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Alien in America

How to Behave at Walmart Properly

supermarketI think I have mentioned before how friendly people are in the US. I never met more friendly and helpful people than here in Maine. And Mainers are considered to be very distant and unfriendly among other Americans.

But there is something about this friendliness that took me quite a while to get used to.

I usually go to Walmart to get most of my groceries and other stuff. They are huge supermarkets. You can get everything in there for a reasonable price. But they’re always big buildings and sometimes you need to walk a lot in order to get everything you need. But because they are so big they also construct the aisles very large. There, of course, big grocery carts need big aisles. Otherwise people would have had a problem passing each other. In each aisle you have at least 10 feet (3 meters) to pass or move. Nevertheless you will often hear someone shout, “excuse me” when he is still 30 feet away from you. People like to give you a warning long before they even come close to you.

I am so used to little and crowded grocery stores in Germany. I learned to ignore other people there; otherwise they would have made me crazy. But my first year in the US every visit at Walmart stressed me out. No matter how empty that place might have been there were always people shouting their “excuse mes” at me. I was constantly jumping aside; expecting someone to bump into my back but whenever I turned to see who was coming, this person was still far away. Whenever I was contemplating the strange and new products I just had found I had to move or respond to someone who wanted to pass me.

I was very irritated. I appreciated people’s politeness, but it seemed to be exaggerated. And I didn’t know how to respond appropriately. I also didn’t like that this custom meant that I had to shout, “excuse me” whenever another person came into my sight.

Today I noticed something funny. Apparently I am back to my old behavior. I totally ignore people in Walmart. I don’t even hear them calling, “excuse me,” and if I do notice it, I don’t even look up anymore. I behave exactly as if I were at home and never shout, “excuse me” anymore. I don’t know if I offend people with that behavior. Since I moved to Maine I always wanted to fit in and changed my behavior accordingly. Until today I hadn’t even noticed that I don’t behave like the other customers at Walmart anymore. I wonder if I have offended many people there so far. I hope not. But it feels so much better when I ignore the other customers there.

Beware of the Wine Drinkers!

alcohol3Portland, Maine in July last year. There was a free and open air concert at Monument Square. It was a beautiful summer evening at 6pm. People leisurely strolled across the place, listening to the music and some of them were even dancing. I had already heard the music several blocks away and loved the idea of listening to some music on a summer night. I moved across the square to take a look at everything. Of course there was the band on a stage and a few booths where you could get some food. Monument Square is not a big place and I was surprised that it wasn’t crowded at all. In Berlin I was used to big crowds at events like that. Berliners just love open air concerts, especially when they are free. Mainers like them, too but it was not packed at all. I liked it. This all felt very comfortable and relaxed.

But then I noticed something strange. Although the square was half empty, I saw a group of people at the rim of the square confined in a tiny place. There was only a thin chain keeping these people in their place inside this area. They didn’t have much space to move at all. I couldn’t understand what was going on there. Then I saw two big guys wearing black shirts with “Security” on their backs, patrolling the border of this area. One of them even had a big dog helping him to keep these very innocent looking people under control.

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I still didn’t get it. What did these people do there? Why didn’t they come out and spread out over the square? There was plenty of room everywhere else. And why was a security team watching them? What was so dangerous about these people? They didn’t look dangerous to me. They were just standing there, talking with each other and listening to the music.

But then I saw another guy and his T-shirt said “Alcohol Enforcement”. Suddenly I noticed that everyone in this confined area had either a glass of wine or beer in his or her hand. They were drinking alcohol! But drinking alcohol in public is forbidden in the US. Only restaurants with special licenses are allowed to sell alcohol. But guests are not allowed to leave the restaurant’s area with alcohol. Therefore, in this case, they had to stay in the restaurant’s area to have their little drink AND enjoy the summer night with live music.

I was bummed. That looked very strange to me. Usually I am pretty good at accepting the American way of life. But seeing these big security guys with their dog watching over these “dangerous” wine drinkers was pretty funny for me.

Go to Work And Listen to Hot Music

headphonesThe first thing I noticed when I started my work three years ago was that my new office was in one big room with a lot of cubicles. Cubicles are usually places where each desk is surrounded by room dividers. These dividers can be of different heights, ranging between 3 and 8 feet (1 and 2,5 meters).

But there was another thing that I noticed. A lot of my colleagues wore headsets. They were listening to music or radio while they were working. This was totally new to me. I had never seen or heard about that in Germany before. Listening to music while you are in the office would have been considered at its best impolite and anti-social – and at its worst a reason to get fired.

But here it was not only normal but it also made sense. All these people worked in the same big room, answering phone calls and having discussions. The only way not to listen to other people`s conversations was to put a headset on and listen to your own music.

It took me more than one and a half years before I dared to do that, too. It was such a taboo for me that I couldn`t put a head set on earlier. But it’s really hard to concentrate on writing or on complicated calculations when your colleagues are chatting right beside you. You might not be able to see them, but you hear EVERYTHING they do. You hear every crunching bite they take when they have chips as a snack. You hear their discussions with their spouses about their dog’s poop and their next doctor’s appointment.

Nowadays I love using my headset. Whenever I can I put it on and listen to my beloved Pandora stations. Listening to great music while I am working not only helps me to concentrate better but it also gives me the illusion that I am not working at all. Often I listen to relaxation or meditation music while I am dealing with complicated calculations and I feel refreshed and relaxed afterward.

There is a part of me that doesn’t want to work in Germany ever again because listening to music has become such a help and improvement of my work life that I wouldn’t like to give that up.