I thought I was a minimalist, totally opposed to the gluttony of empty consumerism. I’d strut through America’s cavalcade of commercial excess, my nose held high above the stench of my fellow K-Mart shoppers, disdainful of their impulse buys and their conspicuous Biebermania. Was I the one buying Pumpkin Spice Tylenol and Calvin Klein Cheerios? Was I loading up on 4-D smart TVs and jet ski hot tubs like the rest of the cud chewers? No. I was a celibate shopper, untainted by manufactured desire. I was in a state of Buddhist transcendence, impervious to Hollywood trailers or viral marketing for instant pudding. I lived with blissful nothingness.
That’s what I thought. But like the tubby folks who stick close to their much-fatter friends, I was only Siddhartha by contrast. When I mingled with my spendthrift contemporaries, their houses stuffed with stand-alone freezers and crates of Shasta, my meager belongings seemed like a hobo’s bindle. I felt the smuggest of satisfaction with the idea of owning so little, holding onto that teenage dream of beatnik rootlessness, with only the clothes on my back and the rolling papers in my pocket to carry me through life. I was a bohemian paragon of purchase-less virtue.
Americans have embraced the downsizing daydream of late, fantasizing about tiny houses with no room for Twister or air hockey. The minimalist life just looks so deliciously tidy, as if one were living in the model home rather than the Lego-strewn pig stye of domestic reality. I’d like to think this trend indicates a massive rejection of modern affluenza, but I fear the sad truth is that Americans have found themselves trapped in their tan McMansions, deeply in debt for the double-wide fridges and all the scuba gear, and are looking to institute self-repossession for fear of the traditional variety. Naturally, this sort of anxiety can only be nullified with a trip to Costco.
But I was different. I snidely dismissed the Pop Tarts and Pokemon of the marketplace as being beneath my sterling standards. I couldn’t afford Cartier watches, Louis Vuitton thongs, or Gucci toothpicks, and held contempt for those who could. Jaws was never my scene and I don’t like Star Wars. This left me, I supposed, relatively immune from the pressures of consumer conformity. Those products were just shiny objects to amuse drooling yahoos.
And so, when the time came for my wife and I to sell our worldly possessions and move to Germany, I was gung-ho to take one more giant leap away from American materialism. I happily parted with the sofa, the car, the microwave, and all the other symbols of our capitalist oppression, and headed to the land of utilitarian simplicity. It was the Big Gulp of downsizings, a cleanse purer than Gwyneth Paltrow herself. We would start fresh in the Land of Practicalities.
The reason that Germans do not acquire possessions on the scale that Americans do is simple. Germany has no available real estate. Unlike Americans, with their six-car garages on eight rolling acres, Germans, by and large, live in dense cities, stacked neatly together in two-room apartments, with commercial-jet bathrooms and dollhouse kitchens. It’s a cramped and cozy country, where the one who dies with the fewest toys wins. The most sought-after feature of a German apartment is a balcony, which is invariably used to store mops and kiddie strollers because closets were never invented here. Germans own, on average, about fifteen household items, and all of them had to fit on a passenger train at some point. I’ve yet to meet anyone here who owns their own ping pong table.
European living conditions are what inspire the engineers at IKEA. All those dressers and shelves sized to cram into 15-centimeter gaps between the sink and the doorframe were designed with space-deprived Euros in mind. Hidden compartments contain small receptacles, which feature collapsible chambers full of zippered pockets for housing one’s storage bags. Germans like my wife develop Tetris-level efficiency when it comes to cohesive cramming and stacking. There is no greater joy to a German than when it all fits perfectly into one, miniature, IKEA, under-sink cabinet.
All of this may sound like heaven to the American downsizers longing for retro-camper living with negligible carbon footprints. And I’ll admit it seems terribly enlightened to a suburban-sprawl Ami like myself, who swoons dreamily over the idea of solitary confinement. The hitch in this minimalist giddyup is revealed when the American goes shopping.
For when there is no space for stuff, the marketplace responds with less stuff. There’s not much to buy in Germany, and what’s available is invariably miniaturized. German refrigerators are usually the hotel-and/or-dormitory variety, necessitating the packaging of food items in Chicklet-sized portions. Home equipment like stovetops and vacuum cleaners look like Lil’ Tykes toys. A German lawn mower is the cutest and the saddest thing you’ve ever seen. The stores themselves are cramped versions of their American cousins, and even the trucks used to deliver good to market are squat and adorable.
And this is where the jonesing begins. The aisles are not lined with potential gluttony to the degree the American expects. Options are limited when it comes to varieties of floor mats, dish detergent, shredded wheat, chain saws, TV channels, shower heads, or kitty litter. You won’t find forty-seven Oreo flavors to choose from. Further, there is no spray cheese, no Little Debbie snack cakes, no Cheetos, no Spaghetti-O’s. Good luck finding Colgate, Taster’s Choice, Maybelline, Marlboro Lights, Kleenex, Pepto Bismol, Old Spice, or the Walmart you’d expect to carry all those brands. Only a select number of mostly-unfamiliar products are available in any given shop. An anxiety begins to build, the shakes of an expat retail junkie, who cries out, “Where? Where is all my beautiful, American CRAP?”
Because the satisfaction in abstinence is knowing that you could but you won’t. And now you can’t. The stuff you choose to deny yourself now just isn’t there. And where’s the smug sanctity in minimalism if everyone is lacking to the same degree? How do I know I’m better than everyone else unless their homes are full of triple-recliner sofas with cupholders and mine isn’t? There’s no superiority in simply not being a hoarder when there’s nothing to hoard.
In truth, our American-style choice to reject consumerism is (spoiler warning) just another form of consumerism. After all, we have to buy the Marie Kondo book to learn how to get rid of all our books. What we suffer from, ultimately, is not a problem of buying, but the conditioning of our desire. We don’t really want to accept a life where we only get what we need; we want to have the option of buying all those X-Boxes and bling-bling tire rims so we can feel saintly when we don’t. And sadly, I’ve brought this expectation to be surrounded by tantalizing garbage with me to the Land of Naught.
This will take some adjustment, to be sure. And while I’m definitely in favor of a lifestyle of less mercantile hoopla and more practicality, if someone told me where in Germany to find the pumpkin spice Tylenol, I would very happily not buy it.