Cultural differences: US and Eastern Europe
United States is very different from the rest of the world, that's a cliché, right? But as every platitude it holds the truth. Here are some of my observations:
Keeping appearances vs showing real emotions
Most Americans when asked "How are you?" will reply with a typical "I am fine, thank you" response. On the contrary, people from Eastern European countries will usually say "You would better not ask, life sucks" or something similar. Eastern Europeans love to talk about misfortunes that they have to deal with. This seems almost like a social norm and accepted custom to complain about life and your personal problems. Depending on a relationship with you they will open up and recite a more or less detailed list of their troubles. It seems safer to talk about negative aspects of life with other people. Why? Because nobody envies you if your life seems to be a drama. In Poland it was common to talk about adversities, bad luck and all kinds of disasters in communism era. It was a social norm to complain about anything and everything including the regim. At that time people needed to vent their frustration and grumbling about their lack of freedom and other difficulties was an expression of that vexation. But apparently they still love to complain even though the times changed.
In United States it is different. On surface everyone is doing great, there is a smile on the face and a nonchalant "I am great" response. It takes a real friend to confine that things are falling apart in your life. On the outside though you must keep appearances, pretend the life goes on like in my favorite of all times song by Freddie Mercury "The Show Must Go On". It took me a long time to get to a point where my relationship with American friends was strong enough to venture into a more personal questions.
Friend vs acquaintance
Americans tend to use a term "friend" very liberally, they address that way anyone whom they happen to know, more or less. Many times I have witnessed people introducing a new acquaintance as their friend. Of course, there are good friends, true friends and not so good ones. In Europe, however, there is a very deep distinction between friends, colleagues from work, people we meet at the grocery store, parents from a park and so on. A friend is a deeply trusted person, someone whom we feel safe to entrust our life with. A friend is welcome at any time of day or night in our home and is always invited to have a meal and a drink. A good friend doesn't need to call ahead to make appointment just to come over for a chat.
Palace in Plawniowice - old landmark in Poland
My friend visited Czech Republic a couple years ago. While in Prague, he decided to go for a morning jog. As he was enjoying a beautiful architecture and, in a typical American style, greeting strangers with his upbeat and friendly "Hi" and "Hello" he was shocked to discover that people were not smiling and not returning his polite greetings. Instead they were staring at him as if he were an alien from a distant galaxy. He was puzzled and shocked when he later discovered that Eastern Europeans don't have a custom to greet strangers on street with a polite phrase like that. Friendly greetings are reserved only for people they actually know.
It is considered extremely impolite not to offer food and a cup of coffee or tea to your guest even if it is only a short visit. There is a Polish proverb that says "when you have a guest it is as if God was visiting your home". Eastern Europeans stand up to this and are known for their hospitality. They are very often exceptionally welcoming and ready to go to great lengths to please their company. They will gladly offer their own master bedroom to accommodate a guest. It would be unheard of to offer a guest, especially a member of family, to stay at the hotel. Generally, Eastern Europeans love entertaining and cook up massive amounts of home made food, nobody ever leaves hungry.
Eastern European food is more like a comfort food. The ever popular mashed potatoes with gravy and a serving of stewed meat accompanied by a deliciously cooked cabbage side dish is a common meal. Families cook their meals from scratch almost every day and buy their groceries at a farmer's market. Fast food entered East European market only after the fall of Berlin Wall and while some of the popular American chains made its way into some of these countries, they are not as popular as in the country of their origin. Most of families choose to cook and eat at home, it is a tradition but they also have to factor in the cost of going out to eat. Restaurants tend to be expensive. Besides, who would not love home made delicious foods served by your own mother or grandmother? Lunch can be as easy as a baked pastry from a small local privately owned bakery or a fresh sandwich.
Europe was built not for cars and many metropolies have narrow streets that are perfect for pedestrians but not for car traffic. People walk as much as they can to their destinations or use public transport that is, by the way, very well organized. Children walk to their school, parents rush in the morning to catch a bus or a tram. Because the parking is scarce, Europeans will think twice before deciding whether to drive or walk to a nearest grocery. Taking walks in a park and strolling down the streets is still a preferred passtime for many.