I spent 12 years of my life in the US – from Santa Fe to New York, and places in between – and I have now lived in Berlin for 12 years, so when I go back to America I now automatically judge the culture through the eyes of a seasoned Berliner. So, while travelling through New Mexico and Colorado in July, I couldn’t help being shocked by the most mundane things. For one the cars: my rented “midsized” Chevy Malibu felt like a Matchbox car surrounded by Suburbans and Yukons and Tahoes and Expeditions that clog the roads of the Rockies, all seemingly twice as high and long and emission-spewing as those piddly VW and BMW SUVs one sees and occasionally feels like setting fire to in Prenzlauer Berg.
Obviously, supersizing is not confined to vehicles. While road-tripping through the land, you’re constantly confronted by 50-ounce Big Gulp drinks at every gas station, 44-ounce popcorn buckets at the cinema, humungous “Trenta” size iced coffees at Starbucks (31 ounces, or larger than the average human stomach, as some bloggers have pointed out). My German/Berliner side is delighted and disgusted as a I slurp down über-soft drinks: by the sheer amount of sugar and the insane quantities of ice. Then there is the waste: every meal on the road from breakfast to dinner seems to result in a half a barrel of paper, cardboard, plastic and styrofoam trash – it’s as if affordable, fast eateries in the US have completely done away with the concept of reusable plates, cups and cutlery.
Then there are the appliances. Shock-horror, normal Americans I like and respect own things that would be considered nouveau riche, planet-destroying luxuries in Berlin: TVs in every room, dryers, ice-makers, garbage disposals, hot tubs – and my favourite, the “InSinkErator” steaming hot water tap which allows you to brew tea 24h-a-day at the twist of a nob. I won’t even get into the impressive collection of hunting rifles, semi-automatics and handguns that one of my favourite, kindest friends (who’s not a redneck by any measure) showed me in his garage.
Like all Germans vacationing in the US, I love to indulge in these excesses of the American way of life, but neurotically revert to excessive, guilt-induced thriftiness and micro-managed recycling of every scrap upon arriving home – and of course share my outrage about America with everyone I know, most of who, long-time US expats included, will nod in agreement, and mumble something about the military-industrial complex, the NSA, and Obama being a sell-out – while earnestly reminding themselves that at least things aren’t quite as bad here in Berlin.
A trip to the US also reminded me that Berliners and Berlinized expats could learn to smile a little more. Everywhere we went “out West”, we were greeted by pleasant, open personalities accompanied by rows of straight, beaming teeth. Not fake – the usual German excuse for being stingy with smiles – but genuinely welcoming. Too often, the Berliner sees smiling as a superficial waste of emotional and facial resources. Why not open up just a little bit and make someone a tiny bit happier today?