Thursday, July 24, 2014

It's a small, small world

Three times in the past year I have had or heard about one of those "Wow! It's a small world!" moments, and they all have to do with international travel. Every time I experience one of these I wonder how many near misses must be happening all the time as well. How many times do we miss by moments bumping into someone we know who happens to be in the same place we are, far from home and surrounded by strangers? I have even wondered if some cheeky angel is up there playing with us: "Ooh...I'm going to put these old friends in the same remote village in Italy, and have them meet at a hotel while one is checking in and the other is checking out!"

Since I'm packing for a quick trip stateside, I'm going to cut the dull introduction short and get to the stories.

Just hanging out in Dresden

A few weeks ago my parents were on what was supposed to be a river-and-bus cruise trip from Berlin to Prague. It turned out to be mainly a bus trip since the water level of the Elbe was so low that the little riverboat could hardly get out of drydock. 

One of the cities they visited was Dresden. At one point my mom was waiting for the rest of the group near the Residenzschloß  (Royal Palace) in the shade, sitting on a wall. All of a sudden a woman came up to her and said, "Hello Ann, I'm Grace*!" Grace was with a church choir group traveling through Germany as well, and that day's stop was Dresden. Not only is Grace originally from the town in Wisconsin where I grew up and my parents still live, but she was one of my babysitters when I was little. I don't know about my mom, but I would not have recognized her that day although I knew her and her family well.

I'm not at all surprised that Grace recognized my mom, because she hasn't changed much in all those years. But had she not, or had either one of them had a schedule that differed by 30 minutes, the meeting would never have happened.

WHO is your brother??

Earlier this week I attended a welcome party for the middle school exchange students who are spending three weeks in Esslingen before they and their German partners fly back to Wisconsin for three weeks in America. This is the fourth or fifth time I have met with the German kids and parents as we've been preparing for the exchange experience, and we've all communicated via email during the last 5 months.

At the party I spent some time chatting with one of the mothers, and she mentioned that she had a friend years ago from Sheboygan (my hometown and Esslingen's sister city) who played American football and tried somewhat unsuccessfully to explain the game to her. Well, that's not so unusual that she would know someone from Sheboygan, since every year from 1970 to about 2001 there have been high school students from Sheboygan participating in the exchange. I asked her what year that was, and she thought maybe around 1983. She also said this boy and two other Americans participated in ballroom dance lessons, which was a pretty popular activity in the 80s. I did it, too, and loved it!

But if it was really 1983, that was the year my brother was in Esslingen. I asked her what her friend's name was. "Jack," she said. "Jack Ro..." 
"Jack Rodenkirch*!?" I couldn't believe it.
"Yes, that's right."
"That was my brother's year. He was with Jack."
"One of the other boys was Steve. And Alex*.  One of the boys' host families had a swimming pool, and we often went swimming there."
"Steve is my brother! He definitely took dance lessons, and his family was the one with the pool."
So here I am talking to the mother of one of this year's exchange students, whom I have known for several months, and I just find out she happened to be friends with my brother back when this whole "international exchange" business started with my family and changed the course of my life.

The next day she emailed me a few photos. If I'd had any doubt (which I did not), that proved it.
My brother is the one on the right.

Lucille!  Hey Lucille!*

Last year I was the chaperone for the six Esslingen students who participated in the six-week middle school exchange between Esslingen, Germany and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I flew with them to Milwaukee and back to Stuttgart, and during our three weeks there we toured Sheboygan, went to Six Flags Great America amusement park, took the train from Milwaukee to Chicago and spent the day touring Chicago on the Hop on Hop off bus, and went to some picnics and parties.

While in Chicago at one bus stop waiting to board the HOHO bus all wearing our matching T-shirts with the German and American flags on the front and the names of our towns, I heard someone yelling, "Lucille! Hey, Lucille!" Lucille was the name of one of the chaperone mothers from Sheboygan, and since it's not a terribly common name, it caught my attention. I was standing next to her, and when I located the sound of the voice - a man on the top level of the open double-decker bus waving in our direction - I tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Lucille, someone's yelling at you."  She looked up and screamed, "Oh my God! Sven!" Ok, crazy that in the middle of Chicago, a city with a population  of 2.7 million and God knows how many tourists, two people who know each other from elsewhere would bump into each other.

But then she looked at me and said, "That's Sven Neuer*!"
"Sven Neuer? From ESSLINGEN?" I was dumbfounded.
Lucille and Sven participated in the 5-month high school exchange the year after my brother did. I participated two years after that. I met Sven in Esslingen because we attended the same school even though he was older than I was. Lucille would have had no idea, actually, that I knew who Sven was. Had it been any of the other five students from her year, I would not have known him or her.

We boarded the bus and sat near him, ignoring the Chicago attractions we passed. He had his wife and children with him, and they were touring Chicago that day. They live in Germany, of course, but they just happened to be in Chicago the same day we were, and on the same bus. Apparently Sven's son had noticed our t-shirts and said to his dad, "Look - German and American flags! Hey! They say 'Esslingen' and 'Sheboygan'!" Sven looked down and said, "Oh my God, that's Lucille!"

Fast forward about three hours, and our group was at the Hancock Tower. I was waiting with another parent chaperone for the group that had gone up to the top, and she says to me, "Isn't that your friend from Germany?" Sure enough, Here come Sven and his family again - they had finished the bus tour, had a meal, and they decided to have a closer look at the Hancock tower. I'm a smalltown girl, so I don't know how often that happens. But I was pretty darn amazed that we would bump into someone we knew from Germany in the middle of Chicago twice in one day several hours apart without planning it.

And here's the thing. Although I had met Sven in Esslingen, we didn't know each other well. Had it not been for him noticing the t-shirts and recognizing Lucille (or had she not agreed to be a parent chaperone that day), Sven and I would have been on the top of the same bus in downtown Chicago and would never have known it. That's what I mean when I wonder how many times this kind of thing happens when we are not aware of it. A whole bunch of decisions had to all be just so, in order for these chance meetings to have taken place.

So it is indeed a small world, which in these instances has nothing to do with technology, the internet, or social media, but rather just being in the right place at the right time and  being aware of the people around you. Crazy.

*names have been changed

Friday, July 18, 2014

Flags and Patriotism

Interesting discussions often arise in my weekly English grammar and conversation classes at my husband's company. In this week's class we discussed (of course!) the World Cup, the welcome home celebration in Berlin, the various players and their antics, and the spirit of pride felt around Germany because of our team's victory, evidenced by the enthusiastic display of German flags all over. During the World Cup Germans (and German team fans) fly the flag out their windows, attach flags to their cars, trailers, semis, bikes, and motorcycles, wear team shirts, paint their faces, and put on all kinds of accessories like bracelets, earrings, hats, scarves, wristbands, and t-shirts.

But when the World Cup is over, even this year though the German team won, the flags disappear. The final match was on Sunday, July 13th, and when I went to the local store the next day I thought I could pick up a few extra trinkets with the German flag to keep as gifts or to give to my kids. The display of items that took up a whole corner of the housewares section had disappeared. That's it - World Cup over, German flags gone.* They'll come out again for the European Championship in 2 years.

Photo Credit: M. Hejl & J. Keckonen

In the English class we talked about this difference between Germans and their flag and Americans and theirs. One of the guys said he heard from a friend that in the U.S. the flag cannot be just thrown in the trash when it's old, tattered, or no longer needed, and he wondered if that is true. Yep. I went on to explain the parts of the flag code I could remember:

  • The flag should never touch the ground.
  • The flag should never be used to wrap, carry, or deliver anything.
  • The flag should never be worn as a scarf, shawl, or blanket.
  • The flag should only be flown in fair weather.
  • The flag should be lighted at all times and should be taken down at night if there is no spotlight.
  • The flag should be mended or cleaned as needed. 
  • The flag should not be flown if it is tattered. If it cannot be repaired and is no longer a fitting symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. There are organizations who will do this for you.
  • The flag should never have any mark, figure, symbol, or drawing on it.
  • The flag should never be used to cover a speaker's table, draped over a podium, or used as decoration.
They were quite surprised about those very specific rules, though I explained it's an honor code, not a law. There is another long list of rules for displaying the flag outside or inside and how it should be hoisted, lowered, folded, and stored.

I said that the flag is flown on or at every city, county, state, and national government building in the U.S., at all schools, most public libraries and other public buildings, at many grocery stores, restaurants (Perkins is known for flying a huge flag), businesses and banks, and in many people's yards or on their houses. This is all year 'round, but people really go nuts with the flag for the 4th of July. On that day and during the few weeks before and after it, you can't turn your head anywhere without seeing red, white, and blue. Those who don't display the flag are often seen as unpatriotic.

In contrast, in Germany private citizens who display the national flag may be considered overly patriotic. Few public or government buildings in Germany fly the German flag. Of course the main buildings of the national government display the flag (the Reichstag in Berlin, for instance), and perhaps the state government buildings in the state capitals as well. 

In our little town there are three tall flagpoles in front of the town hall. The two end ones usually display the Horb flag and the village flag. The middle pole sometimes displays a green flag advertising Horb as a Neckarstadt (city on the Neckar River), and sometimes it's empty. But during the World Cup, the German flag flew on the middle pole.

flag on left = Horb (the red and white shield)
flag on right = village flag with town crest (a plowshare and 2 roses)

One of the guys wondered during our class if the flag will remain there now, which in many ways makes sense! It's the town hall, after all - why not fly the national flag as well? 

The answer came today in our weekly local newsletter. There was actually a paragraph explaining almost sheepishly to the residents of our village why on earth the German flag is still up. My translation of the notice follows:

Display of Flag

During the World Cup the national flag was displayed to show support for our team. On Sunday, July 20th, 2014 is the [70th] anniversary of the July 20th Plot (the attempt to assassinate Hitler), and therefore the displaying of the national flag will be extended until this date.

Clearly, by Monday morning the national flag will be removed from the town hall.

Most Americans will find strange the way Germans handle flag flying, displaying, etc. (and vise versa). All during the welcome home festivities for the national soccer team, Sebastian Schweinsteiger had a German flag draped around his shoulders and tied like a cape, and no one had a problem with it. He even sat on it while he ate a snack. 

© APAweb / EPA, Daniel Naupold
This following picture appeared on social media before the Germany-Brazil walloping, and most thought it was clever. Anyone doing this to the American flag would have been shouted down by his neighbors, various local organizations, veterans, and the media, and probably the authorities would have gotten involved.

There are no rules that we know of regarding the handling of the German flag, except in military ceremonies. Germans don't salute their flag, they don't have patriotic parades, and private citizens do not generally fly the flag at their homes. We do have two neighbors who do, and the flags are usually tattered from the wind, rain, and hail. The flag is just a symbol here. It's not treated like an idol or a relic, but I've also never heard of it being burned by German citizens in protest of something. In fact I just read that burning or attempting to burn the German national flag is a punishable offense, unlike in the U.S. where that odd act is protected under the freedom of speech.

I don't mean to imply with this post that either the German way or the American way of handling the national flag is better - simply that it's different. If a German visits the U.S. and mishandles the flag, it's not out of disrespect but rather because Germans don't have the same flag code that Americans do. An American visiting Germany should not assume that Germans disrespect their country because they don't treat their flag with reverence.

*You will always be able to find trinkets, mugs, beer glasses, t-shirts, keychains, etc. with the German flag on them in cities and towns that are popular with tourists, such as Berlin, Munich, Heidelberg, Rothenburg o.d.Tauber, and Rüdesheim am Rhein.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This is (WM-) Madness!

Right, so all of us expat bloggers in Germany are writing about the WM (Weltmeisterschaft, or World Cup). How could we not? The energy in Germany during the whole thing was just insane, and so much fun! I have never been a sports fan, but finally I have found a sport I can like!

Why?  What's to like about soccer?

There's just enough violence contact that players sometimes have to get dragged or carried off the field, bloody or broken, but not so much as in hockey, where I have to watch with my hands over my eyes, peeking through my fingers. 
There are NO TIME OUTS. The clock keeps going and going like the Energizer Bunny. Therefore... 
There are also NO COMMERCIAL BREAKS! Before and after the game the host channel loads you up with ads for shampoo, razors, and fancy cars, but during game time, no interruptions. Therefore... 
If you know when the game starts, you know within minutes of when it will end. Yes, there's overtime which could possibly lead to Elfmeterschießen (penalty shoot-out), but it doesn't happen terribly often at this level and I've lost interest by then anyway.
The guys are fit as hell because they have to be ready to run their fool asses off for 90+ minutes with nary a water break. Because it's blazing hot in southern Brazil, I did see one game in which the players were given a "cooling break" in each half, but that was only to prevent them from dying on the field.
The coach of the U.S. national team - Jürgen Klinsmann - is a German, from Swabia, whom I first became familiar with during the 2006 World Cup. 
The coach of the German national team - Joachim Löw - is a Swabian. See a pattern here? We can do more than Kehrwoche and Spätzle...
Klose. Yep. 36-year-old Miroslav "Opa" Klose. Love him. When asked if he is starting to feel too old for this, he replied, "Noch habe ich keine Ermüdungserscheinungen, und deswegen schleppe ich meinen Kadaver ein bisschen durch." ("So far I have no signs of fatigue, so therefore I'll drag my corpse across the field a little longer.")
And Manuel Neuer, our goalie. He is a BEAST! There are seriously no words for how insanely impressive that guy is in (and out of) his goalie territory.

We watched all the games at home and alone (well, with each other) as well. My younger fellow expat bloggers tried out public viewings, bars with TVs, and Biergartens, and even though we live within a 45-minute walk of "Deutschlands beliebtester Biergarten" overlooking the Neckar valley, we prefer the quiet of our living room for soccer viewing. It's not just that we're in our 40s and too old for that much excitement, but also it's easier for me to ask all the questions I need to ask and make the comments I need to make during a match.

"Wait, why didn't that goal count?"
"Ahhh...Offsides again. Right. And what is that again?"
"Ha, here comes Götze. He's a little cutie, isn't he?"
"Oh God! All that blood!  Müller's face is covered with blood!"
"The little boy accompanying Lahm onto the field is nearly as tall as LAHM is!" 
"What the hell is happening?!? Is this a replay, or did he score again?" 
"Well, that's a strange trophy, don't you think? It looks like a couple fruit bats holding up a shot put ball."
When my husband steps outside to check the weather, I suspect it may be more a break from the frequent chatter. But he doesn't complain, and he patiently answers my questions. Sadly, he stepped out for five minutes during the game against Brazil, and he missed two goals!

I even enthusiastically watched games Germany wasn't even playing in. I finally understood how and why other games in the tournament are important. Ok, if I totally didn't care about either team, I read a book while glancing up when the announcer got excited, but still I learned a lot about soccer during these last few weeks. I was even actually able to successfully explain offside/offsides to my parents, who had never watched a soccer game until this year. I still can't see offsides as it's occurring or in slow-motion replays, but in still shots with the fancy lines drawn showing where everyone was at the moment the ball was kicked, then I can see it if they leave it on the screen long enough.

If you didn't watch the match against Brazil, you missed a game that will go down in history. There were at least ten records shattered that day and no one in Germany (or Brazil, for that matter) could believe what was happening. Your kids or grandkids will be answering Trivial Pursuit questions about that game in future editions.

I could not re-cap the individual games nearly as well as a fellow expat blogger did, so if you want to read more about an American's thoroughly entertaining impression of this year's thrilling WM, read this blog post. Even Martin laughed while reading!

Now we all have to figure out what to do with ourselves after 31 days of almost non-stop soccer. But for now, I just heard that the team plane is going to do an Ehrenrunde (victory fly-over) over the fan mile in Berlin at a relatively low altitude before it lands, which sounds like a really cool but somewhat unwise idea, and I don't want to miss that.

'Til next time...