The Rambling American: Forgetting America

In a special post-New Year’s installment of “The Rambling American,” Locke McKenzie returns to the U.S. for Christmas, family, and disappointment.

It’s January 2. Everyone get out the ticker tape. Get out the booze and the horns. It’s time to celebrate; we have officially made it through another holiday season!

Perhaps we should cancel the booze. Perhaps even the people. At this point I’ll settle for watching a movie alone in my apartment. Anything to stave off another celebration.

Who would have thought that this would be how the holidays would end?

For the last month and a half, I have done little that did not directly rev up my holiday engine. I went to the Christmas markets whenever possible, I listened to Christmas carols on my way to and from work, and most of my lessons focused directly on Christmas vocabulary and asking, “How does your culture celebrate the holidays?”.

Just like the months I used to spend creating holiday wish lists, this all started out with good intentions. The list of things I now do to build up my Christmas spirit quickly dwindles under the stress and exhaustion of the true holiday season.

I push myself to believe in what carols and holiday movies claim Christmas to be, yet I ultimately find reality lurking behind this diaphanous façade. It seems that anything I anticipate with too much vigor falls apart under my heavy expectations, and this season my disappointment has been twofold. Not only were the holidays themselves a time of stress and discontent, but a lukewarm pool of emotions greeted my re-arrival in the United States as well.

Much like Christmas, coming back to the United States is something that I don’t do very often. Much like the holidays, I allow myself to remember it as a time of celebration. In anticipation of this beloved season, I generally spend the month or so before my trip preparing a wish list—not for presents, but for things I want to do in the U.S. that I can’t in Germany.

This year my list looked something like this:

While there are good things to be said for European fare, there is even more to be said about the food the world’s immigrants have brought to the United States. I was ready for something that actually carried some heat. For most Germans, adding a single drop of hot sauce to a pot of soup would be considered too spicy. When the servers at a restaurant caution me about the spice of their food, I nod confidently to give me all they’ve got. Returning to the States, I was ready for something that would make my mouth burn.

American Coffee Shops
While I really do like the European café, there is a reason the American-style coffee shop is now taking the world by storm. I missed the ability to go inside, order a cup of coffee, and surf the internet for free, all while listening to the latest, hippest indie rock music. In Europe, the lack of wireless and the pestering waiter asking if I would like something else to drink leaves no room for relaxing. The European café is a good place to meet friends for drinks, but less ideal for writing papers and reading books.

American Ales
Germany is renowned for the beers it produces. The German Reinheitsgebot (purity law) is a mark that many American brewers proudly display on their labels. In moving to Germany I was excited about the endless possibilities I would find in their beers, but found myself confronted by nothing but different varieties of pilsner. In the States we have bars with pages of beers and taps lining entire walls. After all that pilsner I was ready for something dark and different.

The Snow
I spent most of my adolescence on the west side of Michigan. On average, we get 80 to 100″ of snow a winter. In Germany, my winters have been defined by darkness and rain. Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. From November to March, it doesn’t ever seem to end. After a couple of months of that, the pure white memory of snow-covered trees seems almost as good as a sunny beach.

Since booking my plane ticket home, I had been thinking about how much I was going to enjoy each of these treats. This also necessitated me thinking about how much better these American traditions were than their European counterpart.

In the last two weeks, I have managed to check off every item on this wish list. I successfully gorged myself on the Americana that I missed, but the experience left me disappointed.

The American food has left my untrained stomach in knots, the American coffee shop was so loud I had to leave to get any writing done (after moving tables three times), the American Ales were so packed with flowery hops and syrupy malts that by my third beer, I was ready to switch to Pabst, and the snow was only great until it started to melt.

Why the hell do I keep doing this to myself?

With each trip back and forth, I bring the nostalgia with me. While in Germany, I create these wish lists for America. When these wishes become realities that don’t meet my expectations, Europe suddenly seems like the place to be. All this pressure to make things great is actually ruining my trip—both my holiday and America.

While I managed to over-anticipate the holidays, I hardly gave a thought to what would come after New Year’s Day. Those were just regular months with nothing remarkable to bare.

Similarly, after building up this great place called America in my head, I didn’t really have the energy to do it again for Germany before I moved back. In fact, I started to believe that I wouldn’t really be happy in either place. It seemed like another inevitable disappointment.

This January 2 is the symbolic end to the holidays, but also the tangible end to my time in America.

When I left the airport in Grand Rapids some 23 hours ago, my bowels were rumbling with dread. Why am I doing this to myself again?

As I picked up my baggage from the carousel in Hamburg Airport, I heard the people around me calling to each other in German. My stomach started to ease and turned to a warm tingle as I watched the familiar buildings pass my window on the train. As I walked in my apartment door, I remembered that I had washed my bed sheets right before I left.

Damn. I forgot how good it feels to be home.

Read more from The Rambling American.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.