August 07, 2004

Still Getting Used To It

I figure that I'd better keep posting some vaguely German-related content until I can figure out what new, more-American title to give this blog ...

I've been back in the States for a week now, and while it hasn't been hard to get readjusted to my native land, there are still some things that give me pause.

  • Things are BIG here. Most striking are the cars -- while every car seems a little bigger when you're sitting five inches off of the ground in Shelby's Miata, it's a shock to be back in the land of the SUV. Gone are the Smart cars, the Polos, the Minis, the Kas, the Mercedes A-Classes -- in their place are these big wide chunky things. (Right here would be a good place to throw in every granola-eatin' California liberal's link-of-the-week about California's secret unenforced SUV ban.)

    It's not just the cars that are bigger: a few days ago, I was shopping in the Target near Shelby's parents' house when I stopped to reflect that this store must be half again as large as the Feldstraße or Berliner Tor Wal-Marts, the closest things to an American 'big-box' store I'd been in while in Germany -- and most people in Torrance would consider that Target to be a 'normal' sized store! I'm sure that after a few weeks, I'll go back to being a normal American, and won't freeze up when I'm confronted with an entire toothpaste section instead of just a toothpaste shelf.

  • Sales Tax: Everything I bought in Germany had the 16% value-added tax already figured into the price -- making the price you see on the shelf what you actually pay for the item. Handy! Here, sales tax (usually around 8 percent) isn't added until your purchases are totalled at the register, making your final purchase price something of a surprise. A couple of times so far, I've counted out exactly the store-shelf price, taken that money to the register, and then had to root around embarrassedly when I was asked for more.
  • Autobahn: I think that the German Autobahn is looked upon with reverence by most drivers here in LA, the city that worships the automobile. Who wouldn't want to drive as fast as you want! All the time! In reality, though, those drivers have it better in LA, with easy freeway access to everywhere and four-five-six-seven lanes in each direction. What they don't tell you about the Autobahn is that usually it's too narrow and choked up with traffic. Inside urban areas, you may have ridiculous speed limits like 80 km/h (48 miles an hour!) or 100 km/h (60 mph). You may hope that once you get out to the countryside, you can really open things up -- but that's when the highway narrows down to two lanes in either direction. So, in the best case, you can usually only speed along for a little bit before you come upon a Fiat Cinquecento in the left lane, passing a truck at 100 km/h. In the worst case, there's often roadwork ahead (there's always roadwork ahead), or an accident, or simply too many cars in too little space, so you inch along for kilometers.

    But if you get on the highway in the right place or at the right time -- out in the middle of nowhere or early in the morning -- and the Autobahn is working the way it's supposed to, you can't beat the experience. On the way back from dropping Shelby off in Amsterdam, I got to take the Mercedes C-Class wagon we'd rented all the way up to its electronically-limited 210-km/h (126 mph) speed limit! And then I reached the next cluster of underpowered-cars-passing-trucks. Sigh.

    (And with all of the driving we've been doing through warrens of residential streets this past week, I'd love to have that Mercedes' GPS navigation system with me now. People may complain about how we're not driving the automatically-piloted flying cars we all were promised in the 1960s, but I regard in-car navigation as truly an amazing invention from the future, descended to be here among us today.)

  • Graffiti: Here I am in LA, known worldwide as a home to gangs, drugs, and violence; we've spent a good part of every day out on the roads driving around, but we've seen surprisingly little graffiti -- whereas in Hamburg, every single day you'll see surfaces all around you (walls, fences, train cars, God knows what else) completely covered by spraypaint. I guess that here any graffiti gets covered over pretty quickly because it's a harbinger of gang activity, whereas in Hamburg, it's the domain of weenie 'artists' with some obscure 'point' to prove.

Posted by Kevin at August 7, 2004 01:00 PM