Monday, August 14, 2017

Freedom of Speech, German Style

For what seems like the first time in a while, I'm going to write again about a difference between life in Germany and life in Wisconsin (USA).

It pertains to the freedom of speech.

I did not hear much about the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, VA until things turned ugly. I understand neo-nazis and white supremacists are allowed to speak out, march, display signs, shout nazi slogans, etc. in the United States of America. The First Amendment to the US Constitution grants citizens the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, so decent people must by law tolerate the filth that white supremacists spew. Nazis get to march in the US if they submit a permit to do so. I'm not sure how those ideologies reflect the "peaceful" part of the right to assemble, since they are based on oppression and hatred, but that's the way it is over there.

Germans also enjoy the freedom of speech as granted to them by the Grundgesetz. However, there are limitations and consequences for those who breech those limitations. In Germany it is unlawful to display nazi symbols, gestures, or paraphenalia publicly. One is also not allowed to openly and publicly declare that the holocaust never happened.* This is based on Article 2 of the Grundgesetz, which states that a person has the right to free development and expression of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against Germany's constitutional order or moral law.

*One can be a holocaust denier, but s/he cannot speak or write about this inexplicable belief publicly without consequences.

Giving the nazi salute in public in Germany (even if the person claims it was a joke or just to add some spice to their vacation photos) violates the rights of so many and offends moral law and decency. Do I agree that this behavior should not be allowed in Germany? Absolutely.

People/tourists who think it's funny while in Germany to mouth off about Hitler, shout "Sieg Heil", give the "Hitlergruß" (as one of my principals in Wisconsin gave me when I announced I was marrying a German) will get their asses arrested, and could face a [not-hefty-enough] fine. I wouldn't mind if they'd get escorted to the nearest airport - without passing go. Just take your ignorance and hatred somewhere else.

Americans should be familiar with limitations on free speech as well. One cannot yell "Fire!!" or "Bomb!!" in a crowded theather, airport, restaurant, etc. without facing consequences if caught. I find this reasonable. American readers might also want to be aware that the first amendment may not apply at all in American airports, or at least not in the Milwaukee airport.

On the same day as the "Unite the Right" rally in Virginia, an American tourist in Dresden started giving the nazi salute outside a café. An as yet unknown passer-by beat him up and then walked away. Since I don't condone violence I would have rather seen the fool arrested and fined - bigly - but I must admit the thought crossed my mind that he had it coming. Don't pull that shit here, laddybuck. Don't travel to foreign countries if you are that ignorant about the world and human dignity.

However, it is also against the law in Germany to beat people up on the street, and this is a good thing. So now authorities are, of course, searching for the assailant, who will likely face charges of battery if found.

Article 1 of Germany's Grundgesetz is "Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar." ("The dignity of persons is inviolable.") This is a statement I know well, as I teach this to my students during the Orientierungskurs. Giving the nazi salute or marching with nazi flags is violating the dignity of all those who were murdered during the holocaust and anyone who lost a loved one during that regime.

Let this be a notice, then, to tourists who come to Germany. You are welcome and we hope you enjoy your stay. But do not for one moment think we find it even remotely funny when guests make "jokes" about or references to nazis except for the purpose of genuine learning. And regardless of the reason for having done it, a nazi salute will lead to jail.

*I am aware that "nazi" should technically be capitalized, but I won't do it.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Family Trip to Scotland: Attractions 2

I hope you're not getting too tired of Scotland posts, because I still have a few more planned! In this post I want to mention the attractions we saw in and near Edinburgh.

I already wrote about Holyrood Palace in my castles post, but I'll just add another shout out to this palace. We enjoyed it more than, well, other castles in the city.

But what else did we do in Edinburgh?

National Museum of Scotland (free, donations appreciated)

Like many in Scotland, this museum charges no admission! This was M's and my second visit to this museum, and there's so much to see that I don't even know where to start. There's a great view from the rooftop that's not to be missed, you can find an extensive multi-level exhibit of Scottish history (where we spent our visit this time, though we still didn't see it all), and exhibits about the natural and modern world. No matter where your interests lie, there will be something for you here.

The only photo I took in the museum was of a Scottish guillotine, so I think I'll leave that and let you find your own photos.

The Potter Trail Tour (free, donations appreciated)

The three "kids" went on this tour, and I will give the keyboard over to my daughter, who described it thus:

This walking tour is about an hour long and covers many of J.K. Rowling's inspirations for the books. Tours are drop in - no booking in advance and meet by Greyfriar Bobby's statue just outside of Greyfriar's Kirkyard. Although the tour is free they do request a donation. They don't have a guideline amount for the donation, but it seems like most donate about 5 pounds per person.

The gist of the tour is that you'll see a few graves in Greyfriar's Kirkyard that inspired some of the Harry Potter characters, you'll see one of the many inspirations for Hogwarts, and two cafes where Rowling wrote some of the earlier books. There are a few more sites on the tour, including the street that inspired Diagon Alley (Victoria Street, which is very picturesque).

At one point the tour guide asked for a volunteer to wear the sorting hat, and Liv threw Al under the bus. He was less than amused - but I love the photo!

All in all, it was a tour that was worth it in my opinion - our tour guide was hilarious and made the tour very interactive and knew so much about Rowling and her inspirations that I didn't already know!

The Real Mary King's Close  (not free)

No photos are allowed during this tour and it's not cheap, but we highly recommend it! It's a journey back into the early days of Edinburgh, the time of the plague, and the world in which the less-than-wealthy lived. Our guide was incredibly entertaining, although he was English and not Scottish - it was clear he enjoyed his role. 

Tickets can be pre-ordered online, but then they must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance. We weren't sure when we'd want the tour, so we didn't pre-order. Instead, after our morning tour of Holyrood M and I walked up the Royal Mile to Mary King's Close and then ordered and paid for tickets for later that day. This worked out perfectly for us. 

The Real Mary King's Close tour was my highlight of our day in Edinburgh, though the entire day was enjoyable.

Calton Hill  (free)

In 2015 M and I walked up Arthur's Seat for nice views over Edinburgh. This time we were all trying to pack Edinburgh into one day, so we went up Calton Hill instead. I'd read that this takes less time, but there are still nice views over Edinburgh. I certainly agree. If you have several days in the city, hike up Arthur's Seat. If you have only one or two days, do Calton's Hill.

The Great Polish Map of Scotland  (free, donations appreciated)

I've written about this attraction in Eddleston before, but since it's still relatively new and not everyone knows about it, I want to mention it again! It is the largest physical relief map in the world, and it was first created in the 1970s by Jan Tomasik and a small group of Polish geographers.

The restoration of the map is an ongoing process, and since our first visit in 2015 the crew has added a sturdy observation platform, rebuilt many of the islands (the white bits on the photo) and refilled the sea. When we were there the sea was refilling after some necessary maintenance, but by now it's full again.

What attractions or tours did we miss in Edinburgh?

Monday, July 31, 2017

July Highs and Lows 2017

The first half of July was all about teaching and preparing lesson plans, but then the three-week summer break started. The Sheboygan-Esslingen summer exchange program got underway this month, and the weather has been fine in my opinion - not blazing hot, enough rain that we didn't have to do much watering in the garden, and pleasant much of the time. Opinions of the weather are relative, though - lots of people have been complaining.

On to the monthly re-cap.


  • My friend and Sprachpartnerin, Hedda, visited me after school one day, and we had Kaffee und Kuchen together, talking non-stop for several hours. Despite the generation separating us in age, we never seem to run out of topics!

  • meeting three times with one of my former students, who'd asked me to help him prepare for his C1 German test. After our first meeting I told him I wasn't sure there was much I could do for him, since my German is not clearly better than his! I told him I noticed he was using words and phrases I don't use - that are beyond what I have ever needed to say. We continued to meet anyway once a week, and I'm sure he did well on his test.

  • the visit of our good friend, D, a German teacher in the US. He came along on the day trip to Ulm (see below) and helped with the tour. At the end of that day he and I parted from the group and came home, where M was ready to grill for us. The next morning we took a walk through the fields near our town, and then he was off on his next adventure.
  • receiving and reading this book - Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar. I contacted the writer to ask if there are plans to translate it into English, but there are not. A publisher has to be interested in it first. I sent him the link to my review, and he liked it enough to put it on his Facebook page. 


  • My cracked front crown broke off (a large corner of it), which made smiling and teaching awkward for about a week. I'd already had an appointment scheduled a week later to start the process of getting a new crown, and since I was in no pain the dentist told me to just keep the appointment. So for a week I tried not to smile. Impossible for an American.

  • A man was murdered in the middle of the day at "my" grocery store - about a mile from our house, where I shop 4-5 times per week. There was an altercation between two men, and one of them pulled out a knife and stabbed the other repeatedly. There was talk of "OMG, none of us are safe anywhere any more!" and "I'm not shopping there any more...", and of course blaming Merkel for letting refugees in (neither of the men was a refugee). I went shopping there the following afternoon when they re-opened and was not afraid. Benefits of having lived in America? We read about stuff like that happening nearly every day, though admittedly the weapon of choice is usually a gun.

  • learning of another murder that took place in Konstanz (similar to the story above, it sounds like it was an altercation between several men early in the morning at a disco). I read some comments on a Fox news site so mainly conservative Americans were commenting, and they were all similar - close the borders, Merkel is ruining Germany, "See?? #45 is right and now Germany is seeing it too!" (No, he isn't and no, we're not.)

    This one was amusing, though: "Germany still has discos?"  A responder replied, "Yeah, Europe is a little behind the times. LOL"  "Disco" is the word used in German for a place opened at night where people can drink, listen to music, and dance. Yep, we still have those here. Not in the US?

Exchange Program Activities

  • I am involved with an exchange program for 7th/8th-grade students living in my hometown, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and its sister city, Esslingen. The Americans fly here in July with a chaperone for three weeks, and then the whole group (Americans and Germans) fly together to Sheboygan for three weeks.

  • I took the train to  Esslingen to meet the group for ice cream and a Stadtführung (town tour) led by one of the German lads, who is a youth city tour guide! Usually my Schwiegermutter or I give that tour, but this was a nice change.

  • I drove the car to Esslingen another day for our evening Welcome Party and buffet and thankfully didn't encounter any serious problems during the drive.

  • Our first group day trip was to the beautiful little town of Tübingen, where I gave the Stadtführung and then released the students for lunch and free time, followed by a little more tour and a stop in the Stadtinfo for souvenirs.

Tübingen Rathaus, with our group in front
(I'm telling them some stories focusing on the Marktplatz.)
  • The next day we took the train to Ulm where I led them again through part of the town and the Münster (minster - church). I sent them on a scavenger hunt to find various figures throughout the church (the Man of Sorrows, St. Peter, St. Martin, the Spatz/sparrow that is the town mascot...), and they seemed to enjoy the activity! I thought we'd be in the church for about 15 minutes, but at 40 minutes they were still going. 
my friend showing and telling the students about Stolpersteine

  • Now the group has a week and a half to spend with their host families before they fly to Sheboygan. 

Have you had a good month?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Family Trip to Scotland: Attractions 1

Traveling with young adult children is fabulous! They can go off on their own including exploring a biggish city and navigating public transportation, make their own plans, have their own fun in the evening when all M and I want to do is sit with a glass of wine and not be responsible for anything, and they help with cooking and clean-up without being asked.

What kind of entertainment did we (and they!) find throughout the trip to keep everyone happy? I've already written about the castles and castle ruins we visited. But what else did we see and do?

Fingal's Cave

We took a wildlife boat tour from  Tobermory to the islands of Lunga and Staffa. Fingal's Cave is on Staffa, and it's a geological wonder. So beautiful and inspiring is it that Felix Mendelsohn composed his "Hebrides Overture" after visiting the cave in the early 1800s.

After disembarking from the boat adventurous visitors walk up some steps and along the volcanic wall gripping tightly to the rail or rope, and eventually come to this cave. The basalt rock formed into hexagonal columns when lava from a volcanic eruption cooled abruptly millions of years ago. The cave was (re-)discovered in 1772 and has been a popular attraction for nearly 200 years.

Just so you're aware...

This is how one approaches the cave. There is a rope to hang onto on the cave wall side, and nothing but thin air to keep you from tossing over the side into the icy ocean water. And it is quite a long way down. It is both exhilerating and terrifying.

the mouth of the cave

basalt columns seen from the stone path on the way to or from Fingal's Cave
Side story: This is Gus. Gus is a Curly Coated Retriever and he is not happy. Gus' human was attempting to navigate that precarious pathway into the cave holding onto Gus' leash with his infant child strapped to his back in a baby carrier and a big camera dangling from his neck. It was pouring down with a relentless, windy, thick, misty rain, making the path even more treacherous. Gus' other human was already in the cave, and Gus was pulling to hurry his human, baby, and camera along. As the human hesitated and started to doubt the wisdom of his next step, I asked him if he would like me to hold the dog while he explored the cave (I was on my way out). He said, "Oh, I don't want you to have to stand here in the pouring rain!" There was no shelter anywhere on the island anyway, so whether I held onto Gus or headed back toward the boat that was no longer at the dock, it didn't make any difference. So he handed me the dog's leash with a grateful look, said, "His name is Gus. He's a good dog!" and disappeared while Gus shot me a "What the hell?!" look and pined after his humans.

My three dog-loving kids came out of the cave to find me hanging onto Gus, and they made instant friends with this dog who didn't want anything to do with them. We crouched down to lower our center of gravity (Gus is a strong dog!) and held on while being pelted with rain. His grateful humans, including the infant who I'm sure was also thinking, "What the hell?!", returned and Gus breathed a sigh of relief before marching off with them with nary another look in our direction. 

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Once back on the mainland, M drove us along single-track roads from the western-most point of the UK (Kilchoan at West Ardnamurchan) to Glenfinnan (or Gleannfhionnainn, in Gaelic). Here we had planned to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct as well as the monument to the Jacobites.  Unfortunately, the weather sucked and I just wasn't in the mood. My daughter snapped this decent photo, but we didn't wait to see if a train would pass over on it.
seen in Harry Potter, on a day more pleasant than this
There's a nice visitors center there with plenty of information presented museum-style about the Jacobite uprisings. Here is the viaduct on a nicer day from a different perspective, when we rode the Jacobite Steam Train in 2007:

Falkirk Wheel

We've been hearing about the Falkirk Wheel for years, but I never really looked into what it was. We had a lengthy stop here because it's where our rental car finally gave up the ghost, and we had to wait several hours for a tow truck. Better here than in the middle of the motorway, eh?

The wheel works as a lock - boats navigating the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal drive into a caisson which is then sealed, and the wheel turns, lifting or dropping the boat and caisson to the other canal. The energy used by the wheel is equivalent to eight electric teapots. 

The visitors center offers lots of information, and visitors can buy a ticket to ride a boat on the wheel from bottom to top or vise versa. It truly is something to behold.

On the way to Edinburgh from Falkirk, we saw the Kelpies from the cab of the tow truck - we would have otherwise stopped there as well, for another attraction.

Kelpies - small-scale model at the Falkirk Wheel parking lot

With my next Scotland post I'll write about the attractions we visited in Edinburgh.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Book Review: Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar

"Beschreib mal Zuhause. Was ist das?"

"Da, wo man sich sicher fühlt. Dahin kommt man, wenn man müde ist oder allein sein will. Dann kann man nach Hause. Man kann tun, was man will. Man kann sich entspannen. Und alles gehört dir. Dein Bett, dein Sofa, dein Tisch, deine Bücher."

For me one mark of a good book is that I am genuinely sorry to finish it. Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar, by  Florian Schmitz was such a book for me.

There was so much in this book I could relate to, and it was probably good for me to see Germany through a German writer’s critical eye. I see my own passport country through a similar eye, and I get the feeling I come across as unpatriotic to other Americans. I even lost a friend once, who, just before signing off, wrote something about me hating America. I love and value my American friends very much, but I do not have a positive impression of Americans in general, nor do I consider the U.S. the "greatest country in the world" as so many do. It’s a strange reverse-xenophobia. 

Florian Schmitz is a German who, after his studies with a degree in Literary Studies and Spanish, got the message from Germany (the Job Center advisors, for instance) that “We don’t need you.” He had the wrong skill set (at least on paper) after graduation to be valued by German employers, so he left the country and moved to Greece. Throughout the book Schmitz compares life, culture, and people in Greece to those in Germany, and through Soumar, his Syrian friend, we hear comparisons between Syria, Germany and Greece. What I find so interesting is that Soumar sees Germany in a more positive light than Schmitz does, although Schmitz comes across to me as realistic, not negative.

Soumar was on his journey/flight from Syria to Germany in 2016 when he and Schmitz met through Schmitz’s people-magnet dog, Nondas, on a Greek ship. They stayed in contact, and this book describes Soumar’s journey in four parts, their friendship, and their conversations about topics like religion (they are both atheists), war, humanity, integration, food, football (soccer), weather… The book allows readers to eavesdrop on conversations between two people I would enjoy spending time with. They ask each other deep and difficult questions, and the answers are equally deep. 

My book is all marked up with notes and underlined quotes, such as:

A southern European’s advice to Germans: 
Zieht euch endlich den Stock aus dem Arsch und macht eure eigenen Regeln.”
 ["Get that stick out of your butt and make your own rules!"]

At the same time, German punctuality and organization is good! 
Soumar: “Es ist gut, dass man sich auf Leute verlassen kann.”
  ["It's good that you can rely on people here."]

Soumar on religious strife:
Wenn jemand denkt, dass ein anderer dumm ist, weil er eine andere Religion hat, dann hat er diese Dummheit selbst in sich.“
  ["When someone thinks that someone else is dumb for practicing a different religion, then the stupidity lies in him."]

Schmitz on AfD and PEGIDA supporters:
Ich glaube, dass die meisten schlichtweg an einfachen Lösungen interessiert sind…Und dabei sind sie an eine Partei geraten, die so tut, als könne sie die Grenzen dicht machen und dann ist Deutschland sicher. Das ist natürlich Schwachsinn.“ 
  ["I think most of them are simply interested in easy solutions. And they found a party that says closing the borders will make Germany safe. That's ridiculous, of course."] 
  I would add potus fans to Schmitz' description as well.

Life in a refugee camp: 
“For a few days it’s ok, but for years it’s terrible…Can you imagine? It can’t be compared to a concentration camp like Bergen-Belsen, because the people can come and go, have enough water and a warm meal. But to be constantly surrounded by people is not good. One never has peace and quiet or any real privacy, and everyone has to share the kitchen and bathroom. When people are forced to live like that, no matter where, eventually there will be problems.”*

[*Some people in both Germany and the US have said refugees living in camps should be happy they’re out of the war zone. They should feel lucky to be where they are. Ok, but I wonder how long the people saying that would be able to stand conditions in a refugee camp. One day, perhaps?]

And one of my favorite exchanges (the one at the top of this post):
Schmitz: „Describe home. What is that?“
Soumar: „A place where you feel safe. You go there when you're tired or want to be alone. Then you can go home and do what you want. You can relax. And everything belongs to you - your bed, your sofa, your table, your TV, your books.

Soumar tells the story of his three-week odyssey from Damaskus to Bremen in his own words, and it is much like the stories several of my former students have shared with me. It’s becoming very familiar to me – the fear, the uncertainty, the smugglers and traffickers, the police, the maltreatment by police and officials in Hungary, the boat motors that konk out in the middle of the sea, the exhaustion, the relief upon reaching a Greek island, the hunger and thirst, lack of showers, the understandable mistrust, the connections made with other refugees and information shared via Facebook of where to go and whom to look out for, crossing borders under the cover of darkness…and the “Alter, du hast es geschafft!” upon finally reaching Germany.

I think this is a very important book and I wish it were available in English. Anyone who wants to lump all Arabs/Syrians/refugees together into one pot and label them should meet Soumar in this book. I recommend it to expats, travelers, immigrants, wanderers, those living in multicultural families and communities, and anyone wondering what struggles refugees, immigrants, and expats face from day to day.

On Goodreads I gave this book five stars, which for me is rare. But if I don't like the beginning of the next book I have lined up, I might just start this one from the beginning again.