So long, Europe!

Ciao! Adieu! ¡Adiós! Tschüs! Viszlát!

It’s been not quite nine months since we touched down in Europe, and now it’s time to say goodbye. Our visas are expiring in a few days, and we’re ready for warmer climes and longer days. This morning, I sent home a large box of jackets, gloves, and snow gear at the Hungarian post office (boy, was that a cultural adventure!). Then we packed everything up in our gorgeous apartment in central Budapest and headed to the airport for our flight to Cape Town, South Africa.

I have a lot of posts to write to fill in everything we did between Scotland and Hungary, but in the meantime…

Likes and dislikes about European city living

After staying in nearly 60 Airbnbs in 15 countries, it seems like a good time to reflect on our experiences of how Europeans live. I mean that in the very mundane sense of how they make their beds and do their dishes. Of course, it’s hard to make generalizations about an entire continent, and we generally only stayed in urban apartments—quite a change for us after a decade living in a big house in the suburbs. Nonetheless, some things stuck out as definitely foreign or novel to us. Some we loved, some not so much!

Not surprisingly, Europe buildings are often quite old, and some of the apartments we’ve stayed in went up when Santa Barbara was still a Mexican adobe village. Unlike California, the vast majority of buildings here are masonry—concrete, stone or brick. That can be advantageous in the summer…but in the winter, some buildings can be incredibly drafty and cold, especially since most are heated only by old-fashioned radiators. I’m still traumatized by our stylish but frigid place in Reims, France, where we just could not warm up. (That was in early October…I can only imagine how it is now!) I bought an electric space heater then that I carried around in my luggage for the next three months. When you hear about Europeans worrying about how they will heat their homes this winter, it’s no joke!

Adding insult to injury, in most countries, we’ve been mystified to find that most beds have only a bottom sheet and a twin size duvet. Larger beds do not have larger duvets; they have two of them…how democratic. There’s nothing more maddening than rolling over on a cold night and having a duvet barely as big as you slide off and expose part of your body…or not cover your feet to begin with. It’s generally no use trying to find any blankets or quilts…there aren’t any. And top sheets—if America came up with these, then I think they’re one of our most underrated inventions. Why take off and wash your duvet cover every week? (Some vehemently disagree…though I can’t figure out what these people do in bed to get their top sheet twisted around them like an anaconda.) Strangely, even with duvets the size of postage stamps, pillows are often ridiculously overfilled and oversized, taking up half the bed. I don’t get it.

On the plus side, tankless water heaters are standard, meaning instant hot water. Yum. We were surprised to find these water heaters often mounted prominently in the kitchen or bathroom, suspended precariously from the wall.

Yet while they don’t mind their water heaters out in the open, Europeans love wall-mounted toilets that have tanks hidden inside the wall…and they will pad out the entire wall to do it. Seems like a maintenance nightmare (and a waste of space) to me. Meanwhile, they also strangely fond of unusually-shaped toilet bowls (which often do not conform with the shape of your butt). However, I do appreciate that even the smallest apartments usually have their own dedicated toilet room, so that you can use the loo even when someone is showering, and in many countries, a separate bidet. (C’mon, toilet paper is gross.)

But while the toilets are wall-mounted, the showerheads, maddeningly almost never are, since Europeans prefer handheld ones. Sure, there’s usually a bracket on the wall you can stick it in, but they’re generally too low, the head never stays put, and you end up spraying water everywhere except where you want it, including right out of the shower. But at least you generally don’t have to worry about flooding the place, because virtually all bathrooms have waterproof floors and floor drains. Genius. If only we had one of these for Griffin…

Crammed into those same bathrooms are often compact clothes washing machines, some of the cutest, smallest ones I’ve ever seen…which makes you feel less guilty about doing a small load. But one thing that boggles the mind is how long a load takes; the normal cycle is usually three hours, and some are four. What takes so long is beyond me. We often used the express setting, which is a mere hour!

But except in the coldest, wettest places, clothes dryers are almost nonexistant, which I appreciate. Instead, you hang your clothes on a collapsible metal rack, just like I do at home. When dryers do exist, they’re usually not vented outside, and instead try to suck moisture out of the clothes and condense it into a tank which must be emptied after each load…which takes forever and doesn’t really work.

Interestingly, we’ve seen almost no gas appliances. Surprisingly ubiquitous are fancy electric induction stovetops and space-saving oven/microwave combo units, which are both still rare, premium-priced items in the U.S. Also more common than I would have expected are compact dishwashers, squeezed into even the smallest kitchens. If I had one of these at home, I might use it a lot more than our full-size Maytag, which I can rarely fill.

But one thing that makes me crazy is the European obsession with making everything sleek and uncluttered. Kitchens look like space stations, consisting of long rows of identical shiny cabinets with no handles, behind which you’ll find hidden the refrigerator, dishwasher, and everything else. Meanwhile, those appliances have minimal and impossibly cryptic interfaces. Most manufacturers have reduced the buttons, knobs and handles to an absolute minimum and then labelled them with mysterious symbols, no text…which of course would be tricky with all the languages used here. Problem is, what those symbols represent is anybody’s guess, and there’s never a legend or manual to consult. Is this a microwave, an oven, or both? Did I just select the cotton cycle, the steam cycle…or the nuclear apocalypse mushroom cloud setting? There have been times I’ve nearly lost my mind just trying to turn on the stovetop. Even water faucets are sometimes too clever to figure out, as we kept finding in the Netherlands (even our German friends were flummoxed!)

One other pet peeve is that Europeans aren’t into paper towels. It’s definitely less wasteful, but there are some things that you simply don’t want to clean up with a fabric towel. I did appreciate, however, that reusable cups are big here. Many restaurants in Germany participate in a scheme where you get takeaway drinks & food in reuseable cups & containers for a small deposit. These sturdy plastic containers are the same everywhere and can be returned and reused at the same or other restaurants. Meanwhile, the Christmas markets in Germany, Austria and Slovakia only serve beverages in ceramic cups, for which you pay a €3–5 deposit. You can forfeit your deposit and keep the mug as a souvenir if you like—they’re quite cute, with designs specific to each market or stand and the year. I’m sure I saw folks refilling mugs from previous years!

Warming up with mulled wine at the Munich Christmas Markets

And how refreshing that you can drink outdoors, in public, whether it be a Christmas market, the park, or just walking down the street, without the puritanical restrictions we have in the U.S. Or that virtually all restaurants serve both coffee and alcohol. Which means that you usually don’t have to walk far to find a cappuccino, and you can return a few hours later for a glass of wine! Very practical.

Especially if you live in a small space with limited room for cooking or entertaining. Here in Europe, I could really appreciate the advantages of apartment living, which is the preferred situation even for a lot of people who could afford a freestanding home….but simply don’t want one. (Except Belgians…go figure.) Amy has already opined on how most cities are gloriously bike-friendly (oh, Ultrecht!), and of course public transit is generally super convenient and affordable. But the tradeoff is that many cities are rather inhospitable to cars. Which would usually be fine with me, except when a short taxi ride in Paris or London takes almost an hour and you miss (or nearly miss) your train.

One last thing that you have to get used to: in much of Europe, they take Sunday seriously. The American labor movement may claim to have invented the weekend, but in Germany & Austria, Sunday actually is a day of rest, when virtually all retail and half the restaurants go dark. Even in big cities like Berlin, you better make sure you do your grocery shopping on Saturday or you’re out of luck! Which I actually kinda appreciate.

There you go: a fairly random rant on the pros and cons of city living in Europe. Now to see how they do it in South Africa!