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The biggest culture shocks experienced by expats in Europe

We asked our readers what surprised them most about working and living in Europe. This is what they had to say.

The biggest culture shocks experienced by expats in Europe
Photo: elenathewise/Depositphotos

Every country has its own little quirks and discovering them is part of the fun of living abroad. That’s not to say it can’t be tough to adjust at times, as many of our readers have found out for themselves. The Local has partnered with AXA – Global Healthcare to present a handpicked selection of the biggest culture shocks experienced by expats in Europe.

No smiles in Sweden

One of the first things expats notice about the Swedes is that while they are (almost unnervingly) polite, they prefer minding their own business – so don’t expect a smile on the subway.

Photo: danni.ronneberg/Depositphotos

Swedes may be all about solidarity and equality, but they’ll never give away their favourite spot for picking mushrooms, let alone give up their bus or train seat. They’re also strict about queuing but are often seen crossing the street where there isn’t a designated pedestrian crossing (the horror!) and spitting on the ground which may seem shocking to some expats in Sweden. 

Old-school in Italy

The Mediterranean country boasts lush vineyards, serene coastal landscapes, and lively cities bursting with culture. However, its nightmarish bureaucracy and lack of digitalization sometimes outweigh the many positives for its international residents.

Slow digitalization is a common bugbear experienced by expats in several European countries. When it comes to digital healthcare at least, AXA is on-hand to support Europe’s international residents. The Virtual Doctor Service, offered with AXA’s global health plans including out-patient cover, allows expats to speak to a doctor in a range of languages, at short notice from anywhere in the world.

Find out more about AXA’s online doctor service

No lunch errands in France

Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

The French are famously hot-blooded so you’d think they’d see the merits of air conditioning. Think again. Even in the hottest months, they manage to get by without air con — much to the dismay of the country’s international residents. 

Your French colleagues won’t be impressed if they catch you rushing your lunch or eating it at your desk. The French make time for each other and are well-known for their long lunch breaks and lively dinner parties. But for those who are used to taking a quick lunch – or even working through their lunch breaks – lunches that last for hours can be an adjustment.

Internationals used to running errands over lunch will have to reschedule: banks, post offices, most shops, and even the gendarmerie (a branch of the French armed forces responsible for internal security) close down for at least a couple of hours at lunchtime.

Speeding in Germany

Photo: ifeelstock/Depositphotos

Germany is another country where digitalization has been slow on the uptake. Mobile data plans are simultaneously slow and expensive, which can be frustrating for expats used to a more seamless online experience. In contrast, there is no speed limit on the Autobahn which can come as a terrifying realization for internationals driving in Germany.

Stereotype or not, Germans are famous for their efficiency. That said, expats in Germany report finding simple bureaucratic tasks – such as setting up a bank account – to be far from efficient.

Timekeeping in Spain

It’s hard to think of Spain without envying its siestas – the obligatory down-time when the entire country shuts down for two hours in the middle of the day – and its fiestas – which needs no translation.

Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

The Spaniards certainly do seem to have a unique relationship with time, as expats soon come to realize. We’re not just talking about the late-night dinners. In Spain, there is little road rage (a by-product of no-one rushing to get anywhere), young children stay up later than many expats are accustomed to, an “afternoon appointment” can refer to an appointment time after 8pm, and you can comfortably say buenos dias (good morning) until after lunch. This takes some acclimatising for expats coming from countries with stricter rules about timekeeping.

Strapped for time? AXA’s Virtual Doctor Service can save you time and give you peace of mind while living abroad. Click here to find out more about AXA’s global healthcare plans or click here to get a quote.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and presented by AXA.

AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited. Registered in Ireland number 630468. Registered Office: Wolfe Tone House, Wolfe Tone Street, Dublin 1. AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland.

AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited. Registered in England (No. 03039521). Registered Office: 20 Gracechurch Street, London, EC3V 0BG, United Kingdom. AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited is authorised and regulated in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority.

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HEALTH INSURANCE

Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system

The alpine country has a few peculiarities in its health system - starting with the fact that it is mandatory to be insured. Here's an overview.

Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system

When it comes to Austria’s health system, a few things always surprise foreigners. For example, unlike some other countries, like the United States, Brazil, or India, residents in Austria are obliged to have public health insurance.

Enrolment is generally automatic and linked to employment. A vast majority of workers are insured by ÖGK through their employer. Still, many, such as self-employed people, will have their insurance with SVS or BVAEB, in the case of public servants.  

Insurance is also guaranteed to co-insured persons, such as spouses and dependents, pensioners, students, disabled people, and those receiving unemployment benefits.

“People are surprised about the amount of different health insurance providers, all of which are part of the public system”, says Miglena Hofer, senior legal counsel at Austria For Beginners

The Local spoke to her and Severina Ditzov, also a senior legal counsel with the company focusing on easing the integration process of expats and their families, to understand a few of the things that can be most surprising about the health care system for those coming into Austria. 

Different insurers, different systems

Austrian health care is universal, and contributions are mandatory – with few exceptions. However, one thing that will surprise many people is that your insurance fund can differ depending on your occupation.

READ ALSO: What is Austria’s e-card? Everything you need to know

For example, most people in the country are insured by the Österreichische Gesundheitskasse (ÖGK), with about 7.4 million insured people in Austria (some 82 per cent of the population). 

However, civil or public servants, miners, and persons employed with the federal railways are insured by BVAEB. According to the company, more than 1.1 million people in Austria are insured with it. 

Additionally, the self-employed, freelancers and farmers will be insured by SVS

There is also the General Accident Insurance Fund (AUVA) for accident insurance and the pension fund Pension Insurance Fund (PVA), to which all residents contribute. 

“People are, of course, surprised to find out that each provider offers different coverage”, highlights Miglena. This means that not every doctor will work with all ÖGK, SVS, and BVAEB, for example. Therefore, it’s essential to check whether the doctors you are going to work with your insurer.

Even more, the insurers might cover different things or pay in different ways. “Some of the public insurances, like SVS and BVA, have self participation. The fund will cover 90 per cent of the treatment, and the rest will be paid by the patient”, Severina explains.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How freelancers in Austria can pay four times less in social insurance

This can be particularly surprising for people changing insurers, for example, those who went from being formally employed by a company with ÖGK to being a self-employed person insured with SVS.

On top of that, people can have private insurance

Austria works with a two-tier system, so besides the mandatory public insurance, residents can also have their own private policies. 

So, additionally, from the public contribution to the state funds, they can pay private companies to provide health care policies too. Doctors can also choose to work with public or only private patients – or both.

“Public doctors may also have private practices, and they are not obligated to have them in two different places”, says Severina.

“It is very common that the doctor works as a public doctor on Mondays and Wednesdays and private doctor on Tuesday and Friday, or private before noon and the public after 12pm, for example”. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Am I liable for ambulance costs in Austria?

A receptionist would need to tell the patient beforehand if the examination will be private or not, and the information should also be available online, but sometimes they forget to inform, or the person doesn’t correctly check and gets thoroughly surprised when receiving a bill at the end of the consultation.

There is also a difference between Wahlarzt and a Privatarzt. “While both are private doctors, you only get partially reimbursed by the public insurance if you go to a Wahlarzt”, Miglena clarifies. 

A different style of medicine

The style of the consultations can also be shocking to foreigners. 

“Austrian doctors, especially those working with public insurance, are not very empathic or chatty”, Miglena says. “During your appointment, you hardly speak to the doctor as they jump from one room to another”, she adds.  

It is not rare for consultations to last just a few minutes, a drastic change for people from South America, for example, where doctors sometimes spend 30 to 60 minutes talking to patients. 

Another substantial difference is that Austrian medicine is very much focused on prevention and natural remedies, with many doctors prescribing teas and exercise to patients used to getting prescriptions for anxiety and sleeping pills in the United States, for example. 

Pollyanna, a Brazilian who has been living in Vienna for four years, tells how she had difficulties finding a prescription to take the medicine she was used to and that helped her sleep: “The doctor didn’t even want me to take melatonin, let alone my usual prescription medicine”.

Her husband, who is an American, went through a similar situation and felt the difference between doctors in the United States and in Austria.

This style of medicine, one that focuses on prevention and self-recovery, makes it common for people with the flu to be sent home with the recommendation to rest and also creates one of the most unusual things for many expats in Austria: the fact that the public healthcare system will cover a weeks-long stay at a spa.

The expert advice

If any of these quirks, especially the quick consultations with long waiting times, bothers you, you might want to invest in additional private insurance, according to the expert lawyers.

“Sadly, one gets treated way better if they have private insurance”, Miglena says. “Suddenly, every doctor speaks English and is friendly to you, looks you in the eyes, and doesn’t mind answering your questions in detail”. 

“With public insurance, one has to wait for approximately four to eight weeks for examination with a specialist; private insurance can get you faster appointments,” Severina adds.

If you are looking for a doctor – private or not- Austria’s DocFinder.at is a good tool with filters to help you find a doctor based on your insurer or which languages they speak.

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