18 March 2012 ~ 10 Comments

The Adventures of an Eternal Expat

Dear readers of Butterflies & Phoenixes,

When I last updated this website, I was still living in Germany, but shortly before Christmas 2011 we moved to the US and are currently living in the town of West New York, just across the Hudson River from New York City. We have also acquired a new family member, Ember, a polydactyl Russian Grey kitten who desperately needed a new home. Robert, our maintenance man, adopted Ember after he found her in upstate New York with a bad case of ear mites and frostbite on her ears. He nursed her back to health, but sadly discovered he was still allergic to cats, even though Russian Greys are supposed to be more hypoallergenic. Awesome Ember was christened this name by me because of her gorgeous ash grey colour and the connection between embers and ashes, but more importantly like the embers of a fire she refused to go out and yet she was so close to expiring – if Robert hadn’t found her when he did, she may well have died. And so here I am acclimatising to this new place as Ember acclimatises to her new home and her new redheaded sister Biscuit.

Like many expats who move to a new place (and here I’d like to give a shout-out to my friends Anita and Cynthia who lived in Macau and Japan, respectively), I’ve been bombarded with impressions since I moved here. To me personally, the United States makes me feel less of a “stranger in a strange land” than Germany ever did and yet there are still interesting differences that cross my path here and sometimes make me smile or gasp. Please note that none of what I say below should be regarded as a value judgement – it’s just my observations I’d like to share with you. I cannot begin to describe what a relief it is after 11 long years to finally live in a country where I can speak my own native language because no matter how fluent you are at a language (and my level of German is near-native), it is always easier to express yourself in your own native language. It’s also lovely to be able to walk into a book store and browse through books in their original language and wonderful to go to the cinema and see any film you like in English!

Since moving here, we have had a lot of loose ends to tie up back in Germany, but I feel that I have now finally more or less “put things to bed” there (to use a newspaper term). Frustratingly, many of the people we have had to deal with were insanely rude and uncooperative, which has really taken its toll on our stress levels. It also seems like we’re fighting a race against time to finally get unpacked before our first visitors arrive. Add to that the fact that both of us took virtually no time off for the move and it’s been business as usual. Corey’s business is even more intense than usual because every week he’s been on another business trip.

Since Corey’s lived in the US, I’ve been able to accompany him on more of his business trips, which meant that in February I got to see my first ever Mardi Gras in New Orleans and in two weeks I’ll be visiting San Antonio and Austin. In a few months’ time, we’re also off to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for what one might dub a “corporate vacation” – basically certain employees from Corey’s company are expected to attend in order to mingle and talk shop with their customers who, together with their wives, are treated to the vacation by Corey’s company. Because their wives are there too, this is one of those times when Corey’s company asks their employees to bring their wives. As you can guess, I am always up for a free vacation and thankfully the flexible nature of my freelance job enables me to benefit from this opportunity.

Indeed, I have noticed that the corporate culture here in the US is vastly different from that of Germany which frequently seems to live from hierarchies. Many more people are on first name terms here (as they are in the UK) and it is wonderful to finally get to meet the people Corey actually works with. They are also very friendly and informal. In general, the wives and families are involved more in corporate America. Corporate Germany tends to take a different stance (or at least Corey’s company did) in that they would do things like host Christmas parties, expect the employees to attend in their own time and then not invite the spouses! This always drove Corey batty and I can totally understand why as we both found it really rather rude.

As I mentioned above, I’ve been bombarded with impressions since moving to the US. To be honest, we have both kind of crashed mentally and physically from the sheer exertion of this move, and it’s still ongoing too, but we are definitely getting closer to where we need to be. It’s tough getting used to the time change and the fact that the majority of my customers are based in Europe and have early morning European deadlines, which often necessitates me to turn into a vampire and work late at night. Not helping is when I crash during the day, like today, because I am just absolutely knackered, but I am happy to report that I have found us a new doctor who seems quite promising.

On meeting up with my relocation agent in a café, she pointed out to me that they have a magazine on holistic healthcare and that it might be interesting to me (we had touched on health issues a little in our conversation). I meant to pick it up, but forgot and later went back and did pick it up from the aptly named Karma Café in Hoboken. As I was flicking through this I found our current doctor whom I certainly hope lives up to our expectations. Currently, we are undergoing lots of testing with him, but he is indeed very holistic, which is always a good thing when it comes to chronic illness.

I am also planning on focusing more on treating adrenal fatigue, which in a nutshell refers to your adrenal glands (which produce your stress hormones) conking out or becoming imbalanced because you have been permanently overexerting them – how couldn’t ours be a little weary after all the events and stress of the past few years? The other thing to note about your adrenals is that if they are not working to their full capacity, your thyroid meds may not be as effective and you may end up taking more than you actually need, but once you get your adrenals tested and treated, you may well find you are able to reduce your dose. I’ve been reading the famous book on adrenals by Dr Wilson and it is really quite illuminating, mentioning how things such as chronic bronchitis and food intolerances, symptoms both Corey and I have, respectively, can also be related to adrenal fatigue (The Adrenal Fatigue Solution website also looks quite comprehensive).

Sadly, as with Natural Desiccated Thyroid, many doctors now seem to relegate the treatment of adrenal fatigue to the domain of quacks, although that is not the case at all. Early in the 20th century, as with NDT, it was much easier to get treatment for adrenal fatigue and the one test many adrenal experts recommend is 24-hour saliva testing to determine your levels of cortisol and other hormones throughout the day and compare them against a normal circadian rhythm/curve. All too many doctors limit adrenal testing to a single 8 am blood test (which fails to show you how your cortisol peaks and troughs throughout the day) or a 24-hour urine test where the urine is mixed together in one vessel and you ultimately end up with an average cortisol level for the day, but again no single points of where your cortisol is at certain times throughout the day.

Isn’t it ironic how we are now scientifically further in medical advancements, but have in many ways taken a step back? Because saliva testing is not highly respected, highly offered or even mostly paid by insurance companies (many won’t pay for testing unless it is for Addison’s or Cushing’s, severely low or severely high cortisol levels), many patients – as you will have seen if you are a member in any of the thyroid groups – tend to pay for private saliva testing from the various labs who offer it (more on this on Stop The Thyroid Madness), but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to do every damn thing ourselves because our doctors had overlooked something that is potentially a vital part of the puzzle of us getting well? I’m not 100 percent sure that our new doctor offers the saliva testing, but he does at least believe in adrenal fatigue (many doctors hold the – in my opinion – mistaken view that adrenal fatigue only exists if you are severely cortisol deficient/Addison’s or have severe amounts of excess cortisol/Cushing’s Syndrome, but fail to look at the fine differences in between these two extremes). At any rate, if our doctor isn’t able to do the saliva testing with me, he works with a chiropractor who has been treating us and does offer this test. She’s already offered to work with me, so it’s good to know that we can go to her if we need to. At present, we are still in the process of getting tested and waiting for our results.

As I mentioned above, there have been things in the US that have been quite different and I thought you might be curious to hear more about these. One thing that strikes me every time is when we go to a restaurant here. Many US restaurants operate via a well oiled machinery that is composed of many cogs (i.e. employees) in many different positions, some of which – in my opinion – are taken for granted. For instance, you enter the restaurant and are greeted by the maitre d’ who welcomes you and takes you to your seat. Typically, you will then have the waiter or waitress come up, introduce themselves by name and tell you a little about the restaurant or ask if you are ready to order drinks. Then, in addition to the waiter or waitress (who are often referred to as servers here), you will sometimes have the “water boy/girl” or “bread boy/girl”. It seems that the water boy/girl is solely responsible for topping up your water glass, but I guess depending on the restaurant they may have other responsibilities such as crumbing down the table. And I suppose sometimes they may have a water boy/girl and bread boy/girl combined, but often enough I have seen separate people performing these tasks. One thing that has shocked me a little is that many of these people don’t even give you eye contact as if not even expecting a thank you although I am quite diligent about thanking them, having working in restaurants myself and understanding what hard work it can be. It does amuse me though that there are so many different positions within one eatery when I think back to the places I’ve worked or been to in Europe, many of which didn’t even have maitre d’s and most of which had waiters bringing the bread, drinks and meals. Of course, it does however depend on the calibre of the restaurant and I think posher ones are more likely to have more different positions.

Looking back, I laugh at the German restaurants that forced us to purchase their expensive bottled water regardless of whether or not we had purchased a drink or even an expensive cocktail with our meal. Here at least the water is free as are some of the refills and it really wouldn’t kill them to give you tap water in Germany either. I’ve seen Internet discussions where they bitched about the labour it takes to fill up the glass at the tap and bring it to your table, but these people fail to realise that good service pays dividends.

The tipping culture is also different in Germany. You are not obliged to tip as restaurant staff get paid better there anyway and everyone has access to affordable health insurance and social security. Indeed, in some places I have refused to leave a tip when they were horribly rude to us or the service or food was unsatisfactory. In contrast, on reading an article recently at our doctor’s, I read about how if you don’t tip in the US you are penalising the entire restaurant staff (i.e. those I mentioned above) because the tips tend to be distributed between them all and knowing the pittance some US servers are paid, it seems kind of inhumane not to. That said, in general I must admit that service at US restaurants has on average been better than what we experienced in Germany. I say “on average” as there are always exceptions, but as I may have hinted before customer service is a much bigger focus in the US than Germany anyway. In US restaurants, people are also more likely to complain about bad service. In Germany, it often seemed that people were afraid to speak up about bad service, something which I can understand as often when I did I had to deal with some very unpleasant rudeness which made me wish that I had never bothered in the first place. In the US, it is definitely different and – on the whole – I think they are more likely to take you seriously. A few nights back, I ordered a cheese burger with grass-fed beef in a lettuce wrap (sounded pretty yummy and it was!). I asked for them to give me goat’s cheese though because I am slowly reintroducing it as my tolerance to it has increased since eliminating it. They somehow mucked up the order and brought me cow’s milk cheese, but luckily I recognised that it wasn’t goat’s cheese and they replaced it with another burger. The problem was that by the time they had remade the burger, Corey had already finished his entrée. They were very nice about it and comped my entrée, but I can tell you I don’t think I’ve had something like that happen once in Germany even when we were faced with similar situations because comping a meal (i.e. taking it off the bill) is practically unheard of there.

Talking of food, one thing that has been nice here is the generally greater awareness of celiac disease and other food intolerances/allergies. As you may know if you follow my blog, I’ve been battling with multiple intolerances to things like gluten, dairy and eggs, although eggs is one that I have started adding back without any ill effects. In Germany, it was often the case that restaurants didn’t have a single dish on their menu that I could have and if they did they might be unfriendly about it. We did find a few places where I could eat and they were great, but overall fewer people knew what gluten was and I practically never came across a gluten-free menu, something which seems rather widespread in the US. I don’t believe for one moment that there is a higher incidence of food intolerances in the US, but I do believe that there is less awareness about them in Germany, partly because many Germans appear to hold the attitude that what their doctor says is law and many doctors (unless they have alternative leanings) poo-poo the thought of food intolerances/allergies or fail to even include them in the equation.

In the US, people seem to be much more actively involved in their healthcare, perhaps because they are forced to be because they are paying more out of pocket. So ultimately what I have found when going into restaurants is that the best restaurants will actually have their chef or manager come over and talk to you. This really is a great pleasure and makes me feel important and like they are taking my needs seriously as a customer. I don’t like places where the serving staff seem unsure and unwilling to ask for further clarification – why should I put my health at risk because you’re clueless? It is nice when you go to places where the serving staff seem knowledgeable about what goes into the food. Of course, the best places are those where the food is made fresh without lots of processed crap added (and sadly this is more common in the US than in Europe), so – as before – we are still picky about where we eat, but living a nine-minute ferry ride from Hell’s Kitchen means we are spoiled for choice. And in case you are wondering, the reason we have been eating out so much is because we simply haven’t had the time or energy to cook as much as we would like. Luckily, though, there are some healthy options.

In the US, you are spoiled for choice. I remember a long time ago when Subway first opened in Germany. I knew the manager of our local branch and he was telling me how so many Germans felt a little freaked out by all the choices they had to make when putting together their sandwich. Across the Atlantic, however, things are different. You’ll have one aisle of a supermarket just filled with cereals and another with chips. Whereas I struggled to find certain products in some German supermarkets, I now struggle to figure out what the hell I want. Don’t get me wrong – growing up in England, I am used to choice there too, but whilst it is nice to be back in a country where I can find what I’m looking for, the plethora of products can also be overwhelming to even Americans. Not to mention the plethora of drink combos at fast food joints such as Sonic!

The same goes for TV channels. I mean fucking hell we have around 1158 TV channels here, many of which are absolute crap and some of which we haven’t actually subscribed to. Then there are the pay per view channels that enable you to watch certain films at any time of the day. I’ve become quite adept at flicking through the channels and I love the way it’s so easy to record your favourite series. In Germany, many expats hate the fact that everything is dubbed over in German (in comparison to Scandinavia and the Netherlands where the programmes are usually just subtitled). As a result, we spent a large amount on getting at least some UK TV channels, but as we weren’t based in the UK we weren’t legally allowed to have the full range of channels, so I think in total we had less than 10. And consider that as a child who was born in England of the 1970s I grew up with about four channels and Channel 5 only came later. Because my parents always considered satellite TV to be an extravagance they didn’t wish to splash out on, I had never even watched the Simpsons until I moved to Germany and even then I was watching it in German! I soon grew tired of dubbed over telly though and after a while I stopped watching TV in Germany until we finally got British telly. It seems the US boasts some pretty wild TV channels. I mean there is a Barbie channel, but there is also a Yule Log Channel, which shows a yule log in a fireplace accompanied by Christmas music on Christmas Eve and morning. Ain’t that a hoot?!

Perhaps one reason there is so much selection here is because America is made up of so many immigrants of so many different nationalities. I love the fact that I no longer feel like the odd one out because I am not German or because people feel the need to comment on my accent. Our maintenance guy is Polish so we are able to chat about Europe together and our cleaning lady is Hispanic, my massage therapist recently was from the Ukraine and my hairdresser is South Korean. There is no one standard stereotype of what is considered to be truly American and how can there be? One would think that this would mean less racism and perhaps this is true to an extent although I know that racism is sadly still rather rife in certain parts of the country.

Americans (and Brits to a large extent) also seem to highly value their conveniences – from having your shopping bagged for you at the supermarket (when they introduced this rather unfamiliar concept in Germany before Walmart crashed and burned there, many Germans were apparently rather indignant at people touching their stuff) (although the bagging stations in US supermarkets also enable you to bag your own groceries to save time) to drive thru (not through!) ATMs where you can pick up cash without even getting out of your car to drive-in (as in you order in the parking lot and eat in your car as opposed to driving thru and taking it with you) diners and fast food places. We have those in Europe of course, but they’re not half as widespread as they are here and the drive-thru ATMs are practically unheard of. I’m guessing people here just take them for granted as they grew up with them.

Another thing I have noticed – and this is kind of a random one – is that there are psychics everywhere you look. As you drive down the freeway, you will come across so many different psychics’ offices. That’s not something you’ll really find in Germany. This is in no way a value judgement, but I do find it interesting and it makes me wonder if your average American is more superstitious than your average German, but that is a discussion unto itself. That said, you just have to turn on the telly to see how many psychic and ghost-related programmes are showing – they are really, really popular!

Things are still pretty hectic where I’m at, but I did want to finally record some of my impressions of this new place and let you know how I’m doing. Until things have settled down more, I may not be able to publish as regularly as I’d like, but please know that I do care and you are always welcome to contact me.

Love,

Sarah
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