Top 10 differences between life in Europe vs the US

This year our family has gotten used to the European way of life which has been pretty similar to life in the US apart from a few differences. Here is my top 10 list of the small and large differences between life in Europe and the US.

1. No dryers and tiny washers- Our apartment as well as every airbnb we’ve stayed in this year has been devoid of a dryer. So, we’ve been hang drying all our clothes this year. Because of a smaller size washer (and a relatively small drying rack), we end up doing our laundry twice a week instead of once a week and we have to plan about 2 days in advance if we want clean clothes because it can take that long for our clothes to line dry. Line drying our clothes has probably lengthened the life of our clothes, as well as saved us a lot of energy (if we switched to line drying our clothes in the US, according to this article, we’d save 3.3% of our total residential carbon emissions.) However, despite the obvious environmental benefits, I have to admit, I am looking forward to being able to wash and dry my clothes in one day when we get back to the states. On the left is our drying rack in Norway and on the right, someone line drying clothes in Venice.

2. Supermarkets- The average grocery store in Europe seems to be half to one third of the size of a regular US grocery store and the items in that store are similarly half to a third of the size of US items (and there are fewer choices for each item). For example, it seems most people buy milk by the pint, and eggs by the half dozen. If you want a bag of tortilla chips, it will be about one third of the size of a bag of tortilla chips in the US. Even the paper towels are smaller. Because portion sizes are smaller (and because we live above on grocery store and within a 5 minute walk of 4 other grocery stores), John and I have taken to grocery shopping about once a day. So, this year we have wasted a lot less food than we usually do because we don’t buy food we don’t need and the food doesn’t go bad before we can eat it. Also, you always bag your own groceries in Europe and they always ask if you want a plastic bag before providing it because you usually have to pay a small fee for them. I love this because I always find it awkward in the US when you have to preemptively tell someone that you brought your own bag before they waste one on us. Below John with the tiny bag of chips that is the practically the only option at our local grocery store:

3. EU Regulations- Because the EU has stricter regulations than those in the states. I generally feel much safer here. I know my food has fewer chemicals in them, my medicine is better regulated, my children are in safer car seats and I have no fear of an active shooter. (I just looked it up- in the US there are 120 civilian owned guns for every 100 people but in most of Europe, there are only 30 civilian owned guns for every 100 people- a 75% reduction). I am also jealous of the European Union’s ability to protect the environment. For example, major single use plastics, like plastic cutlery, straws, and plates will be banned in Europe by 2021. I wonder when the US will be able to do that? 

4. The Metric System- As a scientist and engineer, I have always been envious of the metric system (kilometers, celsius, grams, etc.) because conversions are so easy within it. However, having grown up in the US, my intuitive sense of measurement is still firmly in the Imperial system (miles, Fahrenheit, pounds, etc.) which makes me sad. Whenever anybody talks about the weather in Norway (which is often), I find myself doing mental gymnastics, converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, and back again. The same goes for units of weight and volume. When I find a European recipe, I often have to convert from grams or deciliters to cups and ounces (since we do not have a small kitchen scale like most Europeans). Fortunately, because of track and cross country, I do have a firmer sense of a kilometer. If only the other metric units would be so intuitive! (As an aside, everyone in Europe uses military time which also makes more sense than using AM/PM for everything but because I’m not used to it, I find myself subtracting 12 from all afternoon/evening times.) Below is the weather forecast according to yr.no, the most accurate weather organization in Norway. Is 14C warm or cold? Why do I still have to convert!

5. Public Transit- Living in and visiting cities with good useable public transit systems has been a blessing. Living without a car and relying only on public transit has been so easy in Norway and almost all the cities we’ve seen in Europe, it will honestly will be the thing I will miss most about Europe. I have loved the trains, metro systems, street cars and buses in Europe and living in walkable cities has been good for our health too as I mentioned in this post. Below Ada plays with her best friend Kiana on the train on the way back from their ballet recital:

6. Free/Reduced University and Free/Reduced Healthcare- Unlike the United States, Europeans don’t come out of college with huge student loans. That is because in most countries, going to University is mostly free in your home country! That is pretty incredible and if you think about it, makes so much sense. Also, healthcare is single payer and people are never bankrupted or have to stick to a certain job to ensure they are covered. See our post on the healthcare system in Norway here.

7. Worker Rights- Close to 80% of workers in Norway are represented by a Union. Because of these strong unions, Norwegians get 8 weeks of paid vacation a year, a livable wage, and work only 37 hours a week. This is not uncommon throughout Europe and I think is one of the reasons why Norwegians are so happy. Norwegians have more time to develop hobbies, exercise, travel and spend time with their families. This is the thing John, who is used to a 60 hour work week in the US, will miss most about living in Europe. (One of the interesting results of this history is that in Norway, to protect workers rights, almost everything, including almost all grocery stores over 100 square meters are closed on Sunday in Norway which is something we still haven’t gotten used to.) Below are John and his colleague at the University of Oslo. Both were contacted by the union at the University to see if they wanted to join.

8. The Kitchen- Ovens, Ice and Voltage- Ice is not common in Europe- It is not often served with water at a restaurant and an ice maker is virtually unheard of as part of your home freezer. Ovens are standardized in Europe to include slots on the side where you can slide in a sheet pan or even a sheet cake pan. Also, most appliances in Europe work on 230V instead of the US’s 120V.  230V is actually great because it means our vacuum is more powerful and water comes to a boil faster than in the US. 

9. Language. It seems like most people in Europe speak at least two languages if not more. One of Maddie’s friends from preschool already is fluent in 3 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, and English) and is learning Mandarin from her Nanny. Switzerland has four recognized national languages- German, French, Italian and Romansh. Maddie’s best friend at school who is also from the United States noticed early in the school year that she was one of the few people in her class who spoke only one language. 

10. Privacy in the Bathroom or WC. The public bathrooms (mostly known as WC in Europe) are not like the ones in the US. Instead of stalls loosely connected with small gaps in between most of the connection including one large gap at the bottom, bathroom stalls in Europe are built like doors in a home. They have no gaps and offer complete privacy. Also, a red notice shows when you lock a stall so there is no need to check to see if you see feet underneath to try to open it. That red notice makes so much sense! (Also, there are lots of dual flush toilets and far fewer sensors that automatically flush which I like because it saves water and doesn’t scare my children when it flushes while they are still on the toilet!)

Of course, these are just a few of the differences between the US and Europe and there are many similarities. There are also a ton of differences between countries in Europe and even more differences if you compare the US to non western industrialized educated democracies. If you have time, feel free to post in the comments any other differences (or even similarities) you noticed when you compare life in the US with life in Europe!

2 thoughts on “Top 10 differences between life in Europe vs the US

  1. For temperature, I find it easiest to remember a few reference points: -40°C=-40°F, freezing 0°C, room temperature 20°C (68°F), body temperature 37°C, boiling °C. Those generally give me at least a vague idea what a given temperature means, without having to do arithmetic in my head.

    Whether 230V or 120V is used does not affect how powerful a vacuum cleaner is nor how fast a kettle comes to a boil. Both of those depend on the power, not the voltage, and one can design for high or low power at either voltage. Currents are lower for a given power level at the higher voltage, which means you can get away with thinner wires, but that’s about the only real advantage.

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    1. Thanks for the tips on the C to F conversion (I usually could get a vague idea on my own but it bothered me I had to use tips like that in random conversations about the weather and that I never felt as accurate in C as in F.) As for the 230V vs 120V, our thought was that if there were limits to current for safety, you could get more power in general at 230V than 120V but perhaps I am wrong and they do simply use thinner wires and proportionally less current at 230V than at 120V.

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