Sometimes, the grass simply is greener

This. I want this.

It's a stereotype of sorts. A person spends some amount of time in Europe -- a week, a month, a year -- and upon retunring home, this person simply will not shut up about how superior everything is in Europe. The food is better, the beer is better. The people are happier. The air is cleaner. Did you know that 4 weeks of vacation is standard in most of Europe?? For wide-eyed, first-time visitors to Europe, it can be tempting to view the European content as some sort of pinnacle of human achievement -- much to the annoyance of the Americans that have to listen to someone prattle on and on about everything America is doing wrong.

As some one who has spent a decent amount of time living abroad, I try to remain conscious of this trap and avoid coming off as an over-traveled and over-cultured snob. Before I begin a sentence with, "Well, in Germany they..." I try to make sure whatever I'm about to say actually enriches the conversation instead of just serving as a ploy for me to pat myself on the back for being so damned worldly.

All that said, sometimes you do simply have to admit that parts of living in Europe are genuinely better than America. Sure, there are plenty of aspects of life in Germany that I find strange, annoying and sometimes even troubling. But in my opinion, there are a few key areas where Germany clearly outdoes America.

Not everyone will agree, so my intent is not to present these aspects as being objectively true. All I want to highlight is that it's ok to admit that sometimes, yes, the grass really is greener on the other side.

1) Public transportation

For anyone that has ever been to Europe or another part of the world well-connected by trains, this first point is a no-brainer. Whether it be buses, street cars, regional rail or long-distance trains, Germany in particular has a vast, thoroughly efficient network of public transportation. It's not at all uncommon for people in their 20s, particularly those living in urban areas, to still not have a drivers license, simply because the need never arose.

In a city like Berlin, buses, Straßenbahn and U-bahn connect the inner city, while the S-Bahn and regional trains make sure those living in the outer edges of Berlin can still reach the rest of the city easily. In smaller towns, there is usually only a bus service, but even that is normally sufficient for accessing all major parts of a town, and the service is more often than not punctual (sure, everyone has had their bad experiences, but in a comparison to the U.S., it's no question that German buses run on time more often).

Just as significant as the prevalence of public transportation is the fact that its use is so widely accepted. Generally speaking, there are no stereotypes that you only ride the bus if you're poor, or that the Straßenbahn are dirty, or that it's unsafe to be on a subway after 11 p.m. (some might argue that the latter is sometimes true in big cities like Berlin, but at least in my experience with public transportation in cities like Chicago or New York City, I find German public transportation extremely safe). It's simply how you get around, period.

The Frankfurt main station: from here you can go just about anywhere in Europe. 

Beyond intra city transportation, it is generally also very easy to get between major cities in Germany, and from each of these major cities to get to other places in the near vicinity. In Fulda, a town of 60,000 near central Germany, I can take a high speed train from there directly to Berlin, Hamburg or Munich. One 3 - 4 hour journey can get me to three of Germany's largest cities. Additionally, there is a regional train to Frankfurt that runs once each hour from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.

You get the point. The U.S. has so, so far to go in realizing a vision of efficient, effective public transportation, and it is incredibly frustrating to see such initiatives pushed to the back burner time and time again (don't get me started on the abandoned plans for high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison).

2) Funding for universities

This is a topic I've become much more passionate about recently. Germany has a very, very different approach to how higher education should be funded and paid for, and I think it provides an excellent foil to what we do in the U.S.

In Germany, all universities are, for the most part, public. There are relatively very few private universities and most are viewed as too expensive and not worth the money. Public universities are heavily subsidized by the government, and very little of the cost is passed onto students. In fact, most German universities don't have tuition.

You read that right. NO TUITION.

Now, it's not entirely free, as most universities require that you pay a Semesterbeitrag, which is basically a semester fee. However, this is usually only about 200 - 300 euros a semester. One fabulous benefit that paying your Semesterbeitrag entitles you to is the Semesterticket, which is a sort of transportation pass that typically allows you to use all regional transportation in your state for free -- that means that you can ride regional trains, buses, U-Bahn, etc. for free in any city or town located in your state. For people who travel regularly for work, school or pleasure, that semester fee can be entirely worth it just for the Semesterticket (and indeed, some Germans enroll in universities solely to take advantage of this perk).

For students that are not able to pay the semester fee themselves or who can't afford to cover their living costs, the state government provides them with BAföG (a word that is an acronym for a classically complicated German word -- Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz). This is money given to students each month to cover their demonstrated financial need. Students are only obligated to pay back half the amount of money that they received (with NO interest), and on a flexible time schedule.

Given these realities, you can only imagine Germans' horror and confusion when they hear stories of American students who struggle to pay back massive student loans that they used to pay for a university education that cost $40,000 a year. It's absolutely insane that so many Americans just seem to accept that a quality university education has to cost that much money. Lest you think that the American education system is simply superior to the German one, you should know that German universities are incredibly respected worldwide, particularly as research institutions. For example, Uni Göttingen, probably little known in the U.S., is associated with no fewer than 46 Nobel laureates. 

One of the biggest reasons why American universities are so expensive and German universities are so cheap is because of all the money the American system spends on administrative costs and on providing students with top-notch amenities. At a German university, you won't find six different dining halls each offering different types of food some of which are open until midnight. You will find one Mensa which offers cheap, hearty food of decent quality, although lacking in variety.

Downside of public unis: Ugly 1960s university buildings, as seen here with Uni Marburg's library.

Downside of public unis: Ugly 1960s university buildings, as seen here with Uni Marburg's library.

You won't find gorgeous , modern libraries equipped with endless computer labs and study spaces, open 24/7 for your convenience. You will find one main library that likely looks pretty dated. There will probably not be enough computers for everyone, and have fun trying to find somewhere to plug your laptop in. Oh, and it's usually always closed on Sundays or has very limited hours.

And, when you need to meet with a school administrator to request a transcript or discuss your progress toward graduation, you'll probably find that they have thoroughly inconvenient office hours, and that sometimes these hours will be changed arbitrarily and without notice.

So undoubtedly, studying at an American university is a much more comfortable and even luxurious experience, at least compared to what you get at a German university. But, I think if you asked the average American college student if they would rather be $50,000 in debt with their typical American university experience or have a negligible amount debt at the expense of these amenities, a good chunk would choose the German style. At the end of the day, what's more integral to going to university -- getting a quality education or knowing you can use the on-campus gym for free 7 days a week?

3) Placing the good of society above individual gain

This one is probably the most controversial area that I think Germany excels in, because its basic premise is not one that all Americans agree with.

In America, we celebrate the individual. We lionize people who have pulled themselves out of the depth of poverty to become successful entrepreneurs. We think that anyone can achieve anything assuming they're willing to put in the necessary amount of work. It's the American Dream.

A common extension of this line of thought, though perhaps not as often spoken aloud, is that many of those who have not been successful have only themselves to blame. We tend to see homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, etc., as character flaws. Moreover, the state is not responsible for making sure that you are taken care of -- YOU are responsible for making sure you're taken care of. And in my opinion, this mindset is a big reason for why we don't have better social welfare systems in the U.S. -- why attempts to increase funding for food stamps or welfare are always so hotly debated; why homelessness is such a massive, unaddressed problem; why we still can't reach a consensus on whether health care is a privilege or a right.

Meanwhile, Germany (and much of the developed world, really) observes these discussions and quietly shakes its head, wondering why Americans are willing to put up with such a system and why we aren't more appalled at the abject poverty some people live in or the hordes of homeless people found in larger cities. Here in Germany, a robust social welfare program (including Hartz IV) tries to ensure that everyone in Germany is at least able to maintain a basic standard of living, such as having a roof over your head and food on your table. An excellent nationalized health care system and a network of public and private health insurances ensure that no German will ever be forced to decide between seeing a doctor and putting food on their table.

One common American response to such assertions is that the taxes are much higher in Germany, so people who earn more money will find themselves being forced to give much more of their income to the government in part to support those who cannot support themselves, moreso than would be the case in the U.S. But, I think if you ask the average German if they would rather pay German taxes and benefit from the German system or move to America, a majority will choose Germany. You should see their reactions when you tell them how people in America might refuse to see a doctor for a potentially dangerous illness because they can't afford to pay for the ER, or how people will go hundreds of thousands -- maybe even millions -- of dollars into debt to pay for life-saving medical care. It just doesn't compute to Germans why we would accept such a system. 

I realize I can't speak for all Germans, and of course there are plenty of people in Germany who complain about high taxes and having to support supposed deadbeats. But at the end of the day, I think most Germans recognize that they get legitimate benefits from their high taxes, and they're willing to pay them. They're willing to recognize that by sacrificing some of their own individual benefit, they are achieving something much greater and that benefits more people. This attitude is downright refreshing compared to the average American approach to taxes and social welfare.

Closing thoughts

My intent with this list is not to paint Germany as a magical wonderland where nothing ever goes wrong and everyone lives in peace and harmony. It's not true. I know this, and Germans will be more than happy to tell you everything they think is wrong with their country (for example, I think Americans are always shocked to realize that Germans don't love Angela Merkel nearly as much as Americans love Angela Merkel). But these are three areas that have really struck me during my time in Germany, and I think it's important to share such observations.

I get the feeling sometimes that many Americans take our approaches to some of these issues for granted -- they accept high tuition rates, because they think that's just what you have to pay to get a good education; they accept an allotment of 10 vacation days a year, because aren't we lucky to have vacation days at all? I think many Americans still don't realize just how exceptional our country is in some ways -- and in this case, being exceptional is not a thing to be proud of, no matter what our politicians try and tell us.