I’ve been living in Europe, now, for the better part of sixteen years. And yet, it was only this summer that I experienced the phenomenon of realizing I was more in tune with how things work in Germany, my second culture, than I was with how it’s done in America.
This wasn’t really the case before now. I’m wondering what it was about this summer—I mean, I hadn’t been away from America for any longer than normal. I’m not even immersed in German language or, let’s be honest, German society as much as I could/should be?
So, is sixteen years away from where I grew up my own personal magic expat number? Is this the specific amount of time it took me to feel more integrated into one culture than the other?
Example Number One of a Time I Was Super Confused in America
So, we went to a restaurant in Buffalo (I forget the name, but there’s a huge fireplace inside and they specialize in beer.) Todd and I saw that there was a large outdoor terrace and decided we wanted to sit outside.
“Come on; let’s grab a table,” Todd said.
We marched in to the restaurant and made our way to the outdoor terrace. After testing out a couple of tables and scenic vantage points, we made a decision and sat there, waiting.
I think it occurred to both of us at the same time that we’d missed some major part of protocol.
“I don’t think we were allowed to just choose our own table,” I said.
“Really? Why not? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know…aren’t we supposed to wait for the waitress or something?”
But we both looked around, no longer certain, and eventually I dragged Todd back in to the restaurant and to the little pavilion set up just past the entrance. This time we remembered to be welcomed to the restaurant, to confirm there were just two of us, to ask if we could sit outside, and to let the waitress lead us to a table.
The waiting staff gave us a definite, “what a couple of idiots” look when we returned from our sought out position at the pavilion. I found myself wanting to say, “Sorry about that—we aren’t from here.”
But that would have been a lie.
We are from there. It’s just that in Germany you enter a restaurant and you go to whatever table you want. Then the waiter/waitress brings you the menu and leaves you alone with it. They’ll leave you alone with that menu all day long until you shut it, signaling you’re ready to order. Then they’ll bring you your food and leave you alone for another twelve hours unless you put your fork and knife in the 4 p.m. position on your plate, signaling that you’re done.
If you don’t understand these signals, you’ll think European customer service is god-awful.
But, it’s a different value system. In Europe, if you go out to eat, the table is yours for as long as you’d like it. It’s rude to rush you. It’s rude to approach the table too often unless your nonverbal signals ask for it. And, it’s certainly your job to find your own table.
This had never thrown me before. Was it just jet lag? I’m tempted to think I’m just more used to how things are done over here, now. And, that’s strange.
Example Number Two of a Time I Was Confused in America
There was some type of ‘flash sale’ at the Limited and everything was 70% off for a period of 24 hours.
As soon as I saw that, I frothed at the mouth and told Todd not to expect me home for a few hours.
Sales in Germany are much less frequent and they’re also more regulated in that, rather than these sporadic flash sales or weekend-long internet deals or what-have-you, there’s specific weeks of the year where just about every store has a major sale to flush out their summer, winter, spring or fall clothes. Other than that, aside from a small ‘for sale’ rack in the back of a shop, there isn’t much reduction to be found.
The first bit of, I won’t say confusion, but culture shock came with the attention I was given the second I walked in the store.
“Hi, how are you today?”
“Good, and you?”
“Good! Can I help you find something, today?”
“Okay, well, just so you know…” And then the sales clerk went on to give me a four minute run-down of what was buy one, get one free, what end of the store was on sale, where everything was located, what her name was, and how much longer her shift went before she’d be replaced by another employee.
It took everything in me, and a silent mantra of everything’s-seventy-percent-off, everything’s-seventy-percent-off, everything’s-seventy-percent-off not to walk out of the store.
I don’t know what my problem is, but I’ve been away from American culture long enough that these intrusive, chirpy store-front conversations grate on me in a way that’s going to make me seem insane if I try to explain it.
I can’t take it.
If people at a store talk to me for more than just an initial, “Hello and welcome to the Gap,” my innards break out into a boil and I want to leave then and there.
Yes, I know, I know. It’s common courtesy and it’s customer service at its finest. But, it occurred to me this summer that I’m used to Germany now, where you walk in to a store and quite often the cashiers are on their cell phones and will continue their conversations long after you’ve walked up to the counter to pay.
I’m used to a level of customer service where, for example, you can buy a brand new lipstick, not even open it, realize one minute after you’ve left the store that you grabbed the wrong shade, bring it back in, and they’ll flat out refuse to exchange it for you. True story, circa 2013.
I’m used to customer service where, at restaurants, you sometimes ask if they can substitute croquettes for french fries and they’ll say no. Or make you pay extra.
I’m used to customer service where I took my parents to a Bavarian restaurant and the waitress scolded my father for being too messy.
I’m making it sound really customer-unfriendly over here. It isn’t. It’s just different.
And, the chirpy-fake-scripted convo I’m supposed to engage in before I shop is a complete 180 from Germany. They prefer, at best, to leave you alone while you shop and, in turn, be left alone until they’re ready to cash you out.
I’ve come to prefer it that way. I didn’t feel that way at first, but my initial resistance has found a place where I find it somehow comforting to be left the hell alone.
Anyway, I wanted to try on an outfit (or a handful of outfits) and walked back to the changing room. I saw that one was free, so I went inside and began shucking clothes off and redressing.
“Excuse me, miss?” Someone rapped their knuckles on the door.
I opened up to find the previously chirpy saleswomen glowering in my direction.
“Did someone let you in to this dressing room?”
“Um—no.” Seeing as she was the only one working the floor, I thought this was a strange question. “The door was open so I just…went in?”
“Well, this one’s actually in use for another customer.” She pointed at a small white board on the front of the dressing room door that I’d absolutely not noticed on my way in. Scribbled across it in blue was the name ‘Laura.’ “If you could just wait your turn over there, that would be great. K? Thank you so much.”
Sheepishly, I threw my stack of outfits over an arm and headed for the entrance of the dressing room area to wait.
Again, I found myself wanting to explain myself, somehow, so that I wouldn’t be sealed in their minds as a thoughtless dressing room thief. But, what could I say?
“I’m sorry—I no longer understand how dressing rooms work in the States. Where I’m from, you just go in and take whatever room is free?”
I was tempted to explain myself, but it does seem unlikely that a person forgets basic dressing room protocol. I’d have to make a convincing argument for myself. But then I’d have to engage in further bubbly-banter about Germany, and what it was like, and if they really have hairy armpits there, and if I missed America, and did I want to open a charge card, anyway, because they’re shipping internationally now.
I’m terrible, I know! But, I’m just being honest.
OH, and to make matters worse—when I finally got into the dressing room the saleslady made frequent visits to rap on the door and ask if I needed another size, or another color, or another style.
I’m just very…European about these things at this point. And, that’s something that took sixteen years, apparently, to become.
But, don’t get me wrong…I do appreciate those flash sales courtesy of Americana. They don’t happen over here.
A Third Time I Was Confused in America
My parents make it their life mission to get Germans to say “hi” to them whenever they come for a visit.
Any time we pass strangers in the neighborhood, my parents greet them in that bright American way and they’re either ignored or else Germans look up, startled, and say “Hallo” moments after we’ve already passed them.
Greeting strangers in the neighborhood is simply not standard protocol over here. (Unless you have a child. Somehow the rules are different when it comes to children, and Germans will not only say hello to you—they’ll stop and have full-fledged actual conversations and give you advice about child-rearing in general, and your little one in particular.)
My high school french teacher explained to us that since most Europeans live in apartments or sections of homes, and since there’s less private space in terms of sprawling yards, the culture is such that people keep to themselves when out walking.
It’s not meant to be rude or anti-social. I think it’s just that Germans assume that if they don’t know you, there’s no reason to greet you in the streets. People here enjoy a life without interruption. They like to eat at restaurants without interruption, shop without interruption, and walk without interruption.
But, in the States the key word is not interruption—it’s interaction. And, Todd and I forgot how interactive things can be in America.
We took Laken for a walk one of our first days in the States. We were rounding our way through a cul-de-sac and saw, approaching us, a middle-aged couple of speed walkers. I immediately ducked my head and prepared to maneuver the stroller past them. It never occurred to me to smile at them, or to say hi.
Well, they did both, and then they said, “Are you keeping cool?”
“Yes! It’s definitely warm, but I don’t mind it!”
In the past I probably would have remembered that in the States, and this is a part of cultural protocol that I enjoy, it’s perfectly acceptable to greet strangers co-meandering the neighborhood. I’d done it many times before. And, I’ve always felt a sense of American pride at how friendly these interactions were.
But, this was the first summer that it took me off guard at first. I’m afraid that a few times I must have appeared rude because I avoided eye contact with people and went out of my way to sidle past them on the sidewalk.
I think, in a way, all of this stood out to me as a major step in my expat existence. For the first time, I feel perhaps less American and more European in terms of how I interact (or even prefer to interact) with the world.
Things feel a bit more distant over there.
I’m not sure how to feel about this. It certainly brings home that I’ve been living abroad for most of my adult life, and that in ways I’ve removed the cultural jacket of my upbringing.
It seems like a big step. But, in terms of where that leaves me right now, or where I even fully belong, I’m not entirely sure.