30 December, 2014

Back in the Homeland!

It has finally happened: I'm back in the United States! I've been here a little over two weeks and the time has really flown by. So far I've spent most of that time in Florida with my mom and another few days split between my dad's house in Massachusetts and visiting my relatives in upstate New York.

Before I left Germany I had wondered how I would react when I first got back to the US after 15 months. I knew that certain things about the United States would stand out to me when I saw them again, just like there were and continue to be things about Germany that stand out to me because they are different from America. Some of the things I noticed I had expected to notice, like the large cars and the friendliness of the customer service, but other things took me by surprise. Here are the first few things I noticed after getting off the plane and spending just a small amount of time in the United States:

  • Everything looks very sprawly, both from the air and from the ground. 
  • English is everywhere and sounds funny to my German-attuned ear.
  • Water fountains. They are everywhere in the US and I had forgotten they even existed.
  • Automatic-flush toilets are also everywhere.
  • The water smells and tastes like a swimming pool (I still haven't gotten used to this).
  • The roads are huge and the area around them takes up so much space.

I noticed the urban sprawl even before our plane landed in Atlanta. As the plane descended I could see that there were lots of buildings and parking lots but also lots of space between each of them. I saw this not only in Atlanta, where our layover was, but also in Orlando and the surrounding area where my mom lives. The space is not used efficiently at all, an observation that was definitely corroborated after spending a decent amount of time driving around.

And it seems like driving is the majority of what we've been doing for the past two weeks. Every time we wanted to go somewhere near my mom's house, other than the nearby grocery store, pharmacy, hairdresser or liquor store, we had to get in the car and drive down ugly, congested three-lane roads. This was OK for me at first, since it was something I didn't experience often in Germany and it felt very American. But once I'd been there more than a week and it was still nearly impossible to walk anywhere and absolutely impossible to get anywhere by public transportation, it really started to wear me down. Sitting in traffic is the worst part of it. I cannot think of a less productive use of my time than sitting in a car while stopped in traffic, wasting both time and resources and accomplishing nothing except getting severely irritated at all the other inconsiderate fools who are using the road at the same time.

The things we drove by didn't even help to alleviate the aggravation. Everything we drove by was either entrances to somewhat posh housing developments or strip malls. I dislike strip malls in all their ugly and blindly consumeristic incarnations. Unfortunately, strip malls and their accompanying parking lots dominate the architectural aesthetic in Central Florida, a fact that makes me very sad. All the ugly monstrosities devoted to the next Target or Walmart and countless other stores selling cheap crap from China are not my idea of a nice day out shopping. I'm starting to miss European cities with pretty, walkable centers that aren't overrun with strip malls and parking lots.

But of course since I'm in America I have found myself shopping at said strip malls from time to time, and when it comes time to pay I am always reminded of another irksome thing about the US: sales tax is not included in the price of anything you buy here. In Germany, the price of an item listed on its price tag always includes sales tax, so what you see is exactly what you pay. Not here in America. Since different states have different rates of sales tax and some states don't charge sales tax at all, the base price on every price tag is the price before tax, and the tax is not added until you check out. Every single time I've paid for something here I've forgotten about that, and I'm always slightly shocked to discover that the item I thought I was paying 99 cents for actually costs $1.06. I can understand why Americans are so much more annoyed by taxes than Germans are. Despite the fact that German sales tax is much higher (19 percent in Germany vs. 0-7.5 percent in the United States), in America you are forced to notice it when it constantly raises the price of everything you buy.

Despite the irritation with the traffic, cars, strip malls and surprise tax, there are things I have appreciated since being back in the United States. Obviously being able to speak my native language with every single person I talk to is a huge relief, one that I've grown accustomed to very quickly and which probably bodes very badly for my German skills. I also have really appreciated the friendly American customer service and the convenience of many things. A good example happened one day when my mom and I were in Trader Joe's (a health food supermarket, in case some Europeans aren't familiar with it). We had paid for our food and walked out to the car when we realized that we had forgotten to use the coupons we had brought with us. So we simply went back inside to the customer service counter, told the cashier what had happened, and she took our coupons and refunded our money. The whole transaction took about two minutes and proceeded without any fuss. I can only imagine how a similar situation would have happened in Germany. We would have gone back in, showed the coupons and the cashier would have said there was nothing she could do for us and that we would just have to buy something else to use the coupons. Almost exactly the same thing happened to me in Germany once and I was not pleased with the unhelpful response I got. Something can always be done about something like that after the fact, but Germans simply won't do it because that's not how things are done. If you forgot your coupon, it's your own stupid fault and no one else should have to waste time fixing your mistake.

I'm also ecstatic about the fact that restaurants in America give out FREE WATER!!! I missed that SO MUCH when I was in Germany! Since I'm stubborn and refuse to pay for water in almost all situations besides severe dehydration, I usually order soda or beer at German restaurants, which is just not the same as a nice refreshing glass of water with a meal. It's really the little things that show you that you are in a new place, and that is one of the little things that I appreciate the most. 

As well as taking in some typically American things like free restaurant water, we also used our time in Florida to experience some things that Florida in particular has to offer. As an early Christmas present my mom took Maxim and me to Epcot, one of the parks at Walt Disney World, for the day. It was fun to see Epcot again after not having been there for almost 10 years, and it was nice to be able to show it to Maxim for the first time. I didn't take many pictures, but here are some showing some of the Christmas decorations that Disney World is known for around the holiday season. 

On the opposite end of the entertainment spectrum, we also visited Blue Spring State Park to see manatees in their natural winter habitat. It was nice to get away from all the hustle and bustle of strip malls and four-lane highways for a while and see some nature. We got lucky and saw an alligator in addition to the advertised manatees.

The alligator is barely visible in this picture swimming with a manatee.

The alligator up close with his buddy the manatee.
Now that I'm back in New England things are more familiar and at this point I've mostly gotten used to the subtle differences and the particularly American quirks that stood out to me in the beginning. In my head, though, I'm almost constantly comparing what I see to how things are in Germany. Because I've spent so much time there, Germany has become my default setting in many ways and it takes some adjusting to switch back to my American way of thinking. I don't think the four weeks I'm spending here before I head back to Germany will be enough to make the switch completely.

Looking back on my time in Germany so far, I'm glad that I've been able to spend the past year and a half living within another culture. It helps me put the things I see in America in perspective and not assume that America is the norm. But being bi-cultural also complicates things. I really like Germany and would like to stay there, but I also feel pressure to stay in my home country. In many ways life would be easier if I stayed here in the US (it would be easier to find a job, I could speak English all the time, my family is here), but in other ways it would be easier in Germany (living expenses are cheaper, I wouldn't need a car, it would be cheaper to continue my education). Those of you who have been reading my blog consistently will know that I like the culture in Germany and the way many political and social issues are handled, and I can't help but feel that Germany is where my future is. So far it's hard to tell if this trip to the United States has strengthened or weakened that feeling. Mostly that feeling has become more conflicted. I just need to keep reminding myself that staying in Germany now doesn't mean I can never come back to the US. Plus, I like the challenge of living in another country and speaking another language. I've made it this far and I don't want to give up now!


  1. gosh it must have been a bit hyper real. We went to the UK for New Year's and had some similar feelings of disconnection whilst also falling back on the convenience of English. Like you, it would be easier for me to work in the UK than Germany ( in Leipzig jobs for those without fluent deutsch are few and far between) but there's so much I like about living in Deutschland!

    1. It was a really interesting trip. I'm back in Germany now and the switch back and forth has made me sort of confused and stressed. Since I just got back, all that is standing out now are the things that are harder here. I'm sure that phase will pass but for now it's difficult. I'm planning on writing more about that in my next blog post.