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Monday, October 15, 2012

Moon Over Kastanien

A journey into German identity beyond the wurst, The Wars, and The Wall.

Also published on the German site Das Duel.   

"January. She drove to the city early, a cold day, the pavements were frozen, the pigeons huddled in the R's of a Furniture sign. The city is a cathedral of possessions; its scent is dreams. Even those who have been rejected by it cannot leave." – James Salter


One of my favorite streets in Berlin is Kastanienallee, kastanien meaning chestnuts, not to mention Torstrasse and Pappelallee nearby. My favorite haunts include Weinerei Forum, Mein Haus am See, Rosi's, Schwarz Pumpe, Café Mano, Hartweizen, Ixthys, Manouche, Yarok, and Zur Rose. After recently moving to central Berlin, I stumbled on to nearby Food Point (Birkenstrasse 29), my new favorite döner stand on par with Mustafa's. Döner is to Berlin what pizza is to New York.

Living in Germany has been both compass and canvas. But, I'm still a beginner and have much to unpack. And there's that nagging fear. What do they call it— mortality? It's not the clip–on–a–bungee–cord–in–New Zealand or Charlie Sheen variety. It's a strange, all–consuming crave to know the soul of a place, of Germany—its cultural, political, and psychological identity, its texture, its pulse, its asymmetries. Beyond the punctuality, work ethic, and efficiency. Beyond Beethoven, Brothers Grimm, Bach, and the beer swilling. And beyond the wurst, The Wars, and The Wall. What's the campfire in the Black Forest? At the end of the day, I find Germans to be fun–loving, disciplined, and private people who savor the little things every chance they get. 

I often look at two photos side–by–side. They've kept me from being clumsy over the past few years and, will hopefully keep me from getting hardened. One is the view from the 52nd floor bar of the Park Hyatt hotel in Shinjuku in Tokyo, the most stunning view you will find in the city. It's also the setting for the movie Lost in Translation (I even had a glass of Bill Murray's Suntory Hibiki 17–year). The photo is of a never–ending ocean of city, of electricity and light. It reminds me of how big, ambitious, and everlasting we are. The other is the overlook at breakfast at Lakam Lodge in Sipi Falls in northern Uganda, the backdrop of a weekend trip I took with fellow volunteers in Kenya a few years ago. The photo is of a vast ocean expanse of plains, of open land, of nothing as far as you could see. It reminds me of how small and impermanent we are.

A move to Europe serves up its own set of clashes. After a while, the familiar gripes— poor service, lack of temperature control or ventilation almost everywhere, awkwardly small elevators, low tipping standards, and drying racks in lieu of dryers— shake away. America is a conversation, a country based on an idea. It doesn't take before you sense a unique mix of optimism, energy, and serene confidence. And insecurity— in 1636, just six years after John Winthrop landed in Massachusetts, a Congregationalist minister was lamenting the colony's decline

America is shallow, but changing. Einstein said of the American, "life for him is always becoming, never being." Europe is deep, but predictable. Prague has its Disneyesque architecture and apathy. London has its lively debate culture alongside stark class divides. You'll discover that proper English manner is just a veneer get a pint in a bloke and he'll swear like a sailor. Europe is café culture with a wholly different value system. From London to Stuttgart to Naples to Istanbul, people seem to care more about what's in front of them than what stretches out ahead. America oozes adventurous renewal. Europe is soulful and affirming.   

Berlin stands apart in Germany. It's considered a uniquely "non–German" city. It lacks Hamburg's wealthy dealmakers, Bavaria's Mercedes and BMW, Frankfurt's European Central Bank (ECB), Munich's wealth, and the South's Mittelstand, the constellation of tens of thousands of small and medium–sized manufacturers considered the backbone of German economic might. Instead, Berlin is a design mecca with its own character, sheen, and graffiti art. It's a mix of Turkish and Vietnamese communities, lush open–air markets and food stalls, vintage obsessions, cake–colored buildings, and hipster enclaves. It's the power center, home to the Bundestag, Angela Merkel, and wide, tree–lined boulevards. It's a paradise for dogs and bike–riders and an avant–garde workshop for artists, designers, restauranteurs, writers, students, think tanks, musicians and DJs, programmers, and entrepreneurs. Winter Berlin glows warm with festive Weihnachtsmakts (outdoor Christmas markets). After they've folded up, it's the most brutally cold and depressing place on Earth. Summer Berlin feels like a green Schlaraffenland, a land of milk and honey. As travel and food personality Anthony Bourdain would say about Berlin, “the people here are a pretty intriguing mix of brash and outspoken, on the one hand, and guarded and somewhat enigmatic on the other.” There are also the new German stereotypes from Wutbürger (angry citizen) to Organic Bourgeoisie to Bossy Ossi.

Aside from Berlin's cheap rents and world–class infrastructure, the city's unique character and vibrant nightlife trace back to the freewheeling, libertine 1920s. From 1919 to 1933, between the end of WWI and Hitler's Third Reich, there was the Weimar, a time of freedom, democracy, and cultural innovation. At the time, Berlin was more of a cultural world capital than Paris. Well–educated Berlin was where Einstein lived and worked as a physics professor. It spawned Bauhaus, Dada, and Otto Dix. Thwarting Germany's war–laden past, Weimar was intensely anti–militaristic. It had its Threepennyopera. Kurt Weill brought the original "Mack the Knife," later popularized by Louis Armstrong. Weimar Berlin was not prologue, it didn't plant the seeds for what was to come. Weimar featured hyperinflation and economic disaster, but the Third Reich wasn't inevitable. Weimar simply failed to stand up for itself and protect the free, tolerant democracy that was at its heart. Today, while Europe shackles its entrepreneurs and dreamers, places like Berlin, with its St. Oberholz café, along with London and Helsinki will re–energize Europe and keep it from becoming a museum. 

Is Germany the indispensable nation? With it's current account surpluses, wage control, and exports, is it the China of Europe? Will Germany always have an identity crisis? What is German–ness? What do black, red, and gold mean for the German? Global thinker Parag Khanna, who spent years living and working in Germany, says Germany is "the largest, most equitable, efficient, and educated society today." But, after Germany renovated its labor system, launching a economic boom beginning in the early in the early 2000s, many Germans have not seen their wages rise. Nor have they felt the love. 

History has molded German identity. As geopolitical thinker Robert Kaplan points out, so has its physical shape. To the North, Germany has a natural border with the Baltic Sea. To the South, it has the Alps and Carpathians. But, to the East and West Germany lacks natural borders, overseeing open plains, and, as a result, has swelled and shrunk over the centuries. Germany's political pendulum has swung from the western Catholic Rhineland drawn to the Atlantic to the Protestant, Prussian East tied to central and eastern Europe.

Germany has been an outsider, settled by waves of immigrants from the Russian steppe and, from Charlemagne to Luther to Bismarck, unified outside of the Vatican and Austro–Hungarian empire. German radio personality and novelist Oliver Pötzsch, who descends from a dynasty of 13th century Bavarian executioners, traces Germany's psyche— its melancholy and angst— to Europe's most devastating war, The Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648, which killed off nearly one–third of Germans through battle, starvation, and disease. It was a time when wolves roamed the forests during a Little Ice Age.

For centuries, Germany was fragmented, a loose collection of successful, independent states each with its own political gravity. France and England sought to keep it that way with the aim of preventing a united Central Europe. Eventually the patchwork came to orbit around Berlin. Despite its empire–building, Germany was never monolithic and many argue that its identity crisis is not due to a lack of an identity, but having too many.

What does it mean to be German today? Has the "burden" of being German faded with every generation? German thinker and writer Bernhard Schlink believes the European project offers Germans a way to "escape from themselves." Germans like their options open, just watch the national team go head–to–head with Spain or Italy. And they love their compound words. Take Handschuhschneeballwerfer (a person who wears gloves to throw snowballs) or Freundschaftsbezeigungen (demonstration of friendship). Mark Twain blasted German, claiming no other language was "so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp." But, few things are as fun as sitting around a dinner table trying out your own, extra–long compound nouns.

German policy today is borne of its past. Take a look at Frau Merkel— a cautious chemist groomed by mentor and former chancellor Helmut Kohl, an Ossi (East German) who understands and lived through the rebuilding of the East. Germany is fiercely risk–averse. It's a poster child of uncertainty avoidance. Because of blunt trauma— wheelbarrow inflation in the 1920s and the Third Reich— today's Bundesbank looks to minimize inflation at all costs, even at the expense of wages, employment, and broader EU interests. In memory of Weimar, when parliament voted itself out under Hitler's bullying, Germany's fabled 1949 constitution even boasts an "eternity clause" that dismisses anything that counters democracy and human rights even if willed by parliament.

Since the days of Bismarck in the late 19th century, Germany has taken care of its people generously. It boasts a flexible labor market, but has less of a headhunting, hire–and–fire culture than America or London. Lines between work and personal life are drawn in bold. While America consistently reinvents itself, Germany turns to its Mittelstand, whose economic strength comes from "focusing regularly on the right things and making a lot of uncelebrated little improvements every day."  But, Germany faces a looming problem— Schrumpfnation Deutschland, or shrinking Germany. While America's population grows by more than 2.5 million this year, Germany's will shrink by 160,000. Merkel decries "failed" multiculturalism, but the fact remains that one in five Germans are immigrants. The national team is overwhelmingly foreign. Midfielder Mesut Özil is a Turkish immigrant and a national hero. While Germany shrinks, its minority population grows, and the country will need to better embrace immigrants. Take Marlene Schliepach, she's studying to become a kindergarten teacher and is learning Turkish to better understand her students.

In the Euro crisis, Germany is stuck in the most awkward of acrobatics. It goads Southern Europe to swallow bitter austerity pills and do their structural reform "homework." But, in Germany, public consciousness of just how much it has benefited from the Euro is lacking. On the other hand, there's little said of just how much Germany has already done for Greece and the "Olive Belt." Maybe Merkel is playing her cards to get the best possible deal. Or, maybe Germany's adrift— it has the economic confidence, but not the cultural and political confidence to boot. The world is asking for Germany's leadership. But, modern Europe is a place designed to prevent a country from taking the lead.  

German life has been blissfully ego–bruising. It could mean standing bag–less and confused at a grocery store on the receiving end of a cashier's strange question. Moving to a new country is, as ping–pong adventurer Christopher Beam puts it, "an exercise in crippling humiliation." I imagine Europe as a giant café stretched out across 3,000 kilometers or, sometimes, a 47–sided cobblestone or a 500 million–piece puzzle. Instead of tracing some ancient truth or uncovering a perfect, Christmas–clean one–liner, moving to Germany has offered something more uneven and hard–won, freshness and proportion— a feeling of being lost in it all once again.


"On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man... and they hummed of mystery.” –Cormac McCarthy