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My family and I recently returned from a trip to Europe, where we spent a few days each in Paris and London. You can read a full report of our travels at the bottom of this post – it was a great trip and it was fun taking my 2 youngest kids along with my wife. My wife and I had previously been to London a few years ago, but none of us had been to Paris (unless you count me being there as an infant, which I don’t really).

While we were there, I noticed a few things that were “different” about how things worked there. We try to teach the kids that just because something is different or unexpected, that doesn’t make it “weird” or “wrong”. Instead, I try to look at that as a learning opportunity to see how different countries and cultures do things. Here are a few differences that I was intrigued by. I tried to focus more on more subtle differences that maybe you wouldn’t expect, rather than obvious differences than “they use different currency” or “they drive on the left in the UK”. I wrote a similar article after our first trip to London, back in 2016

(SEE ALSO: 7 interesting facts about England I didn’t know before I went to London)

8 Things That Are Different About Europe And The U.S.

So, with the big caveat that obviously “Europe” is a big place and way bigger than just London or Paris (for that matter obviously the United States is bigger than just my hometown, though I’ve been to quite a few places.), here are a few things that I noticed are different from our trip to Europe than the United States.

Public Drinking Water Is Scarce

This was one that I noticed back in my original post on a similar topic back in 2016, but living in the United States, public drinking water is very prevalent. Just about any set of bathrooms will have a drinking fountain right next to them. In Europe that was not the case – I found very few public drinking fountains.

Food At McDonalds Is Way Better

This one was added by my wife and my kids – it was the first thing that they both said :-). Yes, to head off the food snobs, we eat at McDonalds on vacation. It’s clean, affordable, and there aren’t surprises. I understand that to some (many?) people, this is horrifying, though I will say that in both Paris and London, we saw plenty of locals eating there – it wasn’t just all Americans there.

Anyway, there was a significant improvement in the variety of food options at McDonalds, compared to what you might expect at one in the States. My wife was especially excited about ACTUAL vegetarian options. Now if they could only figure out a way for me to use all my McDonalds rewards points…

a hand holding a tortilla wrap

Lack of (Free) Public Restrooms

Along with the lack of public drinking water, there are not very many public restrooms, and many of the ones that do exist require you to pay. This was another one that I noticed back on our first trip to London, and I later found out that public toilets in the US used to cost something until the late 1970s – they were ended in part due to the grass-roots work of the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA).

(SEE ALSO: Why we don’t have pay toilets in America)

I’m all for learning from different cultures, but this one seems a bit strange. Is it a money-making thing? Is it to keep out the homeless? To keep them cleaner? It doesn’t seem to do much, since (as one example), when we were at McDonalds in Paris (see I told you we ate there a lot! 😀 ) there was a public restroom and it required payment (1 Euro, I think?). But instead, there was a line of people waiting for the restroom and everyone just held the door open for the next person, defeating the pay mechanism. Seems like just removing the payment required would make a lot of sense. In fact, when we were in the London train stations, they had big advertisements talking about how all of their public toilets were now pay free.

Coed Toilets

Speaking of restrooms, one thing that also surprised me, especially in the UK was the prevalence of co-ed toilets. There were several places where there were public restrooms that had co-ed sinks and waiting area with individual stalls, though apparently that is going away?

They Use Down Arrows For Going Straight Ahead

This was another one that threw me a bit for the loop. In the US – signs for continuing straight ahead typically have an up arrow. In Europe, those arrows point DOWN.

a screen shot of a sign

Took a bit of getting used to!

Street Signs Are On Buildings, Not Overhead

This is another one that surprised me the first time I was in Europe. We got to Dublin early in the morning off of the bus from Dublin airport to Dublin city, and we were trying to figure out exactly where we were. It was (very) early in the morning and the sun was just coming up and I could not find the street signs anywhere!

Turns out at least in the UK and Ireland that the street signs are all on the buildings instead of overhead. I suppose there’s nothing really better about one vs. the other – just something different to be aware of.

a brick building with a sign on the side

You WALK On The Left Too

I knew that cars drive on the left in the UK (though obviously on the right in most of the rest of Europe). But what threw me for a loop is that when you are WALKING, you also walk on the left. If you have an up and down set of stairs (like coming out of the subway), you will typically go up on the left and down on the right, which is the opposite of the way that we do it in the US (where we drive and walk on the right). I mean it makes perfect sense when you think about it – it just wasn’t something I had thought of.

Don’t Call People “Sir” or “Ma’am”

My wife grew up in the rural South of the United States, and growing up, it was mandatory that you had to call every adult “Sir” or “Ma’am”. Even now, living in a different part of the U.S. and in a time 40 years later where there is much less formality, it’s still common to say sir or ma’am, even as just a polite way of talking to friends. One thing that we noticed is that is not a thing in the UK. Apparently, “sir” or “ma’am” is reserved mainly or solely for much more formal interactions.

The Bottom Line

After recently returning from a trip to Paris and London, I noticed a few things that were different there than in the US that I wasn’t expecting. With the humongous caveat that Europe is a big place and much bigger than just Paris and London, here are a few differences that I was intrigued by. Remember – just because something is different or unexpected, that doesn’t make it “weird” or “wrong”. Instead, I try to look at that as a learning opportunity to see how different countries and cultures do things.

What are some of your biggest differences between Europe and the United States? Leave them in the comments below.

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