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Alien in America

Too Charming, These Americans

bootsYears ago I was on my way home to Berlin from my second visit to Maine. It was still at the beginning of my distant relationship with Andrew and everything in the US was still so new to me. I was at the Boston airport and since I wasn’t in a hurry, I walked slowly by the shops to get to my gate. Suddenly a woman passed by and yelled to me, “Hey, nice boots!” I immediately turned my head to her but she had already passed and walked away in a different direction. It took me a while until I understood her comment and the look she had given me. She had made a compliment and I couldn’t even say “thank you” because it all had happened too quickly.

That was the first time I became aware of the fact that Americans like to make compliments – at least the ones at the East Coast. But the funny thing for me is that total strangers often make compliments to other strangers without any need for it. I make compliments to my friends (or to Andrew) but it would never occur to me to tell a total stranger that I like his shoes.

When cashiers and salespersons tell me how much they like my earrings or some other piece of jewelry I’m wearing , I always think that this was part of their training; to be friendly and welcoming to their customers. But now, after living in this country for several years, I am not so sure about that anymore. Compliments seem to be a main tool for people to connect with each other. No matter what kind of relationship they have, even in business I hear women and men giving compliments to each other.

I don’t mind when friends and colleagues tell me that they like what I wear. Compliments are a nice and easy way to create a friendly atmosphere. But I have a little problem when total strangers feel the need to comment on my outfit. And it doesn’t make any sense. These people don’t want to connect with me. They are just friendly. They are Americans.

But the funny thing is that Mainers are seen as very cold and distant among other Americans. People from the South complain about how unfriendly Mainers are. What do THEY do to strangers? Give them hugs and kisses?

What? Only German? That’s all?

flagLast week I went out with Andrew and another couple. We met Mike and his girlfriend, Kim, at a restaurant. I knew Mike but met Kim for the first time and we had a good time. After a while she started talking about her ancestors. It turned out that she had a lot of nationalities in her family history. I don’t remember all of them anymore, but the main nationalities were Italian, Irish, French and she also had Native American roots. It appeared that half of Europe and even parts of Africa were united in her blood stream. But that’s not how she formulated it. She started telling me about that by saying, “Hey, did you know that I am Irish, French, Italian and partially Native American? I am European like you”.

Whenever I hear that I have to smile silently. There is hardly one American I have met so far who couldn’t tell me where their ancestors come from (Andrew is one of the exceptions). They are telling me how Italian they are because their great grandparents immigrated to this country a hundred years ago. Today I heard a woman say that her family is so typical German, without ever having been in Germany or knowing Germans, but just because her grandmother was German.

To me, Americans are a contradiction in this respect. They are so proud of their country but also love the idea of being more than just American.

After Kim told me about all the different nationalities in her family history which she thinks aren’t only in her genes but also show in her character (she’s got the typical Italian temperament and can drink like an Irish), she asked me this question: “And what is your nationality?”

I was surprised and hesitated a moment. I thought she knew the answer. I was sure Mike had told her and didn’t she hear my accent? Then I said: “Well, I am German.”

Kim looked at me and waited. I looked back and thought this was a rather awkward moment. What was she waiting for? Then she burst out: “What? Only German? That’s all?”

For Americans, simply being American doesn’t seem to be enough.

Driving Cars With 15

frankensteinI have three stepsons. Great kids. I love them. One of them is 17 and the twins will become 15 next week. And now it will happen again: The twins are old enough to start learning how to drive a car.

It was kind of a challenge for me when my oldest stepson reached that age. He actually took some classes in a driving school (this is not mandatory here). After taking the written test, which was pretty easy, he said,he got his permit to drive the car but always had to be accompanied by an adult who had to be a family member. After doing that for a certain amount of hours he could do the driving test at age 16 and, if he passed, have his own driver’s license.

It still happens sometimes that I sit in my car while I am waiting at an intersection for the lights to turn green again, that I look over to the car waiting next to me. And there I see a boy sitting behind a steering wheel which seems to be much too large for his baby face. Boys who are 16 can look so different. Some of them look like 20, some like 12.

When I was new in this country I was all arrogant about letting kids drive that early. How could they do that? How could they think that kids at this age were reliable and mature enough to drive a car? Wasn’t that too dangerous? But after a while I understood. In most parts of this country there is no public transportation. There are school busses, but that’s it. Families rely on their cars. Without cars they wouldn’t have jobs and the kids couldn’t do all their activities and meet their friends. Life would be impossible without cars. But because there are no other means of transportation it is also a tough job for adults to organize their kids’ life. Usually you need several family members and friends to make that possible. It is a huge relief for parents when their kids start driving themselves to school and baseball practice.

As soon as my oldest step son was 16 and had his own driver’s license he could help chauffeuring his brothers to all of their activities. Andrew, who had played the taxi driver for his kids since they were born, was suddenly unemployed. A fact he really liked (but he also missed the long drives because they gave him an opportunity to spend time with his teenage sons).

I don’t know the statistics. Are there more accidents in America than in Europe because of the young age of the drivers? It doesn’t seem to look like it here, in Maine.