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The biggest culture shocks experienced by expats in Europe

We asked our readers what surprised them most about working and living in Europe. This is what they had to say.

The biggest culture shocks experienced by expats in Europe
Photo: elenathewise/Depositphotos

Every country has its own little quirks and discovering them is part of the fun of living abroad. That’s not to say it can’t be tough to adjust at times, as many of our readers have found out for themselves. The Local has partnered with AXA – Global Healthcare to present a handpicked selection of the biggest culture shocks experienced by expats in Europe.

No smiles in Sweden

One of the first things expats notice about the Swedes is that while they are (almost unnervingly) polite, they prefer minding their own business – so don’t expect a smile on the subway.

Photo: danni.ronneberg/Depositphotos

Swedes may be all about solidarity and equality, but they’ll never give away their favourite spot for picking mushrooms, let alone give up their bus or train seat. They’re also strict about queuing but are often seen crossing the street where there isn’t a designated pedestrian crossing (the horror!) and spitting on the ground which may seem shocking to some expats in Sweden. 

Old-school in Italy

The Mediterranean country boasts lush vineyards, serene coastal landscapes, and lively cities bursting with culture. However, its nightmarish bureaucracy and lack of digitalization sometimes outweigh the many positives for its international residents.

Slow digitalization is a common bugbear experienced by expats in several European countries. When it comes to digital healthcare at least, AXA is on-hand to support Europe’s international residents. The Virtual Doctor Service, offered with AXA’s global health plans including out-patient cover, allows expats to speak to a doctor in a range of languages, at short notice from anywhere in the world.

Find out more about AXA’s online doctor service

No lunch errands in France

Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

The French are famously hot-blooded so you’d think they’d see the merits of air conditioning. Think again. Even in the hottest months, they manage to get by without air con — much to the dismay of the country’s international residents. 

Your French colleagues won’t be impressed if they catch you rushing your lunch or eating it at your desk. The French make time for each other and are well-known for their long lunch breaks and lively dinner parties. But for those who are used to taking a quick lunch – or even working through their lunch breaks – lunches that last for hours can be an adjustment.

Internationals used to running errands over lunch will have to reschedule: banks, post offices, most shops, and even the gendarmerie (a branch of the French armed forces responsible for internal security) close down for at least a couple of hours at lunchtime.

Speeding in Germany

Photo: ifeelstock/Depositphotos

Germany is another country where digitalization has been slow on the uptake. Mobile data plans are simultaneously slow and expensive, which can be frustrating for expats used to a more seamless online experience. In contrast, there is no speed limit on the Autobahn which can come as a terrifying realization for internationals driving in Germany.

Stereotype or not, Germans are famous for their efficiency. That said, expats in Germany report finding simple bureaucratic tasks – such as setting up a bank account – to be far from efficient.

Timekeeping in Spain

It’s hard to think of Spain without envying its siestas – the obligatory down-time when the entire country shuts down for two hours in the middle of the day – and its fiestas – which needs no translation.

Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

The Spaniards certainly do seem to have a unique relationship with time, as expats soon come to realize. We’re not just talking about the late-night dinners. In Spain, there is little road rage (a by-product of no-one rushing to get anywhere), young children stay up later than many expats are accustomed to, an “afternoon appointment” can refer to an appointment time after 8pm, and you can comfortably say buenos dias (good morning) until after lunch. This takes some acclimatising for expats coming from countries with stricter rules about timekeeping.

Strapped for time? AXA’s Virtual Doctor Service can save you time and give you peace of mind while living abroad. Click here to find out more about AXA’s global healthcare plans or click here to get a quote.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and presented by AXA.

AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited. Registered in Ireland number 630468. Registered Office: Wolfe Tone House, Wolfe Tone Street, Dublin 1. AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland.

AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited. Registered in England (No. 03039521). Registered Office: 20 Gracechurch Street, London, EC3V 0BG, United Kingdom. AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited is authorised and regulated in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority.

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‘If you want to move to Italy, brace yourself for things not going the way you want’

Damien O’Farrell’s story will resonate with many people who have fallen for Italy’s charm: he moved to Rome for a three-month stay, which has now turned into almost three decades. He has spent much of that time working as a relocation coach, assisting others hoping to make the same move - and warning them of the pitfalls to avoid.

'If you want to move to Italy, brace yourself for things not going the way you want'
Going down the employee route is not always wise in Italy, says relocation coach Damien O'Farrell. File photo: Pexels

Italy is not often considered a top destination for career advancement. Many young, educated Italians are leaving the country for better work prospects, while foreigners in Italy are far more likely to move here for lifestyle or love than for a fatter paycheck.

But O'Farrell, who set up his own business in Rome and has helped hundreds of others do the same, says the country is a “gold mine”.

“I would estimate that about 95 percent of foreigners give up and think they can't make it here, and that's a pity because there are so many opportunities in Italy. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he tells The Local.

READ ALSO: Is Italy a desirable place for foreigners to work?


Photo: Damien O'Farrell

He admits that an abundance of patience and perseverence is necessary for anyone hoping to 'make it' in Italy, but says that problems with perception are behind much of the disappointment expats experience. 

“If you’re sent to Kazakhstan on a work assignment, you expect challenges, but in Italy, many people expect the dolce vita: a life of sun and aperitivo. Then when it’s harder than they imagined, it dampens their enthusiasm,” he explains. “You have to brace yourself for things not going the way you want.”

Other clients have approached O'Farrell saying they're tired of life in New York, London and other major cities, but haven't put much thought into how they would get by in Italy. “Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll still have to work in Italy,” he reminds them. “That doesn’t change – though you might get to see the Colosseum on your commute!”


Photo: Hans Poldoja/Flickr

Plenty has changed since he first arrived here. An increase in the cost of living has meant it's even more essential for newcomers to have a clear plan for their finances. Meanwhile, it has become much harder to find accommodation in the big city centres, and a wave of migration has in some places changed the attitude of Italians towards foreigners, O'Farrell notes.

But the two biggest obstacles faced by new arrivals have remained constant: the language barrier and Italian bureaucracy.

READ ALSO: 'Italian bureaucracy is like Purgatory'

O'Farrell says it took him two “extremely difficult” years to overcome those obstacles and get over the frustration of not being able to make himself understood – both in social and work contexts. But he seized the opportunity to learn something new, making it his mission to figure out how Italian admin worked.

It was no mean feat, and when he realized how many other foreigners were equally lost, he wrote a course to teach them the intricacies of the Italian system, before starting work at a relocation company.

“In the 1990s, there wasn’t much information about these things, and certainly not in English, so I spotted a business opportunity. Pre-Internet, it was very challenging,” he notes.

'Brexit can make Italy great again - but it needs to act fast'File photo: Rawpixel/Depositphotos

There are two pieces of advice O'Farrell gives to each of his coaching clients.

The first is to take a language course before moving to Italy – he recommends between 60 and 90 hours of teaching. And the second is to get a lawyer and accountant on your side.

“Don't try to start doing things on your own – it's not worth it – and stay away from legal advice on online expat forums, which is usually outdated or based on personal experience,” he warns.

He also recommends setting aside much more time for each administrative task than you expect. Applying for permits, licences, and schemes which support new businesses takes time and paperwork – and while many countries make an effort to process work permits quickly to attract business, that's not the case in Italy.


File photo: Pexels

Finding work is the biggest challenge for most of the people O'Farrell works with, and in fact he often advises them not to try to find work, but to create it themselves.

“Being your own boss is not without its challenges, but in certain industries, you can do really well, whereas going down the employee route is often not the right thing in Italy. Salaries are very low in comparison to the cost of living,” he says.

OPINION: Italians might just hold the secret to a more productive workday

“Services is a good place to start; Italy is an enormous consumer market. People live at home a lot longer here so have surplus income – they replace their mobile phones extremely often, for example.”

Another tip he offers is to treat any venture as a fully-fledged business, rather than just planning to teach the occasional English lesson, for example.

“It's expensive to live in the major cities, and a lot of people come here thinking they'll get by just doing a little bit. You have to make things happen and turn your idea into a business by using social media, promoting yourself, and gaining contacts.”

And when it comes to contacts, O'Farrell reminds anyone daunted by networking in a foreign country that “people are similar around the world”. 

“In Italy, cold-calling doesn’t really work. When I called people, they'd ask who I was and where I got the number. If I'd been given it by a friend, it would open doors and people would suddenly be really friendly.”

“There are the extra obstacles of language and newness, but succeeding in the Italian job market and in Italy more generally is just like anywhere else – it requires input.”

READ ALSO: Getting to grips with the ungrippable: More Italian life lessonsGetting to grips with the ungrippable: More Italian life lessons
Photo: Catherine Wilson/Flickr

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