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Our fridges, ourselves

Moving in with an expat taught me that what we prefer in our homes is culture, not nature

The first time I saw a tumble dryer was on an episode of Baywatch, when the clothes of a would-be drowning victim were put through the wash. To a European kid, this thoroughly unremarkable scene was unthinkable—the clothes came out dry! My family had all the standard home appliances, but dryers aren’t very common in Europe. The idea that you could wash an outfit and wear it again the very same day seemed impossible.

Having lived my whole life in Europe, I’ve never considered air-drying my laundry to be a problem, or even much of an inconvenience. But this winter, my life went through a home-technology revolution: I now live with a tumble dryer. The appliance came with an American called Luke Abrams, who first moved to London four years ago. He went through a rite of passage that every U.S. expat must endure: an encounter with the typical British combo washer-dryer—a two-in-one appliance. It appears to be a stroke of genius until you realize that the dryer part doesn’t really work—and everyone who lives here knows this. I point this out to Luke as he describes his initial frustrations with this particular European quirk. His eyes widen: “No shit it doesn’t work! But when you come from the land of functional appliances, you don't expect that!” Luke’s exasperated, and I can’t help but laugh—it’s a national conspiracy, but not an intentional one.

Americans and Europeans have a lot in common, but there are still a million little things that rattle expats and travelers. So what do you do when you move across the Atlantic—do you take your home comforts with you, or do you go native? And why do we like living the way we do, anyway? Having spent the winter setting up house with an American in London, I’ve found many of my own ingrained beliefs thrown into question. There are a lot of decisions to be made when you move in with someone, but this time there’s an added cultural divide—American top sheet or European duvet cover? Preferences are often just habits.

“When you move to a new country, you can either 'assimilate' or you can choose to bring the good things from your homeland with you,” says Luke. “Take the good things with you!” Luke eventually convinced his landlord to let him install the full American laundry experience in his first London flat. This means the washer is bigger: “A British washer is like an Easy-Bake Oven: You can't do anything real with it. It’s appliance theatre,” says Luke, who’s an electrical engineer. He’s impressed with the European condenser dryer, though: It doesn’t need any holes drilled for draining or venting, so you can put it anywhere that has a power outlet—you just empty the water out of a drawer after each use. “It's a modern engineering miracle… This is mind-blowing as an American. Brits aren't particularly innovative, but this is damn clever,” he says.

I can certainly see the appeal of a tumble dryer: Britain is a very damp Island, and air-drying laundry in winter can take days. But as a dyed-in-the-wool European, I have to admit I struggle to see why it’s such a big deal to Luke.

The differences in European and American home technology become less arbitrary when you consider that the average room size in the U.S. is more than double that of Britain. Since American homes are often larger, appliances can be, too. “Looking at the engineering of [American] appliances, sometimes they seem less efficient—simply because they didn't need to be,” says Naomi Climer, a fellow and former president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. “[Less] thought has been put into space-saving and efficiency.” So it’s not just the refrigerators themselves that are bigger, Climer points out, but also the behind-the-scenes machinery in the appliances; in Europe, engineers would have made more of an effort to compress everything into a smaller space.

This isn’t just a personal struggle: retailers have faced it, too. When Ikea first launched in the U.S. in 1985, its Swedish sofas were deemed too shallow, kitchen cabinets were too small to fit the local appliances, and people bought the flower vases as drinking tumblers, dismissing the European glasses as something akin to dollhouse furniture.

Culture is usually the driver for engineering, not the other way around, says Climer, a Brit who’s also worked in America. Environmental regulation is the other key restriction for European engineers, who’re constantly working to make appliances greener: “If you're willing to do a longer wash, you can do it at a lower temperature, which is much more energy-efficient.” This explains why European washing machines take two hours to do a standard cycle, whereas American equivalents do the job in a quarter of the time. It also hints at why the average American household uses about two to three times more electricity than a typical European home, although smaller and greener home appliances are starting to make inroads with environmentally minded consumers in the United States.

As usual, the U.S. is ahead of Europe in adapting the latest tech trend: the connected home. But because everything moves faster now and there’s more competition, the differences between the American and European home tech are likely to be minimal—there will be a shared standard. This kind of international coordination is relatively recent, says Climer, who remembers when professional film cameras would all take different tapes depending on the manufacturer. This sort of thing is unthinkable now. “Smart-home manufacturers [realize] that if they don't play with open standards, they won't get a market,” she says. “I think the days of proprietary products are [ending], and people are going to build things that are connected.”

For an American, coming to Europe is usually an exercise in making do with less. But over in the land of abundant home appliances—pressure cookers, robot vacuums, coffee makers, fat-reducing grills—there’s one glaring omission guaranteed to knock Brits (and Australians) off their equilibrium: Americans don’t use electric kettles. “It’s a madness,” says Stuart Granger, an Englishman who’s lived in Washington, D.C., for almost four years. “In the U.K. you can't find a house without a kettle. It’s literally the first thing on anybody’s shopping list when they [set up] their house,” says Stuart, who lives with his American girlfriend. “So over here, how do you boil water? What do you mean, you put a saucepan on the hob? It’s archaic!” Stuart laughs at the absurdity, but actually, he lives a kettle-free life now: “Yes, I’m at peace with it.”

Unlike many of the cultural differences in home tech, the electric-kettle divide exists for a reason: power output. The U.S. uses 120V as standard while Europe runs on 230V, meaning a kettle boils significantly faster in the land of endless cuppas. “I love the electric kettle,” says Jesse Spielman, an American who’s lived in London for three years. “Now that I drink my own weight in tea every day, I can't imagine living differently.” Jesse has also learned there are other uses for the kettle: “If I were making pasta, I'd boil the water in the pot, but my [British] ex turned me onto boiling water in the kettle and then pouring it in. It saves a ton of time.”

Stuart’s favorite thing about moving to America has been living with air conditioning: “I can’t imagine life without A/C anymore, especially over here when it gets really hot. It's just fantastic that you're always comfortable.” Garbage disposals in the sink are pretty neat too, says Stuart, if a little counterintuitive: “It's such a convoluted way of not picking up the peelings and putting them in the bin.” Stuart pauses for a moment. “This is weird. I'm singing the praises of America, whereas when I moved here it was the opposite—everything was just odd.” Stuart eventually realized he had to stop comparing, as it started to sound a lot like complaining: “Pointing out differences is fine at first, but after a while you have to shut up. Get over the kettle, and stick a pot of water on.”

Jesse has also adapted to life in Britain, but while he’s polite about it, it’s clear that British home tech really isn’t the main draw. His observations are certainly less enthusiastic: the half-height refrigerators with a single ice shelf, for one, and the separate taps for hot and cold water that means you’re either burning or freezing (in fairness, the locals dislike those too). “And I don't understand why so many British bathroom light switches are on pull cords. You always have to pull them harder than you think.” This stops me in my tracks—this is odd, and yet I’ve never once thought about it.

Most sci-fi shows have a parallel universe episode where crucial details have been changed—everything you know has been replaced with a different version of itself, triggering a feeling of alienation. In psychology, the “Uncanny Valley” refers to the revulsion triggered by things that look almost human, like overly realistic robots or computer animations. The differences between America and Europe—Hershey’s, not Cadbury; Fahrenheit, not Celsius; Tylenol, not Paracetamol; money in quarters rather than fifths—can be similarly jarring. None of this is a big deal on its own, but when he or she is overwhelmed with a constant barrage of tiny differences all day every day, the expat may be excused for feeling a need to assert that things are different at home. “We call them crisps, not chips!” you may exclaim, but what you’re really saying is, “Life used to make a lot more sense.”

Moving to a different country is one of the quickest ways to learn that so much of what we do, think, and prefer is culture, not nature. Even if you stay put yourself, living with an expat can be a shortcut to the same realization. Often, unusual choices about home tech become possible. This is what happened to Chris Gurney, a Brit who lives in London with his American partner, when they had a discussion about which appliances to prioritize in their small kitchen—they ended up preferring a wine fridge to a dishwasher.

Gadgets that initially seemed redundant or even strange can end up hooking you: Luke likes to remind me of how I was initially against his idea of putting a drinks fridge in our bedroom. “How awesome is it?” he says. “You thought I was crazy, but you have cold beverages all the time now!” I nod—it’s pretty great. I didn’t understand the American obsession with ice and refrigeration at first, but living with Luke has showed me there’s a lot to be said for putting a few simple things in place to make your life more comfortable.

For Luke, the bedroom fridge and tumble dryer are actually outliers—he got rid of most of his possessions when he left America. “It's so much better to have less stuff,” he says. “[In the U.S.] the houses are bigger, so people buy more things; you have walk-in closets so you buy more shirts and shoes, the fridges are bigger so you fill them up with more food.” Luke says he lives just as well now as he did before, but it’s taken him years to feel like this. And yes, says Luke, he realizes he would never have reached this conclusion had he not moved to a different country, where his American habits could be challenged by a different way of life. Now, life’s literally the best of both worlds: “I'm comfortable. I have everything I need, and I got rid of everything else. The stuff I have are all things I need, and that I like.”


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