If I had to boil down my initial reverse culture shock experiences to a concise list of things that ultimately annoy or astonish me when I visit America, this would be it. This is the small stuff, not the larger picture that hits me long after the vacation is over. Although I understand that time has done its job on me as I have languished(or flourished?) in Germany for over 16 years, I find I am more often than not a fish out of water.
1. Friendliness of strangers.
Yes, they will chat openly in the supermarket check-out, at the post office, the bank or the deli line. When you are used to old ladies not waiting their turn at German bakeries or getting nudged with a shopping cart at Aldi, this is the first and foremost thing I notice. Simply disarming.
2. Big, monster cars.
Even though Germany has its fair share of SUVs, they do seem more compact and sleek in Mercedes or BMW form, always black.
3. “Beater” cars.
Americans are used to seeing cars in disrepair and nary bat an eye. As Germans are so fastidious about car upkeep, a hanging muffler, rustspots and dented sides irks me.
4. Everything is smoke free.
Most places in America have been smoke free for years. If you venture to take a puff, be prepared to suffer comments from lung rights protectors.
5. Air-conditioning for Knut.
Sub-zero temperatures in stores, movie theaters, cars, on planes - just about everywhere the thermostats are set to “frigid”. Who knew to bring a sweater in 100° F weather?
6. The local news is a joke.
30% neighborhood crime, 40% high school sports, 20% weather, 10% entertainment tonight. Local zoo births top off the broadcast. National news might mention Iraq, once.
7. Classic rock radio stations.
I miss my dose of Allman Brothers and Led Zepellin that you just cannot find twirling the dial in Hamburg. The first day in a rental car is heaven. Abundant country radio stations add to the fun.
8. The amount of waste.
Packaging, paper plates, plastic cutlery, wrappers, etc. are simply tossed without a care in the main trash can. Years of separating garbage in Germany has made me doubly conscious. I just don’t see much personal recycling incentive unless there is pick-up for glass bottles, cans, and paper.
9. Commercial interruptions.
No wonder the span of attention of the nation has dropped. While USA enjoys frequent breaks, Germans save up the sold airtime to large blocks: enough to pop corn or take a leisurely bath. DVD sets are the way to go for expats, without multiple pizza, depression medication and used car ads.
10. T he great indoors.
From the first frost to balmy spring, you will not find Americans outdoors, unless doing a winter sport. Taking a walk after dinner is a novel concept to my family. A Sunday afternoon stroll in the rain? Never. You’d be hardpressed to find a walker (or even sidewalks) in suburbia in January. Some even drive to the mailbox.
Ach du lieber…!
originally published in Currents Dec 2008/Jan 2009