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.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Travel Logs: Italy, July 2010

Ahhh, Italia, sun-soaked land of wine and fabulous cuisine, also, the poster child for why Socialism doesn't work, and the land the toilet seat manufacturers forgot.

In 2008, I visited for the first time and fell in love with this zany laid-back heel of Europe. Two years later, coming from Germany, I wondered what I saw in it the first time. Compared with Deutschland Italy looks like third-world chaos. Laziness and corruption are an accepted part of life in Italy, with Rome being the centerpiece of all that is wrong with Italy.

We spent a day in Rome to see the Vatican, which we'd missed out on the previous trip. Big mistake. This happened to be the day after Italy lost their match with Slovakia, putting them out of World Cup contention. Apparently the rail workers and metro employees decided to hole up in their beds and make love to a bottle of grappa rather than cope with daily life...trains and metro lines were shut down due to strikes, and we were gouged by taxi drivers as a result (what is with us and taxi drivers? my kids will have no college fund once they are finished with us!) We finally saw the Sistine Chapel, a lifelong goal of mine, and I have to give Michelangelo credit, his ceiling frescoes are far superior to the wall painting by his contemporaries in the chapel, and painting was only his secondary medium! The guy was a genius, and I'm grateful for the chance to appreciate the tender beauty of his depictions.

Next, we spent two days on the beach in Tirrenia, and this was probably the highlight of the trip for me. Sitting on the sand next to a gorgeous Mediterranean, doing absolutely nothing. My kind of vacation. We enjoyed sea kayaking and Breck fell in love with boarding. The view was quite interesting, with gorgeous Italians prancing up and down the beach, doing their ocean version of the piazza passeggiata (stroll). They love to see and be seen, it seems. I don't think my kids even noticed any of the breasts on display, since there were so many Italian men sporting speedos, flowing locks, and huge pectorals, gender was a thin line.

We revisited the Cinque Terre and Tuscany for old times sake, and to introduce Joel's parents to our favorite places in Italy. Cinque Terre remains one of the best spots in Italy, unspoiled riviera towns with gorgeous views of houses clinging to the cliffs above the Med. I did notice a lot of tourists this time, and I'm afraid too many Americans have discovered this area, but I'd still go back for the chance to do some diving off those huge boulders in the ocean.

San Gimagnano and Volterra remain favorite hill towns in Tuscany for us. This region has everything you want from Italy: the best local cuisine, the most perfect red wine from the Sangiovese grape (Brunello), and beautiful poppy and cypress tree littered vistas. This is the land of vineyards and friendly wineries, the land that has inspired so many artists and authors.

Italy really is lovely, in spite of its inefficiency, terrible traffic, and alas! disdain for toilet seats (have I mentioned how much this bothers me?). On our drive down, we stopped over at Lake Lugano on the border of Switzerland and Italy for some picture-postcard views out of our windows at the charming Hotel Caroline (Brusimpiano, IT). The entire drive down through Switzerland was like a postcard photo, and I finally understood Richard Wilbur's rapture when he wrote, "the slightest shade of you valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes." All these lovely vistas, they really are worth all the minor travel headaches it took to see them. As the ebullient Italians say, "Ciao bella! Grazie! Ciao!Ciao! Grazie! Ciao!"
Once is never enough :)