Members of the European culture usually have a settled way of life. In their eyes, Americans are admirable models of mobility. If in Germany, where I come from, a person becomes unemployed, he will look for a new job in his ancestral city first. Only when that is unsuccessful will reach out to other parts of Germany to look for a new career. Or not, it depends on lots of circumstances. People are ingrained in their communities. Visiting is easier than moving and nobody has to take an airplane to visit friends and family. To cross Germany by car even at its widest point will take you nine hours.
Excited German TV viewers sometimes watch Americans packing up their house on a huge truck to move. “Uhm, that’s weird”, they might comment, shaking their heads in disbelief and changing the channel Since my arrival in Chattanooga TN, I have found that Americans actually strike camp and pitch their tent someplace else faster and more easily than any European culture. I have met many people who are not originally from here. According to the song by R.E.M. “Everybody here comes from somewhere”, the population appears to mix more often. I have made friends who are from England, Japan, or at least from Michigan. Because of these friends I feel at home when I’m window-shopping in Frazier Avenue or going out for lunch downtown.
Chattanooga appears to me a bit like the city where I lived in Germany for the last 20 years. I came as a stranger to Helmstedt, too. Because of my job I came to know all kinds of people and learned to love the city. The fate of the city and of the people who live there are still in my heart. But most of my best friends were not originated in that town. Like me, they came in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the small city which is situated a few meters west of the Iron Curtain.
But one thing is special about Chattanooga. Nobody back in Helmstedt has ever responded to my accent, even though everybody can hear I’m not originally from Northern Germany. In Chattanooga, I just might say “Hey” and I will probably hear anybody saying “I like your accent” or something similar. I’m sure this is meant nice, but to my ears it meanwhile sounds like “Gotcha, stranger!”
Sometimes I really feel misunderstood. I still struggle with the pronunciation of some words and to my fellow human beings it doesn’t reveal what I’m talking about. At Rembrandt’s Café, I repeated about ten times that I would like to have the veggie sandwich. In the eyes of the girl at the counter I saw big question marks. Frustrated, I finally asked my daughter to order the sandwich for me.
However, I have learned something new now: Things like that are also experienced by people from other parts of the country. Especially folks from North, the West, North-West or even from the South-West have trouble communicating in my new Southern hometown. But more than that! The mother of my English teacher, who has spent her entire life in California, was also approached on her accent in Chattanooga. Lightly upset, she replied: I’ve no accent. You’re the one with an accent! ”
In a country where everyone comes from somewhere else, where people move from Seattle to Miami and from Boston to San Diego because of a better job, I had not expected these difficulties. In my various travels around the country I nowhere had to struggle with communication. What could be the reason? Maybe I never tried to order a veggie sandwich. Maybe I didn’t even greet the people in other places. Or I was only around my peers, namely foreigners. You never know.