There’s nothing like the challenges you’ll have while traveling to another country to make you feel like a complete idiot.
Photo by the Author
You may be an exceedingly competent person in regular life, but once placed on foreign soil, you are nothing more than a helpless nincompoop. I’ve been humbled by more than one foreign light switch in my time.
Ah, those were the days, pre-COVID when we could just travel anywhere in the world without a thought or a care. We will again one day.
Here are a few other things I’ve struggled with and look forward to doing so again:
Let’s start with the obvious: you don’t speak the language. This complicates everything 10 fold and puts you at an immediate disadvantage to your surroundings.
You’ll have a lot of questions while on foreign soil. Get used to having them answered by a series of hand gestures, eye squints, and shoulder shrugs.
Or, maybe you learned a few words to ease your travel; that’s cute. The two weeks you spent on Babbel or Duolingo before your trip isn’t going to help you in the real world.
In your new reality, you won’t have as many minutes as you need to think about the correct word, and responses will be fired at you in lighting quick gibberish. But hey, those few words you do recall are amusing to the locals, and you’re going to need that goodwill, so play it up.
When asking for directions, which you must constantly do, you’ll be lucky to make it two blocks before you have to repeat the process. Please don’t count on GPS helping you either; it is in these exact moments that it is waiting to let you down.
If you’re lucky enough to find someone who can give you correct directions, they’ll tell you in meters and kilometers; good luck with that conversion.
Because you won’t understand the language or norms that everyone around you does, public transportation takes on an interesting twist. On trains, buses, trams, and metros, for example, you are dumb to the announcements and must go on instinct, so you better hope yours are good. Adventure is good so enjoy these challenges you’ll have while traveling!
Transportation functions in many ways similarly, but at the same time not at all. I once rode six hours on a train through France where nobody so much as sneezed. It was as quiet as a tomb. In Detroit, where I’m from, people carry out full-blown soap operas while on speakerphone with three cousins.
Bikes, motor scooters, and boats are the transportation of choice in many other countries. In some countries, like Amsterdam, there are more bikes than cars lined up at the red lights.
Getting used to minding the damn bike lanes is a practice worth mastering quickly. I once watched my brother step in front of a speeding cyclist. That cyclist landed in a canal somewhere in Amsterdam, never to be seen again. My lunkhead brother was fine.
So even crossing the street is a complex maneuver you’ll have to relearn.
In the U.S., we put a premium on driving safety and have this silly belief that “the pedestrian has the right of way.” It would be best to forget that garbage, especially in France, where the drivers actually want to kill pedestrians.
The use of helmets seems arbitrary, and in Central American countries, laughable. I’ve seen a family of five on one motorbike – none of them even wore shoes. One infant was strapped to the goddamn handlebars.
In the U.S., we wear seatbelts, helmets, keep children in properly approved seats facing specific ways, have cameras and sensors that flash and beep for double and triple checking our own movements, and anyone who might be near us.
In many countries outside of the U.S., donkeys are a prime transportation mode, and donkeys DO NoT Care.
In some countries, they drive on the other side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the passenger side. God help you if you have to figure this out. I recommend anything else.
Aside from the Autobahn in Europe, there aren’t many major highways, most streets are made of cobblestone or dirt, and travel over a few miles is done via public transportation. Can you imagine a world without the 405? I bet you’d like to.
Everyone drives manual transmissions, so if you’re still thinking of renting a car, you better practice up. Especially because they won’t mention it in the rental office, and it will be a nice surprise when you get in the driver’s seat.
On some subways, the train doors are manual, not automatic, and you stand there waiting for them to open and miss your stop. Thanks again, France.
You won’t be able to work the TV, the telephone, or likely the elevator. Basic things that you have taken for granted will now leave you in a state of utter confusion.
I was once in an elevator the size of a phone booth with a manual crank, for I don’t know what. I immediately got out and took the stairs. Stairs are typically two inches wide and curve tightly, so perfect for suitcases carrying.
The electrical outlets aren’t the same, so you need special plugs. To make this even more fun, you need different plugs for each country. This should be made into a board game (I’m going to invent this).
Adapters are big and clunky, so even when you have one, they’re sometimes too big to fit in the allotted space (I’m looking at you trains).
The computer keyboards are different too. I learned this the hard way (my specialty). I was confused using the hotel computer when the words kept showing up garbled until I finally realized the letters, numbers, and symbols are not the same as an American keyboard. Huzzah! What the actual fuck? Chalk that up in the column for things I never thought of.
The phone numbers are different format than in the U.S., leaving you to figure out exactly how to dial it while including the country code, which is surprisingly difficult to figure. They don’t give you the country code, but they give you extra digits at the front you can’t use.
I’ve been to several different countries over the years, and I still don’t know how to use the phone consistently.
The light switches function in obscure ways, but first, good luck even finding them. They might be buttons that you need to push in a series of switches that work the opposite as they appear, or perhaps only if another switch is also in the correct position, or only if your door key is inserted in a special slot. You will only learn by trial and error or the kindly desk attendant when you go back down there to ask.
The toilets are always unique, handles on the top, bottom, side, automatic, etc. Tanks hidden, above or behind. Shapes are oval, circle, or square. I once sprayed myself in the face trying to operate a bidet.
There is a bed size in between twin and full. I call it fat single.
Even toilet paper dispensers are complex. I encountered one on a train wherein you needed to push a button to extract each square and another that functioned like a tissue box in the wall.
In France, they put butter on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise. In Holland, they put mayonnaise on French fries instead of ketchup. I’ve received peas on a pizza in Budapest.
No place makes drip coffee except America. It’s all espresso, or get ready for this – instant. Europeans especially seem to love that garbage. I hear it’s making a comeback in the states, too. God help us.
Every country has a fruit you’ve never seen before, I guarantee it. Have you ever heard of mangosteen, guanabana, or mamey sapote? Didn’t think so.
In some places, you can’t drink the water. The bottled water is carbonated in other places, but that won’t be obvious until it explodes upon opening.
I’ve never once been served ice in a drink, and nobody outside of the U.S. seems to understand the concept.
Service staff in other countries do not work for tips, and this will be immediately apparent. You must seek them out to ask for what you want, even, and especially if it’s the bill. They will not ever, ever seek to acknowledge you in any way. I once sat in a French café for three days before my server checked to see if I was alive (just kidding, it was only one day).
Thank God for the Euro because the currency used to be a game you had to play and relearn at every border you crossed. The UK still uses the Pound. Then there is the Franc, the Krone, the Krona, the Forint … oh forget it.
Most places outside of the U.S. have dates DD/MM/YEAR. In America, we put the month first, and I nearly missed a train once because of this.
Military time, do you know it? No? Well, that will give you something fun to puzzle out while you travel.
Other countries stay up really late. They don’t even have dinner until after 8 p.m. When do they sleep? I can’t figure it out.
Sometimes they charge you to use the bathroom. Curse them.
What are some of the challenges you’ve had while traveling?