Moving to a totally foreign place always comes with many culture shocks. As a young, small town raised, Gen Z American girl, it’s easy to romanticize Europe. There are so many cool things here, like beautiful cathedrals, castles, fuzzy cows, and affordable healthcare. Coming from the US, Europe also feels tiny in terms of travel; If you fall asleep on a train in the Netherlands you could wake up in Germany! Moving to the Netherlands, I was so excited! I couldn’t wait to explore and get to know my new city and zoom all around the continent.
Of course, living here came with many surprises both positive and negative.
1. The Weather
Moving to the Netherlands from California in February was definitely a huge shock to me. At home, it was nice spring weather, but the Netherlands was still cold and rainy. It snowed my first week there, and I didn’t realize how much near-constant cloud cover would affect my mood. The weather in Belgium, where I live now, is very much the same: little sun, lots of rain.
When moving to a normally cold country, it’s important to consider the weather and its potential effect on your emotional health. No matter where you are, your health is the most important thing!
But even though the weather here does frequently suck, it’s still gorgeous (and the summers here are getting hotter every year). Plus, there are still beautiful sunsets. Being grateful to live in such a beautiful place helps me stay positive and appreciate the little things when there’s no sun and remembering how much I hate being cold makes me appreciate the sweaty summers.
2. The Food
I grew up in a family who loves spice. My favorite foods are spicy and salty. Unfortunately for me, I was completely unprepared for some of the food norms here (eating bread with breakfast, lunch and dinner?) and the little variety I found in many supermarkets. It can be pretty hard (especially, I’m finding, in Brussels) to find any real spicy peppers in a corporate supermarket here. To find them in Belgium, you’ll have to go to a Moroccan market or maybe one of the farmer’s markets held in Brussels on the weekend. I definitely had a big food culture shock moving here!
Another different food habit that I’ve noticed is that people here (Belgium and the Netherlands) tend to not store their leftovers in containers. Instead, they leave it in the cooking pot and just put it in the fridge with the lid on. That’s really strange to me, but I guess it’s much more convenient!
In the US, it’s common to find everything you would need in one place, like in Target or Costco. Not here! When I first moved here, it was a huge shock to have to go to a different store for all of your different needs. I was used to being able to find medication, lotion, and toys in the same place that I could buy my food.
In Europe, even though there are a few department stores like the Carrefour Market in Belgium or the Albert Heijn in the Netherlands, the shopping is generally much more separated and there are fewer indoor malls. Instead, there are large outdoor shopping districts with several specialized shops in the same place. This is different from a regular American outdoor mall because there’s usually a road that cars drive on even when there could be hundreds of pedestrians; it’s just a regular street!
4. Public Transportation
This one was really a pleasant surprise. I moved to Europe almost directly from Korea, where public transportation is very efficient, but can be super expensive.
In the Netherlands, public transportation is very convenient, efficient, and there are generally very few delays. You can just travel with a reloadable OV-Chipkaart or with disposable tickets, which can be purchased at a kiosk or by machine, respectively. The price of your journey is determined by the distance you travel, so you have to check in and out when you get on and off the bus, tram, metro, or train.
In Brussels, each journey is the same price, so you only need to check in. Sometimes this can make your fare much cheaper, and sometimes it makes it a little more expensive since a single journey ticket is around 2 euros. For students like me, however, I can pay a fixed price of 50 euros per year for a transportation card with the city line service (STIB-MIVB) with unlimited use within Brussels.
5. Language and Travel
American culture doesn’t really actively support being bilingual or a polyglot. Growing up, knowing anything other than English meant that you were an “other” and it was made fun of or exoticized (or both). I love that it seems totally different here. Most people are at least bilingual, and in Brussels, it’s common to speak at least 3 languages, no problem.
Also, many other European students I meet travel a lot, either alone or with their families. They’ve almost all been to several other countries and love to travel on the weekends. It makes a lot of sense that students would travel in Europe since travel is cheap and accessible!