Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Thoughts Before A Journey

I suspect the next 24 hours are going to be insane, as I pack for my trip to Texas, check to see what bills I can pay before I leave, and do the last-minute stuff that's an inevitable part of travelling. With snow pounding down in thick, wet flakes outside, which started while I was at the ARD studios recording my next batch of Fresh Air pieces, I simply cannot wait to be in Austin, where Saturday's high is predicted to be 77 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 25 Celsius, just to make my European readers feel terrible).

But there's always a sense of apprehension, and these days it's more than my admittedly irrational fear of flying. The country I return to on these brief visits is not the country I left. Well, fair enough, you say, after eleven years it hardly could be. But it's changed in ways I have trouble understanding, ways which scare me and the rest of the world. Once I'm in Austin, I see very few signs of this change, although there are just enough to remind me they're there. But the soldiers everywhere, the tension in the airport (I almost had security called on me last year when I asked if I could change my return ticket: I wasn't aware that I couldn't, and all it took was my protesting mildly for the woman to panic), and the pall of fear that you can feel, if not see, all make me realize that it's not a place I want to spend a lot of time.

My reaction isn't like some people over here. I had dinner the other night with a couple I know. He's German, she's American, and neither of them is doing all that well. With a young child now to support, they're naturally thinking how they could make things better for themselves and their kid, and at one point in the conversation, the German guy said "It's very difficult. You know the unemployment here is over 20% and it's more than that here in Berlin. The figures are the closest we've ever come since the days of the rise of fascism." He paused. "So for a German with ties to America, the question becomes, do we deal with the place where the conditions are exactly as they were when fascism arose, or do we move to the place which is already fascist?"

Now, I wouldn't call this guy's politics mainstream, but he's just voicing what a lot of Germans feel at least as a possibility. After all, they're not seeing the movie from inside, and they're just as subject to media manipulation as anyone, and a lot of what they see looks eerily familiar. I still believe that America will recover from the crew of radicals who are running it at the moment, and that perhaps the experience will teach some people some lessons and help them cherish their freedoms a little more. But Germans see a crazed leader, intent on invading other countries, supported by a cadre of true believers, and they get a real bad sense of deja vu. That's no more the case than the American vision of a Germany overrun with neo-nazi skinheads is, but I think a lot of people here are a bit unsettled by the possibility that there might be more than a grain of truth there. And there's another problem: the Germans have always felt an affinity for the Americans, who treated them humanely and helped them build back their economy after defeating them in World War II. If this could happen to our friends, some of these people must be thinking, can it happen to us?

And thus the nervous feeling: in a generation, Germany has gone from pretty much full employment, from a situation where there were so many jobs that they welcomed Italians and Turks into the country to do the jobs they couldn't get Germans to do, to a situation where one in five people is out of work. I'd say that simply because so many people are aware of the story as it happened last time that the rise of fascism in Germany is one of the least likely scenarios here. The far right party that's been making the news of late, the NDP, is a tiny minority which only does well in the regions worst-hit by the economic blight, and even then, the voters tend to turn on them when they see that all they've managed to do is to turn their state legislature into a pack of pariahs. When I first moved here, everyone was scared of the Republikaner, the (pardon) Republican Party, which was headed by an old guy who was widely rumored to be a maybe-not-so-ex-nazi, and whose election posters were as scurrilous and vile as I've ever seen: Germany for the Germans! But you never hear about them these days.

So I'll strike a deal with you Germans: I won't be scared of your country if you don't be scared of mine. You know good and well that a few guys with no hair and back-country accents can't make a popular revolution in this country, not as media-saturated as it's gotten. And I know that in America, the lessons of the last election -- which was only a couple of months ago, don't forget -- are being analyzed and re-thought, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some fairly interesting things happen around next year's elections. And no, I don't think we'll be invading Iran in June. What y'all should consider is taking an American vacation, because I don't think the dollar's going to recover any time soon, and boy, is it cheap over there right now. You don't have to fear the natives because you're Germans, and Germans are fearless travellers. They must be: there's a travel agency right around the corner here offering €749 packages to Kabul, for heaven's sake. If you can hack that, you can hack America.

Anyway, I know that 80% of you just fly to Orlando and lie on the beach.


More cross-cultural studies are provided in this astonishing article about an ex-Austinite revisiting the old stomping grounds. He's the mirror image of me: he likes Germany, for one thing, but, as someone commented, that's probably because he lives in Freiburg. All you need to know about Freiburg is that it's the place where I was talking to a guy who lived in a large apartment with a bunch of other people and he told me that on weekends, they drew lots to see who'd go shopping in Switzerland, who'd go to France, and who'd go to Italy, all of which are just a short drive away. Not Berlin, in other words. But this guy is part of the huge Berlin-Austin axis, which is something I have yet to figure out.

Anyway, enjoy. I'm off Friday for South By Southwest, and I don't know if I'll have the time or inclination to write much here, although if my proposed trip over into Cajun country happens, there'll probably be photographs. What's left of my jet-lagged self will be back on Mar. 30, at which point I think it's pretty inevitable that I'll start complaining about Berlin again.



Ed, as an American living and working in Europe there are a lot of thoughts and anxieties I share with you each time I'm in the US. Granted, I don't consider myself an expat - after all, I basically grew up in Europe - but I still get the feeling of being an alien when I do revisit the States, after having lived there for a few years in the Nineties. I, too, share the airport anxieties. Sure, airports are never the mellow places I'd like them to be, especially after a bout of turbulence, but the uptightness you encounter everywhere makes me squirm.

I distinctly remember visiting San Francisco with my wife while we were on honeymoon there in early 2003. A police car was parked by the side of the road, and we were about to walk by it, when the cop jumps out of the car and, without mincing his words, yells at us to cross the road. NOW!!! God knows what he was doing, and maybe his tone was justified, but it did lead me to observe people closely from then on.

Americans need their 'personal space' a lot more than Europeans as well, it seems. Don't get too close, give them breathing room. Otherwise people get antsy, suspicious. I wonder how they manage in Manhattan.

Also, by watching the commercials, the hygiene issue has turned into a big scare as well. Protect your kids from bacteria, etc. (OK, I'm launching into rambling and some random snippets of thought here, but they all lead into that one big complex: fear.)

So, when I land in the US, automatically I realize that I have to be on my toes as to what I say to people and how I approach them. Much like your experience with trying to exchange a plane ticket, I've also found that people are extremely jumpy. As you once said: Don't harsh my mellow, man! And I wasn't even around when the phrase was coined...

I could point out many other things I experience there - why older people from minorities do the menial labor jobs that teenagers with temp jobs do here - but that for another time.

My wife and I - she's Dutch, I'm American - often find ourselves in a similar situation, wondering if we should spend some time living in the US. At the moment, this whole fear complex is what is keeping us from doing this. I just can't identify with this at all, and hell - I was in the US Army for five years without feeling this, from 1993 to 1998, and I worked for a US senator in the heart of DC! I must've changed as well...

I'll be curious, once you get back, to hear your thoughts on stuff like this, the stuff you can't grasp at first sight, but which lies bubbling under the surface. You're going to Austin, which is a pretty laid-back place (especially for Texas), and I'd love to hear what you have to observe.

In the meantime, enjoy, ride that turbulence like a pro, and don't have them call security on ya...

Nancy White said...

Ed, getting to meet you F2F in Austin was a highlight! WOO HOO!