Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, we all have internalized the customs and normal sights and sounds of the places we live. This may be as specific as one town we’ve lived most of our lives in, or as wide as the culture of the entire United States, that base that is shared among all the states you might’ve traveled to. We get used to things a certain way and think, at least unconsciously, that most of these are normal everywhere.
Then, when we leave our homes, our familiar locales, we can be in for a great shock. Little gestures mean different things, good manners are far different, traditional happenings are absent or replaced, etc. All this is part of traveling abroad, but it can surprise the unprepared traveler. Here are some stories from adventurous travelers about the things which shocked them most.
38. Most People Just Take It For Granted
My family is from Egypt, but my parents moved to the US before I was born.
My aunts and uncles come to visit every so often. They always come during the winter for one reason. Snow.
It was weird being like 7 or 8 years old and watching my aunts and uncles in their 30’s playing in snow like little kids. I remember waking up on a snow day and being excited to go out and play. It was like 8 am and they already had forts, a snow man, and about 50 snowballs waiting for me to step outside.
37. Is That American Or Dutch?
As an American, it’s weird because you can hear a conversation in Dutch from far away and it sounds just like an English conversation. The intonation, the cadence of speech, even some specific words; I feel like I already know what the conversation is about. So then you get closer and you realize it’s not English. But wait, maybe it is?? They’re probably just from Wales or something…but no, that last word sounded totally German. Maybe just guys from rural UK somewhere? Nah, gotta be Dutch.
36. Somebody Have These Ladies Arrested
35. Old Vietnamese Lady Doesn’t Give A… Darn
Hanoi, Vietnam: Sweet-looking old woman (looks like in her late 80s, but was probably younger) shuffles up to a street corner where we’re waiting to cross the street. She leans her back against a sturdy tree right next to us, looks me directly in the eye and while maintaining eye contact and starts to relieve herself against the base of the tree. Even cracks a little smile mid-process.
34. Officially Only The Mexican Bribe
My company has a factory in Mexico and we always hire the same driver for white people coming to visit. Once when I was there we got pulled over and our driver told us to give him a $20 to bribe the cop. The driver and the cop then start having an argument in Spanish and eventually the cop radios someone, takes our $20 and goes. I ask the driver what that was all about and apparently, he had a deal with the chief of police that his fares only had to pay the Mexican bribe not the American bribe and the cop had to call the station to double check that the deal was legit.
33. Politeness To A Bostoner
How nice everyone is in Ireland. I’m from Boston and if you drive there you get a horn and a nasty look. When you signal to switch lanes, the driver usually speeds up and honks madly at you even if you had your blinker on. Drive in Ireland, they actually slow down to let you in. It was unreal. People are just so polite.
32. Which Portuguese Can Spoil You More
I was shocked at the hospitality of the Portuguese. My family is Portuguese so I knew it was built into the culture, but every time I visit I’m truly shocked at how much it seems like a contest of WHO CAN SPOIL THE VISITORS MORE. A local government official who I’d just met in Albufeira through my cousin cleared his schedule for a couple days and traveled up to Lisboa JUST so he could show me around for the last couple days I was there. I was amazed at how genuinely proud of his country and his knowledge of the little hole-in-the-wall places made for an unforgettable experience.
31. The Politeness Of German Police
I was in Koln, Germany, it was about midnight, and I was just sitting in the Rudolfplatz (like a courtyard square with stores and restaurants and benches) and watching young people out and about. There was a young man sitting on the sidewalk, drawing with chalk on the concrete. A police car was just patrolling through, as cops are supposed to do. This young man was blocking their way, and he didn’t move for them. He didn’t even really look at them – he just kept drawing. The cop car sat there for a second, then reversed, found another way around him, and went about their business.
I was dumbfounded. That would NOT happen in the U.S. The cops would have barked the siren at him, shined lights on him, honked at him, gotten out, demanded ID, gone through his stuff, and probably arrested him for some reason just to show him who’s boss.
Seeing those German cops just keep on patrolling to ensure the safety of everyone, rather than detain him despite seeing that he’s not causing anyone any trouble really stuck with me, more than almost anything else I experienced on that trip.
30. Knife A Sandwich
More bewilderment than shock, but everything in Brazil is eaten with a knife and fork. We got these amazing sandwiches, and when I went to take a giant American bite out of it, I was nudged and reminded that everyone uses utensils. The pizza I could handle, but a 3-inch tall sandwich? I don’t have the utensil expertise for that.
29. Not A Hobbit!
I am 160cm (5ft3) not tall but I was living happily in the UK; went to the Netherlands on a business trip…
I cannot see myself in the toilet mirrors. I thought maybe just the client company’s office installed it a bit too high.
Went to the hotel after work. Showered got out. And can clearly see the mirror anti fogged is turned on and working. Again, I cannot see myself in the mirror’s non-fogged area.
I felt like a hobbit.
28. Soda In A Bag
Went to Mexico. Ordered a Coke from a cart lady on the street. She popped the tab, pulled out a tiny sandwich bag and poured the contents of the bottle into the bag and handed me a straw. She kept the bottle. I know they get a pretty good trade in value for recycling the bottles, but it was still strange and definitely caught me off guard to be served soda in a bag.
27. Figuring Out The Sales Tax
Sales tax not showing on the price tags in America really confused me. Was on my last day in Chicago doing all my clothes shopping and worked out what I could spend only to get to the till and be 40-50 dollars short because I didn’t know I had to add on sales tax.
26. You Must Wait For The Little Green Man
How German people will not cross the street unless the green Man light is on.
10 people waiting at a deserted crossing, late in the evening, small Road, maybe 5 steps, not a car in sight, and no one crosses, they will happily wait minutes without any traffic for the little green Man. Baffled me. If it’s safe just go to the other side of the road.
25. Bribery To Smoke In Kiev
I went to Kiev recently and within the first two minutes of being there (literally in front of the airport) my buddy and I got pulled into an interrogation room with 5 cops standing around.
Apparently, you can only smoke in designated areas, even when standing outside! Needless to say they wanted a bribe, we argued for a bit and eventually, I gave one of the cops the equivalent of 6 euros.
This happened again a couple days later at a bus station, again they took us to an interrogation room but this time my buddy refused to pay. They took away his passport and he argued with them over google translate until he was released with his passport and no bribe was paid.
24. Loving Lighter Dude In Tokyo
I asked one of those guys outside the restaurant in Tokyo if he had a lighter I could borrow. Dude pulls out a satchel with what must have been 50 lighters.
He hands me one and I instantly love this guy, so of course I pull out a couple hundred yens from my pocket to give him as a tip.
I’ve never seen someone be so shocked and on the verge of crying because of a tip. He refused to accept anything from me and gave me a hug.
It was very surreal.
23. Safely Unattended Child
I spent three months in Japan this year. One weekend it was quite hot, so my girlfriend and I decided to go to a big water park (Rainbow pool at Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa). The place was packed- thousands of people. We were astounded when we saw one couple leave their less than two-years-old child, who was asleep in a stroller, completely unattended while they got in the pool. They just left the stroller in the shade and got in one of the pools. They didn’t even stay within eyeshot of the kid. I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else in the world- leaving a sleeping child unattended in a crowded park without fear of something bad happening.
Also, I lost my wallet once and four people chased me down to return it to me. In the U.S city where I live, those four people would have been fighting with each other for the right to steal the wallet.
22. Secret Japanese Grandmother Martial Arts
You want politeness, go to Tokyo. The trains are jammed and a couple of times I have had men in uniform with white gloves gently pressing the crowd onboard. Elderly Japanese women will simply poke their knuckle into a secret pressure point in your back that will make you move forward in agony. I have never been so happy to be 6’1″ as when I am jammed on those trains.
21. Let Sleeping People Lie
If you wander the city late at night in Shinjuku you can see trash piled up in corners and people (overly inebriated) lying around everywhere. But by morning the next day, everything is gone.
What I found more fascinating is that when you walk in the residential areas you’ll see people sweeping and mopping the sidewalk in front of their houses every morning.
20. “A Little English”
When I moved to the Netherlands a few years ago from the USA I deliberately wrote down the things that struck me as strange a few weeks into it because I knew I wouldn’t remember later, and here are a few.
Bicycles are everywhere and are a far more common mode of transport than cars… yet no one wears helmets.
A Dutch person telling you “I speak a little English” is like Stephen Hawking saying “I know a little physics.” I really had no idea it could be so easy to move to another country where you don’t speak the language, and that’s because the Dutch are so amazing at English (unlike other countries, for example, TV here isn’t dubbed but instead in original language and just subtitled).
Big Bird is blue in Holland! I mean, they claim he’s Pino, Big Bird’s cousin, but I’m not fooled. You know he really just moved here to explore an alternative lifestyle.
Descending into LAX was pretty wild because there was smog everywhere. I was so confused, and so innocent. I thought it was all just clouds.
But it was so cool seeing a real live palm tree. Like, a lot of them. Like I felt like I was in Rocket Power.
For some reason, Hollywood being small and gross didn’t surprise me, but then again, I’m from NYC. Luckily I was staying with a friend, so we did almost no touristy stuff. She just showed me the places she liked to go. California is very beautiful. Going to the beach and seeing mountains right there blew my mind. All I see at the beaches here is glass and other garbage.
18. Swedes: Hardcore From Birth
Swedish babies are hardcore. And people are awesomely chill and friendly. In mid-January, it was knee-deep snow everywhere, yet in Stockholm it was pretty common to see parents enjoying a drink at a cafe, with a queue of prams outside in the snow.
The babies are wrapped up heavily yes, but they are fully comfortable leaving them outside like that. No fears over child-thievery, or worries about the cold. These kids are brought up to be metal right from the word go. It’s awesome.
I imagine if you tried that in the UK (or especially the US) there’d be hysteria and child services would relieve you of your parenting.
17. It’s Just This Clean?
Slovakia -> Austria. How clean can a country be? Lack of dirt, roads, and sidewalks in good condition, flowers everywhere. No old torn posters, no billboards on every lamp post.
I like to think that their state or police make them clean up against their own will but most probably they just like it that way and we got used to our dirt during communism.
16. Nod For No
My mind was blown when I went to Bulgaria that they nod their heads to mean no and shake their heads to mean yes. I just couldn’t change my programming while I was there, one day I tried to buy an ice cream for an obviously homeless young boy. When I asked him if he would like one he shook his head and I went on my way. Only later did I realize that he wanted some and I must have seemed really mean.
15. Believe The Stereotype
Canada – that the friendly and polite stereotypes were actually incredibly true in my experiences (I loved it!), the weather still shocked me even though I knew Canada got cold – until I experienced 2 Canadian winters I could never have even understood what that type of cold felt like. Other things: the number of amazing squirrels, Canada’s rampant green culture (I’d heard of it, but I didn’t expect to smell it every time I went outside somewhere).
14. Party, Icelandic Style
How much Icelandic people like to party.
Was at a place in Reykjavík and I saw a girl fall down on the dance floor. Her friend picked her up and hit her in the face to wake her up.
The girl woke up instantly and then proceeded to drink a lot more, and then started dancing again like nothing had happened.
13. Plants Can Do That?
The diversity and beauty of the plant life in Guatemala blew my mind. I live in a pretty dry grassland, so visiting somewhere that is wet enough to grow coffee and sugar was quite an experience. I had no idea plants were capable of making the colors and shapes that I saw, let alone growing so thick together.
12. Dodging Property Taxes In Iran
I went to Iran, and all along the roads in the entire country are big piles of rubble. I mean like 3 feet tall piles of rocks just lining the roads for miles and miles.
Apparently, when building a new home, you don’t have to pay property taxes until the job is complete, and the job isn’t complete until all the rubble is cleared away. So they build the house, move all the rubble to the curb for pickup, and the pickup guy just never comes.
11. Lack Of Snake Safety
Safety precautions in Thailand. Many places were pretty good, except this one snake farm in Chiang Dao. I walked past a cage with dozens of snakes inside which was shut with an unlocked padlock. All you had to do was remove it and you could let out all these snakes. Go figure.
Also at the snake farm, there was a show and there was a sign above the arena which said (word for word) “During the show, please be seated. If there is any danger, we will not be responsible.”
Yeah, that place was weird, but if you stay away from there, Northern Thailand is a beautiful place.
10. Even The Little Things
This is probably really minor but calling out your type of payment in the States is something you don’t have to do. At least in every place I’ve been to in the US.
I’m from Canada and every city, town, store I’ve been to here you have to say you’re paying with debit if you’re gonna, well…use your debit card. Then they fire up the debit machine and you proceed to pay.
Every time I go to the states and I call out debit or credit everyone just looks at me weird. Turns out you can just swipe or insert a card without saying a thing. Tbh, this is what shocked me the most when visiting the US.
It’s the little things that shock me the most.
9. Undiscovered Albania
How beautiful and untouched much of the landscape was in Albania, and how rich their history is. In the morning I’d be climbing a medieval castle built in the 1600’s, looking down at a stunning landscape, littered with concrete bunkers from the communist era in the 20th century. Midday I’m relaxing on the lovely untouched beach, then in the evening, I’m exploring the fascinating ancient Greek city of Butrint.
Everything there was also immensely cheap, and restaurants do great food if you know where to go. I recommend you go whilst it is still relatively unknown, because more and more tourists have started to come each year.
8. The Odd US Toilets
US toilets (at least all the ones I encountered in a weeks’ trip to New York City) are odd. Too low and too full of water so it’s easy to get the back of your dress or jacket or whatever wet with toilet juice. The toilet paper was also 1-ply or barely better EVERYWHERE, even fairly fancy restaurants. And the gaps in the doors! Where is the privacy?!
7. Through A Mirror Britishly
How oddly similar things were in London. Coming from the US, it was almost the same, but it was all just a bit off. Like some weird mirror image of the States. It was more unsettling than the places I’ve been where the differences were more obvious.
6. Closing Time
How early everything closes. I’m so used to the U.S’s 24hr mentality. The U.K and Italy close almost everything by 7 pm. So, if you want to buy a toaster at midnight, just ’cause… You can’t. It’s pretty inconvenient, but at the same time, I bet their citizens love the free time and don’t feel as overworked as some of us do.
5. Do People Actually Work Here?
As someone from New England… LA might as well have been foreign. No one seems to work. Studio City, the hills, West Hollywood, the downtown areas, other random suburban areas… no one works. The Japanese supermarket with amazing ramen is packed all the time. The coffee shops and restaurants overflow with people just, kinda, hanging out. I saw some people typing on laptops, or taking phone calls, but overwhelmingly I just saw people relaxing. Gossiping. Talking about the biz but never doing business.
Where does work happen in this town?
4. They Trust You To Just Come Back
US to Spain: People are more trustworthy.
This might be specific to the area I visited rather than the whole of Spain.
I visited Logroño and San Sebastián this past September. When we would go out to eat pintxos/pinchos/tapas, the restaurants were all bar style and packed with customers. You would order at the bar, they would give you your food, you would go find some corner to eat (sometimes even outside in the street), then you return to pay. In the time you were eating, typically 5–10 other customers would order. As far as I could tell, everybody came back to pay. Nobody took advantage of the system to dine and dash. I can’t even imagine how disastrous that system would be in America.
To give an analogy, this would be like ordering at the front of a place without opening a tab or a waiter taking your order, going off to eat outside of the restaurant, then after finishing everything, returning to pay your bill.
3. French Escalator Racing
French people (or Parisians, at least) are INTENSE about escalators. Your options are to either stand to one side (the right side, I think?) or sprint up the other side like an angry baboon is chasing you. If any part of you sticks out into the passing lane – you’ll hear all about it.
2. Only The Tourists Excercise Publicly
I went to several places in Greece – mostly Athens.
Nobody exercises in public. I went on jogs a lot, and people would have very surprised reactions. “Why is this person running? Something must be wrong. There must be an emergency somewhere.”
In 3 weeks, I also never saw someone in shorts that wasn’t a tourist. Despite it being 90 degrees in May, people were wearing scarves, full suits, hats, gloves.
Horrendous drivers and roads. Thought I was going to be run over at busy “crosswalks.” People will knowingly drive within an inch of your body.
I really enjoyed my time, though. I hate how we all pour into Wal-marts for food in America. It was so nice taking a walk to the butcher/market/cheese store, etc. Getting to see everything prepared right in front of you.
1. Barefoot In An Austrailian Summer
I was shocked to see kids running the streets and even the shopping centers without shoes in Australia. After 22 years my silky Irish soles still cannot bare the heat of the Australian ground in summer. My husband, on the other hand, would fix storm damage barefoot.
Bonus: Japan For The Win
People feel like they’re supposed to watch out for one another, including (especially) watching out for the little kids. In such a culture, it’s kind of like everyone is a trusted cousin or neighbor. Really nice, actually. Not to say there’s no variation, but the desire/responsibility to cooperate and help with another’s safety seems strong there.
You might enjoy the TV series “Hajimete No Otsukai” (“my first errand ever”), about little kids being sent on an errand across town. It is adorable and a little terrifying to watch. 4-5-and-6-year-olds hiking across town to the grocer for mom, or even getting on a train to “give dad his lunch he ‘accidentally’ left at home.” The kids look so proud to go on their first big errand, but so afraid as well.
It is a big moment that often has the mom crying as the child strolls away on their first ever big responsibility. They show rigs the kids with a hidden microphone, and chase them secretly through the streets with cameras, to give the world an inside look at the whole experience. Very few kids get on that show, but almost all kids do a mission like this as a rite of passage.
Search “Hajimete No Otsukai” in YouTube, you’ll be wiping away tears of laughter, and tears of cocern, love, and joy!