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Germany and America is Paradise

A shout-out to FJ, who sent me a link to a sort of debate between an editor of the German center-right newspaper Die Welt and an American who lives in Berlin. The German, Frank Schmiechen, lived in California for four months and wrote a 'love letter' (g)  to the USA which, not insignificantly, was accompanied by this photo: 


Sieht aus wie ein Klischee, ist aber keins: Kalifornien entspannt ungemein

The things he loves about America are pretty standard things for Germans: People are nice and friendly. And who cares if it's superficial? Superficial nice is better than honest hostile. Everyone seems much more relaxed. People do stuff without endless discussion. Workers seem relaxed and smiling, there's none of the grimacing and yelling and stress and tension you see in German workplaces. Americans celebrate success, they don't envy it. Even powerful people dress like everyone else and don't insist on deference or titles. Why, I even saw a Stanford philosophy professor dressed like a bum! The landscape is gorgeous, and everything looks like a movie set in the mellow Californian light. The food is world-class, as are the local wines. If you screw up, you just try again, and everyone understands that. Of course, this all comes at a price: those who fail end up babbling on the street, and people work extremely hard to avoid this fate. But then again, you know this about yourself, America, and you always give people a second chance.

And now, an American living in Berlin, Clark Parsons, comes with his quasi-rebuttal: Deutschland, du bist einfach great! (g): Store clerks may not be quite as syrupy-friendly, but they actually know what they're talking about, take pride in their work, and will help you save money. Germans take friendships seriously. Germans are vastly more interested in the rest of the world than Americans, are much better informed, and don't have the typical American assumption that everone would be better off if their countries were run like the USA. Germans take seriously those things that are worth serious attention -- for example, musicians who tour Germany are bowled over by the fact that German fans know a lot about their music and listen carefully to performances. The Bushes could play golf, but Helmut Schmidt is highly intelligent and has interesting points to make, and he gets a forum on Germany's excellent public-dominated mediasphere. German bitching and complaining is, at heart, all about setting high standards, and what's wrong with that? Germans build quality products and buildings for the long haul, and take care of them. Finally, the German sense of order. Often-mocked, but it also works. Garbage separation, precise information on consumer products, excellent public transportation, Saturday markets, 30 kinds of bread, all these things are just...great!

There's nothing too profound here, but these are op-eds, not dissertations. Most of the observations are on-target, but I have a quibble with Schmiechen's.

Schmiechen spent 4 months mostly, apparently, in Silicon Valley, since that's where most of his concrete examples come from (including a casually-dressed 'wiry Asian' guy the German took for a low-level PR flack but turned out to be the boss of the company). Most of the people he interviewed were millionaires. Germans are terrible at recognizing rich Americans for a few reasons. First, wealthy Americans don't follow high-bourgeois status codes the way Europeans do. Yachts, Bentleys, polo, luxury ski vacations, expensive watches, hand-tailored Jermyn Street togs, the word 'tog' -- these things are as dated as Fantasy Island.

Granted, the rare American you meet who owns these symbols is probably rich, but for every one of him, there are 1000 even richer people who dress in jeans and ironic faded 1970s T-shirts and would burst out laughing at the idea of playing polo.  Especially in California, your wealth isn't judged by the quality of your suit, but whether you have to wear one at all. Suits are for drones.* About the only reliable visible class indicator in ths U.S. is a college degree. A four-year stay at any prestigious American university -- and, increasingly, any American university -- is a sure sign of wealth. You don't get into Stanford without costly preparation, and it's going to cost someone a a quarter-million dollars just for your first degree there.

The second reason Germans miss class signals is that Americans will insist they're jes' plain ordinary middle-class folks no matter how fabulous their wealth. There's an inverse relationship between how rich an American is and how honestly he'll discuss his finances. About all you'll get from a $500,000-a-year engineer is that he's 'comfortably off', but he'll then start bitching about how he's just scraping by, given rent, taxes, tuition, etc.

So sure, the people Herr Schmiechen met seemed relaxed, friendly, unpretentious go-getters, but he was, whether he knew it or not, hobnobbing with the American elite. To broaden his perspective, he might want to spend four months among the 40% of working Americans who make less than $20,000 per year. I think he'd be surprised just how much less a $20,000 salary buys you in the United States than it would in Germany, and he'd find all the surliness, misery, and envy he could handle.

* Yes, I know this is a misnomer, since real drones are almost the opposite of the stereotype: their primary purpose in life is to fuck the queen! 'Worker bees' are the real slaves, but the use of drone has become so widespread I've decided to give up and adopt it here.

Comments

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Ralph

The "Petra B." entry below appears to be comment spam as it is linked to "displaystore.de."

But anyway: that there is a "clear tendency" in Germany to "idealize" the U.S. is far from true.

Any reader of "Stern" or "Der Spiegel" or even readers' comments in conservative newspapers like the "FAZ" must recognize that the overwhelming majority of Germans do anything but idealize the U.S.

Ralph

"Clark Parsons," of course. Writing here on the fly.

Ralph

Frank Parsons is managing director of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership and that makes it likely that Parsons spends most of his time in Berlin Mitte or in one of the tonier neighborhoods, not in districts like Friedrichshain or Neukölln; so, Andrew, your criticism of Frank Schmiechen applies to Parsons, too.

malvar infected

If it's any consolidation to you: The Germany Clark Parsons describes also sounds like a much greater place to live than the country where i am living since my birth, which happens to be the reality version of Germany...

Wladimir Palant

I couldn't agree more. I've been living in Germany for years but I also assume to know a bit more about US than most Germans do thanks to the people I know there, many of which had to work their way up. There is a clear tendency to idealize US in Germany, everybody you ask can tell you the positive sides: high wages, economic wealth, top-notch medicine, friendly people etc. At the same time, people are almost never aware of the downsides like massive work pressure, close to no job security, short vacations, pretenses instead of real emotions, "optional" insurances, disastrous infrastructure and much more. Every time I visit US I am again surprised by people doing dull work only because they seem to be cheaper than automating the process - and I keep wondering how little these people must be earning. But I suspect that most Germans get their information about life in the US from Hollywood movies. The misconceptions arising there don't go away easily, one has to take a close look at how people are really living.

Marcellina

The things he loves about America are pretty standard things for Germans: People are nice and friendly. And who cares if it's superficial? Superficial nice is better than honest hostile. Everyone seems much more relaxed.

This is the very thing that (some) Germans find annoying and suspect about the Austrians... perhaps Schmiechen isn't "reading" his American friends as well as he thinks he is.

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