Culture Shock #6: History is Live

“Ja, Hamburg is full of bombs.”

Three sets of eyes turned towards the voice. It was Ingo, one of our freelance copywriters. He sat, completely relaxed, behind his computer, as the three expats discussed the latest breaking headline: a bomb threat had closed the subway. Only this wasn’t an ISIS threat or a domestic terror attack. It was a (potential) blast from the past.

 


It turns out that we had translated the headline wrong. When the line read, “bomb found”, they literally meant “found”—as in, discovered in a construction site. According to a Guardian article, back in World War II, the British and American Allies pounded Germany with 1.5 million tons of bombs. Officials estimate that 15% of the bombs failed to explode—which means that throughout this country, thousands of live bombs are hidden like Easter eggs, waiting to be found.

Luckily, this being Germany, there is a system in place for when such a bomb is found. This past weekend, for example, we were returning from a visit to see Tim’s family only to find out that a massive evacuation was taking place in Frankfurt, where we had to change trains. In the largest evacuation since the war, 60,000 people were ordered to leave their homes for the day as experts came in to defuse what’s known as a “blockbuster”—a bomb large enough to flatten a whole city block. Over beers and a pizza at the central station (which was outside of the potential detonation radius, don’t worry Mom), we watched the coverage of the evacuation. Uniformed officers went door to door, ringing every bell and ensuring that everyone had properly exited the area. (The Guardian also tells me they used helicopters with heat-sensing cameras to make sure nobody was left behind). Then a team of police explosive experts came in and defused the bomb—and by the evening, everyone was back at home again. Like clockwork.

This type of occurrence is regular. So regular that Ingo didn’t even bat an eye when he heard what we were talking about. But in America, the bombs that fell in Europe in WWII are just lines on a history page. It’s hard to imagine that this type of Frankfurt bomb fell with a legion of others—and harder to imagine the type of flattening damage the bombs unleashed when they did explode on impact.

Amid all of the recent controversy about race and history in the States, I’ve found it so fascinating to see how Germans deal with their blemished past. I think part of it helps that the history is still alive for people to experience. You can still see the signage in Berlin that routed the trains to their different concentration camps. You can visit the camps. Theoretically, you could even be blown up by an active munition. It’s hard to glorify a history that weighs so heavy on you—and that’s one thing that should be appreciated about the German approach to history. They not only allow, but insist on that weight. They refuse to forget. And so history—its evil, its beauty, its danger—doesn’t die. It lives, breathes, and demands to be remembered.

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Things We Are Not Taller Than

“Excuse me, would you mind taking our picture? We have a little tradition we do—just hold on and we’ll get into place.”

It started as a little gag—Tim had once put me on his shoulders and I said I was taller than anything else around. When I came to Aachen to visit him, I found a stat on how the Aachen Cathedral, when built in 798, was the tallest and largest structure north of the Alps. “I want a photo of me sitting on your shoulders next to it. It can be something we are not taller than.”

Tim paid it back to me on his visit to San Francisco in December. We drove up to Hawk’s Hill and walked the viewpoint to the Golden Gate Bridge. Onlookers laughed as I springboarded off a nearby log and scrambled onto his shoulder, whacking him in the face with my gloved hands.

And thus came the tradition. Every vacation we go on, we try to find one thing that we are organically not taller than—and someone kind enough to wait while we struggle into position.

For two years and ten countries, this guy has walked beside me, driven me crazy, swept me off my feet, and yes, carried me on his shoulders, both literally and figuratively. We’ve both got road left in our shoes…I can’t wait to see where we end up.

 

Postcard from Edinburgh

A few nights ago, sitting on the couch on a gloomy Saturday night, Tim poured us two glasses of whiskey and we settled in to watch a movie. He’d gotten Glencairn whisky glasses for his birthday; they are specially-designed with a tapered mouth to let you catch the nuanced smells of each pour. While he sipped American bourbon, I’d opted for Jura, a Scotch whisky we’d purchased on our November trip. As I brought the glass to my mouth, the smell instantly transported me to Scotland. This particular Jura is known for its peatiness—the smoky smell and taste that makes many whiskey novices turn their heads (or stomachs).

But this smokiness is exactly what makes me think of Scotland. It reminds me of a roaring fire, a sleeping dog, thick, felty tartan blankets, rain-lashed windows. The crunch of cobblestones. A fine mist dancing across your face and settling on an upturned collar.

I’ve visited Scotland twice now, once with Tim last November on a trip through the Highlands, and back to Edinburgh in April with my friend Alex. Both times the weather was sunny but cold—I kept my coat buttoned to the throat and a flask of whisky in the pocket to ward off the chill. Alex and I didn’t have much of an itinerary (it’s what makes us such good travel companions). We wandered the Prince Streets Garden while munching on buttery, oven-fresh shortbread; flipped through thick books of fabric swatches as she contemplated getting a custom-made kilt skirt; admired the arches and colorful glass windows at St. Giles Cathedral; took tea breaks whenever it struck our fancy.

We finally ended up at Edinburgh Castle and slipped in right before the close, meandering through the sprawling keep in search of the shiny stuff. We found it in a high tower, where bejeweled swords and crowns lay in a thick glass case besides what appeared to be a massive rock.

“What is the rock for?” Alex asked the security guard. He appeared surprised.

“That’s no rock—that’s the Stone of Destiny,” he said. This epically-christened oblong piece of sandstone is also called the Stone of Scone (or in Scottish Celtic, An Lia Fàil). It’s the coronation stone used for centuries by the Scottish kings and now the British monarchs. According to the guard, when Charles ascends the throne, he will sit on the throne chair—but beneath it will be this very rock, brought down from Scotland.

On our last day, we woke early and headed to the base of Arthur’s Seat—a different rock named (according to legend) for a different king. Arthur’s Seat is often mentioned as one of the possible locations for Camelot, the legendary castle and court of King Arthur. At a height of 250.5 m (822 ft), it’s a relatively easy hike that offers fantastic panoramic views of the city. We took our time, chatting and picking our way over the grassy knolls. Shortly before the crest sat a man playing lilting Celtic songs on an acoustic guitar. We paused to savor the moment.

“Do you ever think these moments are our rewards for doing good in this world?” Alex asks me. “The ways that karma manifests for us?” The sun was bright on our faces, the wind crisp and strong. The city of Edinburgh unrolled at our feet, and the roughness of the mountain was cloaked in freshly-sweet heather. I replied with the only answer that occurred to me. “God…I hope so.”

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Everyone is Welcome in LA

With the U.S. currently gaffe-ing about matters both diplomatic and domestic, it’s little wonder the sentiment outside of the States is so wary—especially when it comes to booking travel. But count on California to do something to change that. I love this colorful, bright-eyed ad from LA Tourism, that both says and shows that #everyoneiswelcome. And to be honest—since we’ve acknowledged the population is so varied, I’d love to see such a diverse cast in a “normal” ad too. #goals

Pass or Fail: Updates in the “Visa Wars”

Maybe it’s on your radar, maybe its not—but a few weeks ago the E.U. voted to implement a new policy for American tourists requiring a visa to travel to Europe. It’s the latest development in what’s known as the “visa war”—an ongoing dispute based on the fact that the United States still enforces a strict visa policy for five European Union countries: Poland, Cyprus, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania despite agreements not to. In a tit-for-tat move, the E.U. finally decided to strike back and require Americans to get visas when they hop across the Atlantic.

The process for the last few years has been an open-border policy between the U.S. and the E.U. European nationals need to complete a form for travel authorization (the ESTA), which is typically granted within a few days, if not a few hours. And U.S. citizens get a stamp on arrival and unrestricted visitation throughout what’s known as the Shengen region for 90 days. All well and good. But see, reciprocity only works when it’s reciprocal, and leaving certain countries out because of their socioeconomic status is well…not reciprocal.

So now the E.U. is considering what this new policy will look like. While the new policy’s effective date is still undetermined, the reactions to it have been interesting to watch. As Americans, we can enter most popular touristy destination countries with little to no hassle—a simple visa-on-arrival, maybe a minimal fee. I remember a sense of shock when, planning my trip to Brazil in 2010, I realized that I needed to pay $160 for a tourist visa—even thought my trip was less than two weeks long. It’s our typical sense of entitlement: we’re a superpower, so we should have a super-powerful passport.

It’s our typical sense of entitlement: we’re a superpower, so we should have a super-powerful passport.

The experience with my Brazilian passport made me far more sympathetic to those who have to adhere to the stringent tourist visa processes in the States. I was lucky that I had a Brazilian consulate in the city I was living in—otherwise the special trip to get the visa may have scrapped both my travel budget and my travel plans. I recently read a very detailed account of what a Bulgarian national has to go through in order to visit the U.S., and it’s neither cheap nor funny:

I have to fill out a form on the US embassy website, accompanied by a photo with specific quality and dimensions. I have to schedule an appointment at the US Embassy (I either have to fly home to Bulgaria, or go to Madrid, since I now live in Spain). I have to pay a fee of $160, nonrefundable. I have to show up for an in-person interview…[where]…I have to present a body of evidence proving that I don’t aim to immigrate to the United States, but only want to have a good vacation and eat chicken wings in LA’s Chinatown, like any other traveler would. This “evidence” includes my work contract, my apartment lease, an invite from whoever I am visiting in the US with his/her address and a document that proves his/her status in the country (Good luck visiting a non-citizen). I have to specify where I will be staying, how long and provide a phone number where I can be reached at all times.

In comparison, if my friend from Los Angeles wants to visit me, all he needs to do is hop on a plane and get his passport stamped upon arrival in Spain.”

When all the particulars are spelled out…yeah, that seems unfair.

As for me, I have kind of mixed feelings about the “visa war”. In terms of the big picture, it is in some ways cool to see the rest of the world standing up to the U.S. and making us honor our policy promises. On the other hand, in this era of walls and bans and fears of outsiders, it makes me sad to think that another obstacle to moving around and meeting new people will soon be enacted. Americans in general aren’t good at getting out of bubbles—and many, when they do choose to leave the 50 States, will head to Europe because it has a sense of the familiar.

On the other hand, in this era of walls and bans and fears of outsiders, it makes me sad to think that another obstacle to moving around and meeting new people will soon be enacted.

So while I think it’s really important and right to have to answer for our governmental failures, I also worry that Americans will be so turned off by it (though let’s be honest, they will probably be turned off not by the actual policy forms than by the breathlessly overblown news coverage) and hunker down further into their comfort zones, further depriving the U.S. of the broader perspective we so desperately need right now.

Hamburger Sliders: Then and Now

My favorite thing to do when visiting an old city is to see how much of its architectural history is still intact. To wander through these old section of town is not unlike watching a 90-year old grandma busting a surprising move on the dance floor—they have surprising charm, elegance, and even a hipness to them despite the age. So you know I love this interactive feature from the Hamburger Abendblatt (and subsequent opportunity for punning).

Hamburg – eine Fotoreise von 1888 bis heute

What surprised me most about the Hamburger Abendblatt’s interactive feature, however, is not how different Hamburg is today from the Hamburg of 100+ years ago, but how similar it is. Through two World Wars and a lot of growth, you can still see those old bones all throughout the city. And yeah, they still can show the young’uns something.

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Deutschland: Year Eins

Last Saturday marked the start of my second year in Germany. Which seems insane. It feels like I just landed from California (oh wait, because I did…). But in seriousness, I learned a lot in the past year—about myself, about my new country, about people. In truth, I think a lot of things I knew already. I’ve been lucky to have traveled a lot, lived abroad, and worked cross-culturally before. But I like that my lifestyle now serves as a constant reminder of these lessons. Here are some of the ones that resonate most with me:

Practice Empathy

The constant struggle of being understood reminds me all the time to be more patient with others—whether they are struggling with language issues or struggling with simply finding words to express themselves. This goes for being culturally different too. My team at work is made up of myself, Germans, Brazilians, an Iranian, and the occasional South African freelancer. That means that on any given day, we’re working across an average of three cultures. It’s taught me to be aware of our differences, as much as we celebrate our similarities. Things that I might find offensive might be completely regular to someone else. When I get confused or frustrated, I try to always have my first reaction be to question, “Ok, is this a cultural thing?” and then go from there. (And truthfully, while sometimes it is, other times the person is just being a jerk)

Collect Moments, Not Things

Giving up so much of my stuff when I moved reminded me that you can live with less—and that I’m completely okay with having fewer things and more stories. I spent a lot of money on travel within the last year, but I’d much rather have the experiences versus a big television or fancier bike. Moving here was expensive, and if the choice is between buying something I don’t really need or having a nice night out with friends, I’d rather use the money towards doing something instead of having something.

Work is Not Life*

Speaking of traveling all the time…here in Germany, I have 30 days of vacation. And while it may amuse some of my friends here that I’ve learned lessons about working less (considering the crazy hours I do work), living in such a society has convinced me how imperative some sort of work-life balance is. This is honestly my biggest hesitation when it comes to moving back to the States—the feeling that work is always there. To some extent, it is here too (especially for me lately), but I also know that when I go on vacation, I’m untouchable. And for the most part, work respects that.

*and I’m writing this at 10 pm from the office, so this is definitely something I will continually remind myself.

Take Care of Yourself

My mom often tells me that I “burn the candle at both ends”—always taking on a full plate. But without the safety net of close family and friends, you wind up looking out for yourself a lot. That means knowing your limits, and when it’s necessary to push them. Here, I’m responsible for making myself uncomfortable and trying new things—but I’m also responsible for knowing when to take a night in and spoil myself.

Get in Front of People

Whenever you move somewhere new, you have to force yourself to be social, because otherwise, you’ll be a hermit. I’ve been really lucky to have found a crew of wonderful friends since I’ve moved here. A mix of German natives and expats, they both remind me what’s good about living here, and give me someone to vent to when I need to complain something Typisch Deutsch.

Be More Direct

This comes directly from the Germans, and it’s one lesson I’ve really relished learning. Americans always complain about Germans being rude, but what they are is direct. They say what they mean and they do so unapologetically. I love this culture of real talk—it’s a great tactic for professional as well as personal life. I’ve also been forced to learn how to articulate my own feelings more regularly. It’s not enough to not like something or to be upset: Germans want you to be able to analyze why you feel a certain way and why you think that is. It’s been kind of fascinating to be so in touch with myself versus the self-shrug we typically do in the States.

Celebrate Stupid

Stumble through your bad German. Ask silly questions. Push the red button. Wait. Try. See what happens. Squawk in surprise. Be embarrassingly American. Stick out like a sore thumb. Have fun. I’ve felt utterly ridiculous at least 3 times a day since I got here, and while some nights I am so frustrated I want to break something, overall it’s refreshing to laugh at yourself so often. I know that I’m trying. And it’s so rewarding when I finally do find success—whether it’s being able to ask the butcher for the right cut of meat, cracking a joke in German that makes my boyfriend’s best friend laugh, or giving a tourist directions.

After a year, I’m starting to feel things clicking. I’m starting to feel like I belong.