Sunday, May 11, 2008

Observations from the States

First of all, you must see the photos!! Here are the links.

Chicago April 08

Iowa Apr May 08

1. Americans are slobs! My flight from Frankfurt to Chicago was half-filled by a tour group of high schoolers from Iowa. They and their chaperones were all dressed in sweatpants and athletic pants! I guess I understand wanting to be comfortable for the long flight - I wore my loosest jeans - but they really stood out, and it wasn't in a very positive way. Sweatshirts are another thing you don't see much in Germany but are everywhere in the US. Also, when is this looks-like-a-piece-of-pink-lingerie trend going to end in the yuppie circles? Can we not wear pajamas in public, please? Also, legs. Too much leg going on. It's hard to look dignified when your whole thigh is visible. I'm not saying your legs aren't great. I'm sure they are. I'm just talking about the dignity, folks.

2. Americans are fearlessly nosy. I somehow ended up getting a "special meal" on the flight (I think it was a mistake and meant for someone who didn't get the flight) and the food came much earlier than everyone else's. The woman behind me started asking me all these questions about what it was, how I got it, and how it tasted. Then I tried to get eating before it got cold and turned to find her staring over the row of seats at me eating. Check-out clerks noticed little things about you and asked about them - about a guy carrying epi-pens ("What are those??" etc.) for instance. I like a certain level of familiarity. In some cases it was a nice relief after feeling so distanced from everyone here in Germany - but there's definitely a sub-population that takes it too far!

3. And what a range of customer service the US has! I guess it's pretty solid here. Distant, but not cranky. Not always helpful when you need something, and sometimes overly informative, but it's all delivered in a pretty deadpan way. Within only half an hour of picking up some items in Chicago I got everything from a clerk violently screaming "Step up. Step UP! STEP UP!!!" to customers who took longer than .5 seconds to walk up to her register, to a store full of more customer service employees than people, who greeted us, asked us what we needed, gave explicit instructions on how to find it without us asking, checked us out with way more conversation than necessary, then said goodbye as we left the door, smiles all the way. Getting a chip for my phone was SO simple and friendly. It probably would have been a torturous encounter here.

4. American restaurants are the #1 source of culture shock. They're incredibly loud. They're crowded. They make you wait so that you'll buy drinks at the bar. They give you free water - and more free water - and more free water! Wine costs a zillion dollars a glass. They're so dark you can barely read the menu. And did I mention the loudness? You won't be hanging around after your meal to chit-chat! Then there's the insane tippage added to the bill! Yowza!

5. I speak the language! I found myself talking to pretty much anybody in a way I probably wouldn't have before, because I freaking could. I would normally roll my eyes and shrug it off if someone ticked me off in public, but when it happened in Chicago, I found I was so glad to be able to sass back to the jerk (a biker on the sidewalk who had plenty of space to get around my friends and I - I bike enough to know this, and I like my space when I'm on my bike - but bitched at us as he rode past anyway) that I went right ahead. I guess a year and a half of having to deal with everything in silence because I can't be quick enough or don't know the words resulted in this. So if you see me in the US when I'm fresh off the plane, don't mess with me.

6. Small isn't small. Big really is big. I got a small drink at a cafe in Chicago and couldn't believe it when I got it. It would be a large in Germany, almost certainly. It was much bigger than I expected. I can't imagine drinking a large!! The cafe itself was huge too, I think you could fit seven German bakeries inside, and it had free wireless, which is a concept that's been really slow to spread in Germany. Then, we went to pick up some toiletries and I could not believe how big everything was!! You can buy a whole liter of shampoo! In one bottle! I just wanted something to cover me for three weeks, but that was not available!

7. I rode Amtrak! It was incredibly roomy, but this might just be because I somehow ended up sitting in the disabled section (there were no disabled passengers). The seats went way down and were super wide with tons and tons of legroom. It was a double-decker and kind of hard to get around, though. There was (expensive) dinner on the train by reservation only. I had stocked up on snacks at a bakery in Chinatown so I didn't go. The conductor was super-informative, making announcements about crossing the Mississippi and how big it is and how cute this or that town is and who owns the rails we're riding on and when his shift ends. There was only one exit door per car and an employee had to open it! He thought I was a complete whackjob for trying to open it myself, but that's how you do it here and I just did it without thinking. Also I was standing in his way because I thought the door would open out like German trains, but it opens in.

8. Things seen from the train:
  • Kids waving at the train from their doorstep.
  • A guy photographing our train passing on a bridge over another train.
  • An old woman walking back down her drive from the mailbox.
  • Knox College.
  • Lots of American flags.
  • A buzz-cut kid with a University of Illinois sticker in his pickup, waiting for the train to pass.
  • Lots of houses standing alone.
  • A tree with a big red heart painted on it.
  • A trailer house with a little steeple on it being used as a church.
  • Lots of rusted-out cars.
  • A few little league games.
  • A window boarded up with multicolored siding.
9. Tied fleece blankets. They're everywhere.

10. American flags look so much more innocent flying over the Midwest countryside than they do when flying abroad.

11. An organic food obsession appears to be in full swing now. Sometimes it goes a little too far. People buy organic to feel "green", but when you are in Des Moines buying organic popcorn that comes from Seattle, you're not doing anything nice for the environment. They had to truck that stuff all the way to you, and you live in a popcorn-producing state!

12. What happens to the town's oldest building in Germany: hotel or restaurant. Maybe even still just a house. What happens to the town's oldest building in the US Midwest: antique store. How can they all stay in business?? Is the need for antiques that great?

13. The US is rundown. In this way it more closely resembles the former East than the former West of Germany. Lots of abandoned buildings, houses falling apart with junk in the yards. It's easy to become this way in the US because there's an out-with-the-old attitude and plenty of space to build new things. In East Germany it was because everything belonged to the government so people didn't have a reason to take care of it themselves, and the government couldn't get to it all, then after communism fell, some of these things didn't find new owners and are left abandoned. Funny how these two totally different systems led to similar looks.

14. There's so little graffiti in the US.

15. Cost of 200 mL conditioner at the DM near our apartment: 2.35 EUR ($3.63). Cost of 750 mL conditioner at big-box store in Des Moines: $5.27. SO CHEAP!! (I know, I should figure in the cost of having to own a car and car insurance and buying gas, because you can't walk to the store in Des Moines.)

16. Welcome back to splashback. I think I've been converted to German toilets.

17. And I've definitely been converted to the side-loading washer. I did a load of laundry at my mom's and the top-loader trashed my clothes. Socks I washed multiple times in my German side-loader that had still looked like new became pilly, linty messes in the top-loader. A sweater was completely trashed. I can't believe I ever put up with them! Never again!! Side-loaders are gentle and awesome!

18. This list is getting really long, but anyway, what's with all the anti-bacterial? I don't need everything to be anti-bacterial and after being away for a while it comes off as really obsessive and tense.

19. Terrrrrrrrr-rists! We got a good laugh watching Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Then while I had my hair cut in a salon in a dying mall in Des Moines, my husband walked around testing out our new camera (old one is actually visibly smoking now when the flash goes off) and security freaked out! Thankfully he wasn't kicked out but the general manager came out to have a little chat with him and there must have been a general alert sent out about him because he got funny looks when he went into the stores, like he was matching some description. "Tall dude with black leather jacket and camera. Taking pictures. Look out!!!!" Check out the Iowa photo album to see a couple of these super-dangerous photos.

Overall, it was probably the best trip of my life. Three weeks, mostly hanging out with my family and not having to worry about fairly dividing it with the in-laws (they came up to DSM), vacation time constraints, and spending it mostly in the big bubble that is rural Iowa. Too bad there's no chance I'll ever live there again. Though, if I did live there again, I'd probably regret it too. Man, life is too short when you want it all.


  1. Welcome back! I have a theory on why Americans look like slobs as compared to people here. It's the cheap Chinese cotton clothing you buy in the US and wash in the cheap top load washers that wreck everything. I miss dressing like a slob though... here, I've seen women wear blazers and stiletto shoes to go to REWE. It's ridiculous. Don't they know comfort? I just don't want to have to dress up every time I leave the house looking like something that walks down a Parisian runway.

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  3. Go to France ... you don't dare step out to pick up a baguette without having your whole act together.

    Nice list ... I probably would have enjoyed reading it over a caramel frappucino grande, getting caramel all over my cheap chinese sweatshirt, because that is the American way.

    As for how US flags look flying abroad, they don't strike me as being sinister or anything like that. But they are generally behind big walls and fences that make me feel like I'm no longer wanted by my home country (my tax dollars, however, are ... no fair).

  4. What a great list!
    I could have written it myself.
    Everything you wrote is very true for my experiences with going back to the States except for the flag thing. When I see them flying in the States, I feel a certain pride... when I see them flying in the rest of the world I just feel sad. Sad for the world opinion that has gone down the splashback toilet.

  5. Oberursel: Wow, I'm glad people in Heidelberg aren't as dressed up as where you live! I think there's a happy medium between the t-shirt + sweatpants look and the stilettos at Rewe! (Although they could just be shopping after work!)

    Mike: Yeah, I don't like to have to be totally overdressed, but I think that if you are traveling like this group was, the whole sweatpants thing just doesn't reflect that well. I like to dress on the nicer side when traveling because in a sense I'm representing a lot of other people as well.
    I don't know if I'd say US flags here look sinister, but they are a whole different animal than the ones flying in the American countryside. I don't really know how to explain it. There, they feel cozy. Here, they feel intrusive.

    Snooker: Down the splashback toilet....I love it!!!

  6. Wow! Great list. Thanks for sharing. I plan to go back in the fall. Can't wait to see what I "see" in America after 2 years in Germany.

  7. "The US is rundown. In this way it more closely resembles the former East than the former West of Germany."

    I have stopped telling people this, because it makes everyone think I'm crazy, but it's so true! West Germany is so gut gepflegt that I get a kind of weird, fake vibe from it. East Germany, feels "normal" to me in this sense.

  8. "Americans are slobs!" - I love it! My husband and I are constantly saying that. We've been overseas for 4 years now...first the UK, now here. While I never ran around looking like a slob back home, I certainly don't now. Nothing screams "I'm an American" like sweats and tennis shoes. Even our parents say that we have changed, that we act and dress more European.

    Thanks for the laugh and observations. I'm looking forward to my culture-shock trip later this summer.

  9. Great list! I really like the observation about how beat the US looks and how funny that it's ended up looking worse off than the former East. I feel like Americans who have barely if ever left the States (like my mom's husband) would freak out and accuse you of being anti-American for merely observing that.

  10. Gardner: It's fun to see what you notice - some things you expect - and others are a surprise! I can't wait to hear what you think when you go over!

    Jones: My MIL felt the same way as you when she visited. Many towns were so well-kept here in the West that they just felt fake and Disney-like to her. The East does feel a bit more "real" in this sense, at least to this American.

    Cowgirl: I don't get super dressed up, but I have boundaries which seem to be different from a lot of the Americans I saw! I can't wait to hear how your next trip to the States goes!

    Pat: Anyone who would accuse me of being anti-American, when I don't even really understand the complete meaning of that term, is definitely on the defensive side. I do think Americans are a little over-defensive. They/we know world opinion isn't totally on the side of the US, and they also aren't used to inter-country teasing (which seems to be common in Europe and all in good fun, like between siblings) and take it more personally.

  11. Germany isn't rundown with abandoned buildings and rusty crap everywhere, huh? You obviously haven't been to Duisburg. It's ok. Most people haven't. I advise staying away. Duisburg (probably) makes Detroit look beautiful.

    Loved reading this. There's so much that I also noticed on my first trip back home last November. Like the drink sizes, lol. We ordered meals with "large" drinks at Wendy's. Talk about culture shock. I'd forgotten. No matter how hard I tried I wasn't able to drink a gallon of pop. And the customer service everywhere was crazy. Are they ALL on really good antidepressants or something?! I've always found it annoying to be asked "are you finding everything alright?" anyway. Agh! Leave me alone! Cust service & the grocery store sizes were just amazing after having been gone for a while!

  12. Funny - back when I was living in France and then made a short trip home, I noticed that most Germans were dressing like slobs, being painfully indiscreet, talking (and, above all,laughing!) way too loud - on the other hand, service in stores just seemed very casually friendly when compared to the intricately impersonal French courtoisie...

    In short, I really liked your observations on that weird-yet-still-vaguely-familiar place that just happens to be your home. Or one of them, anyway -

    I must say, however, that I'm mildly shocked about item #16. I've actually been trying hard to spread the word about splashback among my fellow Germans. As for stinkshelf, I really don't consider it a source of any particular national pride, seriously-

    enlightened and amused,

    an Ex-Heidelberger(by birth,no less.)

  13. Bunny: It's official, I'm avoiding Duisburg like the plague!! :D

    Anon: I don't think you need the shelf (I'm not totally a fan either...see my very early post "The Platform Toilet") to avoid splashback, but I guess it's the only sure prevention. But, the non-shelf toilets with minimal water inside don't splash back very often so those are a good compromise between the stinky shelf and the American toilet, which is just completely full of water so you're practically guaranteed a splash if you are experiencing the sort of poo that lends itself to that... or do you LIKE to get splashed? ;)

    France is so quiet...I always feel like the loudest, most obnoxious human alive when I go there. :/


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