Between two worlds

“Although they may all have a totally different biography, they must come together to decide and build a future.” This is what their principle said of the diverse group of students in attendance at the new Rütli-Schule. After the introduction and overview provided by some members of the administration we were able to attend two separate classes in small groups, one with some adorable little kiddies (grades 1-3), and one with students approaching graduation. The kids were very cute, we learned about hedgehogs and one particularly bold Turkish boy taught me a few words in Turkish which I immediately forgot. Next came Communication class with the older kids. We talked about some experiences of cultural misunderstandings which was actually quite interesting. We read a passage about what kissing meant for different cultures, and then students were able to discuss their own experiences in Germany with cultural misunderstandings. I remember one example was a Muslim girl who often had to correct people who assumed she was married because she wore a hijab. This does not in fact have anything to do with being married but rather something that many Muslim women choose to wear when they come of age. Another example had to do with the relative forwardness of Arabic people. A boy was waiting in line at the grocery store which was quite backed up. Normally it is the cashiers duty to call for another cashier to come to the front when they feel the line is getting too long, however this boy took it upon himself to call out repeatedly for assistance. In his culture this is totally normal, however he received a number of sharp glares from both the cashier and other customers. I was lucky enough to hear a number of insights such as this before we had to leave for “pause” (break). The best part of the day was actually after the break when all fourteen of us American students sat and had a discussion with some of the Abitur-bound upperclassmen (meaning those taking exams in order to continue on to University). We got to ask them directly how they felt living between two worlds, that of their parents culture and that of German culture. It was great to have them open up, talk about school, language, pressures, family, religion, culture, and the future of multiculturalism in Berlin. There were many different opinions. Some wanted to maintain their cultural identity as Turks or Arabs, others wanted to assimilate, and perhaps a majority expressed a desire to develop a mixture with German culture that would lead to something new completely, neither German nor Turkish. The dialogue we engaged in gave me a glimpse into a world I knew little  about and a struggle that I have never really understood. It gave me a much more intimate understanding of this struggle that I could never have had through simply reading about it, and it made me think about my own cultural identity and the challenges I might face living abroad these next few years. The one thing I know for sure is that interest, openness, and honesty go a looong way, and a simple inquiry about a persons perspective can lead to new realizations for both parties as well as a foundation for continued respect and understanding which would otherwise not be established.

Campus Rütli CR²

It started in 2006 with the “Brand brief” or “Fire Letter” to the government which stated the magnitude of the situation. At the Rütli-Schule in Neukölln things had gotten out of hand. The students were out of control, the teachers were no longer effective, and the security of both  parties was degrading. The school was considered the worst in Germany, and it seemed there was no way to turn things around without wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch. With a Turkish population of about 90% there was a huge social and cultural disconnect between these students of migrant background and the system they were supposed to operate in. After the guest-workers of the ’60s and ’70s decided to stay (instead of returning home as expected) little to no thought was given to education and assimilation. The “three-channel system” that exists throughout Germany was in place and was not working for this population. Under this system students are split up early on to work towards very different goals ranging from practical trades to university attendance. There was, and still is, a stigma against the “Realschule” where “practically oriented” students go as preparation for vocational training later in life. Students are sorted right out of primary school, and have little say in determining their own future. The decision was made to undertake a pilot program here in the Neukölln district of Berlin that would turn this system on its head. Our group was invited to come to the school and speak with both the administration and the students about all aspects of the school. Our meeting with the principle laid out the philosophy and structure that the new campus would advocate, and provided a much deeper understanding of the needs of the students as well as the response. The project aims to change the entire system to empower students to choose their own path. It is one school, not three. It runs all day, not just until early afternoon as usual. Parental involvement is a key feature, and ambassadors are in place to welcome them and to help get families involved and invested in their child’s education. The question was “How can we make education possible for people with a difficult social background?” One important realization was that fluency in a child’s mother tongue is extremely beneficial for a second language and for education overall. Campus Rütli (CR²) is not exactly the first of its kind, but parts are extraordinary in the aspects of community engagement, youth programs, arts, after hours programming, language support, sports, etc. School is only one part of Campus Rütli. It includes two Kindergartens, classes through grade 13, a gymnasium, adult job placement, social services, a theater, and more. This is the new idea, and it has had very promising results so far. In Berlin the average drop-out rate is 11%. Now at Campus Rütli it is 3.5%. While many schools in Germany are a place only for studying, Campus Rütli has evolved into a community unto itself. This is not simply because the administration has a big heart, but also because of the advantages it results in for the country as a whole to include and support the next generation of workers and innovators. It is an incredibly exciting and promising venture that aims to provide a new model for education in Germany. It is still quite young, and the first batch of graduates are now preparing for their exit exams. Time will tell whether the model is feasible and sustainable, yet with such a comprehensive and compassionate approach it is hard to envision anything but continued success.

It’s The Economy, Dummkopf!

With so much excitement and fear swirling about in the midst of this euro-zone crisis it would not be right to overlook it as another opportunity for cultural analysis. How do the Germans feel about the matter? What is their view of Greece? How do they think it should be resolved, and why? These questions obviously have considerable financial relevance, but they are also deeply rooted in the culture of the German people and their relationship with the rest of Europe.

Greeks are often described as easily corruptible people willing to spend recklessly and live for the moment, Germans are just about the opposite. There is an emphasis on long-term goals, therefore saving and industriousness are the most important economic characteristics. Tax-evasion and political favors are quite commonplace in Greece, and it is quite contrary to their culture to shift from spending to saving. In his book Boomerang Michael Lewis tries to sum up the cultural stereotypes relevant to the euro crisis in this paragraph:

“Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers. The Greeks wanted to turn their country into a piñata stuffed with cash and allow as many citizens as possible to take a whack at it. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish.”*

The German response to a crisis such as this is to buckle down, spend less, and wait it out. “Austerity” is the fancy word for not spending money that you do not have. From the German perspective this is a no-brainer, if you cannot afford to pay your state workers the immense benefits they are currently receiving, you need to reduce those benefits. This comes in contrast to the (often debated) American solution which was to spend our way out of the crisis and promote economic growth. These are essentially the two camps: spend ’til you grow, or save until you are back on solid ground. This goes back to Germany’s post-war development of the European Central Bank (ECB) which was modeled after the German central bank call the Bundesbank. The creation of the euro included self-imposed rules that strictly regulated financial markets and set guidelines for austerity, such as keeping public debt below a certain threshold. Greece and other countries also agreed to these restrictions, not because they wanted to or because they felt it was terribly necessary, but because they wanted to be a part of the club. Now the rules that Germany so firmly believe in are causing many in the euro-zone to ask for a reprieve, but Merkel, the CDU, and even their opposition party the SDP are as of yet unwilling to open up euro bonds and provide the “band aid bailout” that Greece and others such as Portugal are clamoring for. It is one thing to agree to the rules when the markets are up, but another thing altogether to avoid cutting corners when things get tough. For this reason there is much resentment among Germans who see themselves as being punished for playing by the rules that everyone agreed upon, and see the Greeks as freeloaders unwilling to sacrifice for their fair share. It is quite easy to see just how far cultural tendencies can reach, and in this case it is leading to a stalemate on a massive scale. With both sides unwilling to budge there will eventually be a critical point in which one or both parties is forced to assume some cultural characteristics of the other in order to reach a solution. Either the Greeks will have to get a little more German and tighten their belts, or the Germans will have to get a bit more Greek and throw some money at the problem to buy more time. Ideally both of these circumstances will take place to some degree, but it better happen soon or else things might get a bit more ugly than they already are.


“You can talk the same language but you do not understand each other.”

“You know there’s a wall right?” asked our tour guide and Public Relations director for the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

“….um, you mean the wall?” I asked, not sure what he was referring to.

“Yes, the Berlin wall.” he clarified.

Of course, we knew all about the wall, but we had no idea what it had to do with journalism and the newspaper business in Berlin. What would follow would be a fascinating lesson on the long lasting effects that segregation can have on people and society. It turns out that there are about ten newspapers in Berlin competing for readers, while only about three or four are major players. Der Tagesspiegel (The Daily Mirror) is one of the biggest, selling about 140,000 copies per day. They boast 100,000 yearly subscribers and put out two editions per day, along with other less circulated publications such as Zitty which lists activities and events in the Berlin area. Der Tagesspiegel caters to a better educated and slightly wealthier market, but the fact is there is very little separating the content of their papers from the others in Berlin. What separates them is a wall…or at least it used to.

“Man is a creature of habit.” he explained. It turns out old habits die hard. Back in the days of post war Berlin there was of course a wall separating east and west, and it created two distinct communities. These communities naturally have different tendencies, dispositions, political opinions, and interestingly enough newspapers. For nearly 30 years the wall created a barrier between a people who used to be united, and nearly 30 years afters it’s removal the barrier is not fully broken. One of the more stark examples of this is the “wall” that still exists in the newspaper market. Readers in the east typically read the Berliner Zeitung, while westerners still read Berliner Morgenpost or Der Tagesspiegel. While management has tried endlessly to increase its market share across this now imaginary border they have as of yet been unsuccessful.

It is expected that this gap will take at least one more generation to fill, and with new generations come new trends which need to be understood in order to stay afloat. Right now the conflict regarding paying for online content which hit the United States 5-10 years ago seems to have made its way to Germany, and Der Tagesspiegel appears ill-prepared to stay competitive. In the long term, young people will no longer want a printed paper, this much is understood, but how to reach them and how to get them to pay is not. While their competitor Berliner Morgenpost has an entire building devoted to online right next door, Der Tagesspiegel has only one section of one department. Our tour guide, who is admittedly among the “old school” camp, does not believe that readers have any interest in reading the newspaper on a tablet or eReader, and claims that the format simply does not translate. However with eReader use projected to keep on growing*, and more and more newspapers and magazines now supplying tablet-optimized content, the trend is not likely to go away.**

In any case it is interesting to see how both aspects from the past as well as trends projected for the future are crucial to the success of this newspaper. It must be a constant struggle to monitor and evaluate trends in order to optimize readership, and this takes input from many different perspectives. As our tour guide said “The real art of being a great chief editor is to give both the old school and new school voices a share.”

As with most things in life it is a balance of forces that will result in the optimal solution.






Quality over BS

Ah the elusive “service culture” in Germany. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I cannot get a smile out of the cashiers and servers that I interact with in Deutschland. Coming from a country where service is often the name of the game, interactions of this sort leave something to be desired. To be fair, I cannot say that I have had particularly bad experiences in Germany, but rather extraordinarily mediocre. American business philosophy says that great customer service is a value-add for customers and can be used as a point of differentiation between competitors. If there is a shop down the street with similar inventory but below average customer service, many shoppers would be willing to pay a bit more to get the same goods in a more friendly and helpful environment. In the US we have an expression “the customer is always right.” To me this means that we live in a customer-centric business environment. Germany on the other hand emphasizes quality and quantity, therefore they have a product-centric business environment. This is clear when you compare the way transactions are carried out as well as the products themselves. It is quite important to Germans that their products are produced in Germany because of the elevated quality standards that are inherent in German production. Packages that read “Hergestellt in Deutschland” (produced in Germany) are much more common and highly valued than products that read “Made in the USA” in America. It is obviously much more feasibly for Germany to produce much of their own consumer goods, however this has significant impacts on their culture.

There are both cultural and structural reasons for this difference. We can all agree that stereotypically Germans are very logical and rational people. Because of that they are much less concerned with gimmicks, marketing, and other add-ons in the sale of goods and services because they know that at the end of the day there is only the result and the cost. Therefore they are less swayed by the short term benefits of things like customer service or pretty packaging. The second cultural difference is the tempo of the meal time itself. Meals are much more drawn out and social experiences in Germany and much of Europe. German diners do not want to be rushed and don’t require as much immediate attention as their American counterparts who often are looking to quickly sit down, eat, and continue on to the next destination. That is why a server in the States will immediately bring the check over to a table when the meal is done, as opposed to allowing them to sit, relax, and enjoy each others company for a few minutes before requesting the check.

The structural difference that comes into play is the way German service workers are paid. Because servers in the United States receive much of their income from tips, they are inclined to go above and beyond to make every customer feel like they are terribly important. In Germany tips are a much smaller part of a servers income, therefore there is less incentive to give the customer so much attention. After all they will be paid either way, why bother putting on a fake smile and checking back with the table every ten minutes?

All of these elements combine in a way that makes it seem like German service culture is lacking, when in fact it is simply much, much different. I am often questioned by my European friends as to why I am leaving such a large tip. “The service was not particularly good, why are you leaving so much?” For me it is a habit that is difficult to break. I am used to leaving a 20% tip and consider it insulting to do otherwise. It is funny that even though I understand the difference and the fact that it is unnecessary, I am still not comfortable leaving the table without leaving something for their efforts. It just goes to show you that understanding a difference is only the first step in assimilation and it will still take time to become comfortable living with those differences personally.

Trust in institutions

I am noticing a subtle difference in perception among Germans when it comes to their countries institutions such as business, media, and government. I am finding that many people who live and work in Germany are comfortable with the amount of influence that government can exert over them, which is arguable greater here than in the States. There is a level of trust in the system that I do not see back home, and it can be seen in many aspects of German life. One example is perception of police officers. In Germany the police are seen as someone who is looking out for your best interests and trying to resolve conflicts fairly and efficiently. In my experience this is not always the case in the United States where their authority is unquestioned and their methods can often be quite oppressive. My half of a dialogue with a police officer back home is almost exclusively limited to “Yes sir/ma’am” or “No sir/ma’am.” There is no discourse and no room for discussion. German police are often calm mediators who seek to resolve disputes and only pull the authority card when absolutely necessary. I witnessed one example of this while I was in Hamburg when a drunk man was getting out of hand on a train and was trying to pick a fight. I imagine in the States the man would be immediately and forcefully handcuffed and taken to jail. In this case however the police officer calmly asked the man to step outside the train so that they could discuss what had caused the man to get upset. This may not seem like a huge difference, but to me they are worlds apart.

Another example is a bit more simple: taxes. Germans have no problem shelling out upwards of 40% of their income to the government because they trust that the money will go to good use for them and their neighbors. There is of course debate and disagreement just like in every democracy, but overall people feel confident that their government is working for them, and that is largely because it is. Right now the biggest debate in American politics is the question of “big” versus “small” government. There are many who loudly and aggressively demand a reduction in the role that government plays in the daily lives of the American people. There is a lack of trust in the governments ability to properly and fairly allocate funds to their benefit. There may certainly be some merit to this distrust, and with a country so large and diverse it must be a bit more difficult to manage such a monumental task. However the fact remains that this distrust seeps into the mindset of citizens and further weakens the ability for the government to do it’s job. Respect and trust in the system help to make the system better because active participation and willingness to give up certain luxuries lead to a better system overall.

One simple example that I have touched on before is as basic as crossing the street! Back in Boston a pedestrian will cross the street at any point and expect traffic to accommodate them. This is part of the culture that emphasizes personal freedom and the importance of  the individual over the group. Generally Germans do not dare crossing the street outside of a crosswalk, let alone when the light is still red. This is not how the system was intended to work and therefore lack of participation is seen as an affront not just to this one rule but to the system as a whole. Each person is able and willing to play their part so that the community as a whole receives the most benefit, as opposed to the individual. This difference in philosophy is deep at the core of both cultures, and leads to subtle and sometimes drastic differences in policy and behavior. It is very interesting to observe these differences as someone who can see the merits and disadvantages of both.

The Whole Buffalo


I am settled back into the hostel after a crazy weekend in Hamburg and am ready for the second half of this dialogue. There is still lots to be done and I am taking each day as it comes. Yesterday we went to the Schultheiss Brewery and got a tour of the whole operation. It was some really cool stuff. They make Schultheiss, Berliner Kindl, and Berliner Pilsner among others and are the biggest brewery in the region with over 50% market share. Everything was automated and nothing goes to waste. Talk about using every part of the buffalo, the by-products of each step in the complex process are captured and reused. This includes heat from processing the grains, the protein rich grain husks for animal feed, CO2 from fermentation is reused at the point of bottling, and the bottles themselves as well as the paper labels and aluminum tops. All of these have a process which collects, re-uses, or recycles them to save both money and resources. The average bottle gets reused 30 times in its life. How cool is that? To me this tour was a fantastic example of the efficiency and resourcefulness of the German people. That is not to say that this type of process efficiency is unique to Germans, but it does demonstrate pretty tangibly the characteristics that I have experienced with both individuals and with the country as a whole. The whole brewing and bottling process was explained to the group before we were able to take a look at each step in person. Then we did some “sampling” of the products. I’m not sure where you draw the line between sampling and drinking, but i am pretty sure we crossed it. I was pretty impressed by the whole tour; brewing is definitely something that I could get into. “Brew-Master Thornton” sounds pretty good to me!


Last week the group took a day trip to Potsdam to check out the Palace of Sanssouci. It was essentially a vacation home for Friedrich the Great of Prussia, son of Friedrich I. Friedrich the First was one tough dude, a warrior king who devoted most of his resources to building and maintaining an impressive army. He ruled his home the way he ruled his country, without mercy, and treated his son like a dog. Friedrich II was not all that interested in becoming a fighter like his father, and instead ravenously pursued artistic and intellectual pursuits. To his conservative father this was not acceptable, and he was punished constantly for it. Young Friedrich was forced to become a capable soldier, all the while secretly nurturing his finer tendencies. At the age of 18 he had enough, and planned an escape to England with his close friend Hans Hermann von Katte. Unfortunately they were captured and sentenced to death. Friedrich’s life was spared, however he was forced to watch the execution of someone he loved dearly and submit to his fathers dominance. This moment must have done more to shape the man he would soon become than any other event in his childhood. The harsh realities of the world and the power structures in place were very real, and Friedrich would learn to suppress his personal desires and manipulate resources both domestically and abroad. He earned the title “Enlightened Despot” through the combination of sometimes aggressive warfare and progressive ideologies. The palace that he built in Potsdam is an incredible testament to his personal priorities. Between Sanssouci and the New Palace right down the road he commissioned some of the most mind-blowing environments for intellectual discourse, artistic development, and reflection. Among his many influential guests was the french philosopher Voltaire who he respected and admired greatly. He was a true Renaissance Man in the sense that he actively practiced myriad artistic, scientific, and physical pursuits. Unfortunately his military prowess was used during the Third Reich as a symbol of German strength and unity, while his religious tolerance and expansion of civil liberties were conveniently ignored. For this reason it has taken many years for the German people to feel comfortable celebrating the complex life of Friedrich the Great. Now with the 300 year anniversary of his birth he is once again being recognized as the powerful and talented man that he was, without the connotation so unfairly given to him by the propaganda of the National Socialist Party. It is not a simple story to grasp, but it’s importance and impact on German history can not be overstated. Standing right where he stood and performed the flute, argued with Voltaire, and strategized his next move in the geo-political realm was a humbling and awesome experience. I do not think Friedrich II can be compared in fairness to any historical figure in US history. I honestly knew nothing about Friedrich the Great before this trip, but now I can say with confidence that he is one of the most fascinating characters of all time, real or fictional. I encourage anyone who wants to know more to check out this hour-long BBC documentary about him here:

“That’s the way we like it”

Today (2/8/12) Dan took me to the StaatsMitte to find some pickup soccer. We started at a little outdoor basketball court with some local kids but a Mario Gomez-looking German came over and invited us to a bigger spot nearby. We had a blast with some kids from all over the world. We knew none of them, but were connected by football. We were able to hold our own and surprised some people who did not expect the Americans to be able to play. They invited us back next week, I’m looking forward to that. When the clouds rolled in one little Asian guy with great foot skills called “next goal wins.” I took a rip first-time from the top of the box to end it just as the rain started to come down. Out of nowhere quarter sized hail started coming down and we waited in a doorway while it passed. What an awesome experience. I love the culture of football here. There’s public football fields like we have basketball courts in the US. We just walked on as total strangers and were welcome to play. It doesn’t get much better than that. There ended up being three Americans at that game, all of whom made an impression on our new teammates. Being able and willing to play football (soccer) goes a long way towards making friends and gaining respect in cultures that are fanatical about it such as Germany. Just like insisting on speaking German, sharing a passion like this is unexpected but greatly appreciated. It can also open up opportunities both socially and professionally. For example, in Hamburg a friend invited us to their house to watch a St. Pauli game. St. Pauli is a Hamburg team with some of the most insane fans in the whole world. It is a small club with a very fan-centric culture that results in a tight-knit community of hooligans. The passion is overflowing as well as the beer. I felt very blessed to get a glimpse of this world, and had a great time yelling at the television and the referee right along with the others. I had never watched this team before but it just goes to show you how easy it is to get swept up by the energy and excitement. Professionally it can also provide a common ground and something to talk about in an interview. I have reached out to a contact I’ve made through a family member who says there will be a “football test” when we get together and he told me that “Borussia Dortmund is your new favorite team.” I have no problem taking advantage of this atmosphere and look forward to developing my Bundesliga knowledge during my year here!

It’s all relative…

Are Germans rude? Many people who are exposed to German culture for the first time take note of their readiness to scold a stranger, push past you on the sidewalk, blatantly stare, or exhibit any number of seemingly “rude” behaviors which we are not used to as Americans. Today I had a conversation with a friend who indeed was ready to call Germans rude for the way they treat certain situations. I asked what he meant by rude and he said “not the acceptable way of doing things.” “Acceptable to who?” I asked. Perhaps not to him, but it is certainly acceptable to a German. Terms like “normal” “acceptable” and “rude” are all highly relative, and it is important to realize that social norms vary greatly based in the culture you are in. One thing Germans are known for is their steadfast commitment to following the rules, and therefore it is part of the social contract to encourage others to do the same. If you step out of line, expect to be reprimanded. That is simply a part of the underlying behavioral framework that guides German culture and ensures continued efficiency. After all one loose cog will throw of an entire mechanical process, and likewise seemingly minute social insurgency can prevent the proper functioning of a community. Everyone is expected to do their part, and that often means understanding and following very specific guidelines. I don’t think it is at all fair to say that Germans are rude. They are certainly assertive, which many Americans might consider repressive. On the other hand they are not loud in public, which many Americans see no problem with. Isn’t it strange that some Americans would not consider that they are disturbing someone with their volume and then choose to be disturbed by someone telling them to shut up? It just goes to show you that “rude” has a different meaning depending on who you are talking to, and that knowing the norms of a culture can prevent people being unnecessarily offended or put off.

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'illin in Erlangen