I realized this morning that against my will, against my reason, and even against my character, I’m ethnocentric. Despite my efforts, despite being a Europhile as long as I can remember, and contrary to my self-image, I keep feeling like things aren’t right here, and that I’d all be better off if they just did it like they do back home. It’s not simply that I love America and I think it’s great, though I do. It’s not that I demand that everyone speak to me in English, or shield my child’s eyes from marble members on Roman statues, because I don’t. It’s not even that I think the American way of doing things is necessarily better. Sometimes it is, and in some cases the Münchner way is better. But I never know what to expect. Is this actually familiar to me, or does it just look familiar and it’s going to be a royal pain when I find out it isn’t? This is my life. It’s the nagging fear that accompanies each interaction, each step outside the door. So, I keep looking, unconsciously, but desperately, for little corners of my former life to crawl into, little eddies on the Isar where the flotsam of America has been trapped, where I can circle awhile before rejoining the channel.
This is natural, and it shouldn’t be surprising. The main thrust of this blog has been the the little hang-ups, like finding coffee on a holiday, that I’ve found so difficult, and you, dear reader, have found so funny. But it is surprising. I was taught to be open minded, to enjoy the differences in people and behavior. I was taught to respect the home of your friends and act according to their custom. I’ve come to believe that I do this, that I am that person. I’ve traveled a fair bit, and tried to fit in, culinarily if nothing else. I’ve had caviar (salty) and borscht (tasty) in Moscow, bangers and mash (mmmmm) and curry (huh?) in London, escargot (yummy) and a hamburger bleu (oops, not a cheese option!) in Paris. Do as the Romans do, that’s what I expect of myself, but it’s harder than it seems. I’m used to the way things were, so I take refuge in the familiar. Safely ensconced in my Starbucks duck blind, I hunt those funny little differences that make good stories.
Sitting here, looking out at everyone pass by my window in to Odeonsplatz, I wonder if it isn’t, like so many things are, just a phase. We’ve all heard of the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Either we’ve experienced them, or a Psych professor told us about them, or someone in a movie has kindly explained them to us to set up the bittersweet ending. I think there must be stages, too, of cultural assimilation. Five different states of mind you progress through, adapting to a new home: Shock and Awe, Homesickness, Toe-stubbing, Giving Over, and finally, Going Native.
The first, Shock and Awe, should be familiar to anyone who has traveled, but especially internationally. You’ve experienced this. It’s that feeling when you first arrive in a place and everything, and I mean everything, is amazing. The buildings are too beautiful; the parks are just perfect; the local accent is so cute; even the way they fold the butter packet, or the shape of the milk carton, is adorable. In this stage, you feel like you could spend an entire day just sitting on the steps of Sacre Coeur staring out at the 19th-century oil painting come to life that is Paris. But it doesn’t last.
If you move, or if you travel long enough (for me it’s about three weeks), you arrive at Homesickness, a nightmare from which you cannot wake. The cute little milk cartons have become tiny monsters that bite your hand as you try to open them. The parks are too big, too crowded. You can’t understand a damn thing people are saying. Somehow, in the last week, factories have sprung up all around, and they’re spewing smoke all over the place, wrecking your gorgeous view. Everything is different. You don’t know anyone. You can’t even go to the grocery store without a minor meltdown because they don’t have turkey; or, you can’t find the trash bags; or because yes, they do have lots of cheese, and okay, it’s actually better than most any store-brand cheese in the USA, and well, okay, it’s cheaper too, and no, it’s not artificially colored, and yes, I can see that it’s organic, and would you give it a rest already? It’s not Extra-Sharp Cheddar. Is it too much to ask to have some freaking Extra-Sharp Cheddar? But like Shock and Awe, this too shall pass.
After a few weeks of homesickness, you pass into a longer phase, a settling-in phase, that I call Toe-stubbing. By this point you feel a little more comfortable in your new home. Grocery trips are old hat. You’ve got a favorite bakery, coffee shop, cafe. You’ve mastered the subway system. You don’t even need a map to get to the major landmarks, and you feel good directing tourists around your neighborhood. Life is getting better, things are smoother, this could be okay, you can actually do this. Then you start stubbing your toe.
You don’t even realize, but you make life harder for yourself. You know that things are different, and you like that they are. You don’t really want everything to be the same as in America, but you expect it anyway. You can’t help it; you see something that looks familiar, and you assume it’s the same. You stub your toe. Laura and I were looking to file all the papers of our new life: our rental contract, our electricity bill, our health insurance. We were looking for manilla file folders and a cardboard file box. We started looking the first week we were here. But at Kaufhof (like Target), Karstadt (like Macys), and Woolworths (like Woolworths), we found only binders and plastic sorting racks. We thought that was strange, but everything was strange. So, we made a plan: we’d find an office supply store and get them there. When the pile on the desk developed an intelligence of its own, we knew it was time to make the trek. We consulted the Oracle of Google and Lo! there were three, yes three, Staples stores in Munich. Happy day!
Except it wasn’t, not really. We had a bit of a snafu with Google Maps not knowing exactly where the thing was. It’s not Google’s fault, really. The numbers here bear no relation to their distance along a street. Each building gets a sequential number, no matter what block it’s on. This leads to much head scratching when, for instance, you’re standing in front of number 39, looking across to number 178. In spite of this, and after much walking, we found it. We found the store called Staples, which was clearly the same chain as the U.S. Staples. It had the same logo, and the big “easy” button. But it wasn’t Staples. They had pens, but different pens, they had paper, but different paper, and they didn’t have manilla file folders. They had a very few hanging file folders, priced 6 for €8, and a few small plastic file boxes for €20. But we had some serious filing to do, six folders wasn’t going to cut it.
We’d waited all that time, walked all that way, and stubbed our toe. We’d expected to be able to do things the same way. I mean, what other way is there to organize all your paperwork? You collect it, put it in a folder, put that in a drawer, or box with a little label, and you’re done. It’s not that we knew that Germany did it a different way, and were stubbornly looking to do it The American Way. It just never crossed our mind that you filed things differently here. Instead of deducing that we needed a new filing system, we assumed that we just didn’t know where people bought their filing stuff. Turns out, binders are everywhere for a reason. Here, everybody two-hole punches their paperwork and puts it in a binder. That’s just how they do things.
This morning I realized that I’ve been stubbing my toe for a while. That’s what I’ve been doing so many mornings, searching for a coffee shop from which to write, frustrated that they’re not open, or they don’t have wifi, or whatever the annoyance of the day. I’m enforcing my cultural norms onto Munich, being ethnocentric, instead of giving over and allowing Munich to reveal its mores to me. In Seattle, coffee shops open early (really early) because people go there to read the paper before work, and people stay all day because for some people, they’re at work. That’s what I’m used to, so that’s what I’m looking for. But that’s not how it works here. People who need something before work grab it to go from the shop in the train station, people who have time to read the paper in a coffee shop have no need to be up before work starts, so the coffee shops open later. Laura, my wife, likes to work in the afternoon, and she has a favorite bakery. But she’s an outsider too. Nobody says anything when she opens her laptop and drags out her books, but no one else in the bakery does that. They’re all on a Kaffee und Kuchen break (coffee and cake), and every 15 minutes everyone has cycled through except her. Neither of us really want coffee shops and bakeries to be just like they are back home, but we expect it nonetheless.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming it, and realizing you’re stubbing your toe must be the first step in the next phase: Giving Over. I expect this to be a long process of adapting those behaviors that I can, accepting those which I can’t, and praying for the wisdom to know the difference. I’m on the lookout now for places where I’ll stub my toe, and I’ll try to avoid them. I’ll try to do things the Münchner way, get out of my duck blind, get a two-hole punch. But of course I won’t give over, not completely, not all at once. This pathology runs deep.
I’m planning a Cinco de Mayo party for us and our very few American friends. We special ordered tortillas, direct from Florida, from a visiting friend (she brought them in her suitcase). I’m going to have to make the salsa, because I don’t trust that the things in the grocery store that say “salsa,” really are. I’m not stubbing my toe on that one. We’re making tacos, or enchiladas, or something Mexicany anyway. Here’s the kicker: I don’t have a clue what Cinco de Mayo is. I think it has something to do with Mexican independence, or perhaps a battle from days gone by. It doesn’t matter. At home, we have Cinco de Mayo, and I desperately miss Mexican food, so we’re having Cinco de Mayo here, come infierno or inundación.
In my ten short months in Munich I’ll never get to the last stage, Going Native. I imagine a paradise where you’ve truly moved on. You know the culture, the city, the language. Slang is second nature, not something that sends you scrambling for your pocket dictionary (maybe you don’t even need a pocket dictionary anymore!). I imagine that Americans already in this stage see me struggling at the grocery store and chuckle under their breath, the way a college school senior chuckles knowingly at the freshman, shirt tucked in, hair combed (washed, even), schedule in hand, glassey-eyed, looking for the chemistry building. I can imagine it all, but I’ll never reach it. And for that, I’m glad.
I’m glad because maybe these stages aren’t so novel after all. Perhaps they’re just the same five stages of grief you go through when mourning the loss of a parent, a lover, a friend. Wide-eyed shock and awe, denial that anything could be wrong; bitter homesickness, an angry denunciation of everything foreign; toe-stubbing, bargaining for your sanity: “If I pretend it’s the same, will you actually be the same?”; giving over, a depressing resignation to your fate; and finally accepting your new home, warts and all, immersing yourself fully, going native.
If that’s true–if I’m actually grieving a lost culture–then I’m glad that I’ll never reach acceptance. I’m glad because that means my culture, my friend, isn’t really dead. I don’t have to move on, I just need to make it through. There will be a touching reunion at the arrivals gate in Chicago where I can embrace my homeland again. A moment where we can stare at each other, knowing that we’ve changed during our time apart; knowing that though we now see each other differently, our relationship is stronger for it; that we have some distance, some perspective that we didn’t have before. There will still be things that get on my nerves, a cultural leaving the cap off the toothpaste, but I’ll know that in other places they do that too, or they do something else just as annoying. I’ll be able to accept America just the way it is, because I’ll know how much I missed it while I was away.