I always have difficulties discussing cliches. Inevitably, the exceptional minority is overlooked by the broad spray of generalization. In school, we were taught reject generalization and accept that we all come from different walks of life tra-la-la-la. In my German class this semester for instance, we were given an exercise in which we were meant to compare the differences between men and women and their according cliches. It was just an assignment, but I was reluctant to engage because there wasn’t enough room for debate, for assessment, for questioning.
Like gender, national and culture identities present a unique set of difficulties when trying to make generalizations. Generalization is, after all, just a tool to help us understand something seemingly larger than a whole. In my experience as a foreign student in Germany, generalization has proven a very effective tool within navigating formal procedures and conversation. Diplomatic and polite behavior is well-received. When you conduct yourself as if you were a part of this greater culture machine that is society, you will likely avoid any sort of altercation. However, as soon as you consider yourself as an individual entitled to exceptional treatment– you will find yourself in an unpleasant conflict.
I’de like to share an anecdote which not only satisfies the requirement of demonstrating confrontation of this mindset, but is also a generally hilarious experience. While traveling into the West (from the East [deutschland, yo]) for a weekend with my girlfriend, we went out for a late supper at an Italian restaurant in Bonn.
more or less relevant KULTURFAKTOID: Italian restaurants in middle Europe– so far as I’ve experienced in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Holland– were to me at first a strange phenomenon. Almost anywhere in the world, one is able to find posh Italian restaurants which offer delicious artisan meals equal in cost to what I make in month schlepping coffee and bagels (danke Perks Coffee). The vibe of the more affordable restaurants which the 4.75% of the United States population known as students, along with various other minorities of the entitlement demographic known as the 99%, tend to frequent ranges from psuedo-posh to take-away shops. While the head line of these restaurants seems to be “We’re Italian!,” as evidenced by an Italian name and the ubiquitous quasi-patriotic décor, the subtext seems to read: “But we also embrace every other cliché ethnic culinary culture!”, which accommodates the middle europeans, who, if I may make a particularly weighty, broad, and probably regrettable generalization, are picky and frankly un-experimental when it comes to mealtime (by the way, europeans love it when Americans make generalizations about the entire continent of Europe as if it were one culturally unified region, TRY IT OUT). Apart from pasta, pizza and other favs, diners in these quasi-Italian joints can choose from Spanish tapas, Indian curries, German wurst, even Tex-Mex classics like nachos, tacos and burritos. Somehow though, these seemingly abnormalities go as unnoticed by the clientele as a hot dog would on an Italian menu in the US. I guess I’m just upset that my romantic conception of Europe as a haven of preserved regionalism has been shattered, but now it seems pretty incredible that I clung to my imagined warm and fuzzy blanket of the “old world” for so long. After all– I was at an Italian restaurant in Germany.
KULTURFAKTOID aside, this particular incidence in this particular establishment was particularly funny, as my girlfriend hails from Spain, which as anyone well-versed with cultural stereotypes in Europe can tell you, is the country which has perhaps a stereotype most antithetical to the Germans. Die Deutschen are engineering, well-mannered, and orderly, where as los españoles work from 9-2, break for siesta and return to work until eight. Which leads me to my next point. When I mentioned earlier that we were out for a late supper– I meant by accepted american standards. At 8:30 in Spain, not even the elderly have sat down to supper. Expect to eat with your university buddies at around 12 or 1.
After ordering ourselves some pizzas and some drinks off the menu, we notice that Happy Hour begins at nine PM. Because both diners hailed from countries with struggling economies (‘muruka and Europe, or at least the providence of Spain), we obviously hailed our waitress as soon as possible. What I thought was a completely reasonable request—to return to the kitchen and say something to the effect of “nevermind”– was apparently an appalling breech of protocol: “It’s already in the computers! That’s not possible, it’s just not possible, we cannot make exceptions like this”.
This embarrassing faux pas (!!!) would have probably been swept under the rug, were it not for the hilarious dialogue that ensued between Spain and the Germany (here both parties are represented by platonic ideal, much like the foul and unsportsmanlike behaviour of Holland’s national team in the 2010 World Cup represented the values and moral worth of their entire country). Spain tried to reason with the waitress with several different lines of argument, presumably trying either to “Deutschpañole” (personal coinage) her into submission or simply run the clock until nine o’clock. All the while I sat back and enjoyed a moment of genuine cultural conflict: In post-war Germany, conversation with members of society that are not your friends, family, or buddies is meant to be formal, efficient, and most of all without conflict. Effectively, no always means no and there are absolutely no exceptions so why are you even asking didn’t you read the social contract. It probably goes without saying that’s not the case in Spain. It also goes without saying that conversation for which we endured so much scrutiny yielded no happy hour prices. But that didn’t stop my friend asking about them one last time when the waitress brought us the bill.
I have come to a breakthrough in my dealing with this subject though. I’ve learned to accept cliches. We can laugh at cliches. What I reject, are stereotypes, because it is stereotypes that narrow one’s perception while venerate discrimination. People don’t laugh about stereotypes, because when people share stereotypes, they are diminishing you by effectively establishing that you don’t fit into their world view. It’s all about attitude and delivery, which is coincidentally the motto of this Washington establishment, Pizza with Attitude.
As an American in 2011, the European cliche is that:
- I drive everywhere because we are dependent on gasoline
- I eat McDonalds on a regular basis because of my poor conception of diet and my beloved corrupt food industry
- I drink beerwater because it’s American
- I can’t speak any foreign languages because I am in favor of keeping any further immigrants out of a country built on the indiscriminate sharing of upward mobility, and,
- I LOVE capitalism
In my case, only one of these is true (hint: I love my bike, salads, micro brews, the German language, Mexican workers, and Adam Smith).