Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Favor of My German Life

I've been in the states for over three weeks now, and frequently get asked, "Do you like living in Germany?" to which I always reply, "I LOVE living in Germany, I never want to move back to the U.S." I realize people are just trying to be polite and show interest, but their bewilderment at my response has surprised me. Invariably they will look at me with shock and say, "Really, WHY?" This scenario has been repeated ad nauseam since I've been here in Mississippi visiting my parents. Which leads me to the conclusion that Americans really are what Europeans think we are: the most arrogant citizens of planet Earth. I'm afraid Americans really believe they live in the only decent country, and are shocked to hear that people actually flourish and lead fulfilling lives on other continents. Americans really must believe that we hold the copyright on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Newsflash: Germans are happier than you. I don't mean they are as gregarious and raucous as you, but they are certainly happier in a quieter way. Their lives are simpler, greener, more active, more social, and more creative than yours. If asked to show any scientific proof for this claim, I probably couldn't actually find any, but it is my theory and is based on my own observations over the last year.

One indication that life is better in Germany: Americans don't want to leave once they move there. Every time I've watched an Army family pack up and go back to the U.S., it's been with heavy hearts, knowing they would not find the things they valued about life in Germany back in the states. I also know quite a few ex-pats living on the economy working civilian jobs. They are mostly young and single, and they all think they've hit the jackpot; I don't know a single one who wants to quit their job and go back to America.

When I tell Americans how much I love my German life, they protest, "Oh, but you have the American commissary to shop at, and American friends in you American post housing. You have the best of both worlds!" Though I concede I do have it much easier, I don't think my ex-pat friends are suffering. They enjoy much more healthy and natural food at the local groceries, they have friends that come from all over the globe, and though the rent can be steep, they have some pretty cool digs. So I'm not buying that military benefits are the reason why I love Germany.

The lifestyle Europeans embrace is so much more communal. I think of life in America as a series of movements from one air-conditioned space to another; in a word: synthetic. I used to live in my air-conditioned 4 bedroom home and then get into my massive air-conditioned SUV to go to the next air-conditioned space. All that artificial air never did anything for me. I wasn't happy. I had extra rooms in my house filled with extra stuff, but it didn't contribute to my happiness in any way. I lived in a nice home in the suburbs, but I only knew one neighbor, and felt completely isolated and miserable out in that neighborhood built on a prairie. Guess what? I'm happier living in a 2-bedroom apartment where my kids have to share a room. Sure, we get cabin fever, and sure, it gets hot with no air-conditioning, but that forces us to get out and so we are more social than we have ever been in our lives. I've realized I'm a rather extraverted introvert, and I really flourish when I get out and spend time on the lawn with my neighbors or at the pub with our friends. Germans eat outdoors at cafes and biergartens during all the warm months, because it's too hot to be indoors. The resulting atmosphere is pure magic, and something that is sadly lacking in America.

I don't always use my car to travel and that makes me feel good. I walk to work, my husband bikes there. We can hop on the streetcar and go downtown with a crowd full of people, or we can simply walk there in 20 minutes. There's a bakery and a florist two blocks away, or Italian restaurants two blocks the other direction. My daughter will attend kindergarten at a German katholische kirche in the fall, only a block away. I love the simplicity and safety of our life. I have never felt unsafe when alone, and never heard of any crime committed in our city at all. In Mississippi, my parents have moved out even further than the suburbs, outside city limits, in order to live in a peaceful crime-free neighborhood, so it takes 30 minutes in the car to get anywhere you want to go. I hate it. I hate the waste of gas. I hate being trapped in a car for so long, driving so slowly. In Germany, I hop on the autobahn, speed up to 95 miles per hour (152 km/h), feel a thrill as I watch my digital speedometer hit 152, and arrive at IKEA in minutes. When Germans do drive, they do it right!

Germans live more simply and more earth-consciously. They recycle absolutely everything, if it can't be recycled, you won't see it in their grocery. They share homes, turning them into multi-family flats, only the rich live in their own single-family home. We live in a stairwell with six apartments, and share 3 washers and 3 dryers in the basement with everyone else. Oddly enough, I enjoy it, and now find the big homes on big lots in America a gross waste of resources. People laugh at me for driving a MINI Cooper with two kids, but I love the thrill of zipping around in a small car in the midst of a sea of tiny cars, using less gas, being more energy-conscious. I don't miss my Yukon at all.

Germans are the most aware people I've ever met. They are in tune with the world around them, gardening prolifically, going wandern (hiking) every weekend, biking everywhere imaginable. They know about other cultures, speak multiple languages (English perfectly), and have traveled broadly. Life in Heidelberg is filled with cultural and artistic opportunities, and they never let bad weather keep them in or limit their activity. When the World Cup arrived, die fussball was king. Germans breathed soccer, it was on everyone's lips. I never even knew the World Cup was going on when I lived in the U.S. I have never seen such fervor and passionate support of any sporting event in the U.S., not for the Super Bowl, not even for the Olympics. It felt like the whole city turned out for public viewings in Heidelberg, watching on huge screens at biergartens. The excitement was so contagious, everyone in my family caught the bug. My son will be playing soccer in the fall as a result.

National pride is real in Germany, and in other European nations I've visited. They know who they are; Americans don't seem to have much of an identity beyond being materialistic. All I see in the states is a land of people obsessed with getting bigger and better stuff before they die and leave it to their heirs to sort through and dispose of the crap. I don't think U.S. citizens will ever return to that strong sense of nationalism they once had, mostly because too many pointless conflicts have left them bereft of any sense of patriotism.

If I had my way, I'd be a permanent ex-pat, exploring a world of new and better landscapes. For now, I try to satiate my wanderlust in expectation of eventually being sent back to the land of my birth. For the record: America's a bit vanilla for my taste, and I'm enjoying every scrumptious bite of my German chocolate cake.

16 comments:

  1. Well said, why I enjoy my heritage and love my country and the opportunity it has provided me, we are not alone on this big blue ball and its nice experiencing cultures who do things different than us...and many time do it exquisitely better!

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  2. the parishioner who doesn't do anythingAugust 6, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    Kim, girl, sometimes you make me laugh because you were "going to have a meltdown if you couldn't get home this summer where there was A/C." It must be time to go home to Germany. We had an awesome time with you in Europe, and I'm hoping I can talk Jay into going again if you'll have us. I'm also packing the basement full of frivolous craft items for you to sort though when I'm dead, though I don't plan to die until I'm into my 90's. By then there will not only be lots of stuff, but it will be dusty and cobwebby. Have a great time visiting Brittney and the baby (Jordan too). Don't forget the earplugs for my grandchildren on your trip back. I love you more than you could ever know!

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  3. Without necessarily committing myself to being an expatriate myself, I cannot help but agree with your critique of modern American life for many. I, too, have visited Europe, including Deutchland, and admire many of things about European life that you do. While I already loved soccer and the World Cup (and loved seeing that Americans were starting to cotton to the game more than they ever have and the American team's early success in the form of going to bars early in the morning, the time the matches occured even in the Eastern and Central time zones,to watch matches), I never had so much fun as getting to witness the quarterfinal and semifinal matches that Spain played in Spain and to watch my brother-in-law, who lives and bleeds soccer particularly when the Spanish national team is involved, be so happy. I would have loved to have been there for the final, but returned the day before so had to content myself with watching on TV. I know that these observations are a bit of a sore spot for those in Germany, but the Germans will be very hard to beat in four years since so many of their best players are young. Spain played its best match of the tournament against Germany and had to. In any event, there are quite a few divisions in Spanish life (particularly between Spain and the separatist Catalans and the Basques), but every Spaniard roots for Espana in the World Cup. Even in Barcelona, part of Cataluna, where to do so would normally result in ridicule, if not violence, people were waving Spanish flags and wearing them. Also, there is little air- conditioning in Spain, but most summer nights cool off sufficiently for people to sleep; I wish the same were true in Oklahoma. In any event, there is no argument here. Please enjoy your time in Germany. As always, your remarks are very well-written.

    John G. Morris

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  4. There's a part of me that wants to disagree with the basic premise of this post. It is, however, impossible for me to do so as I've grown to love living over here more and more each year. I'd be lying if I said going back to the U.S. eventually doesn't terrify me because I will be leaving the simple beauty of my life over here. Europe certainly has its issues as do the states, but they've nailed the enjoyment of life over here, that's for sure.

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  5. Having lived in Germany, now Italy, and of course, my dear and (I'll admit) somewhat obnoxious homeland, I do have to say that at the end of the day, I am proud and grateful to be an American. Life is full of diversity IF you seek it and embrace it, and it is always what you choose to make it, no matter where you live. Enjoy Europe, and when you do return to the good ol' US of A, be greener, bicycle more, seek out your neighbors, learn a new language, and whatever else makes you happy. Avoid Wal-mart, and remember that no one says you have to buy another house in the suburbs or another Yukon. You get to be whatever kind of American you want to be, at home and abroad. That, my friend, as citizens of our great nation, is our unalienable right. Every dollar you spend, every mile you drive, and every Starbucks you avoid is a vote cast in your decision for a better America!

    p.s. You said you liked a good argument...someone had to give you a little ammo. ;)
    p.p.s. I miss the autobahn.

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  6. Read my comments below with the sense that I have never been out of the country, so I'm not nearly as well-traveled as you are, Kim.

    The world would not be what it is today without America. That's right, the world. Greek culture, Egyptian culture, Roman culture, Chinese culture...all of these countries have been around for much longer and have amazing histories of which to be proud. But speaking for the last 234 years, Europe would not be what it is today without America (think WWII). Africa has benefitted greatly from having a world super-power to extend to it a helping hand. There are tons of examples like this. I am not a historian, nor will I try to become one in this post, but I do know that it is undeniably clear that the world is a better place because of the USA.

    On a side note, I am glad that you feel the confidence to speak for the entire nations of Germany and the USA. ("Newsflash: Germans are happier than you.")

    There is nothing wrong with appreciating other cultures, and those Americans who snidely assume that people from other countries cannot "flourish and lead fulfilling lives on other continents" are just being foolish and short-sighted. This does not however condemn the entire country or its ideals. Nor does it exalt Europe (or whereever) as better because it is not filled with buildings that don't have air-conditioning. People from all over the globe should cherish the diversity and unique qualities found in different parts of the world, but there is nothing wrong with an American personally believing that the USA offers an absolutely outstanding set of life opportunities and to be proud of that.

    I do hope to travel outside of the country and see Germany (and other places too) someday, but for the time being I am supremely thankful that I was born in America and have had the opportunity to experience a level of freedom that most people in the world will never know. There are a lot of things wrong with America, many that will never be fixed, but I in no way feel as if they add up to a country that needs to emulate Europe. Europe is a great place. America is a great place. Why can't both be celebrated rather than Europe's washing-maching-sharing virtues being celebrated as "simple" while Americans are criticized for owning personal property? Oh and by the way, the fact that you only knew one of your neighbors in Oklahoma probably had a whole lot more to do with you and your desire to interact with your neighbors than it did with American's social system. In my first home, I was not very neighborly and only knew a couple of people around me. But in my current home, I regularly spend time with my neighbors. The difference in the 2 neighborhoods was me...not my neighbors and certainly not America.

    This could go on forever. I'm really not sure if you were just trying to stir the pot (because you certainly stirred mine) or if you honestly believe all of the things you said. If it's the latter, then great. But I believe the facts of history prove that America has unquestionably brought more good into the world than harm.

    I'm also grateful that my true citizenship as a Christian is in heaven.

    And to end, I'll give you the World Cup. I wish America got more in to that event and to professional soccer in general, but I believe Europe has us beat on that front.

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  7. To Deb: You cracked me up, I'll be sure Joy precedes me to the house to have her way with your craft items when you leave this world. Thank you for always supporting my art, for always caring about my writing. I love you.

    To Lindsey: For you to back me up on this one is so incredibly validating! You lived in Indonesia where ants crawl all over your skin and lizards take up house in your attic, for God's sake! Thanks for being the coolest most adventurous missionary woman ever. I love you dearly.

    To Thomas: You want to disagree, but you can't because you know living in Vienna is the coolest thing that ever happened to you :)

    To Christy: Very well said. If you use your disposal every day with glee when you move to Alabama, I will not think less of you :)

    To Daniel: You are my oldest friend, and so I cannot let my feelings be hurt. Thank you for taking the time to respond and for taking my blogging seriously enough to debate me. Please come to Germany and visit me (bring the kids too) before we leave. We will woo you until you are so enamored with Heidelberg you never want to leave :)
    Thanks for still being a patriot, sometimes in the military we feel like nobody cares about America anymore, and that makes me sad. I tried to express at the end of my post my disappointment with that lack of nationalistic pride that characterizes great nations. Though some of my comments lean toward satire, I do worry that the U.S. is on the wrong path. I am very thankful for the privileges my country has afforded me, however, including the opportunity to live in Europe and to criticize the U.S. :)
    Love in the club, Dude.

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  8. America...
    America...
    America, YEAH!
    Coming again, to save the day yeah,
    America, YEAH!
    Freedom is the only way yeah,
    Terrorist your game is through cause now you have to answer too,
    America, YEAH!

    What you going to do when we come for you now,
    it's the dream that we all share; it's the hope for tomorrow

    YEAH!

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  9. I agree with Daniel.

    Andy B.

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  10. That's nice that people can express patriotic feelings on a blog, but I won't really respect your patriotism until you have served your country in wartime as my husband and friends have. Your pride in America has no weight until you've defended your homeland and given up years of your life to obey your Commander in Chief's orders. Then you can speak to me of pride, when you've known the bitterness of blood spilled.

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  11. Let me see if I understand:

    In order to be a “happier” American I need to move to a foreign country and start recycling, sharing a washer / dryer, riding a bike, and go hiking on the weekend.

    In order to be patriotic I need to join the military during war time and watch someone die.

    And in order to be respected by someone I have to live their identical life and know / experience everything in the same way that they do.

    Andy B.

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  12. I retract my previous statement. I was in a bad mood when I wrote it and it is not representative of my overall feelings on the matter.

    I also want to state that I should not have denigrated the American experience in order to laud my German experience. We all have different experiences with different things that make us happy.

    This past week my brother-in-law subjected me to the HBO miniseries, John Adams, in an attempt to re-patriotize me. I suppose it worked, I've never seen such a moving portrait of our Founding Fathers. A must-see for all Americans.

    As I stated above, I appreciate what America has given me, but am disappointed in the American idea that there is no country with as much to offer. It simply is not true.

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  13. Stumbled upon you. =)

    Both sides have pluses and minuses. I wouldn't trade my German experience for the world, but I also wouldn't trade the US. What I hope to do is bring a little piece of my German experience home with me. A small yard with clean grass and landscaping. An appreciation for all the extras. An understanding of small spaces and making the most of them as well as a new understanding of how much filler sometimes takes over our lives. After 2 1/2 years, it's been an experience for sure. I also have to keep in mind that if my husband weren't serving my country, I probably would never have the chance to live in this country. It's an odd experience.

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  14. Mary Teresa,
    Glad to hear people actually "stumble upon" my blog! Thanks for your comment, as it is from someone with experience and (obviously) wisdom on the subject. I agree that we are privileged and I enjoy having more money to spend because of the commissary and gas privileges. Hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in DE. I'm still hoping (irrationally) I get to stay forever :)

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  15. Great blog Kim! I have been living overseas mostly here in Germany since "91"...currently I live in Ladenburg and I believe we share many opinions of life and living here in Germany!!

    Keep up the amazing work!

    Laura Boston Thek
    www.bostonthekimagery.com
    www.bostonthekimagery.com/blog

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