First visit home: both familiar and strange

One thing I noticed when I was back in the U.S. was that all the structures -- the buildings, the homes, etc. -- seemed very boxy.

So I finally did it. After living abroad for two and a half years, I finally came back to the U.S. for a visit. I had wanted to see family and friends, and, really, it had just been a while.

But I must say, being back in the U.S. after living in Germany for so long was a little weird. So much about my homeland seemed different. 

Below is a list of all the aspects of American culture and other attributes of life in America that really seemed to jump out at me during my 10-day stay.

People didn’t seem afraid to poke fun at people they didn’t know.

When I arrived at JFK, an attendant at customs asked a woman if she and the man next to her were together. (They were.) When the woman hesitated, the attendant looked at the man and said, “Uh oh, it’s taking her a little too long to answer that!”

The news headlines seemed very bloody.

Though there is plenty of violence in Europe, I was still taken aback when I looked up at a TV that was mounted to a wall at the airport and saw this headline: “Cop killed. Manhunt underway for three suspects.”

People seemed to apologize freely and generously.  

When I was waiting for my bag at the luggage carousel, a guy bumped into me ever so slightly and immediately said sorry. It had been a while since I had done so little to earn an apology.

People seemed to exaggerate in funny ways.  

When I was waiting in line to show an attendant my ticket for the baggage claim, I heard a woman behind me say, “There’s, like, five thousand million people here.”

The supermarket seemed so free of people.

Especially surprising was how there were zero people on some of the aisles. In Germany, the supermarkets are almost always crowded, probably because the stores themselves are smaller.

The geometrical shapes of buildings seemed different.

Many of the buildings — the apartment buildings, the office buildings, etc. — looked very boxy. It seemed like all the structures were either rectangles or squares.

Again, that freeness with which people apologize.

On the first Saturday I was home, my mom and I went into Manhattan to see a Broadway show. But when we got to the theater, we weren’t immediately allowed in, as we were too early. When the doors finally opened, my mom was so anxious to get in and get to her seat, she didn’t notice that she handed her ticket to the ticket-taker before her turn — a man in front of her still hadn’t given his ticket yet. Instead of getting mad, though, the man said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I guess he realized that there had been some confusion and my mom just hadn’t realized that he was first.

But imagine that: the person who had been cut was the one apologizing!

There seemed to be a shocking abundance of space.

At one point during my stay, I was watching the reality show “American Pickers” and in it some guy mentioned that his ranch sat on 600 acres. I just had to shake my head: 600 acres sounded like an enormous amount of land to own.

There seemed to be a lot of diversity in commercials.

Perhaps Europe, or Germany, rather, is just more homogenous, but many African Americans and people from different ethnic backgrounds seemed to be in commercials. I especially appreciated how the person selected to speak in an ad for State Farm was the company’s vice president, a black woman.

People didn’t seem afraid to just improvise.  

At one point, I took my cat to the vet, and when I was in the waiting room of the vet’s office, a couple walked in with their sick dog. What was striking, though, was that this dog was wearing a ratty white T-shirt. I think the garment shielded several bandages the dog had on its body. But the point is, the dog looked kind of ridiculous in this T-shirt and the people didn’t seem to care. The T-shirt had a purpose and was serving it. In Germany, people usually go to great lengths to avoid standing out or looking a bit ridiculous in any way.

The houses seemed huge.

I noticed at one point during a jog I was taking that the houses on either side of me looked huge. They also seemed to be very distinct. Some were ranches, others Tudors. Some had porches, others pillars or patios.

There seemed to be a lot of desolation.

Sometimes when I was jogging or walking somewhere, it felt like I was the only soul around. This almost never happens in Germany. In Germany, people always seem to be everywhere. I think I get this impression because Germany is a little smaller than Montana but has more than double Canada’s population.

The weather felt different. 

Though Hamburg, where I live, can be humid, the humidity in New York was stifling. The weather almost felt tropical.

The bees looked bigger

Some of the bees that I saw looked huge. I don’t know if they were wasps or what, but they looked almost as big as dragonflies.

People seemed shorter.

I guess this makes sense, as the average height in Germany is greater than the average height in the U.S. by several inches.

Many people seemed to be wearing clothes too big for them.

In Europe, I’ve noticed that some people wear clothes that are too tight. For example, some guys wear T-shirts so tight you just want to say, “Dude … no.” In the U.S., I noticed the problem was reversed: people often wore clothes that were too big.

There seemed to be a growing respect for the bicycling lifestyle.

I was happy to see that there was a bike lane in Westbury, Long Island, which really is the heart of car country.

Different scents in the air

I swear, many times when I would be walking at night, I would catch something fragrant on the wind, something I hadn’t smelled in a while.

Again, people didn’t seem bothered just winging it.

When I was on the subway in Manhattan, I noticed that the elderly man next to me had duct-taped the bottom of his cane. I think he had used the material to make his cane more level. Again, the whole thing looked kind of silly, but the duct tape served a purpose, and he didn’t seem ashamed in any way.

Strangers seemed very empathetic, even about little things.

When I told the guy behind the counter at the pizza shop that I was in a rush and that he didn’t need to heat my slice, he looked at me and said, “Oh, don’t worry, the pie just came out; the slices are warm.” What struck me was how reassuring he sounded, almost like he had been in my position before and just wanted to let me know that everything was going to be OK.

Water fountains.

They seemed so novel — and convenient. I challenge anyone, though, to find a water fountain in Germany.

Soccer wasn’t everywhere.  

At one point, I was walking through a residential neighborhood at dusk and through the living room window of one of the homes I was passing, I saw a TV. It was nice to see soccer wasn’t on. Baseball was.

Some things that were presented as totally normal seemed unethical.

To show the effectiveness of a motorized blade he was trying to sell, a host on the Home Shopping Network cut limbs off a living tree. I found this shocking. Don’t ask why I was watching Home Shopping Network.

The rich and not-so-rich seemed to live in very close proximity.

As my aunt and I were driving through Tarrytown, NY, she pointed to one set of big duplexes near the train station and said, “See those houses? Multimillion dollar houses.” She then pointed to the tall apartment buildings pretty much across the street and said, “and right there — subsidized housing.”

Some TV commercials really seemed saccharine.

It was strange to see TV commercials that tried to appeal so forcefully to the heart. In one commercial, for the health insurer Fidelis Care, employees of the company enthused about how much they love helping people. I found their sentiments to be a little over the top.

Again, people seemed very courteous.

A stranger not only held the door for me as I was entering a building, he also held it for my friend, who was immediately behind me.

Some of the infrastructure seemed to be badly rusting.

On my way to JFK, I looked up at some bridges that crossed the highway, and, man, did I see rust in all shades of brown. Yes, there are problems with rusted infrastructure in Germany, but the rust I saw on the bridges near the airport seemed desperately bad.

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Germanwings Flight 9525

When I first learned about the crash of Germanwings Fight 9525, I was doing Internet research on my computer. As a freelance journalist, a lot of my time is devoted to thinking of story ideas and then investigating the viability of them. On the day of the tragedy, I happened to be on Reuters’ website, investigating this idea or the other, when I saw the breaking-news banner: “Germanwings plane crashes in the Alps; all 150 on board feared dead.”

I couldn’t believe it. German airplanes don’t crash. Germans have a sterling reputation as aviators. I quickly clicked on the story and, like so many other people, I couldn’t believe it.

But then thoughts started spinning around in my head: I know a little bit about the airline industry in Germany….I know a little bit about the airline industry in general….I even have some contacts who can help me. I can write a story.

I was even more encouraged to write a story when I looked in my inbox the next day and saw an email from Chris Mele, my former editor and the former editor of the Pocono Record:

I told Mele that I was going to. And I had my angle, too: “Will this accident negatively affect the otherwise sterling reputation of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings. If so, how?”

I spent the next 24 hours doing interviews with people in the airline industry as well as regular passengers. I did about 15 interviews in total. Then, on Thursday of that week, just a few hours before I was to write the story, I saw this on my phone:

I knew my story was gone. I had interviewed people with the idea that the crash was an accident. But this news that broke on Thursday was so devastating, so radical, that it just blew the premise of the story I had been pursuing out of the water, and I simply did not have the time to go back and do a full redo.

Still, all wasn’t lost. That weekend, I headed over to my personal blog and I wrote an essay of sorts about how the tragedy affected me personally — because it really did have a big effect on me, probably because I now live in Germany and can better identify with Germans.

In any event, below is what I wrote on my personal blog. Keep in mind, the piece isn’t news. But it does elaborately venture into how the tragedy psychologically affected me. Please have a read.


A JOURNALISM PROFESSOR of mine once said that he thought that similes and metaphors were proof that words fail. What he meant was, that we sometimes have to employ a simile or a metaphor to convey meaning is proof that a single word does not exist for the thing we are trying to express.

I must say that words certainly do fail when considering the crash of Germanwings 9525.

I have been keeping up with the crash, and must say that any time I’ve discussed it or thought about it, language really has fallen short. Not only are words missing to describe the horror that was that flight, similes and metaphors don’t seem to do it justice either.

In fact, one of the only ways, if not the only way, I have been able to process the incident has been by comparing it to things that have happened in the realm of fiction.

For example, when I first heard that the co-pilot of the plane, Andreas Lubitz, locked the captain out of the cockpit and then steered the aircraft and all the people in it into a mountain, one of the first things that came to my mind was Freddy Krueger. In “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2,” the movie opens with students on a yellow school bus being dropped off from school. It’s a cheery, cloudless day and the students are all horsing around in their seats as the bus rolls through a leafy suburban neighborhood.

Then, a few of the students — the ones who are to be dropped off last — notice that the bus driver has passed their stops. Suddenly, the bus takes a sharp turn off the main drag and heads into what looks like an open, desert-like area. The bus is being driven wildly, and the sky, which had been cloudless, quickly turns to black.

Finally, the bus stops. The students pound at the windows, trying to get out. As they do this, though, they see that the sand all around the bus is starting to drop out, almost as if a sinkhole were opening around them.  Before they know it, the ground around the bus has completely dropped out and the vehicle is teetering treacherously at the top of what looks a 200-foot-tall stalagmite. It is then that they see who was driving the bus all along: Freddy Krueger.

As the teens cower by the emergency exit at the back of the bus, Freddy slowly gets out of the driver’s seat. Laughing, he brandishes his glove and begins to walk to the back of the bus. As he makes his way down the aisle, he scrapes the blades of his glove against the metal ceiling. The teens are trapped and Freddy is coming for them….

THE SECOND FICTIONAL sequence that came to my mind when I read about Flight 9525, especially when I read that the captain of the plane pleaded with Lubitz to be let back in, was a sequence from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.”

The story, which takes place during carnival season in an unnamed Italian city, perhaps Venice, opens with one character, Montresor, leading his “friend,” Fortunato, into a crypt under the city.

Fortunato is a wine lover and Montresor has promised to take him to a secret cask of rare Amontillado, which is stored underground in the city’s catacombs.

Once the two men reach the bowels of the catacombs, Montresor, who has an unnamed grievance with Fortunato, tells Fortunato, who is already a little drunk, to go look inside a niche in the crypt wall. That’s where the wine is, Montresor promises. When Fortunato walks into the niche, Montresor quickly shackles him to two thick metal staples protruding from a wall inside the space. Fortunato is trapped. Montresor then begins to carefully brick up the hole through which Fortunato entered.

Montresor is flabbergasted. At first, he doesn’t even understand what has happened to him. But as reality sets in, he frantically tries to reverse the situation any way he can: he begs, he pleads, he threatens.

Finally, after letting out something akin to an animal-like scream, Fortunato says, “For the love of God, Montresor!”

The transcript of Flight 9525′s inflight blackbox recording has not been officially released. But it has been reported that Lubitz, though he could still be heard breathing, never responded to the captain’s pleas.

However, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor does respond to Fortunato’s final plea.

“Yes,” he mockingly says, “for the love of God.”

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Remembrances of Dave Fleetwood

You know, life moves fast and sometimes we don’t get around to doing things we wanted to do. One of those things, for me, was putting up a particular post on this blog last August. I had wanted to put up this post because August 5, 2014, marked the 1-year anniversary of the Ross Township shooting. News of that tragedy hit me pretty hard. Three people died in the attack but I, from my time as a West End reporter, only knew one — Dave Fleetwood. On the night of the tragedy, just before I went to bed — I was already living in Germany at the time – I took out a personal journal I was then keeping and wrote about Fleetwood and my thoughts on the tragedy.

What I had wanted to post to this blog last August was that exact journal entry. Though I regret not posting a reproduction of this entry in a more timely manner, I guess the saying, “better late than never” can apply. Below is what I wrote that night, verbatim. I still think about David Fleetwood.

Well, what can I say. Today I got some f—ed up news from the U.S. I learned that a gunman stormed the Ross Township building during a monthly supervisors meeting and killed three people, including someone I used to know. The gunman killed Dave Fleetwood, who is the supervisor of Chestnuthill Township and the zoning codes officer of Ross.

I’m stunned and sad. Real sad. This guy, Dave Fleetwood. He was a good guy. He liked to joke around, in his funny, dry way. I spoke with him several times and was really hoping that he wasn’t going to be one of the victims. But he was. When I learned today that it was Mr. Fleetwood who in fact was killed, I yelled out “f—!” I didn’t even mean to yell that. It just sorta came out.

I just can’t believe he’s gone. I don’t know. Dave wasn’t that outgoing, but he definitely acknowledge me when I would show up to meetings while working for the Pocono Record. Some supervisors at some townships, believe it or not,  wouldn’t acknowledge me. But Dave did. I also remember he gave me a story tip. I had shown up to the Ross Township building one day looking for someone but that person wasn’t there. But Dave was there and he recommended that I do a story on the E-911 readdressing stuff. I said that I’d look into it and did. The story didn’t materialize because it had been done. But still. It was nice of him to have given me a tip.

One of the strongest recollections I have of Dave is also, ironically, one I can’t exactly remember. It was at the Chestnuthill Township building and it was at night. Oh, wait, I think I know what happened. I showed up to the Chestnuthill building at around 8 p.m. in early April [2013]. It was for a supervisors meeting and it was a rainy night. When I got to the building, I saw through a glass door that no one except the supervisors was in attendance. Anyway, all the supervisors were sitting at a long table at the front of the room, the town-hall room. They were sitting under a light, talking. The door to this town-hall room was locked and I was outside, looking in, getting rained on. I knocked on the door, which, again, was made of glass, and Dave Fleetwood, who along with the other supervisors was able to clearly see me, pretended he couldn’t hear or see me even though he and the other supervisors obviously could. (They had a direct line of sight at the glass door, which was about 20 feet from their table.) And so I, the unfortunate butt of this little joke, stood for a few more moments in the pouring rain. Eventually, one of the supervisors — it might have even been Fleetwood — got up, let me in and we all had a big laugh about it.

Another memory I have of Fleetwood: I was at another meeting and there was a heated discussion going on and I was sitting in the front row and I wanted to ask a question but for some reason I couldn’t. Dave, who was sitting at the head table in front, saw on my face that I wanted to ask a question and he actually knew from the context and from my pained look what the question was. Once he got all this, he actually interrupted the meeting and said, “But wait. I think Chad wants to ask a question and I think I know what the question is.” He did, and answered it. I remember being very impressed.

Two other people were killed in this attack that claimed Fleetwood’s life. But Fleetwood was the only township official. The other folks were regular citizens. The gunman, apparently, was someone who had a long-standing feud with the township. I guess the township condemned his property or something. The Pocono Record quoted the gunman as saying he wish he would have killed more people. A Pocono Record reporter was even at the meeting! My replacement!

But anyway, yeah, Dave Fleetwood. I’m really sad. And the gun culture in America…something really needs to be fixed. But Dave was a good guy. And now all this…now all this.

Dave Fleetwood


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What I’ve learned (so far) from living abroad

Well, I’ve reached that 1-year mark. One year of living in Germany, of living in another country, far away from the mores and laws of the United States. I thought that this would be an appropriate time to reflect on some things that living in Germany has taught me.

The individual is not always that important.

When I first got to Germany and started teaching English, I would try to build rapport with my classes by telling them stories from my past, adventures I’d had and things I’d achieved. And more times than not, my efforts would be in vain because much of my talk would fall flat. Students would either not ask me any further questions on the information I would offer or my stories would just be met with tepid responses. For weeks, I wondered why my banter wasn’t wooing them over.

And then I realized: for that very reason.

Banter, personal stories, the “me”– it doesn’t really go over the same way in Germany as it does in the United States. In the United States, it’s all about the person. Just look at our presidential races. We are obsessed with the person, who he is, what he’s done, how charming he is, if you’d like to have a beer with him. It’s the cult of personality. Not in Germany. Go around in Germany and tell people you’re a doctor or a lawyer: “Oh. Good for you.” Tell people you’re a journalist or a radio personality: “That’s nice.”

They just don’t have the same kind of reverence for the person and his accomplishments as we do. In addition, a lot more emphasis is put on teamwork and what you can accomplish as a team. For example, some job interviews here are group interviews, with applicants all in one room, responding to questions and performing small tasks together. As such, interviewers can see how the applicants perform in a team. How foreign. Bottom line: Living in Germany for this long has really shrunk my ego.

America is a violent. America is rough.

Now let’s not lie: Germany wasn’t always the safest place. There is no doubt a massive history of violence exists here. But living in Germany, far away from the U.S., has sort of given me a bird’s eye view of my home country. And, man, what I have seen straight scares me. The shootings, the killings, the paralysis, the racism, the guns, the murdered children, the rage, the fear. Germans, it should be noted, are not always that nice. But do things devolve into violence and killing in Germany as quickly as they do in the U.S. nowadays? I have to say no.

Just how desperate the situation is in the United States these days is reflected in my reactions to things that happen to me in Germany. For example, sometimes, when someone here does something not so nice to my girlfriend — maybe they push her a bit when she is trying to get on a busy bus — she responds by saying, “F— you, a–hole!”

When she responds like this, I instinctually grab her arm and tell her to stop. Why? Because I come from the U.S. and in the U.S. doing something like that, just cursing someone out, can get you killed. Granted, it can get you in trouble here, too. But the worst reaction you get, from what I’ve seen, is the other person just curses you out, too. They don’t blast you out of existence.

Germans do have a sense of humor.

Some people say Germans don’t have a sense of humor. And you know what, I can see why some people, especially people in the U.S., might think this. In America, we’re big on sarcasm. But Germany is a “say what you think” culture. Germans are very straightforward and often have no problem telling you exactly what’s on their mind. So it’s kinda crazy for a German to be walking around saying things he doesn’t mean all the time. As such, sarcasm, as we know it, really is not their bag.

But Germans do have plenty of humor. German humor is one rich with irony — deep, brutal irony. In addition, a lot of times, German humor is very concise. All one person has to do is say one or two cutting and perfectly timed words and it’ll get the people around him rolling. But back to the irony thing. Let me give you a good example of this “deep” irony.

One time, my girlfriend and I were walking home from the supermarket. On the way, we saw this 2-year-old girl, cute as a button, pushing a big, heavy grocery car, stocked super high with all kinds of groceries. I mean this cart was piled high and she was barely moving it. That, in itself, would have been funny and ironic enough. But then, this girl’s father (who had been behind her all along) noticed that my girlfriend and I were looking at the tyke in amusement, just as he was. And instead of his just laughing along with us at the sight of this tiny person struggling to push something so large, he decided to take it a step further. He started pretending as though he were a slave driver and that he was whipping the little girl to make her keep trudging the load. Once he did this — he just mimed the whole thing — we all bursted out laughing at the absurdity and total “wrongness” of it — deep irony.

Silence is OK.

In the U.S., we really fear silence. Think about it: God forbid you are on a first date and a moment of silence occurs between you and your date. It would — of course! — signal that you two not compatible, it’s all no fun and it just won’t work out.

But in Germany, I’ve noticed that sometimes people think you are crazy if you actually don’t pause for a moment. Constant talk can lead to people thinking you are super stressed or maybe a little frantic. Germans allow the weight of silence to wash over them and perceive silence as time in which one can think or reflect.

In addition, it’s OK in Germany to do absolutely nothing sometimes. For example, there have been instances in which I have walked into my living room only to find my girlfriend just sitting there, staring into space. And I’ve always uttered the same thing upon discovering her: “Uh…what are you doing?”

Initially, I had just shrugged off her ability to just sit in a room and do absolutely nothing as one of her idiosyncrasies. But then I saw other Germans displaying such behavior. I would watch people in waiting rooms or train dining cars, and they would just be sitting there, no magazine, no cell phone, nothing.

Germans, at least I think, really seem to embrace non-activity better than Americans, or at least they don’t fear it as much.

Germans have a different idea of Nazis.

Growing up in the U.S., the basic idea was that Nazis were the sickest, most evil people, period. At least that was the idea that I came away with after having learned about the Nazis in middle and high school. The picture really wasn’t all that nuanced. And perhaps, when explaining the Nazis and similar concepts to young people, there really isn’t much room for nuance. After all, there’s no doubt that my teachers and the culture at large were trying to cultivate in us students a belief system that was starkly different to the Nazis’, and in order to do such a thing, it is necessary, initially at least, to paint with broad strokes.

But, in a way, when it comes to Nazis, there is some nuance. I started to find this out one day when my girlfriend and I were talking about her friend’s grandfather, who was a Nazi. My girlfriend told me, “Yeah, [my friend's] grandfather was a Nazi, but she doesn’t like to talk about it because he was a bad Nazi.”

What I had thought that she meant by this phrase, “bad Nazi,” was that this guy was a member of the SS or of a mobile killing unit or something. Because, really, that’s the only way that that phrase “bad Nazi,” would make sense to me, if he had done some really monstrous stuff. After all, I had thought, and was taught to think, weren’t all Nazis bad?

But what I later learned was that this man, who was still alive at the time, didn’t necessarily kill anyone. What made him a “bad” Nazi was that he still believed in Hitler’s ideology after the war.

And that’s what really hit me. First off, that there is even such a dichotomy, Nazi vs. bad Nazi. And secondly, the thing that was presented to me as being taboo wasn’t having a Nazi in the family. It was having in the family a Nazi who never stopped believing in Hitler’s ideology.

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Stroudsburg vs. Strasbourg

Strasbourg, a city in northeast France. My mom had sometimes accidentally referred to Stroudsburg as "Strasbourg."

My mom likes to travel. She’s been to South America, Europe — Greenland! Really, she’s been all over. Because she has seen so many things and been to all these locales, she sometimes winds up getting the names of places confused. Such was the case when I moved to Stroudsburg in 2010. For months, even a year maybe, my mom would say, “So how are things going in Strasbourg?” She was obviously confusing Stroudsburg, a nice little borough in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, population 5,600, give or take, with, well, Strasbourg: a historical city in France, near the German border, with a population of about 260,000.

Well, there’s been a funny little turn of events. A couple days ago, my mom arrived in Germany. I had vacation time and she thought it would be nice if we both spent some time together in Germany and did some traveling around Europe, too. One of the places that my mom has long wanted to see is, yup, you guessed it: Strasbourg. And so, my dear Stroudsburgers, I am now writing to you from a little hotel in Strasbourg, France. My mom and I boarded a train in Hamburg on Thursday morning and arrived here in the afternoon.

And since I’m now here in Strasbourg, I figured I’d give you a little portrait of the place, if at very, very least to show you the difference a few vowels can make.

Strasbourg is a charming little city with lots of old-world architecture and a sophisticated network of canals. It’s located in Alsace, one of France’s 21 regions. Though the city’s charm is a huge draw — everywhere you go you see cross-timber houses that have baskets of flowers hanging from their balconies, narrow alleys with stone walkways, facades painted in faded pastels, stone wharfs and more baskets of flowers — Strasbourg is probably best known, along with Alsace, as being a place that has, over the course of history, belonged both to Germany and France. In other words, Strasbourg, and the entire Alsace region, depending on politics, the outcomes of wars and how borders were recreated, has “changed hands” about four times in a hundred years. The region again belongs to France, of course, but it was only returned to France after the defeat of Hitler, at the end of World War II.

In any event, all this “give and take,” if you will, has produced an interesting kind of culture. French, German and a bit of English are spoken in Strasbourg. In fact, it’s not unusual for a waiter to switch languages based on what nationality he thinks you are. And according to a recording I was listening to today as I took a boat ride around the city’s canals, Alsace is one of the only places in France where both German and French are taught in the schools.

So, yeah, that’s the history lesson. As for what else is here in good ol’ Strasbourg, well, there’s a massive gothic cathedral made of red sandstone in the center of the old town; wrought iron bridges; accomplished street musicians, who can be seen playing jazz, samba and even rock ‘n’ roll on street corners and in front of cafes; German tourists; French tourists; American tourists (I actually even met some Americans from Arkansas today); pigeons drinking from puddles in the squares and tall carousels that are covered by beige shrouds after sundown.

Yup, so that’s about it. My mom and I have been having fun here. I think we have the most fun when we’re walking around the city discovering new things and taking pictures together. And, yes, sometimes when my mom and I are passing cross-timber houses and she is talking about how beautiful she finds the city, she refers to it as Stroudsburg.

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sending the wrong message

One of the things that living in Germany has taught me is that we in the United States, especially the men, can be kind of strange sometimes with the things we do and gestures we make. For example, when I was in college in upstate New York, I would notice that a lot of the guys in my dorm would unabashedly put their hands on their crotches, all Al Bundy style, when they were hanging out in the dorm’s hallways or rec rooms, or they would adjust, touch or scratch their crotches at will. I was guilty of such behavior, too.

And in all honesty, I’m not exactly sure why we guys did this. Perhaps it just felt good or comfortable. Perhaps it was something that we were really never told we were fully forbidden from doing. I had lived in co-ed dorms and, time to time, the girls would say, “Why do you guys always touch your crotches?” And we would usually reply, very matter-of-factly, “Cause we’re guys…sometimes you just have to adjust.” Or, “Cause it feels comfortable, that’s why.” After getting these answers, the girls would just roll their eyes and that would, more or less, be the end of it.

I really didn’t realize how strange and, some might argue, inappropriate, this habit of briefly touching one’s own crotch might be until I started spending a lot of time in Germany.

During the first significant chunk of time I spent here — an entire summer, in 2008 — my girlfriend, Maya, was still living with her mother. Maya’s mother is super sweet and let me crash at the apartment for the entire summer. Naturally, as time wore on, I started to get very comfortable around the home; I almost felt like it was my own. But I guess I got so comfortable that sometimes I would, as I had done in college and many times before that, put my hand on my crotch or tuck my hand into the waistband of my basketball shorts, Al Bundy style. And I would sometimes do this when I would be talking to Maya’s mother in the kitchen or living room.

Well, yeah, let’s just say that this little unconscious “habit” did not go over very well. I learned the hard way about just how differently this habit is perceived in Germany one day during the middle of that summer when Maya pulled me aside and said, “What the hell are you doing when my mom is around…?”

Maya then went on to tell me, in a flabbergasted way, that her mother had been noticing that sometimes when I would be talking to her, I would have my hand on or near my crotch. “OK, but why is this such a big deal?” I asked. But before letting her answer, I went on: “I mean, yeah, you’re right. I probably did do what you’re saying I did. I guess I shouldn’t have.”

“You ‘guess’ you shouldn’t have?” Maya charged. “Yeah, you definitely shouldn’t have.” She then explained to me that the only time a man in Germany would touch his crotch while talking to a woman would be if he wanted to have sex with her. In fact, this is what the gesture sort of signaled. And by my nonchalantly touching my crotch during normal conversation, I was not only being offensive, I was also raising some major questions about what exactly my intentions were.

“…Holy crap,” I said, when the effects that my actions were having finally registered. “Yeah,” Maya said, “pretty bad, huh? You need to never do that again.”

And I never did. But, man, what a cultural difference. What a far cry from the simple eye-rolling that we guys would get in the dorm.

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Reactions in Germany to the killing of a German exchange student in the U.S.

Diren Dede, 17, an exchange student from Germany, was shot to death in Montana by a man who mistakenly took him for a burglar.

OK, well, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but another person has died tragically in the U.S. due to guns.

This time the victim was a German exchange student, a 17-year-old named Diren Dede. Coincidentally, Diren, who was doing an exchange year in Missoula, Montana, was from a district in Hamburg called Altona, which is where I live. His family actually lives in an apartment building a short distance from mine.

In any event, before I launch into what the German reaction to this young man’s death has been and what that reaction illustrates about the way many Germans perceive violence and gun culture in the United States, here’s what was said to have occurred:

Just after midnight on Sunday April 27, Diren was trespassing for some reason in the garage of one of his neighbors, a man named Markus Kaarma. Kaarma’s garage had been burglarized several times in early April and he said that he was not satisfied with the help police were offering. So he and his girlfriend, with whom he lives, decided they were going to try and catch the perp themselves. On Saturday night, they placed a motion-detecting baby monitor and video camera in the garage, left the garage door half open, and waited.

It isn’t exactly known why Diren chose to enter the garage. Some news agencies have said that he and a friend were “garage hopping,” or going into neighbors’ garages as a prank in search of small trinkets or to grab a can of beer or some soda from a spare refrigerator. In any event, seconds after Diren entered the garage, Kaarma exited the front door of his home with a shotgun, went to the front of the garage and called “hey” into it. Diren said “hey” or “wait” back, it isn’t quite clear. But Kaarma, unable to see into the garage — he said he was blinded by the external garage lights — and spooked by what he thought was the sound of “metal on metal,” opened fire.

The bullets hit Diren in the head and arm and he died a short while after at the hospital.

Though Kaarma said he believed that he was about to be in life-threatening danger and his lawyer invoked the “castle doctrine” law, which is more or less Montana’s version of the “stand your ground” law, police still charged him with homicide. An investigating officer, in his decision to file charges, cited ballistics tests and testimony from a haircutter who said that Kaarma had told her a few days before the incident that his house had been burglarized and he was just waiting to “shoot some kid.”

In reaction to the shooting, the German consulate in San Francisco said that it finds it reprehensible that one of its citizens, or anyone for that matter, could be killed for simply trespassing in a garage and has demanded a comprehensive investigation.

But even though the consulate struck a note of outrage in its reaction to the shooting, I’ve come to the conclusion, due to the articles I’ve been reading in German newspapers and the conversations I’ve been having, that this incident has generated more perplexity and disillusionment than anything else.

On the day after Diren was killed, almost all the newspapers in Hamburg ran an article about the incident. But one article that really stood out and helped me get an idea of how Germans were processing and responding to the news was an article in a midsize daily called the Hamburger Morgenpost. The headline was “Why did Diren have to die?” and the article was in Q+A  format — a format that was chosen, I think, to quickly answer the most pressing questions that Germans, being Germans, were bound to have. The first question in the article that caught my eye and seemed to offer insight into the larger German reaction to and understanding for the events was this one:

“Is it possible that the perpetrator might be acquitted?”

Germans, at least I think, just can’t seem to grasp that a person could go unpunished after shooting someone to death. Though Germans have much less strict punitive penalties — there is no death penalty in Germany and the longest prison sentences are usually around 15 years – they still can’t understand that if you kill someone the way Diren was killed, in a modern society like the U.S., you can sometimes escape punishment entirely.

Another question from the article that I found interesting and telling: “Why would people in the U.S. want laws that protect people who kill other people?”

To answer this question the authors of the article worked hard to explain that there is overwhelming support in certain U.S. states for both guns and the right to own them, which has resulted in some states’ having laws that grant gun owners more rights and more latitude.

So there you have it: The Morgenpost article and many of the questions in it, I think,  really speak for the  feeling of perplexity that this incident has generated in Germany. But I had said that the killing provoked much disillusionment, too.

Many people I’ve spoken to here about the matter have repeated the sentiment that they simply can’t believe that so many people die so violently in a country like the U.S. This feeling of disillusionment, I think, may have actually been best captured in comments that were made by Diren’s father himself.

Diren was of Turkish decent and his father, Celal Dede, is a taxi driver who has been doing the job for almost two decades. Dede said that Diren was inspired by the family story – that is, a family moves to Germany from Turkey in hopes of a more prosperous life, and achieves this goal. Dede, in fact, said one of the reasons Diren wanted to go to America was because America is said to be the land of dreams and possibility.

But after traveling to the U.S. in the beginning of May to claim his son’s body, this is what Dede said when he was asked how he now viewed America:

“There in the U.S. everything looks very charming and very friendly. It doesn’t appear that murderers can reside there. But America remains dangerous because anyone can go out and buy a gun. I’ve been a taxi driver for 20 years in Saint Pauli [a district in Hamburg that some consider dodgy] and I have worked many times at night; I have even had my house broken into. But I have never thought to run out and buy a weapon! Everything in the U.S. looks so idyllic, but something else, something dark, lurks behind it. And America says that it wants to bring justice to the world. But this is not justice.”

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Germans: serious about bike riding

“Born on a bike!”

That was the taunt, or desperate retort, rather, that I hollered at my girlfriend a few hours ago when we were both on bikes, peddling up a steep hill near the Elbe River. She had been about 15 feet in front of me, clearly in the lead, under no visible stress, and there I was, huffing and puffing. When we were almost to the top of the hill, she turned back and noticed that I was totally out of breath. Cooly, she said, “Are you serious!” then laughed at me.

But I didn’t care. Not really, anyway. I just lobbed it at her like I had in the past: “Born on a bike.”

Let me explain. Bike riding is incredibly popular in Germany. It’s friggin’ nuts how many people ride bikes here. And they don’t exactly ride bikes the way we do in America — all quaintly or to get some recreation on a Sunday. No. Bikes are serious business in Germany because bikes are part of the culture and many people use them instead of cars.

So, as you could imagine, they ride their two-wheelers with verve. They fly, they pass, they dart…they cut in and out, they use hand signals and shout and ring their thumb-operated bells like it’s nobody’s business. Sometimes you even see elderly ladies riding bikes up hills and from their perfectly erect posture and the expression on their faces, you wonder if they even know it.

But what’s gotta be the best sight of all, and one that you often see: kids maybe 2 years old, barely out of diapers if not still in them, riding these tiny, two-wheel bikes. And that’s two wheels, folks. No training wheels. In fact, the most these little riders get in the form of stabilization is the intermittent hand on the back from their guardian. But that’s it. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen training wheels in Germany.

All of which brings me back to that comment I made to my girlfriend when I was huffing and puffing up the hill.

Whenever Maya makes fun of me for getting tired so easily on a bike — I’m still not sure why I tire so easily — I like to tell her that the only reason why she is not as exhausted as I am — after all, she is not in perfect shape — is because, well, she is German and she has been riding the damn things since she was literally in diapers. She’s only better than I am because, sheesh, she was born on a bike!

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kitchen table dispatch

So I’m just sitting here at my kitchen table. It’s around 8:20 p.m., Central European Time, and I just thought I’d give you a little dispatch as I wait for my pizza to cook. Crazy day it was. About an hour ago, I was sitting at my living room table, where I often do work, and was looking at my girlfriend and Filou, my dog. Both of them were sleeping on the couch. Crazy day. Around 11 a.m., we took Filou to a grassy and hilly area that’s adjacent to the Elbe River. We took her there to play fetch. On what must have been the 20th time she retrieved the ball, I noticed that she left a bloody paw print on the cement path. Upon further inspection, we noticed Filou was bleeding, and bleeding bad. She had gashed her front paw on something, probably a piece of glass.

Once we noticed exactly what was going on, Maya and I jumped into action. I took off my shirt and Maya tied it around Filou’s paw as a tourniquet. I then picked Filou up and carried her, and Maya called the vet. This was an emergency. The vet gave Filou stitches and told Maya and me that Filou shouldn’t play vigorously for at least two weeks.

Crazy, huh? So, yeah, we had a little shock today.

Anyway, yeah, so I’m still sitting here at my kitchen table but I’m starting to smell the pizza. I have to work tomorrow. Teaching English is fun. But making time to do journalism, my first love, can sometimes be challenging, especially if you have a job, a girlfriend, a dog, and a girlfriend that likes to spend a lot of time with you.

Someone I once met put it so well. He was a journalist, Hassan M. Fattah was his name, and he came as a guest speaker to one of my classes when I was in J-school. He came to the class to give us students a motivational speech of sorts, sure, but he also did something else, which made an even more lasting impression on me. To help the students understand the pitfalls that come with being a journalist and what kind of demands we might face, he passed out three objects: a pencil, a Nokia cell phone and a photo of his wife and children. He passed out these objects, he said, to illustrate very specific points.

The pencil. He said that as a journalist you should always have a pencil on you because a) a pen could run out of ink and b) pens don’t always write in the rain. The Nokia cell phone. It’s smart to have a Nokia cell phone because it’s the most popular cell phone in the world (still true) and if your cell phone loses a charge, you have the best odds with a Nokia of finding someone who possesses an adapter you can use. And the picture. “Look at this picture…,” he said. “It’s my family. Believe it or not but you are going to have to consider your family a lot in this business. In fact, your family is probably what you will have to consider most when making your choices. You may not think it now, but at some point you are probably going to have to weigh how much you love your wife and your family and what is best for them against your love for journalism. These two things — the interests of your family and journalism — are probably going to be the two biggest competing interests in your life.”

And you know what? Fattah was right. Now that I’ve moved to Germany to be with my girlfriend and I sorta have had to restart as a freelancer when I’d already had a nice journalism gig back in the U.S., I have a better understanding for this “scale” that Fattah was taking about.

But it’s all good. I’m happy and things are moving along pretty well.

OK, pizza’s ready. Until next time.

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Hey y’all, I feel like I’m always writing these treatises on this blog, so I thought I’d just keep it light with this post. Here are some “postcards” from my life in Germany. Enjoy.

My dog, Filou, often likes to look out our apartment window.

Don't even ask what was going on here. Let's just say it was a lot of fun.

During the summer, we would take Filou swimming at a lake in Bremen, home of Beck's beer.

You know how in the U.S. we "park and ride"? Well, in the Netherlands, where this photo was taken, they park and ride, too. Only they park their bikes.

Me posing b-boy style. My girlfriend, Maya, and I went to an event in Hamburg sponsored by the camera company Olympus. At the event, we were allowed to "sample" one of Olympus' new-to-the-market cameras.

I went to Haarlem. But it wasn't in NYC; it was in the Netherlands.

How's that for Holland? And did you know that Holland is not a synonym for "the Netherlands." Holland is actually only a section of the Netherlands.

The Rhein River (at the famous Lorelei, I think).

Filou needs a lot of exercise. We recently took her to these flood plains located on the outskirts of Hamburg. She ran around like crazy and swam, too.

People often feed the birds that swim in and congregate near the Inner Alster, a huge lake that's right in the heart of Hamburg.

A faraway shot of one section of the Hamburg port.


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  • Blog Author

    Chad Smith

    I'm a former reporter for the Pocono Record who moved to Hamburg, Germany, to be with my German girlfriend. I still do journalism but now teach English to pay the bills. In this blog I share my thoughts on life in Europe and often dissect the ... Read Full
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