most of what you say is different from an American perspective, I would add that countries differ between them and a lunch break has different size/degree of enjoyability in Italy, France, Spain, UK, Denmark or Poland.

    As for real experience of French cuisine, I would go to France, for Italian to Italy, and so on. No Italian food tastes as it should in UK or US...

  4. J--- I laughed when I saw the rambling. I miss it too!

    Stephanie--I think I need to move to LA. Soon. Hmm.

    Anon-- I have indeed eaten French food in France and Italian food in Italy and would agree with your statement. However, I have also eaten good, authentic French and Italian elsewhere. I think it depends on the restaurant. And I cook a lot of it at home, so that is what I judge against, since I use cookbooks by people from those cultures (rather than bastardized American-French cookbooks, etc). I can't give an opinion of anything other than Western Europe, but maybe someday I will make it to Denmark or Poland. First I'm wanting to hit up Prague and Vienna!