23 September, 2015

We are writing history right now

A must see. I liked the part in the video about the importance of cell phones and social media for the refugees. A dear friend of mine who fled Syria 25 years ago, was cut off from his family until two years ago when one of his brothers managed to get a cell phone with whatsup on it. For the first time in over 20 years he was able to talk with his family. He now knows who is alive and who has sadly passed, who left for Jordan, who are staying no matter how critical the situation remains... His life has been transformed through whatsup.

It is exciting and scary living here at the moment. It is as the video states, "we are writing history right now". It is the same feeling of fascination and trepidation that was present after the Berlin Wall went down. There is much good will around, but is there sufficient long term commitment, both individually and politically, for us to face the deep economical and moral responsibilities placed at our doorsteps?

13 September, 2015

Misconception #5: All German Men Love To Wear Lederhosen

Since I arrived in Munich in 1982 right in the middle of Oktoberfest, it was not hard to image why I got the impression that all Germans loved wearing Lederhosen and Dirndl.

Initially, I regarded men in Lederhosen drinking excessive amounts of beer with a feeling of anthropological curiosity. This quickly developed into a strong aversion. Then an outward snobbish dismissal. Like many of the local traditions I was exposed to, it took me a long time to come to terms with their strangeness.

It’s one of the odd things about life, it is so much easier to know who/what we don’t like, rather than recognise who/what we do like. It is also so tempting, as an outsider, to judge the locals and believe their shortcomings are responsible for our personal unhappiness.  

In the end, it is all about getting beyond the stereotypes. Yes, many German are sticklers for punctuality, they generally don’t practice the principle of “customer is king”, they are not the best of dancers, some like dogs more than children, and many men like to wear Lederhosen… But, equally, they generally do help their neighbours, they tend to know a lot about international news, they take pride in a job well-done, and they bake fabulous cakes. But, are any of these things true? Maybe. Maybe not.

Certainly, some of the Germans I know possess one, a few, or all of these traits. It doesn’t really matter because none of the traits makes the person what they are… a living breathing fine human being.

Anyone who goes and lives in a foreign country goes through various phases of transition: elation, resistance, transformation, and then integration. Depending upon what sort of experiences you have, the second phase can last a long time. This was certainly the case with me. The real learning experience starts with the third phase of transformation, when you actually start challenging and changing your beliefs. And the last phase, integration, is where the fun begins!

09 September, 2015

Misconception #4: Germans Love Their Rules

My sister visited me years ago and after going downtown shopping, came back very miffed and with this question, “Why can’t everyone mind their own business?” Apparently, no matter what she did…walk down the sidewalk (on the bicycle lane), cross the street (on a red light), or sat on a seat in a bus (those meant for the elderly and handicapped), people were always barking out instructions at her.

It is easy to see how she got this impression. People will generally speak out if they see you doing something wrong. For example, heavens forbid, you try to cross on a red light at a pedestrian crossing.

The other pedestrians will likely yell out “Vorbild!” (role model). This one word translates to “You idiot! There are slews of children here who saw that. An adult, crossing the streets on a red light! With that one act, you have given them permission to commit anarchy. You have potentially corrupted their poor innocent souls and now they will ignore the years of, “Stop and look both ways” and just march blindly across every red light they see in the future. What a horrible person you are. Completely lacking in any sensibilities about civic duties…” This message goes on in your head as long as it takes you to walk away from the maddening crowd of irate pedestrians who were standing at the light you just crossed.

Therefore, you have to watch where you step in this society of everyone minding everyone else’s business. It is usually about safety though and trying to act the role of an upright citizen.

Admittedly, the bureaucracy here is atrocious. But, where isn’t it so? I could tell you stories about German bureaucracy that would raise the hairs on your back, but instead I want to say something positive in its defence. (I can’t believe I am going to do this!) Even though it can be Kafkaesque at times, it is also generally transparent. You generally know who is responsible for doing what when and where.

If you don’t know who is responsible for handling you questions, you can call a number and the person on the reception will give you the responsible person’s name and contact number. You are able to talk to a person and not a machine. This is not the case in many other countries. That is not to say the conversation you have with the civil servant will be an enjoyable experience, but at least it is not anonymous.

There are rules to follow everywhere you look, but not everyone does. And that is the art of living happily here. Knowing the rules and knowing when not following them. When not following them will cause no harm to anyone else … even those poor innocent children standing at red lights with prepositions towards anarchy.

06 September, 2015

Misconception #3: It Is Easy To Make German Friends

Throughout my life I have lived in different countries and always found it relatively easy to make friends. My father was an engineer and wanted to discover the world, so he took his ever growing family from Los Altos to Caracas to Grenada to Paulo Alto to Montreal. In fact, none of my siblings or I were actually born in Canada though we are Canadian citizens. We learnt as children how life was a constant process of hellos and goodbyes.

I thought that once I got my first job and was living in a nice and cosy apartment … it would be easy to take my pick from the anonymous German masses and meet new friends.

My attempts to establish contacts proved difficult. First, I didn’t speak German, which proved a greater hindrance than expected (see Misconception #1). Secondly, all my attempts at being friendly created a dichotomy between intention and the outcome.

What didn’t work

When I tried to be friendly with my neighbours, they became very wary of me. I obviously was much too smiley and far too forward in my social gestures. There were times when I even suspected they ran into their houses to avoid having to talk to me. Or, at least it felt that way.

Then there were my colleagues… 28 happily married male engineers with the social skills of a bushel of eggplants. Do you think any one of them thought, “Ah, a new colleague from a country far away. Maybe she could use a bit of friendly hospitality. Why don’t I ask my dear wife if we could invite her over for a cup of tea on the weekend?” Net. Nada. In the five year I worked there it didn’t happen once. Since male engineers are a sub-category all of their own, I won’t waste any more effort explaining or excusing their lack of hospitality genes.

What worked

What I learnt during my first year in Germany was, first, winter is a lousy time to move to Germany. Everyone is hibernating behind closed doors. Secondly, it’s rather senseless to sit around hoping someone is going to invite you into their home.

If you want to meet people then join the local chess club, Bach Choir, or Green Party initiative. Or, as I did, become a “Stammgast” (a regular) at a charming café and get to know the people who work there. I might take a while, but it is well worth being patient and persistent.

Thirty-three years down the line, my life has been enriched by these friendships; friends I met all those years ago, alongside those I met along the way up to this present day. They helped me to understand the complexity and nuances of life in Germany. They are the people who have become my adopted family or tribe. They’ve shared all the joyful moments, as they have the disappointments and stood by me in moments of crisis. They really are the reason I can call this place home.