TWO-WEEK GERMANY PROGRAMS 2005
Summer and Fall
RIAS Germany Program – Summer
June 11–26, 2005
Thirteen American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Brussels, Hamburg, and Dresden.
Individual extension program for five participants.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
Brandy Aguilar, KTVK, Phoenix, AZ
My time in Europe was not only a wonderful experience, but one of great adventure. While it was only two weeks, the RIAS program gave me the opportunity to understand what the people of Germany, young and old, are facing in today’s society.
It wasn’t too long ago that Berlin was something I read about in history books. The chance to see where the Wall once split the East and the West was an eye opener. The pictures you see just don’t do it justice. While the Wall may have come down 15 years ago, the people in both the East and the West are still trying to unify. This was evident in what we saw during our program.
The chance to see the Stasi Prison was one of sadness, as well as hope. The sadness came from having to see the conditions prisoners had to endure during that time. The hope comes from former prisoner Mr. Eberhard Zahn. This man gave us insight into what his world was like back then, and what he had to do mentally to survive.
It was nice to be able to talk with the party leaders at the German Bundestag. They gave us a quick insight to their beliefs and what they would like to see implemented in their own government.
The Potsdam trip sticks in my mind quite clearly. I think my fellow RIAS-ers could agree that it was an emotional ride at the “Wan-see-Villa” to see the pictures of such horrible acts being committed on Germans not so long ago.
As far as the media, I found the news to be very informative and straight to the point. I was given the opportunity to actually sit down and watch an English newscast at Deutsche Welle. In my experience, I can see the media in Germany plays a pivotal role in informing the public of world wide events.
I found the culture to be very cool. I like how people don’t rush, especially when it comes to eating dinner. The fashion was hip and the people were very nice. I think seeing a cabaret and opera in Europe definitely has a different feel to it than when watching it in the United States.
If I had the chance I could write forever on the impact the RIAS program had on my career in television, as well as my personal life. It’s made me have a better understanding of what Germany is today. It’s also opened my eyes to learn more about this country and its relationship to the United States.
The program was well done. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I not only walked away with a better understanding of Germany, but some new friends. My fellow American journalists taught me a lot about the power we have to inform our viewers of not only what’s going on in our own country, but the world in general.
Garrett Baggs, WXIN-TV/ FOX 59, Indianapolis, IN
“You have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
— Lou Gehrig, American baseball player, July 4th, 1939 on his retirement due to illness
Many American boys grow up picking baseball players as their heroes. I wasn’t any different. My hero was the American baseball player from the 1920’s and 1930’s, Lou Gehrig. He was a very kind and gracious man, always respectful of his fans and all the opportunities he received to play baseball professionally. His career was cut short after he was diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease which robbed him of his ability to do normal tasks, and eventually even his life. Even knowing the disease would kill him, Lou Gehrig was able to show his appreciation for all the good things that happened in his life.
Many would say that my accident in Dresden was a bad break. While in fact doctors confirmed it was a bad break, 4 places of my forearm, I consider myself incredibly lucky for the opportunity to study in Germany. Furthermore, I can proudly say that my chance to tour a German hospital was an unexpected bonus that few others in the history of the RIAS exchange program can ever admit to having. I am thankful that the injury came at the end of the program and I am grateful for the opportunities I had up until the injury.
When I applied for the RIAS program, last January, I was unsure of my chances of being selected. Some of the questions on the application led me to believe that a news producer from Indiana might lack the background to be a productive member of the trip. Upon arriving in Berlin and meeting the rest of my colleagues, I realized that while some did have direct connections to Germany through their news organizations, the majority of us were in the same boat and were ready to see what lay ahead during our journey.
While preparing for the trip, the concern constantly in the back of my mind was, “How will I be received as an American?” I knew German-American relations had improved since the war in Iraq began 2 years earlier, but how much? I hadn’t been able to find many details on whether we were seen like two brothers with a difference of opinion or if American meant war-monger. I was happy to learn that it was the former. The discussions I had with various Germans confirmed this. It probably helped somewhat that I shared an anti-war viewpoint, but it was still nice to find common ground.
At first, seventeen days seemed like it would be an eternity to spend in a foreign country. In reality, the time went by rather quickly. I was able to visit the majority of the historical sites that I’d set out to see. Perhaps the most important, to me, was my trip to the Sachsenhausen Memorial in Oranienburg.
Growing up, I was fascinated with history and tried to study as much as possible. Upon learning that I would be traveling to Germany, I felt it was somewhat of a responsibility to travel to the memorial to pay respect to those who lost their lives. It also gave me a chance to get off on my own and truly experience Germany by only having myself to depend on. In some ways I think it was a personal quest to see how well I could handle myself.
Just getting to Oranienburg was an adventure. I was hindered slightly by the closing of a portion of the S-Bahn line to the city while it was under repair. I finally found help in translating the signs which gave me directions to the bus transfer and then eventually back to my train northward. When I finally arrived at the Memorial, I was extremely moved. There have been movies, books, and other methods of relating the Holocaust throughout the past 60 years. None can possibly compare to standing at the site of a former concentration camp. It is hard to comprehend what took place there in such recent history. I was even more amazed that it was in the center of a town. In America, our prisons are usually set away from towns and cities, usually surrounded by a field, but I was surprised that both the camp at Oranienburg and the Stasi prison in Berlin were right in the middle of neighborhoods.
As I look back at the curiosities I had prior to the start of the trip and my actual experiences, I believe the most important thing I came away with was the understanding that other than a few thousand miles and a slight language barrier, Americans and Germans share more similarities than we do differences. Our histories follow similar paths. We look back with regret, on the transgressions our ancestors committed against other ethnic groups and races. The generations since these things happened have, however, made strides to prevent them from happening again. Americans and Germans seek good jobs and security for their families. We share pride and appreciation for our cultures and lifestyles.
When I first arrived in Germany, I found myself initially missing the comforts of home. I began to appreciate the things that I take for granted. Air conditioning, bottled water without carbonation, ice cubes, hundreds of cable television channels — just some of the things that I realized made home home. Now as I return to daily life in small-town Indiana, I recognize how the small things in life are so important.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in daily life. Especially in broadcasting, you can find yourself in a pattern. From making sure you have certain parts of your newscast done at a certain time to make your deadline, to writing teases the same way each day, it is simple to fall into these patterns. However, when I think about what makes those of us bitten by the news bug get up every morning at 2 a.m. and start our jobs, I realize that I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. I didn’t dream of being a journalist like many of my colleagues. I expected to be a teacher. And from a certain point of view, I still am. My career has provided me opportunities I never dreamed of. It’s opened my eyes to experiences I never thought I would have. Now, it’s up to me to share those with my co-workers and my viewers. For all of these things, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.
Dan Godwin, KDFW-TV, Dallas, TX
It seems to me there is one huge question looming over Germany right now: “How much change are we willing to tolerate?” You get the feeling most people understand the current system is in need of reform. But there appears to be an equally strong impulse to preserve the “social safety net” to the greatest extent possible. The outcome of this battle will tell us something about the real priorities of the German people.
On our second morning in Berlin, journalist Thomas Habitat pointed out that Germans were growing weary of the steady stream of negative economic news. He told us the people of Germany would very much like to return to the days when their economy was the envy of Europe, and the world. But will they be willing to ease up on worker protection laws, unemployment benefits, and a burdensome tax system? Most believe these kinds of reforms will help promote much-needed economic growth and job creation, by creating a more business-friendly environment.
Assuming Mrs. Merle and the CDU gain power, they will push for these kinds of reforms. But they will face formidable opposition every step of the way. Changes of this magnitude can be painful for any society. Mrs. Merle will certainly need to draw upon all of her political skills to move the country in the direction it needs to go.
I think part of her challenge is to educate the German people about the realities of the new global economy. The world is a more competitive place than it was 15 or 20 years ago. The conditions that helped produce Germany’s post-war “economic miracle” are simply not there anymore. In this new global landscape, I believe the countries that will prosper are those that can embrace innovation and entrepreneurship, and part of that involves cutting government restrictions and bureaucracy. Germany clearly has a vast pool of educated, talented people to draw upon. But it’s an open question as to whether that talent will be fully utilized in this new world order.
It was especially fascinating to see Germany grappling with another huge challenge: immigration. One of the current sources of conflict is the failure of the Turkish community to fully assimilate into German society. If you want to know who is to blame for the situation, the answer will vary, depending on who you ask.
Mr. Özcan Multi, a Turkish member of parliament, told us too many Germans have not been tolerant and accepting of Turks. And Mr. Multi said it was this prevailing attitude, based on fear and prejudice that has been a huge obstacle to assimilation.
But the following day, Mayor Heinz Buschkowsky said it’s the Turks themselves who must do a better job of adapting to German culture and customs. He was a most persuasive and passionate speaker, and seemed to convey a genuine admiration for his many Turkish constituents. But he was also adamant that the Turks living in Germany need to be more willing to adapt to their new culture, even if this means abandoning many customs brought over from the old country.
In the end, both Mr. Multi, and Mayor Buschkowsky made some valid points. But when you look at the history of immigration in the U.S., it would seem the primary burden for assimilation rests with those who’ve come to a new country, in search of a better life.
The debate over assimilation is one of the key questions facing the European Union. In this regard, our lunch at the EU headquarters with Mr. Martin Harvey was most illuminating. He talked about the prospects for Turkey’s eventual membership in the European Union. It’s a controversial question, because as Mr. Martin told us, Turkey is 99 percent Muslim. Some Europeans worry about the effect this could have on their historically Christian continent. There is widespread concern that the fundamental character of Europe might be altered in important ways.
But at the same time, Turkish membership in the EU could also represent a tremendous opportunity. A Muslim country, so closely associated with Europe, could build bridges of understanding, and trust, at a time when they’re desperately needed. Turkey is still several years away from being a full partner in the EU, but if the process is successful, it could be a giant step forward in reducing tensions between the Western democracies, and the countries of the Middle East.
We also spent a good deal of time talking about the current rift between the U.S. and Europe. At the Federal Foreign Office, Mr. Rolf-Dieter Schnozzle painted a rather grim picture. He no doubt expressed the views of many Germans when he described the current U.S. administration as reckless, militaristic, unwilling to work with its allies, and unable to grasp the complexity of global problems. This of course is not how most Americans view their own country. Despite the current strains in the relationship, I think Europe and the U.S. still have much more in common than the issues that divide us. We both have a deep belief in the value of liberal democracy, and we both must deal with the growing threat of global terrorist organizations. One would hope that future leaders in both Europe and the U.S. will have the vision, energy, and eloquence to strengthen the relationship, and see beyond the present difficulties.
As a powerful country in the center of Europe, Germany’s relationship with the U.S. will always have a ripple effect on the rest of the continent. And that’s why it’s been such a privilege and a pleasure to be part of the RIAS program, and watch history unfold from such an up-close perspective.
But RIAS is about more than giant historical issues. It’s also about dozens of smaller moments, experiences, and one-on-one encounters that help shed light on a country of immense warmth and cultural richness. Whether it’s attending the opera in Berlin, marveling at a restored cathedral in Dresden, or soaking up the small-town charm of Görlitz, RIAS fellows enjoy a glimpse of Germany that would be hard to duplicate any other way. And it’s these personal memories that are very often the most enduring of all.
Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio, St. Paul, MN
As I look at the photographs I took during my RIAS Fellowship in Berlin, I’m struck by the landscape I see. Rare is the photo of a Berliner, or even fellowship colleagues. Instead, my photos accurately reflect my time in Berlin as a walking meditation on architecture, history, place and politics. Indeed, while in Berlin for a full two weeks on the program, I found myself engrossed in questions of history and civic beauty, enveloped by a city whose architecture reveals a Berlin that is at once stunning and struggling.
Take the Berliner Dome, for instance. The Dome is not unlike the cathedrals found in most European cities. It is ornate and spacious, a quiet refuge. But like much of Berlin, the Dome is a late 20th century reconstruction of Baroque elegance that bends a wistful nod toward Berlin’s past, and hopeful future.
The Berliner Dome’s shadow looms large over the Unter den Linden boulevard. Across the street sits the Palace of the Republic. The “people’s palace,” as it is called, is a holdover from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) government. Built in 1976, it is in-sync with its era, with modern reflective glass and gleaming white paint. But, today the people’s palace is not only a gaping anachronism, it is, moreover, a blister on Berlin’s landscape. The Palace is literally falling apart. Its windows are scratched and dull, no longer reflecting the city’s beauty. It is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, uninviting and inaccessible.
I understand the government has big plans to return the space to what was originally on the palace grounds — the royal Hohenzollern palace. But I also heard that tearing down the people’s palace, and rebuilding the royal palace is tricky, politically and logistically. Reportedly, the foundation of the current but crumbling palace is holding in the River Spree at its location. So, the structure remains, sprouting its own patina of rust and graffiti, an unusual sight on the pristine Unter den Linden. It looks to me like the people’s palace has become a tenacious, yet ambivalent monument to the GDR, to an era in Berlin’s history which many say will take generations of Germans to overcome.
Deliberate monument or not, the Palace of the Republic joins the ranks of Berlin’s many monuments and memorials — to victims, to victors, to Germany’s ongoing struggle to exorcise its 20th century missteps.
But Berlin is also championing contemporary architecture as a symbol of moving Germany forward. The Reich-stag, the Sony Center, the Jewish Museum, and the holocaust memorial, are just a few examples of such places of which shape, materials and design speak volumes about the innovation of the German people and the ongoing task to shape a national identity.
For me, one of the most striking, impressive and moving structures in Berlin is the Reichstag. It is a living monument to Germany’s harrowing modern Volk history and the country’s democratic present and future.
The thoughtful re-design of the Reichstag’s interior is inspiring. Encasing parliament under glass is a powerful metaphor for a society dedicated to keeping government open and accountable. The inscription at the entrance to the parliament building reads Dem Deutschen Volke. Literally translated, it means to the German People, plural. Again, the architecture speaks, and continually renews, the Reich-stag as a monument to plurality and democracy.
Paul Junge, KSPR Springfield 33, Springfield, MO
This program was simultaneously intellectually enriching and a whole lot of fun. Even before you get over the jet lag you start absorbing the sights and sounds of a different country. And one of the great things about this program, you don’t just see some of the noteworthy tourist spots, you also get an opportunity to talk about substantive issues with Germans who can speak with you in English.
I thought the bus tour of Berlin on Sunday was a good starting point. It gave us a lay of the land and a little time to interact with our RIAS Fellows. I understand the “Blind Date” dinner is scheduled for Sunday night so that we might get together with our host a second time. They took me to their home in a community in a part of Berlin I would not have otherwise seen. It was interesting to talk with this German couple — get their take on events in Germany and international politics.
Our first day was a full day. The morning speaker, Thomas Habitat, had a compelling personal/professional story and had some great insights about Germany. The tour of the Stasi prison was sobering, the tour guide a great guy. The reception hosted by the American Embassy was great. The setting at the Ritz was nice and the opportunity to meet 10-12 English speakers with different backgrounds was another great opportunity to learn about conditions in Germany.
The trip to Potsdam was great. Exposure to the Holocaust history, the meeting place for the Big Three at the end of WWII, and Sanssouci were all very relaxed and a great supplement to all the structured activities in Berlin during the week. The cabaret Saturday night was also fun.
Our first evening with the walking tour of Brussels and dinner at the Grand Place was very pleasant. NATO on Tuesday was very good. I learned quite a bit about current activities of the alliance as a whole and some of its member nations. The speakers were all high quality and the lunch was a continuation of the good exchange of ideas.
The hotel in Hamburg was a great location. Close to the harbor and walking to some of the other tourist/night spot attractions. The Airbus tour was well done. A tour of a very different industrial model than you would see in the U.S. And just interesting to see jet airplanes being built. Watching Zgorzelec was interesting. As a TV journalist seeing the similarities and differences in how this German news cast is put together was interesting. The boat tour of the harbor on a beautiful sunny morning was relaxing and helped emphasize the importance of trade in this port city.
In Dresden, we had dinner with a representative of the minister for Economy and Labor of the federal state of Saxony. It was another highlight. Great setting along the river in Dresden and a good meal. His frank and open discussion of issues provided great insight and was just a lot of fun.
I am glad we got the chance to tour Görlitz. Just another city to add to the perspective of German cities. Interesting to contrast former communist East German city with new German investment with former communist Zgorzelec in Poland which apparently has not received money from national capital. The tour guide was good and the people we met at the casual lunch were good to talk with.
This trip is everything I hoped it would be. I made friends with American journalists and learned a lot about German politics, economics and cultural perspective. I would never have gained this exposure and insight on any self directed tourist outing. I am glad I did quite a bit of reading to prepare for the trip and I would welcome the chance to do this kind of thing again.
Antwan Lewis, KTVK, Phoenix, AZ
While it is so easy to think of the “How I Spent My Summer…” essays we did as kids in school, it is with that same zeal and fervor that I recount my RIAS experience from June of this year. Most people tend to think of Germany as those old black and white, war-torn images we’ve seen in newsreels over the years. That is not the Germany I encountered. The country is green, the people are all so beautiful and the history is overwhelming.
Being a participant in the RIAS Journalist Exchange program helped bring all of this to focus for me. We were given firsthand insight into how Germany is trying to escape its infamous past, yet sustain itself for the future. It won’t be easy. The government is torn amongst varying political parties who all feel that “their way” is the best way. We got to see this up-close during the lectures and one-on-ones with those party representatives. It was even more evident during our visit to the Bundestag, where we witnessed Deutschland’s parliamentary process at work.
The trip to NATO headquarters in Brussels was also surreal. There were one or two times when I actually said to myself, “Oh my God… we’re at NATO. NATO!” Selfishly speaking though, I did wish we could have had more time in Brussels… but that’s another story. I think many of the journalist-participants had never been to Germany before, so again many of those preconceived notions extend from WW2. Having said that, Germany’s role in 20th century history hit home most for me during our visit to the Stasi prison and our lecture from the former inmate-turned-tour host. Seeing the water-torture device, those small cells with wooden beds and listening to this man tell us how he survived by reciting Shakespeare… was really a jolt in reality. That part of our well-planned itinerary stayed with me the most.
Speaking of the itinerary, there are no words to properly commend Rainer, Sandra, Miss Isabell Hoffman for the thought and correct decision making to expose a rounded view of an attention grabbing country to some “Deutschland-ignorant” American journalists. I still can’t get over the flight from Berlin to Belgium and just how smoothly everything went… despite the presence of over-packing on the part of some journalists who apparently didn’t read their paperwork beforehand (I’m not going to mention the train-boarding incident going to Dresden, but I think we all can smile about it now).
If you were to ask me my final impressions of my RIAS experience it would be the knowledge and pride that our RIAS hosts have in their country. They were able to answer every question without hesitation, and journalists can ask some interesting questions. I’ll remember lunching with Isabell in the cafeteria of her alma mater. I’ll remember excitedly trying Apfelstrudel made “the correct way”, because Sandra said there is no other way to have Apfelstrudel; when I asked Rainer which airline we were flying and he replied “Lufthansa. There IS no other airline in the world BUT Lufthansa!” (that one still cracks me up); my and Brandy’s blind date with Marco and Herdin from Deutsche Welle. Learning how to board the subway with my map and go off on my own and not get lost. I even went to the West side and visited the grave of Marlene Diet-rich and other notable Germans on one of our “free days”. But I’ll miss the most the “worry-less, carefree” faces of so many people that I passed on the street during the 2 week program. I would be lying if I didn’t say it made me long for a job where my facial expression could mirror them. Godspeed RIAS Berlin Commission and thanks for the memories.
Morag MacLachlan, WAGM-TV, Presque Isle, ME
An American in Germany
Shemale, net shirts and still wasser… just three of the many catch phrases my RIAS fellows and I stumbled upon as we made our way around Germany and Belgium. It’s been a week since I’ve made my way back to the States and I find myself missing everything German… the guttural language, the way the sun never seemed to set and the hospitality of our hosts. Although I am back at home, I have taken many lessons from my trip which have helped shape my new view of the world.
Merging of the old and new is the only way to describe Berlin. While shopping in some of the trendiest stores and boutiques, you walk outside with your packages bursting with the latest fashions only to see a bombed-out church. This image takes your imagination back sixty years to a world of fascism, oppression and evil. I liked the fact that this church and its notorious steeple were not repaired. It stands as a reminder of how far the country has come over the past six decades, but also stands out against the horizon so that no one ever forgets the suffering endured by millions.
I entered the country with no preconceived notions. You always hear that the English are snooty and the French are rude. All I knew about Germany was that any person I ran into that had visited the country had nothing but positive things to say. I am now one of those people. I fell in love with the country. Like in the shopping district, it is amazing to see the mix of new office buildings and hotels like those at Potsdamer Platz intermingling with bits of history like the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Tower. Visually the city was stunning.
Personality-wise, the German people couldn’t have been nicer. I do not speak any German, but that never seemed to be a problem. Waiters would trade out German menus for English ones. Germans would attempt to speak English. And like a Mad Libs book, Germans would help fill in my phrases as I struggled to speak less German… more a combination of the two languages… Germanish.
The phrase “the hostess with the mostess” is used in the U.S. to describe someone that goes above and beyond making you feel at home when you are visiting. That phrase perfectly describes my blind date night. The women that greeted me not only provided a delicious Thai dinner and an engaging conversation, but when I gave them a present, they emerged with a present for me. This amount of hospitality made me feel at home in a country thousands of miles away from my home.
But the main reason my twelve colleagues and I were in the country was to learn about the practice of journalism. I immediately became aware of a variety of differences. German news focuses more on national and international stories, while American news deals primarily with local stories. American news, specifically the FOX News Channel, attracts viewers using flashy graphics, breaking news and live shot after live shot. German news used graphics, but they were never in your face or overshadowing the story. The graphics nicely complimented the story. I didn’t see any useless live shots either. America has this obsession with showing a reporter live, as if seeing the reporter on the scene adds to the seriousness of the story or the reporter’s credibility. Sometimes it just looks silly, especially if nothing is going on at the location. At Tagesschau, I also learned that a professional reader may be hired to anchor the broadcast, instead of a journalist. This reader seemed a little stiff. Maybe that’s because American anchors are told to connect with their audience. There is a little more room for crosstalk, a time when a reporter can share a funny, personal story. But German news never digressed from its purpose…to relate the stories of the day.
I also enjoyed the candidness of the journalists we spoke with during our sessions. They openly answered our questions and did not shy away from criticizing the United States. I also appreciated their willingness to share how their careers have flourished. One of the public relations specialists from CNN even offered to show me around the satellite station. They were very hospitable and engaging.
I also appreciated many of the speakers we had agreeing to an interview. I was able to share stories with my Maine audience. Mainers experienced what it was like being a Stasi prisoner, being a member of Schröder’s Social Democratic Party and being an employee of the European Union as the organization was finishing up its US/EU summit.
From a bird’s eye view of Berlin’s skyline from atop the TV tower to an altercation with prostitutes on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, the trip to Germany was memorable and enlightening. I feel that I made a connection with a country that will last a lifetime and draw me back to over the Atlantic very soon.
Fred Martino, WGVU-TV/AM/FM, Grand Rapids, MI
My trip to Germany for the June study program with the RIAS Berlin Commission was the professional development experience of a lifetime. I am very grateful to RIAS Staff: Rainer Hasters, Executive Director; Sandra Fettke, Assistant; Isabell Hoffmann, Assistant
Their careful planning and organization made this a trip that was both educational and enjoyable. On personal level, they always made the group feel welcome and shared their knowledge of Germany. Thanks to their work, I was able to return to the United States with a much better knowledge of the third largest economy in the world.
The economy, in fact, was a central discussion everywhere in Germany. This parallel with the United States will be a core subject in my future broadcast work. Like the United States, Germany is dealing with the economic crisis of losing highly-paid jobs to lower-wage countries. From those young and old, I sense an even greater uncertainty in Germany on ways to deal with the challenge.
Most people in Germany seem unwilling to abandon the social welfare structure that has protected people during their careers and in their retirement. However, there is a sense that some change will be necessary in order to maintain the German standard of living. I hope that Germany will be able to maintain a free college education and free healthcare. These are areas in which Germany serves as an example to the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, it does not seem that the current political climate in Germany serves as an example to anyone. If a new government is elected in September, there will be enormous challenges ahead.
Most of the people that I interviewed seemed to be in utter despair over the current government. However, they were not sure about the alternatives, either. This seems to me to be a dangerous situation that is all too common in the United States. It leads to people who do not vote, because they feel they have no one to support. Worse yet, it leads others to vote for candidates based on issues which often have little to do with the major roles of government. To further complicate matters, the European Union seems to be in disarray. Vast differences between the countries in the Union seem to threaten the potential gains that the Union could bring to all of Europe.
I believe the only way to offer hope in the political arena is to have a free press which is aggressive in its reporting of political matters. The public broadcasting system in Germany offers the opportunity for this kind of work. I was impressed by the commitment of the German broadcasters that I had a chance to meet. I hope that Germany is able to maintain the strong public funding of its broadcasting system. It offers an excellent alternative to commercial broadcasting.
The public support for the broadcasting system was not surprising to me. Germany has a rich appreciation for its history and culture. I was extremely impressed with the wide array of museums, theaters, and other cultural institutions. I was also pleased to see that there is an appreciation for a wide variety of entertainment. While in Germany, I was able to enjoy everything from an opera to a cabaret with acrobats. Again, Germany offers a wonderful example to the world with its preservation of a diverse cultural experience. Ironically, appreciating diversity may also be Germany’s greatest challenge. I sensed a resistance among some to accept immigrants from Turkey, Russia, and other countries. No doubt, there is also resistance among some immigrants to embrace German culture.
On a positive note, our visit to a high school to meet a diverse class of young people was the highlight of the trip for me. These students offer Germany an opportunity to build a new future, while maintaining the positive aspects of German society. Given the chance to freely contribute to their home, Germany will become an even richer place to live and work.
Dugald McConnell, CNN, New York, NY
I was surprised to see how much change and flux there is in a society as old and established as Germany. Thanks to “die Wende,” the landscape of Berlin is changing faster than in most American cities — not only in the construction of new buildings and the redevelopment of whole new neighborhoods, but also in migrations (like the yuppies squeezing the Ossies out of Prenzlauer Berg.)
There is also plenty of change afoot in the government: instead of two static parties, there are four or five, because the legislature is elected by national slates rather than by district. Judging from the ‘real people’ I interviewed on camera for CNN, German voters entertain a wider variety of options than the standard American “either-or.” Coalition realignments are far more likely than in the US, making campaigns and elections more unpredictable, and more interesting. There’s an added political energy when parties are forming and re-forming, and a small party like the libertarian FDP can leverage themselves into a ruling coalition.
One constant among this flux, though, is the anti-war pacifism that seems to me almost a national religion. Lest anyone forget, everywhere you turn, there is another memorial to the horrors perpetrated during WWII. It is one thing to read that the German government opposes the war in Iraq, but quite another to see anti-war convictions thoroughly permeating everyone you meet. I think it is directly and sincerely derived from the country’s disastrous history of war — but it is also connected to a collective national guilt that Germans seem unable to put behind them. It seems to me that Germans are either in extraordinary agreement, or they preserve a political correctness that leaves little space for nationalism or national pride. I think this contributes to their enthusiasm for subsuming Germany into the EU, whose supranational ethos may be giving Germans a sense of comfort and the safety of a larger framework.
Another constant visible throughout the country is the German concept of the state’s responsibility to the public — and of the public’s obligations to society. Even if that concept is now up for review, the cooperative relationship between labor and corporations was striking, as was the assumption that it is natural for government to support anyone who needs help. Recent college graduates tell you it’s entirely natural for them and their friends to still be on the dole if they are unemployed two years after graduating.
But for all those differences, I was surprised at the number of similarities between Germany and the US, when it comes to culture and modern urban living. Sure, there are the museums and the monuments… but there are ads for iPods everywhere, the theaters are showing Hollywood releases, and the girl next to me on the train wants me to listen to U2 on her MP3 player. In the record store, there are shelves and shelves of rock — and then a separate shelf for German pop in the back.
The news media also show interesting similarities. While public broadcasting is dominant, there is now a mix of state-run and commercial television news. Journalistic techniques and norms — the commitment to beat reporting, the use of AvStar desktops — are very similar, judging by our studio visits and a “blind date” with a practicing journalist. The differences? We might learn from them: the public television news is better, better funded, and more influential; the stories are longer and fewer; and the highbrow national news is more popular than local news — an interesting contrast to the American landscape, where local news is more popular.
However, there seems to be less competition and less variety in German broadcast news. There also may be a different approach to bias, if I am to believe my journalist-host’s account: some individual editors are closely identified with one party or another, and the hierarchy in the newsroom can reflect the hierarchy in the Bundestag. American outlets, by contrast, are sometimes more blatant and forthcoming about their bias, and reflect a shared bias throughout the ranks of their newsroom — as students at Humboldt were quick to point out.
On a practical level, I was intrigued by some of the technical differences in the newsroom. Reporters are less likely to be in a stand-up, but their names are chyroned at the bottom; the anchor reads from paper rather than prompter during Tagesschau; and most interesting, reporters write and record track while they’re cutting! I’m so used to recording the narration first and adding the pictures afterwards that I hadn’t imagined you can write while you cut. I’m not entirely sold, but it’s interesting to see such a different approach, and I occasionally think about it while working on a story, now that I’m back in the States.
Rosemary Pennington, WBHM FM, Birmingham, AL
“I left another suitcase in Berlin…”
— Marlene Dietrich
Okay, so maybe I didn’t leave a suitcase there, but Berlin definitely holds a little piece of me. Maybe not my heart, perhaps just a finger, but whatever it is, it’s there. I will fully admit that not too long ago, Germany was not a place that interested me all that much. I longed to visit exotic locales like Kuala Lumpur or Nairobi; Germany, Western Europe as a whole, just seemed too “normal” to me, too similar to my American heritage. A whirlwind ten-day trip to Leipzig in college made me realize Germany is much more complicated than I could have ever imagined, and the RIAS trip reinforced that impression. I think, oftentimes, Americans get a blanket impression of what Western Europe is like — there’s the whole “Old Europe, New Europe” thing going on and then, what bit of European history we learn in school doesn’t really touch on the rich fabric that makes up the continent. As far as German history goes, we learn about Martin Luther, Germany’s role in World Wars I and II, its role in the Cold War, but that’s all folks. Which is a shame, the more we know and understand about one another, our histories and cultures, the easier it will be for us (the United States and Germany) to interact on the world stage.
That’s the beauty of the RIAS program; it allows journalists from both nations to experience the other’s culture. The core program in Germany may only last two weeks, but sometimes that’s all you need to open someone’s eyes to the complexities and the beauties of a place. I know that I have been going on and on about the experience since returning to Birmingham and the thing is, I can’t quite put into words how the experience impacted me. There were so many overwhelming “RIAS moments” — as Dan Godwin likes to call them — I seem to be having trouble sorting them all out. I mean, when one trip includes the Holocaust Memorial, a Dalai Lama sighting, NATO and, yes, the Reeperbahn — how could one possibly find words to do the experience justice?
For me a couple of days stand out. Our trip to the Stasi Prison. You would not believe how many people have asked me who the Stasi were. The Stasi were so pivotal to the existence of the GDR, I find it strange that not more people know of them. Being in those buildings affected me in a profound way. Our tour guide had such a positive, bright, optimistic aura about him — it was hard to imagine he had been locked away in that place for seven years. I’m quite sure I would have gone mad if I had been in his shoes. I could say something corny about the resilience of the human spirit here, but I won’t.
Another day that stands out for me was our adventure to Potsdam. It was such a strange series of emotional highs and lows. I’ll never be able to erase from my mind the juxtaposition of the loveliness of the Wannsee Villa and the savagery of the photos contained therein. It all felt so wrong, to be able to think of what a beautiful place it was and to know what took place there. And then to go on to Cecilienhof and see old Uncle Joe smiling down at me in the room where the Potsdam Agreement was drawn up, what a surreal moment.
Again, the wonderfulness of the entire trip was that it took you through a gamut of emotions and histories. It really helps you to understand the fractured psyche of the German people; well, maybe not totally understand, but you are able to get a better grasp on why Germany is the way it is today. For me, it’s created this hunger to know more and understand more about Germany, its place in Europe and its relationship with the United States. Also, to try to educate others by sharing my experience as a RIAS fellow.
And I can’t leave out my fellow RIAS-ers. What an interesting and eclectic mix of people. I think our group played just as big a role in what I took from the experience as the meetings and trips themselves. How will I ever be able to forget that disastrous train boarding in Hamburg? Or Paul Junge yelling through the streets of Brussels that we were going to find “The Piss Boy”? Or Dan Godwin proclaiming himself the “King of Fun”? They were people I quickly felt at ease with — which is saying a lot because I’m not really an extroverted person. There’s a reason I work in public radio, you know. But each and every one of them contributed something to the overall experience.
All in all the RIAS adventure was a profoundly positive one. Some days were more exciting than others, that’s the case with anything in life, but I did get something out of all our meetings. I feel like I walked out of that experience with so much more than I could ever hope to give back. And I will certainly be recommending the exchange to other journalists I know. Everyone can benefit from a little eye opening from time to time — especially if it involves some crazy cabaret.
Sarah Rall, KELO-TV, Sioux Falls, SD
June of 2005 became a highlight in my journalism career and personal life from the moment I stepped off the plane in Berlin. This was my first trip overseas, and I was anxious to learn about this “amazing experience” that I had been told about by fellow coworkers.
Although the attitudes between former East and West Germany are still recognizable, the collage of ‘today’s Germany’ does portray one country — but a country in a constant battle for reunification. This was apparent through our many meetings with political, financial, and economic leaders. Reunification remains a goal, but despite apparent progress and changes, many remain hesitant to say it has been successful. It was especially apparent in Berlin. The developing city has seemingly endless possibilities. It is young, urban, and cultural; a combination rivaled by few European cities, and even less in America. I am excited to return in future years to see the changes and developments that Berlin has the potential to offer.
To be welcomed at NATO and the European Union was an amazing experience. I enjoyed learning the history of both organizations and having their missions and accomplishments explained to our group. The question and answer portions of the visits also proved to be very interesting. Especially in the wake of post-9/11, we were able to see the changes and strategies that had evolved. This along with the world’s status post Operation Iraqi Freedom and Chancellor Schröder’s call for snap elections made for an exciting time for my generation to witness and experience European culture and politics.
The tour of the German Bundestag gave us a chance to see parliament and the beautiful, historic Reichstag building where legislative decisions are made. Although, working part-time on my station’s website has helped me to understand how globalized media and politics has become, I was repeatedly surprised at how much Europeans know and care about the U.S. political structure, and how much I had to learn about their system. Our coordinators from the RIAS-Berlin Office were extremely helpful and did an excellent job explaining European government to the English-only speakers in the group!
The war in Iraq and the attitude of the Bush Administration are important topics in understanding the U.S.-German relationship. On the German front, you have a country heavily knowledgeable in international politics and world views. This is also a country that is no doubt still feeling the economic, social, and emotional effects of war. Given the role of the U.S. in Iraq, this blend made for many great discussions within our group of RIAS fellows, and with the time we were able to spend at a university and high school in Berlin. The views of the students were unique because you were able to ask and hear responses from a generation that is growing up in Germany; not East or West. One of the more interesting discussions we were able to have was with a group of high school students at Ernst-Abbe-Oberschule. The school is dealing with several multi-cultural issues: students caught between the cultures of their ancestors, living in Germany and not being German, voting rights, and how they viewed the U.S. After visiting the European Union and hearing more about the controversial proposal to allow Turkey to become part of the EU, I had a better understanding of what the Turkish students were dealing with growing up in Germany.
The food, drinks, entertainment and atmosphere were so refreshing everywhere we visited. The lifestyle in Europe is much different and more relaxed than in the U.S. One evening we were able to spend with a German family, we discovered several differences within similar job descriptions. Although Germany is struggling to find solutions for an unstable economy and job market, the German culture allows more time for vacations and holidays. One German I spoke with in Dresden was shocked at how little ‘free time’ many Americans were able to enjoy. This along with health benefits and unemployment services made for another eye-opening conversation. Despite the differences, I was also surprised at how many problems are similar between the two countries. Both Germany and the U.S. are currently working to solve immigration and federal budget concerns. In the aftermath of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and now Hurricane Katrina, both countries are looking at rebuilding efforts and possible changes in government.
As a RIAS fellow, I had the opportunity to see the stories I write about at my TV station and have a better understanding of how European nations work next to each other. Through our travels in Germany, I was surprised at how many similarities the German culture has to my home state. From agriculture and ranching to newly developing wind farms, there were several important economical cornerstones relied on by both Germany and the Midwest. Over 50 million Americans are of German decent, my family included, and it was enlightening to see the cultural bridges throughout the trip. In light of the wealth of German heritage in the midwest, I was delighted to visit Sioux Falls’ beautiful sister city, Potsdam. I noticed many differences, yet with a nearly a 1,000 year head-start, Potsdam and Sioux Falls also have several similarities. With roughly the same population, both cities are in the process of developing new housing areas for the growing population and glorifying the natural beauty in historic districts.
My RIAS experience has already been the focus for many inspiring conversations, and I have a feeling that it will be a trip and a program I will be telling stories about for years to come. One of our fellow RIAS colleagues referred to the RIAS program as life-changing, and I think for many of us it was. I have returned home with a better sense of what global media means and what role I play in interpreting international perspectives. June of 2005 will be remembered as one of the most eye-opening learning adventures of my life.
Jim Randle, Voice of America, Washington, D.C.
I am considerably less ignorant of German and European economics and politics than I was a couple of months ago.
You have amazing contacts and access to top level speakers and sources all over Germany and in Brussels. A couple of times I had the experience of reading a front-page article on an economic or political topic and saw that the people quoted were the ones we had just finished interviewing.
After reading everything I can get my hands on and interviewing all the thoughtful people available, my impression is that Germany faces significant problems, but also has significant human, financial, and political resources to solve these problems.
I’m certain that Germany will work through its economic problems and move forward strongly. It will take some time, but it took decades of mis-planned economics, a devastating war, and 12 years in a political wilderness to get into this mess. So it seems reasonable to allow a little time to clean it up. A Humboldt University economist told me in an interview that it will take more than one generation and a change in thinking.
A diplomat with wide experience in the third world put it best — “Germany is the richest poor country you will ever see.”
I think he is right. As I traveled all over Eastern Germany on the second-class trains, I was expecting to find a smoldering moonscape. Instead, I saw large, beautifully-tended farms, neat towns, brand-new high-tech windmills, and yes, some closed factories with broken windows. For comparison, a similar train trip across supposedly-wealthy China shows people cultivating tiny fields with wooden plows, and a cow, donkey — or the farmer’s wife — pulling the plow.
In Germany, I also found well-educated, thoughtful people who are trying to figure out how to build a new society that balances the need to stimulate business with the need to protect workers and take care of vulnerable citizens.
At least two German friends joked that if there is ever an Olympic Gold medal for whining, Germany will win it every time. That is a bit harsh. I actually think Germany is in the middle of a democratic process of designing a future. And democracy is chaotic, disorganized, maddening, messy — and the right thing to do.
I think Germans need to look at where they have come from, as well as where they want to go. While it is healthy for them to compare their society to a utopian ideal, it would also be a good idea to compare their evolving society to the messier alternatives in the rest of the world. And celebrate their considerable achievements once in a while.
Thanks again for allowing me to be part of this program. I learned a huge amount, enjoyed myself, and made some good friends.
Jenny Rizzo, WFTX-TV, FOX 4 News, Cape Coral, FL
As a journalist, the RIAS Berlin fellowship experience was more than I could have asked for: informational, intriguing, international, and just plain fun! I look back now and marvel at the access our fellowship group had to policy makers, political leaders, business professionals and just ordinary people. The itinerary was planned perfectly, to give us glimpses of all areas of European life. Everything that I learned on this trip is useful to me as a journalist, and as a person. Now that I am back in the States, I know I think differently about stories I report and read because of what I learned on this fellowship.
For me, the most educational portion of the fellowship was the international focus. Touring the European Union and NATO headquarters allowed me to see the world in another dimension. The time we spent talking with political leaders, policy makers, diplomats and their staffers was quite informative. I believe I have a much broader understanding of the power of our military and the necessity of an integrated international community. A lot of our discussions centered on the Iraq conflict and the Bush administration’s handling of the re-construction process. But I was surprised to learn about the commitments other countries have made to stabilize relations in Iraq as well. I think by being an American, the news we get is very filtered and domestic-focused. Just living in Europe for 2 weeks, I was able to see how much more “international” all of the Europeans are. I particularly enjoyed going to an EU press briefing, and listening to the question and answer portions through the translation headphones. It was truly a taste of “international reporting.”
One of the issues I found most fascinating to learn about this trip, was the question of whether or not the European Union should admit Turkey. The point that drove it home for me, personally, was when one diplomat gave the example of the United States admitting Mexico as its 51st state. He emphasized the problems that could happen if a huge population base made up of a different cultural background was admitted into an economically-stable 1st world country. That is what Europe is facing (and more specifically England, Germany and France), if they were to admit Turkey. The other side to the coin however, is if Turkey is not admitted, the country may seek to align with another neighboring country that is not as “democratic.” The RIAS fellows benefited from the knowledge and insight of several speakers, who talked about Turkey’s Islamic population, and their government structure, which is different from all other Islamic countries. As someone seated on the sidelines of history, it will be interesting as a world citizen and as a journalist to see what the EU decides.
Germans are an interesting group of people, and 14 days in their country gave me some insight into what makes them tick. First of all, it was fascinating to see how successful the reconstruction of Germany has been since World War II. It gave me hope that Iraq will turn out this way, and the US relations with Iraq will someday be similar to our relations with Germany. I am impressed with how respectful the German people are of their troubled past, and how they have combined reflection and memorials with their modern world. Learning about the country’s political structure, and the current chaos with the social policy crisis was quite interesting. I went into this fellowship thinking that social programs are good and important for a wealthy nation to offer its people, and I left seeing how much excess can ruin a financially stable population. It will be interesting to see what the fall elections result in. Germans are accustomed to a certain way of life, which the government can no longer provide on such a grand scale. Our meetings with trade unions, politicians, and labour representatives only emphasized to me the diversity of opinions on what the government should and should not bankroll. Again, this is a case where it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. And I think as Americans, we have a lot to learn from the German example. German news was also eye-opening to this American journalist.
The country itself was also impressive to experience. Our Spring 2005 trip was timed quite well, and we were able to enjoy beautiful weather for our entire trip. That allowed us a lot of pleasant walking trips throughout Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden and Görlitz. All the German cities are very clean, which is not always the case in Europe. And there was a beautiful combination of modern buildings with some relics from the past. Dresden in particular was completely under construction and I would like to revisit when they have rebuilt and renovated all of their structures. I really fell in love with Berlin, and was surprised to learn there are still thousands of empty apartments there. Even though it’s only been 60 years since the end of World War II, Germany has really rebuilt its western side to be beautiful and modern. The eastern cities still need improvements, but work has already been done. I could see examples of the future and the past in Görlitz, where we walked through re-finished town squares and yet there were abandoned factories still standing in the city limits. The East-West reunion is still a fascinating topic to explore and I appreciate the opportunity to learn firsthand how this country melded together after a historic divide.
Germany is a lovely country and it offers a lot to its people: modern cities, a lush countryside, and pristine lakes. I can see why so many people enjoy living in Germany and I would love to be one of them! My 14-day experience in Europe just whetted my appetite to be an international journalist. I now find myself searching for international headlines in the newspaper, and watching the German political news reports with interest. I am more inspired than ever to return to Europe to travel, to learn and to hopefully find a job and work one day. I cannot thank the RIAS Berlin Commission enough for allowing me this tremendous opportunity to broaden my world.
RIAS Germany Program – Fall
September 17 – October 2, 2005
Twelve American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt/Main, and Leipzig.
Individual extension program for four participants.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
Parke Brewer, Voice of America, Washington, D.C.
It was hard to believe that in all my travels of more than 20 years covering international sports for Voice of America that the only time I had set foot in Germany was passing through the Frankfurt Airport en route to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Since I have some German heritage, it was always a place I wanted to visit. And when I first heard about the RIAS Berlin journalist exchange program six years ago from a VOA colleague of mine who had participated and highly recommended it, I had vowed to myself that I would apply to the program at some time in the near future. I didn’t think it would take so long, but the timing just never seemed to work out.
I knew I wanted to work on some stories previewing the World Cup, so I applied and got accepted for the two-week extension. And what terrific subjects were lined up. My extension appointments met and exceeded the great interview sessions our group had as part of the two-week core program in Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt and Leipzig. Naturally, when our group got its itinerary ahead of our travels to Germany, I was excited to see that our first week included a tour of Olympiastadion. Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, built for the 1936 Summer Olympics under Hitler’s rule, will host the opening Gala June 7 and six World Cup matches, including the final on July 9. It has been completely renovated and our press tour guide, Christoph Meyer, was excellent. When he told us a Bundesliga first division soccer match would be played there the next night, most of us decided we would go. We watched Hertha Berlin against Duisburg in a tight game that saw the home team win in the final minute. But what was maybe more exciting was being among the passionate German fans, drinking and sharing pleasantries with them in broken German and English. We even came across the official Hertha Berlin fan club trailer after the match (it was hard to miss with all the blaring music and commotion), and we joined them for a bit to celebrate. Many of us felt our night at Olympiastadion was a highlight of our stay. Of course, as a sports editor and one who follows international soccer, it was great to share this experience with the others in our group who had never heard of the Bundesliga or Hertha Berlin.
There was never a dull day the entire month I spent on the RIAS program. What incredible opportunities we had to meet with high-level officials everywhere we went — from the Reichstag Parliament Building to the European Union to NATO. The information we gleaned was like taking a high level college course (or two). Since I know my colleagues will mostly be concentrating their essays on many of the meetings and events in the two-week core program, plus the exciting and intriguing national election, I want to share some thoughts on my two-week extension.
I returned to Frankfurt where RIAS set me up to interview the man second in charge of Germany’s World Cup Organizing Committee, Wolfgang Niersbach. What a privilege. He is feeling a lot of pressure as the countdown gets shorter for his nation to host the most watched sporting event in the world. He was so busy talking on the phone that it took him a few moments to realize his secretary had let me in for the interview. He acknowledged there was still work to be done on the 12 stadiums that will host games, but vowed everything would be ready for the kickoff of the opening match in Munich on June 9. And what a stadium in Munich. It’s nicknamed the spaceship, and it was easy to see why. The complete outside of the circular structure is covered with inflated panels, or cushions, that are translucent. Inside each is a light bar with three colors, red, white and blue. At night, the color lighting up the entire stadium corresponds to which team is playing inside. White is for international matches, so that’s how it will shine during the World Cup. It is an impressive sight either by day or night. And I was fascinated by how business is conducted when the local soccer teams, Bayern Munich and TSV 1860, play there. It is completely cashless — fans must use plastic cards that have to have Euro amounts loaded on them to allow them to park, get through the turnstiles into the stadium and for purchasing food at the concession stands.
The other very impressive stadium I visited was the one in Gelsenkirchen, and as it later turned out at the December 9 tournament draw in Leipzig, that will be the stadium where the U.S. Soccer Team plays its opening World Cup match June 12 against the Czech Republic. It is rated five stars by soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, for good reason. It is completely enclosed and has a grass field that grows and is maintained outside in a huge tray that is rolled into the stadium on special rails, only for matches. Otherwise the floor of the stadium is concrete and can be used for concerts and other special events. A great design. No artificial turf necessary and you have a huge, multi-purpose facility where weather is never a factor.
The last time Germany hosted a World Cup was in 1974, but that was when the nation was divided and it was staged only by the West. Now the country is united and is preparing for tens of thousands of extra visitors throughout the nation next June for the World Cup. I am sure they will be as impressed as I was. I look forward to returning myself, and I hope and believe my experience will be as fantastic as it was on the RIAS program.
Ed. Carlos, KIRO 7 Eyewitness News, Seattle, WA
It is said that Berlin is a city in transition. Never staying the same for long, and always moving forward. The same can be said of its people. In the twenty years since I last visited the walled city, things definitely changed. New neighborhoods were going in where no-man’s land once stood. The wall was down, new buildings were going up. But one thing remained the same: its people.
I had forgotten how warm and open they are towards foreigners. Their friendly openness accepted our group as though we were old friends. We were not only foreigners on their soil, but foreigners in their parliament, their offices, and in their homes. And everywhere we went, we were welcomed in. On an elevator in the Reichstag, the Defense Minister, the Interior Minister and the Education Minister all had the misfortune of riding with us. They smiled politely, and then broke out in English: “Welcome to Germany!”
Our German hosts for our “blind dates” were equally gracious. Our host tried to explain the German election system to us. But as hard as our American minds would try, it was hard for us to imagine a five party system, and understand how parties can form coalitions — something un-heard of in American politics.
Then, talk of the various Jamaica, traffic light or whatever coalition might form that night started popping up. Exasperated, she invited a friend who spoke German and English fluently to help translate. The coalition lesson was political science lecture for another time. But the important lesson we learned that night is how the German people wanted change, but seemed hesitant to do it. The former east wants to grow up fast; while the west cautions it not to grow up so quickly.
Even the officials we spoke to were official at first, but eventually loosened up as the hour wore on. The head of the largest union in Germany became opinionated once he grew tired of dancing around the niceties of politics.
Perhaps the reason why the German people are so receptive and welcoming is because of what they have had to go through since the Berlin Wall came down. Thomas Habicht of Rundfunk Berlin Brandenburg described for us the Berlin immediately following reunification. How there was so much promise, so many dreams and how easily all of it would be to attain. But then the logistics kicked in: sewers, electricity, and utilities had to be made one.
That was the easy part. Fifteen years after reunification — like a typical teenager — Berlin is still searching for an identity. On the one hand, it is trying to console its post-war, national-socialist and communist past. And on the other, it wants to heal old wounds quickly, build over the scar of the Berlin Wall and move on.
As we moved on from the city to the countryside, the German people seemed to become friendlier. Who would have expected that the border police stationed at the town of Frankfurt an der Oder had humor? The woman border guard who was flustered by forgetting her newly-wed name broke the ice. Even her former East German guards were laughing. Then we sat down to dinner with college students. We learned that German college students had the same fears of their American counterparts: where shall I go for my first job? Will I have a job? Who will I date?
It seemed everywhere we went, we were the loud Americans. Not to be outdone, several Germans took us up on the challenge. On the train from Frankfurt (am Main) to Leipzig, we were a whisper, compared to the boisterous Germans who joined our group. They were on a trip for a weekend celebrating with their friend. Their celebration started early, on the eastbound train. At that point, it seemed as though we had been celebrating for a week since our planes landed in Germany.
We were not only happy to be there. But we realized how fortunate we were at being able to have access to buildings, people and stories that the usual tourist would not be exposed to.
Language was not a barrier in our travels. The checker at the nearby Spar store may have admonished us for trying to take a “free” shopping bag without paying. But the waitress at the Café Baum in Leipzig did not seem to mind our asking for the -th time to repeat the dessert menu. Nor did the woman at the Steiff store mind when we were reduced to playing a pantomime guessing game when we wanted a sheep puppet to buy. They kept talking in German, and we kept gesturing in English. And somehow, we knew what each other was talking about.
No, language was not a barrier. In fact, it seemed to help us. At a Hertha soccer game in Berlin, we started conversations with “zwei biers, bitte.” Our hooligan friends picked up on our American accents, and welcomed us into their fold. Explaining in hand gestures and broken German and English, we managed to figure out what was happening on the field. Eventually, one of our new-found friends did speak English, but asked we speak “langsam” (slowly) to him. He became the translator for the rest of the game. In the end, despite the language difference, the German folks made us feel as though we were watching a football game at home.
The soccer game, I think, was a breaking-out point for some of us on the trip. We ventured across town by ourselves, we stuck our necks out to meet complete strangers, and we had a great time. It opened the way for us to feel as though we belonged with the people, and in the country.
It is said that Berlin is a city in transition. Never staying the same for long, and always moving forward. Its buildings serve as a backdrop for an ever-changing foreground of people. And thankfully, the people never changed.
Elizabeth Franko, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO
I am still feeling the impact of the RIAS exchange program in my life, my research and my outlook on contemporary European politics. The RIAS program brings together a really impressive group of up and coming journalists and occasionally academics (like me). From the moment you arrive in Berlin, you are treated with care and respect. The hotel accommodations, social activities, opera, and events are arranged with an impressive precision — so you will have a very thorough and engaging experience every moment of the trip.
I was most impressed with our short stay in Brussels. Our time with the EU staffers, and just being in beautiful Brussels, had a huge impact on my research agenda. I am now planning to study EU development programs and possibly move to Brussels. I owe this tremendous awakening to the RIAS program. I was universally inspired by the high-level officials we were given the opportunity to meet with, and these meetings greatly expanded my knowledge about Germany and Europe.
Moreover, I felt the RIAS staff, as well as the German people we met, dealt honestly and openly with contemporary and historical issues facing Germany. We met with several officials and representatives who were critical about both German history and Germany’s recent crises. This enabled an honest and uncensored dialogue on issues that affect Germany, and broadened the possible relevance of these issues to the United States. Our trip came at a particularly tense time in U.S.-EU relations, with the Iraq war looming over every discussion. Germany’s own troubled history and path out of violence and authoritarianism stood as an inspiration on this side of the Atlantic. Further, RIAS itself endures as a tremendous example of what the United States can do as a constructive force in the world.
All in all, the RIAS trip is an excellent chance to make friends, grow professionally, and contribute to transatlantic relations. I would go again in a second!
Akiko Fujita, NorthWest Cable News, Seattle, WA
It is tough to put into words a 2-week adventure that took me on a whirlwind tour of Germany, gave me a crash course on the country’s history and media, and exposed me to perspectives in a way no other experience could. In short, the RIAS-Berlin program provided me with valuable insight into a country still trying to learn from its past while trying to create a new identity for the future.
Our visit to the Reichstag building in Berlin was among the highlights of the program. We visited just days after a historic election left the country without a majority party in power. This enabled us to learn first hand the complexities of the German political system, and the challenges of finding a compromise in the post-reunification era. While discussions with political party leaders were interesting, I was equally captivated by the architecture of the government buildings. Every corner of the buildings was filled with symbolism and reminders of the turbulent history of the country. I was particularly struck by how Germans were so accepting of their past and so willing to learn from mistakes made. Both were largely reflected in the designs of the buildings.
Immigration, high unemployment, and the East-West divide were constant topics of discussion throughout the trip. Those challenges were most evident in our trip to Leipzig. Upon our arrival there, the mayor discussed the strain reunification had put on cities in the former East Germany: 150-thousand manufacturing jobs lost in Leipzig alone, a drastic increase in unemployment numbers across the board. Despite the negative effects, I was struck by the will and determination of those in the city to rise to the top. I saw that first hand at the Porsche factory where thousands worked to build some of the world’s most reliable cars. Christian Führer of Nikolai Church helped put the city’s sudden transformation into perspective by sharing stories about the former GDR with the RIAS group. He discussed how a peaceful protest in 1989 helped set the stage for the future of Leipzig and paved the way for a unified Germany.
Our visit to the European Union in Brussels helped put some of the challenges we heard about in Germany in perspective as well. As bad as the economy was in Germany, the country was by no means alone. Member states were all undergoing transformations, shaped largely by the EU’s economic and social policies. I was especially interested to hear the ongoing debate about whether or not Turkey should become a member of the EU. The officials we met with discussed the complex relationship Turkey had with other member states and laid out reasons why so many were resistant to the idea of an EU that included Turkey. The more we heard the debates, the more it began to sound like a continent that was torn between people who wanted to be more inclusive and those who wanted the “identity” of Europe clearly defined. In between our meetings, we had a chance to attend an EU press conference. I was stunned to see the lack of presence on behalf of the U.S. media. It was very discouraging to see that there was absolutely no American interest in the everyday events within the EU.
Meetings with German Journalists proved to be the most valuable part of the trip for me. In Berlin we met with Reuters reporter Erik Kirschbaum and political editor Thomas Habicht. Both discussed the differences between American and German media. I learned that German media highlighted the importance of international coverage, unlike American media coverage, which was dominated by domestic news. American news stories tended to be more character driven while German stories were driven by policies. That difference was further emphasized in our meeting with Claus Kleber, the anchor of ZDF. I was surprised to hear that ZDF and ARD, both paid for by a public fee had the popularity to draw more than 20-percent of the viewers on any given night. It was refreshing to hear that there was still an audience that valued international news coverage, and journalists who were willing to push for that coverage. I was blown away by the discrepancies in the number of foreign bureaus between American and German news organizations. Despite those discrepancies, I walked away from the program with a newfound appreciation for the craft of journalism and a reporter’s ability to tell stories and “shed light” on issues all across the world. I know the lessons learned through RIAS will prove to be valuable in my career, wherever it may take me.
Leanne Gregg, NBC NewsChannel, Denver, CO
My expectations were high based on what I had heard from former RIAS participants, but I was not prepared for the onslaught of great experiences every day that were part of the RIAS program. The diversity of speakers, content of their messages, and the impact on me personally were more than I had hoped for or expected.
Each day had highlights. My favorite was the brief, but powerful summary by Mr. Christian Führer, vicar of the Niklai church in Leipzig who eloquently explained, “the quiet revolution that started like a mustard grain,” and helped end a chain of violence and oppression through peaceful demonstrations. His description of the night outside the church when thousands of people with candles were able to disarm the military, and change the course of history still brings tears to my eyes when thinking of their bravery.
Many experiences and discussions helped us better understand what life must have been like under Germany’s former dictatorships, and the political and social forces that came together to bring about their end. It was interesting to learn how psychologically and physically unprepared the East and West were for re-unification. No one thought it would happen in their lifetime. It was even more interesting to see how Germany has dealt with redefining itself after the fall of the wall. One amazing moment was sitting at a table by the Brandenburg Gate on Unification Day, seeing so many smiling faces, while considering what happened at that very spot that caused grief, hardship and pain.
Another place that left an unforgettable impression was the site of the Wannsee Conference in Potsdam where German officers made the decision for, “the final solution.” Most were speechless during the tour of the mansion. Surrounded by the natural beauty of gardens, wildlife and sunshine, it was a chilling spot.
I was struck by Germany’s efforts to acknowledge its past at its worst and best. The RIAS program showed us both.
Free time allowed opportunities to explore museums, take leisurely walks along the café districts, and shop. Those were valuable times as well. Meeting storekeepers, waiters, people on the underground going about their daily lives provided some of the most profound realizations of the trip. One of those realizations was just how much disdain some Europeans have for Americans. A group of us were caught off guard when on two separate occasions people threw things at us (beer and something else not appropriate to mention) as we were strolling down the streets of Brussels and probably speaking in our, oh so loud, American way. I expected anti-American sentiments, but feeling it first hand drove home the point.
During a train ride from Leipzig to Berlin a man seated next to me spent the entire trip trying to convince me that my country and my government are evil. The man on the train eventually softened and said probably some U.S. citizens are O.K., but continued to explain how our President’s actions have tainted worldviews of all America. It was a lively and exhausting conversation, but well worth having. At the same time there were many people who showed only warmth and kindness toward our group of Americans.
How fortunate for us to have been in Berlin the night of the historical national election, and how fortunate for me to have had such a wonderful and knowledgeable “blind date” host, who not only opened her home to another RIAS colleague and me, but took us to watch parties to see how Germans celebrate their candidates and their causes. The tour and information sessions that followed at the Bundestag, along with the continued conversations with just about everyone we met along the way about the election, left impressions that can’t be measured.
Who could forget our tour of the Porsche factory and the rides at the company race track. A change of pace (literally) and an informative look at business development in the East. Another treat. The Colditz Castle and stories of innovative escape techniques by Allied soldiers once held there as prisoners. There was also the delight of a hot Belgian waffle fresh from a street vendor like nothing you could buy back home.
From hospitality of hotel waiters, to frank discussions at the European Union about Iraq, to NATO’s attempts to re-define itself post Cold War, the RIAS program presented a great cross section of life, culture and politics. Not only did it leave me with great memories, it has made me a better journalist.
Darwin Guggenbiller, WVIT-TV, Hartfort, CT
Who would have thought two weeks fully-immersed in another culture could have such an impact on one’s life? The German/American journalist exchange has given me a new perspective on Germany, and it’s forced me to reevaluate the beliefs in our own country. From cultural difference, to journalism as a whole, this trip has made me grow as a person and a news producer. It’s forced me to ask more questions, to try and completely comprehend global relationships, and realize that what happens stateside can impact millions of people thousands of miles away.
My family has a strong German heritage. For generations we’ve handed down the customs and traditions of the “homeland”. But perceptions of what I learned at home and what I saw in person were vastly different. From the government, to the environment, I discovered that Germans aren’t always set in their ways. They’ve willingly accepted high level politicians who happen to be gay. They’re more apt to utilize the train or simply walk in the name of air quality. But, at the same time, the culture is very protective of its traditions. While the people enjoy foods like the Döner, they’re highly sensitive to foreigners, specifically Turks, who practice religions and customs with which Germans aren’t familiar.
The German population works hard and plays hard. The people are courteous, respectful, and they expect you to be the same. There’s a sense of business among those I met. They’re calm, cool, collected individuals who follow the laws, and the rules, those spoken and unspoken. They’ll hold on to trash until they can find a proper receptacle. And, they’re very private about their home lives. Germans also seem more adventurous. They’re more willing to plan a weekend trip a couple of countries away just days before leaving. They’re also more open to the arts including opera, architecture, and sculpture.
Germans don’t want to leave anyone behind, and their government is proof of that. While America has two major parties, Germans have politicians supporting a variety of causes. It’s a good system that gives so many more people a voice. The structure forces lawmakers to make more compromises, and look beyond their own political beliefs, all for the greater good. It’s a government though that has many layers which can slow the process. I discovered that Germans often get frustrated about how long it takes to get reforms, projects, and laws passed due to an enormous amount of red tape.
I found the media one of the more intriguing aspects of our trip. It’s still hard for me to comprehend how some media groups that are public-funded can report and investigate so freely the same people that essentially sign their paychecks. In Germany, it works. I was surprised to see the international focus in the news product. Journalists were much more in tune with the global issues and their direct impact on the people of Germany. What I also found interesting was the lack of what we would consider local news coverage. It seems that Germans are more willing to pick up a newspaper, or go online to find out what’s happening in their own neighborhoods.
This fellowship has changed my perceptions of Germany. I discovered that it’s a place that is just as vulnerable as the rest of the world. It’s a place that fears about the economy, terror, and its own role in the global community. The unusual obstacle the people of Germany still face is that while they focus on the future, they’re also forced to look back at the same time.
Deirdre Hester, CBS News, Washington, D.C.
When I was accepted to the RIAS exchange program, I telephoned a college friend who’s married to a German and has spent time living in Germany. Having never been there I asked for any guidance or tips she might have, referring to customs or cultural differences between Americans and Germans. “Tips?” she replied. She just burst out laughing at me, informing me, “Deirdre, they’re just like us.”
This fellowship far exceeded my hopes and expectations. It has been such an unforgettable eye-opening experience, perhaps one of the most enriching opportunities I’ve had both personally and professionally as a journalist. So much territory and subject matter was covered, it’s been hard to even know where to begin describing it.
Throughout this jam packed program I found myself consistently dwelling on German cultural identity and what it means to be German, how Germans and Americans are similar, and how we are different. I spent a lot of time examining my own attitudes and where they come from. Ironically we repeatedly heard declarations from our hosts and others we met along the way prefaced by the phrase, “We are German!” For example, “We are German! We walk.” As opposed to us lazy Americans who require some mode of transportation. Or, “We are German! We NEVER forget!” Or, on a more serious and though provoking note, “We are German. (Long dramatic pause) We have a history.”
During our first week in Berlin, I was extremely impressed by how much of the new architecture in this revitalized city is designed to be inspiring and symbolic. It’s indicative of a lot of soul-searching and reflection on the past and the devastating effects of World War II and a divided Germany prior to reunification. Memorials and remembrances everywhere you turn around the city show there’s been a concerted effort never to forget or revise history.
Bearing Germany’s history in mind, I think there are certain areas where parallels or comparisons can be drawn from Germany’s past, which we American journalists can take away from our visit as a point of caution: to keep in mind the most extreme dangers of what can happen when certain political policies are taken too far. Our nation is currently grappling with difficult policy decisions about war, terrorism, Presidential authority, detention centers, torture policy, rendition, secret overseas prisons, surveillance of American citizens, and erosion of civil liberties. Some of these topics came up at various points in our formal meetings. German journalists we met with in our more casual get together in Leipzig were also quite curious about how effectively American media covers or does not adequately cover these matters.
I got so much out of all our formal meetings especially our visits with Turkish and Jewish community leaders in Berlin, in Belgium at the NATO and EU headquarters, and in Frankfurt at ZDF. Listening to Father Christian Führer describing life in the GDR and the 1989 Leipzig peaceful demonstrations was so emotional and moving.
But I have to say one of the biggest highlights of the trip for me was the opportunity to go by myself to Angela Merkel’s CDU party headquarters on Election Night. When Angela Merkel arrived to solemnly address the nation and her supporters, an atmosphere of strong disappoint filled the room. I managed to find a few people that spoke English that could tell me what was going on. One man explained that without a clear majority, “Something very bad has happened…the worst possible thing has happened to us.” A print journalist discussed an analysis piece she had just filed on how there was no clear winner. The results she theorized showed a lack of courage on the part of German voters and reflected “the German angst.” Sadly she added, “The divide is still there.” Like a fly on the wall I spent the entire evening watching people intensely focused on their work. One thing that particularly amused me was all the beer, champagne and chain smoking that went on with the working journalists. So European! Additionally, unlike what you might see in a party headquarters during a U.S. election, there wasn’t much political paraphernalia around. No silly hats, no big bumper stickers, buttons and flags. Instead there were big beautifully lit party tents surrounding the headquarters with flowing champagne, beer, and mountains of pretzels and sausages and cake. Beautiful young women clad in sleek black evening gowns strolled around passing out cigarettes. Merkel supporters were in no mood to party though. They were stunned. Just staring at TV sets in disbelief at the results, periodically howling in outrage every time Schröder appeared wildly waving his clasped hands above his head as though he was the victor, or when he dismissively refused to talk to Merkel.
Taking in cultural and sporting events was another highlight. I’m thrilled our group of journalists was so diversified and we had so many people working on stories about World Cup Soccer preparations. Our tour of the Berlin Olympic Stadium was fabulous, and returning later to watch a match with all the diehard Hertha soccer fans just topped off the experience. Tosca followed by a lovely candlelight dinner, the Cabaret, the day trips to Potsdam, Poland and Colditz Castle, our evening stroll around Brussels followed by an unforgettable meal, these were all special occasions I’ll never forget.
Back at work now in Washington I continue to relate to and absorb what I’ve learned daily. As news stories about Germany, the new German Chancellor, the EU, and NATO cross the wires I’m immediately drawn to them, paying much closer attention than I ever did before this experience.
To our hosts in Germany, Rainer, Isabell and Sandra, and Jon Ebinger in Washington — I’ll never forget your kindness, your gentle, thoughtful and wise insights, your good humor, and enormous patience with us. I can’t begin to thank you enough for all the time and effort that must have gone into planning our trip which was so well thought out, balanced and efficiently organized. And to all the individuals who took the time out of their busy work schedules to meet and talk with us so openly and candidly I’m especially appreciative. I extend my deepest gratitude to RIAS. It has been such a privilege and an honor to be part of this program. I’m certain the memories my fellow journalists and I have made together on this trip will have a positive lifelong impression on all of us.
Andrew Horansky, HD News, Chicago, IL
Nowhere in the RIAS literature was the shisha ever mentioned. So when I ended up one night smoking sweet apple-flavored tobacco out of one, it hit me: the most memorable moments of my RIAS experience were about surprises. And never would I have guessed just how many would have been around each corner of our trip.
The “shisha” night had begun at a cabaret show in Hackesche Höfe, a trendy district of central Berlin. Here, cobblestone streets were lined with candle-lit cafes and small boutiques. People watching was prime, and it was hard to picture how it might have looked in the not-so-distant past, when it was yet another gray part of East Berlin.
By this point, this act of picturing the past had become second nature to me. I had been in Berlin for nearly a week, and had picked it up from our program’s “attaches,” who were guiding us. It seemed that in order to savor the present anywhere we went, we had to make comparisons to the past.
For example, a happy walk from the opera would end at a memorial to the books burned by Nazis. An informational visit to Germany’s House of Representatives would include a pause at the walls of graffiti left by Soviets. A weekend visit to a peaceful lake near Potsdam would be marked by the fact that this had been where “The Final Solution” was determined.
These ghosts of the past followed us everywhere. But by doing so, they did us a disservice. They reinforced a history that we already knew, and stereotypes that we had come to believe. They might have at times even kept us from seeing a new Germany that was unfolding before our eyes.
It has been said that the cheapest way for American reporters to sell coverage from Germany is by finding some peg that recalls the past. But the past is no longer Germany’s big story. Today, millions of jobs depend on transatlantic investment and trade. As the largest and richest player in Europe, Germany (and the media) must focus on the country’s accumulation of good history.
There were some truly inspiring moments of my trip. Hearing Johann Sebastian Bach’s music performed in his hometown by the Saint Thomas Boy’s Choir was nothing short of transcendent. Feeling the power of a Porsche on a test track in Leipzig was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. The food and beer alone were worth the trip!
But also inspiring were the perspectives of our younger group leaders. One was in her 20s and the other in her 30s. One grew up in West Berlin, the other in East, and yet, neither seemed overly preoccupied by their different histories. Despite them, both appeared to be equally comfortable with their being young, modern and German.
As our friendship grew, we would venture off of the beaten path on our free time. In doing this, many of my preconceived notions of Germans were changed. Unlike the headstrong and overly serious people I expected, these women could easily laugh at themselves. They were spontaneous. What is more, their world was well integrated with the outside.
We ate pizza in biergartens and drank Brazilian carparinhas. We talked about rock bands from the United States and where to buy tennis shoes in Budapest. Not long after making our appointment with members of Berlin’s Turkish community, we tasted its culture together with that shisha, as we discussed everything from Germany’s crime rate to revisionist views of World War II history.
With my newfound German friends, Sandra, Isabell and Rainer, I enjoyed many moments of grace. Ultimately, they left me with an idea of what transnational friendship could look like. They are now who I think of when I think of Germany.
And yet, there would have been little context for us, had it not been for the diverse group of leaders we met along the way from the worlds of politics, finance and media. Thanks to RIAS, I made the acquaintance of people like Klaus Wowereit (the Mayor of Berlin), Jean-Claude Trichet (the President of the European Central Bank) and Claus Kleber (an anchor on one of Germany’s top-rated nightly news programs). They helped me to see that a vibrant nation was moving ahead.
They also showed that Germany was more than a place with a haunted past. It is a proud nation with a global vision toward the future. Though it is unclear how the U.S. might factor into that future, one thing is certain: as old Germany is buried, a potentially powerful world force emerges in its place.
Megan Hughes, WRAL-TV5, Raleigh, NC
In a word, the RIAS experience made me full.
It wasn’t the result of the copious amounts of tea served at the Turkish community meeting… Nor was it too many “Döners” from U-bahn stations. I think it comes down to the place, its history and our time in it.
Even though much of Hitler’s Berlin was bombed after WWII and even though only a few sections of the Berlin wall still stand, I could feel the intense histories vibrate in the streets. I was first struck by the subtle memorials everywhere I turned and even where I walked. Bricks on the street mark where Holocaust victims used to live. Later, I learned more about these histories from the Germans I met. Nearly everyone had a story to share about life before the wall came down. They were usually told in a stoic, very “German” way — the facts, a touch of sadness, a touch of humor.
I was impressed. The Germans I met weren’t too proud to remember their tragic stories, face truths and take responsibility. I think that is something Americans could do better. At the Reichstag, they preserved a facade covered with graffiti from Soviet soldiers as they overtook the city: “Death to Germans!” “The end of fascism!” “We cannot forget our past!” Would we put up such a reminder at our own capitol?
Everyday of our time in Germany was filled with contradiction and juxtaposition. A good example was Saturday, September 24th. Black and white photographs and newspaper headlines line the wall at the “House of the Wannsee Conference.” Some images horrify — piles of bodies; execution style killings. But what is hardest for me is the subtle humanity of someone losing their dignity or showing grace while they are being treated so unfairly. I can’t help but be transported into the minds of parents pulling their children by the hand through the streets. How do you protect them from seeing what’s going on in front of them? How do you help them make sense of this world?
I look around at the others on the program and see wide eyes, crossed arms and personal moments. We’ve all seen the images of the Holocaust before. We’ve read the books, watched the movies. But standing in the place where the “Final Solution” was born, you feel connected to it.
Minutes later, we’re whisked away to a beautiful palace and lush gardens. They were created first in the 18th century under Frederick the Great and extended under Frederick William IV in the 19th century. Basking in the opulence of the palace, walking past fountains and down canopied paths, it is easy to feel the place’s namesake — “Sans Souci,” or without worry. (Of course, this was also the very same place where the “Potsdam Agreement” took shape, marking the origin of the German division and dire consequences for the Soviet-controlled East.) As it seems with most things in Germany, there are several layers to understanding.
Each chapter weaves into the fabric of what Germany is and how it faces the future. There is still an East/West divide. Evolution continues as new generations and newcomers integrate. Many Germans resent Turkish immigrants for overstaying their welcome. Two Turkish men just killed their sister for adopting “Western” values. The slipping economy only adds to these tensions. And now a severely splintered German electorate ordered a change in leadership. I don’t envy Angela Merkel’s job ahead.
At the same time, organizers of the World Cup are preparing to put Germany on the world stage. The museums, art and architecture in Berlin show a city not afraid to take risks, invest in revitalizing, and as our tour guide said, it’s always “in the process of becoming.” If you want to talk to anyone who can convince you of an economic turnaround, just sit down with the mayor of Leipzig for five minutes and you’ll be sold.
By the end of the program, I saw the string of dominoes…Well, maybe not dominoes because nothing is being knocked down, more like those little Russian nesting dolls where one fits into the next and into the next. I saw the history and dynamics that shaped Germany’s policies and then I saw how that fits into the European Union. Finally, I saw how NATO and the United States played into that.
In my future reporting, I’ll need to remember that every little story plays a role in a much broader one. As international events unravel, I’ll be armed with understanding of the German perspective along with an American one. For that, I feel grateful. Satisfied. Full. No more apple wine, please.
Heather Husson, WSPA-TV, Spartanburg, SC
“They were expecting everything and prepared for anything, but they were not prepared for candles and prayers” Father Christian Führer, leader of peaceful movement that helped inspire Germans to bring down the Berlin Wall.
I was not prepared for what I would experience when I stepped off the plane at the Tegel Airport in Berlin. Moments like meeting Father Führer at St. Nikolai Church in Leipzig would change my perspective of German culture and challenge the German history I was taught in school.
Preparing for the trip, I immersed myself in books full of numbers, facts and German history. What I could not prepare for was seeing my own country through the eyes of people who understand it in a different way. You can read the books and digest the numbers, but you can only truly know the motivations of a country when you experience that country from the inside.
I left for Germany with too many shoes, too few jeans, bulky converters, a camera and shampoo. I also packed a lot of anticipation, excitement and fear. I could not sleep on my flight, wondering: Will the people I meet be as excited as I am? Will they teach me something? Do I have anything to offer? The answer to all the questions turned out to be ‘yes’, more than I ever could have imagined.
We walked for hours that first night, taking in everything from the Brandenburg Gate to the Television Tower, all the while keeping an eye out for “The Wall”. We each offered up pieces of knowledge about Germany and used them to enhance the sights we saw. We probably stared too long at the Ampelmann “little man” stop lights and not long enough at our hefty portions we were ordering of spaetzle and beer. When we realized it was midnight and we had been walking around for 5 hours, we knew it was time to head back; we also knew this would be an amazing trip, at times exhausting, but challenging for the right reasons.
Like German reporters preparing to cover a historical election, a RIAS colleague and I rode up to the Reichstag, the building that houses the German Parliament, with a real nervous anticipation. He and I were about to experience something even most German people have not — behind the scenes at the historical German elections. We waited for the results on the sidelines with a beer in the hand and a sausage on the plate. Through thick smoke of news people’s cigarettes, we watched as Germans tackled the coverage of these elections in a new era of openness and a political skepticism.
There are striking similarities between U.S and German elections. As you drive down the road, giant election posters line the streets with hopeful candidates peering out through the messages of optimism, promises and mudslinging. The most politically damaging posters were those linking a candidate to U.S. President George Bush. President Bush is an unpopular politician in Germany these days, and the Germans are not afraid to let you know it. Perhaps for this reason, there is a misconception of how Germans view the American public. Since returning, I have been asked whether I felt “hated” or disliked by the Germans. Quite the opposite, I felt warm welcomes at every turn. Most of the German public and country leaders who we met separated their personal feelings for us from their feelings towards our politicians. Our recent movements as a country towards war make the Germans nervous, and, in the end, they feel fear and pity for us.
Many of our first meetings were with high-powered officials like Mr. Fritz Rudolph Körper, Undersecretary of Federal Ministry of Interior, who makes sensitive decisions about how Germany will respond to terrorism locally and abroad. A politician concerned about terrorism on a local level is Dr. Ehrhart Körting, the Berlin Senator for the Interior. It is his goal to prevent the World Cup Soccer event in 2006 from becoming a terrorist event. We pelted both with questions about terrorism and tried to get their opinion about how our country handles terrorism. Mr. Körper had a smooth way of sidestepping our questions. He knew how to play the game, he knew what we came for and he was going to control the answers. By the time we got to Dr. Körting, we were tired of searching for impressions, but to our amazement he was more than willing to offer an opinion and give us a whole new way to look at things. To our amazement, he said, “We will never be a target like your country will”. And to that, we all knew what he meant; we could turn to other countries for support against terrorism, but our country would remain a main target of terrorism. No matter which country’s troops back us up in the field, we were in it alone, like it or not.
We spent our days with important community leaders and our evenings soaking up every bit of German culture we could find. From an insiders look at Reichstag, to an evening with “Tosca” at the German Opera, to a trip to the revitalized Olympic Stadium where we posed like runners going for the gold, we knew we were experiencing a country from a vantage point that few ever will. The trip to the Olympic Stadium offered us another opportunity, namely, a chance to attend a real German soccer event. The soccer match turned out to be the best opportunity that I had to try out the German language skills that I learned. While the result may have been many failed attempts at communicating with my German comrades, in the end, the two beers I tried to order with my broken German were in fact delivered — sweet success.
Germany and its people are striving to make the country better, at a rapid rate. New construction and new ideas could be seen at every turn but it was the acknowledgement of past history that touched me the most. Germans put it all out there, from the successes to the extreme failure to protect a group of people from brutalization. Everyone we met, from the country leaders to the people on the street were willing to answer our questions about the Wall and the future of the Jewish population.
The people of German wear their government’s mistakes on their chest like scarlet letters, and they are never quick to wave a German flag. They are quietly proud about certain aspects of their cultural history and vocally apologetic for others. Germans are not looking for forgiveness; it is as if they feel that by telling the story of their past, enough, they will never forget. And that seems to be the most important thing — to never forget.
Sometimes our goals as a group were lofty ones, e.g., to understand the process by which the European Union functions, or to digest just how NATO works to mediate between countries. Sometimes our goals were smaller but no less important, like trying to take that “perfect” picture to make the cover of the RIAS brochure.
As for me, I came away with the silent confidence that comes with traveling. Anyone who goes abroad knows that feeling. The moments with the group were great, but the hours I spent by myself, blending into the city landscape, navigating the public transportation and exploring the museums gave me more than just memories — they pushed the limits I had put on myself.
I went to Germany with an image of the country as an angry old man, lonely in his dark, dusty, gray apartment. What I found was quite the opposite, the endless green of the “gartens” and flowing rivers that begged for my attention. Germany is a country with a tough past that is moving in the right direction towards a bright future, and you can feel it at every turn.
Months after my visit, the thoughts and ideas I took from this trip are still sneaking up and surprising me every now and then. Having had a chance to look at my own country through the eyes of another is priceless. But it was the simple things that gave the experience its depth, like waking up early to watch the Berlin marathon, finding the perfect waffle in Brussels, and seeing the U-Bahn sign flash “Pankow” and knowing you are almost there.
Sal Morales, freelance journalist, Miami, FL
I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I had done some of the readings on East and West Germany suggested by Jon Ebinger. I also bought two dictionaries, an English-German and a Spanish-German edition — por si las moscas (just in case!) Both proved to be worth their weight in gold during the month and a half I spent in that country as one of twelve U.S. professionals selected to participate in the German-American Journalists Exchange program sponsored by RIAS BERLIN COMMISSION , named after the Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) in Berlin.
As soon as I stepped off the plane at Berlin Tegel Airport, it became quite clear quite fast that reading something and seeing it unfold in front of your eyes are two entirely different things. Our group, made up of reporters and producers from local television stations, reporters from the major networks and public radio, and even a journalism graduate student, was able to experience first hand the triumphs and struggles of a reunified Germany in 2005.
As a group, we had the opportunity this past fall to meet officials at the highest level of the German government, NATO, the Central European Bank and community leaders from various aspects of society. The exchanges, where we were encouraged to ask tough questions, were meant to give us a better understanding in European-U.S. foreign affairs.
But not all we did in Germany had serious overtones. I brought along a small digital camera on this trip to interview officials who are preparing the country for its hosting duties of the FIFA World Cup soccer championship games next year. In reporting this story I was fascinated by the sheer number of Hispanics — mainly Mexicans — who left their homeland to work in this magnificent place, Germany was their new country. They more than anyone are eager to greet their compatriots and welcome them into their restaurants, stores, bars, and clubs where they hope to celebrate the many victories of their homeland’s national soccer team, EL TRI.
After the main core of the program ended, I was fortunate to have my application extended to stay in Germany for two additional weeks. Being the only Spanish-speaking reporter in the group, I used this time to work for Deutsche Welle Television en Espanol. Even though I do not speak any German, I was able to produce packages for them, report, do voice-overs, and learn how they go about producing news for the Latin American market. The newscast is produced live at 1.00 a.m. and it was a thrill seeing my name on screen for all of Latin America to see! The biggest news event that week was the Summit of Latin American countries and Spain held in Seville. Producing live news was a thrill, but equally important, I met a number of professionals there whom I now count as friends. Thank God for e-mail!
Overall, the experience taught me the importance of freedom and the price some have had to pay to obtain it. It has been exactly 15 years since the Berlin Wall came down, and we all remember the footage of people hugging, crying, and celebrating the end of Communism in East Germany. However, most of us didn’t keep up with what happened in the years that followed. After the street celebrations died down, anger, frustration and resentment arose on both sides of the now defunct fence. Those in the West accused their Eastern brothers of being lazy, of not doing anything to better their lot. Those in the East grew tired of hearing Westerners tell them how to run their lives and truly resented being treated as, according to them, second-class citizens. “The first two years we were happy”, I was told by an East German who became my personal guide and gave me a unique perspective on how his life changed post-reunification. “We loved the freedom. We just wanted to be able to travel and buy stuff”. Economics, infrastructure, everything changed in Germany after 1989. Believe it or not, some Germans still refer to the days before the Wall fell as “the good old days”. This type of education, and too many other examples I could share with you, is something you will never find in a history book.
If you are even mildly interested in that region, I strongly encourage you to go apply to this program. Believe me when I tell you it will change your perception of the world, your beliefs and maybe even of yourself. It sure changed mine.
Susan Valot, freelance radio writer/ reporter, Los Angeles, CA
The rolling, green German countryside whizzes by as the high-speed train speeds between Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig. Crumbling castles stand with valor on mountaintops. White, whirling windmills dot the landscape. An occasional field of bright yellow “Raps” is tucked into the tapestry of farmland. The scenic beauty is one of my favorite parts of Germany. But the people I met and new things I learned as part of the RIAS German-American Exchange Program are what made the trip worthwhile.
First of all, I could not have asked for a better group of journalists to share the experience with. Having a group that for the most part “clicked” set the tone for the whole trip.
One of the German issues that ended up surprising me was immigration. Our first meeting with the district mayor of Neukölln, Heinz Buschkowsky, was the first to touch upon that. He made it clear how a fluid population makes it more difficult to deal with integrating a new population into Germany — how successful immigrants move out of their once German, now poor immigrant neighborhoods once they are successful. That instability is just one factor in high crime rates in those areas.
Immigration also came up during my extension program, when I was speaking with a university instructor in Cottbus, southeast of Berlin. He commented about how America can better deal with immigration, since it is an immigrant society, with its very beginnings based on immigration. This statement caught me off guard because despite the U.S. immigrant beginnings, I don’t consider it an immigrant nation. We are Americans, plain and simple. I also pointed out to him that we have a lot in common when it comes to immigration issues. Look at the ongoing resentment in the U.S. toward migrant workers who come up from Mexico and Central and South America. Just because the U.S. has been dealing with immigration from its founding, issues like bilingual education and illegal immigration still strike a cord among certain parts of the population, just as the inflow of immigrants from Turkey and Poland strike a cord with some Germans.
I also found Germany’s perception of itself interesting, with regards to the European Union and the expansion of the European Union. Fritz Rudolph Körper, Undersecretary of the Federal Ministry of Interior, mentioned how not letting Turkey into the European Union would bring it closer to the Islamic world, both physically by not opening the border, as well as fundamentally. During our visit to Frankfurt an der Oder, border police spokesman Hans Dieter Reiter talked about how Germany now feels it is at the center of Europe because of the eastward expansion of the European Union. We heard the same sentiments during our visit to the European Commission in Brussels. Officials there touched upon how the physical shift of the European Union to the east shifted the balance of power between France and Germany. It just shows how much location plays into European and world politics and political balance.
One of my favorite (though sobering) days was when the rest of the group went to Potsdam and I went on my own to the former concentration camp, Sachsenhausen. I took the train and walked to the camp. It amazed me how it was situated right among the houses of the surrounding neighborhood. Even now, I would not want to live so close to something associated with so many deaths. It’s sad to think of how the people who lived in the area while the camp was operating didn’t have anywhere else to go and likely knew what was going on within those walls. This was their hometown, a place that’s supposed to be comforting and welcoming. Yet, they had the daily reminder of smoke coming from the ovens — people going into the camp and not coming out. I had also never thought about all of the journalists who stuck up for what they thought was right… and who paid with their lives. Very sobering.
On a brighter note, another thing I really enjoy about Germany is the friendliness of the people, even strangers. We saw it during the core program and I also saw it during my extension program. When a group of us went to the Hertha soccer game in Berlin, locals in the crowd were more than willing to explain the finer points of the game. They were willing to take their day off of work later in the week to show us around the city. And two of them even gave two people in our group their soccer scarves. It’s something I’ve never seen (and would never expect to see) at a professional sporting event in the U.S.
During my extension, I took a day trip to Bremen (home of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “Brementown Musicians!”) and ended up speaking with a local outside a cathedral. He offered to take me to lunch and show me around. He ended up spending an hour or two of his own time, showing me the touristy, medieval part of the city. There were nooks and passageways I would have never found by using only a tour book. If somebody in the U.S. were to offer the same sort of tour, I would wonder what they were up to. But it appears there’s a certain openness, willingness and friendliness among the German people who are proud of the cities and towns.
I met this same friendliness on the northern German island of Rügen. An acquaintance from another exchange program I was involved with is from there and offered to show me around the island where she grew up. The island was beautiful with rolling farmland, green forests and chalk cliffs falling to the blue Baltic. But my favorite part was when we stopped by her parents’ dairy farm. Her mom had made fresh apple cake (Apfelkuchen!) and had invited over her aunt and uncle and all of her brothers. They all stopped their busy day to sit down and have cake and coffee with the visiting American girl. And this, despite the fact their daughter was the only fluent English speaker! So I communicated with the little German I know, with lots of hand gestures and pointing. And my friend’s dad was going on and on in German (with my friend translating) about how great American John Deere tractors are and how he wanted to get a second one, but his wife and son wouldn’t let him because they’re the most expensive. I just found it really funny. I felt really special because they made such a big deal about me visiting them. And it was really fun to try to overcome those communication barriers.All in all, it was a fabulous German trip and I would love to do it again in seven years to see how the country changes!