Transatlantic exchange for media professionals changes US perspective on Germany

International exchange programs are one of the best ways to remove the blinders from monocultural people. Most of us are born monocultural. Especially in Central Europe and North America we grow up in a relatively steady environment. We learn and adopt behavioral patterns which are handed down to us by our parents, our families, our friends, society. That’s how national or regional cultures are formed and perpetuated. The best way to remove ourselves from the comfort zone of our home culture is to expose or even immerse ourselves in another cultural environment. I speak from experience: As a teenager a student exchange program led me to the United States for the first time. A truly life changing adventure for a 17-year-old. It taught me that my “normal” didn’t always travel.

rias-fellows-2012-dresden

RIAS Berlin Kommission Fall 2012 Fellows at Pleasure Palace in Dresden, Germany
From left to right: Sonia Narang (Los Angeles, CA), Azadeh Ansari (Atlanta, GA), Erika Thomas (Sioux City, IA), Derrall Stalvey (Chattanooga, TN), Beau Berman (Hartford, CT), John Branch (Atlanta, GA), Tonya Papanikolas (Salt Lake City, UT), Waliya Lari (Houston, TX), Shoshana Rubin (New York, NY), Robert Horton (Seattle, WA), Shanda Sundstrom (Fort Smith, AR), Heather Staggers (Kansas City, MO)

Last fall I learned about a different transatlantic exchange program when Chattanooga broadcast news professional Derrall Stalvey told me about his upcoming trip to Germany. He was part of a group of U.S. journalists who took part in the RIAS German-American Journalist Exchange Program. Reading the reports the RIAS Fellows wrote after their trip, it appears that for some of them this experience too changed their outlook on transatlantic issues. It also may change the way their news outlets will report about current affairs in Germany and Europe.

Derrall Stalvey and Beau Berman, who works for a TV station in Connecticut, gave me permission to use their reports as an example for how removing the blinders is an eye-opening, life-enriching experience. You can find the original stories of all the 2012 RIAS Fellows here and I encourage you to read them all.

Derrall Stalvey’s recap:

When I first learned of the RIAS fellowship in an email from RTDNA, I felt conflicted. I wanted to experience this program. However, could I really spare two weeks away from the newsroom? This program benefited me, and therefore our newsroom, more than any two weeks of the daily grind ever could. I could give no higher recommendation for the RIAS fellowship program.

The experience for me really began during the research phase. My knowledge, and interest for that matter, was limited to what I learned in a classroom. The term “euro crisis” was just a headline our newsroom often ignores on the AP wire. I knew Germany had good beer and was home to Volkswagen, a major employer in our city. The depth of my European knowledge was pretty shallow. I figuratively dusted off a few history books (aka Google) and then followed current events in Germany and Europe (aka Twitter). The thrill I felt on the morning RIAS announced my acceptance was only trumped by the experience itself. It exceeded in every single way.

Berlin is a city that does not try to hide from its dark past. It has every reason to want to avoid those chapters in history. However, it uses that history to teach and remind people where they do not want to return. What surprised me most is that buildings are relatively new when compared to other European cities.

The business and political leaders who met with our group were overwhelmingly pro-American. The majority are also surprised at our country’s division over universal healthcare. It is simply a way of life in Europe and one that it appears most Europeans support. I certainly get the sense that Germans are more interested in America than Americans are interested in Germany. During a meeting with Mr. Ekhart von Klaeden, Minister of State at the German Chancellery, told our group, “For me personally, I don’t want to think about a world without a strong U.S. If democracy and freedom are under pressure you lead the others to defend this. You are often criticized for this but this is your mission. We rely on you to be strong.”

Public television in Germany is a much bigger player than it is in the U.S. We visited the publicly-funded ARD headquarters. The building is a showplace. And, the German taxpayer paid for it; citizens pay 18 euros per month to fund public television. We later visited N24, the #1 private television network, and it reminded me more of a newsroom the way many of us know one. Public television ratings dominate the ratings for private news channels, which is the opposite for American broadcasters.

Our visit to Germany coincided with the final eight weeks of the U.S. presidential campaign. Many lawmakers and business leaders wanted to discuss the election with our group. Their estimates for Obama support among Germans ranged from 70-80% supporting his re-election. The reasons frequently given were a mix of: health care, bank regulation, and climate policy.

My final day in Berlin allowed me a few hours to visit the Topography of Terror and large piece of the Berlin Wall. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to this city. From Berlin, a bus carried our group to Dresden and the home of Volkswagen’s Transparent Factory. The city of Dresden is beautiful and looks more like old Europe even though the buildings are relatively new. The allies destroyed much of the city during WWII and it has been rebuilt with an ode to the past. Our group’s tour of the VW factory allowed us to see where VW builds $100,000 Phaetons by hand. VW only produces 48 of these cars per day, instead of the hundreds that come from typical car plants. The access that VW granted to our group is the same white glove treatment that a new owner would receive. The most frequent customer is from China, and many of them show up to pay with cash.

We say goodbye to Germany with a bus ride across the border to the Czech Republic for our one-night stay in Prague. The beauty of charm of this city was worth dodging a few tourists. Seeing the American flag at half-staff on the U.S. Embassy in Prague reminded us the date was September 11.

The official visit to Radio Free Europe in Prague served as a highlight for me. It really put our jobs in perspective. We visited embassies, government buildings, NATO, high-profile private businesses, and none of that security compared to the security at RFE. That was my first indicator of the important work taking place there. The RFE journalists work in the most dangerous places on earth to spread the message of liberty and to give a voice to democracy. Journalists are intimidated, kidnapped, murdered, and have their families threatened for exercising a basic American right.

The final leg of our fellowship took us on a short flight from Prague to Brussels. The vibe of this city reminds me a lot of Washington DC. It is considered the capital of Europe and certainly has that feel. Our full-day visit to the European Commission was like a crash course in European politics. It was extremely beneficial. The internal power struggles and move toward a federation of nation states make me wonder whether history will look back on this period as the key beginnings of a true United State of Europe. Many things have to happen between now and then, but it took more than 100 years for the USA to go through this process. It is complex, and the current EU is not completely unlike the beginnings of the USA. The EU flag flies over many buildings in Brussels next to the Belgium flag similar to the way the U.S. flag flies next to state flags here.

The visit to NATO did much to help me understand its true role in the world and the U.S. role within NATO. Even though the U.S. funds 70% of NATO’s budget it has no more voting power than the other members. Of course, the U.S. has influence but its voting weight is the same as the smallest nation in the alliance. The American perspective is that the U.S. runs NATO. However, as a visitor to this building and interacting with the officials it truly felt like a multinational alliance.

Our final day as a group was free time in the beautiful medieval city of Brugge, Belgium. Time has stood still in this place. What a wonderful way to end the trip.

The RIAS fellowship changed my perspective on Europe and its role in American politics and business. We have no better allies in the world than the friendly nations in Europe. Sometimes it feels like a one-sided friendship here. Europeans on the street want to be friends with America, but many Americans on the street seem much less interested in affairs outside of their borders.

My eleven American travel partners and three German hosts made this exchange program exceed my high expectations. I learned from each person on the journey and felt the warm hospitality of our German hosts. Rainer, Lisa, and Isabell were more patient than we deserved. Their pride in the RIAS program and their country was contagious. Azadeh, Beau, Erika, Heather, John, Robert, Shanda, Shoshana, Sonia, Tonya, and Waliya brought me more laughs and more enrichment that I could have every predicted.

 

Beau Berman’s report:

It was 3am when I found myself in Watergate, one of Berlin’s most popular night clubs. One at a time, men would come up to me and offer their hand for a shake or put forward their fist for a celebratory “bump”. One whispered something in my ear but it was a language I did not understand. But once I detected they were speaking Turkish, the attention suddenly made sense. Well you also have to consider the shirt I was wearing — a bright red, white-sleeved soccer jersey of the Turkish national team. The nation’s crescent and star prominently printed on the front and “ay-yildizlar” (“the crescent stars”) on the back. But it was how I obtained this jersey that was the real story.

After waiting 45 minutes to enter Watergate, our group of four RIAS Fellows finally reached the front of the line, filled with a sense of anticipation and expectation. But to our surprise, the bouncers would not let me enter. They pointed at my brown dress shoes and my button-up shirt with cufflinks and said “too fancy”. And they were serious when they called it a “t-shirt club”. They would let the three girls in but not me. We exited the line, discouraged and somewhat confused. Never before had any of us been denied access to a night spot because we were dressed too fancy, normally it is the opposite issue. But before we were to leave I asked for five more minutes. “Give me that”, I said. “And I will find a shirt”.

HeimtrikotTürkei

And find a shirt, I did. After popping into two different late-night convenience stores to no avail, I made a last ditch effort at a doner-kebab and pizza shop. Inside, a German man translated to five men appearing to be of Turkish descent. My request was to purchase an old, dirty, used t-shirt. They laughed at first but ultimately sold me the soccer jersey from a laundry pile they had in their upstairs apartment connected to the shop.

Wearing that blatantly Turkish shirt inside a German nightclub in former East Berlin was unplanned, but also wildly important to me. Knowledge that I gained from the RIAS trip helped me understand this situation. For one, the presence of eastern and western Germans, happily dancing in one place was a far-cry from the days before the fall of the wall. The bridge, was not named after the American scandal, rather it was known as a gate between two sections of Germany, built on top of a river. And the men approaching me in the club with the high fives were likely Turkish born or Germans with Turkish roots. And I was making a statement: essentially wearing the Turkish flag in a German nightclub without hesitation. It was a statement they appreciated in a nation where German and Turkish relations can be strained and Turkish immigrants strike me as almost parallel to Mexican immigrants in the United States.

Prior to my time in Germany I would not have been able to make many of these deductions. I had never visited Germany, the Czech Republic or Belgium ever before. What I knew of Germany was stereotypes. I previously pictured bratwurst, blonde beer women, the autobahn, U.S. military bases, a harsh-sounding language, lederhosen, Hitler, a foggy conception of the Berlin Wall, scenes from the movies “The Bourne Identity” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation”. It was a shame really. Like all stereotypical notions, some of these ideas were rooted in reality but they provided me, at best, a caricature of the nation. I’m proud to say that has changed.

Today, when I picture Germany, I think of Dirk Steinmetz and Marius Zekri, young journalists who are quite similar to me. One evening with them told me more about life in Germany than the previous lifetime I spent in America, basing my impressions on false pretenses and stereotypes. Today when I think of Germany I picture sites like the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Chancellery, Berlin wall and Potsdamer Platz.

If I’m to generalize, I found the German people to be much friendlier than I had supposed. I did not realize that Germany looked upon the United States so favorably. Most of all, I realized that while they have their own customs and cultural norms, they are not that different than their American counterparts. Germans like our group leader, Rainer Hasters, wowed me with their sense of humor. Others displayed impressive work ethic and ingenuity in their careers. Some showed me that beer lovers live everywhere.

I left Germany with a positive impression of the government, particularly because of the willingness of so many leaders to visit with us American journalists and share information. Likewise I left with empathy for the German “political condition”. It’s a nation that rose to great power and then had a tremendous fall. Now they’ve ascended once again economically but face the delicate situation of being a financial power in a time of financial crisis around them. Germany must also deal with its Nazi history and the ghosts of the holocaust.

The largest difference between the German and American media systems is the public television structure. However, I was struck by what I found to be tremendous similarity between the private German station, N24, and my station in the United States. Germans as a whole are more well-informed about global issues and part of that might be the media’s coverage of other nations.

I went from knowing very little about the GDR and periods in Germany following World War II, to touring a Stasi Prison with a former prisoner and gaining more than just facts, but an actual feel for what that time was like and how people lived through the changes in the nation. Likewise, by visiting the German embassy in Prague, I was able to get an ever better picture of Germany during the post World War II and pre-fall of the Berlin wall time period.

The RIAS Fellowship was one of the best times of my life. I do not throw that statement around lightly, but in this case it is true. It’s because of the blend of fun, friendship and knowledge that I experienced. In a matter of two weeks I made lifelong friends, professional contacts and gained an understanding of a land and a culture that money cannot buy. I also ended up with a Turkish t-shirt that apparently, money can buy. But the memories of that evening and the others I spent with the RIAS program in Europe, remain priceless.

 

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