I just read this article at the Huffington Post called 27 Things You’ll Miss About America when You’re Living Abroad.
It’s a silly list, and the author tried to keep it fun, but she took a lot of flak from readers. The most popular comment says, “Seriously if you travel abroad and find yourself longing for these things, you probably should just stay at home.”
I think that’s probably a little unfair. If you actually live overseas and not just visit, you’re going to miss things about home. It’s not really a matter of one country being “better” or “worse” than another. It’s just that there are things you like about your own culture that you won’t even realize you like until they’re taken away from you.I lived for a little over two years in Germany. I loved my time there; it was life changing. But while I was there, I felt a homesickness for things I just couldn’t get outside of the States.
Here are eight things I missed about home while I was abroad. (Oh, and before you accuse me of not appreciating my time in Germany, know that in my next article I’ll post a list of things I miss about Europe.)
1. Fake smiles
Everyone smiles in America. Well, except in Philly, New Jersey, and New York City. But everywhere else, people smile at you.
The fast food clerk? He smiles.
The girl stocking shelves at the grocery store? She smiles.
The pharmacy technician filling your prescription for rash cream? He’s smiling, and it has mostly nothing to do with your rash.
Our smiles actually make Europeans uncomfortable. Irish polyglot Benny Lewis wrote that “smiles mean nothing” in America. And I suppose I see where he’s coming from.
But man, there were times in Europe when I felt like I was in the middle of an Ingmar Bergman film. It gets old to be out and about in winter, when the sky is gray and bleak, and the dour faces around you make you feel like you’re in the middle of a depression awareness commercial.
I’ll take a fake smile over no smile at all.
2. Stores that are open all the time
If you’re in Europe and need something from the drug store after 6 pm, that’s too bad.
Want to go grocery shopping on Sunday in Germany? Forget it. Shops aren’t open on Sunday. So every Saturday, the supermarkets and malls are packed like it’s the day before Christmas.
Oh, but you just need an oil change? Better make an appointment, because there are no Jiffy Lubes.
Yes, I get it: There’s value in shutting down commerce every once in a while. America’s 24-7 consumerism is in many ways an abomination. But when practically the whole society runs on banker’s hours, and you’re at work from 8 am to 5 pm, then you feel like you’re always scrambling to get your shopping done in a tiny little time window.
3. The food
Did you know Doritos aren’t common in Europe? The food dyes in them are frowned upon, and they’re usually way too salty for a non-American palate. This one forum thread documents people’s struggles in finding Doritos in Germany.
I worked on a US military installation, though, so fortunately I could buy Doritos at the commissary. Emergency averted.
But I couldn’t buy Chipotle, Panda Express, or Papa John’s. Or New York style Chinese takeout.
Here in the States, I eat General Tso’s chicken every three months or so. It’s not a huge part of my life. But when I literally couldn’t eat it for two years, my mind began playing tricks on me and blowing up its awesomeness to mythical proportions.
Think I’m exaggerating about your mind playing tricks on you? In Germany, they opened up a Taco Bell at the food court on the Army base where I worked. The first week, there was a line going out the door.
In no way does Taco Bell ever warrant a line going out the door.
4. The weather
The US has some terrible weather in parts of the country. But I’m from Florida. The weather here is awesome 365 days a year. Even our rainy days are nice, because they’re a break from the bright sun.
I spent three winters in southern Germany. Each winter, I felt like I didn’t see the sun for a full five months.
It’s not a mystery why beer is so popular there. When you don’t have sunshine, you need something to make you happy. Those old brewer monks knew what was up.
5. Theme parks
Yeah, Europe has LegoLand and Europa Park and Euro Disney. But for the most part, theme parks in Europe are decent but not great.
No one does theme parks like the US. Disney World, Universal, Sea World, Busch Gardens, Cedar Point. Yeah, they’re hot, they’re crowded, and you have to wait in line for an hour to go on a single ride. But man, those rides are worth it.
6. Social tolerance
My American friends and I used to laugh about something we’d call the “German Stare.”
In the US, people tend not to look at you for too long unless they’re creeps. But Germans, and Europeans in general, do not consider it impolite to stare at you fumbling around in their country. I remember walking my dog through my neighborhood, and people would literally stop doing dishes, rest their forearms on the windowsill, and watch me as if I were a movie.
Now I can chalk that up to a genuine cultural difference, and I actually find it kind of endearing now that I don’t live there. But you know when the German stare would really come out? If you were breaking a social rule. Run your lawnmower during quiet hours (which included all day Sunday) and you would get people looking at you in visible disbelief, pitying you for being such an idiot.
It wasn’t just Germany either. In France, my son–who was four at the time–excitedly ran across a guy’s towel at the beach on his way to the water. The guy looked at him like he had just personally insulted him.
It’s cool that those societies have a sense of propriety, and I absolutely try to mind my manners no matter which country I’m in. But after a while, social pressures can feel constricting, especially if you haven’t grown up with them. American society has its own expectations, but they’re not nearly as rigid.
Then again, at the Atlanta airport on our flight back home, the TSA agents were incredibly rude and ill-mannered to international passengers, so maybe there’s something to be said for social pressure keeping people in line.
7. Movie theaters
There’s one thing European movie theaters have going for them: they sell beer. That’s pretty awesome.
But otherwise, they just don’t match up to American theaters, with stadium seating, comfy chairs, and Dolby Surround Sound.
No one wants to watch The Hobbit on a tiny screen in a theater built for fifty people. Bilbo Baggins onscreen is practically life sized.
8. Loud people
Germans had a reputation for being quiet in public, and they generally were. So when we went to Spain and Italy, we were looking forward to being around more noisy people. That was the stereotype, right?
Well, Spaniards and Italians were definitely more boisterous, but not nearly as loud as Americans.
We Americans are loud. I can definitely understand why people around the world think we’re oafs, because practically everyone in our country–whether they’re Texans, New Yorkers, or Latino immigrants–talks loudly. If we go out in a group of family or friends, we talk over each other and laugh and tell stories with our mouths full.
I missed it! It’s just the way we are. There’s a lot of life and energy when we go out, because we’re all making noise.
When you write these kinds of posts, there’s always a risk that people will take them the wrong way.
But I don’t see any point in lying about what I really thought and felt while living abroad. No one travels with a completely blank slate. When you leave your home, you are bringing your own set of biases and social conditioning with you, and these will affect your perception of your new place.
I missed what I missed. And now that I’m back in the States, there are things I miss about Germany too.