Exactly one year back, on a snowy day, I landed here in Dresden. Without knowing any German in a completely German town, from a diverse environment of an American campus town to a strikingly non multicultural town. I did not feel I belong here.
One year down the line, it is a good time to revisit that question. More importantly perhaps, now I can try to figure out the intangibles which shaped my perception. Lack of local language skill does affect my judgment significantly in all fairness, but fortunately as a physicist working in an international collaboration, it has barely any impact on the work.
Most people, when trying to draw the contrasts between the two sides of Atlantic, cite the widespread availability of public transit as a good thing here, or the lack of open grocery stores on Sundays as a bad thing, and I am equally guilty of such assertions. While these on a superficial level indeed are very true, and significantly dictate ones lifestyle, more interesting would be look at where these, and other differences are coming from. The US lifestyle is built around the concept of individual space, and minimal restrictions. Passports are "checked" at the airport, not "controlled" as in most of the Europe. While one can argue that both are the exact same exercise, the clear distinction in the name does betray the different philosophy at work. The reason grocery stores are not open 24/7 because some laws mandate that people working in those stores need that time off from work - but it does not consider that some people might actually prefer working overnight or during the weekends for the money. The food court beside my institute has a couple fixed dishes everyday, and with fixed sides. No, you can not have fries with Gulash, they are only served with fish today. Too many things are too fixed.
These remind me of airport security persons in India putting a stamp on your carry on bags while passing through screening, and then inspecting it before boarding, The whole exercise is totally pointless, since one can not enter the boarding area without being screened. May be this was a necessity in the older days, but now somebody just need to realize the absurdity of this measure, rather than just following the tradition. Too many European norms are like that, once they made sense, but stopped evolving with time.
I should give credit where it is due. Public transit is useful, but never can be a substitute for personal cars. However, the extent the whole system is designed for conservation of resources is admirable. Grocery stores do not hand out plastic bags for every three items, in fact they do not give one at all, unless you pay a nominal amount for it. That forces people to reuse bags and not to throw them away indiscriminately as I did back there. Disposable cutlery and crockery are rarely used - and again. that is not only to look classy. People do not grab paper napkins in bunches, and the lights in my institute building are all switched off at night.
After a year of struggling with a new culture and a different worldview, I would say I am glad I decided to come here. It has been a learning experience, not always a smooth ride, but given me a different perspective about many things I took for granted over in the states. Life in Europe is certainly more charming, but deep down, I would still prefer the familiarity and predictability of American life.