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Crossing Borders: Discovering Cultural Differences Living Abroad

May 16, 2024 Sydnee Goldman No Comments

ACIS Co-Op Sydnee reflects on cultural differences she found when studying abroad in Greece.

When venturing abroad, we often find ourselves entering unknown territory, both literally and figuratively. Despite our efforts to research and prepare via online sources, the reality often surpasses our expectations. Keeping a diary during my time abroad served as an awakening, particularly as someone accustomed solely to living within the United States, having only traveled for leisure. All of that changed when I was admitted to Northeastern University to study abroad in Greece for my fall semester of junior year.

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A World Away

During my stay in Thessaloniki, I came to understand the disparities between the lifestyles and social interactions in Greece compared to those in the United States. When I first left for Greece, I’d initially left in a state of uncertainty, as my only prior experience in a country distant from the United States was a childhood trip to Spain when I was just nine years old. More than just that, I had never been this far away from my home without my family, so I was already preparing myself to have a completely shocking and different experience.

On my first night, I went with my roommate Adriana and my friend Miranda onto a boat called the Booze Cruise. Immediately, I noticed how normal it was for kids our age to order alcohol. Honestly, I was aware that the drinking ages were different, but this made me shocked in a whole new way. This meant we were seen as adults; we weren’t little kids anymore. That was the day I knew every aspect of my life was changing.

Discovering Cultural Differences

For the first few times that we ate our meals, it was clear how different they made us feel. In America, usually whenever I ate food, my stomach would hurt or I would feel overstuffed, but not in Greece. When I first came to Greece, my meals left me feeling just the right amount of satisfied and full. During these meals, something which caught me off guard was how leisurely the waiters were: instead of rushing to get our check, we would usually end up waiting an extra 45 minutes while everyone just chatted and enjoyed the moment.

As days went on, I would try to immerse myself more into the Greek culture. I went to the Green Fair and to the beach and tried a souvlaki for the first time. Everywhere I went, everyone was so friendly. It didn’t matter if I only spoke English or if I only knew a few words in Greek, they all accepted me and tried to understand me.

One day which was noticeably different was when I went with my friend Kate to get a lab coat for her class. We had walked into the store where the worker continuously commented on how the lab coat looked on her. In America, workers rarely comment on what people are trying on, and if they do, I feel that it is a lot more reserved and conscious of how appropriate the comment would be.

Another particularly striking difference was evident in matters of customer service and punctuality. Unlike the meticulous scheduling and often costly appointments common in the United States, receiving assistance with my malfunctioning phone at a Vodafone store in Greece was a refreshingly hassle-free experience, provided at no charge. Additionally, the level of strictness differs for the concept of time between Greece and the United States. In the United States, when someone schedules an appointment or a meeting, they are expected to be earlier than their appointment (hence the saying “on time is late”). This means that if someone arrives directly on time, it as seen as less respect towards the person they are meeting. However, in Greece, when someone has a meeting, we learned that they leave on a time which they think could get them to arrive at a timely manner, but if they are late, it is not a big deal. Since my mom has always been the type of person who has been 30 minutes early to every commitment she has, it felt very different to be living by different rules.

Moreover, acts of kindness observed during my time in Thessaloniki underscored the generosity and compassion ingrained in Greek society. Whether witnessing individuals feeding stray cats along the boardwalk or encountering unexpected generosity from locals, such actions revealed the depth of character and communal spirit prevalent in Greek culture.

A difference that intrigued and surprised me was the difference in medicine. When I get sick in America, my mom knows exactly what to buy me or what we should do to feel better. However, in Greece, when I got really sick the second week, I realized that would not always be the case. I went into the pharmacy and would try to describe my symptoms or medicines, but the pharmacists looked at me like I was making up the American medicines. Eventually, I got used to the difference and learned how to adjust, but it was very scary being in a new country and having to trust which medication I was about to take without the familiarity aspect.

“The hallmark of successful people is that they are always stretching themselves to learn new things.”

Carol S. Dweck

My Takeaways as a Student Traveler

All of my experiences broadened my intercultural understanding. Whether it was small differences, like food costing less in Greece than America, security at some supermarkets, or the operation of food delivery services; or big differences, like the language barrier or holidays, I felt that I learned a lot. These experiences influenced my attitude toward culture and language as they showed me differences to my own country and portrayed how different people can act or what their intentions are.

One of my favorite memories looking back, and something that I’m not sure is a common cultural difference, was in my history class. When I was in history, it was my teacher Joseph’s birthday, but instead of us giving him a gift, he made us the most heart-warming and amazing chocolate chip cookies. I will never forget how receiving those cookies made me feel. Although I did find out that it was a basic recipe from online, the way that Joseph made it was unmatchable.

Overall, each and every difference that I experienced abroad made a lasting impact on me which I wouldn’t have known unless I had experienced it. The feeling is indescribable, so the best advice I can give is to give travel a shot and see what comes with it.

Sydnee Goldman

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