Culture Shock?

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. ~Anatole France

I’ve been back in the US for two months now, after having lived in Germany for over 28 years. People have been asking me, “So, are you experiencing culture shock?” The answer’s not as easy as I’d anticipated. Yes, there are things that I miss about Germany and about living in Europe, but I’ve been too busy settling into my new home and new life to focus much on that. I’ve read that expats who return to the US often go through a period of mourning. Wow – mourning. Will readjusting to live in the US really be that difficult? For the time being, I’m trying to focus more on what I enjoy about this new situation than on what I miss about “home.”

Here are some things I love about living in Tacoma:

  • The weather. Really – it’s hardly rained at all! I know that I can expect some serious dampness in the coming months, but summers up here are warm and lovely. Right now I’m sitting in the back yard, listening to the patter of the lawn sprinkler and enjoying the late-summer warmth. And back “home” in Bitburg, my loved ones are starting their school year in the high 50s. Blech.
  • The huge, mature trees. They’re everywhere, soaring over even the dumpiest neighborhoods. I’m sitting under a tall ornamental cherry tree, and over my shoulder is a magnificent magnolia. The evening air is still, but when the wind blows, the tall firs down the street wave hello. And there’s a mimosa tree across the way – I thought they only grew in hot climates. Living in the Pacific Northwest is like living in a green, well-planted park.
  • The parks! Tacoma has several, and we’ve only begun to explore them. Today we walked along the Puget Sound in Point Defiance Park. The Tacomans (Tacomites? Tacomians? Tacomazoids?) of the 1800s and early 1900s gifted us with some lovely green spaces in which to relax. Thank you!
  • The sea. OK – it’s the Puget Sound, but it’s salt water, and it smells like the sea. This will be the first winter since my childhood that I’ll be able to visit the sea; that was always a summertime treat, living in landlocked Germany. The sea speaks to me, and I can visit her every day if I wish.
  • Friendly, helpful people. Now, I’m not going to start in on German standoffishness. Most German people I met were at least pleasant, and many were salt-of-the-earth, warm-hearted, generous people. But there’s a certain correctness, a certain distance in everyday dealings with German strangers and acquaintances. Sometimes I like that, such as when waiters are not overly chummy and intrusive. (For goodness sake, let us eat a few bites before asking, “How are we doing? Anything else I can get you guys?”) On the other hand, I find most people here to be relaxed, friendly and helpful in a way that’s very welcoming. And even though I value learning other languages, it’s a relief not to have to constantly think about how to phrase what I want to say. It’s so relaxing to be a native speaker.
  • It’s fun to work out at the Y!M!C!A! Oh my gosh, I love this place! The Morgan Family Y in Tacoma is a huge facility with great equipment, a big pool, a plethora of fun exercise classes, and the members are so diverse – everyone from little tiny kiddos to very elderly people can be found working out and playing at the Y. This is what fitness should be about – it’s a welcoming place for the whole community. And now that we’re retired, we’re working out pretty regularly.
  • Sixth Avenue, Proctor Ave, and the theater district in Tacoma – all full of funky, quirky little shops, cafes, nightclubs, restaurants. The walkability of these areas and the attractive old buildings give these parts of town a “European” vibe, so we can get a bit of the feeling of “home.”

On the other hand, there are some strange foreign ways here that puzzle me. For instance:

  • My fellow Americans, your wardrobe choices are often perplexing. I’m all for freedom of expression, but do y’all look in the mirror from time to time? For example, what’s with the knit caps, young people? The weather’s been in the 80s most days, and yet I keep seeing young people wearing warm knit hats. Today I saw a young woman at the beach, standing in the water, wearing a bikini and a knit hat. ????
  • No umbrellas? We’ve only had a few rainy days, but the other day when I entered a coffee shop I looked around in vain for a place to put my dripping umbrella. You see, in Germany, where it rains a great deal, every café, restaurant and office has an umbrella stand right inside the front door. That way you don’t dribble all over the floor. But a few natives have already informed me that “We don’t use umbrellas around here.” Well, y’all go right ahead and get wet if that makes you happy, but I’m going to carry an umbrella. I don’t obey silly rules.
  • Wow, groceries are expensive! I’m learning how to shop all over again, and I’m afraid it’s going to involve a lot of driving back and forth across town. This place offers a decent price on fish; that place way over there has affordable produce, and Trader Joe’s has all sorts of culinary treats – but it’s way over on the other side of town. Grocery shopping takes strategy around here!
  • Speaking of prices, how do they get away with charging so much for very ordinary restaurant meals? Just sayin’ – as the young people in floppy caps (and bikinis) say.
  • It’s spelled Puyallup, but it’s pronounced “Pew-allup.” How come? Either spell it like it sounds, or say it like it’s spelled! But I’m looking forward to going to the state fair there next month.
  • Noisy people. In Germany, anständige Leute (respectable people) do not yell in restaurants. But here? With your tasty lunch you get a free side of – pandemonium! We went to a “nice” pub-style restaurant the other day, and the people at the next table over, well-dressed middle-aged people, were shrieking and hollering at each other! And the general noise level was what I’d expect to encounter at a football stadium, right after the home team scores a winning touchdown. Hush, people! Use your inside voices! I feel my German sensibilities bristling when I can’t tune out those loud voices. And don’t tell me to just ignore them, dear reader – their noisiness is inappropriate for the setting and occasion, and it’s inconsiderate.

I must admit that I already miss that German sense of Ordnung, a sense of order and occasion that makes daily life a bit less chaotic. Intellectually, I respect people’s freedom to express themselves, but at the gut level, my inner German is having a hard time with some of my fellow Americans.

Well then, I guess there is some culture shock at work here after all.

 

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