Saturday, November 15, 2008

Demystifying the Allure of the Foreign

As of today, we have been in Germany for two full months. We still don't have our furniture or our winter clothes, but regardless, it has been two months.

I have been reflecting a lot on the cultural differences between the United States and Europe - trying to walk that fine line between stereotyping and ignoring the subtleties. One lesson that I am working hard to teach myself is that just because something is foreign does not make it right. This may strike some of you as painfully obvious or basic, but for me it was not.

I think you know what I mean: the allure of the exotic, the drive to be "accepting of other cultures", the desire to blend in in a new culture. I didn't realize it at first, but these three factors were profoundly affecting me in our early days in Germany and, consequently, clouding my judgment.

The three big issues for me as an American mommy raising a family in Europe are: 1)family planning 2)fashion and 3)schooling.

#1 - Germans don't have more than two kids. It is a social taboo. People with three draw stares, I can't even imagine how they would gape at Mary Alice. It is nearly impossible to find any car that seats more than four people somewhat comfortably. I rationalized this at first -- cost of living is higher, gas is expensive, they have smaller homes and less land for their people. Ok, the bottom line is the same, there must be some aggressive unnatural birth control going on in this country for every family to look the same and a certain amount of sacrifice can make large families possible in any culture.
#2 - Germans dress to impress, but this comes with a price tag. They look good all the time, and their kids look great too. I am not talking high quality stuff, I am talking children's dresses with attached purses, toddler boys in leather coats. This resulted in a certain amount of covetousness on my part. I found myself urging my husband to indulge the family in new clothing even though our clothes are perfectly fine. These Euro-families make be at the peak of style, but quality, comfort and cleanliness should remain my key values in clothes selection.
#3 - The idea of sending my 4 yr. old daughter to German "pre-Kinder" was immensely appealing. I mean, after all, Germans invented Kindergarten. She would learn the language, I would meet other German mommies, it would help us assimilate all around. I toyed with this for weeks and weeks. I talked to mothers of preschoolers in English schools and German schools. While I talked, I continued my nascent homeschooling attempts, we took nature walks, we visited Daddy at the dining hall for lunch as a family. Then it hit me, wait a minute, just because those kids and parents and children are speaking a different language does not mean anything else will be different than in a typical North American pre-school. I would still be handing my young impressionable child over to strangers at a really young age, I would still be opening her up to the values of children and families which I do not condone. It would still be interrupting the routine of her younger brother and putting us all in the car for many hours a day instead of at home or out in the beautiful German town nearby. Done, no school, not yet.

In conclusion, I love Germany. This was the right decision for our family at this juncture. We are learning a lot about history and efficiency and courtesy. But our values are our values, no matter where in the world we may be and it is my job to safeguard that foundation for my children.


Stephanie said...

I would encourage you to take more time before stereotyping the German's into the above mentioned numbers. We lived there for close to 5 years (we were with the army as well)...I think you will be surprised as time goes on that just like American's, not all Germans fit into one mold. Yes, many are dressed nicely, although I do not think it is to "impress", I think Europeans just grow up differently and to them, their clothes are comfortable. I could never wear the heels on the cobblestone streets while pushing the stroller all day, but they think nothing of it. And as you have already found out I am sure, the H&M's in Europe are full of inexpensive, adorable clothing (more than the american version of the same store). I also think, that although many send their children to Kindergarten, the culture in itself is much more famiy based. Their school day is shorter, weekends are for doing family activities, they don't sit and watch t.v. all day, they are out living. I say this all kindly! After being back in America for 2 years, I miss many, many, many of the things about Deutschland.

Alex said...

I have always been surprised, and sometimes disappointed in myself, to see how the behaviour of those around me can readily become "normal" in my mind and then affect the way that I, too, behave. I look at pictures of my 9th grade year of high school in Southern CA and then my 11th grade year in Northern VA and see major differences in my dress based upon what was generally considered normal in the different schools as opposed to based on mere differences in climate. This is a somewhat banal example, but you get my point. I think that it is wise to re-evaluate and reinforce your family's fundamental values in the midst of the major change of a trans-Atlantic move, AWOL, as it is sometimes only in hindsight that we recognize that things of importance have been lost in the establishment of new routines and circumstances.

That being said, I have spent a good amount of time contemplating and experiencing the cultural differences between the US and Europe, and I think that there is much more to the European way of things than just the allure of the exotic, including in at least two of the three categories mentioned in this post. My husband is a very proud Spaniard and we have split our married lives between the US and Spain thus far, giving rise to much experience to put into relief the conversations that we constantly have about the cultural differences of our homelands. And while walking the lines that you eloquently describe, AWOL, between stereotyping and ignoring the subtleties, I find it difficult to justifiably knock the mentioned intricacies of European culture, at least not in any measure more (and in many cases, much less) than that deserved by the failings and inflations of the N. American ways of life. Here's why:

In terms of the fashion topic, I, too, was initially surprised to see how well everyone dresses in our relatively small town, not to mention in the cities, in Spain. Children, teenagers, adults, the elderly. Everyone dresses so elegantly! I, in fact, was initially put off when I felt pressured to dress similarly since being here, as everything that I do publicly strongly reflects on my husband's family and the very casual clothing that I wore on a daily basis as a student in the US would make me stick out like a sore (and sloppy) thumb in town. I similarly felt put off (and still sometimes do, admittedly) upon the birth of my son, when it was quickly made known to me that a simple onesie is not necessarily "appropriate" clothing for my newborn when we are out and about in town. I initially identified this as pretension, but no longer do (even if it is, in fact, the case with some people). People dress very nicely here, but do not necessarily spend more money on their clothing or overlook comfort or quality. I think it is an issue of personal distribution-- few Europeans would amass the plethora of hooded sweatshirts and hooded sweaters that I have accumulated (not to mention flip-flops, cargo pants,etc) over the years and ignore the lack of more formal clothing in the closet. Most people here do not seem to spend the kind of money buying the quantity of casual (if even expensive) clothing that is considered normal in the US. The standard style here is more formal. And the popular stores (not necessarily expensive) carry clothing that imitates designer clothing because that is the general style here, as opposed to much of the more casual offerings of the Abercrombie/JCrew/Gap,etc-like repertoire common in the US. The kids here generally wear gym clothes when they are playing sports and nice-looking clothing when they are not. I do not think it a bad, pretentious or even impractical thing. It is just different than what we are used to. My husband was so surprised to see how extremely casually some of the doctors from my med school/hospital dressed around our neighborhood in NY when they weren't at work. We both agree that there is something potentially very positive about not being able to automatically identify someone's social status by their appearance on the street, but other than that, it seems to just be a general cultural difference in style between US/Europe that is neither quantitatively better or worse. A matter of taste.

Secondly, I actually DO think that there are notable differences in the schooling systems (aside from just the language) between Europe and the US, as mentioned by Stephanie. The schools, like most places of work, are institutionally more family-centered. Most schedules are established in such a way that everyone--school-aged children AND working parents--can go home and have the mid-day meal together. This is crucial! And, as Stephanie mentioned, weekends are for family, Sunday is a true day of rest as NO stores open, and everyone is guaranteed at least a month of paid vacation yearly. Family-oriented! That does not affect the reservations you specifically mention, AWOL, about schooling your little ones, however, I just thought it bore mentioning.

It has done me great good to see and re-evaluate the "normal" aspects of US culture that have shocked my husband: the fact that having a car seems to be an assumption and not a privilege, the size of refrigerators (the size of almost everything, actually), the way that energy is used by many (as though it were limitless...e.g. overheated interiors in the winter, overly air-conditioned interiors in the summer), just to mention a few.

The family planning issue and differences in family sizes: Yes, I think it is largely due to the fact that a much smaller proportion of the population in Europe is religious and is likely, as you say AWOL, using aggressive birth control.

Sorry to go on and on. This is a topic that plays out daily in my thoughts and marital life. Oh yes, and one more thing: some distinct cultural phenomena should be wholeheartedly experienced without question, such as the unique guilty Spanish pleasure of taking an evening walk on a chilly winter night highlighted by standing in a rather long line to treat yourself to a dozen steaming, sugar-topped churros from the streetside churro-cart.

Kat said...

AWOL Mommy, I want to write with encouragement for you during this time of transition! As a young child, I lived in Germany for 5 years, and have been visiting my family there every since. My mother is from Germany and moved to the States in her early 20's as a young bride...While I don't think that she would ever ask my father to move back to Germany permanently, I know that she misses her country very much, especially this time of year with all of the enchanting Christmas markets! I have many many happy memories of my childhood in Germany - I very much agree with Stephanie and Alex that it is a wonderful place to raise young children - and when we moved back to the States, I was very proud of telling others of my family's international experiences. Your children are blessed to have this time in a foreign country to explore, travel, and meet many interesting people.

Just to address some of your concerns...First of all, I know that it is very difficult to uproot your family and go somewhere that is quite literally foreign! I do think that even if you had not moved all the way across the Atlantic, however, you might be facing some of the same challenges: whether or not to put Viv into a pre-K program, the tension between the culture and your family's core values, materialism. All of these are issues that we face over here as well, and as our children get older, they are more poignant to us as parents. Suddenly, our little ones are going out into the world, and we can't always protect them as we would like to! There is a fine line to walk between protecting our children as we see fit, but also letting them have experiences that have the potential to enrich and inspire them.

Just to encourage you, I do have one set of cousins that have three children in their family - not quite the six in Mary Alice's family, but also not the typical two :) They are a wonderful family and I don't think that anyone looks down on them for having more than two children. There are some disturbing cultural trends towards not marrying your significant other but having children together nonetheless - I don't really understand this recent trend, but I'm sure that you'll see some of that while you're over there.

In terms of appearance, I think that Europeans in general try to dress nicely, but not in an over-the-top fancy type of way. My relatives always look very nicely put together, even when they aren't feeling very well or when they don't have much money, and I actually think that it is very nice - as Alex said, people just take care of their appearance.

Okay, have to run, coffee just spilled all over the rug!!

Right Said Red said...

I heard it is illegal to homeschool in Germany, is this true?

AWOL Mommy said...

So I was tempted to be a sociology major in school and now we all see why. I am apt to jump to sweeping conclusions about other cultures quickly and form black and white ideas in order to help myself make sense of the world. Good thing I wasn't.

Thank you Stephanie, Alex and Katrina for your encouraging, measured, Christian responses. I am so uplifted and grateful for your patience. Again, I love our readership on B.C. because super busy mothers find time to sit down and send encouragement across the www just when another of us needs it most. Thank you again.

Red, it is absolutely against the law for German citizens to keep their children out of school for any reason. Americans are exempt from the law, however, and I hear there is network of about 100 families around this base that do homeschool.

Alex, tell your dapper Spanish husband that I am dusting off my fanciest sweatsuit and sneakers for our Thanksgiving dinner in Paris! Yeeehaw.

Alex said...

Sounds great, AWOL Mommy. The Dapper Husband says that it will be chilly in France so make sure to bring some colorful toe socks to go with your flip flops. In the meantime, he is taking his tux to the dry cleaners and I am busily packing one of my many new floor-length ball gowns in preparation for our upcoming holiday dinner--bring on the turkey!

Anonymous said...

Alex sort of touched on this, but in my experience living/working in Germany, yes, they buy nicer clothes. But they also buy a lot fewer clothes. No one thinks twice about wearing the same thing 2-3 days, if not more, in a row. I had a hard time with that when I moved back to the US and had to get used to the fact that if I wear things 3 days in a row here, people will comment.

Also, as for children, doesn't Chancellor Angela Merkel have like 5 or 6?

B-Mama said...

Awol, some of your generalizations could easily be compared to the crazy conclusions I drew back in May at the start of our new existence in Virginia!! How easy it is to compare/contrast ourselves upon moving to a new location, often because we feel out of place and as if we don't really fit in. Granted, you have a much greater excuse because you're doing it in a foreign country, but just wanted you to know you're not alone! Blessings and prayers as you all adjust!! :)

Carol said...


I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone. I have been living in the UK now for two years and, although we tend to make generalizations based on our new, limited experiences, there are definitely subtle cultural differences here that I have learned to be careful not to absorb.

The homeschool mom and kids are much more isolated. It is just not as common, though it is perfectly legal here. There are fewer large families, even at church. Kids do go to school younger, nursery is very common, often, I think to get into a good school for later.

I have found it much harder to find like minded families here (trying to be thoroughly Catholic, open to life, focused on living family life). I know my husband has found that at work the pressure to go out for beers after work is much higher. Even those with "partners" (marriage is not as common here) will go out with the guys till late. There seems to be a lot of drinking among adults, not just the young single ones.

So there are lots of pieces of Scottish and British culture that we don't want to absorb. However, there are many things we like. We loved living in London and getting into all the quant villages and walking the high street on a sunny, or cloudy, afternoon. We like the fact that things are slower (not totally shut down) on Sunday. Frankly, the Catholic liturgy here is much better.

My kids are young (6,4,2) and so have little memory of living in America, so we emphasize American holidays as well as learn about Scottish and English ones. My kids listen to patriotic music on a regular basis, but they also go to highland games and my son wants a kilt.

I think we can appreciate the culture, and be critical as well. I know we have no problem criticizing the parts of American culture that we don't like. However, all that being said, I still believe that the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth, right now. Though I recognize it's flaws, and see the gifts of other nations, I am proudly American. Even while I live here.

Carol said...

AWOL Momma,

Don't want to be an alarmist (and I know you are okay since you are American) but did you see this?