I spent Thanksgiving weekend in the United States.
Well, to be more specific, I spent the weekend in a strange, faux-United States in the rural district of Kaiserslautern, Germany. If you ever find yourself in the area, and know a member of the American Air Force serving in the region who’s willing to sign you in, I recommend a trip to the Ramstein Air Base. It’s a slice of Americana smack dab in the breadbasket of Deutschland.
My girlfriend “M” is old college pals with the wife of a US serviceman. The couple and their children moved over from the states in 2010 after he was deployed to Germany. They’ve made the most of their new digs. Instead of living on base, they opted to purchase a house in the nearby town of Miesau. Their kids are enrolled in the local school system and they routinely practice German with them.
However, based on their anecdotes, for the thousands of Americans stationed at Ramstein, this is all fairly unusual. “Seeing the world” is one of the stereotypical benefits of joining the armed services but many of their colleagues opt to avoid contact with the world outside of the base’s perimeter. While I myself consider this sort of behavior to be beyond bizarre (c’mon, people! Strudel! German lager! Majestic scenery!), I can understand the xenophobia. Most of the American personnel stuck at Ramstein don’t want to be there. If they had a choice, they’d fulfill the obligations of their service contract at bases scattered around the US. Many are either on their way to or returning from tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. PTSD is not the sort of thing that puts a soldier in the mood for spatzel and sightseeing.
Plus, the US Military has made it easy to stick close to base. Nearly every aspect of life at Ramstein looks like it was taken from a “How to Keep Irritable Americans with Machine Guns Sane in Foreign Locales” guide book. Once you pass through a security checkpoint, it’s not hard to imagine yourself in a small, albeit heavily-armed, city in the states.
Underneath Germany’s gray skies, Ramstein’s military staff, local + US employees and their families live, work and play. While the commissary is housed in a dull, concrete building that’s a far cry from the average Walmart, a nearby shopping complex looks like a stateside mall in Anytown, America. Standing in the parking lot, looking off towards a Burger King a dozen yards away, I felt like I was in a Portland suburb back in Oregon.
The cognitive dissonance bouncing around my skull only got worse as we headed into the food court. They had a Subway, a Cinnabon and plenty of other American fast food franchises. I can personally vouch for the Grilled Stuft Burritos at the Taco Bell. They taste just like the ones at any location in the US. Around the corner was a Target-esque super store filled with everything from Playstation 3s to Nikes.
The base also has a large gym with swimming pools, a full-scale bowling alley and a collection of satellite universities. A few days later, we found ourselves in a Chili’s restaurant with tape-delayed NFL games playing on flat screen TVs littered around the dining area. Next to the entrance there was a stand that sold Starbucks coffee. Simply put, many corners of Ramstein look and feel just like America. Several of the stores on base had even planned Black Friday sales, if you can believe it.
While our hosts’ are committed to adhering to many local customs and are enjoying as much European culture as possible, after a traditional Thanksgiving dinner we all rolled ourselves into their living room to watch the Green Bay Packers tear through the Detroit Lions’ defensive line. They had synched a Slingbox under the TV to a Comcast DVR at a colleague’s house back in the states, thus enabling us to watch the game in real time.
As their kids decorated a fake Christmas tree with Dora the Explorer ornaments, we drank egg nog imported from the UK and ate pumpkin pie. It was only when I took a walk later on that I remembered I was in a place very far away from home.