December 2, 2007

Remainders: First Impressions of Home

Back in October, I went home to Arkansas for a week. Although it was my first time back in the States since I had left ten months earlier, I wasn’t expecting much culture shock. After all, what is ten months abroad in the grand scheme of things? And yet, there were a few things that surprised me upon my return to the U.S., during those seven hours I was stuck in the Charlotte Airport and getting reacquainted with my country.

For starters, everyone seemed really large, and by large I mean extremely fat. I don’t mean to be unkind. They just were bigger. Much bigger. Germany has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, yet even the roly-poly Germans are nothing compared to the cross-section of America that I saw walking through the Charlotte Airport. I’m talking about people so large they needed to be pushed around in wheelchairs, even though they were only in their 40s. You just don’t see that in Europe, and I guess I had forgotten how common in was in America.

Diet alone can’t explain the difference in girth. The German diet is mostly meat and potatoes, just like the American diet, and the Germans have an incorrigible sweet tooth, e.g. Strüdel, Pfannkuchen, and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. In warmer months they’ll even eat ice cream every single day. I suppose the difference comes down to their exercising more. Germans do walk a lot. Most downtown shopping districts here are completely off-limits to cars, and then there’s the whole Nordic walking craze. But I seem to remember the Nordic Track being very popular in the U.S. about 15 years ago, and I don’t remember that it did much to minimize the national waistline.

Then there was the beer. The Germans invented beer, or, rather, the Germans are know for their Bier, but would you believe that it was actually the Egyptians who invented it? Anyway, I’ve always been fond of a good beer. Offer me the choice between a nice glass of wine and a good beer, and I’ll almost always choose the beer. I wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur, but I’d always found that there were plenty of good American-brewed beers: There’s the Abita Purple Haze from New Orleans, or Rogue Dead Guy Ale from Oregon, or the amazing line of ales from Unibroue in Quebec: Trois Pistoles, Maudite, Fin du Monde – too die for! And then there were perfectly good fall-back beers, available all over the U.S., such as the Massachusetts-brewed and bottled Sam Adams.

However, while sitting in the airport Chilli’s, I order a Sam Adam’s Oktoberfest, one of their line of seasonal beers and a former favorite of mine from my years in Boston. I nearly spit out my first sip. It just tasted weird – not like beer at all. Perhaps it was just that I had recently been to the original Oktoberfest and the comparison was too stark. Of course, after drinking half of my “super-sized” beer – a full liter – it tasted just fine, but the initial taste was incredibly strange and unappealing, indeed.

On the other hand, I had forgotten how nice Americans are, at least in comparison to Germans. It’s not that the Germans are cold, per se. They are incredibly warm with one another. When they meet each other on the street they’ll kiss each other on the cheek and hold hands while they catch up on family events, but they will rarely acknowledge even the presence of a stranger. I often go for long walks around the old Würzburg castle, a narrow road that winds through the vineyards and is only wide enough for one person. When I meet a German on the road and do that delicate dance of inching past them, they rarely say “Hallo” or “Servus” or “grüß Gott,” let alone "hi" or "hello." I’m never sure if it’s because they can tell right away that I’m foreign, or if it’s just because I’m foreign to them. But I always acknowledge their presence with a nod or a word or greeting, and it makes me feel very slighted not to get so much as glance in return.

But back in Charlotte, back in the South, everyone is friendly and familiar, everyone acted like they were my long-lost friend – the barista at Starbucks, the cashier at the bookstore, the waitress at Chilli’s. And oh, what a difference it makes! I noticed this on our recent trip to England as well. The waitress complimented me on my coat, the janitress made jokes with me, the bus driver gave me the student discount even though he knew I wasn’t a student. Probably it’s an Anglo-Saxon thing. Or maybe it’s about speaking the local language like a native, but little charities like this make all the difference in the world. And boy, how they make you feel at home!

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