9 Culture Shocks I Had While Abroad

This summer, I studied abroad in Strasbourg, France, which is in the northeastern region of the country and about 10 minutes away from Germany. While I loved doing what I was doing (teaching English in a middle school and volunteering part-time at a local animal shelter), I definitely ran into some culture shocks that I didn’t see coming, especially as an American suburbanite.


1. Finishing Your Meal

Though I’ve never been one to waste food, I do have a tendency to not eat every last scrap on my plate. Apparently, however, what I saw as normal behavior was something my host mom perceived as a gross waste of food and extremely improper. Eventually (thankfully), I learned to eat more and she learned to let me serve myself.

2. Cars Parked on the Sidewalk

I’m still not sure if this is a phenomenon specific to Strasbourg, but it was perfectly natural, if there was no room on the streets, for cars to line up in rows on the sidewalks (which, granted, were pretty wide). Of course this didn’t stop me from freaking out and dropping any food I might have been holding when a car would speed onto the sidewalk behind me.

3. Petting Strangers’ Dogs

Okay, I’m not one of those people who’ll run screaming up to any dog she sees walking on the street, but if a particularly cute dog approaches me first I’m not necessarily going to turn it down. The French do not like this. A friend mentioned to me that petting someone’s dog was like reaching out to touch a purse or backpack––not that dogs are seen purely as possessions, but it’s just not done.

4. Air Conditioning

“Yeah, having air conditioning is an American concept,” I remember one of the faculty members from the program explaining to me. I thought this was something I could handle, but, well, it wasn’t. Coming home after my internship turned into taking off as many layers as appropriate, rolling up the cuffs of whatever was left, and trying to lie as still as possible by the open window until I could handle the heat in my host mom’s apartment.

5. Laundry

I first mistook my host mom’s washing machine for a dishwasher––because it was in the kitchen, right next to the stove. This is something that makes a lot of sense in traditional French households because the kitchen is usually where the water unit is centered (and space is also very limited), but I was still surprised to see it there. Just as well, I got to hang my clothes to dry in the open air for the first time in my life because dryers, just like air conditioning, are seen as wasteful.

6. Independent Booksellers

In my town, we have two bookstores––a Barnes & Noble in the center and a Barnes & Noble at the southern end. It’s no surprise, either, that independent bookstores are a dying breed in the U.S. and what few remain are idolized and well-trafficked by tourists. In France, the only bookstore chains I saw were in the main, fancy shopping centers (the kind that had air conditioning for the tourists). However, I noticed independent stores, which were about as common as supermarkets, on nearly every street.

7. Strikes

Strikes, I learned, happen all the time in France; so often that they are usually scheduled. Protestors will send out public announcements if they’ve been cancelled, and some employees can get paid leave from work to attend them. Eventually, I got used to not being able to take the bus on certain days because people were calmly marching on animal rights, or teachers’ rights, or students’ rights.

8. Sunday Hours

France is traditionally religious, and though I’m used to stores in my own town closing early on Sundays, there’s a completely different environment in Strasbourg. Most stores, except for markets or restaurants, don’t even open, and the transportation system is highly limited.

9. Alcohol

Though I understood coming into my program that Europe is generally more lax about drinking, I was still surprised by certain public attitudes. Not only would some people walk in parks with open containers, but beer festivals were super common and apparently considered events for the whole family––obviously underage kids would drink freely and, I was interested to see, people rarely got publicly drunk.


So yes, I was a little confused my first few weeks in France, but in the end I was grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow in an environment that was entirely foreign to me––and hey, it wasn’t the worst place to spend my summer. Have you run into any bizarre situations abroad? Feel free to comment below!


Image Credit: Trip Advisor, PSU, Love that Pet, Art of the Home, Wikimedia, Ledme, FTCDN