24 September, 2013

Differences, big and small

Since I've gotten here I've naturally noticed many little things that remind me that I'm in a new country, some of which I like and some of which I don't. Some examples of these little differences are:

  • Different door handles. There are no round doorknobs, just handles like this:
    Also note that to lock the door you need a key.

  • Different toilets. The buttons to flush the toilet look different and are usually on the wall instead of on the toilet itself, like so:

Toilet below, buttons above (note there are two buttons, one for a small amount of water and one for more water).

  • Different shower heads. All the shower heads, or least all that I have seen, aren't fixed to the wall like in the US but can be adjusted for height, and the shower head has a handle so it can be removed from the wall and held in your hand:
This is one of my favorite differences. It makes showering so much easier!

  • Different windows. There are several differences in this regard. First of all, the window sashes don't slide up and down to open/close like in the US. Normally the window will be fixed with a hinge on one of the sides (or the top or bottom), and to open it you push the opposing side so the window swings open (some windows swing in, some out). Most windows, unlike in the US, have just one pane. Then there are the window shades. European window shades make American window shades seem as ineffective as a flimsy piece of paper trying to hold back a hailstorm. Never mind the flexible fabric shades you pull up and down with one hand; these are heavy duty metal behemoths that cover the entire outside of the window frame (yes, they are on the outside of the house) and block out almost all sunlight, no matter how sunny it is. They are operated either with a chain/string that you pull (think of a rope hoisting a sail) or with a metal pole that you insert into a slot and use to turn the mechanism. These shades are one of my least favorite differences between the US and Europe (I saw most of these differences in Spain as well), because when I have the shades down when I wake up, I have no encouraging sunlight to guide me into wakefulness, and I have absolutely no idea what time of day it is. It's very disorienting, so most of the time I only close the shade of the window directly above my bed and I leave the other one open all the time.
Here's the window above my bed with the shade closed. Any idea what time of day it is? Me neither.

These are the superficial differences that stand out right away, because they are the little things that are easy to take for granted when in one place for a long time. Things like this are very arbitrary when it comes to whether or not you will be happy in a new place, and they are also the easiest to get used to.

Then there are the larger, more systemic differences. One of these, which I've had a timely introduction to, is how Germany approaches politics and elections. Nearly every American is aware that elections in the United States are a constant political battle, are discussed ad nauseum in all media, cost billions of dollars, and the discourse around them is generally very simplistic, confrontational, and reactionary. That is simply not the case here. There was a national election in Germany on Sunday, and in the two weeks leading up to it I saw very little election propaganda compared to what I would see months or even years before an election in the United States. Most of what I saw were simply signs with a candidate's picture, a slogan, and the name of the party, and I didn't see a single ad attacking another party or candidate. (Here you vote for the party, not the individual, and there are lots of different parties to choose from.) I didn't get the impression that there was the same level of obsession and hysteria about this election as there always is for a national election in the US, and the discourse is not nearly as polarized because there are not only two political viewpoints that are taken seriously.

There is also much less money in elections and politics in general than in the United States. The systematic corruption that is commonplace in the US is highly frowned upon at both the government/policy level and at the social level in Germany. At the policy level, there are laws that limit how much money each party can spend on a campaign, and some of the money is allocated based on how many votes the party received in the previous election. This means that parties which don't truly represent the people's interests will not have as much money to campaign, and they can't just depend on a few big donors to fund a slick campaign and convince people to vote for them. Even from the perspective of the general public, political corruption is not tolerated. Maxim mentioned a story from a few years ago about some politicians receiving special treatment from hotels (i.e., free rooms) and maybe some other businesses, and when the public found out there was a huge backlash and those politicians ended up resigning (or maybe just getting voted out the next election, I'm not sure of the details).

These larger systemic differences can be harder to see at first than the superficial ones that are in front of your face everyday. I think most people would agree that when arriving in a new country, the things you interact with everyday, like showers and toilets, will be more obvious than something as complex as the political culture. But when you look more closely, it's the larger trends like a country's policies and cultural norms that really define it's character. To me, these are the things that matter much more than the design of the bathroom, and they have much more influence on whether or not I will be happy somewhere. For the past few years in the US, I have been feeling a widening divide between my values and the values of my country, and that was causing me a lot of unhappiness and distress at times. Here in Germany, many things I'm learning about my new home are like a breath of fresh air. I agree with nearly every German policy that I've learned about. I feel that, more so than in the US, I am among like-minded people who are willing and able to have a political debate without it spiraling into accusations and manipulated half-truths fed to us by our highly partisan "news" networks. Granted, this higher quality debate may be because everyone I've "debated" with has mostly agreed with me. That "mostly" in itself is refreshing, though, because in the US our political ideas are so divided that there is often no common ground to be found.

So while I may have to deal with the Incredible Hulk of window shades, I will gladly put up with that slight annoyance in order to live somewhere with a political system that isn't insane. I could go on and on about how the political-media-military-industrial complex in America sucks, but for now I will leave you with this: at this particular moment in history, I'm very glad to be in Germany.

1 comment :

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZO_WM1uZyZo