Every once in awhile, Americans living abroad and affiliated with the U.S. military get reminded of what the natives are thinking. Yesterday, I read a news article (in German, but you can read it translated on Google Chrome) that indicated that some Germans aren't quite sure WTF is up with us. A journalist noted that at Panzer Kaserne, which is one of the four installations in the Stuttgart area, there's a lot of building going on. We have a fairly new PX/BX (basically a department store), a new hotel (was being constructed in 2009 as Bill and I were leaving the first time), a new high school (opened in 2015), and in a couple of years, there will be a much needed new commissary (we have one on each of the local four installations, but they each kind of suck). The old commissaries will be closed in lieu of just one on one installation.
The journalist thinks all of this building is superfluous and will cause Americans not to patronize German businesses. He laments the traffic problems caused by the construction. It's true, the traffic near Panzer sucks, but it sucks all over the area and it's certainly not just the Americans' fault. It's pretty obvious that the journalist hasn't actually spoken to any people affiliated with the U.S. military, but is simply using deductive reasoning to come to his conclusions.
A German guy in our local Facebook group shared this news article with the military community and the comments from Americans were fast and furious. So he ended up sending the journalist an email and they had a conversation on the phone. The German guy concluded that the journalist wasn't very well-informed about what the construction is for, or how Americans feel about living in Germany. However, he did say that the conversation was good and the journalist seemed interested in getting some input from actual Americans. So here's my attempt at clearing the air for any Germans who happen to be reading this.
First of all, many Americans prefer German stores to buying what is available on the installations. The commissary, in particular, gets a lot of complaints. Yes, it sells a lot of American products that we're used to, but the food there is not always very fresh. The dairy and produce sections, in particular, are often pretty terrible. If you want fresh fruits, vegetables, or milk, it's really best to go to a German store or hell, even a farm! Of course, going to a German store requires cultural sensitivity, since Germans don't do things the way Americans do. For instance, you need to bring or buy your own bags. The cashier doesn't bag for you, nor are there people employed to bag. And it helps to speak some German, although that isn't compulsory.
But really, the concern that Americans won't shop at German stores is ludicrous. Even if I wanted to shop on the installations for everything I need, it would require a lot of time sitting in traffic. We don't live close. I do shop online for a lot of things and often get things through the U.S. mail/APO system. But I also buy stuff from German online vendors and, personally, I never bother to use a VAT form to get the 19% sales tax back. I've even started buying electronics with European plugs because unlike last time, we could be living in Germany for a long while. Besides, every military installation run by Americans has certain basic services like commissaries and AAFES. That's true the whole world over, at least for the time being.
Secondly, the guy complains about the new hotel. I'm not sure he understands that as Americans rotate in and out of Germany, there is a transition period. We are coming from the United States or Asia or anywhere else military personnel go. It takes time to find a place to live or get settled in an apartment on one of the installations. We could stay in German hotels, and Bill and I actually did that both times we moved here, but it's not very conducive to live in a regular hotel when you have kids and pets. There is a need to be close to the installations to get your business taken care of, especially when you don't have access to a car. Also, consider that it can take many weeks to find housing.
Our first time here back in 2007, we lived in a shitty German hotel for six weeks. That was six weeks of living in a little hotel room with two loud dogs and eating out for almost every meal. The room did have a mini fridge, but that was it. We had to go out to wash clothes, eat, or even use the Internet (the hotel didn't have WiFi). It wasn't fun. Our second time here, we were in a hotel for one week and then moved into a temporary apartment, which was somewhat better. But you can't always find temporary apartments and, again, if you don't have access to a car, living far away from the installations is a problem. So the new hotel at Panzer is a God send for people because it allows them to get their shit together without too much of a plunge into culture shock and inconvenience. The rooms are set up for people who need to stay awhile and close to where the new arrivals will work.
Thirdly, the guy complains about the new school. This, to me, was the most ridiculous of his complaints. What the hell does he expect American kids to do for their educations? Most of them don't speak German. Some people do put their very young kids in German schools, but if you have a high school student taking chemistry, you can't expect to put them in a local German school and see them actually succeed. Moreover, Americans don't pay German taxes, so they don't support the local schools. Some areas have stopped allowing American kids to use the local schools due to the fact that we don't pay German taxes. And most of us will only be here a few years anyway. We aren't immigrating. So yes, there is a need for decent schools for American kids, who will certainly be going back to the United States and will need to be integrated into the U.S. system. That being said, there are some people who do use international schools for their kids, since if you aren't military or government, you have to pay tuition at the U.S. schools. If Bill and I had a child, he or she would probably go to a private school or be homeschooled (which Americans are only allowed to do if they aren't regular residents-- otherwise, homeschooling is illegal in Germany).
I'm not sure the journalist understands that many Americans live on the economy. They eat at German restaurants, use German doctors, rent from German landlords (and often pay more rent than Germans do), and a whole lot of us actually like it that way (except for the paying more for housing part). The construction may seem unnecessary and like it will take away from German interests, but trust me, Germans are making money off of Americans. There are some Americans who don't want to deal with living in Germany and stay behind the gates of the installations, but many of us are having a good time here and spending our money. It would probably do our hosts some good to actually have a conversation with us before assuming that we don't want to assimilate based on new construction at Panzer Kaserne.
Americans have been living in Germany for many, many years. Although our footprint is shrinking yearly, there are still quite a lot of Americans who live in certain parts of Deutschland. It seems we generally get along with our hosts fairly well. Either side is usually too polite to do much "in your face" griping. Even if we did do that, there's a chance neither would understand the other. I, for one, am grateful we got to come back here a second time. This time, I'm finding living in Germany more rewarding than it was the first time. But yeah, I think it helps for people to be more culturally sensitive all the way around. That goes for Americans and Germans alike.