American Expats Abroad Cultural Customs Europe

Twenty Years an Expat: the Confusing and Amusing

Twenty years ago today, I touched down in Hungary after a long flight from Boston. Little did I know that my anticipated two-year English teaching gig would stretch into a twenty-year residency abroad. At first, I stayed in Europe because I fell in love with a city, Budapest. Then, I fell in love with my future husband, Otto, whom I met while traveling in Finland. Now, two decades later, I’ve spent a chunk of my life as an American expatriate.

Since I can’t celebrate in style as I’d like (pandemic restrictions and all), I thought I’d come up with the following list of 20 embarrassing, unusual, and/or entertaining situations and customs I’ve encountered as an expat in Finland and Hungary. Some seemed rather shocking at the time but are now part of everyday life. Maybe I’m becoming more of a local?

  • Are you coming or going? It can be difficult to know, when the words for “Hello” and “Goodbye” are the same. For example, “Szia” in Hungarian means both. In Finnish, one “Hei” means “Hello;”” “Hei hei” means “Farewell.”
  • Bring Your Own Shoes. The first time I entered a Hungarian home, the hostess asked me to exchange my new sneakers for a pair of flip flops. I quickly learned this was the custom there, as it is here in Finland. Now I carry a thick pair of socks with me when visiting friends. Others bring slippers. BYOS! (P.S. I’ve never seen a home with wall-to-wall carpeting in Europe, and the wood or stone floors can be cold on your feet.)
  • Punctuality is key. It’s not cool to be fashionably late in Hungary or Finland, as locals usually arrive ten minutes early. Some Finns take it to the extreme by showing up 30 minutes early and expect you to serve them while you’re still setting the table, cooking, or (gasp!) showering.
  • Hungarians play “aqua chess” in the thermal baths. I was shocked to see chess boards set up amid the warm waters of Széchenyi Spa in Budapest. The mostly-male players would sit submerged for hours, stopping to take a swig of soda or socialize. The bath water is famous for its healing properties, making it a healthier alternative than playing on terra firma.
  • Get naked with your same-sex boss (in the Finnish sauna). When my former boss invited me to a staff party featuring a wooden sauna, I packed a bathing suit. Silly me! Since the saunas were segregated by gender, there was no need for modesty. (In Finland, it’s totally normal to relax with your co-workers of the same gender in this way; there is no sexual connotation whatsoever.) Still, I just couldn’t quite muster up the courage to join my colleagues. Instead, I feigned a headache and hightailed it to the picnic area.
  • Partners are not welcome at workplace events. I learned this early in my marriage, when Otto informed me of the upcoming Christmas party at his office. As I asked about the dress code, he looked at me askance and said I was not invited. Ouch! I explained that in the States, one’s date was usually welcomed—or even expected—at special work functions. Otto told me not to take it personally, it was only a matter of “Finnish thrift.”
  • Finns. avoid. small. talk. While I think Finns are a friendly bunch after they get to know you, warming up to strangers does not come naturally. When my husband and I were on vacation in Cape Cod, many other tourists we encountered wished us a “Good morning” or would comment, “Nice weather we’re having.” Unused to such unsolicited greetings, my astonished husband turned to me and said, “You have so many friends, dear.”
  • “Tulppaani pois!” As a tulip lover, these words—”Tulips gone!”—are painful to my ears. Yet, I hear them every year after May 1st, when the local florists in Helsinki no longer carry the flower. Odd, since it’s tulip season in Holland, and the shops continue to import products from even farther away. Priorities!
  • Count the blooms in your bouquet. Meanwhile in Hungary, it’s considered bad luck to bring a bouquet of even-numbered flowers to your hostess, as those are reserved for funerals. Instead, pick any odd number, as long as it’s not 13 (another bad omen).
  • Know the difference between “twins” and “scissors.” I was working on an art project with a young Finnish boy and asked him for the “kaksoset.” He looked at me funny, so I kept repeating the word. When he still didn’t understand, I opened and closed my fingers to illustrate the cutting motion of scissors. He screamed for his mother. As it turned out, I was asking for the “twins,” so she might have had some explaining to do. (The correct word is “sakset,” but to these expat ears, it sounded like “kaksoset.”)
  • Where’s the dryer? When I walked into the bathroom of my first European apartment, I was shown the washing machine and looked around for the dryer. The manager informed me that this appliance was considered a “luxus.” In all the years since, I’ve never lived in a space large enough to accommodate both a washer and dryer. Some people fantasize about Caribbean cruises; I dream about dryers.
  • Astiankuivaskaappi. I may not have a clothes dryer, but I have one of these dish dryers (see below). A fantastic Finnish invention from the 1940s.
  • Beware the P-word! Puszi (“kiss” in Hungarian) and pussi (“bag” in Finnish) sound like “pussy” in English, so make sure you know the difference! I learned this the hard way, when a cashier in Helsinki asked me, “Haluatko pussin?” I only heard the last word and my face turned bright red. Potato chips are sold in “Mega Pussi” bags, much to the amusement of tourists.
  • Finns are happy taxpayers. This may sound bizarre to Americans, some of whom go to great lengths to avoid paying Uncle Sam. My former English students told me they were “happy” to pay their share because in return they received low-cost public healthcare, affordable child care, and free college tuition. Case in point: my husband’s inpatient surgical bill came to 40 euros. That is not a typo: 40 euros, not 40,000.
  • Tipping is the exception in Finland. Some may consider this a money-saving perk while visiting Finland, but it ruffles my former waitress feathers to not tip for good service. However, the minimum wage is much higher in Finland than in the U.S., and service staff do not depend on tips for a living. Benefits such as health care are a right by birth or residency and not connected to your employment.
  • Reindeer reign supreme in Finland. Even though there is a rule against jaywalking, it is not strictly enforced. Still, most pedestrians will stay at the curb until the light turns green, even in inclement weather or when there’s no car in sight, driving many a native New Yorker crazy. Reindeer, however, are given free rein.
  • Speeding tickets are based on your salary in Finland. Some may interpret this to mean: if you are rich, ease up on the gas; if you are low-income or unemployed, then step on it.
  • Jerry Seinfeld speaks fluent Hungarian. I couldn’t understand a word the comedian was saying, but hearing him speak the local language in the dubbed version of his TV show was entertainment enough. (Hungarians do not use subtitles for foreign films.)
  • Compared to Americans, Finns and Hungarians stay put. I have lived in my current Helsinki home for the past 16 years, far longer than any other dwelling. The previous 16 years, I lived in 8 different places. My husband: 2.
  • Never toast with beer in Hungary! When clinking glasses, say “Egészégédre!” (“Cheers!”) with wine or brandy, pálinka, only. This superstition harks back to the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848-9 against the Austrians, who celebrated their victory with mugs of beer.

This seems like a good place to end my list. Here’s to my next 20 years as an American expat in Europe! Join me in raising a glass of your favorite wine—no beer, please—and together, let’s say: “KIIPIS!

%d bloggers like this: