On the surface, Germany does not feel so very different from the States.
Like any first-world country, its residents don't ponder whether the electricity will stay on or if the shower water will be hot. The trains run on time, if not quite like the razor-precise clock we were promised.
The familiarity is further heightened by the steady hand of English, reaching out to reassure us in moments of alarmed uncertainty. (My panic, I should note abashedly, has so far been limited to not being able to order the pastry I desire. Life here is not difficult.)
Almost any clerk will automatically switch over to English upon request ("Sprechen Sie Englisch bitte?" fumbles off my tongue a dozen times daily) and some even sense it before the phrase hits the air.
Much of the noticeable difference is slight. The beer is still bubbly, golden, frothy — but it's better. The flavor is richer, deeper, simply delicious. The grocery is still stocked and bustling — but the cilantro is missing, the labels are only half decipherable, the bags cost 10 cents apiece. (You learn quickly to bring your own.) The trash cans are still behind the apartment — but the bottles go back to the supermarket, or to a city receptacle on a random block, and all the plastic packaging goes into translucent yellow bags (where does one get those yellow bags??) every few weeks.
Just yesterday, I passed row upon row of those yellow bags learning up against buildings, bulging with milk cartons, clear trays that once held vegetables, crumbled sippy drinks. They looked like a haphazard row of fat bowling pins, about to teeter over. And I thought to myself, slightly helplessly: How does this odd system work? What exactly can go in those bags? Where do you get them? How do you know when to put them out?
I was confessing my periodic bewilderment to a new acquaintance recently, and commenting that in a dream world I would write all of these confoundments up in essays.
"Why a dream world?" she asked. "Why not now? Nothing ever will be as strange as it is now."
And so it's true. And here I go.