Friday, September 30, 2011

You can't live in Europe like an American

 Dear Readers,

One really positive thing about being employed only part-time has been the opportunity to write more.  There is nothing that inspires like moving to another country.  It is a feast of novelty for the senses. 

Many of you have are aware of the "ugly American" stereotype.  We are a peoples who like it "your way, right away."  The title of this post alludes to the realization that living in Europe in the manner similar to my life in America really doesn't jive. 
For one thing, it's next to impossible to get a good hamburger (unless you think McDonald's hamburgers are yummy!)

The cuisine, the hours of the stores (including what many- even Austrians- see as an inconvenience when everything shuts down on Sundays), and other features of life are managed very differently here. 
Case in point, if you love your car and couldn't picture life without it, your philosophy would clash with public transportation-friendly Europe.  Some find it hard to believe but I don't miss my car.  Even though it might take twice as long to take the tram or U-bahn (subway) home, I really enjoy the convenience and punctuality of a cheap public transportation system.  Or, if you are a biker, this would be your city as there are bike lanes everywhere.  I have often stated a greater fear of being hit by a bike than by a car.

If you cannot make it through the day without a hamburger and fries, Vienna might not be ideal.  That's not to say this isn't a meat-lovers paradise.  The Wurstelstands have ample offerings of Bratwurst, Knockwurst, Hot Dog, Frankfurter, and the Kasekrainer.  The Kasekrainer is a Wurst filled with cheese and served in a bun with your choice of ketchup or mustard.  Also, hot dogs here are different from the States in that they are usually longer and thicker (the foot-long is the standard size here).  Another well-known meat dish is the Wiener Schnitzel- a large piece of thinly beaten pork after which breaded and deep-fried: very popular with sauerkraut.
I guess these observations reflect the old saying, "when in Rome..."

As a people who hold convenience in the highest esteem, it might be hard to live in a city that shuts down on Sundays.  Some have posited collusion between the Catholic church (most people here are Catholic) and the labor unions.  Whatever the reason may be, the only shops open on a Sunday are run by the Muslim minorities; usually a Doner Kebab shop that also sells some basic staples such as milk, wine, bread, fruit and veggies.  The weekend we went hiking, as we knew we’d be away all of Saturday, we had to have already done our grocery shopping on Friday in order to have food in the fridge for Sunday.  Which gives me a perfect segue into differences between shopping styles.

In the US, as you need to go by car almost everywhere, shopping entails (for many Americans- but not all) taking the car to the mega-Supermarket.  Once there, the typical American will fill a shopping cart to the brim, usually enough food to last at least several weeks.  Growing up with a working mom, she would often shop for several weeks at a time, freezing surplus meats and other perishables.  In order to shop like an American, you need a jumbo-sized American refrigerator.  These don’t exist in Vienna.  Here, the “normal” fridge is slightly large than a college dormitory fridge in the States. 

I was considering this a question of the chicken or the egg, do Europeans shop the way they do because of their small fridges or do the small fridges determine how they shop? 

In the end, I think it comes down to two things: one, Europeans prefer to eat fresh food versus processed or preserved and two, the manner in which meals are consumed.  Let me explain the latter first: Hungarians have an expression, “Eat breakfast like a King, Lunch like a Prince, and Dinner like a Pauper.”

I think this rings true, for the most part, in Vienna as well.  People eat their largest meals either in the morning or at lunchtime.  In fact, Rachel tells me of the lunch ritual of going out to the cafeteria or local restaurant for lunch with her colleagues.  Typically, the food is cheap and plentiful at lunchtime.  Therefore, many eat their largest meal then.  For dinner, I remember my Hungarian relatives eating a couple of slices of toast with butter, assorted other spreads, and some cold cuts.  From what I’ve been told, this is also dinner for many Austrians. 

Fresh versus Frozen:
The other reason for the tiny fridges, I believe, is the Viennese preference for fresh over frozen, processed, or preserved.  Many people go to the store daily to buy a few items for their meals, be it milk, fruit or meats.  Fruit and veggies are available daily at markets set up near the subway exit.  There they sell everything from eggs, meats, produce, cheese, to cakes…

Often times, Rachel and I joke about the StarTrek episodes with the evil Borg.  Their catchphrase was “assimilate or be destroyed” (something to that effect)

I think holds true for living abroad.  It’s nearly impossible to live like an American here because our philosophies about convenience, buying in bulk, and eating large dinners starkly contrast with life here. 

I’m not trying to make a judgment here about which is better.  Only to recommend that if you plan on living in another country, take some time to research daily customs.    One final example to illustrate this point:  if your favorite past time in the US is to go watch football on Sundays in a bar while drinking some beers, it would be useful to know- before moving to the Middle East- that alcohol consumption is strictly regulated there (meaning you need an alcohol ID card).

So… do we have a right to be frustrated when local customs don’t merge with our way of life, or is this a manifestation of the ugly American?

1 comment:

  1. The Borg phrase is: You will be assimilated. Resistance is FUTILE!"