"It's So Civilized" - Little Things That Make Life Nicer

After spending some time in northern Europe (mostly the Netherlands and Germany) over the last few years, we've come to notice a number of commonplace customs or 'way of doing things' that we continue to experience. To us they somehow seem to make life just a bit more enjoyable.

Our catchphrase for their presence is, 'It's So Civilized'. We offer some of them below, .

Cafe and Restaurant Service
Wine, beer, soft drinks and other beverages are served in glasses that are marked with the volume in the glass (.25L, .33L, .5L) representing the portion of a liter contained in the glass.

Beer is served properly chilled and usually in glasses with the logos of the brand imprinted on the glass and each a distinct shape. Most glasses are very elegant with gold rims. In a few cases, a more stylish glass is served to women while a plainer style is served to the men.

Wine is always served at the correct temperature (chilled, but not ice-cold for white and room temperature for red) and in the properly shaped glass.

When ordering wine by the glass, in most cases the wait person brings you the empty glass and the bottle of wine and pours your glass at the table. In some cases you are even offered a taste before accepting the whole glass (usually .2 liter). If you order a or full liter of 'house' wine, it is brought to the table in pitcher (at the proper temperature) and a small amount poured into your glass at the table; the remainder in the pitcher is left on the table for you to pour as you wish.

Soft drinks are served chilled, but usually without ice.

In virtually all restaurants, service is very gracious. Often there are cloth tablecloths. Utensils are served on a plate with napkins; you are only given the ones you will need for what you ordered (spoons for soup or knife and fork for meat, cooked veggies and salads).

Many restaurants use wireless handheld 'computers' to place orders - very efficient. In some cases, the waitperson even has a small belt carried printer to use when you ask for your bill. Why aren't they used more extensively in the US?

The bill is never left on the table (like in the US); this is considered rude. When you are ready to pay and leave, a simple jesture to any of the waitpeople will bring the bill to your table.

In South Africa, when ordering coffee with milk, you are offered either hot milk (which comes hot in a small pitcher) or cold milk (out of the fridge in a small pitcher). The whole world should adopt this custom.

Cafe Life
Cafes and restaurants become an extension of people's living rooms. They are friendly, comfortable places where one can sit and enjoy anything from a cup of coffee to a full meal, taking as long as they wish. In cafes, newspapers are often provided for the customer, while some people bring a book or magazine to read. Service is nearby and available if desired, which makes it almost better than one's own living room as someone will bring you whatever food or drink you want. Lingering is expected and there's no pressure for one to leave so they can 'turn the table'.

Restaurants are fairly quiet. People talk at 'inside voice' levels so that you don't overhear conversations from adjacent tables and overall noise levels are fairly low. In addition, any background music is played at a low level. Hence one can comfortably sit across the table from a companion and have a conversation in normal voice level. This is true even in larger places.

Prices in virtually all situations include all taxes, and are therefore the whole and complete price you will pay. At restaurants, the listed price also includes the 'service charge' (or TIP), so there is no figuring how much to leave on the table when the bill is presented. This creates a nice situation as you can ask any of the staff for service, rather than 'your server'.

Custom When Visiting
When visiting friends or family, Germans almost always bring flowers or a plant to their hosts. The result: an appreciated friendly gesture, a house that has more natural color for the residents to enjoy, and the existence of many flower shops in virtually all neighborhoods - all good.

Food Market Conditions
In many larger markets, the produce section is segregated and kept cooler than the rest of the store - a logical choice to keep produce fresher and yet not subject the customer to the cooler temperatures in the whole store.

Money and Payments
In the EU, the smallest paper bill is 5 euros. For smaller transactions, there are 1 and 2 euro coins as well as 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 cent coins. In Netherlands, the 2 and 1 cent coins are not used; prices are rounded to the nearest 5 cents. In Germany this isn't the case.
In Switzerland the smallest paper bill is 10 Swiss francs. For smaller transactions, there are 5, 2, 1 and smaller franc coins. With 5 franc coins, most all transit tickets and other machine sales can be done with coins, so that paper bill readers are not needed. In some places, there are machines that will make change in coins if all you have is a larger (10 or 20 franc) bills.
Many people use 'chip cards' for everyday purchases of even small amounts (like a cup of coffee for 2-3 euros). Their function is somewhat like credit cards in the US. On a longer stay, we would probably use them too.

Pedestrian and Bike Safety
In all situations, but especially in the cities, pedestrians and bikers have equal status with vehicles. Vehicles must yield to pedestrians in marked crossing paths and to bikes traveling in their lanes. On narrow roads, vehicles must stay behind bikes until they have adequate room to pass and must pull way out so as to not get close to the bikes (we experienced this many times).

Bike paths and pedestrian walkways are present virtually everywhere and are often separate from the vehicle roadways. They often have separate traffic signals. Often the bike path and the pedestrian path are side by side, and walkers must be careful to stay out of the bike lane. Some bike paths even have left turn lanes where left-turners can wait to turn, while allowing those bikers traveling straight to pass. Personal note - For pedestrians from the US all this bike traffic takes some getting used to as one must watch for another 'traffic risk', bikes, in addition to cars.

Bike use is high. Many people will use their bike for an errand, before even considering their car - even for trips of 3-5 km (2-3 miles). Many people have a car 'because they can', but only use it on weekends for trips out of the city, for holidays or special trips (like taking their elderly parents out).

Use of Public Transportation is High
In Netherlands and Germany, train service is frequent, even late at night. We traveled at 10-11PM on a couple of occasions and found frequent trains (4-5 per half hour between Rotterdam and Delft). We never needed to consult a schedule for any of our trips as service was so frequent. This was also true for trams and buses.

Public transportation is well used; on every trip we found that most seats were occupied and at 'rush hour' we sometimes had to stand. In Berlin, we found the same to be true on the buses and S & U Bahns we used.

Public Rest Rooms
They are numerous, especially in train stations and often in parks or even on wider sidewalks in busier areas. There is often a cost of 30 or 50 cents. This is OK as they clean and sometimes are staffed, and most importantly they are available. Restaurants will usually let you use their restrooms as well, even if you're not eating or drinking there. In more crowded tourist areas there is often a small charge.

Areas Where We Like the EU Approach over that of the US

  • Energy Conservation is Encouraged and Embraced by the EU and EU State Governments, and also by the people.
    Examples are:
    • In most public places (railway stations, public buildings, libraries, etal), escalators and revolving doors have sensors that cause them to operate only when people are present.
    • In many places (hotel hallways, apartment stairwells, restrooms, etc), lighting also has sensors or manual switches which cause the lighting to come on only when people are present and timers that turn the lights off after a relatively short period of time; those that sit in the restroom too long may experience the lights going off and have to either reach for the switch or wave their arms to activate the motion sensors to turn the lights back on.
    • Governments encourage the development of alternative energy sources. Governments issue statements indicating it is the 'policy' of the EU (and individual country governments) that use of renewable energy be pursued.
    • Tax incentives for energy conservation investments are permanent (not off and on like in the US)
    • Power companies make the investments in renewable sources by choice, understanding that this is the way of the future (vs power companies in the US that 'dig in their heels' and resist such investments until forced to do them)
    • Railway equipment is electric, operating mostly off overhead wires. Most equipment has regenerating capability that generates electricity as the trains slow for an upcoming stop, thereby reducing net power usage (by about 9% in Germany).
  • Recycling is actively encouraged by state and city governments and most citizens actively participate.
    • In cities, and even smaller towns, recycle bins are present in numerous locations, often with different containers for the different materials (plastic vs paper vs glass, etc).
    • In food stores, many beverages are sold with an additional amount for the container, either selected plastics and sometimes glass. These stores also have a means to redeem the deposit, most always a machine into which you place the containers and receive a voucher for the proper amount spendable at the store.
    • In some areas, residents leave the recycling out on the curb, near but separate from the trash, to be picked up by the city. In most instances we observed, the volume of recycling was larger than the trash, yet both volumes were quite small relative to what we see in the US.

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