They’re Getting It Wrong
Everywhere you go in Munich, you find little pieces of America. There are American companies, like McDonalds; there are American concepts implemented by German companies, like C&A; and there are Americans themselves: bands, movie stars, Disney characters, on T-Shirts, posters, and DVDs. Most of these are direct imports, perfect translations. Not only is it the same product, but you get the same feeling, the same emotional product when you buy them. At Starbucks, they still have Tall, Grande, and Venti, and a latte is still a cup of hot milk with a slight coffee aroma. In some other cases, though, they’re getting it wrong. In these cases, it feels like American culture has been explained on a phone with a bad connection. As if the Transatlantic Cable is getting a bit shabby, subtly changing words and letters, making ideas put in at one end come out differently on the other. Like a game of, well, telephone.
“American kids sometimes have Pop Tarts for breakfast.”
“Ja, ja, ja. Pop Tarts are the traditional American breakfast.”
They’re getting it wrong.
“I said, the Playboy symbol is a little bit trashy.”
“Right, got it, the Playboy symbol is hip, a little bit classy.”
They’re getting it wrong.
This is embarrassing, but it seems that all the major American imports are fattening. When you go to the latest Hollywood movie, you sit on your engorged glutes and munch popcorn and candy. You go to Starbucks and have a frosted muffin with your Venti Mocha. Karstadt’s American food section has, in addition to Oreos, Pop Tarts, Swiss Miss, Easy Cheese, Cake Mixes, and Hershey’s Syrup, five different kinds of marshmallows (seven if you count two varieties of marshmallow “fluff”). I know that America has an obesity problem, but we do occasionally eat our vegetables. But whether they’re a representative sample of the American diet, or just the things with enough preservatives to make the boat ride over, those things are at least honest. Americans do eat those things. They’re getting it right. With Kentucky Fried Chicken (here known strictly as KFC), on the other hand, they’re not.
One Saturday last month we went to Real, a big box, “we’ve got it all” store. As is customary, we planned to leave at nine. As is also our custom, we left at eleven-thirty. By the time we got there, it was after noon. We were starving, and the smell of breaded chicken pressure cooked in liquid fat was too much, so we went to KFC. It was a perfect likeness of any KFC you’d find in the states except for these seven small differences:
- The “Zinger,” my favorite KFC item in the states, does not have three crunchy chicken strips topped with a tangy, dare I say zingy, sauce. It’s just a spicy chicken sandwich.
- You can get a cappuchino.
- You can get fries on the side. Normal fries. Not coleslaw, or mashed potatoes, or fruit-infused Jello. Fries.
- It was in a bright red two story building with a tornado slide, and its own attached parking garage. Does anything remind you less of a young Kentucky Colonel in a bow tie taking his homemade chicken, packed with eleven herbs and spices, door to door 99 times to make his first sale, than a two-story monstrosity with an attached parking garage? Yes, actually:
- There were huge plasma screen TVs playing pop smarm from Britney, Christina, Justin, and several others I’m too old to recognize. On the second floor, there were cozy chairs and coffee tables so you can lean precariously over, trying not to drip mayonnaise on your pants, eating your fries, while looking out the picture windows over the parking lot of Real, Munich’s Wal-Mart.
- There are no sporks. They have real forks and knives.
- There are no biscuits.
The first six I can forgive. You can change a sandwich or two. You can serve cappuccino, and try to be hip by having plasma-screen hotties grind out techno-pop. You can even get rid of the spork, exemplar of American efficiency. Nixing the biscuits, I cannot forgive. They’re getting it wrong.
But KFC isn’t an American icon. If you asked me to name the top ten fast food chains in the U.S., I’m not sure I’d put the good Mr. Sanders’s restaurant on the list. Now, if you asked me to name the top ten American casual sports played outside which are hilarious super-deformed versions of real sports, I’d certainly put mini golf at the top of that list.
In America mini golf is, at its best, a cacophonous spectacle of colored lights, animatronic aligators, and twirling windmills. Windmills that spin at a speed so slow that you’re stunned–use your putter to grind your big toe to powder, grit your teeth and put on a noncompetitive, it’s-all-wholesome-family-fun, smile stunned–when the wretched blades send your ball careening back at you with a force unknown to man or beast, ending your quixotic hope of a hole-in-one. Mini golf is goofy, obnoxious, and overdone. It’s very American.
The Münchner equivalent is none of these things. Well, perhaps goofy. Yes, certainly goofy. Instead of Crayola green outdoor carpet meant to simulate grass, this version is played on bare steel. Vast gray sheets of it, set about in rectangle and thermometer shapes. It’s like miniature golf on ice. Into these are set red plastic obstacles. There are the traditional sadistic camel hump hills with the hole set between. There are pinball machine swirls, taking your ball up and around towards the hole. There are even entire holes raised three feet off the ground. To play these, it seems from my perspective outside the wire fence, you turn your putter around to use it like a pool queue. Perhaps it’s challenging. Perhaps it’s great fun. But they’re getting it wrong.
I know this is all very unfair. Who are “they”? No one. Everyone. Just a nebulous force that conspires to keep my life from conforming to my wishes. Everyone knows them. KFC is an American company, they have control of their product, but they change to suit the tastes of their customers. They do what it takes to make money. It’s business. I get that. The Münchners, all of Germany, all of Europe, in fact, can do whatever they want with miniature golf. It’s their city, their country, their continent. What’s weird, though, is that Euope isn’t just getting America wrong. Europe is getting Europe wrong.
If America, to Europeans, is a plumped up Norman Rockwell painting with rosy-cheeked families going for a Sunday drive with hamburgers in their hands, then Europe, to me, is Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night. Europe is the half-empty sidewalk cafe, golden against the navy evening sky. Its tables spill out onto the cobbled square. Each one supports not just coffee and cake, but endless possibility. Lovers rendezvous, old friends reunite by happenstance, Ernest Hemmingway sits (and drinks) and pens his great American novels. The sidewalk cafe is a European romantic ideal that is reinforced daily in paintings, songs, and movies. Like any icon, though, reality can’t live up to the hype.
Sidewalk cafes are too often on busy thoroughfares, where the whine of passing Vespas threatens to drive you inside no matter how hot it is, where van drivers load up plinking pallets of empty beer bottles, then squelch them tight with saran-wrap. No one seems to be rendezvouing, or meeting unexpectedly, and certainly no one is writing. I always feel a bit ashamed to be taking up a table so long when I take out my laptop. Does the waiter care if I stay for two hours if there are fifteen empty tables around me? Probably not. As usual, it’s me who’s getting it wrong.
That’s the point of traveling, though, isn’t it? To dispel your illusions. Take your prejudices, preconceived notions, and points of view and hold them up to a foreign light. Try to divorce the thing from the association, recognize it for what it is, not what you think it ought to be. Admit that a game is just a game, a cafe is just a cafe, a painting is just a painting, and a chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich.