Thursday, December 16, 2010

Immigration Issues: Germany faces the Mirror

After almost three straight days of policy meetings and discussions from morning through evening on energy and climate change led by the American Council on Germany, it was a welcome respite this evening to chew over an old standard: racism.

Here in Germany, the Turkish immigrant minority is very much on the outside of mainstream German society. There are a host of reasons for this: cultural, historic, economic, social, educational, and financial. Oh, and there’s the language thing, which also doesn’t help as a bridge.

But just like in the good ‘ol US of A, (emphasis on old, as in the Fifties) and the way our forebears used to do things (don’t hate me for saying used to, and don’t hate me for not saying we still do) when it came to minority issues and the rights of minorities, German today is totally backward when it comes to this issue.

Our cozy group from across the country got to witness this up close during an enlightening and engaging dinner presentation by Parliamentarian Ozcan Mutlu, who represents a district within Berlin (Neukoln) for the Green Party.

Mutlu ran through the issues, personalized it in clear and unambiguous terms, repeatedly said he’s an optimist, and sees the glass as half full on these issues, but left the impression that there may not even be that much liquid to drink from the beer mug.

For starters, he has been told on more than one occasion by authorities that he is being profiled because they are searching for terrorists. His son, born in Germany, was told by a driver’s education instructor to go back home to Turkey. The instructor, a Berlin police officer, knew from class registration that the teenager was German born.

Mutlu bemoaned the dreadfully small number of stories on the Turkish community on German public television, noting that every train wreck gets full coverage. (sound familiar, tv pals?) He decried that there are very few elected officials of Turkish heritage, but said inroads have been made in that there are now 200 police officers with Turkish ancestry on the force in Berlin. But wait. There are a total of 18,000 cops in Berlin. 200 comprise a shade over 1%. In a country with a minority population in the high teens. Since when does1% count as a success story?

So when I say the good ‘ol US of A, the analogy fits. Back to the day of Beaver and Wally and Ike and all those good things we had going on during those happy days of the 50’s.

Perhaps what the Turkish community needs is a Rosa Parks, unwilling to go to the back of the bus, and willing to advance a cause on principle regardless of the cost.

Germany has that with its national soccer team. 11 of the 23 players are from immigrant families. Many of them are Turkish. Their top player, Mesut Özill, is of Turkish heritage, and he publicly decided to play for Germany in this past year’s World Cup, much to the delight of Germans, and Germans of Turkish origin. Still, his bio leads with this line: ‘A German-born son of a Turkish immigrant,’ which suggests there’s still a long way to go for even those who have risen to the top of their field.

So while there may be some small things over which there is commonality, and we all know that sports has proven over time to be a stepping stone for the disenfranchised, Mutlu does not want Özill, or other German footballers to get involved in politics. Even after being told the story of Jackie Robinson and how he helped move America forward, Mutlu does not think their attitudes would have any bearing on the public.

Well, that’s probably short sighted, but it does go to show you how dated attitudes are in Germany today, at least in some areas, and still how far communities living on the margin (there’s a 50% unemployment rate for the Turkish community in Berlin) have to go if they opt not to take advantage of what others might see as golden opportunities.

So I must defer to Mutlu on whether his glass is half full, and wish him luck on getting some real juice in that cup.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cool day, bad architecture

Sometimes, it all comes together.

The sky opens. The sea parts. Sometimes, even, the girl says yes.

It’s called the A-ha moment.

Today, I had that experience, on a cold and blustery day in a concrete slab of a building in the middle of nowhere in Berlin.

Amidst back to back meetings, and hearing how taking government money means you can define yourself as independent (because you don’t have to take private funds), I was taken to a modern building housing a major German think tank for an afternoon chat about politics and purpose.

Amidst a welcome treat of apfel strudel and black tea, I listened to wonks waxing about progressive German politics, and bad American politics. No surprise there.

The building in which I was in, well, that was something completely different.

The Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung is the foundation and think tank for the German Green party. The Greens are what you would expect, a left of center pro-environment movement. They’re a force in Germany, and hope to lead several German states following spring elections.

The building for the Böll-Stiftung is an exceptionally modernist structure that was completed in 2008 by the Swiss architecture firm eckert eckert architeckten/e2a. It incorporates a number of highly technological and equally impressive measures to bring the building’s carbon footprint damn near zero.

From the triple pane glass, complete with argon gas to reduce the effect of direct sunlight, to the extra thick concrete flooring, which features water cooled and heated piping within a five foot perimeter of each exterior wall, to the server room that heat the building, to the HVAC system that recycles itself, silently, in the basement, and the photovoltaic cells on the roof, this is one helluva unique building.


Yeah, but.

But for all this coolness. But for all this hipness. But for all this design, and exterior style, and seeming functionality, this building is one ugly ass cold and soulless excuse for a modern office building.

It’s worth bearing with me on this one.

Sounds bounces around the omnipresent poured concrete. The carpet inlaid as runner throughout the office corridors has the consistency of 60 grade sandpaper, and the texture of cheap plastic Astroturf. Each office has inverted ribbon windows that can open, yet since the building is called a ‘lung’ you’re not allowed to puncture the lung by creating a hole in it’s cavity. So, no open windows. And no one is allowed to lay carpet or rugs on the floor, and all are asked to keep wall hanging to a minimum, in order to enhance air flow and circulation. So slab grey floors. Like in a warehouse. Just lovely and inviting.

So it’s like being Jonah for 8 hours a day, being inside a living organism, but not really being able to live.

This building may define architectural modernity and environmental sensitivity, but its severity is too great for all but a cubicle dwelling masochist to appreciate.

Prisoners might find this space familiar, with the concrete walls, floors, and ceiling, as well as the appearance of openness, which can be jarring, but by the time you finish the visit, realize is a false promise of design and environmentalism.

The German modernist Mies is attributed as saying ‘form follows function.’ I know, it wasn’t Mies, but Louis Sullivan, who actually said “form ever follows function.” But while this modernist piece has form, it surely drains clean every ounce of function. And it’s a shame. For the plan is welcome, and creative. But the execution, well, it’s just plain horrible. And that appears to be the building’s legacy. A shame indeed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Energy, Climate, and Enviro Policy: Oh, Boy!

Amazing what difference a day makes. Especially when it’s a day complete with presentations and programs. Let’s go to the numbers: seven policy experts, over two meals, and 14 hours. Long day, rich with information and calories. Oh, and two thirty minute train rides. Can’t forget mass transit.

The day began and ended with exceptionally intense policy discussions with two respected German trans-Atlanticists, SPD Bundestag member Uli Klose, and German Marshall Fund Fellow Constanze Steizenmueller.

And the middle dayparts were filled with substantive discussions on energy and climate policy at the German Foreign Office, as well as a visit to the famous Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, one of the foremost centers for the study of global warming. If only policymakers and brilliant theoretical scientists were able to communicate directly with us, perhaps they would be better able to command the attention of those who don’t possess their primary interests, or their intellectual firepower.

But for the early morning and late evening speakers, Klose and Steizenmueller, they each expressed concern about the future. Klose about the long term, Steizenmueller the short term. Each had primary concerns: Russia for Klose, which he feels should recognize its’ role as part of Europe, not the globe; and China for Steizenmueller, which she feels can move things forward, but has to be more transparent, and more bold in it’s international affairs.

Klose feels Germany will continue to lend support to the U.S. in Afghanistan, even with a vote coming up in Parliament next month. And while he is concerned about the challenge to the Euro that exists with the European debt crisis, he feels that it won’t lead to street protests, or any virulent type of public opposition.

Steizenmueller, on the other hand, was nothing short of dark and depressing. On a cold winter’s night in Berlin, it was as though with her words she was trying to mirror the temperature we all felt on our walk to dinner through a deserted Brandenburg Gate, a temperature impacted by the sub-freezing chill.

Though she expressed a bit of optimism by noting that the self-regulating nature of the American system seems to adapt to change, she didn’t feel that Germany, or Europe, had that same flexibility. Some, perhaps, but not as much as their neighbor 4000 miles west. Her concerns for China, which were significant, and deep, were not as great as her sense that India has the leg up on the race to lead the 21st century, or that Turkey has made significant progress as a nation in this past decade, or that Russia poses a challenge, but not as a military power, but as a geo-political entity.

After closing out with a line about conflict trumping cooperation, noting that this seems to be the prevailing manner in Chinese leadership circles, she all but threw up her arms in dismay at the challenge that those who govern civil society have been compelled to address.

Oh, to think what joy tomorrow might bring. If there is a tomorrow, following tonight's Cassandra. Anon.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Energy Policy, German Style

This is a different sort of week for me. I’m putting aside my journalism hat (sort of) and sitting on a week’s worth of programs on German policy and programs with regard to energy, climate, and the environment.

And as long as inspiration remains, and fatigue stays away, I’ll be blogging each day about the program. Straight line blogging, more of a report, than blogging with the verve and style to which I know you’ve grown accustomed.

But this ain’t boiled vegetables, as there will be some style and taste and even flava infused in each posting.

So here goes, folks.

I’m over in Berlin, taking part in programs and meetings put together by the NYC based American Council on Germany. Along with a dozen other Americans from the fields of energy, finance, law, government, and media, we have been invited to hear how Germany utilizes their limited energy resources to drive the world’s fourth largest economy.

This evening, at our introductory dinner, the featured speaker was the President of the Foundation for the German Green Party. Unlike the United States, where the two major political parties in no way have think tanks or foundations that hold forth on principled views and produce white papers, each of the five major German political parties each has their own Foundation.

Ralf Fücks (I know, I know) is the President of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, which is directly aligned with the pro-environmental Green Party. Fücks regularly addresses audiences, both in Germany, and overseas, and is one of the faces for the German Greens.

He was quite conversant not only on German energy and environmental policy, but on what’s not only happening right now in the United States, but what he would hope could happen in the United States in order for us to embrace a more green lifestyle.

In short, Fücks acknowledged that conditions and politics are different enough in Germany that the success which has been enjoyed by the Greens as of late (20% favorability in national polls), green issues and policies becoming accepted by the mainstream, green politicians and programs having a ‘hip’ cache, are all part of what it means for the Greens to represent what he calls the new modernity.

Fücks reminded us that renewable energy is thriving in Germany, with 17% of German energy usage coming from solar, wind, or biomass. Compared to less than 1% of US energy coming from these sources, this is significant.

In order to enhance prospects in the US for growth in non-carbon energy, Fücks hoped that more than a short term stimulus plan (along the lines of the 2008 bill) could be enacted by Washington, leading to long term investment, the transfer of scientific findings, and real growth in this area.

And he didn’t rave on about nuclear, didn’t point fingers at America or Americans, never once mentioned the word ‘Hummer’ or insisted that we all bicycle to work in even snow and sleet.

In Germany, Fücks argued that resource efficiency “has enhanced Germany’s economic independence.” While he did not speak directly to Germany’s link to Russia over energy, he argued that efficiency and environmentalism has helped Germany wrest itself from the situation the US faces, with significant energy consumption and energy costs.

Fücks added that he would like to see environmental education enhanced in the United States. By that he suggests more alternative forms of transportation, better use of public transit, and also, on the corporate level, a switch from government subsidy to corporate investment in green solutions to energy usage.

Fücks acknowledged none of this would happen overnight, but he expressed guarded optimism that the Obama Administration could still produce the spark essential to moving this forward in the next year or so.

Day One: German Energy and Environment Study Tour

It’s early Sunday morning, according to my body. It’s actually 1:45pm where I sit in Germany.

I have just arrived (though I still have to fly on to Berlin from my perch at the airport in Frankfurt) for a series of meetings and discussions on energy and the environment.

The good people with the American Council on Germany have invited me to be part of a group of 12 energy consultants, financial analysts, lawyers, and journalists who will be taking in the German perspective on energy, environmental and climate policy.

We’ll visit with senior staff at the Reichstag, meet with the American Ambassador, and hear from a number of experts (and wannabes, I’ll bet) over the course of the next few days.

My role, I presume, is to blog about this program, the experience, the insight, and the contrast with the United States on these issues.

I anticipate a very fulsome week of meetings and programs, some challenging, some quite likely to be dreadful, but hopefully overall engaging enough to be worth the time of a week in Berlin in the dead of winter.

More to follow. Stay tuned. And ask questions. Glad to be a conduit. Come one come all. Don’t be shy with those questions.

a day in the life, or time wasted in Frankfurt's airport

Arriving in Frankfurt is never a pleasant experience.

And I was not surprised this morning.

Grey skies, cold weather, crisp attendants, mid-field arrival. All the best parts of international travel.

But this is just the start.

I manage to get a standing room position in the front of the shuttle bus to the terminal. After a serpentine route that I think detoured to Luxembourg, we de-bussed (?) and proceeded up a three story escalator. This was all new, as even though I have flown through Frankfurt about ten times, every experience is different.

This time, atop the escalator, we were presented with a number of slots for which to pass through customs. With nary a word, and very little wait, I was allowed in to Germany. Danke schoen.

But there the mystery began.

Arriving passengers were directed to examine the departure board, but my flight, two hours ahead, was not yet listed. Fortunately, my boarding pass did have a gate assignment, so I proceeded in the direction of the ‘A’ gates.

After a 5 minute walk through a non-descript part of the airport, one with the tarmac on one side, and a security entrance with magnetometers and bag check on the other side, I was directed to a very long line. This line, in fact, appeared to be headed towards the security gate. As there were literally no other options, I was compelled to stick in this line, which meandered out of the security space, and hosted travelers (judging by their passports) from literally all over the world. (note to world: you don’t look very good in the morning).

Along with the other confused and air-weary, we snaked through this line for thirty minutes, amusing ourselves with the antics of the Italian family who insisted on getting ahead of everyone, the Japanese group of 30, who managed to stay together and find the longest security line of the half dozen presented to us, and those fellow business travelers who maintained various degrees of attitude during this process.

As I had slept through virtually the entire trans-Atlantic flight, I had been able to pocket the delicious and nutritious snacks and beverages the friendly flight attendants on United had provided. Well, they beverages did not make it through the gate, though I was provided the opportunity to guzzle the contents of my water bottle (note to self: good idea not to fill water bottle with vodka!), and with a nod, was allowed to bring through the 4 ounce already packed yogurt that was United’s breakfast treat.

Bored? Well, the journey was by no mean over. After passing through this security and pedestrian phalanx, I went searching for my gate. Turns out I needed another terminal for the ‘A’ gates, as I was in ‘B’ terminal at that time. So like many other previous visits, I descended three flights of stairs, found myself under the tarmac on a horizontal escalator (can the Fraport people visit O’Hare to see how moving people can be less droll), and into the ‘A’ terminal.

Before finding the entryway to ‘A’ I saw a host of people having to goo through yet another screening in the ‘B’ terminal. Anticipating this ignominy, I have to admit a bit of relief in finding my arrival into ‘A’ terminal to be uneventful. Took an elevator up the three stories to my level, and once the doors opened, I was welcomed by the familiar sights and sounds and smells of a modern European airport.

And it is there, amidst the free newspapers (there’s a way to save the US newspaper industry, compel the airlines and airports to buy truckloads of dead trees for travelers) and morning coke lights and all too omnipresent German hot dogs and severe hairstyles, that I found some space near a window, sat down with the grey sky as my backlight, and reviewed the waste of the past 90 minutes of my life.

Should I send the Reichstag the bill?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What to do with 3+ hours at O’Hare, 12-3-10 version

Well, it is definitely a familiar place. And certainly even more so this morning.

Following a dreadfully early flight out of the dust belt and cow country (all meant with the most sincerety and flattery), a similarly early arrival at O’Hare fails to produce the inspiration felt previously, on the outbound part of this journey.

Instead, there are just observations of my surroundings.

European travelers with two infants, and one grandmother.
Tattooed and muscled (tattoos painted, muscles sculpted) twenty-something guy with unusually appealing twenty-something girlfriend. It’s 20 degrees outside, but this couple is showing skin. Must be heading south, or southbound.
Young men sip beer (it’s 10am, dude!) at the bar, while middle age women savor rum and coke.
Pilot in civilian clothes working through a paperback.
Older teen from unknown country (Moroco, Italy, Bulgaria???) sleeping mouth agape against a backpack that seems to be carrying all his worldy possessions (this passes through security at TSA? A backpack the size of a water cooler?)
Beefy and gray 40-something men wearing sweats and signature sports apparel, high fiving and hugging a Chicago cop on the beat, as their similarly attired 14 year old sons, one with a Mohawk, effort to pull of the carelessness that would come natural if they were really cool, and not just the stereotypes of the dumb HS jock.
A 60 year old couple, each nattily dressed, clipped, packed for travel, silently reading their respective Kindles.
Young women of varying ages wearing black tights in lieu of other lower extremity toppings, apparently unaware of the public appearance of their own limited fitness.

All the while, maintenance men circle the gates, retrieving what little waste has been created pre-lunch hour, ignoring the absence of any recycling boxes, newspaper drops, or glass/plastic bins.

The airport version of CNN streams on one of the overhead monitors, reporting President Obama’s surprise trip to Afghanistan, alongside reports of a still faltering economy, and questions about what the Congress will do about extending Bush era tax deductions.

It’s all very familiar, and yet probably strange to those who don’t have to frequent the airport.

And it’s all a bore, as it’s dead time, time that could have been spent reading, or writing, or traveling, instead of blogging about people at O’Hare who also find themselves in a temporary holding pattern.

And this cycle will repeat itself, quite soon, I’m sure.

a day in the life, at O'Hare airport, 12/1/10

Shit, I’m back in O’Hare.

OK, Apocalypse Now humor might not apply here. Better yet, it doesn’t apply now. Check with me if I’m stuck here another 24 hours from now. But don’t think that will happen. It’s a grey day, but not much precipitation, and flights are coming and going here. I should be en route to Oklahoma City on time.

There’s a familiarity with O’Hare. Anyone who travels shares that, I’m sure. For some it’s the lines, which swamp gates and arrival/departure boards every so often. For others it’s the food kiosks. Where else can you get coated nuts in an airport. What’s with Nuts on Clark anyway? For all of us, it’s the distance. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a connection in the terminal in which you arrive, you’re going to walk. Today, I walked from the end of the ‘B’ terminal, under the tarmac, and over and across to the regional terminal, to the far end of the ‘F’ terminal. This was an 18 minute walk, about a mile. That’s a lot of ground covered, and I didn’t stop at any point along the way.

For me, the familiarity with O’Hare comes from the architecture. Those repetitive yet simple and clean steel arches that support and lift the main terminals, at least the United terminals, are very soothing. They seem to smile down on you, guide you like a beacon towards your destination. They’re like stars in the night. Wherever you are in the terminal, when you look up, there they are. And they are as far as the eye can see, at least because this terminal seems terminal, and endless.

The straddle and cover food courts, restrooms, and a range of kiosks. So they top over crap, and junk, and spaces mostly passed right by. But they cover us, shielding us from the glare of the sun’s rays, or the bite from the winter’s wind, or the bluster of a snowy burst. And they’re just there. And they’ll be there when I come back through, reversing my course, in a scant 48 hours.

And they’ll provide the same reinforcement, and the same familiarity, and hopefully will provoke the same sensation.

We’ll see.