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  • Gary Toyn

11 Things Americans Can Learn from Europeans

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

I’m a proud, flag-waving American. I love my country.

But just like my family isn’t above constructive criticism, I'd like to think I'm open-minded enough to recognize that there are often better ways of doing things.

This past week or so I’ve been traveling throughout Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, meeting with historians, visiting museums, and otherwise doing book research. Throughout my years, however, I've visited Europe far more times than I can count.

On this last trip, I started to make a list of things that they do in Europe that I like, and how nice it would be if we adopted something similar here in America. (My next article will be about some things they do in Europe that may surprise you)

Here’s my list of 11 things that America can learn from our friends in Europe.

Portable credit cards machines at restaurants

When I entertain my European friends here in the States and we go to a restaurant, they’re aghast that the server will take their credit card and disappear.

“Where are they going with my bank card?” They ask in a panic.

“Oh,” I’ll reply nonchalantly. “They’ll take it in the back, out of sight, so they can copy all your account numbers and secret codes, then bring it back after they've charged it with an open-ended amount. You must then agree to pay that amount, with your signature, before you can leave.” (I’ll talk more about tipping later). Despite my sarcasm, they get that this is just how we do it here in the States.

They do things much differently in Europe. Each server brings a portable credit card machine to your table, and you pay for the meal without ever surrendering your card.

While we are seeing more and more portable credit card machines at American restaurants, it’s not widespread, and adoption has been painfully slow. At least in my opinion.

Optional tipping

I really don’t like the way we tip in America

I’ve come to deal with it thanks to my wife who was a server and she taught me that tipping is the only way servers can survive.

Tipping is embedded into our culture. It’s really kind of scammy if you ask me. American servers get paid an hourly wage far below minimum wage because they are expected to make up the difference in tips. But that also means they have to come early to prep, and leave late to clean up, and those hours are paid at the low minimum wage. I think it’s a dumb system, but nevertheless, I will dutifully pay a 20% to 25% tip whenever we go out.

In Europe, they can’t pay servers below the minimum wage, and tips are optional, and only given for extraordinary service. While some countries tip and others don’t, I still think our tipping culture is way out of hand. I especially get annoyed about getting asked for a 15% to 20% tip at a fast-food counter when I’ve picked up my food, bussed my own plates, and cleaned up after myself.

I prefer it the way they do it in most of Europe. Tipping is optional and you don’t get guilted into tipping even if you’re not getting good service.

Cooler shopping carts

One of the things I always do in Europe is go to a grocery store and browse. I love seeing what they offer, and what they typically buy to prepare their own meals. Usually, I’ll buy spices or other non-perishable ingredients so I can make their recipes once I get back home.

While it differs from country to country, I like the various options of shopping carts they offer.

In Sweden, I saw these little shopping carts that you just pull behind you. It’s an ingenious solution to pushing around a big shopping cart or lugging around a small picnic basket that quickly gets too heavy because you remembered all the things you forgot you needed.

I’ve seen the mini-shopping carts at some American grocery stores, but I like this solution. It’s small, light, and simple.

The final price is the final price... no added sales tax

Sales tax added after the final price is another thing that really surprises my European friends when they come to the States.

In Europe they call it VAT, or Value Added Tax, and as you can see on this map, the percentage of VAT ranges from 16% (Luxembourg) to 27% (Hungary). But the tax is included in the final price, it’s not added after the total. There’s no surprise when you get to the register, especially on big-ticket items.

I know, some people may say that all taxes should be visible, so you know what taxes you’re actually paying. Retailers in Europe are required to indicate how much of the total price is due to VAT or other taxes. We should adopt the same system.

I will add, however, that I'm glad our sales tax rates in the states are usually below 10%.

Fresh, amazingly delicious bread

I know, we have fresh bread here. But the selection and the flavors in Europe are simply unique and tasty no matter where I go. And don’t get me started on their croissants. They’re buttery, light, and flaky, and can be found just about anywhere and everywhere you go. I don’t know why their bread is so good, but it's THAT good. Take my word for it.

Stinky and delicious cheese

Every European country, region, and in some cases, a town or city has its own, unique version of cheese. Using milk from not just cows, but goats, sheep, horses, and even exotic animals, they’ll make cheese out of it. And I love it all. Especially the ripened cheeses. The stinkier and softer the better for me. But if you’re not into stinky cheese, you can't go wrong when you try a local cheese with a baguette or other fresh bread. To me, that’s culinary heaven.

Mass transit that works

For those who know me, they know I’m kind of a snob when it comes to how I travel, especially when I’m in Europe. I prefer to avoid touristy places and also prefer to visit small, rural places in a rented car. I personally don’t enjoy traveling on someone else’s schedule. (i.e. with a tour guide).

But, when you’re in a city, especially a big one like London, Paris, Stockholm, etc., the mass transit system is absolutely the best way to get around. I simply download their app (usually there’s an English version,) and then I can plan my trip, view maps, buy tickets, and get entrance to the trains, buses, and even high-speed trains.

It has taken me far too long to figure this one out, but I’m telling you, it’s clean, safe, and far more efficient than driving, especially in a city. In London, for example, you’ll pay a huge penalty if you drive in downtown London without a proper permit. And they don’t give those permits out to just anyone. And they're expensive.

Don’t think mass transit in Europe is like riding the New York subway, or an “L” train in Chicago. With rare exceptions, public transit in Europe has always been clean, orderly, and safe. I often see young children traveling alone without adult supervision. If they can do it, so can you.

Handheld, adjustable showers

My European friends always seem a bit flummoxed when they take a shower here in America when they see the shower head stuck to the wall. Every shower I’ve seen in Europe has a shower head with an adjustable height, and it’s handheld so you can aim it wherever you like.

Hotel towel warmers

This is one of my favorite features of many European hotel bathrooms. These little gems will heat your towel so it’s nice and toasty when you get out of the shower (the shower which also happens to have an adjustable shower head.) I especially like it because I usually pack just two or three pair of clothes. I then wash my clothes in the sink and then dry them on the towel warmer overnight. It’s amazing how much easier travel is when you’re not lugging around a suitcase full of dirty clothes.

Private bathroom stalls

Maybe it’s just a pet peeve of mine, but I hate using a public bathroom stall here in the States. Not because many are dirty and nasty, but because of that stupid crack between the door and the door frame. That crack is usually wide enough for the whole world to look in and see what Netflix show I’m watching on my phone.

That never happens in Europe. At least not as far as I’ve seen.

Every stall closes securely, and you can tell someone’s inside by the red or green indicator in the door lock. What a genius idea.

Christmas Markets

I love the Christmas season in Europe. For one thing, it’s where many of our Christmas traditions come from. Secondly, the European Christmas season is far less about retail sales being driven by big box stores and their Black Friday ads. It’s less commercialized and more about families, community, and traditions. I really like that.

Christmas markets in Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland are among my favorites. I like that they are local, intimate family experiences with people strolling around, perusing the hand-crafted gift items in the small, brightly lit booths.

There’s usually hot spiced cider or wine (gluhwein) along with roasted chestnuts, and fresh sweets and pastries. And while I love the small-town Christmas markets, the big ones are amazing too. Munich, Paris, Rheims, Salzburg, and Strasbourg are among my favorite large markets.

Seeing European Christmas markets also means you’ll fight fewer crowds than if you traveled during the peak or shoulder season. The best part is that you’ll really get to see Europe in a new light. You’ll see and interact with people in ways that you otherwise couldn’t because there are a gazillion other tourists around. They tend to be far more accommodating, and even eager to speak to foreigners during the off-season. They also love showing off their Christmas markets, and they’ll offer suggestions on what to see and what not to miss.

These markets usually start the last week of November and go through to the end of December, and some go into January. If you’d like to check it out here’s a great way to see what I’m talking about. I love watching this guy’s YouTube Videos where he takes his hi-definition camera and walks through various Christmas markets.

(Watch this one here in Strasbourg) If you put headphones on, you get a life-like feel for the sights and sounds of what Christmas markets are all about.

I would suggest you go early in December so you don’t miss out on your own holiday traditions and parties.

No Lawyer Ads

More often than not, many Europeans dream of visiting Las Vegas. Maybe because it’s featured in many American TV shows and movies, but regardless, visiting there is often a high priority. But one of the things that seems so odd to them. So unseemly. So crass…are the thousands of billboards for injury attorneys. We see these annoying ads all over the USA. But in Europe, I’ve never seen a single advertisement for an attorney. Nada. Bupkiss. And I like it that way.

What’s your favorite thing about Europe that you’d like to see adopted here? Let me know what I’ve missed. I’d love to hear your take.

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