Every single person who ever lived even for a short while outside of its home country, had its fair share of cultural shocks. I love when people share stories about what they found completely absurd, surprising, funny, confusing, or stunning in the turf of adoption. It makes me think about my own journey and realise how similar in our differences we are. After years of living abroad, and many experiences in Italy, Poland, and Belgium, I thought it is time to share my own cultural shocks or surprises. I confess – as a non-native English speaker – cultural shocks makes me think about electrocution. I will use a lot the words surprises and differences. Thank you for your understanding 😊.
My biggest surprise of all came from Italy. NO, it was not the delicious food, the sun, not even the welcoming, easy-going people. It was a salad spinner. Yes! You read well. A salad spinner. It could have been any other country, but the first time in my life when I saw a salad spinner I was in Italy, during my ERASMUS semester. My world became richer, and my universe expanded. I had never ever suspected that such utensil exists. Being next to a space rocket or talking to an astronaut would not have had such an impression on me. I was in awe. Let me give you a bit of background. I was 21, coming from more than a modest family, raised in a village in Romania, and for the first time in my life outside of my home country. A lot of things were new, never seen before. But the salad spinner will always be for me the pinnacle of all cultural surprises. It may sound simplistic, but please remember that not everyone is exposed to the same realities. I do not doubt that the salad spinners were to be found in Romania’s shops. But I have never seen one until Italy.
With what else La bella Italia surprised that much younger version of myself? With the traffic light button. That was new. I found it efficient and practical. Again, I do not doubt that in Romania’s biggest cities the traffic lights with the button for the pedestrian crossing existed. But not in my city, nor in the city I studied. To be clear and to give you a proper timeline: I am going back in time almost two decades. In the meantime, things changed. Romania caught up. The traffic light buttons are common. But they weren’t part of my universe twenty years ago.
The journey to Italy brought up another first in my life – travelling into a no borders zone (Schengen area). As a kid born under communism, I will always carry with me the idea borders, of closed areas, of permission to go abroad. It was an early March frosty winter day when my journey started. I knew that the travel time by bus from my hometown to Rome will be around 36 hours. I was aware that I will have to go through tough border checks before entering Hungary and Austria. As a Romanian citizen back then I needed a visa to be able to travel. I will never forget the moment when the bus driver let the passengers know that we entered Italy. Just like that. No one questioning, no one stopping us for a check. What a feeling. Pure amazement. I was discovering new lands of opportunities.
Looking back, that journey was more than travelling for the first time outside of Romania. Was an initiatic journey. A door opened towards Europe and freedom.
Cannot think about my first months in Italy without recalling the supermarkets, the diversity, the options. So many choices. A bit overwhelming. But the plentifully shelves had in display Nutella 😊. I knew Nutella from TV commercials. In Italy we were properly introduced. You never forget your first jar – I ate half of it at once. No regrets.
Italy will always have a special place into my heart. It blessed me with an extended family. Grazie mille!
Next stop Poland. My stay in Warsaw equalled hard work. In between the long working days, I enjoyed discovering a city that showed to the world what rebirth from the ashes means. Poland’s history is a valuable lesson of determination and persistence. Learning more about the country’s struggles through time may not be a cultural shock, but I really wanted to mention it here. If you have a bit of time, I encourage you to do some research far beyond the Second World War.
The first surprise? The similarities to my home country. The apartment buildings, the way the small neighbourhood shops displayed their merch, some of the items on the shelves, the cashiers behind the tills. All looked so familiar. The tastes and the smells of the traditional market. All reminded of my home country, and everything eased my stay in Warsaw. Even though I left Poland one and a half years ago, I still miss the fresh produce. And I will forever declare my love for pierogies.
On the streets you had to be blind not to notice how stylish people were. Being well dressed felt like a standard everyone honoured. I confess that I miss the clothing shops, the variety, and the colours.
A puzzle I couldn’t solve: who will speak English to me?! Please do not get me wrong on this. I was living in a foreign country. I was not expecting people to speak in Shakespeare’s language. It would have been arrogance from my side and disrespectful towards the Polish people. I never properly anticipated who will reply with ease in English. I was often given a cold shoulder by people my age which I wrongly assumed will comfortably engage in a conversation, and I was pleasantly surprised by elderly who replied in impeccable English. I left Poland with no answer to this enigma.
I cannot write about Warsaw without mentioning how clean this city is. I visited most of the European capitals and some struggle to keep face. Not the case with Warsaw. It is one of the most cleanest places I ever saw.
Finally, my biggest cultural shock in Poland was the way people queue. Yes! For the second time you are reading correct. Queuing it is an art. I was planning to visit the Royal Castle in Warsaw when I saw for the first time the way people line up. It was a free entrance day for most of the museums. An occasion not to be missed. Knowing from Brussels that this type of event will attract thousands of people, I prepared myself for long waiting hours and big crowds.
What a view in front of my eyes. A straight line. People were waiting patiently one behind another. No quarrels, no one skipping the line, everyone respectfully waiting. Never seen anything like that in my life. Chapeau! And you know what? The same image repeated while waiting to enter for a Backstreet Boys concert (yes, I had a big crush on them as a teenager). I ‘ve been to may concerts in my life, but usually the getting in part was accompanied by chaos, pushing and angry people trying to be the first ones in. Again shock! Perfect line. Everyone waiting, one person behind another.
Warsaw showed me that respect and decency come in many forms, and queuing is one of it. Dziękuję!
The last stop, Belgium with my beloved Brussels. I could talk and write for months about this city and the changes it brought into my life. To keep things simple, here I will list the cultural surprises I labelled made in Belgium.
I landed in Brussels with a PhD fellowship. I was in the third year of my doctoral studies, and I arrived having clear ideas of what the relationship between a student and his/her professor is. Well, at least according to Romanian politeness standards. Back home you always, always address your Professor using the last name. There is a clear hierarchy, everyone knows its own place, and no one dares to challenge it. And for me it was a reminder of humbleness. You are still a student, there is much work ahead of you and you need to show the proper respect towards your professors. So, imagine my surprise when my Belgian professor told me to call him by his first name. It felt unnatural. The same happened when I started to work. My boss asked me to address using his first name. It took me time to adjust. I had to erase a well-known software, install, and learn a new one. I adapted and embraced the new way of positioning myself in relation with my peers and my superiors.
I cannot think about Brussels without the impact its architecture had on me. Communism left its heavy signature on the urban landscape of the Central and Eastern European countries, and hence on the image I had of a city. It was synonym with apartment buildings, lots of concrete, and only here and there a forgotten architectural masterpiece.
Oh, Brussels. I was smitten! The red bricks houses, the Art Nouveau buildings, the streets, the neighbourhoods with distinct personalities, the not seen before mix of old and new. And Grand Place. Everything was pleasant to my eye. In my lowest moments walking around Brussels and discovering what its architecture has to offer brought great comfort. And still does, after so many years.
I must mention a not so pleasant surprise: the bureaucracy. My Lord. Before starting to engage in any administrative step please be prepared. No one warned me. It is maddening. I had to learn the hard way. You will be asked to show unthinkable documents, you will be given contradictory explanations, the waiting time only to get simple answers will be close to impossible. If you manage to navigate through the complex Belgian public administration system, please congratulate yourself and know that (most probably) nothing will ever scary you.
Staying on the minuses side, I felt obliged mention the weather. I was hesitating if to point this out, but the weather is the main thing all expats love to complain about. Yes, summer in Belgium might look like an early Romanian spring, with 7 degrees Celsius in August. The heaviest to bear is not the rain (it’s not raining as much as people like to say), not the low temperatures, not even the lack of proper seasons. It is the greyness. Sometimes weeks go by without a glimpse of blue sky. But I adapted. Now every single sunny day is properly celebrated, and I say thank you Brussels for having taught me to see far beyond the clouds.
Turning to a different type of surprise – the three times cheek kissing. The first time I faced this, I was ignorant, completely unaware of the customary, unprepared, taken by surprise and profoundly awkward. With time I learned to enjoy it 😊 Wait. Do not worry, you will not kiss three times every single person you meet. It is a habit between friends and a widespread practice at anniversaries.
The biggest plus for this city I love – its diversity. I have felt accepted and at home from day one. To this day it is a blessing to be surrounded by people coming from various countries, speaking so many languages, understanding each other’s differences, all integrated in the heart of Europe.
And what better way to close these points on Belgium than using Obama’s words: “it is easy to love a country famous for chocolate and beer”. Merci and bedankt.
My dear reader, I would love to hear about your cultural shocks. Do not be shy. Please share.
Lots of love,
Sharing Simple Words