Looking at each other

Culture Shock USA – Part II

In the past few years, relations between the German government and the US administration have not been the best. How do Americans see Germany today? And vice versa…

Just before Christmas, I took a break between meetings with people from the energy industry and environmental groups to visit my family. On the very first night, I met all of my father’s pharmacy colleagues at an informal Christmas party. My father announced that his new pharmacist partner was looking forward to finally getting to know me personally.

But when we finally met and I extended my hand, he responded with "Heil Hitler!" and an extended right arm I couldn’t believe what I had just seen and didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, the other employees were standing next to him and also wanted to shake hands so that I didn’t have to deal with this pharmacist any further immediately.

I was not only a bit confused, but outraged. "You can’t reduce German history down to 12 years!", I heard myself thinking. Fortunately, during dinner there were a few people sitting between me and Mr. Heil-Hitler so that I was not tempted to ask him how he would feel as a Southerner if a person he had just met pulled a white hood over their head. Or would he prefer a burning cross?

I remembered all the talks I had had with Germans who had spent some time in the States. Many of them had been confronted with Germany’s Nazi past. But what the hell did this have to do with me? I’m not German; I just live there. In Germany, I’m treated like a foreigner. And now Americans think I’m German? So am I now the legendary wandering Jew, doomed to never find my place? Is the next Tom Hanks movie going to be about me?

While I was ruminating over dinner about the pros and cons of nationlessness at an international airport and wondering whether there might not be a deserted island for me in the Atlantic somewhere, I inadvertently made eye contact with the pharmacist, and the mere sight of me sent his right arm extended up at an angle of 45°. This is better than Pavlov’s dog, I thought, and before we had all finished eating I managed to get my dad’s business partner to salute that Austrian of yore a third time – at a table for 15 people in the middle of a restaurant. (Do not try this in Germany, by the way. It is illegal. You will be sent to jail.)

Of course, these three Heil Hitlers were just meant as a joke. There was no point in trying to have a serious conversation about whether or not such gestures are appropriate. I would’ve just been told not to take things so seriously. This Hitler salute is a fetish for some Americans. I’m not sure I’m not one of them.

I can understand that after World War II Germans claimed ignorance about all of the atrocities the Nazis committed. Americans claim the same ignorance about US foreign policy. Months before the torture in Al Ghraib went on television, I told my mother on the phone what atrocities the Europeans were seeing on the nightly news: American soldiers mowing down unarmed Iraqis; international journalists explaining how they had been mistreated by US troops; and so forth. So when my mother saw what was going on in Al Ghraib on her television, she called me up and said, "you told me things like that were happening". Americans were shocked that Al Ghraib could have happened. I was shocked that Americans took so long to be shocked.

I can also understand why so many Germans did not resist the Nazis. They would’ve been shot dead on the spot. If Gandhi had had to resist the Nazis instead of English colonists, no one would know his name today. Some mid-ranking SS trooper would’ve shot him in the head for some minor act of defiance without any orders or clearance to do so.

But this Hitler salute puzzles me to this day. How did a political party ever manage to get people to change the way they said "hello" to each other? Just imagine if some of Bush’s more ardent supporters started greeting each other with a "W" (hold your little finger down with your thumb and extend your middle three fingers). Even the darkest moments of my doubts about the good sense of the American people, I have never believed that political fanaticism could change the way Americans say hello to each other. And after 30 days in the US, I believe it even less.

Prof. Dr. Dr. Dr. h.c. Fritz Muller

Lots of Americans, however, think very highly of the Germans. The researchers, engineers, and professors I spoke to as a guest lecturer had nothing but good things to say about Germany. And nobody ever once mentioned the bad relations between the two governments.

Those who did not immediately think of the Nazis when they heard the word "Germans" immediately thought of intelligent, innovative people that they would just as soon not have to compete with. The one American businessman or the other had regular contact with German colleagues, who apparently generally had about three PhDs apiece. I tried to put things into perspective and pointed out that Germans were generally of the opinion that they could not compete with Americans. And this "Dr. Dr. Dr. h.c." business is a bit of intellectual arrogance that Americans cannot afford in the anti-intellectual USA. A German with a Ph.D. will often insist on being called Dr. So-and-so instead of Mr. or Ms. So-and-so, while an American who could go by "Dr. William Clinton" would be considered pompous if he introduced himself as anything but "Bill".

Of course, a lot of the Americans I met were on the green side of the political spectrum since I was holding lectures on the success of renewable energy in Germany. This group of people is prone to think of Germany as a kind of paradise. Again and again, I explained how Germans had reached a consensus on the Renewable Energy Act; how they successfully used environmental taxes to raise the average gas mileage of cars on the road, while gas mileage in the states has stagnated; and how Germans often have four small trash cans at home so they can sort everything out for the garbage trucks (compost, paper, plastic/metal, and non-recyclable waste), while Americans who want to recycle often have to drive somewhere to drop their trash off – but most of the time, Americans only have one trash can containing everything from leftovers to coke cans, plastic bottles, aluminum foil, paper, etc.

"How do Germans reach this consensus?", I was asked again and again. "Doesn’t everything get tossed out the window when the opposition wins the next elections??" No, I explained, the laws for recycling and renewable energy were first implemented when the parties now in the opposition were in power. In some ways, I had little advice to give, since the Americans I talked to were up against politicians from the oil industry on a day-to-day basis – no consensus possible.

You only see what you already know

Germans are not exactly fond of American cuisine. No wonder, the only American food they have ever seen is re-imports from Germany. The hamburger began its career as a spiced meat patty still sold under the name of "Frikadelle" at greasy stands in Hamburg. And of course, our hot dogs are frankfurters and wieners in a bun.

But good food is a matter of taste. Germans travel world just to make sure that they still have the best bread at home. My father told me once about a German he overheard at a table next to him in one of the many excellent restaurants in New Orleans. When the waiter brought the food, the German insisted on having some bread with his meal. My father asked me why this German wanted bread when there was so much good food to be had. I told him, "You know, Dad, Germans and bread, that’s kind of hard to explain". Anyone who has spent a few weeks in a normal German household can confirm that Germans eat the same thing for supper (which is called Abendbrot or "evening bread" in the north) that they eat for breakfast: bread. In Germany, if your bread is bad, your food is bad. In the States, good food often begins where people stop eating bread.

On the other hand, the beer culture in the States is kind of hard to explain to Germans – and vice versa. In a good bar in a large town, you can choose from several major American brands on tap and probably even a couple of draft beers from England, Germany, Belgium, and so forth. And then there are all of the brands you can get in bottles. By German standards, the selection of beer in American bars is tremendous. German bars often only have a 2 or 3 types of beer under one brand: the local brewery. Americans who envy me for living in the great world of German beer have a hard time understanding that the Dinkelacker they are drinking as a draft beer in their local bar in New Orleans or Austin is from Stuttgart, and that that’s why I can’t get it anywhere on tap 200 km southwest of Stuttgart in Freiburg.

Do not try to explain this to a German, but beer apparently has to be as cold as possible in the States, as this sign from a gas station illustrates. Some US cities even have a ranking for bars with the coldest beer. My personal favorite is the beer that claims to be the "coldest tasting". It is "cold brewed" with cold water from the Rockies and only shipped in air-conditioned trucks to supermarkets, where I saw it not only on refrigerated shelves, but also stacked up on the floor at room temperature…

It is probably human nature that people only see what they already know when confronted with new things in a strange environment. The first time I came to Germany, I kept looking for dishes with beans and rice (forget it). In a "Mexican" restaurant a few years ago in Freiburg, I asked for some Tabasco to pep up the 100% mild dish I had been served. The waiter brought me the smallest bottle of Tabasco I had ever seen, still hermetically sealed with the original plastic wrap. The bottle was dusty.

No German seems to understand me, but I miss the cooking I grew up on. So if you visit New Orleans, make sure you check out gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, etc. "Boudin" is a spicy, rice-filled sausage in New Orleans; in France, it is blood sausage. The word "gumbo", as I learned from some friends in Germany from Cameroon, is the Bantu word for "okra", a main ingredient in gumbo. Nigerians make a delicious dish with black-eyed peas that makes me feel at home. I come from a very special place, with cooking from all over the world.

By the way, the free weekly cultural magazine of New Orleans The Gambit lists all of the major restaurants in the city in its print edition by cuisine. Although New Orleans and the swamp around it were flooded by immigrants from Ireland in Germany after 1830 (which you can still see from the many street names such as "Jena" and villages like "Des Allemands"), the Gambit does not list a single German restaurant for New Orleans. Americans love German cars and German beer, but they do not seem to be crazy about German food. And the Germans seem to have adapted: according to this web site, the best French bread in New Orleans is made by bakeries with German names.