Meeting the locals while on vacation in Europe can be a little awkward, especially if you don’t know the language very well. It’s important to remember though that they will typically know you’re a visitor and that you won’t be familiar with their customs, so a little awkwardness is to be expected. You can, however, minimize the awkwardness by coming prepared.
Basic social conventions differ from country to country, and even from region to region. This can be a little confusing, but just by doing a little research you can find a lot about the people who live there.
Look into simple things like whether it’s normal to make eye contact with strangers or smile and greet people you pass on the street. While most everyone you see will be friendly, people in some places may tend to be more reserved in public than you might be used to. In the U.K. you might expect casual eye contact and friendly small talk among strangers, while in France strangers might be more réservé, that is to say, more reserved, rather than unfriendly. Take cues from those around you and think about what sort of social setting you’re in.
When meeting someone for the first time you can’t go wrong with a firm, short handshake and a simple greeting in their language, even if you butcher the pronunciation. When meeting them subsequent times, it is not uncommon in some countries to be greeted with pecks on the cheek or “air kisses” (where no contact is actually made). Rules about how many kisses are given and which side of the face you start on vary from place to place, upon the genders of the people involved, and how well you know each other, so if you’re unsure you can just try to follow the lead of the other person. In Portugal and Spain, men usually only kiss women, but women will typically kiss other women, but in Italy it’s not uncommon for men to kiss men.
Rules are also never hard and fast, such as in Greece where the ritual varies depending on many different circumstances. In the former Yugoslavian countries, your nationality actually plays a part in how many kisses you give each other. Even if you make a slight social misstep if you do it with a smile on your face and friendly enthusiasm you’ll likely avoid any true awkwardness.
It’s also important to remember that hand gestures are not universally understood, and what may be an innocuous gesture in your culture may be offensive somewhere else. For example, brushing the underside of your chin in a flicking motion is a rude and impolite dismissal in places like France and Belgium, or in Switzerland it’s rude to point at your head with your index finger. Rather than pantomiming when you don’t know the language, try looking up keywords in a translation dictionary or asking if they speak your language. You will look smarter and be more likely get the information you need.