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Seymour Gris: Back from America

Gris is back from the USA. How did the pragmatic Berliner fare in the land of the BIG? Besides the massive cars, massive drinks and lots of packaging, there's something else Americans deliver in spades... good vibes.

Image for Seymour Gris: Back from America
Photo by Russell Bernice (Wikimedia Commons)

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?