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Morning Feature: Scattered Reflections, Part I – On Here, From There

December 22, 2010

Morning Feature

Morning Feature: Scattered Reflections, Part I – On Here, From There

“Germans are more cynical about our leaders,” Fritz said. “We don’t expect them to solve big problems quickly. Our government works by consensus. Our major parties differ in details, but have the same basic ideas. We know change happens slowly.”

His name wasn’t really Fritz, but that’s German for “Fred.” (More)

Scattered Reflections, Part I – On Here, From There

This week Morning Feature will offer some scattered reflections on the past month. Today I’ll share some Fritzflüstern (Fred Whispering) experiences on how Germans see the U.S. Tomorrow I’ll share some thoughts on European politics. Friday I’ll try to tie it all together. Saturday is Christmas, so we’ll take a break from politics to review a 1st century blog from Judea recently unearthed by our Department of Pseudoarcheology.

The U.S. news of the past month seemed dominated by the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts. I kept up with events here through Noontime News and BPI’s news feeds, but I also watched and read some German news. I didn’t see any German stories about the tax cuts, though there was a TV piece comparing America’s unemployment crisis to similar problems in some European countries. Mostly I talked with Germans: friends of German Beloved, whom we were visiting, and others I met on trains and in markets.

“A very European outlook.”

Fritz said that after I said I see politics in terms of long cycles and trends that span decades or even centuries. He was driving us to visit one of many castles along the Rhine near Koblenz. He joked that castle building had been a hobby among the local leaders, though the castles served an important function. The Rhine was and still is a major trade artery, and the castles were both taxing and police stations. Tea party activists may see taxation as legalized theft, but that was better than the alternative: ‘taxation’ by anyone with the means to extort money or goods from passing traders. Government taxes were at least predictable, and the castle watchmen chased bandits from the river and the villages and vineyards along its banks.

Castles took decades to build. Most began as small, hilltop garrisons, augmented with new walls and facilities year by year. Projects were generational, with grandchildren working on buildings begun by their grandparents. It reminded me of an Italian saying about olive groves: “I reap what my grandfathers sowed, and sow what my grandsons will reap.” I said politics worked the same way, and Fritz called that “a very European outlook.”

“It is a complicated problem, and no one can solve it quickly.”

He said Germans don’t expect their government to solve difficult problems quickly. “We know it takes time to change anything, unless you want to make it worse. Only that can happen quickly. For the rest, it takes patience and persistence. We are still working on problems created decades ago, some by policies that looked for quick solutions.

“Our Turkish population is an example,” he continued. “We wanted workers quickly, but then they stayed. Now they have no homes in Turkey to go back to, but many never learned German and can only get menial jobs here. It is a complicated problem, and no one can solve it quickly.”

I asked what he thought the solution might look like.

“They will have to become more German,” he said. “And we will have to accept some of the ways they are not. To be German will mean something different than it does now. But to be German now means something different than it meant in the past. So we will change. Then there will be other complicated problems.”

River bandits gave rise to castles. Castles gave rise to warring local leaders. They grew and consolidated, eventually giving rise to the horror of World War II. That gave rise to the European Union, which has brought its own problems. All are complicated. None have quick, easy solutions.

But Fritz accepted that. “Check back in a few hundred years,” he said. “Then we will know how well we did today.”


Happy Wednesday!

  • winterbanyan

    “Check back in a few hundred years, then we will know how we did today.”

    I think that encapsulates a huge part of the American problem. We want things to change rapidly, we want them fixed now and if our lives depended on it we’d never dedicate a century or more to building a cathedral or a castle. We just don’t think that way.

    I will carry with me forever the view of great churches in Europe that were begun by men who would never live to see them finished… and knew it. Or the sight of vineyards clinging to 60-degree slopes that are still worked by hand to create a Mosel wine… vineyards that have been working by generations past and will be worked by future generations.

    Or houses. Many houses have been in the same families for centuries. Newer houses are purchased by the parents who expect their children and granchildren to still live in them… and finish paying them off in several generations.

    It’s a very different perspective than we have. Very different.

    • NCrissieB

      It is a very different perspective. That said, Germans were out in strength to protest over a new rail plan in Stuttgart, and some are upset that Chancellor Merkel’s response to almost any political problem seems to have been Watch and Wait.

      Part of that was her uncomfortable role leading the Grand Coalition from 2005-2009, with her center-right Christian Democratic Union having to forge a partnership with the center-left Social Democratic Party in order to form a government. Since the 2009 elections, she now heads the more customary CDU coalition with the Free Democratic Party (nearer to our libertarians). I’ll talk more about German politics tomorrow, but it’s worth noting that “conservative” German parties are similar to our Democratic Party … well to the left of our GOP.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    Do you speak fluent German? I am envious if you do. It is so much easier to speak with people and learn what they really think if you can do it in their language.

    I was taken with the ATM’s stuck into 300 year old buildings. Modern technology coexisting with history and these were walk to ATM’s not drive throughs.

    • NCrissieB

      My German nowhere near fluent. Most Germans speak at least some English (it is a standard course in German schools) and mostly we talked in “Denglish” — a pastiche of Deutsch and English, explaining unfamiliar words as best we could. Sometimes it was funny. A German would ask a question in English, and I would answer in German … but then we’d flip.

      The mix of modern and ancient is striking in Europe. Some German cities have lots of very old buildings. Others have been almost totally rebuilt since World War II. Sometimes that changes from one area of a city to another, and even from one block to the next. Oddly, most of it seems to “fit,” though there are places where it’s jarring. For example, the main train station in Köln (Cologne) is very modern, with a Starbucks near its front entrance, right across the plaza from the cathedral. On the other side of the cathedral is another plaza … with another Starbucks….

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • JanF

    The problem with the tea partiers is that they really do not understand history and, those that do at least read it, do not understand that history is not just U.S. History. The history of humans needs to be read and reflected on. In Europe, I imagine that since their history is longer they can see the long cycles more clearly. It is probably harder to walk past a 10th century castle and not realize that when there was no government and it was every vassal for themselves that life was very difficult.

    In America, people don’t even remember that the current financial crisis was precipitated by changes made in 1999 … literally 11 years ago.

    I like this view:

    “We know it takes time to change anything, unless you want to make it worse.”

    We would all do well to consider the consequences of our actions, both intended and unintended, more carefully.

    • winterbanyan

      Agreed, Jan. Absolutely. Our view of history is far too short here. And our impatience grew with our ability to pack up and move west for so long if we wanted something different.

      In the process we grew myopic and dangerous.

    • NCrissieB

      There’s something about touching a wall built by the Romans in the 1st century, next to a 13th century church, across the street from a house only eight feet wide – it was built when property taxes were based on street frontage – that forces historical awareness. You can see those in the tiny town of Ladenburg, between Mannheim and Heidelberg.

      And when you’re in Ladenburg, eat at Die Zwiwwel, a restaurant so wonderful I promised the owner I would mention it. The restaurant has been in business since the early 1700s, and has been owned and operated by the same family for over 150 years. The name is local dialect for Die Zwiebel (The Onion) … but you won’t want to satirize the food. We had a local specialty – pork medallions in a peppery mushroom and shallot sauce – and it was amazing. 🙂

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • LI Mike

    A few years ago we were in Bejing and touristed the Forbidden City. Our Guide was explaining the architecture when suddenly a voice rang out — look there’s a Starbucks. Now there’s a jarring experience.

    • NCrissieB

      Yikes, that would be jarring! Starbucks didn’t seem as jarring in Germany, except the two straddling the cathedral in Köln, because Germans have such a tradition of coffee shops. You’re rarely more than a block away from two or three coffee shops in any German shopping district. Starbucks seems to have emulated that tradition, including making guests feel welcome to stay for as long as they like, so it has found a comfortable home in Germany.

      By contrast, WalMart was forced out of Germany because they would not accept German labor policies.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::