Jesse Pinho

Things I miss as an American ex-pat

It's been seven and a half months since I moved from Chicago to Berlin. With everyone back in the States gathering with their families for the holidays, I'm finding myself feeling a bit sentimental about the random things, big and little, that I've left behind. For example:

  • Well OK, I miss my friends and family. Getting this out of the way first, because like DUH.
  • I miss giant stores that have literally everything.
    • In Berlin, you go to the pharmacy to get lotion, to the plant store to get plants, to the grocery store to get coffee and milk, to a bookstore to pick up a magazine, and to a coffee shop to sit and chat.
    • In a Target store, you do all of the above within a 100-yard radius.
  • I miss "soft" paper towels and toilet paper that are actually soft. This "ultra-weich" ("soft") garbage here doesn't cut it! Dammit Viva/Quilted Northern -- it's time to expand your international presence!
  • Speaking of brand names: I miss knowing which brand names to trust.1 Paper towels/toilet paper aside, in America I know that 3M provides the best nail-free wall-hanging solution (also something you can buy at Target); that Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookies are literally happiness in a box; that Old Spice body wash, Oral-B toothbrushes, and Dial foamy handsoap will never let you down; that Blowfish will cure the meanest hangover you throw at it; that Express's "Alec" skinny jeans will always fit me like a glove; that Kohls' Marc Anthony line will reliably have a replacement button-down white shirt for when my previous one is getting old; that Tostitos chips and salsa and a bottle of Apothic Red will always have your back for a house party; that Trader Joe's $12 boxed red wine is just as good as Apothic Red, regardless of how much mocking you'll endure for drinking boxed wine; that Phillips, Black & Decker, KitchenAid, and Cuisinart are as far as you need to look for most home appliances, and you can buy literally all of them at Target.
  • I really miss Target.2
  • I miss everything being written in a language I've been reading for 28 years. Even as I'm learning German, there's an underlying exhaustion that results from not being able to, for example, do a quick scan over the directions printed on the side of a hair product jar. All printed communication in German requires mental overhead, processing, translating. I dread getting mail.
  • I miss bulk: 100 loads' worth of laundry detergent in one 20-pound bottle; giant cans of coffee grounds that last two months; 36-packs of toilet paper, each roll "1.5x the size"! (I really need to let go of this toilet paper thing.) One-and-three-quarter-liter bottles of liquor so heavy they're literally named after their handles. Eighteen eggs in one carton. Meat by the pound.
  • I miss Taco Bell. It's the only major American fast food chain I haven't seen here, actually.
  • For that matter: I miss Mexican food. It isn't really a thing here. I can't remember the last time I tasted guacamole.
  • I miss knowing stuff about my world. Like, just stuff.
    • Like, is it required to show my pass to the bus driver when I get on? Everyone seems to do it, so I usually do it, but when I don't do it, no one complains either.
    • I have electricity in my apartment, and I don't know how.
    • Some of my walls here can be drilled into, but some, I swear to God... it's like there's cement behind them. Maybe there is cement behind them? That might just be how walls are made here...? I literally have no idea, and I don't know whom to ask.
  • I miss knowing whom to ask stuff to. The doctor who speaks English is only available between 8 and 9am. My apartment's maintenance people don't seem to have any particular schedule. I wouldn't even know how to look for a lawyer.
  • I miss having a feel for the law. I proooobably won't get ticketed for jay-walking in front of die Polizei... or do they even give tickets here? How does that work?
  • I miss the imperial system. I KNOW I KNOWWWW the metric system makes so much more sense BUT DAMMIT I MISS MY INCHES AND FEET AND FAHRENHEITS AND I DON'T EVEN KNOW MY WAIST SIZE HERE.

I think what I'm realizing, through the process of writing everything above, is that I miss familiarity. It's not that I actually want familiarity back -- in fact, maybe I'll write a follow-up post about all the things I love about living "abroad" generally and in Berlin specifically, and how the absence of familiarity is precisely what I sought by moving in the first place. Nonetheless (and pardon the triteness), if familiarity breeds contempt, then absence makes the heart grow fonder. Good thing I'm headed to Chicago in a week to get everything familiar out of my system. Maybe I'll visit Target first.

  1. ...although German brand names/marketing can be hilarious/interesting. My glass cleaner spray of choice is called Ja!. My power drill is made by "Brüder Mannesmann Werkzeuge" (Brüder means "brother," and Mann means "man", since some crack marketing team apparently didn't think power tools were gendered enough). My chocolate chip cookie boxes are stamped with a label reading "American Style" — complete with a crudely drawn Statue of Liberty and the type of lettering you'd see in an old Western.
  2. I literally have three of the items listed above saved in my "US shopping list" in the Reminders app on my iPhone.