During my time here in Germany, I’ve been spending roughly two weeks in the United States out of each year. Last year, it was the week immediately after Thanksgiving and the first week of December. This year, it was the first two weeks of November.
Spending two weeks back in the States puts a strong focus on the differences between the two countries. It reminds me of what I miss about living in the US, and it suggests the things that I might miss when I return home at the end of my contract here.
Whenever someone asks me what I miss most about being away from the US, I skip over the obvious- friends and family- and go right to food. I miss tater tots.
There are dozens of potato preparations in Germany, but none of them are precisely the same as the tot, nature’s perfect fried potato cylinder. I’ve tried to explain tater tots to native Germans, and there’s always a bit of a blank expression. I’m digressing a bit, though. Let’s start the comparison.
America wins: Tater tots. And steak. My German colleagues all go to steakhouses any time they have a trip to the United States, because the steaks here just aren’t quite as good. I don’t know if it’s the meat preparation or if it’s just the different types of cows. Steaks are just better in the United Steaks of America. There’s a variety of other food areas where the US takes the lead. It’s rare to find good Tex-Mex here, which is why every time I’m in the US I try to hit Tijuana Flats with my brother.
Germany wins: Inexpensive beer. I read somewhere that they actually had to pass legislation to ensure that there would always be at least one beverage on a bar menu less expensive than beer. I don’t know if this is true, but it has the flavor of truth, because beer is dirt cheap here. It’s also damn tasty.
America wins: Shopping at 2am. Or on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes I like to do my grocery shopping in the middle of the night, and nobody does 24 hour availability like the Americans. In most places in Germany, the sidewalks roll up at around 8pm. Everything for shopping is closed on Sundays, with certain exceptions. Restaurants are usually open. Movie theaters are usually open. There are typically one or two pharmacies that are designated as 24 hour locations for emergency situations. Shopping locations inside of Bahnhofs often have special Sunday hours as well. If you want to do your clothing shopping or most grocery shopping, Sundays are right out.
Germany wins: Relaxing Sunday afternoons. Having one day that you can’t run errands outside of the house is actually kind of peaceful. After living here for a while, I’ve found that it’s nice to just chill out on Sunday afternoons.
America wins: Comfortable and large bedding. The bedding sizes are smaller in Germany. The largest size bed you can purchase in an Ikea is actually not much different than an American “Full” bed. I moved here with my Queen-sized sheets, and they’re actually too large for my large Ikea bed. I can still use them, but I have to tuck a tremendous amount of fabric under the mattress. German beds don’t have box springs either, and the mattresses tend to be thinner. Whenever I go to a hotel that has American-style bedding, I get a very, very good night’s sleep.
Germany wins: Smart and efficient bedding sizes. I hated the German bedding sizes at first, but I’ve grown to appreciate the genius of it all. Most German couples have two smaller comforters instead of one large one- that way, each person gets their own and there’s nobody hogging the covers. I’m still of mixed mind about the giant square pillows that are typical here, but they’re not all bad.
America wins: Apartment shopping. When you look for an apartment in the US, you go to an apartment complex, review floor plans, see a model, and pick one that’s becoming available in the near future. Apartment complexes try to woo your business. When you move in, they have closets, kitchen appliances, cabinets, and clothing washers. These amenities are all selling points. The refrigerators are all full sized, too.
In Germany, apartments are a real-estate transaction. You have to use a sort of real estate agent called an Immobilien, sometimes called a Makler. They’ll show you apartments and you’ll pay an outrageous fee to the Immobilien for whichever one you select. An apartment in Germany will not typically have any closets, so you have to buy something like an Ikea Pax wardrobe to store your clothing. You have to specifically look for built-in kitchens because the normal German apartment does not come with any appliances. If you are lucky to find built-in kitchen appliances, the waist-height refrigerator is far more common than a full sized fridge. German kitchens don’t usually have in-sink disposal units either. I still don’t know how to get rid of certain types of food items without just throwing them away. One helpful colleague suggested using the toilet, but that won’t work for everything.
Germany wins: Mayonnaise in a tube. I cannot understate how amazing it is to not have to spend time trying to get the last of the mayo out of those small-necked jars they sell in the US. I always wind up getting mayo on my knuckles and having to wash my hands immediately afterwards. Mayo and mustard in toothpaste-styled tubes is brilliant because you can roll up the tube to get hte last bits.
America wins: Cookies. Germans don’t quite understand the art of the cookie. It’s not a common item in German bakeries, and when you do find them, they don’t taste quite right. The Ebner bakery near my office has a chocolate chip cookie which plainly shows a lack of understanding of the art. The thing is three-fourths of an inch thick, with a larger diameter than any cookie has any right to have. The best cookies I’ve had in Germany have been at the Subway restaurant chain, or at the San Francisco Coffee Company, another chain I was surprised to find here. The cookies at Starbucks and McDonald’s don’t quite cut it here- the American Starbucks cookies are better than those of the German Starbucks.
Clearly, I would write a great deal more about cookies. I love cookies. I’ll spare you the tedium, though, and move on.
Germany wins: Everything else in the bakery. The fresh breads, pretzels, pastries, and regular cakes are all amazing. For a while, my breakfast every day was from the bakery. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been because I can’t stay away from the beer and pretzels.
There’s something here called a Butterbreze – a buttered pretzel. Basically, they take a fresh baked pretzel, cut it in half, slather butter on the exposed breading, and slap it back together as a pretzel-and-butter sandwich. They’re amazing and deadly and altogether addictive.
America wins: The sheer volume of choice available in grocery stores. This picture of the peanut butter and jelly aisle in an American grocery store is my only defense for this point. Yes, I said peanut butter and jelly aisle.
Germany wins: The wide variety of non-dairy and meat-free options in the grocery store. America is great for a wide variety of brands for most things, but the vegetarian and lactose-free set has more support in grocery stores here than I’ve ever seen in the US. I do miss the Silk brand of soy milk, but there are plenty of options here that make up for its absence.
America wins: Birthdays and Anniversaries. In Germany, the custom is that on your birthday or anniversary, you bring the food to the office. You pay for people you invite to your own birthday dinner. The American custom is to make the person having the birthday the guest of honor.
Perhaps this custom arose from a desire to have people keep celebrations to themselves. I don’t know, but I hate it. I do not want to bring pizza to the office on my anniversary. I do not want to bring cake to the office for my own birthday. I would much rather just not tell anyone when my birthday is in the first place.
Germany wins: Public transportation. Unless you live in a major city in the United States, the public transportation pretty much sucks. In South Florida, you need a car to get by- taking the bus takes five times as long, even for short distances. In Germany, you can get anywhere in Germany using public transportation. Inside most cities, you can get almost anywhere you need to go with the bus system. In bigger cities, you have S-bahn (streetcars) and U-bahn (subway) systems as well. I’ve been able to travel from my apartment to Amsterdam, to Prague, to Vienna, to Salzburg, to Berlin, and even just to my job without ever requiring a car.
That’s not to say that there aren’t down sides. There are still some more remote or rural locations which have little bus coverage. Bus lines tend to stop running around midnight in most places, so you have to plan ahead. When waiting at bus stops, you’re at the mercy of nearby smokers (and there’s a lot more smokers in Europe then there are in the US). In the summertime, you also have to contend with the reality that most bus lines don’t run air conditioners, and the guy next to you might not have showered since Christmas.
All in all though, it’s still better than driving in Miami.
America wins: Toilets. I’m not even talking about the dreaded European washout toilet or shelf toilet- those things are disgusting and I don’t like the idea of seeing my business before I flush. I’d rather it just disappear into the water, never to be seen again. Luckily, I don’t have one of those poop catchers, so I’m spared that weirdness.
No, my issue with toilets is that it’s just really difficult to keep them clean here. In the US, you can just pop a bleach tablet in the tank and that’ll keep things from growing inside your bowl. They don’t sell the super strong chemicals here that they sell in the US, though, and so you have to brush your toilet at least twice a week, just to keep things from looking sketchy. Additionally, the weaker strength of toilet cleaning products here means that I go through significantly more of those little things that dangle inside the bowl to treat the water than I would in the US.
Germany wins: Fully enclosed bathroom stalls. The majority of the toilet stalls in public restrooms here have fully enclosed floor-to-ceiling doors. I was used to the American version where there are gaps from floor to shin and where the top is open. I thought it was strange when I first arrived, but I totally get it now. After two years with proper stalls, using the more open version that you find in the US left me feeling kind of exposed.
This is a good stopping point for this list. I could probably keep listing like this for a good long while, but I need to save something for the mandatory comparison post that every ex-pat blogger writes when they have to go back home and repatriate. As you can see, Germany and the US both have their strong points. There are definitely things I’ll miss about Germany when I leave in a year, but the most important thing for me is that it’s never felt like home.
Fellow ex-pats: Do you find any of the differences between your homeland and your current home to be interesting or unsettling?