TWO-WEEK GERMANY PROGRAMS 2006
Summer and Fall
RIAS Germany Program – Summer
June 4–18, 2006
Thirteen American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Rostock, Schwerin and also Brussels
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
Traci Caldwell, Associated Press TV, Washington, DC
My experience as a RIAS fellow was truly rewarding, educational and inspirational. I arrived in Germany not quite sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised to find a country that is striving to overcome its past and working diligently to face the obstacles that all industrialized nations are confronting in the 21st century. Germany is facing many of the obstacles that we face in the United States such as economic stability, immigration, and social integration of different cultures. I found that Germany isn’t so different from the United States in that we both have similar issues that we’re working to address.
Coming from a television background, it was especially interesting to me to meet with German journalists and tour German television stations to see how they operate, and how competing stations work together to cover stories. One of the most interesting aspects to me during our various tours of stations and meetings was the lack of competitiveness between stations and journalists to be first or have an “exclusive” interview. German media seemed committed to the basic principles of news coverage of accuracy, fairness and responsibility and to working to provide the best and most complete information to its audience that it possibly could.
My trip to Germany came during the 2006 World Cup and it was interesting to see how the huge influx of people visiting from around the world and the hype of the games were handled by the German media. There are so many different angles to cover with huge sporting events, and despite the relatively small time frame to air stories I thought the newscasts were able to cover all aspects of the games to give viewers a complete view of the actual games, the excitement of spectators , and the impact of hosting such a large event.
The fellowship was also educational because it increased my knowledge of Germany’s social structure, history and the European Union. The program also helped to shape the way that I look at stories and was very balanced in its approach to covering the economic, historical, social, and political landscape of Germany and its role within the European Union.
The warmth and kindness exhibited by our hosts Rainer Hasters, Isabell Hoffman, and Sandra Fettke of the Rias Berlin Commission also made the trip more memorable and I will always cherish and appreciate the opportunity that I had to participate in the program.
Chuck Carney, WTIU-TV, Bloomington, IN
“I’m ready for the Next Trip!”
I know that most people who reflect on their RIAS exchange experience are going to use similar words to the ones that I have already used many times in describing what the whole trip was like. “Incredible,” is just a start, but “life-altering” isn’t too strong a term. In joking with people since I’ve returned, I’ve said I can no longer pretend I’m a foreign correspondent.
In applying for this program, I sought something that I thought would be a challenge. I must say that the preparation for the journey appeared daunting. After getting through the application process, I didn’t know if I would have enough time to be properly prepared to work on stories I planned to pursue during my stay. Unlike most people in the program, I actually went to Germany two weeks before the program started to work on some stories with a local tie. The timing worked out that I was able to catch folks with a local connection in Germany just before our RIAS program was to start. So I felt a little added pressure with a little less time to prepare than others. Additionally, I had never been to Germany before.
So I arrived early, carrying far too much luggage to begin with, but straddled with a video camera bag — the tripod and light kit still to come via Federal Express. I learned an early lesson: remember all of your bags. Because I neglected to pick up a bag on the conveyor in Frankfurt, I had to drive 169 miles back to the airport there to pick it up. I raced down the autobahn in a Ford “KA” — a model of Ford unknown to Americans — topping out at 170 kilometers per hour (nearly 106 MPH), with the extremely compact doors of my car barely clinging to the vehicle from the force of wind coming from those passing me in the left lane.
Over the next several days from my base in Weimar, I drove to the nearby towns of Jena and Erfurt for stories, as well as one round trip to the not-so-nearby Berlin. I had long fantasized about driving on the famed autobahn. Fantasy met reality in head-on fashion, as I logged hundreds of miles, consistently amazed at the pace and skill of German drivers. Additionally, I had navigated the streets of several German cities successfully (mostly), and conducted tons of interviews and shot enormous amounts of video.
Most guides to visiting Germany indicate that the people of the country can be a bit brusque. Although there certainly were examples of this during my trip, in large part, I couldn’t have conducted my work were it not for the unbelievable kindness of individual German people. The most extreme example I can cite is when I became lost trying to find a castle outside Erfurt, and sought directions from a florist downtown. He spoke no English, and I speak no German. But he got in his car, directed me to follow him and led me about ten miles outside of town and pointed me to the right roadway. I found most people to be refreshingly direct in their answers to questions, but most eager to help an American journalist.
I continued lugging my gear throughout the trip, not shooting during the entire RIAS program, but shooting some, primarily looking for angles particularly pertinent to stories I was doing on the German economy and promoting U.S. and European relations. I and one other person in our group brought our own video gear. She and I formed a sort of brotherhood to see each other through, each helping the other when possible.
When I returned home, I filed a couple of lengthy stories from my experience, and went to work on a half-hour special to come from the seven tapes I had shot. I think most television producers and reporters will tell you that this is usually the least enjoyable part of a large project.
But on this large project, I jumped right into viewing my interviews and cover video. I found numerous possible angles. The additional video and interviews shot at various stops along our tour proved invaluable. I was able to refer directly to a more than century-old shipyard that had survived the Nazis, the DDR, and the transition to capitalism. I had a sound bite from a German government official overseeing the former East Germany’s economic transition. So my story involving Indiana researchers examining the future of the German economy was quite easy to tell, with specific examples of what the researchers are focusing upon.
The amazing thing is that now that I’ve returned, the angles keep growing. I just learned of a local program from the Indiana University School of Education that will send local researchers and instructors to Germany to help in the work to reform the country’s education system. I had interviews already addressing that subject, but no local tie to connect our viewers to the story. There’s also a neighbor a couple streets over from my home who has a sort of German garden in his back yard. My visit to one of Indiana’s summer German festivals gave me yet another visual cue, but also made me long to return to Germany again.
As I conclude my work with my Germany project, I have visual evidence of just what an incredible experience this proved to be. I’m working on other projects that have an eye towards former Eastern Bloc states, and I hope to become more involved in other overseas stories and programs. The RIAS program has provided a new perspective and focus for my career, an important thing for me after eighteen years in television. In point of fact, this program made me a foreign correspondent, and probably made certain that I will always keep an eye towards places other than the Hoosier heartland.
Steve Chiotakis, WBHM-FM, Birmingham, AL
When they called my flight number to board, I closed my eyes for a moment and thought of what I had experienced over the weeks before. After living out of a suitcase — bags that started their European trip lost, washing socks and boxers in the bathroom sink (and hanging to dry everywhere to the housekeeper’s dismay and walking what seemed like thirty miles from one venue to the next (note to self: when they say comfortable shoes, they mean comfortable shoes), I couldn’t believe that I would shed a tear for the trip that added 20 years to my life.
But I did. A few tears.
It was the trip of a lifetime. Here’s why:
I’ve been to Europe before. Family’s in Greece; have gone quite often. But this trip to the continent was different. There was purpose there. It’s not that family’s without purpose, but there were people to meet and see and things to experience that I’d never experienced before. Mayors and ministers, directors and board members who would enlighten me to the Germany — the Europe — that is real. Not the Europe I see on Fox News or CNN, but the Europe that, like a watch, has a pretty face — and mechanics that run it beneath.
Berlin’s my favorite if only because it is the city resilient. Over centuries, it’s been the center of debate, power struggles, church fracas, evil schemes, ground zero and, presently, redemption. The juxtapositions are everywhere. Where once there was Allied target, today there is Platz that rivals something in New York or London. Museums stand next to the terribly topographical. The Brandenburg Gate, which stood as reminder of peace and pomp and circumstance by Friedrich Wilhelm II, still stands at the center of governmental and chancellory affairs, yet for years during the Cold War, was a mere reminder of its importance. The wall is everywhere, whether street embedded by brick or standing tall as artistically-colorful example of what you get when people yearn to be free.
U-bahns move, nightclubs groove and the glitter of the city, whether glass carnival tent at Sony Center or the Goldelse overlooking the Zoologischer Garten, Berlin explodes with vibrancy and panache. This is no ordinary eastern-block-turned-western-iconopolis. Berlin has soul.
The people we met there, from alderman to union chief, deputy minister to journalist, all told us the unique position Berlin — and Germany — are in. Immigration, mainly of Muslims, presents an opportunity to enable a new population of Germans to work and live. But getting them acclimated to the society proves hard. There are no easy answers. For Chancellor Angela Merkel, mending fences with the United States (and vice-versa?) makes for some massaging moments. Yet most Germans still oppose the Iraq War and the keeping of “terror suspects” at Guantanamo Bay. The Chancellor has her work cut out for her.
In regional meccas of Rostock and Schwerin, the pace is slower, the atmosphere less urbane and more focused. Keeping population in areas that are no longer vital to East German life and the GDR is a challenge that municipal leaders know all-too-well. No more ejection seat manufacturing on the Baltic coast and industry that suits Moscow alone. These are economies that have to sustain themselves and prove worthy of the globe. Good luck with unemployment so high.
To the people I met and broke bread with, I’m honored to’ve been in your presence. I was nervous about our gathering before boarding the first flight, let alone waltzing through the hotel door. But your individual charm and inclusiveness made the trip so much easier. Irish pubs and public transit, buses with AC and babies with gear, we were Americans with a purpose. Not so loud and boistrous, but refrained and inquisitive. We learned more about another culturer — together. All the while, smiling. We didn’t offend (at least you didn’t; I have my own issue with the Turkish delegation) and we never sought to overwhelm the masses. They overwhelmed us (thanks FIFA).
What a great trip. A trip of a lifetime, with life-long memories, an education and people with whom to keep in touch. I close my eyes and remember what it all meant.
Tina Detelj, WTNH-TV, New London, CT
To be in Berlin for Germany’s first round World Cup win was an unexpected thrill in many ways. I really felt I was in the right place at the right time. We were nearing the end of our first week of the RIAS program and in that short time I had come to understand a country full of history, full of integrity and full of pride. I would later learn seeing the German flag displayed in such great numbers was a rare occurrence in this reunified country. On this Friday night though the flags were waving, the car horns were blaring, and the people were celebrating. I found myself not only enjoying the festive atmosphere but also truly feeling a sense of excitement for this country and somehow a sense of belonging.
That affection for Germany grew quickly out of my RIAS experience. A trip to the German Parliament at the Reichstag building showed us the seat of the country’s government and architecturally how the past has been preserved within this and many modern buildings. The meetings with high level officials also gave us a truer picture of the challenges the country faces with reunification and immigration. One of the biggest debates is over a test which could be given to those seeking citizenship and the intention of that test. There is also a great need to bring in more highly skilled workers to supplement a social security system being drained by a growing number of aging workers. We also learned the education system is set up in a way that children from a very young age are put into certain schools thus limiting their ability to rise above the circumstances into which they were born. In other words, the children of Turkish immigrants many of whom work as laborers are set on a path which will only lead them to the same vocation.
Sixteen years after reunification many problems still exist. The east struggles to build up its industrial base while dealing with a dwindling population. Many young people flocked to the west along with many businesses. The older folks who were left behind are for the first time finding themselves out of work and wishing the wall never came down. They seem to have forgotten that with the job security under the communist system came a denial of freedom and access to what the west had to offer. For example… while some may have had the money to buy a new car they may not have been able to get one for as many as sixteen years.
Mr. Eberhard Zahn however did not forget what it was like to have his freedom taken away when he spent ten months in a Stasi prison. His first hand experience of that injustice and his enduring spirit shows how people can triumph over the most difficult circumstances. I found it interesting when Dr. Hubertus Knabe, the director of the Hohenschönhausen Memorial, said many visitors have compared what happened at that Stasi prison to what is happening now at Guantanamo Bay. Dr. Knabe said he explains the difference like this… Guantanamo Bay came about after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 where as the Stasi prisoners were jailed after no such incident.
It was also interesting to learn many Germans oppose the war in Iraq because they are leery of President George Bush. Apparently when he said “if you are not with us you are against us” many Germans felt it was eerily similar to something Hitler might say. Bush however did get a warm welcome during his July visit to the East German city of Rostock. We spent our second weekend in that picturesque seaside city.
Our final stop was Brussels and visits to the European Union and Nato. By that time we had grown to know our German hosts Rainer, Isabell, and Sandra quite well. It was their easy going enthusiasm which made the trip most enjoyable… and which brings me to the second round of the World Cup games. Germany’s one point win over Poland came after a tense overtime and was made even more sweet because we shared it with our RIAS hosts. I think we wanted Germany to win as much as they did.
The friendliness of the people we met was perhaps best shown during our visit to the NDR (North German Broadcast) studios. Much of our tour was given by a reporter Silke Kahler who — by the way — had an orange cloth belt on. I liked it and told her. I was very surprised when she took it off as we were leaving and offered it to me.
Her generosity inspired the same in me. So in the spirit of the World Cup and in the tradition of the soccer players who exchange shirts — we exchanged belts. I gave her my three tone tan belt. Perhaps on behalf of our team of eleven journalists.
Could that be what this journalist exchange program is all about? German and American journalists inspired to share.
Julianne Donofrio, ABC News, Washington, DC
“Diese Farben sind uns nicht mehr peinlich”
Usually when there’s a lull in polite conversation, someone brings up the weather. And though that may have been the case several times while I was in Germany this past June (they did experience quite a heat wave) it was only after all talk about soccer had been exhausted. Fußball, if you prefer. When I embarked for the RIAS exchange program, I thought the World Cup would be a sidebar; I was prepared to discuss issues like immigration and the economy while also reflecting on Germany’s recent past. But it became quite clear — from government ministers to the man on the street — the World Cup was foremost on people’s minds. Looking back, I see now that this was about more than a game: this was a chance for Germany and her people to decide their place in the 21st century.
While touring Berlin, it never occurred to me to think twice about seeing a crowd of young men wearing Deutschland t-shirts or the black, red and gold waving from an apartment window. No matter where you go in America, you’re guaranteed to see the American flag stamped on a sweatshirt or bumper sticker. Americans display the red, white and blue in anyway you can think of — and we do it whether we1re proud or peeved. Call it freedom of speech or label it patriotism, I simply assumed that Germans felt the same way about waving their national colors. I was quickly informed that the plentiful public display of “Germany” gear was quite unusual…and that it would never last.
Don’t you want it to last — even just a little bit? I would ask. That question always received great thought and was often answered with a shrug of the shoulders — maybe? As the World Cup played on, the great flag debate was picked up by various newspapers and television networks across the globe. One headline read: ”Diese Farben sind uns nicht mehr peinlich” — “These colors are no longer embarrassing us.” Now, maybe this was a comment on the German fußball team’s surprisingly stellar performance, but I believe it was meant as so much more. For generations, the German people have been trying to balance their past with their future and it continues to be a long, complicated journey. But as I learned in many of our RIAS meetings — from Berlin to Brussels — there is hope.
There is hope when we can learn from the past. While making my way through the maze of stone blocks at the Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin, I was struck by the sight of a solitary rose with delicate pink petals atop one of the many cold grey slabs. I wondered who brought this offering of remembrance and respect. I took out my camera to snap a photo and I could hear children’s laughter echoing from within the maze. There was much debate over constructing this Memorial and it has only been officially open for just over a year now. Standing there, I understood the relativity of time and healing. This Memorial was a symbol of dignified, yet defiant survival — a trait personified by Mr. Eberhard Zahn, whom we met later at Hohenschönhausen, a former Stasi prison. Some fifty years ago, Mr. Zahn was a political prisoner held within its walls. He is living history. Mr. Zahn quoted Dante’s Inferno to describe our descent into the basement: we were “entering the Gates of Hell” where one should abandon all hope. He led us to a solitary concrete cell where he was once kept, deprived of all human contact, another victim of Stasi suspicion.
As Mr. Zahn recited his favorite sonnet by Shakespeare, the one he had committed to memory before his arrest and the one that would keep him sane as it replayed in his mind, I questioned whether I could have endured all those years of not knowing — not knowing how long I would be held captive or when/if I would ever see my family again. Yet, he did endure and was not angry. When asked, Mr. Zahn would say he has had a good life and that he would not change what happened to him. Judging by the glint in his eye, I couldn’t help but think that by telling his story to visitors from around the world, Mr. Zahn was quietly exacting his revenge on his captors. He showed me that we are not defined by what has happened to us, life does go on, but we should never forget.
There is hope in persevering through the present and believing in the future. Much like the United States, Germany is trying to figure out how to approach the sensitive issues of immigration and integration. While laws and legislation are debated on the federal level, there is no doubt that there is a changing face to what is Germany. It can be seen at the Mosque we toured in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin and on the pages of a volunteer newspaper printed in both Russian and German for the many Jewish migrants from Ukraine who are now living in Schwerin. In speaking with Federal Ministers and Mayors, it became evident that people want jobs and businesses are trying to modernize and adapt. So, cities like Rostock, once the “East German gate to the World,” has shifted the purpose of its ports from shipping cargo to welcoming cruise lines. But can Rostock’s shops stay open during the week and weekend so that tourists can spend money on souvenirs? Again, more debate — not just on legislation, but also on what the German people are willing to compromise for the sake of economic development.
Questions, debate — these are growing pains of a country in transition. And I think this is why so many Germans I asked were hesitant to say whether or not they thought the plethora of flags should stick around after the World Cup — because I think many of them still weren’t sure what the flag represented or what they wanted it to represent. It was an extraordinary time to be in Germany and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with policy makers, journalists and activists — people helping to shape the country in their own way. I cannot thank our RIAS hosts Rainer, Isabell and Sandra enough for their professionalism and friendship. After I returned home and dutifully cheered my adopted German team to a third-place win in the World Cup, I learned from Isabell that the papers were calling the German fußball team “champion of the hearts.” It really was about more than a game.
Scott Fralick, WKRN-TV, Nashville, TN
Berlin is metaphor
It is personal triumph and public tragedy. A city divided and reunited. Die Mauer is a wound with scar tissue that runs across the city two brick lengths wide.
Berlin is a metaphor for our lives. Walls and bridges. Self-destruction and resurrection.
This was my second visit to Berlin. Each time, I spent a week discovering, wondering: What is this city? Progress, promise and elusive personality. Each block held another world: This is where a man’s body floated in the barbed wire, shot by East German guards when he tried to scale Die Mauer. This is Tempelhof, where a miracle of human aid stopped communism’s push from further infecting Europe.
History in Berlin is short but deep. Paris has coffee shops older than the German capitol. London’s past is fabled, even its brutality and burning is the subject of storybooks now. Film and photographs were not there to capture sights and sounds of London’s worst moments so that, to every generation, the wounds would seem fresh and new. In comparison, the noise and fury of Berlin’s past is available to anyone watching the History Channel.
Of all the images I found of yesterday in Berlin, the most poignant, oddly, I discovered during a boat ride on the canals of the city. I admired the gargoyles and artwork of a bridge as we floated underneath it. The look was weathered and ancient.
The tour guide informed me the bridge was built in 1997, created to look old before its time, from its 19th century design to faded paint. Berlin, like all of us, reinvents itself as it grows up. A lost past must be recreated.
The metaphor is personal.
As a teenager, I grew up wanting to visit Belfast, Berlin and Beirut. Each city at the time (and time again) was at war, hot or cold. Each battle was block by block, building by building. It was neighbor against neighbor. Images I saw on Canada’s late night news never left my mind. The most cruel wars are civil.
Not so surprisingly, mom and dad wouldn’t let their overly-curious youngest son tour his three favorite “B’s.” It would be years before I got to cross one of the cities off my must-see list.
After Die Mauer fell, I finally got a chance. I was fascinated by how a city and civilization heal its divisions: Will a family of strangers get along after the reunion champagne is emptied and the headache starts?
The answer is time. Not this generation. Maybe not the next; but eventually, unity. Not just of borders and governments. Both are artificial and subject to change. Unity of a people beyond leaders and political systems that rise and fall in fashion.
I glimpsed the start of this new Berlin during the World Cup. National pride without reserve. Flags flown from car windows and hung from balconies on either side of the fallen Mauer.
For God’s sake, I was able to buy t-shirts boldly proclaiming Deutschland! That was something I could not do during a visit to Berlin two years previously. Now when I wear those same shirts in America, it provokes response from strangers. An elderly German shopkeeper was shocked I would wear her old country’s name on my chest: Doesn’t it get you in trouble? Another man simply asked if I knew the score from Germany’s last World Cup game.
In flying the colors, I discovered the patriotism (no longer a dirty world) blossoming in Berlin was being felt beyond that city, beyond Deutschland and into the heart of America where those of German descent had long ago buried their ancestral ties, embarrassed by the bloodline.
Being German was suddenly ok.
Berlin is a metaphor. Is that an eagle soaring over the Bundestag or a Phoenix rising?
In the 21st century, Berlin’s scars will heal and it will retake its rightful place as one of Europe’s star cities.
Now all I have to do is figure out a way to live there to watch it fly.
I want to thank RIAS for honoring me with this opportunity to gain insight and personal introductions to those who could help me discover Berlin and Deutschland.
Norman Gittleson, CBS News, New York, NY
Flying into Tegel Airport on a gloomy Sunday morning I had no idea of the adventure awaiting me. The next two weeks saw enlightenment on my part of the dynamic republic that is today’s Germany. After a day to sleep off the jetlag we hit the ground running on Monday morning. Herewith are some of my impressions: Early in our visit we met with Peter Altmaier, the Parliamentary State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, kind of like the American Homeland Security Office. He was a gregarious and engaging fellow. He immediately put us at ease with the announcement, “coats off” at the commencement of our meeting on an unseasonably hot spring day. His detailed analysis of the security situation Germany faces today went into great detail but wasn’t at all dry. Charming and personable I predict success for Mr. Altmaier if he ever runs for elective office! Throughout our meetings with the mayors of Rostock and Schwerin I was struck at the approachability of these professional politicians. Constituents are able to phone government officials directly and get through! Try that in the USA.
When meeting with officials of ZDF and NDR I was impressed by the team spirit expressed by the employee. It seems management and labor enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, unlike the confrontational philosophy I have often witnessed in labor dealings in the USA. They seem to work as a team toward the common goal of putting on quality television broadcasts. I was astounded at the modern facilities of both ZDF and NDR when we visited. The state of the art equipment used in the studios made me envious. Much of the technology I use daily at my job in New York is from the 1980s! I was astounded by the different philosophies displayed by German and American television. The limits on ad time on some networks surprised me; I don’t think the notion of just 2 hours of broadcasts containing commercials would fly here in the USA’s consumer culture.
I was impressed by the variety of stories and German TV’s in-depth coverage of world events. I think American news outlets need to cover more events outside our borders. The world doesn’t stop at the Atlantic, Pacific, Canadian and Mexican borders. I was happy to see the American obsession and fascination with pop culture hasn’t totally hypnotized European viewers as they have here in the USA.
One memorable and pleasant encounter was meeting Jürgen Graf, the legendary Mr. RIAS, with whom we shared dinner our first night in Rostock. In a cute subterranean restaurant we had a cozy corner all to ourselves. Over a scrumptious dinner The Count regaled us with stories of the original Radio in the American Sector when it was operational, his early years in journalism, the thrill of the chase, so to speak, in tracking down dignitaries and luminaries, and also the electrifying experience of witnessing John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech in the spring of 1963. Jürgen Graf has been an eyewitness to history and we were eager to hear of his adventures.
Our tour of the Neptun Stahlbau shipworks, a riverside factory complex which constructs large passenger ships which ply Europe’s big rivers, showed our group of RIAS Fellows some of the challenges facing a unified Germany. In the heyday of the GDR the firm employed up to 6,000 workers. Today they are holding steady at 400 and hoping for more orders. I did notice the workers at the factory, in fact workers in Germany everywhere I travelled practiced their craft with professionalism and pride.
I was favorably impressed by the work ethic of the people I encountered during my visits to Berlin, Rostock, Schwerin, and Brussels and Brugge in Belgium. From my observations employees ranging from government ministers, construction, airline, ferry and railway workers, even the maids in the hotels, all took their jobs very seriously and performed them in an impressive and thorough manner.
We visited a GDR-era housing complex just outside of Schwerin, where we toured a complex of prefab apartments now undergoing renovation. The job — to make them less proletarian in appearance through updated interiors and facades. One of our guides was a Ukrainian immigrant named Dimitri, who as I understood, was a kind of ombudsman between the community’s richly diverse population and the local government. Dimitri is of the Russian Orthodox faith. His wife is Jewish. I asked him if either of them felt religious bigotry while living in Germany. An emphatic “no” was the answer. And I found it reassuring, especially in the diverse ethnic community in which they lived.
After a long, hot day of meetings and tours we relaxed over some beers and brats at the Bolero City Beach Club in Schwerin to watch a World Cup match. We walked off dinner touring the town in the day’s fading light. We stopped by the Meck-Pomm Parliamentary *castle* and watched an opera company rehearsing for an outdoor performance. The feeling of camaraderie after such a hectic schedule was refreshing and invigorating.
I know the German social assistance programs have put a big strain on the Federal economy, but it must be reassuring for immigrants or people on the lower end of the “food chain” to know the government hasn’t forsaken them. The immigration question facing many European nations was vividly underscored on Brussels’ tony Ave. Toison d’Orr. Our little band of RIAS fellows were waiting for transportation when a woman holding a child, wearing the chador of a Muslim immigrant, approached us hand outstretched, begging for some pocket change. We readily complied, but by doing so a whole slew of other beggars came upon us. They left us alone only after our supply of coins was exhausted.
This trip opened my eyes to look beyond the USA’s borders and examine the world and the intricate and sometimes delicate relationships nations have with each other. I will forever be in the debt of the RIAS Berlin Kommission for allowing me the opportunity to visit Germany and Belgium and observe European governments, culture, lifestyle and people.
Herman Howard, Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, NC
The 2006 RIAS Berlin Commission Exchange Program was an educational and motivational experience to the author. Each day, I was able to learn new and exciting material about the strata of German broadcasting, the political infrastructure, the historical lore of Germany, and the privilege of meeting the adroit RIAS Berlin staff.
Due to the writer’s two-week visit to Germany, I have developed a newfound and deep respect for the country’s social landscape. For example, the German citizens I met tend to be more of a friendlier, kinder and gentle people who have more of a “worldview,” of today’s society as compared to their American counterparts. In addition, I have found that the German television media is more “news driven,” with an emphasis on covering news stories of relevance as compared to the American television newscasts which is prone to sensationalize events and report on stories with a negative slant.
To pinpoint the most significant events of the RIAS Berlin Commission Exchange Program is arduous because the program offered an amalgam of interesting topics throughout the two-week tour. However, what stands out to the writer was the tremendous support and thorough preparation by the RIAS staff in answering any questions relating to: sightseeing, workshop agendas, tours and general knowledge of Germany and Belgium. A special thank you to RIAS Executive Director, Mr. Rainer Hasters and valuable assistants, Miss Isabell Hoffman and Miss Sandra Fettke, for providing an outstanding service to the American journalists during the entire program.
Perhaps the most inspirational oratory delivered during the program was the story articulated by former Stasi prisoner Mr. Eberhard Zahn, during the Thursday, June 8, 2006 session. Mr. Zahn’s experiences of his imprisonment in the former Stasi prison provided an eye-opening experience on how valuable and precious the cost of freedom can become in one’s life. Mr. Zahn’s moving testimony has inspired the essayist to work assiduously in my occupation to inspire and motivate today’s college students that: “all things are possible through perseverance, and hard work.”
Other events that impressed the penman during the program was the Wednesday, June 7, 2006, breakfast dialogue with political editor, Mr. Thomas Habicht. Mr. Habicht provided serious analysis and political satire in his morning discussion on German unification. Also, the NATO visit on Friday, June 16, 2006 in Brussels, Belgium, served as the perfect culmination for the business meetings with interesting perspective on the present NATO state with Europe and the United States.
As a result of partaking in the 2006 program, the scribe plans to augment his research in this area by including a new Broadcasting course for Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. The course will be an academic dialogue in INTERNATIONAL NEWS BROADCASTING, featuring case studies of German broadcasting, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Students will conduct semester projects of the aforementioned networks in this course and will draw analytical/critical comparisons between the international news outlets to that of the American newscasts.
Furthermore, I would like to commence studies drawing the German significance within the European Space Agency (ESA), and its involvement of scientific research on the present International Space Station (ISS). For example, during the breakfast conversation with Reuters Senior Correspondent, Louis Charbonneau on Friday, June 9, 2006; Charbonneau discussed how Germany plays an exponentially role within the ESA. I would like to investigate a research study involving Germany’s future within the ESA, and Germany’s upcoming projects with the ISS program before the space station’s expected completion by 2010.
Overall, the 2006 RIAS Berlin Commission Exchange Program was an outstanding educational and networking opportunity. The wordsmith was able to learn new information about the role of German broadcasting, and the political and societal strata of a new Germany. Many thanks to the RIAS Berlin Commission, and to all of the guest speakers, hotel staff workers, bus drivers, and to my fellow RIAS participants: Traci, Chuck, Steve, Tina, Julie, Jon, Scott, Norman, Betsy, Richard and Joel who have helped made this trip an enjoyable experience that will last a lifetime.
Betsy Korona, Channel One News, Los Angeles, CA
Reflections: Rostock & Schwerin
I have stepped into a scene from Beauty and the Beast. Children without their shoes play in the fountains sprinkled at street corners. The whole town is a maze of two-story stone arches, and in the cobblestone square, I wholly expect bustling townsfolk to burst into song. (Though such activity would be highly un-German.) A fair-haired couple walks hand in hand. You want to believe in fairy tale endings here. I wonder how a place, just hours from Berlin, yet so untouched by time, can exist.
I am obviously out of place in the old seaport city. People in the East stare skeptically at me in my bright yellow t-shirt with English writing, backpack, and faded jeans. A man walks up and barks at me in German. I am pretty sure he is demanding something — perhaps a fee for taking a candid of his three blonde daughters playing in a wading pool. As I rest on a bench, I smile at passers-by, usually a universal language. Their response is a squinty-eyed appraisal and a side-step. They are clearly uncertain of me. Guiltily I am happy for my fair skin. I am told being different is a target here.
I am sure I will belong in the “Catholic” Marienkirche, but I quickly reconsider. An organ begins and dirge-like sounds waft thru the drafty air before dying in the spires. A silvery-haired choir makes up half of the service’s grand attendance number of 53. Between the stale chill and the hard wood pews, at some point I become sure we are all sinners. I nod and listen to the German I don’t understand and open the miselette. The only English in this monument to religion stares back, “St. Mary’s Lutheran Church.” Revelation: I don’t belong here. Not wanting to refuse the communion I am later told Lutherans don’t have, I try to leave discretely only to find congregants here are locked into their service … literally. Why I think yanking on this fortress of a wooden door will allow my escape, I don’t know; but after several moments of the exercise (in futility), a hunched usher arrives with a foot-long golden key. He smiles and offers me freedom from the doors. They leer down on me, dissatisfied by my early departure. Tschüss …
The mayor of Schwerin is exactly the German man you imagine; strapping with blonde, graying-in-the-light hair cut close to his head. By the fire that dances in his eyes though, it is clear he is far removed from his country’s dark past and looks straight into the future. Three deep lines furrow his heavy brow with the challenges of running an East German city. And for what is the hottest day of the year so far — 36 degrees Celsius — his short-sleeved button down with bright orange tie is a perfect balance of formality and friendliness. He greets us as visitors to his city.
Between each answer to our now standard questions on the economy, racism, and cultural division, he packs, lights, and puffs on an old wooden pipe. With half a smile and an exhale, the white smoke swirls about his face, softening the square jaw, drawing you into his responses even when you don’t understand a lick of German. The vast room is filled with the scent of smoke, as are most places here, for better or worse. I wonder if it calms his nerves while facing American journalists’ questions, or whether it’s just part of his daily routine, in this town so seemingly set it in its ways, Schwerin.
Richard Kurz, KGW-TV, Portland, OR
Standing in the bus, I peered across the aisle, straining to catch a sight of what was left of Checkpoint Charlie. As the tour guide explained how acting students working for tips now man the post where two great superpowers faced off, my stomach lifted up and a haze crossed my brain. This was Checkpoint Charlie? This was where the Berlin Wall, a symbol of tyranny and dictatorship, once stood? Now a Hermes shop stood just down the street and expensive cars and their wealthy owners shopped along one of the highest-rent districts in Berlin. And as the stun wore off, I realized this was the perfect metaphor for the city and the country as a whole — a place where the past is never quite gone, and the future looms around every corner.
Of course, I just as easily could have picked the Brandenburg Gate. As we sat and watched, thousands of World Cup fans milled around a giant, glowing soccer ball housing an interactive display not 400 yards from the grounds where Napoleon’s armies once marched and where the Berlin Wall bisected one of the main avenues of the city. Or I could have been talking about the Baltic Sea city of Rostock, where the travel brochures and even license plates announce the Hanseatic ties of the city, a sign Rostock is looking back 800 years for a measure of pride and for a rudder to set the future course of the city.
But for an American visiting Germany hoping to understand his country, the country of his ancestors, and most significantly, their connections, the period from World War II forward overwhelms any other piece of history. It provides a window into both cultures, and allows for a deeper understanding of current disagreements. For an American, World War II is a time long gone by, with only the occasional memorial or statue honoring some far-off soldier or battle. America has moved on. But it’s impossible to escape in Germany. In the Reichstag in Berlin, a new, massive, glass top allows light into hallways where bulletholes still mar walls stained by Russian grafitti scribbled by victorious soldiers in 1945. Even as we visited Berlin in June of 2006, the German government placed a plaque on a parking lot to show the site that hid Hitler’s bunker, where the dictator took his own life. Outside the city, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp still stands, a silent and constant reminder of the horrors committed by the German government.
Those constant reminders of the devastation serve another purpose. They also illustrate constantly and silently the role the United States has played in perserving, protecting, and propagating the German nation. As with memories of World War II, that role is easily forgotten in the United States. But the more time I spent in Germany, the deeper the understanding I had of what a crucial role that was. The stories of Germans desperately hoping the American Army rather than the Soviet Army would capture their city, the realization that the United States chose not to punish the just-defeated country but instead helped it to rebuild, and even offered up its troops in defense of its recent enemy, all contributed to a groundswell of gratitude towards my country that I only began to appreciate while in Germany.
That gratitude towards America did nothing but grow in the years that followed the war. Hearing a man who had spent seven months in solitary confinement in a Stasi prison express his thanks for the moral strength the United States showed in standing up to the Soviets sent a powerful message. So, too, did the stories of America’s resolve during the Berlin Airlift. I had, of course, known about the operation. But merely having an awareness of its existence meant little until I heard the first-hand accounts from a former RIAS correspondent who covered the Airlift. Berlin had power only for several hours a day, but even that was only because of the efforts of the Allies, chiefly the Americans. At one point, an aircraft landed every minute delivering supplies to West Berlin. Together, these stories illustrated to me in a powerful way that not only did the United States talk about supporting freedom and democracy, but its actions towards Germany over the course of six decades emphatically demonstrated it.
It is that history, that pattern of behavior, that past, that seems to fuel the current disputes between the countries. Germany has not only heard, but lived the expression of American ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy ever since the fall of Berlin in May 1945. That gives the country a unique insight into America — and, perhaps, a more knowledgeable position from which to critique. By and large, Germans seemed more agitated about the indefinite detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay than about the war in Iraq. The consensus seemed to be that intelligence mistakes happen, even ones that lead a country into battle, such as the war in Iraq. But they also feel the United States should know — and do — better than the situation at Guantanamo Bay. Germans have experienced the commitment of America to freedom and democracy, and they have trouble reconciling what they have lived over the past sixty years with what they understand is happening at an American base in Cuba.
And that may be the most valuable aspect of my experience as a RIAS fellow in Germany — gaining not only an understanding of the land my grandparents came from and which the U.S. spent decades protecting, but an understanding of the perception of my country abroad. I learned not only about Germany, but also, in turn, I learned to appreciate the prism through which that country views the United States and its policies around the world. It is an appreciation flush with pride, an appreciation that arises only through the experience of learning for myself the role America played in helping Germany develop into the free, liberated and democratic nation it is today.
Joel Waldinger, WISC-TV, Madison, WI
Potsdamer Platz, Today, Tomorrow and Yesteryear
I can only imagine the trolley cars, double-decker buses and antique cars, criss-crossing one of Europe’s busiest intersections. Potsdamer Platz built in 1838; in the same year the first railroad was built (Berlin-Potsdam) was a major public transport hub in the 1920’s. Everyday hundreds of trams traveled here, and the traffic was so intense, that the first traffic light in the world was placed here. The landmark square in Berlin was one of the liveliest and busiest in the world. The area contained many bars, cafés and cinemas. It became the heart of the most unconventional capital in Europe: the most luxury hotels, the most important literary cafés and the most prestigious shops had an address of distinction in Potsdamer Platz. Those robust days are hard for me to imagine because that’s not the Potsdamer Platz I experienced during my first trip to Berlin in 1994.
I remember it being in the middle of nowhere. I remember a vast no man’s land divided by the Berlin Wall and devastated by war. I remember a wall stretching from the Reichstag, past the Brandenburg Gate and into Potsdamer Platz covered in weeds, debris and suffering from 50 years of neglect. Once the wall went up, the central square became a ghost of its former self. Like much of what was great in Berlin, the once energized Potsdamer Platz was left in ruins by allied bombing in 1943. At the end of WWII, the square fell to pieces, and the Nazi regime along with the only buildings still standing were destroyed.
So imagine my surprise when I emerged from the U-Bahn station on my first day back in Berlin to see an ultra-modern landscape where just 12 years before nothing stood. I was met with one of the few remnants of the wall, upright graffiti covered slabs, which groups of tourists huddled around for photographs. Where the wall once stood, and where the cobblestone scar bears witness to that time in history, has emerged a bustling super-modern maze of architecture. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around. The exact place where I stood in 1994 resembled nothing of what I remembered.
In the new center of Berlin at Potsdamer Platz, anchored by the Sony Center and the German Railway, a lively urban ensemble of seven landmark buildings has emerged. With 26 stories the Sony Center is one of the tallest buildings in Berlin and a welcome addition to the cityscape. At a cost of four billion Euros the largest service center in Germany was built erasing the division between East and West. In the 1990’s it was the biggest inner city construction site in Europe. It provides inclusionary zoning for living, work and entertainment. Like a throw back to the 1920’s, Potsdamer Platz once again is the city’s center, hosting restaurants, bars, cinemas, shops, a casino and the Berlin Film Museum. The area is again thriving, under a skyline of glass and neon that sets it apart from much of the rest of Berlin. Plus if you want to have a little fun, look for the really big seesaws in the nearby green space.
This part of town represents the New Berlin and the will of Berliners to break from the past and to look to the future. Where the Berlin Wall once stood, a wall of traffic, pedestrians and tourists are now funnelled in to the new Postdamer Platz. Berlin is ever changing and you just have to look to this section of the city to see it happen. Plus, there is room for expansion nearby with the new Leipziger Platz now under construction. What will this area look like 12 years from now in 2018? I can only imagine.
RIAS Germany Program – Fall
September 16 – October 1, 2006
Twelve American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt/Main and also Brussels. Individual extension program for four participants.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
Travis Altman, WTEN-TV, Albany, NY
I said goodbye to my new RIAS friends at the station. On a train from Frankfurt to Munich, I was able to reflect for the first time on my German adventure. What had I learned on this trip? Why had I taken the voyage in the first place? For two weeks, new places, people and concepts had whizzed by at a blinding pace, like the tidy strips of farmland and orderly hamlets blurring by the window of my rail car.
Nuremberg behind me, Munich still ahead. This German nation is more than a memorial to the past. The train clicks and clacks past acres of shining solar panels and tall wind turbines. Germany is years ahead of America in the effort to harness the power of our planet and our sun. In Leipzig, city leaders will still discuss the Monday Demonstrations that hastened the fall of the GDR, but are more excited to talk about the educated and efficient work force attracting outside investors and turning the community into a capitalist success story. Even in foreign affairs, the lessons of the past compel Germans to embrace the world, not withdraw from it. While I was trying to make out the anti-fascist slogans in the Cyrillic graffiti scrawled by Soviet soldiers in the basement of the Bundestag, upstairs the German parliament was voting to send troops to Lebanon, protecting a political order in the Middle East that includes a Jewish state.
My train pulls into the station at Munich. It is the last weekend of Oktoberfest. Men in lederhosen and women in dirndl dresses rush by. Outside, vendors are vigorously hawking steaming, foot-long bratwursts and massive steins of cold beer. It is the vision of Germany I might have conjured up in my head before RIAS, one I now know is only part of the story. This is a land conscious of a past both glorious and ghastly, but more importantly it is a nation looking towards the future, lending its unique wisdom to the effort to build a brighter tomorrow for the entire planet.
John Atwater, WTXF.TV, Philadelphia, PA
By day. By night.
It felt like the North Shore of Chicago. Stately homes, quaint street lights, just a faint breeze blowing through the mature trees. That, and the sound of high heels clicking along up a dimly lit path to an obscure entrance in a brick building that seemed out of place on the quiet street. “I’ll wait right here,” I heard immediately as the brakes halted our cab. “Is it that bad?” I replied, half-expecting the driver to laugh or smile… or crack some familiar expression. “I’ll be here,” he said confidently — reassuring us that we were just a few steps away from the car that would help us flee the place we had finally built up the courage to visit. The hands on my watch almost convinced me to surrender, but we paid good Euro for this late-night trip. It was our last night in Berlin, the sun was nudging the horizon, and we had arrived at the Kit Kat Klub.
We spent every night in Germany stretching across the cities we visited. There wasn’t time to get comfortable in hotels — we had U-Bahn passes to use. By night, we’d scour for clubs, drinks, and some German guidance. By morning, we’d pay mightily for our nightly curiosity. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our RIAS adventure chartered us into the depths of a culture that struggles to maintain economic relevance, establish unity, and accept its immigrants. By day, we heard about the struggles, and by night, we saw them. While productivity, labor costs, and education continue to suffocate growth in the East, Leipzig has held its own. “But I still can’t find full-time work,” my friend Steffen told me as we sipped cocktails outside a Leipzig bar on a warm evening. The employment instability has jostled him between marketing jobs, and even in the two years since I last visited, the prospect of finding steady work has forced him to concede. “I want to move to America,” he said with hopeful optimism.
Disparity between East and West continues to fuel an ingrained resentment on each side of the division. “We’re still paying,” I overheard a West German man mutter to a friend on a train. Sustaining the East has come at perceived and real sacrifice for the West. Almost two decades have passed, and the wall’s shadow still looms.
“They won’t send their children to Kindergarten. How do they expect to learn German?” a community leader told me as his exhausted eyes looked across the Neukölln district of Berlin. The neighborhoods here are home to Turkish immigrants, and they’ve been a magnet for crime and poverty. Integration has been overwhelming, and harmony seems like a distant dream. Slowly though, outreach is yielding results. The mayor of this district sees hope in young children. If the kids learn to stay out of jail, there’s a chance to break the cycle.
The problems facing Germany are daunting, but don’t let it cloud your view. This is a vibrant place with a pulse that’s getting stronger. If you’re reading this in preparation of a RIAS visit to Germany, be sure to check on it’s heartbeat. A place called Kit Kat may or may not pique your interest — just pray you have a cabbie who’s willing to wait.
Carey Bodenheimer, CNN, Los Angeles, CA
Berlin is a city re-imagined and reawakened. After the destruction caused by aerial bombardment during the Second World War, the city was carved into four sectors by the Allies, eventually culminating in the division of the city into two by the Wall. Of course, many cities in both Europe and Japan were leveled during that war. Berlin, though, seems to me a special instance — because it faced an ongoing period of division and isolation. The city has become an object lesson in urban renewal and reconstruction in the wake of great socio-political upheaval.
As a city reborn, Berlin is especially inspiring to me, largely because of my experiences last year covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. To see the destruction of a city and region from the perspective of a journalist is indescribable. When that city is your home town, as New Orleans is to me, it makes the destruction seem all the more personal and catastrophic.
One small measure of consolation is to see Berlin as it is now, knowing how far it has come since its own destruction. Beautiful, cosmopolitan and pastoral all at once, Berlin is finally regaining its rightful place as a world capital. This resurgence can be seen in the astonishing, new architecture throughout the city. Visionary designers were given a blank slate when the former East opened and they have seamlessly woven the new with the old to create the unique aesthetic fabric of today’s Berlin.
On one surprisingly beautiful afternoon, during the last throes of Summer, I chose to visit the Pergamon Museum, where the Ishtar Gate and other treasures of antiquity are housed. Yet, that day seemingly all of Berlin was strolling the banks of the river Spree or sitting at cafes enjoying the day. Many were riding bikes, lending the city a more relaxed and civilized pace than its urban counterparts in the U.S. That day, the always vibrant city was pulsing with even more activity than usual because the Berlin Marathon was being run.
In the evening, walking through Alexanderplatz and Hackescher Markt made for a nice farewell to a remarkably verdant urban center — so green and lovely in fact, that on the way back to the hotel, we glimpsed a fox trotting across a construction site.
Just as the survival and reemergence of Berlin itself was an inspiration, so too is the survival of Eberhard Zahn, a former prisoner who gave us a tour of what was once his home, the Stasi Prison. Far into East Berlin, in what was formerly the GDR, the prison was quite simply, awful. Replete with various forms of physical and mental torture — perhaps the most chilling aspect of the prison was its isolation cells. Herr Zahn, our 78-year-old guide was seemingly not at all bitter — despite all he had endured at the hands of the Soviets and East Germans. He referenced the inscription upon the gates of hell from Dante’s “Inferno” “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here” and truly it seemed a hopeless place. Herr Zahn spoke also of Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet, which he’d committed to memory.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
The words of the poets helped him maintain dignity and sanity despite torture that included sleep deprivation, isolation and questioning at the hands of the “authorities.”
Mr. Zahn said he felt a sense of triumph just being able to show us the prison, knowing it was no longer the reality of life in Germany.
Judy Boysha, Associated Press, Washington, D.C.
Well, I just received the dreaded e-mail that I am the last fellow on the Fall 2006 RIAS Fellowship to submit my essay. It’s a difficult thing to write. There is so much to say about all the ways this trip has changed me.
When I arrived in Germany, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the Fellowship. Having lived in the Frankfurt area for almost seven years as a teenager and 20-something Airman (airwoman?), I didn’t expect too many surprises about the things I had learned to understand — how to ride the U-Bahn and bus, how to read a menu — some of the day-to-day things about Germany. But I did have high hopes that I would learn about how Germans felt about Germany, their country.
I was not disappointed. By far, the most moving experience of my trip was the day tour of Berlin. When the bus arrived at Checkpoint Charlie and everyone got out to wander a bit and take pictures, I found myself reflecting on what it was like as a teenager, to walk to the checkpoint and look into the East, but know I couldn’t go there. Then, in my 20s, I went back, in uniform, and looked across the same border. I looked into East Germany with a sense of pride as a member of the military, a member of NATO, a “Cold Warrior.” But this time, I looked into what had been the East. There was no more wall, no more border. The armed, expressionless guards were gone. All that remained was a line of bricks marking what had once been “The Wall.” I walked to it and stopped. For a moment, I dared not step over the line. It had been so important once. It had been such a symbol of a divider between two separate worlds. Then I took a step — over the line — and was overwhelmed with emotion. I was grateful our group hadn’t yet formed any real bonds and I hadn’t made any friends yet. This was a moment I needed to myself. It took all my self-control to hold back tears. I was a former member of an alliance that had persevered and won. The two Germanys were reunited and the USSR was defeated. It was a month shy of 16 years since the wall had fallen. But here I was, standing ON THE LINE, feeling like it was yesterday. I slowly made my way back to the bus and sat silently, choking back tears of emotion. It was the beginning of my chance to see a new Germany, a different Germany than the one I had known. I had high hopes for the next two weeks.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Rainer, Isabell and Sandra had organized an amazing series of visits to government offices, private organizations and venues that I could never have imagined would leave me feeling so well-informed. We had the chance to hear officials about the struggles to reunify two countries, to bring together two cultures that had once been identical and had grown too far apart to even imagine. We learned how even world experts had failed to predict the state of disrepair that East Germany had fallen into and the difficulties of bringing it up to the standards of a prosperous and proud West Germany — a feat that has yet to be accomplished.
But it wasn’t all government-oriented. There were the diversions like a show in Berlin, sightseeing in Germany’s capital city and Leipzig and Brussels and Frankfurt. There was the chance to talk to other fellows from previous trips, not only about their lives in Germany, but what the RIAS program had meant to them — and continues to mean.
There was the behind-the-scenes look at NATO. It was the one part of the trip I had most looked forward to. With my military background, I wasn’t disappointed. We learned first-hand, from people who work for NATO, about the expanding mission, the trials and tribulations of a multi-national peacekeeping and defense organization, and the struggles to add new members while maintaining the security of the current ones.
I still brag about our day at the European Central Bank and meeting the bank’s president. It was off-the-record, but astounding nonetheless. To hear Jean-Claude Trichet talk about Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan on a first-name basis. To listen to him discuss how the bank works, some of the problems that they dealt with as it was being created… It was truly an amazing experience.
By the end of the two weeks I was experiencing a real dilemma: How can I come back, more often and for longer lengths of time? I cannot begin to thank the RIAS staff enough for the experience of a lifetime, for the chance to learn not only about Germany, the EU and NATO, but also a little about myself, for introducing me to new friends and showing me a part of a place that I have always felt a special connection to, but had never seen before.
For anyone considering this trip, don’t think twice. If you’ve never been, you will learn more than you can imagine. And even if you’ve spent a lot of time in Germany, you’ll learn more than you think and come away richer for having gone. Thank you Rainer and Isabell and Sandra and the RIAS Berlin Kommission and RTNDF, for choosing me as a fall 2006 Fellow.
Mandy Carranza, CNN Pipeline, Atlanta, GA
When you apply for a fellowship for the first time, you have no idea what to expect. In my case, I was craving knowledge, adventure and an organization that could nurture my obsession with my career. I found all of this in the RIAS organization’s fall 2006 fellowship to Germany.
I was stressed out before I left for Germany. I wanted to make sure I’d packed all the right clothing and that I was adequately prepared for all of the high level meetings I was about to embark on. After all the preparing, it all went to moot when my plane was delayed causing me to arrive in Germany a day late. I was so nervous about walking into our breakfast meeting late, it would be the first time I was meeting the other fellows. Luckily, it ended up Donna Francavilla was on the same flight, so I had a new friend. We both walked in late together and then the trip began.
As a journalist, I always compare and contraste every experience that comes before me. The basic difference between being a German journalist and an American journalist is the language. Sometimes, that’s not even a problem as most Germans speak English. In comparing German media to U.S. media, I think German people take the news more seriously than U.S. viewers do. This can be seen by the high viewership of public television stations in Germany. Those that aren’t watching public television are watching private television, but it does not have as many viewers as public television does. This is in direct contrast to how most Americans view television. Public television gets much less of a viewing compared to cable networks and private stations. There is a line being blurred in American journalism where entertainment stories are becoming news, this is not the norm in Germany.
I think something that shocked me about German politics was how much the average German knew about the political issues facing their country. Whether I was talking to a teenager on the subway or our wonderful guides Sandra & Isabell, the Germans were also knowledgeable about American politics. I remember someone talking to me about the movie star Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. So not only were they aware of American politics, but many Germans knew local American politics. Speaking of politicians, when we went to the Social Democratic Party’s victory party, it was interesting to note that the winner, Klaus Wowereit was gay. The people of Berlin voted him in for a second term as Berlin’s mayor. This made me realize that some German voters are very progressive, maybe a bit more so than in the United States.
Germany has a few key social issues; one is the disappearing pension plan. Germans don’t produce as many children and they live longer. They also retire younger due to plans put in place to enable them to do that, to beef up unemployment numbers. The high unemployment rates were something we heard about from every politician we visited. It was interesting to find out that the main drain on unemployment funds is the Turkish population. This is because the Turks were brought in during the 1970’s under the guest worker program and never left. They do not maintain Germany’s culture and in many cases would rather practice their own. Unemployment in some parts of the country is at 20%.
My personal experience with the German population was very different than what I heard. I had expected Germans to be cold and possibly unfriendly. When I was doing my extension, I approached several Germans to make sure I was going the right way on the trains. They helped me and they even smiled. Another thing that could be seen from a few of my extension interviews is the need for perfection. Some of my interviewees kept saying that they were nervous to talk to me because their English was not that good. My tour guide at the Stasi museum carried around a German to English dictionary, to avoid miscommunications!
There were a few scheduled events that really left an impression on me. One was our trip to Brussels, Belgium where we visited NATO headquarters and the EU. I’ve read about these European entities all of my life, but to actually be inside was a very special experience. I only wish we had been allowed to bring cameras inside of NATO. Actually being able to see the buildings and talk to the people inside them, painted an entirely different picture, a more realistic image of what each organization does. I also saw “Manneken Pis” and enjoyed Rainer’s historical story that went with it. It was also interesting to learn Belgium is home to my favorite food — French fries! Coming face to face with the Reichstag and accurately learning how to pronounce it was an experience! I liked visiting the Sanssouci castle. The picture I took of the words “Sans Souci” translates to “without worry.” Can’t everyone relate to that saying?
I was inspired by the whimsical Wittenberg. They were holding an outdoor art fair and I bought an amazing vase and even haggled for it. My vase made it all the way back to the states without being broken. Of course, I liked Heidelberg for its beautiful scenery and lovely shops, and I’m American, so I’m supposed to.
The candor and passion for Germany that many of our German experts conveyed was invigorating. Mr. Karsten Voigt was very knowledgeable about German-US-relations so it was easy to converse with him. Mr. Heinz Buschkowsky, the mayor of Neukölln was very honest about the problems his city faced. The problems being mainly unemployment and crime. Of course it was comfortable to pick the brain of Erik Kirschbaum, since he’s a practicing journalist for Reuters. It was also great to see a German television legend, ARD. Visiting Frankfurt was interesting because it’s the biggest financial district in Germany. Meeting the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet was something I could have never done without RIAS’s connections. A few other memorable experiences were talking to other German journalists in Leipzig and visiting the youth radio station In Frankfurt. I was impressed by how seriously You FM took the job of educating German teens. Then, there were a few personal things that were new to me. I tried different cuisines such as Vietnamese coffee, Flammkuchen and the Turkish food, Döner. I took a boat tour around Berlin to see all the sights of the city by water, it was beautiful.
Since I overpacked my suitcases, Rainer was calling my dear luggage, “the mother of all bags.” I have to relay this last memory of departing Germany in reference to that comment. So I arrive at the airport and the airline handlers said, there is no way you are going to take all this back without paying a huge fee. I said I understood, I felt very sheepish. They were gracious enough to help me re-pack, and that’s when they discovered my wine chiller from the Rotkäppchen sparkling winery. They actually took it out and one handler put it on his head and was laughing at me, my bags and the wine chiller. I told them I was going to let them in on a little secret. They were dealing with “the mother of all bags.” They agreed and fell into mindless laughter. Then they let me off of all the charges, saying that I was a journalist (they saw the huge heavy camera case) and they wanted my last experience in Germany to be a positive one. It surely was, and I shed a tear as I departed the wonderful country that I never knew I’d love.
So, with my German fellowship over, what am I going to do with all my new knowledge? Well, I’m going to use it. I have already started paying closer attention to international news, especially those with ties to Germany. I plan on continuing to email the special friends I made on this trip, and keep in touch over the years. I plan on giving back to RIAS as much as I can, whenever I can. That includes hosting a German journalist if I can, and trying to attend the annual events. The RIAS program opened up an entire new world, one that changed my outlook on life and on my career. On a side note, I’ve taught my 5-year-old a few German words. It’s typical now for me to say “danke schön” and for him to belt out “bitte!”
Ed Fillmer, Freelancer, Dencer, CO
When last I visited Berlin in the autumn of 2000, Berlin was said to be the world’s largest construction zone, the euphoria of reunification was just beginning to seriously fade and a renewed sense of proud nationalism among Germans was just awkwardly taking shape. Now most of the dynamically designed new buildings and reconstruction of old buildings are completed. Germans add up the enormous cost of unification and wonder when they will see a return on investment. Having put a few more years of horrible history behind them, Germans seem more comfortable being citizens of Europe’s most populous and productive nation. But Germans look at immigrants and wonder if they are the face of the future Germany.
The RIAS Journalist Exchange Fellowship once again provided a refreshingly entertaining and informative behind the scenes look at issues, hopes and problems now facing the citizens and leaders of unified Germany. What the visiting American journalists heard over and over is that Germany now faces new troubling realities while still coping with the old. A well-respected Berlin radio journalist stated plainly “Germany is a dying nation.” The birthrate is among the lowest in Europe. Young Germans put off having children. Since established workers are guaranteed a job for life, young German professionals cannot readily find permanent, gainful employment. So they end up being underemployed, taking part time jobs to make ends meet. A young couple can’t confidently plan a family if both have to work long, odd hours to have a measure of financial security. Plus, public school schedules are not working family friendly. School ends at 1:00pm, meaning at least one parent or a caretaker has to be available in the middle of normal workday hours.
Immigrants from Middle Eastern countries in past decades were welcomed as needed workers. They found new opportunity in Germany and now claim it to be their home. But many recent immigrants refuse to learn German language and forbid their children to go to German schools. Like immigrants throughout history, they band together in poor areas. Lack of jobs and cultural differences lead to high crime and prejudice. Many see they can live comfortably with payments from the generous German welfare system and say, “Why work?” In addition, Germany’s baby boom population now comes to retirement age and further stretches an already burdened social welfare system. A member of Berlin’s city government took me for a tour of his neighborhood and nodded toward all the immigrants and older people on the streets and observed “See these seniors and immigrants, they are the face of the new Germany.”
Germans seem now to be more comfortable discussing their horrific history. During my RIAS trip of 2000, a guide for our day at the Reichstag screened what she described as the ‘official history of Germany in the last century”. The film basically omitted the interval from 1934 to 1945. That year, the official guide for our tour of the concentration camp Sachsenhausen seemed to be more comfortable stressing the efficient architectural design of the camp than open to discuss the horrors Nazis inflicted on fellow Germans and Jews. This time, our Sachsenhausen guide seemed genuinely compassionate and forthright about the reality of the Nazi regime.
Important and compelling highlights of the RIAS Fall 2006 experience include the fascinating story of vicar Christian Führer, of the Nikolai Church in Leipzig, who told us of his role in the ‘peaceful revolution’ of non-violent protests he allowed at his church that led to the fall of the Wall and the end of communist rule. We had a wonderful off-the-record meeting with Europe’s most powerful monetary leader, the President of the Central European Bank in Frankfurt, Jean-Claude Trichet who shared stories and insight about the introduction of the Euro. And RIAS Fellows got to listen to the chilling story of Eberhard Zahn, a former prisoner in the communists’ secret police prison in East Berlin. He took us for a tour of his cell in the Stassi prison and told of deprivation, isolation and hardship during his imprisonment.
The RIAS Fellowship experience in Germany was for me this second time different but equally as meaningful, compelling and informative as my first six years ago. As a journalist, I treasure and professionally draw upon the experiences from both trips. I heartily recommend the Fellowship to colleagues as a unique and life-changing opportunity to learn of issues and reality in a powerful but often misunderstood nation.
Donna Francavilla, CBS Radio News, Birmingham, AL
As I travel to Paris on a train, listening to French accents, rather than the background sounds of German accents, I realize that two weeks with our gracious hosts are behind me. Other journalists have begun their extension programs, ready to work, believing now they have a greater sense of a country most knew very little about until this two-week adventure. I’m one of two journalists on this trip to have participated in the RIAS program before, therefore, can compare the Germany of the last decade with this one. The country has changed and improved dramatically.
Just as on the last trip, when we spent a lot of time with our hosts and each other, sounds of the journalists’ voices still echo through my mind. I hear our host Rainer Hasters say, “Don’t leave anything on the bus.” Followed by, “Can we leave our things on the bus? How about our passports?” Carey’s questions and comments by those on the trip invariably led to light-hearted chuckles. If I close my eyes, I can still hear a loud bus driver barking to Rainer while playing traditional German music. On the streets, I see accommodating Germans who kindly and repeatedly give directions IN ENGLISH when asked, in every city we visited, the sweet sounds of American music accompanied by German lyrics playing at street festivals, the familiar sight of American businesses such as McDonald’s, GAP, The Hard Rock Cafe and Foot Locker, and some of the most amazing architecture in the world. It is because of Germany’s willingness to adopt the best of what the Western world has to offer, that we feel so much at home here. It is a feeling that surprised me because the images of Nazi Germany and the suffering of the Jews still stab at our memories when we think about this country. Such thoughts co-exist with images of the oppressive iron curtain that fell so suddenly, unexpectedly and remarkably. This nation admirably is facing its past head on, and in the process, healing.
Germany is developing a new identity, distinctly its own. It is rebuilding the former East, sinking a considerable amount of money into the effort (80 Billion Euro per year), and in the process, attempting to take care of its elderly, unemployed and immigrants through an overly generous social system. I last visited Germany in 1999. Cranes dotted Berlin as the parliament prepared to move from Bonn. Returning allowed me to have an amazing before-and-after snapshot of a country transforming itself. Berlin is less of a city filled with individuals living on the fringe, and more of a professional, cosmopolitan, chic place.
In America, we have only two predominant political parties. That’s not the case in Germany. I enjoyed having the opportunity to meet with representative of each of Germany’s parties. It was interesting to learn how they fared in the election, and, based on the outcome, to see where the nation is headed. I am far more interested in following European politics as a result of our exposure to elections. I was particularly interested in how Germany is facing its childcare crisis as couples are encouraged to bear children.
Germany can not be examined without looking also at its currency and participation in the European Union and NATO. While some of those meetings were intellectually stimulating, some were difficult following a heavy lunch with wine. Nonetheless, we learned a tremendous amount from the speakers, who were largely likable. Occasionally, we wanted to know more about them and their experiences on a personal level, but some of the speakers were hesitant to break away from their professional demeanours, which we realize is one of the cultural differences between our countries.
The two-week journey was an exceptional opportunity to see the interior workings of a nation most American journalists know little about. The structured mixture of business meetings and time for personal exploration starkly shaped our impressions. I personally enjoyed free time on a Saturday to shop at the local supermarket, ride a bike alongside residents, shop in German stores and dine out, glimpsing at what appeared to be a healthy night life. I experienced Germany’s social life by sampling its foods and walking its streets. Exceptionally excellent weather allowed us to experience fairs, street festivals, and picnics in the park. Those sights also led me to believe Germany is much more like the United States than I remember. I especially enjoyed walking through the cobblestone streets of Leipzig and Heidelberg. Everyday I also looked forward to seeing what Sandra would be wearing that day. Everyday she treated us to a new, different outfit, adding a pleasant spark to the visit.
The last time I visited Germany, minorities such as the Turks were unhappy with the length of time it took them to attain German citizenship. That issue has been dealt with, but now many new challenges face this zero-population growth country. Germans are grappling with being able to pay for pensions for an aging population. Minorities are growing in number, taking available jobs, putting a strain on the welfare system, having children that need to be educated, and all the while, retaining their cultural ideals. Germany unwittingly has become an immigrant nation with similar problems the United States is facing.
Once again, RIAS has put on an excellent program that I would highly recommend to any serious journalist interested in taking a break from the day-to-day deadlines to educate themselves about European issues, and in particular, Germany’s challenges.
Things I enjoyed about Germany:
- Eating Nutella and banana crepes
- Discovering Nutella is made in Germany
- Wine tasting
- Seeing the new life breathed into the Former East via street fairs and malls like Potsdamer Platz
- Going to dinner and telling our favorite wine stories
- German food and beer; Brussels’ chocolate and chocolate shops; sightseeing
- Seeing what’s left of The Wall and once again hearing the remarkable story about its dramatic and unexpected fall
- The moving and spiritual story of peaceful protests at Saint Nicholas Church in Leipzig that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain
- Testimony of former Stasi prisoners
Things I didn’t like:
- Dragging around a coat I didn’t need
- Contemplating the plight of the Turks
- Paying for use of the internet at some hotels (thankfully not all!)
- Being put on hold for long periods by a British internet airline-booking company for my Paris flight
- Apple wine
- Getting lost
- The depressive sadness which accompanied a visit to concentration camp Sachsenhausen
Libby Hendren, KTVZ, Bend, OR
After spending two and a half weeks on the other side of the world, you return and everyone asks “How was your trip?” My honest response when I returned from my Berlin RIAS Commission trip was “it had its ups and downs, but it was a once in a lifetime experience.” I met some lifelong friends. I ate food I otherwise wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole. I missed my pug Memphis who is attempting to help me write this essay immensely. And last but not least, I got the chance to see a part of the world I had never seen before. There are things you can’t put into words for people, like what buildings in the former East smell like. And there are stories that I can’t wait to tell. If you’ve ever seen my emails, you understand why I found my calling as a journalist. I could write novels about some of the interesting people we met, places we went to at night, and how I survived on pizza while my friends ate döner.
It’s typical to go to foreign countries and realize how much American influence there is in the food, music, and overall culture. It’s hard to find a place that isn’t saturated with Coca Cola, pictures of Hollywood celebrities, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. I’ll be honest, Germany has all of that, but it’s also an international melting pot, attracting a variety of immigrants including Americans. I was really surprised how much American music is played on the radio and MTV. While there were obvious American influences, you realize as modern as Germany is in some ways like its nanotechnology and auto engineering, it’s still behind the times in others like the lack of iced tea or iced anything for that matter, a daycare system, and a full day of school. If this is what it’s like today, could you imagine what it was like to live in Germany during the Cold War Era? Today, the day before Americans cast their ballots in the U.S. Mid-Term Elections, I was reminded of what it was like to grow up without democracy. While I was randomly surfing YouTube.com, I found a PSA by DJ Paul Van Dyk. He grew up in East Germany and knows what it’s like to not be able to choose. So he tells Americans in the PSA, “You have a right to choose and the right to vote, so on election day, rock the vote.” Now that there are free democratic elections in Germany, voters tend to elect liberals to represent them. The newly elected mayor in Berlin is gay. In America, the election season has been dominated by people trying to out someone before you have the opportunity to vote for him. Americans wouldn’t typically vote for someone they knew was gay, the country as a whole is too conservative for that.
Communist control brought so much oppression to the German people that anything that defies what Americans might consider the norm, is considered cool. You can’t tell sometimes whether you’re in a good neighborhood or a bad one because everywhere you go there’s graffiti. It’s considered acceptable, where as in America, it’s considered the sign that a neighborhood has seen better days. Immigration is a touchy subject in Germany like it has been for the past year or so in the U.S. Turkish immigrants there are regarded in much the same way as Mexican immigrants are in the U.S. The more undocumented immigrants or low income citizens that utilize the welfare system, the more the legal residents resent their drain on resources. There’s also the outsourcing to Poland. The joke when we were in Berlin was it took so long to get your laundry back because it was shipped across the border to get washed.
In the official part of the activities, my favorite outing was when we went to the Stasi prison and had the opportunity to have a former prisoner give us a guided tour and his first hand experience about his stay, his cell, and the torture the prisoners were put through to get them to crumble. The stories about mind control, oppression, and wanting to make innocent people crack were unbelievable. You never understand what manipulation really is until you understand what the prisoners were put through there.
I think one of the best ways you can learn about a culture is to participate in the regular everyday activities as the locals like shopping and going out. Some of us took part more than others. I feel like I’ve been to every S-Bahn stop in Berlin, not to mention all the walking in Leipzig, Brussels, and Frankfurt. Along the way, there were Germans who wanted to help you with directions, Americans who made the planet feel like it really was a small world after all, hairstyles that make the 80s look even more lame with the return of the mullet, clubs that were hip and sometimes bizarre, bars that highlighted its favorite brew, restaurants with the best crepes and some of the best desserts I’ve ever had, photo ops in front of random signs, never ending opportunities to use hand sanitizer, red light districts hoping to make a quick buck off the tourists, parts of downtowns with almost as many lights as the Vegas strip, cobblestone streets with outdoor dining and old world charm, and the endless need for bottled water and caffeinated drinks.
I didn’t miss my car like I usually do on vacation, but in Germany, I’m sure it’s more frustrating to drive than it is to ride. The Germans aren’t the car-dependent, gas guzzling solo commuters that we are. They can’t afford to be. Gas costs about twice as much per gallon or more than it does in the U.S. While Germans are actively pursuing integrating alternative fuels into society, Americans continue to ride along in their cars usually by themselves sucking up as much of the world’s oil supply as possible and emitting so many emissions into the atmosphere, the world is damaged beyond repair.
So when you ask me what I learned, I say I can survive two and a half weeks with hardly any sleep, high on sugar and caffeine, eating food that I normally would not eat, using public transportation that I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to use and return to the states happy to have iced tea, my Brita pitcher, my dog who hogs the bed, my washer and dryer, and knowledge I can challenge myself to go outside my world, to live in someone else’s temporarily and have a great appreciation for the fact I live in a free republic with a democracy in place for centuries not decades, had grandparents to take care of me when my parents were at work, didn’t have to ride public transportation by myself as a small child to and from school, and there are as many things we can learn from Germans as Germans can learn from us. Thanks Berlin RIAS Commission for the once in a lifetime opportunity.
Andrea Leesch, KELOLAND News, Sioux Falls, SD
I applied for RIAS looking for an educational adventure and that’s exactly what I got… and it began as soon as I stepped out of Rainer’s car. He warned us to watch where we were walking, that the bicyclists were ruthless and that they will literally run you over. Boy, was he right. By the end of the day, I was very familiar with the “ching-ching” of the bicycle bell. And by the end of the first week, I was comfortable enough to guide the others on the U-Bahn, despite taking a few wrong trains. And then there was everything in between.
When I returned, I got the same question over and over again: What was your favorite part? I found it just wasn’t possible to sum up two weeks in Germany with one favorite element. So we’ll break it down into categories. My favorite surprise was the agenda the day we were at Parliament. The historic connection of being in the building as Germany decided to deploy its military to Lebanon sent tingles up my spine. Then taking a tour and seeing the destruction done during World War Two as members of the German military took it in for themselves.
Having participated in Model United Nations in college, I rank the sessions at the European Commission, European Central Bank and NATO toward the top of my favorites. Another fellow told me going into this that I would feel like we were getting elite access to people and places. These sessions and the tour of the Reichstag were just some examples of that happening. Having been a tourist on my own time, I would have never gotten the access we had when we were there. (Thank you to Isabell and Sandra for their hard work in making that happen.)
While Leipzig, Brussels, Potsdam and Heidelberg were all uniquely beautiful, my favorite city out of those we visited has to be Berlin. I felt like the time we spent there allowed us to become very intimate with the center of the city. By the middle of the week, I felt very comfortable with where I was, the people around me, the buildings and the community itself. It might have been how we were introduced to our surroundings from the very beginning: having time to explore on our own and then taking a bus tour to introduce us to the sights, sounds and history of Berlin. History gives a town character and a story. And you could clearly see the story the city was telling you on every block. Turning the corner and seeing the new Holocaust Memorial was breathtaking. Around another corner we found the Brandenburg Gate. And around yet another: the Berlin Wall, still standing, displaying its story for the whole world to take in.
But you can’t forget the people and their stories. It was very interesting to talk with government officials and feel like we were just chatting over coffee. I got a feeling they talked with us very differently, more personably, than if we were constituents or colleagues. I couldn’t have anticipated a more powerful moment than learning about a former Stasi prison from a former Stasi prisoner as he sat in his former prison cell. It wasn’t just the cold concrete walls that gave me chills. It was hearing about the psychological torture he endured knowing he was just one of the many.
Then there are the quirky favorites. My favorite souvenir: blisters. When they say don’t wear heals, don’t even bring them! You will walk a lot! My favorite “new” experience: taking chances and trying new food. Every meal offered something I had never tried before: schnitzel, doner, octopus, true Italian pizza, applewine, sekt, and, of course, the beer. I’d like to think our group stood out from the others, but I’m sure they’re all unique. That brings me to my favorite group experience: losing Judy in Berlin, followed by my favorite group bonding experience: finding Judy. Okay, so she wasn’t really “lost” and had run ahead thinking we left her behind, but it was just one of the many things we will always remember.
Nickee Liang, KCAL, KTTV, Los Angeles, CA
Before I embarked on the September 2006 RIAS trip to Germany, I had no idea what to expect. But the experience turned out to be so much more than I anticipated and could have asked for. It was an exciting and enlightening experience for me. The two-week whirlwind visit to Berlin, Leipzig and Frankfurt gave me a rare glimpse of Deutschland’s history, culture, economy and media. It was a crash course on the country that I could not have received by simply reading books. I also enjoyed visiting the NATO and European Union headquarters in Brussels, which gave me some insight into the workings of the two organizations. Pictures are worth a thousand words.
I continue to be impressed by the fact that the RIAS staff was able to gain access to important political figures and organizations and get those officials to meet with us. It was such an honor to meet Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the European Central Bank, who took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us. It was like meeting the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
My favorite was meeting the priest of the Nikolai church Christian Führer, who shared his experience in the movement that led to the peaceful revolution of the GDR and the fall of the Berlin wall. It touched my heart to hear about the struggles and obstacles the activists faced in their quest for freedom. It was like opening a history book that talked to me. I was also inspired by Mr. Eberhard Zahn, who shared with us the hardship he endured during his incarceration in the former Stasi prison and the life lessons he learned.
Touring the Deutscher Bundestag and witnessing the Parliament at work on the day when it was deciding whether to send German troops to Lebanon was like witnessing history in the making. And seeing Chancellor Angela Merkel in person made it all the more exciting.
Germany is so fascinating and has so much history. This trip has expanded my horizon and increased my thirst for knowledge. Most of all, it was the generosity provided by the RIAS Commission and the kindness and hospitality extended by the hosts that made my trip all the more enjoyable. Rainer Hasters, Isabell Hoffman and Sandra Fettke made the experience so much fun!! I feel very grateful to have taken part in the RIAS program.
Heather Sullivan, WSPA TV, Spartanburg, SC
Our group had just hopped on the U-Bahn, Berlin’s underground subway. A young German couple swooped on right behind us. I watched them. In one motion, they swept across the doorway to the other side of the car, landing perfectly in the fit of each other’s arms. Their lips locked. They stayed locked. For a while. Not a care about who might be watching or what problems they might face when they came up for air.
I saw couples doing this frequently on the U-Bahn, in restaurants, walking down the sidewalk. I was struck by the open displays of affection and the way people in Germany seemed to live their lives with passion, despite facing some serious issues like high unemployment and racial tension. What a lesson in life. They seemed to say that even though life has its challenges, that was no reason not to embrace the good stuff, too. Then it struck me that this was a common theme in Germany, the coming together of two, despite major obstacles. East and West. Old and new. Past and present.
Even though the Berlin Wall came down 17 years ago, the country is still working to make the marriage between eastern and western Germany a happy one. The younger generation, like the radio reporter and RIAS fellow we met over schnitzel and beer, embrace the union. He was 17 when the wall collapsed. In the same instant the rubble hit the ground, he went from pre-destined to becoming a mechanic to self-destined to choose to attend college and choose his own profession, journalism. But there are those that the wedding has left chronically dissatisfied. The easterners who are still reluctant to find a job because they find it hard to relinquish the communist lifestyle that provided for them. On the other side, there are westerners who resent that so much of their tax dollars and jobs have gone to the east. But both sides continue to be dedicated to the marriage, with no real talk of divorce. Economist Alfred Steinherr at the German Institute for Economic Research told us that when he suggested to a political leader that perhaps the east and west should not unite, the idea was received as unthinkable.
I could not stop taking pictures of one of the most beautiful unions I saw in Germany, the blending of old and new architecture. The country has done a remarkable job of preserving some of the most ornate buildings constructed hundreds of years ago and complementing them with exquisite, modern architecture. The old churches, castles and government buildings are everywhere, each telling their own chapter in history through their arches, steeples, sculpture, and often damage from war. And at every turn we found the most breathtaking new buildings, gorgeous compositions of glass and steel. The old and new do not compete with each other. In fact, they seem to nod to each other respectfully, saying “If you think I’m beautiful, take a look at the building next to me.”
This medley of historic and modern architecture could not have been more striking than in the Bundestag, the Parliament building. It’s more than a hundred of years old. It’s been attacked and stormed. The scribbling of Russian soldiers still marks its hallways. When the building was refurbished, it was crowned with a glass and metal dome. We spiralled inside it with the other visitors to the top, where we could peer out the 360 degree view over an entire sea of old and new architecture, known as Berlin.
Germany is also navigating a course from its past to its present. The way Germans are so quick to acknowledge the darkness of the country’s past and preserve the symbols of it, like the concentration camps and Stasi prisons, shows their commitment to a brighter future. Germans are striving to distinguish themselves in new ways and don’t want to be labelled for the old. They are working to carve a strong position in the world economy and the European Union. And they seem to be marking their identity through technological ingenuity. I saw hydrogen buses and cars being tested on German roads. Researchers are developing nanotechnology expected to revolutionize fuel cells and medicine. I was even captivated by the brilliant simplicity of streetlights built underneath shields to block the light from washing out the stars in the night sky.
Despite the challenges of these unions, east and west, old and new, past and present, every politician and journalist we spoke with seemed to have a gleam in their eye. They enjoy their jobs, their cities, their country, no matter what issues they face. To me, the German people embrace their future like the couple kissing on the U-Bahn. They are holding on tight without the slightest intention of letting go.
Anita Vogel, Fox News Channel, Los Angeles, CA
What is a Rias Fellow? It is a question many people might ask, as the Rias Berlin Fellowship is not nearly as well known in the United States as several others like the Neiman or Knight Journalism Fellowships. I personally did not know that much about the Rias Fellowship before I went, even though I had heard accolades from several colleagues in broadcasting. Now I know that it lives up to its reputation as a first-class, once (maybe twice) in a lifetime, truly enriching experience.
I arrived in Berlin not knowing what to expect, and quickly figuring out that I had brought WAY too much luggage! The first thing I noticed was the weather, which was much like southern California in late September, 80 degrees, sunny and pretty much perfect. The next two weeks proved to be challenging, interesting and truly rewarding.
From visiting with mayors, to policy makers, to journalists to former Stasi prisoners, I felt as though every day was a brand new learning experience with lessons ranging from politics to winemaking. When I think back and remember all the amazing people we met and places we went, I almost cannot believe it really happened. I felt so honoured that so many important people made hours in their schedules available to lecture us (American Journalists) on their particular expertise. It is one thing to read about German Reunification or the social issues facing the country, but it is another thing altogether to meet face to face with the people who are living it and shaping the future of the country.
As a journalist working in Southern California, I cover a lot of immigration related stories, and so it was particularly interesting to me to learn that Germany as a country is dealing with similar issues as they relate to the influx of Turks and their attempts to integrate into German society. German Reunification was another subject by which I was fascinated and I greatly appreciated all of the speakers who addressed that topic. It was a treat to meet in Leipzig with German journalists who hailed from the East and to hear the stories of how they grew up with glimpses of the west on television, wondering if they would ever get the chance to experience it for themselves. I could have listened and talked to them for hours. However of all the wonderful speakers we met, the one who made the biggest impression on me was Eberhard Zahn, the former Stasi Prisoner. I can only imagine how many times he has told his amazing story to countless groups, but he tells it in such a way that makes you believe he’s telling it for the first time. His story of survival is one which I will never forget. It made me realize just how much a human being can endure if he has a strong will to live. It was particularly effective to hear his story in the very cell in which he was held. He is an amazing man.
I will also remember our trip to Nato and the EU. These are places which we often see on television…and now thanks to the Rias trip they have been brought to life for me. The speakers we listened to at these two posts helped me to have a greater understanding of what roles Nato and the EU play in the world, and in Europe in particular. Again, there I was humbled that so many important officials would take so much time to talk to us about what they do. It was also quite an experience to meet the “Ben Bernanke of Europe”, and to listen to Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank lecture us on the history of the Euro and refer to Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke as “Alan” and “Ben”… priceless.
In addition to all the amazing speakers, I will also treasure the places we visited and side trips we took. Leipzig was wonderful, and I loved the Church we visited there where a burgeoning peace movement began prior to the fall of the Wall. Heidelberg was beautiful and I’ll never forget our walk up to the Castle Heidelberg where Rainer led us up the hill charging all the way with his trusty umbrella.
A big part of being a Rias Fellow is also becoming part of the “group” and getting to know 11 other working American Journalists. I so enjoyed meeting and hearing about the lives of the other participants in the program. While we all shared war stories of things that we had done and stories that we had covered, I mostly appreciated hearing about their backgrounds and personal lives. I know I’ve made several friendships that will be lasting.
Aside from the lectures, the speakers, the wonderful dinners we shared, and places we visited, there is really one thing, I believe that makes Rias unique. It is the fact that it is run by people who care about the program and making it special for all those who are fortunate enough to take part. It is thanks to Isabell and Sandra, and especially Rainer that Rias is the amazing program that it is.
I came away with new and firsthand knowledge that I could never had gotten had I merely visited Europe or Germany myself. I will always read and view news and stories coming out of Europe with different point of view…one of understanding and greater interest, thanks to Rias. I also feel now that I know Germany a little bit….some of the cities, the food, the historic sites, and I have a strong desire to return one day, in the not so distant future.
So, back to the original question of what is a Rias Fellow… if ever asked, I will answer, I am a lucky enough to have been chosen a Rias Fellow… and I know that I am a better and informed journalist because of it.