Diary of an Expat, Part 23
Statelessness, streetcars
So it's come to this.

I don't generally talk politics, because I don't find that it gets anywhere in particular. And of all the irritating things that expats do, using the distance to create a sense of superiority towards their country of origin is right up there with our insufferable habit of constantly referring to how much better everything our home country is at everything. As I've said, I try to strike a balance that avoids these poles.

I could, for example, rag on the terrible quality of German ketchup, and their propensity towards using tomato paste instead. Here is the problem with that: if you're trying to find something to put on a hotdog (er, frankfurter) tomato paste doesn't fucking do it. Not for french fries, either, which they will instead soak in mayonnaise because they hate you.

Anyway, I follow American politics and society at a somewhat distant remove from here, and I realised a few days ago that it's becoming increasingly hard to refer to these societal issues in the first person. As it happens, I think if the current president had any decency he would do what reprehensible failures used to do in the past, and fall on his sword. And the sooner the entire opposing block of candidates is swallowed up by the earth, the better.

This is not an uncommon position outside of the United States, which means that when I express it in Germany a convenient echo chamber always exists. Because it is more or less the default position of the people I know and work with, I have avoided the other archetype whereby foreigners are asked to justify the existence and behaviour of their country. "You're not an American," one of my coworkers said. "You just have an American accent, that's all."

The downside of this, to the extent that it's a downside, is that when I read about some new foible in the United States, it's tough to think about America as "we" and Americans as "us." Increasingly, although I pay American taxes and am, I suppose, still registered to vote in the United States, I tend to think of it in the third person: "America needs to get its act together," not, "Americans, we need to get our act together."

As with pretty much everything I write about in my diaries, I'm not passing judgment on this so much as stating it as a fact. I was speaking to another American expat earlier today, and he said he felt that America was at a great precipice, and perhaps had already fallen over it, and that he was glad to be out. I hear that not uncommonly as well.

I don't think it's so much that Germany is that much better, or that Germans do things that much more effectively — mostly, I guess, it's just distance talking. Many, maybe even most Americans are disaffected and unhappy with their government; without the geographic closeness that gulf becomes even more pronounced. There's nothing to remind yourself "oh, I'm an American," so you forget that you are.

This is not to say that I feel that I am a German. It's more appropriate to say that I am stateless. I don't really get any particular use, in terms of my own sense of self-worth or self-definition, from adding the "is American" metadata into my self-description. I don't feel loyalty towards any one country at the Olympics or the World Cup; it may be, really, that being an expat has led me away from feeling the particular usefulness of countries at all. In this regard, of course, I'm helped by living in the EU, a pan-national conglomeration that is already accused of stripping away national identity.

But what does national identity really get anyone? What has it ever gotten anyone? There are ideals associated with a country, sure, but for them to have any worth they must be personally internalised, and to the extent that "free speech" or "the pursuit of happiness" is an internalised belief, it doesn't require national borders.

So I don't know. But that's where my mind has been this week, philosophically.

Physically, it has been with my foot, which I injured Monday. This presents a problem for me, because I walk a mile and a half to and from work every day, and that became painful. So instead, I have been trying to take the trains, and this is where I should note that I really, really dislike the metro tram.

The tram is a streetcar system that runs throughout east Berlin; it's operated by the BVG, which also operates the subways and the busses, but it runs less frequently. Rails are sunk directly into the street, and in large parts of the coverage area the trams don't have dedicated lanes. This means, for example, that Monday night my tram stopped running because somebody had parked on the tracks.

It also means that the tram has to be under the direct control of the driver, rather than careful computer algorithms, and this — combined with the tendency of Berliners to run in front of the tram — means it is the most uncomfortable way to travel since circuses stopped shooting people out of cannons. It's an uneven, slow, jerky ride, and I'm not honestly convinced that it's less damaging to my foot to have to try to keep my balance on the tram than it would be just to walk.

But after a week of that, my foot is mostly feeling better. Which is good, because that removes the need for me to write the next week's post as "what it's like to visit a doctor in Germany," a prospect that still honestly terrifies the hell out of me.
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