Alien in America

Drafty houses


My first visit to Maine was in the fall. It was chilly but beautiful. My second visit was in the winter, New Years Eve 2008/2009. I stayed in my boyfriend’s (he is my husband now) little house and I got a little taste of how winter in Maine can be. It was frickin’ cold. But that was not a problem for me. I knew that Maine wasn’t California. Being so close to Canada, I expected it to be cold. What I didn’t expect was that my friend’s house was so badly insulated.

There was only one spot in this house that wasn’t drafty: the second bathroom. It had no window and was situated in the middle of the house. All other rooms were cold because the windows were leaking. There was a constant cold draft in this house.

I took a closer look at his house and all the other houses here in Maine and noticed that most are made of wood. They have thin walls filled with some fluffy stuff for insulation purposes and windows that only slide up or down. No matter what we did, we couldn’t find a way to seal the windows. Sitting on the sofa was only possible if I wrapped myself in blankets from nose to toe.

Actually, this was my first culture shock. I was convinced that every house in Maine would be like his house. And I asked myself how these people could build houses like that knowing how hard and cold winter in Maine can be.

But I also learned a lesson that I later learned many times again: Never generalize based on a single piece of evidence.

Three years later we moved into a different house that was as old as the previous one and also made of wood, but the windows are just awesome. This winter of 2014/2015 was the coldest for years, but we always had a cozy home. Our wood stove alone was able to heat the house.

So, if you decide to live in colder parts of the US, take a close look at the doors and windows first. You won’t regret it.

Never without my credit card!


I think everyone knows by now that it’s difficult to live in the US without a credit card. You can pay everything anywhere with a credit card, no matter if it`s online or in a store. The cashier won’t even flinch if you pay for an 89 cent chocolate bar with it.

I totally got used to relying on my credit card. I hardly ever carry cash with me. I do it like most of my American friends.

I didn’t have a credit card in Germany. I didn’t need it. I usually paid cash and sometimes with my debit card (EC Karte). When I purchased something on the Internet I either paid it with my PayPal account or made a direct money transfer online. I got a credit card soley for my trips to the US.

But the funny thing is how used to this way of living I became.

Right now I am in Berlin visiting family and all my lifelong friends. One day after my arrival I invited my mother for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant. We had good food in a cozy but busy atmosphere. My mother decided to have an Ouzo to end this beautiful night and I signaled the waiter that I wanted the check. After a while he came back, hiding the bill in a leather case. I put my credit card in it, like I am so used to doing now, and was shocked when he came back to me saying that they don`t accept credit cards. I panicked. I didn’t bring cash with me and neither did my mother. I got really upset. How could they not take credit cards? Do these Germans live in the Middle Ages? How could they be so behind?

I left the restaurant, leaving my mother as collateral, looking for an ATM (a machine that would give me cash). It turned out that I had forgotten my PIN and the machine locked my debit card. Now I was really stressed out. I had to drive back to my mother’s apartment because she remembered that she left some cash on her desk. Luckily, I found it, drove back to the restaurant and found my old lady, a little tipsy, because meanwhile she had her third glass of wine.

We had a good laugh about that. And I had to admit that this was my own fault. I lived my whole life in Germany and should have known that most restaurants don’t accept credit cards unless they are expecting lots of tourists. It just blows my mind how I could forget that! Is that how it is when you live in a different country? You adjust so well that you forget your own customs?

Schoolbusses blinking like Christmas trees


I grew up in Berlin, Germany, a huge city with lots of impatient and aggressive drivers. They don’t forgive you for any mistake. The streets are full and crowded, so don’t ever dare drive too slowly. Berlin drivers will let you know that you are too slow by honking their horns relentlessly.

I drove cars in different parts of Europe, several big cities, and in rural areas. Every country has its own way to deal with traffic problems in Europe. But I thought it was really fun to get used to the Maine way of driving.

First of all: Pedestrians always have the right of way. I am not used to that at all. In Berlin pedestrians are a nuisance who get, in worst-case scenarios, ignored. Here you have to stop for them whenever you see one attempting to cross the street.

One day I was waiting for a friend on a pretty busy street. Almost every car stopped because they thought I wanted to cross the street. I constantly had to wave my arm and signal them to pass. It was quite disturbing.

During the first couple of years I had a really hard time even noticing pedestrians when they were on the sidewalk. I was just too used to ignoring them unless they would jump in front of my car. I got a little better at this, but there is still this little voice in my head telling me that this just feels wrong. After all, I am a Berliner.

School busses frightened me my first year. These big, yellow, old-fashioned vehicles stop at places that aren’t identified as bus stops at all. As soon as they stop, lots of lights are flashing and stop signs suddenly show on the busses’ side. Cars on both sides of the street have to stop, as well, in order to protect the kids who are getting on and off the bus. As long as the bus is blinking like a Christmas tree, no car is supposed to pass it.

I didn’t have trouble stopping when a school bus was in front of me. But when one was on the other side of the street, I didn’t notice them. I just wasn’t used to looking out for them if they were on the other side of the street.

I also had to get used to the number of stop signs used to control traffic. Wherever there are no crossing lights, there are stop signs. Even at parking lots there are a zillion stop signs that make you stop every ten inches even though there are no pedestrians or other cars in sight. That means in cities, if you are not driving on a main street, you are in a constant stop and go mode, quite unnerving when you are in a hurry.

But I can’t complain. Mainers are pretty laid back and friendly drivers. You will never have trouble getting let into traffic, and they are extremely helpful if they see another driver in distress.

I like driving here. Driving is really relaxing in Maine. I can’t say the same about Germany.