Reflections on America's birthday

July 04, 2011

America birthday cupcakes -
best dark chocolate frosting, thanks to Martha Stewart

America's birthday this year falls at a time when I'm feeling a little conflicted about life - and location. For some reason, I've been missing America so much more lately than in our first year here. Food cravings, friend cravings, and just a general, gentle pull at my heartstrings. Am I just missing my family? Or good restaurants besides the two or three we've found worth eating at? Or is it something more, like having a career (let alone a job) or the ability to pursue pretty much anything I'd like?

Some days, I just want to go where it's easier. But I know that waving my white flag and trekking our little family back across the Atlantic only trades one set of problems for another. Sure, I could communicate freely at any place of business (and actually get decent customer service, to boot!), but I'd be paying more for housing, health care and transportation. While gas is significantly less in the US (no matter how much Americans howl about how high the prices are), I'd be forced to own a car due to the lack of decent, comprehensive public transportation, which includes a hefty monthly payment and the need to drive significantly more to get to where I needed to go. My daily commutes in California were anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half - each way. I'll never forget how hard I laughed when we first experienced what Germans referred to as 'traffic' during peak commute time around Frankfurt. It was lighter than mid-afternoon traffic pretty much anywhere in the SF bay area, not to mention that it moved like a well-oiled machine (because those rule-crazy Germans know how to drive). I won't even go into how much we'd pay for an apartment in SF like the one we have here in Germany (let's just say it would be at least 4 times the price). Ugh.

The US definitely stands out amongst the rest of the world here, but not in a good way (Chart via MotherJones)

My family and US friends would be closer, but with minimal vacation time from work (oh yeah, because in America we couldn't afford to be single-income any longer), there'd be less time to actually go and enjoy being with them. When my husband's company was recently purchased by a larger one, everyone was issued all the new company's policies to review. He discovered that working for the same company is the US, it would take an investment of 20 years in their employ before one accrued 25 days of holiday a year. Here in Germany, 6 weeks is standard - from day one. Americans, on average, put in 378 hours more per year than Germans (that's a whopping 10 weeks!). I think America's deep-seated attachment to capitalism is admirable, but as the economy and society change, it might be time to consider a more people-friendly way of running businesses. Without a good quality of life, what else is there? Money surely can't buy you time.

In America - the SF bay, particularly - I could have my pick of just about any kind of restaurant to eat out at and anything and everything you could imagine at the grocery store, but the quality would certainly be lacking. Reading labels in the German grocery store was an exercise in actually being able to understand an ingredients list. An unending, unpronounceable list of chemicals and the ubiquitous American corn syrup was surprisingly absent in almost everything (except, of course, from the American import section). Preservatives are also rare, meaning food in the grocery and in restaurants is perishable, and therefore fresh. Instinctively, it makes me think that Germany cares more about what it feeds to its people than America does. America seems to focus merely on profits, rather than the crap they're stuffing into their foods, and therefore the ever-expanding bellies of the population. 

Would you rather shop here...

or here? C'mon - no contest!
(Photo from MSLK)

While it is completely shallow, the shopping in the states is something I miss terribly. I buy a lot less over here, as do most Europeans, which I think is a good thing. I can't tell you how much crap I got rid of when packing up our cluttered home in California in preparation for a more pared-down lifestyle in Germany. What I do miss about shopping in America though is the show of it. Because America is such a consumerist society, so much money and effort goes into getting Americans to buy things - amazing selections, constant 'deals' and sales, beautiful store windows. Oh, the windows... While we're back, I think I may spend an entire day in a lounger in front of an Anthropologie and just take it all in. There's a level of presentation and creativity that exists in American shops that is completely absent here. Even if I wanted to pay an exorbitant amount for a shoddy-quality polyester shirt here, the utterly uninspiring windows and cheap-looking mannequins hardly motivate me to go inside. The one thing I do love about shopping here is the price you see is the price you pay - no guessing game on what the tax will be when you get to the register; it's all included.  

Even with all the 'pluses' I rack up on the side of living in Germany, and Europe in general, I can't help feeling a calling from the place where I spent the first 30 years of my life. Maybe it's the ease of the day-to-day that appeals to me most right now, considering the day-to-day is what fills my days in the current absence of job and career. But just because something is easier doesn't it mean it's the right thing. I remember having a French woman working in a Belgian bakery here in Germany tell me she'd been in the country for 10 years, but she struggled with the language. I realized then that the life of an expat is a long road.

When my family was out to visit over Christmas, my mother remarked how we were still in 'vacation mode' with our life here. At first, I was greatly offended. We were learning the language (granted, slowly), making German friends - we were residents of Germany, for goodness sake! But time and perspective made me start to think that maybe she was right. With limited cultural integration and language skills, it's easy to see Germany through rose-colored glasses. Sure, there's the low-level frustrations we still experience, like the lack of customer service or the utter ridiculousness of paying to install a kitchen in a rented apartment, but really, we don't know enough to understand all the issues that German citizens face and why we might or might not be better off over here for the long haul.

I guess what it boils down to is that it's impossible to say one country is wholly better than the other for me. One country holds my citizenship, the other holds my residency. I just feel torn since each one now holds a piece of who I am, yet neither feels 100% like home.

*Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische