Our European Odyssey

This blog covered our month-long trip to Eastern Europe -- specifically the countries of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Eastern European Differences (The Bad and the Ugly)

Yesterday we talked about things that were better in Eastern Europe than here in the U.S. Now for our list of things that made us miss the good ol' U.S. of A while we were away.

Friendliness is a big one. After we spent some time with people in Eastern Europe, they were quite friendly and jovial, but when we dealt with strangers, they were much less so. This goes for cashiers, wait staff, bus drivers, etc. In Eastern Europe, you rarely hear "hello" (which made it difficult for us to learn how to say it in any language), and when you smile at someone, your smile is rarely returned. We passed a nun in full dress one day, and she didn't even smile back at us. And we were so happy when a waiter told us to have a nice day that we almost jumped up and hugged him. No one had told us that since we left the U.S. A smile and a simple greeting really go a long way toward making you feel more comfortable in a strange environment.

Along the same lines, the service in stores and restaurants in Eastern Europe is relatively nonexistent. The server in a restaurant takes your order, brings your food and never comes back. It is even difficult to get his or her attention when you want the check. Tipping (10 percent to 15 percent) is expected, however. Similarly, cashiers in grocery stores expect you to bag your own food. While we were in Zakopane, four non-hard-working cashiers in a grocery store shared a laugh at our expense (we think) as we bagged our own items while they did nothing (except laugh at us).

Speaking of cashiers, for some reason, they don't seem to like it when you pay with "big" bills. This was incredibly annoying when big bills were all the ATM gave us. But the worst part was that they really weren't that big. For example, if something cost the equivalent of $5.15 in U.S. money and we paid with the equivalent of a $20 bill, the exasperated cashier might ask us in her most pissed-off voice whether we had anything smaller. We guess we were being difficult... Also, it's common in the U.S. to, for example, give a cashier $20.25 if something costs $15.24 just to avoid getting back so much change. We tried to do this several times in Eastern Europe, and cashiers frequently handed us the coins back. We don't know whether they just assumed we were dumb tourists who couldn't figure out their money, but we actually would have made their lives just that much simpler. Oh well.

The prevalence of smoking in Eastern Europe was a major concern for us. We breathed in more secondhand smoke in our month there than we had in a long time. It seems like smoking rates are much higher there, and unfortunately, we didn't see non-smoking sections in restaurants (except in Pizza Hut). Although plenty of people smoke in the U.S., it is a lot easier to avoid secondhand smoke here. We should mention that Krakow seemed to be an exception. We saw few smokers there.

We realized while traveling around Eastern Europe that someone in a wheelchair or disabled in some other way would struggle to get around at all there. If the countries we visited have laws like our Americans With Disabilities Act, we certainly couldn't tell. It was disheartening. Almost none of the sights we visited had wheelchair ramps or elevators. Most of the public transportation systems weren't handicap-accessible either. We actually almost never saw people in wheelchairs, quite possibly because they can't go anywhere in their wheelchairs.

Many of the sights charged you to get in and then tacked on an extra cost if you wanted to take photos. What a rip-off. We really didn't understand the point of this. It was especially bothersome when we didn't know a sight charged extra for photos and some cranky museum worker marched up as Jake was trying to snap a picture of something.

Lastly, we should mention that these differences became less pronounced as we progressed through our trip and moved into more Westernized countries. While strangers were unfriendly in Hungary and Poland, they were more friendly in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and especially Austria. Almost every Austrian we met appeared to be very courteous, whether he or she was giving us directions or allowing us to cross the street in front of him or her.

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