First visit home: both familiar and strange

One thing I noticed when I was back in the U.S. was that all the structures -- the buildings, the homes, etc. -- seemed very boxy.

So I finally did it. After living abroad for two and a half years, I finally came back to the U.S. for a visit. I had wanted to see family and friends, and, really, it had just been a while.

But I must say, being back in the U.S. after living in Germany for so long was a little weird. So much about my homeland seemed different. 

Below is a list of all the aspects of American culture and other attributes of life in America that really seemed to jump out at me during my 10-day stay.

People didn’t seem afraid to poke fun at people they didn’t know.

When I arrived at JFK, an attendant at customs asked a woman if she and the man next to her were together. (They were.) When the woman hesitated, the attendant looked at the man and said, “Uh oh, it’s taking her a little too long to answer that!”

The news headlines seemed very bloody.

Though there is plenty of violence in Europe, I was still taken aback when I looked up at a TV that was mounted to a wall at the airport and saw this headline: “Cop killed. Manhunt underway for three suspects.”

People seemed to apologize freely and generously.  

When I was waiting for my bag at the luggage carousel, a guy bumped into me ever so slightly and immediately said sorry. It had been a while since I had done so little to earn an apology.

People seemed to exaggerate in funny ways.  

When I was waiting in line to show an attendant my ticket for the baggage claim, I heard a woman behind me say, “There’s, like, five thousand million people here.”

The supermarket seemed so free of people.

Especially surprising was how there were zero people on some of the aisles. In Germany, the supermarkets are almost always crowded, probably because the stores themselves are smaller.

The geometrical shapes of buildings seemed different.

Many of the buildings — the apartment buildings, the office buildings, etc. — looked very boxy. It seemed like all the structures were either rectangles or squares.

Again, that freeness with which people apologize.

On the first Saturday I was home, my mom and I went into Manhattan to see a Broadway show. But when we got to the theater, we weren’t immediately allowed in, as we were too early. When the doors finally opened, my mom was so anxious to get in and get to her seat, she didn’t notice that she handed her ticket to the ticket-taker before her turn — a man in front of her still hadn’t given his ticket yet. Instead of getting mad, though, the man said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I guess he realized that there had been some confusion and my mom just hadn’t realized that he was first.

But imagine that: the person who had been cut was the one apologizing!

There seemed to be a shocking abundance of space.

At one point during my stay, I was watching the reality show “American Pickers” and in it some guy mentioned that his ranch sat on 600 acres. I just had to shake my head: 600 acres sounded like an enormous amount of land to own.

There seemed to be a lot of diversity in commercials.

Perhaps Europe, or Germany, rather, is just more homogenous, but many African Americans and people from different ethnic backgrounds seemed to be in commercials. I especially appreciated how the person selected to speak in an ad for State Farm was the company’s vice president, a black woman.

People didn’t seem afraid to just improvise.  

At one point, I took my cat to the vet, and when I was in the waiting room of the vet’s office, a couple walked in with their sick dog. What was striking, though, was that this dog was wearing a ratty white T-shirt. I think the garment shielded several bandages the dog had on its body. But the point is, the dog looked kind of ridiculous in this T-shirt and the people didn’t seem to care. The T-shirt had a purpose and was serving it. In Germany, people usually go to great lengths to avoid standing out or looking a bit ridiculous in any way.

The houses seemed huge.

I noticed at one point during a jog I was taking that the houses on either side of me looked huge. They also seemed to be very distinct. Some were ranches, others Tudors. Some had porches, others pillars or patios.

There seemed to be a lot of desolation.

Sometimes when I was jogging or walking somewhere, it felt like I was the only soul around. This almost never happens in Germany. In Germany, people always seem to be everywhere. I think I get this impression because Germany is a little smaller than Montana but has more than double Canada’s population.

The weather felt different. 

Though Hamburg, where I live, can be humid, the humidity in New York was stifling. The weather almost felt tropical.

The bees looked bigger

Some of the bees that I saw looked huge. I don’t know if they were wasps or what, but they looked almost as big as dragonflies.

People seemed shorter.

I guess this makes sense, as the average height in Germany is greater than the average height in the U.S. by several inches.

Many people seemed to be wearing clothes too big for them.

In Europe, I’ve noticed that some people wear clothes that are too tight. For example, some guys wear T-shirts so tight you just want to say, “Dude … no.” In the U.S., I noticed the problem was reversed: people often wore clothes that were too big.

There seemed to be a growing respect for the bicycling lifestyle.

I was happy to see that there was a bike lane in Westbury, Long Island, which really is the heart of car country.

Different scents in the air

I swear, many times when I would be walking at night, I would catch something fragrant on the wind, something I hadn’t smelled in a while.

Again, people didn’t seem bothered just winging it.

When I was on the subway in Manhattan, I noticed that the elderly man next to me had duct-taped the bottom of his cane. I think he had used the material to make his cane more level. Again, the whole thing looked kind of silly, but the duct tape served a purpose, and he didn’t seem ashamed in any way.

Strangers seemed very empathetic, even about little things.

When I told the guy behind the counter at the pizza shop that I was in a rush and that he didn’t need to heat my slice, he looked at me and said, “Oh, don’t worry, the pie just came out; the slices are warm.” What struck me was how reassuring he sounded, almost like he had been in my position before and just wanted to let me know that everything was going to be OK.

Water fountains.

They seemed so novel — and convenient. I challenge anyone, though, to find a water fountain in Germany.

Soccer wasn’t everywhere.  

At one point, I was walking through a residential neighborhood at dusk and through the living room window of one of the homes I was passing, I saw a TV. It was nice to see soccer wasn’t on. Baseball was.

Some things that were presented as totally normal seemed unethical.

To show the effectiveness of a motorized blade he was trying to sell, a host on the Home Shopping Network cut limbs off a living tree. I found this shocking. Don’t ask why I was watching Home Shopping Network.

The rich and not-so-rich seemed to live in very close proximity.

As my aunt and I were driving through Tarrytown, NY, she pointed to one set of big duplexes near the train station and said, “See those houses? Multimillion dollar houses.” She then pointed to the tall apartment buildings pretty much across the street and said, “and right there — subsidized housing.”

Some TV commercials really seemed saccharine.

It was strange to see TV commercials that tried to appeal so forcefully to the heart. In one commercial, for the health insurer Fidelis Care, employees of the company enthused about how much they love helping people. I found their sentiments to be a little over the top.

Again, people seemed very courteous.

A stranger not only held the door for me as I was entering a building, he also held it for my friend, who was immediately behind me.

Some of the infrastructure seemed to be badly rusting.

On my way to JFK, I looked up at some bridges that crossed the highway, and, man, did I see rust in all shades of brown. Yes, there are problems with rusted infrastructure in Germany, but the rust I saw on the bridges near the airport seemed desperately bad.

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  • Blog Author

    Chad Smith

    I'm a former reporter for the Pocono Record who moved to Hamburg, Germany, to be with my German girlfriend. I still do journalism but now teach English to pay the bills. In this blog I share my thoughts on life in Europe and often dissect the ... Read Full
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