The Rambling American: Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

An ocean away from home in pursuit of personal goals, Locke McKenzie reflects on capitalism’s effects on community and geography.

It all started with a relatively innocent grammar lesson: a talk about tentative language, like how to make requests or say “no” without being too direct. Comprising a Northern German, Southern German (big difference), Russian, and American, we began by talking about levels of directness between these cultures.

Although the initial lesson plan dealt almost exclusively with learning phrases (“Would you mind if…,” “Do you think it would be alright if…”), the class deteriorated quickly into a much larger discussion of communism and capitalism, community and independence.

In March, I wrote an article praising many aspects of communism. Therein I discussed the levels of trust and community that I experienced while in Lviv, Ukraine, and how these qualities are slowly disappearing from capitalistic society.

A large part of the discussion I had with my students worked to reinforce these points. As Diane, the Russian, said:

“I remember being shocked when I moved to Germany as a child. People are so unfriendly to their neighbors. In Moscow, when you go to your neighbor’s to borrow sugar, they invite you in and you drink tea together, even if the other one doesn’t have much time. In Germany, I went to my neighbor to borrow sugar, and she said, ‘No, no, I don’t have time now. You have to come back some other time.’

“I was so surprised by this. This sort of unfriendliness to a neighbor would never happen in Russia.”

Within the Russian social system, there’s not much movement. According to Diane, families still live their whole lives together in Russia. The grandparents, parents, and children support each other through the different stages of their lives. They stay in the same city where they grew up in and have the same friends they’ve had their entire lives. Even the neighbors stay the same.

In Russia, you don’t have to be best friends with your neighbors, but you had better treat them well; they will be there as long as you are. In Germany, however, the average mid-sized apartment complex (15 to 30 apartments) turns over an average of two apartments per year. In America, my friends from college are spread across the nation. And my father’s job promotions had me living in three cities before the age of twelve.

There is no community in these situations because people don’t stick around. The retired banker of our class, Theo, attributed this mobility to the growing capitalistic way of Western life.

“Here in Germany, we have become so financially independent. When I was young, life was still quite communal, but by the time I was a teenager, it had faded. We do not live as a community anymore, especially in the city. We all have our own separate lives with our own busy things we need to do.”

In theory, I find the lack of community that has developed from our financial independence completely tragic. But when I look back on my actions, I see how little I adhere to the aspects of communism that truly promote community.

I like living my own life and making my own decisions. The thought of staying in the same city I grew up in has always seemed like a boring idea. I also think my parents and I would be at each other’s throats, should I spend more than a couple of weeks living under their roof.

I moved to Europe to try something different and have some new experiences, but living an ocean and continent away, I have sacrificed that sense of community. My mother is constantly telling me I need to come home and visit my sisters. One is in high school, and I haven’t lived with her since she was in elementary school.

When another of my younger sisters came to visit at the beginning of June, she was constantly reminding me just how disconnected I was from her here and now.

“I have the feeling you still think of me as the seventeen-year-old you knew in high school.”

She’s 22 now.

She was here for two weeks, and it seemed we spent the entire first week just getting to know each other again. By the time she was leaving, we had rebuilt our relationship, but now she is off to the states for another six-month stint.

Especially within the expatriate world, any sense of community is fleeting.

Expatriates in Europe are constantly on the move. Aside from those not tied down by long-term significant others, few seem to stay anywhere more than a year or two.

One of my best friends here in Germany will be leaving in the next month or so. I’ve noticed myself passively trying to faze him out of my life. I’ve got to get used to him not being there.

I try to idealize my life and the way I would like to live it but sometimes the separation between the theoretical and my reality is embarrassing. Often because I want a little bit of everything.

I now find myself selling a product I once condemned and celebrating my success.

It would be lovely to think that one could live ones life as a neat philosophy, but it seems to lead more often than not to extremism and dogmatism than enlightenment. Look at what some sects in the U.S. and Middle East have done with religion. Or what the Russians did with Marx’s theories.

So much for the theoretical. Maybe I should stick to grammar.

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.