Everyone has something to teach you. Think about it—every individual knows more about something than you do, or at least you can gain insight by observing them. If you start to view people through this lens, conversations become a lot more engaging, both for you and the person you’re talking to.
Let’s look at some examples. What can your friends who work in different subject areas teach you? What can those who are older than you, who have already walked your path teach you? What can your deadbeat college roommate who made it nowhere in life teach you? (Understanding how not to behave is just as important). Often we look to successful figures and pop icons in an attempt to emulate their habits, but I would argue that just as much insight can be gleaned from taking a step back and consciously observing the people in our everyday lives. Next time you see your colleague at work or even pass someone on the street, start thinking, “What are this person’s motives? What do they want? Why do they act the way that they do?” This is particularly fun to do at airports.
In my experience, travel is of the best ways of learning from others. Whenever we meet people from a new place, there is opportunity for growth. Often these people provide a glimpse into a different lifestyle, set of assumptions, and cultural norms. Other times, there are fewer differences than you would expect. I will go ahead and say that [U.S.] Northerners are not less friendly than Southerners, that Germans are not more cold or analytical than Americans, that Slovakians and Kenyans can get along just fine. We are all humans when it comes down to it. There will always be bad eggs in the basket, but for the most part, we truly want to be kind to each other.
Despite these similarities, in my experience every culture has its own curious quirks. These are my observations about cultural variants around the world. Some of this is speaking from personal experience, some comes from talking to natives of their respective countries. What follows is my own opinion and does not reflect the beliefs of others. And of course, the world changes over time. This was written in July 2018.
As a U.S. citizen I’m biased… But America is the greatest, hands down. Traveling around the world makes you appreciate that. You could complain about the political situation, or maybe the taxes or what-not, but in the grand scheme of things it ain’t so bad. If you’re a U.S. citizen, it’s easy to take things for granted: water is free in restaurants, public bathrooms are free, everyone speaks English fluently. You can use your phone to text and make calls without being on WiFi. If you’re a citizen here, your country is a military superpower with some of the best technology in the world! Not only that, America is extremely diverse: the people, the geography and the sundry places to live. I was—and am—proud to be American.
I’ve spent some time in this country: 3 months in Košice as a web developer. Slovakia is a landlocked country bordering Hungary, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Austria, and Poland. The language is Slovak, said by Slovaks to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. Traditional foods are heavy in dairy, such as sour milk, bryndzové halušky (sheep’s cheese with smoked bacon on potato dumplings), dumplings with sour cream, and vyprážaný syr (fried cheese). From my stay there, I can say that the people are extremely friendly and I made many good friends. It is also a very safe country—getting held at gunpoint or with a knife is almost unheard of.
There are gypsies, which is a problem. Gypsies are unemployed but get aid from the government in the form of housing and income, which increases as they have more kids. So they have a lot of kids. The children sniff glue, the adults beg on the streets, they mostly live in slums. Slovak women are gorgeous. Possibly the country with the most beautiful women. Ukraine is close though. Traditional drinks are borovička (made from juniper), slivovička (made from plums), and tatranský čaj (tea from the High Tatras). During Eastern, it is tradition to bring the women—wives and daughters—into the street and whip them lightly and spray them with water. What???
When someone sneezes you say “na zdraví” which means “to health.” You also say this when you’re saying “Cheers” but you must look your friend in the eye. Never touch glasses with someone if their drink is non-alcoholic. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, Slovaks in general seem somewhat ashamed to of their history. They have been the pawns in others’ wars and agendas. The political party in power when I was there was “Smer,” which was apparently very corrupt, and many remnants of Communism (e.g. buildings, food, subsidized meals) were still evident.
The Czech language is almost identical to Slovak, since they used to be the same country. I would say that they have a higher standard of living, higher income, and are generally happier in the Czech Republic. The people are mostly atheist and don’t like the government getting into their private business. When I visited Prague, the night live wasn’t so good but the buildings were beautiful and historic—mostly untouched by WWII. However, Prague is the 5th most-visited cities in the world, and there were way too many tourists. Everything is overpriced (for tourists) but beer is cheap. If you pay more for beer than water at a restaurant, you’re overpaying. Also, never take a taxi in Prague—you’ll get ripped off. Outside of the tourist areas, the architecture and scenery is very similar to Slovakia.
I spent a couple days in Krakow. The food in Poland is very good (pirohy, kielbasa, etc.) and things are pretty cheap. The people are slightly mixed culturally and racially, but mostly white people. The language is similar to Slovak. I met a Polish guy and he told me that he can speak Polish and someone else can speak Slovak, and they understand each other. As for the quality of life, I can’t speak about it much since I really only stayed in the city center of Krakow and didn’t explore the surrounding towns... but I would say it is several steps up from other Eastern European destinations in terms of quality of life.
I knew a guy from Spain for a time. He was very thrifty and would rather walk a mile than spend a euro. He was also very good at soccer, and decent at breakdancing. I would say he had a certain hardness about him below the surface which came from his upbringing. But in general I think Spain has a wide variety of people depending on the city/region. For example when I went to Barcelona, I saw all kinds of people. It not the safest of cities, and I wouldn’t like to live there. I saw a thief get in a fight on the street. And Barcelonians love to have piercings and tattoos—they have a kind of emo/goth look.
I can speak only about my experiences in Zürich and Salzburg. People in Switzerland are mostly white and well-off. There are lots of green plants in the cities and the standard of living is high. I learned from a local guide about some of the negatives of living there... Everything is too expensive. It takes a long time to get stuff done (e.g. filing taxes can take 2+ years) because of all the bureaucratic red tape. And rather than use email or telephone, they all send messages via postal mail. In fact the guide said that if she doesn’t get anything in the mail on any given day, there’s something wrong. The people—especially the bankers—are well-dressed and give off a bit of a snobby vibe.
The Austrians are a smart bunch. Their public transport is on-point, buildings are clean, and the society is progressive and liberal. Some street crossing lights are two men holding hands with a little heart, when it turns green. They love music and “high society” culture. Everything is expensive, but their pay is also greater. The old men have a distinctive scowl. The women are somewhat unattractive. Vienna and Salzburg have a lot of different cultures and types of people represented, but more so Vienna... whereas Salzburg is a bunch of rich, old white people.
I’ve not been to Turkey, but I know a few people from the great land of the döner kebab. In some parts of the country, women are looked down on/seen as a disgrace when they wear short shorts in public. Some women are actually attacked for doing this. Superstition and belief in demons/possession is common. The guy I met from Turkey was quite a character. Short, with a man-bun, and carried a camera. He had a “swagger” and confidence, and when he spoke, he talked as if he was enlightening you to the most glorious facts that you would’ve never thought of on your own. Nice guy though. Liked to drink and make jokes. I didn’t learn much about Turkey’s culture from him though.
The Hungarian language is very different from other languages... it’s its own thing. The countryside is beautiful but a lot of the architecture is in the Communist style. Budapest is very large and has lots of old buildings and is somewhat dirty. The people you can find there are extremely mixed, both culturally and racially. I think Hungarians typically have a little darker skin and a menacing look to their face. They aren’t very polite. In Budapest, you can find “kebab” shops all over the place. This is in many European cities though. Budapest is also famous for its "baths": swimming pools with spas. I haven’t been to any. I mean c’mon, it’s just a big pool.
I lived with a guy from Croatia for a while, a light-hearted and funny guy. He told me that the pay in Croatia is very little, maybe even less than Slovakia, but things are also a lot cheaper to buy. They have a really good 25% alcohol honey-flavored drink called Medica.
I only experienced the tourist side of Italy as I was only there on a vacation for 10 days, but I learned a little from my tour guide (shoutout Aida). The outskirts of Rome are sketchy, but Venice is very nice. The food is excellent, although it’s pretty much the same for all restaurants (at least in touristy areas): pizza, pasta, bread, risotto, and gelato. Spaghetti and meatballs is NOT a thing in Italy, and they don’t make pizzas with some of toppings used in America. The women are pretty attractive, the people in general are neither friendly nor rude. When I visited, I saw a lot of churches (huge and magnificent, especially in the Vatican) and a lot of famous art (e.g. Michelangelo, Da Vinci). Italy churned out many great artists for some reason. The buildings are extremely old, many dating back to 0-100 AD. After a while, the cities all start to seem the same—churches, old buildings, narrow streets packed with clothing stores and “Gelaterias,” and aggressive, annoying street vendors hawking cheap souvenirs and art. From Aida, I learned that the government is really shitty and the political party in power generally changes every 6 months. Income and sales taxes are high. Family is central to the culture (always eat everything on your plate if an Italian woman cooks it for you). They have something like 5 types of police (normal, military, city, financial, something else) and the financial police are very controlling. They can come to your house and ask, for example if you have a low income, how it is that you were able to buy so much expensive stuff last month. I don’t think I'd like to live in Italy, and I don’t see a need to return.
I knew a guy from Kazakhstan, and the stuff I heard from him is just too interesting not to include. For one thing, they like horse meat. Drinking horse milk is said to get you “drunk.” Arranged marriages are common, and often times the man will kidnap the woman and bring her to his house. If she leaves the house at that point, she’s effectively saying “no” to the marriage, but if she stays, they all get drunk. One of this guy’s uncles did this to a girl he had barely spoken to when they were both young, but after they got drunk, she said yes. I went to a “cultural night” with this Kazakhstani guy, and he cooked us a pot of rice with meat and vegetables on the bottom, and slammed it upside down on the table to dislodge it (apparently that’s the tradition). Very funny.
A guy named Jeffery lived next to me in Slovakia for a month or two, he was from Kenya. Very friendly, easy-to-talk-to guy who smiled a lot. He told me he doesn’t understand why the people there (in Slovakia) are so unhappy all the time. He said that in Kenya, the people smile a lot more and he never locks the door on his room (“Even now, my door is unlocked while I’m away,” he told me). Some parts of Africa are very unsafe, like Somalia, but in his village in Kenya it’s very safe.
Ukrainian cities are not so pretty. Moreover, the people do not look happy. Most of them do not smile. Can’t really blame them though, as Communism weighs heavy. The buildings are gray and Communistic, there is a strong polluted, “industrial” vibe. In this country, they use the Cyrillic alphabet like Russia. Everything is really cheap. 1 euro is about 30 Ukrainian hryvnia. The street vendors and beggars can be very aggressive when approaching you. One guy had a bird that he carried around, and randomly, he put the bird on my friend’s shoulder and proceeded to ask him money for “playing with the bird.”