Monday, May 24, 2010

I Won't Iron Underwear

My passport needs to be renewed soon. I noticed this fact last month when I was traveling back to the States. Which brings me to the shocking part: I have been in Germany quite a long time. I didn't anticipate staying. Rather, days turned into months, months turned into years, and now more than ten years have passed and I'm still here.

Has this experience changed me? Well, yes, sort of. But I didn't make it easy for myself. I remember the statement from the guy at the music store in Madison, when I mentioned to him that I was shipping a sum total of two boxes overseas. "Great!" he said. "Everybody should try to do that. Something about living in a different culture that makes you less of an asshole."

I guess I should, on the metacognitive level, examine how my thinking has changed. Or, to see if I've become less of an asshole.

An exchange between my husband and I during our stay in California illuminates the process:

Me: So I was in Target the other day, and the lady is, like, giving me a plastic bag for every frickin' item! And I'm trying to force everything into one bag, tellling her, "That's okay, I can just put the rest of the items in my purse." And she's still opening up the next sack, and I'm like, "really, my purse is big enough for those hair clips!"

Kai: You know what? If I keeled over today, you would probably never move back here again. You've just been gone too long.

Wow. Take a moment for reflection here. Have I come so far that I have become more German than American? Have I, in fact, lost my primary identity? Here are a list of indications that support that claim:

1. After years of resistance to sorting my trash, it's now second-nature.
2. I can walk into Target and don't (always) have to grab a coffee from Starbucks as well.
3. I get how having a gas tax really forces people to make better energy decisions.
4. I am no longer annoyed that shops aren't open on Sunday. Unless I run out of something.
5. I now host large birthday parties and realize that the guests won't be gone after cake. I even don't want them to go!
6. I use my good china on a regular basis.
7. I even know where you have to place all of those glasses and silverware.
8. I took up gardening.
9. I could feel grateful- grateful beyond belief- to live here when my daughter got sick.

I love Germany, honestly. Only in the severest of moments do I entertain the notion of repatriation. Yet when I come to the last hurdle of assimilation, I throw up a wall. Simply stated, I can't become a German woman. It's just too hard.

German women? Where to start. Amazing individuals. The offspring of the Trümmerfrauen, or the women who, piece by piece, freed the German soil from the wreckage of WWII. Really, it's just so German to get out of bed every morning and plow through until the daily 'to-do' list is finished.

To start with, German women know things. They know, for example, how to bake cakes. I mean real cakes, the kind of cakes that have many layers and have delicate arrangements. The kind of cakes that aren't too sweet, where no single ingredient overshadows. German women know that you can combine salty camembert cheese with tart lingonberries. They have an extensive arsenal for battling snails in the garden. They know how to drill proper holes in the walls and put together IKEA furniture. They know 100 different ways to prepare a potato, and all about the prices of things. They use homeopathic medicine. They know languages, they travel extensively. They like to use the word 'differentiate.' Always there for their children, yet equipped with the intellectual capacity to actually help their kids with the homework. In short, a nation of women with their heads screwed on properly. A nation of women just doing what it takes.

I admire German women, I try to emulate them and learn from them. Becoming one of them, however, requires a level of detail that I simply lack. For example, I refuse to iron underwear. My American soul tells me that this task is deeply unnecessary. My mother-in-law, however, does. She irons everything that came out of the washing machine. Tea towels, sheets and pillow cases, undershirts. The whole lot. She also judges me because I don't.

"Ist doch egal, man sieht das sowieso nicht!" I say. (It doesn't matter, you don't see it anyway!)

"Mag wohl sein, aber so macht man das eben," the mother-in-law says. (That might well be, but that's just how it's done.)

Which brings up another point about German women: their uncanny ability to question everything except their own cultural constraints: It's this way, because we've always done it this way, and therefore we'll do it this way. Which leads them to iron underwear. Which leads me to the American embassy to renew my passport.