I'm ba-ack. While you probably didn't miss me, my family and I just got back to the U.S. after spending almost two months in Europe.
Our trip was unique: While we did a few of the normal touristy things, most of our time was spent in a city not frequented by tourists. We lived kind of like the locals and very little like we lived at home. And that is what I want to share with you.
Our permanent home is a tiny farm, in the middle of rural America. We have a well (so we don't “pay” for water), a 2,000+ square foot, well-loved farmhouse, room to run, as well as all the American-sized comforts of life. We go grocery shopping as little as possible and drive our cars a lot. That, my friends, was about to change…
When we arrived in the city where we were to be united with our children (the adoption was successful, by the way!), we were introduced to our apartment. It was smaller than what we were used to. And that would be a common theme during our trip that applied to the washing machine, the refrigerator, the cars (and parking spots), the groceries and the McDonald's menu.
Car-less in Europe
After spending over $500 per month in gas alone in 2012, I relished the opportunity to walk or use public transportation all the time. Here is what I learned: walking everywhere isn't hard (and I didn't gain a pound even though I ate more bread than I am used to), but it does require more planning than I am used to. For instance, I rarely use umbrellas at home because dashing from store to car or car to my building at work is such a short distance. And my husband claims he had never used an umbrella before our trip. But when you don't have a car and you have a one mile walk to the grocery store, you should carry an umbrella. Walking one mile in the rain with our hands full of groceries and 0.5 umbrellas per person was…wet.
I missed having a car, but not very often. I liked seeing our neighborhood by foot and since we had to walk almost everywhere, we tried to batch our errands and plan around the weather. I've also tried to batch our errands at home, too, but it's easier to cheat when I can jump in the car and drive somewhere.
Grocery shopping is one of my least favorite activities, so I try to do it as little as possible at home. But on our trip, we did not have the luxury of a large refrigerator and stand-alone freezer. The size of the food packages reflected the smaller amount of storage. Whether we wanted to or not, we needed to buy food every two or three days.
We found lots of shops within walking distance of our apartment. There were Walmart-style superstores, smaller grocery stores, and very small mom and pop stores in random locations along the street.
“It's a very nice shop,” one friend said of the first store we went to, “but it's expensive. Most younger people go to the superstores.”
The big stores were very similar to my shopping experience at home. But the mid- and small-sized stores felt more foreign in flavor. In the meat department, I could have purchased chicken backs, chicken hearts and livers, and other things that don't make it into my neighborhood meat case, adding further support to my thoughts that we probably waste a lot of meat in the U.S.
The first time we went to a restaurant, we didn't order drinks. “We don't usually order drinks in a restaurant,” my friend said, apologetically. “The drinks are small and expensive, and they don't give free refills like you get in the States.” When I did order a drink, my 0.2 liter Coke didn't last long. Amazing how easily I consume extra calories in beverages.
And speaking of restaurants, there were far fewer than there are at home. Based on my observations, a smaller percentage of my adopted city's budget was spent on eating out.
With the addition of kids to our family (and the smaller washing machine), we did one load of laundry each day. We also showered every day, of course. About halfway through our stay in our apartment, our landlady hit us with a surcharge because we were using too much water. Even though I don't think we're waterhogs at home, I'm sure the absence of a water bill influences us to use more water.
After paying an extra fee for water usage, we were very careful. We made sure all loads of laundry were full, we turned off the water while we were lathering up in the shower, and some of us may have even skipped a shower or two.
Money is universal
Whenever I could, I tried to engage our new friends in financial conversations to get a feel for how things really were for them.
“Our economy isn't good,” one woman admitted. “Our unemployment rate is around 20 percent, and no one is doing anything about it. Students coming out of college can't find jobs. Businesses have no incentive to employ people. I used to employ people, but it's easier to just be on my own.”
“What do you think about the cost of living here?” I asked another woman who frequently visits her daughter here in the U.S.
“It's higher than the States, for sure,” she shrugged. “I think clothes, shoes, food, and cars — probably everything — are more expensive here.”
My other friend had more to say. “You know, in the city, it's not too bad. But I have family in the country. They own a bakery, and they have people who can't pay for their bread right away. So they give my aunt an IOU and pay later. It's hard for them.”
Living in another country was an interesting experiment in the culture of money. I see how many factors (costs of water, standards of living, and food consumption) influence how we spend our money at home. The experience, however, was priceless.
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).