Month: September 2016

A little bit of democracy: Election Season

A few weeks ago, I participated in the Berlin elections. Because Berlin is a city-state, this election was the equivalent of a US state election. I had received my voters invitation in the mail back in August. In the meantime, I watched how the city became smothered in campaign posters, each more eye-catching than the last. Every few days, volunteers for the parties would hand out fliers and pens or free cloth shopping bags to lure people into considering their party. Perhaps, because one does a lot more moving around the city in Berlin, one sees a lot more people and posters. It also helps that Germany has a thriving multi-party system. Unlike the US, with its winner-gets-it-all system, Germany’s national and state parliaments  are made up proportionally by the number of votes a party gets. There are certain rules, like you have to get more than 5% of the vote to get in- a rule put in place since WWII that may have prevented the Nazis from getting into parliament in 1932. However, the system means that even if you don’t vote for the popular party, your vote isn’t wasted. Unfortunately, that’s how many voters in the US feel, which is why we can’t get out of our stupid Republican/Democrat binary.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns in Germany either. Interestingly, German campaign posters almost always include a representative’s profile picture, as if how the person looks will affect if they are voted for (unfortunately, it kind of does work that way). There’s also a rising right-wing party that can actually get power in this country and white supremacists and nationalists get a voice again in a country where it shouldn’t happen again. In the name of democracy, we are supposed to let them have a voice too… so that’s also an issue.

However, the voting process itself was a neat process. Despite all the parties, it’s not as complicated as one imagines. In fact, the ballots are about just as long as in the US. The difference is that one doesn’t ignore everyone beyond the first two lines. Libertarians get considered, conservative nature lovers get considered, socialists exist and get considered… it’s a very diverse ballot for which citizens actually have to prepare themselves and inform themselves. That’s not to say that many people still don’t vote the two largest parties- Christian Democratic and Social Democratic, but these parties rarely get the majority of the vote at the state or national level, and that’s a good thing!

So, when I went to vote (and voting happens on Sunday in Germany, giving everyone- even people with 10-hour jobs- the chance to vote!), I parked my bike outside a historic music school, got in line with the other voters of my district, and pulled out a book. I had a bit of a wait, but soon enough I got to hand over y ID and voting invite for inspection, and then I was in a voting booth with my papers and a pen. I guess I was surprised that the ballots were not electronic, and I didn’t expect that I would be voting for my district representative as well. I was also amused that when voting for the representative, a little note of advice happens below the representative’s name saying: suggested vote: (insert representative’s party name here). I won’t say who or what part(ies) I voted for, but I will say that I was able to vote two different parties at the state and district level and feel good about it. I think that the German systems allows for more representation of all the different values a person can have… and I’m a happy voter in Germany. I can’t really say the same about the upcoming presidential election in the US.

Now starts a part of my post where I’m going to add my two cents to the discussion about those up for election in November. For those who have had enough of this, I understand if you don’t want to continue reading. For those mildly curious for what a 25 year old with degrees in literature has to say, I promise I’ve put thought into this post and I’m reasonable, someone who looks for compromise rather than antagonism.

Let me start off with a fun fact. I grew up in a bipartisan household. One parent carries a Republican voting card, the other a Democratic one. How does this work, you wonder? How can they have been married for more than 25 years? A lot of it has to do with the ability to find compromise, and that the basic values upheld by both my parents are the same.

One of my favorite philosophers is Kwame Anthony Appiah. I’ve written about him before in this blog, but his famous book Cosmopolitanism outlines what he believes should be a global philosophy: that we respect other people’s values and beliefs enough to listen to them and consider them. While the ability to communicate is inherent to this philosophy to work, I believe it is a good philosophy. Often, though, as I see in my own home, this communication often goes astray. One party has a harder time expressing why they do things or value things a certain way. There will always be one group who is louder, more articulate, or more logical. Still, as Appiah outlines in his chapter “The Primacy of Practice,”

Conversation doesn’t have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it is enough that it helps people get used to one another.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve been engaging in conversation with me about Germans and US Americans. I try to share my observations about both countries, often working hard to keep my personal bias and upbringing out of it. I’ve never suggested that one country is the better of the two – such a vast generalization would be absurd, and I can only emphasize how Germans live and love living in the US and vice versa, without having to give up the cultural beliefs or habits they brought with them.

So, if the daily life of a person can be satisfactory, despite constant exposure to difference, why can’t we listen more to each other talking about politics? What happened to constructive debate?

Yes… of course I set up a segue to last night’s presidential debate, which I found less than satisfactory. Spectators are saying that Clinton won that debate, but only because she as able to keep her cool while Trump was revealed for being the incoherent, ill-prepared, narcissist he’s been for most of the campaign. Maybe this means Trump should not be head of state. Even if he supports the values of most Republicans, he’s not ready for the position. Can you imagine the state dinners with Trump at the head of the table? Do people really think the man knows how to be a diplomat? Money is power, and Trump has money. But he has none of the tact, intelligence, or basic human sympathy that we need in our political leaders.

So, that puts the US in an awful position, because while many Republicans of the US can’t vote Hillary Clinton out of principle inspired by their belief in honesty, good character, and following rules, they can’t vote Trump either. Many of these Republicans would also rather see the Republican Party in power, because even if it’s headed by Trump, at least their values will be represented. I understand their wishes for freedom, financial security, and less interference from government in their personal lives.

The funny thing is, I also understand the Democrat’s wish for security and less interference from government in their lives. After all, anti-abortion laws are government interference. Health-care and other “socialist” endeavors are endeavors for financial security for citizens of the US- that’s just addressing the obvious. There are many subtle ways in which the goals of all US Americans are the same- upholding basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s how we practice these rights that changes.

In the end, democrats have to compromise with republicans and republicans with democrats, lobbyists put their hand in the pot, and we end up with pretty much the same measures, regardless of who is the main man or woman in charge. What we can choose, however, is the first representative of our country.

Now, I return to the beautiful multiparty system, and ask, why can’t the US get out of its stupid binary? Why is the presidential debate only held between two people? Let’s not forget, there’s the Libertarian Gary Johnson. There will be more than three names on the presidential ballot in November. There’s always the write-in possibility (but, that’s a bit of a misnomer, since the possibility is so small).

My final note will maybe satisfy what those of you who did continue reading were waiting to see: where do I stand? Well, out of my upbringing, education, and beliefs, I think it is my responsibility to help all groups in society have equal access to opportunity and resources. The US party I believe comes closest to supporting this endeavor is the democratic one. However, I struggle with voting Clinton. It is hard to deny that there is something wrong about using personal email servers for state business. Every employee is able to separate the private and professional email. Why couldn’t she? There must be something wrong in her character to do this, and then not want to open up her personal correspondences as well as state correspondence for scrutiny. Right? Well, maybe. Maybe not. Retired army officer M. Thomas Davis (former Republican voter, I’ll bet) wrote a column I personally find convincing, but know has received its share of backlash: “Don’t let Clinton emails dominate debates.”

From here on out, until the election, I’m going to try and leave previous bias against either runner behind, and consider what each of the candidates have to say in response to direct questions about policies, how they will handle national and international security, education and health care reforms, and climate change. I encourage you to do the same with the issues you find important.

Just saying. Those were my two cents.

Cheers,

Dorothea

 

Volunteering at the Berlin Marathon

 

 

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I’ll admit, parts of this post will only be interesting to a runner, and parts of this will sound like any newbie marathon volunteering experience without being specific to Berlin. If you’re not interested in running, and even less in the Berlin Marathon, then you’ll appreciate a comment by a guy I met on my way home today. He was irritated by the hub-hub and the closed streets everywhere: es sind Leute, die laufen nur so rum! (it’s just a bunch of people running around!).  But this is a recap of my experience on a new side of a marathon- and there are a lot of photos. Hope  you enjoy!

This morning, I was up before dawn (which, admittedly, is getting later and later) to have my cup of coffee and my  breakfast and some Sunday morning routine before having to leave. I suppose I can get up early for running or running related things. Other occasions, I’d rather at least wait until the sun (not looking forward to Daylight savings).

Anyway, I was on my way to the marathon course before I think most runners were, and checked in at the skeleton of an aid station, receiving my jacket and then-nothing. I sat around listening to other volunteers chat and smiling and being nice, but quiet (my family thinks I always have to be the center of attention, it’s not true! With strangers, I’m more reserved!). I was itching for something to do, though.

That came soon enough as I found my way to the fruit group. I could have ended up with the water people, gels, tea, or sponges. Instead, I found myself among others preparing the bananas and apples. Then, the group sort of picked apples or bananas and I found myself with knife in hand and a box of apples.

So. Many. Apples. I cut and cored two boxes of apple on my own, and maybe a few more. It was slow going at first, but volunteers would chat and I’d join in occasionally and soon enough the first hand-crank bikers were coming by, followed closely by the wheel-chair racers. That was exciting and I’d interrupt my cutting to clap and cheer them on.

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Then came the first runners – Kipsang closely followed by Lagat. That was awesome. Though, surprisingly, I never saw Bekele, who went on to win the marathon in 6 seconds within WR time! WHAT?! Though, I would have won the bet that the record would not be reset today, I was a bit bummed not to have seen Bekele or that he was so close- and still didn’t get it. But he ran an impressive race, I’ve heard. And he has the new Ethiopian record, which is top class anyway. Does anyone want to talk about how Kipasang only lost by 10 seconds? That means he was 16 seconds within the WR as well.

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Of course, the first thirty or fifty runners ignored us, most of them had their fueling behind them. One runner, Tesfamariam Solomon still had his bottle in hand and threw it at. my. feet. I felt like a guest at a wedding. Oh? I’m to be the next elite then? Thanks!!

 

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Kebede- even elites look at their watches while running

I was excited to also see the first woman runner, Aberu Kebede, kicking butt. There was no competition from her second at kilometer 30, and I was just in awe- for the few seconds I had to watch her run by. They were all so fast.

But I had apples to cut, and soon the first people were grabbing fruit. Most of the sub-3 hour runners were grabbing bananas…but then someone took my first apple!! And then another! I enjoyed this part, holding out the apples and catching names to call out. I alternated between encouragement in English and German- I just smiled and looked for the smile in return when they’d heard the encouragement.

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I’ve heard the Minion version of “banana” a few times today.

Seriously, I was feeling buzzed and enjoying myself. Running is my drug! And there’s such thing as second-hand running high, I’ve discovered.

But then, the bucket of water-caressed apples was nearly empty, and I realized I’d have to cut more. We were barely at the four hour runners. So I was stuck cutting apples further back in the volunteer zone, away from the runners and missing being part of it, until I’d filled my bucket again and could hand out, smile, cheer and enjoy myself.

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After that second bucket, I just cut at the table, putting out the apples for the runners to grab their own. I could barely keep up, but I was also first in line, so when a runner missed me, three volunteers down the line were also offering apples. It started slowing down with the five hour runners, people reaching km 30 at about 4:15:00 gun time. I was still there forty minutes later or so, when the last runner passed.

Then it was a super quick cleanup. I had a moment to reflect on the mass amounts of supplies used/used up for a marathon. We produce a lot of waste at these things. I’d support greener races.

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And then I was on my way home.

I honestly can’t believe that I’ve watched an entire marathon. I’ve never seen the pick-up busses before, the first and last runners, it’s crazy. Even as a runner, or maybe because I’m usually a healthy runner (and low on running buddies the moment), I’ve never specated a marathon. Usually, Im running in the the races happening in my area myself. Online and on tv, I’m not actually watching it without distraction. Usually, I’m just listening to the reporting. This time I saw the runners, so many runners. And honestly, I was kind of glad I didn’t have to run. Of course, if I’d been preparing for it for months, I definitely would have. And it was a glorious day to run- perfect weather. Still, without running, I can come home via bike after volunteering at a marathon and get some work done. I could not do that if I’d run it (I mean, I could, but it’s usually harder). I’m usually in a funk after a marathon. All I want to do is sit around, eat, and talk about what I’ve accomplished. Then sleep. Of course, this way I don’t get a celebratory meal, but I’ve got enough apples to last me for… a week? I like apples.

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Apples or bananas? New water bottle! That beer is not part of my haul, I picked it up on my way home for Tatort tonight. It’s a dark hefeweizen, for those interested.

I will say, it was cool to see all these runners, Berliners, Germans, and internationals. I saw a few first time marathoners (that I know of for sure, because they told me or had it as part of their kit). I saw a few USA reps who got a special call-out. I saw the whole Israeli hand-bike team well-represented and zooming by. I saw people grab for apples and miss. I heard so many thanks yous (though admittedly more from the later runners- sub 3:30s, work on that!).

In short, I had a great time at the Berlin 2016 Marathon.

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Congrats to all the runners, race organization, police,  medics, and all involved for a great event (I’m feeling a bit self-congratulatory).

Hope you all enjoy your Sunday! Racers (I’m looking at you, Paula and James), best of luck!

Closing note about my new water bottle: was it kosher to take it home? Who knows. I’m pretty sure it would have been thrown away, anyway. I cleaned it and took off the sticker, but the green band remains. I’d like to share about Tesfamariam Solomon- he was an Eritrian refugee who is a member of the TVL Bern running team. Just making it to Switzerland alive was a challenge most of us can’t even imagine, and here he was, running sub 2:15. Herzlichen Glückwunsch, Mr. Solomon!

Live Update from Berlin: home of the Berlin Marathon 

(That title seems a bit unnecessary… obviously the Berlin marathon is run in Berlin… I’m not very good at titling today).

This is the first time I’ve lived in a marathon majors city. It’s obvious that this is bigger than most other marathons and a bigger deal for the citizens of the city it’s happening in. Literally all of center Berlin is shut down. People that have to get places are complaining, obviously, but it’s so cool to see the whole course being prepared for the runners.

 It’s also probably the first time I’ve been somewhere and everyone wants to talk about a marathon, runners and non-runners alike. I’m a bit in-between this year, seeing as I am not running, but totally get the ethnusiasm and have a purpose on the race course. I get to give out bananas at Km 30! 

What I haven’t quite figured out is my relationship to the racers coming from all over the world. The streets are crowded with tomorrow’s runners, who are struggling to resist the lure of a city to explore the night before a 26.2 mile run. I want them to like Berlin! I want them to see how cool this city is! At the same time, I feel a kinship with every runner I see… I think about how they must be nervous about tomorrow, anticipating the race and its challenges. I also am jealous that they get to run and I don’t, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it in another way. I’m also worried that they won’t get the city and what it has to offer, since they’ll be so engrossed in the race, preparation and recovery. I’ll admit, it’s not perfect. There’s construction, borderline no-go zones, and the Berliners are a bit gritty and snarky. There are moments where an unhappy runner and the city may clash. But I hope not, and there will be a friendly Berliner wanting to help a runner out! 

People from around the  world, Berlin is excited for you, welcomes you, and can’t wait to see you run tomorrow! But don’t forget to be gracious guests and try to collect memories of a city full of history and general awesomeness outside of this race.  

Study Abroad Tip: Always try in-person

Just a quick note about something I’ve learned during this second bout abroad:

Always try to figure things out in-person or via telephone.

Getting anything accomplished relating to official business at the German universities requires patience and know-how. Being an Google-friendly society, many of us look towards search engines as providers to answers for life, the universe, and everything (though, I don’t know why they bother with the internet when it’s 42). The problem with the webby bureaucracy of German universities, whose administration offices are spread all over the place just like their classrooms, is that navigating the webs, analog and digital, is tricky.

For each thing that needs to be accomplished, use the web to find out where it gets done, and then spare yourself the trouble of navigating the websites. Call the number of the office or info-center and ask your questions in person- much less complicated. The good news, most people who answer the phone have to have good English to have gotten their position. It helps, though, to be able to express yourself in German.

I recommend calling, but visiting the office and physically showing someone what documents you have, don’t have, don’t know you have, makes things easier as well.

I like to think that Germans make up for their extremely low student fees by having minimal support for their students. I also think, part of their entrance qualifications is figuring out how to enroll in their school. It’s a rite of passage that I haven’t quite made yet, but I’m almost there. There will be champagne (or at least a really fancy beer) once I finally have my admittance papers.

 

Berlin studies: 3 options to chose from

When people say “I’m a student in Berlin,” you have to ask them which university they attend. There are three main public institutions (and a lot of private ones) in Berlin. I am going to focus on the Freie Universät,  since that is the one I am now studying at.

I’m not going to bore you with all the historical details, since interested readers can find that information elsewhere. But I do think it’s important to point out that the Freie Universität used to be part of the Humboldt Universität, and they split during the Cold War when the Humboldt Uni, located in the East, became Communist controlled. The Freie Uni split off, and it’s new name “free” refers to its status as an institution in a “free world.” Obviously, during the cold war, the Freie and Humboldt Universities both served students in all subjects, but primarily focusing in liberal arts and social sciences. The Technical University (TU) is where, in the west, most of the science students attend.

Institute for Mathematics of the TU- Image found here. The buildings that make up the campus are spread all over this area of Berlin, as is the case with most German universities. It’s practically on the same road as the Brandenburg Gate. 

Now that Berlin is reunified, the Freie Universität continues its brilliant representation as hub for political and international studies. The Humboldt Uni has a reputation for Geisteswissenschaften, primarily philosophy and literature studies. For those who don’t know, the Humboldt Brothers are very famous, contributing to knowledge about the mind and the world. Their university became a hub for some of Germany’s greatest thinkers and researchers. The building itself is very impressive:

As found in an article about the brothers and the university, you can see here a bit of the beautiful Prussian architecture

In comparison, the Freie Uni is not as impressive. It’s also not located in the center of Berlin, rather more in its suburb, Dahlem. However, its reputation is just as marked.

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Of course, being in Dahlem. it has close connections to the American occupiers during the Cold War. The surrounding streets all have names like “Marshallstrasse” or “Clay Allee.” The building themselves, built after the war, are often dedicated to US political or military figures. Because of this, I feel of course a special connection with the Uni, playing a small part in feeling like I deserve to be here.

While I always dreamed that if I would study in Berlin, I’d go to the Humboldt Uni, I’m kind of glad now to go to a school whose acronym is FU (if German universities had sports teams, think of the slogan possibilities!) and where, when taking public transportation, I enter and leave a building that looks like this:

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There are a lot of other good reasons to be at the FU- time will continue to illuminate them.

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Official Seal of the FU found here

The bureaucracy of getting into any of these schools, German citizen or not, is crazy- that’s information for another post-but I just thought I’d share a bit of info about the schools.

I should add, that as a student in Berlin, there’s always the possibility of going slightly out of the city into Brandenburg, where the University of Potsdam is located. Art students are especially welcome in the city of Prussian Emperor Friedrich the Great and all his castles.

 

A road to…

I guess three time’s a charm.

It took me three attempts to make it to my new university without incident… and now that I’ve figured it out, I’m looking forward to riding this route a few times a week to meet with advisers, instructors, and fellow students.

I  believe that the quality of our lives can be largely determined by the quality of the routes we take on a daily basis- to work, school, family members, etc. If the journey is good, the time spent traveling is well-worth it.

Now, I have a confession to make. This summer, I couldn’t stop comparing Berlin to Hamburg. This was a mistake, since Hamburg is by far the more elegant city with touches of sophistication. Berlin, with it’s “poor, but sexy” (“arm, aber sexy”) attitude actively tries not to meet up to the standards cities like Hamburg, Munich, or Dresden provide. However, now that I’ve been in Berlin longer and really see more and more corners, I have to admit that there’s just so many cool corners in this city. Surprising architecture and sites.

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Since I finally got my uni route down, I thought I’d share a few pictures.

15 years ago…

This marks the first year that I’m not in the US on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. While I didn’t expect there to be any sort of reminder other than the interactions I made with the online world, I was surprised to hear tributes to victims and observance of September 11, 2001 on German radio stations.

Apparently, even though most of the world, contrary to US belief, hold reservations about the US being the best country on Earth, they still are very tied to the 9/11 Attacks and their history is tied to the US on this day. For example, there were also German citizens in the Towers and nearby in NYC on that day. Furthermore, the resulting “War on Terror” drew in various countries all over the world, and let’s not forget the growing threat of terrorist attacks since then.

“A thick bundle of black smoke is hanging outside the tower. It looks too heavy to hang there. An aeroplane comes in slow motion from the corner of the screen…” “The aeroplane comes again. The television shows it again and again.”- Brick Lane by Monica Ali, pg. 366

Since starting my PhD project dealing with intermedial references in contemporary literature to events like the 9/11 attacks, I’ve been forced to address the large amount of discussion in German intellectual circles about the event and its mark as a “turning point” in history. Arguably, having a massive symbol of western capitalism and ideology attacked and destroyed before the eyes of the world– camera crews were on hand to capture the second crash into the Towers–shifted “what is possible” and “how do communities react?” for the world as well as for the US.

Still, it’s a strange feeling to be a US native in a German city, hearing about this event both as a mature adult and as a representative of my country- for, despite how good my German is and how integrated I am into the social, legal, and academic structures here, I am still “the American.”  I like to think I have a special claim to memory and grief in regards to this event, because I was one of the millions of school children sent home early that day to find safety with family- since many US Americans feared even more attacks scattered all over the US. I was someone whose normal routine was interrupted by a call by someone who happened to catch the news and gave instructions to turn on the television news. I was someone who sat at home with my family, television news running in the background, trying to get in contact with people we knew who were in NYC and the Pentagon, wanting to make sure that at least the people we knew personally had escaped death and, if lucky, weren’t in the area altogether. I was someone who couldn’t understand why one group of people could hate an ideology so much, that they would be willing to take the lives of anyone who lived in it.

Now that I’m older, more critical of the world and the way public trauma works, I realize that there’s a lot of “black and white” understanding of these events and the subsequent reactions of the US and countries around the world. It’s actually thousands of shades and tints of gray that no one person could summarize in his/her lifetime. Still, 15 years later, I think we can all agree that it was not the end of the world. Time moves on. Wounds heal. Movies are made, books written, and thousands of interviews and conversations add more layers to understanding the attacks (or rather, continuing to try to understand).

Fifty-five years from now (I’m an optimist- I believe there will be a 2071, I imagine my grandchildren asking me where I was during the 9/11 attacks. What will we tell them? How will they learn about it in school? What is the timeline of events that will appear in the history books, before and after September 11, 2001? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I’ve learned what it means to despise an ideology- Islamist fundamentalism is a pretty nasty piece of business- and  I hope I’ll never to have find out whether I’d be willing to kill someone of that ideology. I suppose an individual can be justified differently than 3000+ individuals. But that’s not a thought I want to end this post with.

Rather, I felt the need to publicly reflect on an event that is such a key part of recent public memory. I know I won’t be the only one who feels that way today, though most people don’t feel the need to share their reflection with the world.

I am grateful to live in a world so interconnected that a US American can be inspired to reflect in Germany, and that US Americans are wise enough to recognize their role in the world and work on being a productive member of it, even if we often disagree on the methods they take to fulfill that purpose. This interconnectedness- another word could be globalism in the cultural, political and economic sense- is, as we’ve seen, a double-edged sword that we’re still collectively learning to wield. Good luck to us all.