Culture Shock: How things are different here vs where I grew up

This post is a quick break from the usual tips or and storytelling about places I’ve been to.

Recent news around the world about the handling of covid-19 has made it more clear and upfront the many differences that countries still have, despite all the globalization. It can be something as straight cut as cultural differences, but it also encompasses all types such as styles of governance, attitudes to authority, support systems etc.

I have my own views regarding all this, but ok, I’m not about to get all political on you.

Instead, as the title aptly says, it’s a list of things that I’ve found to be quite different in France and Belgium, from what I’m used to in the Philippines (most of the things, also applies to the US). It ranges from the stupid things that you take for granted, to things that are actually quite obvious.

These are all quite superficial to be honest and there is a lot still to be said about deeper topics such as healthcare, lifestyles and whatnot – but that’s for a different time. 🙂

Anyway, big disclaimer here is that I’ve only lived in France in the Northern part and Flanders in Belgium, thus some parts may not be true in other places. And obviously, these are all only my observations and opinions.

FR/BE vs PH/US

1. The Date and Time format (DD/MM/YYYY and 24 hour time format)

Again, an American influence. Most of the world uses the very logical day-month-year format, while in the US and Philippines, we are used to month-day-year. This was very confusing at first especially when everything is in numbers, but now I have actually gotten used to it and have caught myself signing some Filipino documents with the DD/MM/YY format.

I’m not quite sure for the rest of Europe, but in the parts of France and Belgium where I’ve lived, time is almost always give in 24 hour format. Normally in France it ends with an “h” to indicate (heure/hour) and in Flemish speaking Belgium, it ends with a “u” to indicate (uur/hour). So you would say something like “let’s meet at 17h / 17u” to say to meet at 5pm. In the Philippines, we normally say time in the 12 hour format and put “am/pm” to indicate if it is the morning or evening.

Time and date settings of my computer

2. The number format ( a comma “,” to separate from decimal numbers, a decimal “.” or a space as thousands indicator)

This one still confuses the heck out of me because for 30 years, I KNEW THE EXACT OPPOSITE.

US/PhilippinesFrance/Belgium
300,000.30300 000,30 or 300.000,30
A table to illustrate

My excel is now on European format and I ALWAYS forget to use the comma and I end up with huge numbers in calculations.

3. The occassional use of CL (centiliters) in drink packages instead of ML (milliliters)

I honestly have not yet found out why in some cases, drinks like sodas are packaged and sold as 50cl instead of 500ml. Yet in some cases, there are packaging that shows milliliters. I really don’t understand yet but it’s something I’ve had to kind of wrap my head around, using cl instead of ml in some types of items.

A drink from Belgium

3. The size of paper (A4).

I blame the US for this. The Philippines was last an American “colony” before independence and we were heavily influenced by all things American. Documents are either printed on short (letter size) or long (legal size) paper in the Philippines. After doing a little googling, I’ve found out that almost all countries use A4 and not letter/legal.

This was more of a problem when I was in the Philippines trying to submit documents to European Insititutions, but not much a problem when you are actually here (except for when you have a mix of Philippine documents and European documents and you need to find an envelope that will fit them both).

4. Airconditioning (or Rather, the lack of it)

The Philippines is a tropical country wherein the normal temperature EVERY DAY is 30 degrees (celsius). People live and die in air-conditioned malls, restaurants, homes, vehicles, etc.

How surprised was I, that come summer in Northern France and Belgium, air-conditioning was almost non-existent. Even the fricking Starbucks DID NOT HAVE A/C. Public transport (especially older trains, but also even newer buses) did not have A/C. Even nice hotels don’t have this (mostly due to building regulations). And you can bet that 0% of apartments you can rent will not have any kind of cooling system.

My advice: buy a fan in winter. They get sold out fast during summer heat waves.

5. THE ALIEN REQUEST OF ASKING FOR ICE CUBES IN DRINKS

This is so petty but one I find quite funny. Even in the middle of a heatwave, drinks will most likely NOT be served with ice in it. I have gotten some strange looks and flat out refusals (because they don’t have any) whenever I try to request for ice for my drink. Just a funny incident though, the one time I DO get ice in my drink without me asking for it, it was served while sitting in the terrace of a cafe in a ski resort in the MIDDLE OF WINTER. Talk about irony.

The one time I didn’t ask for ice cubes but got them anyway

6. PAYMENT SYSTEM and methods (Cards/card machines)

Most restaurants and cafes in France and Belgium will only leave you a check on your table and then you have to physically go to the cashier to pay. This will NEVER happen in the Philippines. It means that restaurateurs actually have to trust their clients and clients will have prove to not be lazy and make the effort to walk 20 meters to a cashier.

Card payments are also more secure because other people will almost never handle your card. It will never be taken away out of your sight and you will ALWAYS have to put your pin code (except if you use contactless – that’s another thing). In the case of paying the bill on the table itself, a card machine will ALWAYS be brought to you.

7. MALL culture or lack thereof

If you ask me, malls, in the definition of it that I have in my mind from Asia, they do not exist as such in Belgium or France. At most you will have what people call a “centre de commerce” or a big shopping center, normally outside of the city, wherein you have a gathering of many stores and some restaurants. There are some shopping centers that come close to what I would call a mall (ex. Euralille in Lille), but as they lack any other kind of store aside from retail and food, they fall a bit short.

For me this was at first quite difficult to comprehend because in Asia, when I need something, anything, I go to the mall. Here in Europe, it’s more spread out, more specialized. You have to know what store you’re looking for and search for it.

On the other hand, it’s also a nice change because people do not consider shopping centers as places to go to for recreation with your family or friends. Instead they go to parks, take walks, do outdoor activities. Life is not solely centered on retail or consumption type of activities.

8. Land borders

Coming from an archipelago, it’s always exciting to realize that you can actually cross borders by simply walking across it. The concept of border towns, border villages are quite amusing and I still haven’t gotten over all the intricacies that come along with living quite literally beside a different country.

Bridge that separates Germany and France in the East

Watch Rien a declarer for a comedy about life after the removal of physical borders across Belgium and France.

Funny article about the Dutch / Belgian border during these times of confinement.

Honestly there’s so so much more if you really get into it, but I wanted to list just the kind of in your face differences that is ironically not so obvious.

I’m planning another post on my experience with the differences between France and Belgium, because hey, culture shock is not just limited to countries from other sides of the world.

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