The — almost — ubiquitous German wannabes

No wonder I have been running into “Germanness” and Americans who proudly tell me of their German ancestors at almost every turn. I know the immigration history of the United States enough to remember that Germans came in large numbers in the 19th century for religious and political freedom, peace and work opportunities.

But the neat map above shows a nuance of the outcome of this history that I had not been aware of. Almost all of the Northern states have counties with large ethnic German groups. While having jumped between four states and one district in my almost eight years of living in the United States, they were all situated in the Northern half of the country (except for a couple of months living in Atlanta, GA). That is, they are covered in the bright orange blanket in the upper part of the map. German heritage everywhere! 46 million Americans claim German ancestry — making them the biggest ethnic group in the United States. It shows in names, in people’s stories, businesses, in small stores and tourist traps, where German references in image and text are often adjacent to Austrian and Swiss products and landscapes.

Americans are happy to point out to me their connections to Germany, often claiming that they are German, too! It is the most frequently used marker that people pin on me: the German one. My accent serves as a reminder to ask: “Where are you from?” My response usually goes one of two ways depending on my energy level on a given day to indulge in American-style excited small talk about superficial commonalities referring to Germany, or not. I either play along with a smile, succinctly explaining that yes, of course, Leipzig is near Berlin. Or I am bluntly shooting back saying that I do not know their (fill in the blank for town) in West Germany where their friend/great-grandmother/father was visiting/living/stationed. Exceptions of true interest beyond small talk exist but remain rare.

I know and feel my being German everyday. It is a huge part of me and will always be. But that does not mean that I am only German. I am also a reader of novels from all over the world, a professor, a hobby runner, an Arabic learner, (and I guess a blogger)…. You get the idea.

One of the luxuries of life is not to have to explain oneself. As an immigrant this becomes even more treasured. For one, the explanation load to new friends, acquaintances and colleagues with references to strange cultures, pasts, and childhood products, TV shows etc. from abroad is way higher than within a given country and/or culture and might remain incomprehensible to non-natives. Second, albeit well-meant, confusions with Austrian and Swiss vacation visits make small talk even weirder. Why would I know anything about Salzburg or Vienna? Even the otherwise smart Economist starts its article on the German silent minority with an example of an “Austrian chalet.” ???

Many Americans think they know Germany, and most of them only West Germany anyway, but they don’t. They only mangle, albeit mostly positive, stereotypes with re-hashed fourth-hand stories. Beer, cars, Autobahn, Bavaria, pork, engineers… I am sure you got some of your own. We all do.

But it is okay to not always know, to not always connect, to endure silence.

The German heritage might be very visible in the map as a yellow carpet of assumed familiarity but day-to-day encounters show that few Americans know anything about the real Germany, let alone the current and former East.

Perhaps German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the United States this February 9 will help. As an East German, childless woman with a Ph.D. in physics she is a quadruple anomaly in politics but a great symbol for Germany’s past and present. Surely some of that will find its way into the more observant U.S. news media, perhaps bringing some of Germany’s realities to the many Americans who like to fantasize about their ancestors’ homeland.


What does the SuperBowl have to do with Germany?

IMG_3546Until yesterday the answer would have been not much. But since the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl yesterday, Germany has now been linked to this most American of American all-men games. Naturally, it is a man who connected the two.

Sebastian Vollmer, a German national born in Düsseldorf, played for the Patriots and is the first German to win a Super Bowl title.

German news media spread the message to such an extent that my dad, who usually does not watch any kind of sports, German or American, noticed the news. He remarked that even Germany’s most watched newscast, die Tagesschau, found this worth airing, along with the remark that “violence, concussions, and deflated balls made for a hard year in American football” [Gewalt, Gehirnverletzungen und zum Schluss noch Bälle, denen die Luft ausging. Der amerikanische Football hat ein hartes Jahr hinter sich.]

The Tagesschau also reported that few German companies sought to use the overprized ad space of the Super Bowl; among German car makers only BMW was propagating its electric car as the wonder of the future.

Other German news media highlighted that Vollmer did not touch the ball once but served as bodyguard to another player and that Vollmer gave his first interview barefoot; most news media included Vollmer’s quote after winning: “I have no words. It’s insane.

The generally optimistic magazine Focus commented: “Germany has its SUPER-BOWL-HERO! Sebastian Vollmer writes football history.” [Deutschland hat seinen SUPER-BOWL-HELDEN! Sebastian Vollmer schreibt Football-Geschichte… ]

What do I make of this?

Simply, in the asymmetrical distribution of attention around the globe, German news media and people pay a lot more attention to U.S. sports and culture than vice versa. Luckily, Germans are also aware of the problematic sides of U.S. sports culture, see violence and injuries.

Moreover, German (and U.S.) news media like to declare heroes, especially men. And no matter, which nationalities are involved, it goes unreported that the Super Bowl as THE sports-entertainment-consumerism orgasm of U.S. culture is an all-men event when it comes to players and commentators. Of course, women are invited to stand on the sidelines, watch and dance half-naked in between.

So you have a white German dude as part of the men’s fest this time. Big deal.

The more interesting story is to find an event with all-women athletes and all-women commentators in the United States or Germany (or any country for that matter) that would rival such a nationalist-capitalistic über-celebration regarding viewership, hyping, and dollars.

Happy 25th anniversary reunited Germany! Beware of continuing differences

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I’m witnessing the 25th anniversary of Germany’s reunion through the veil of heritage media and social media. The anniversary greets me whenever I check Twitter, click through the websites of German public television, magazines, and newspapers or listen to German public radio podcasts. They report about the details of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unsung heroines and protestors bringing about this peaceful revolution, and the persistent differences between the former East and West Germany.

Among the pieces I saw and read, oddly enough I liked an article in the U.S. press very much. The Washington Post, as one of the U.S. newspapers of record, acknowledged this moment in German history with compelling graphics that outline the ongoing differences between former West and East Germany. This is quite interesting and necessary to update the image of Germany among the wider U.S. public.

The vast majority of U.S. Americans I’ve encountered so far are familiar with the former West Germany. As they are usually happy to share with me, their ties to former West Germany came about because they were”military brats” (their words); had friends or exchange students from Germany; or traveled to Germany for leisure, work or to discover family history. I’ve only met about a handful of U.S. Americans who had traveled to former East Germany. Those who did usually visited either East Berlin or another big city in the East before people brought the Berlin Wall to fall on November 9. 1989. It’s seldom that I bump into a U.S. American who set out to visit former East Germany in the recent 25 years.

I’ve encouraged everyone who has talked with me about Germany to visit former East Germany. I’m happy to report that I’ve done my share to “bring” almost two dozen U.S. Americans to the East, particularly to Leipzig, Dresden, Weimar and other smaller towns in the heart of Germany where the reformer Martin Luther lived and preached. I smile when I realize that I introduced J. only to bigger and smaller cities in the states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia — three of the five New States that make up the landscape of former East Germany. (Exceptions are his visit to the Eagle’s Nest of Hitler in Bavaria, airport lay overs in Frankfurt/Main, and must-see stops in Berlin.)

In my experience, most U.S. Americans only know of the differences between East and West Germany before 1989. Few have heard of continuing higher wages for the same work in former West Germany. The graphics on income and unemployment below demonstrate this discrepancy from yet another perspective: income is higher in the former West; unemployment is higher in the former East.

The roles of men and women differ. The overwhelming majority women with children worked full-time in the former East, out of economic necessity for the federal budget. Women with children in the former West most often stayed home or worked part-time. German laws still reflect this and make it difficult for families with children. The graphic on childcare below is a glaring example of what hampers women’s return to full-time work and their career, especially in the former West, after giving birth.

Another discrepancy are internet adoption and literacy which are higher in the former West. The Washington Post did not include a graphic for this but data exist. I also noticed this in my own research. In three separate studies, during which I interviewed a total of over 100 bloggers in Germany, the overwhelming majority of bloggers (women and men), and especially those with a claim to fame, are located in the territory of the former West Germany. This reflects the migration pattern of especially young people (and women) from former East to former West for better opportunities, higher pay and life quality. You can see the problem visualized in the graphic on demographics. This, by the way, also has created potentially more conflicts between adult children and parents in the former East. As these children move to the former West and find partners there visits home in the former East are not as frequent as for adult children who can stay in their home region in the former West.

So I was thrilled to discover an article in a major U.S. publication that acknowledges these differences between former East and West. Below are a few of the compelling graphics from the Washington Post (inspired by the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit). They also touch on the hot button issues of xenophobia, vaccinations (mandatory in schools in former East Germany), and people with migration backgrounds. (It’s not politically correct to call them “foreigners.”)

*This is the politically correct language for former East Germany: New States [Neue Bundesländer]. Former West Germany is now called Old States [Alte Bundesländer]. Since most U.S. Americans are not familiar with this terminology – as the article in the Washington Post also reflects — I will stick with (former) East and West Germany.

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The Secretary of State in the Strip Mall


It is was one of these days. I should have known when I stepped outside my house. It was gray, rainy, cold. It reminded me of Seattle in the fall (and winter and spring). But at least in Washington state the inside works efficiently, for instance when I got a driver’s license in seven minutes.

Not so in Michigan. While it offers sunshine often, its bureaucracy clouds the day.

The cute thing in the supposedly “United” States of America is that each state issues its own driver’s license, car registration and title. With each move, you have to get fresh documents. I am living in my fifth state now. Imagine the fun.

First, the nearest office for the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) showed two different addresses online. In the drizzle I directed my car to address number one. I arrived at a run-of-the-mill strip mall with dollar stores, nail shops and beauty salons. One bigger gray building looked official but turned out to be empty. I asked in the dollar store; the cashier hadn’t heard of a DMV office there.

I checked again online; off to address number two. I arrived at another strip mall. Same kind of stores; another small gray building at one end. Many cars sat in front of it, people streamed inside. Confidently I headed toward the building. A man in front of me held the door open. I rushed in…and landed in something else. Women with head scarves and some men with turbans sat at desks quietly reading. Beautiful rugs, book shelves and paintings decorated the room. The polite man at the door said: “This is a mosque.” He added the DMV used to be here. I sped outside and laughed hard in the parking lot.

Back to square one. I called a colleague who had visited the mysterious local DMV office before. He sent me back to address number one. He advised to look for a store labelled “Secretary of State.” He also mentioned he waited for an hour and a half.

It sat between LaVita Massage, L.A. Insurance and The Beauty Department. Announcing itself in glowing neon-letters like the other stores around it, a government agency did its best to hide from the residents who are forced to use it.

Inside women with toddlers, bands of young men, and older folks were waiting – in line, in seats, at booths. Warned of the waiting time, I had brought work. I drew a number and sat down. After a while a voice shouted people who need licenses need to come over to pick up another sheet. Did that, sat down again. After 45 minutes I reached a service booth with a person.

I had brought all my identification documents from this country and Germany: passport, green card, my still current Washington state driver’s license/ID, and my German driver’s license. In addition, I brought a rental lease, car registration, car title, authorization by the co-owner of the car that I can act on his behalf, copy of the co-owner’s driver’s license/ID, cash, check books and credit cards. Oh yeah, and the application form.

These were not enough.

No, a rental lease is not enough to prove residency. Another piece of paper with the address is needed.

No, all the identification documents were not sufficient. The real printed social security card needs to be brought! Unheard of. Never in my seven years as an immigrant did I ever have to bring my U.S. social security card anywhere. Usually you just have to memorize and give the number. Not even Homeland Security, otherwise quite demanding when it comes to documents, ever wanted to see it, or a copy of it. In fact, the social security card is not allowed as a means of identification as Americans feared a national tracking system could lead to Nazi-like persecution. (Remember each state issues its own IDs, hence my ordeal.)

No, not any car insurance but one in Michigan is needed to do anything about switching over the car. This includes getting new license plates. Yes, you have to change license plates in the same country when you move to a different part of it.

I keep telling friends and anyone who complains about German bureaucracy that U.S. bureaucracy is just as burdensome and annoying. In fact, it is enhanced because each state wants to squeeze its share of Benjamins out of you. The only redeeming, merciful gesture this unfriendly process offered was a pink slip. When I return with my additional documents, I don’t have to wait in line. Bottom line: it’s all about the Benjamins. That makes a strip mall a fitting place.

PS: It did not help that when finally driving to work, a bus that ran by kept flashing “Have a good day” on its digital display board.

Update: With the power of the magic pink slip my second visit a week later went more smoothly. The sun was shining. The Secretary of State was still in the same strip mall. Within about half an hour I got the paper work for my new driver’s license, registration and title. I’m officially a Michigoose now. Hooray!

Halloween decorations: 2014 photo edition

IMG_2350They are spooky, cute, tacky, creative or natural, the decorations for Halloween that Americans place around their houses. It’s this time of the year again, when we make fun of our fears of darkness and death.

I tried to join with a natural take but suffered several serious cases of what J. calls “custom carving by squirrel.” I put a colorful squash the size of a soccer ball on the stairs. After the first day, I noticed that someone had nibbled on it. It still looked pretty. The next time I checked, the squash showed a fist-big hole. The day after that, the squirrels had gutted the squash, yellow and orange shreds were sprinkled all over the stairs.


I thought the smaller size of the squash had made it such a desirable squirrel snack. So I bought two large orange pumpkins. I brushed off the dirt; their smooth skin shining in the sun. I added a smaller, third pumpkin to complete the trio. Alas, after only three hours, I opened the door to catch two black squirrels in the act! They already had dug deep into the small pumpkin; I took it inside. I hoped that the bigger pumpkins could survive the squirrels’ sharp teeth with their thicker skin. Oh no, an hour later two black and grey fur balls scurried away from the stairs when I yanked open the door. They had nibbled off a hand-sized part of one of the two big pumpkins. That’s it, I thought. I took the pumpkins inside.

Other people are luckier. Their pumpkins (and unpalatable plastic pieces) sit peacefully outside to spread the Halloween spirit. Without much further ado, you can see my 2014 photo edition of neighborhood Halloween decorations below.

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Welcome to the D



I’ve felt comfortable and welcome in Detroit from the start, albeit I had never lived here before. I had only been to the better off fringes, the burbs as people call them. North of 8 Mile Road, which demarcates the city limit.

But the cityscapes of Detroit that I have explored over the past weeks were eerily familiar to me. I knew them. I liked them. For milliseconds I felt exhilarated by just walking through Detroit. In my mind I was at home. The streets and houses were of a rawness that radiates its own beauty.

The cityscapes reminded me of East Germany after the Berlin Wall fell, and with it the old economy, including thousands of jobs. Factories turned into skeletons, plight moved in. Cities became chess boards of occupied and abandoned blocks.

Over the past 25 years, since Germany’s reunion, some blocks, some industry and some jobs have come back. Lately, the recuperation has accelerated. At least in the bigger cities. Leipzig has turned into “Hypezig.” Every time I visit my old neighborhood another small store with organic food, abstract art or stylish knick-knacks has moved in. It’s a d-light. Which brings me back to the “D,” as some people here refer to their city lovingly.

In Detroit plenty of spaces are ready for new occupants, quirky projects, artists, pioneers, and entrepreneurs. An atmosphere of departure permeates the city, and is in fact just the most recent application of the city’s motto: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus – We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” But rather than waiting for change, as our tour guide said, Detroit is a big city that is small enough for you to make a big impact. Simply by being here, you can be part of the change.

This post is the beginning of a series of photos I took while discovering Detroit. The first batch depicts the old Michigan Central Train Station and the excavation sites of the Wayne State University Archaeology Department around it in Roosevelt Park.

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Small but colorful: Gasworks Park Seattle

The third installment of my series of industrial sites around Seattle is Gasworks Park. The park is small. Its greens are framed by colorful machinery and the popular kite hill which offers a pleasing overview over the skyline of Seattle over Lake Union.

My favorite spot is the row of “hidden” benches that overlook the lake, where the duck tour ships cruise by, some actual ducks paddle along and brave rowers make their way across even in what feels like sub-zero temperatures. Best of all is enjoying the sunshine on one’s face on one of those rare sunny days.

When I first “discovered” Gasworks Park, a group of knights practiced their fighting. More commonly, kids, dogs and joggers hang out in the park. But the drum beats of the medieval group and the clinging of swords provided an unusual welcome.

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