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Having also spent a year Germany as a DAAD scholar, Russell Arben Fox’s reflections on his experience over at Front Porch Republic really resonate with me:

Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I got married, we had a lot of inchoate ideas and aspirations, many of which were relatively humble, generally egalitarian, and broadly communitarian. Looking back on them now, I suppose it isn’t hard to imagine how we ended up where we are today–riding our bikes, recycling our waste, planting our garden, shopping at farmer’s markets, and generally trying to live low-key, localist lives. But the truth is, it wasn’t long talks and trips to buy eggs from a local farmer and book groups and graduate study that got us to start turning all those beliefs into practice: it was Germany. More than any other single event in our married lives, I’d say it was the three months we spent in a cramped, wonderful, upstairs apartment in a small neighborhood just outside of Kronberg–itself a city of about 20,000 people in the Taunus mountains, not far from Frankfurt–that set us on course to being the sort of weirdos who walk to church on Sunday, dragging a little wagon with all our stuff in it (hey: the kids are still young, and church meetings can run long, sometimes) behind us.

We went to Germany because of my dissertation research, and because we’d managed to get some support from the DAAD–the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, or German Academic Exchange Service–to help us pay for it. We stayed in Kronberg because it was an easy train ride away from the university libraries where I’d be doing my translating and writing, and because it was there we found a generous older couple, Horst and Ingrid Heydtmann, who rented us their upstairs room, though we had a noisy three-year-old daughter and had to be instructed several times before we finally grasped all the intricacies of the local garbage collection service.

Fox follows his initial impressions with an extended quote from Patrick Deneen —a quote that also echos much of my own experience:
[In Europe,] I have been mightily impressed . . . by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence . . . . [For example, in Swabia] outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a “pfand” (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.

Towns are towns: houses are generally not permitted outside the town limits due to strict zoning laws that have kept American-style suburbanization at bay. This makes for greater population density–even in the smallest towns–and hence also makes feasible vibrant regional and national public transportation systems. One enters a town defined by visible town limits, and nearly every town has at least a local baker and a local Metzger (butcher), some with even more shops, though nearly always family owned. The houses are close together, with small yards and usually close to the street. For the most part, families live above the businesses they run. Gender roles are generally traditional: husbands produce (bakers bake, butchers butcher, etc.), wives work as cashiers or farm wives, and in the off hours cook and clean. One of the ways that family businesses have been protected from the large chains is strict zoning laws that limit the building of “big box” stores outside town and city limits (yes, it’s there, but far less than in America). Another strategy has been the store closing times—a subject of fierce debate for several years. Store closing hours have traditionally favored small business owners who hire few or no employees, and who thus must be home to care for schoolchildren during the afternoons and in the early evening. Most businesses still close for several hours at lunch and at 6:30 in the evening. This allows family businesses to compete with the chains, a fact that is everywhere in evidence, and in contrast to the U.S . . . .

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