NATO visit, Brussels

As we flew over rows and rows of trees into Belgium with the dusk sun peeking through the clouds, I suddenly became overwhelmed with emotions. I felt like pinching myself to make sure I was really here, flying across countries, visiting places and seeing officials I only heard about or read about. I hid the tears from my crew by looking out of the window (now they will know). My RIAS crew have all experienced over seas traveling. Each one has gone somewhere abroad, but for me this was my first experience! I was just so thankful to be chosen. Thankful that I could see the things that I’ve seen and that I am able to tell others about RIAS.
I purchased my passport six years ago and always hoped that someday I would use it. I’ve used it more in these two weeks than all those wishful years. Get your passport now! You never know when a colleague might whisper in your ear about an exchange program in your professional field or do your own research to find a legitimate organization. This has been well worth it! Before I log off for the night, I want to share more with you about Brussels.
Yesterday we spent the day at the European Commission. We heard from officials about the countries that form the European Union, the Euro zone and the and role of the commissioners. We sat in on a live press conference in the EU press room. It reminded me of the White House briefing (not that I’ve ever been to one, but I imagine that’s what it would feel like). It was presented in two languages, French and English. We wore headphones for the translation.
Today we spent the day and lunch at NATO’s (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s) headquarters in Brussels. I could only take a picture from the bus that NATO sent for us. No cameras, or cell phones allowed inside. This was one of the most interesting seminars.
We spoke with NATO officials about NATO’s duty to keep the bonds between nations and defend each of those nations against attacks. I learned that there are 26 countries along with the U.S. and Germany…that are members of NATO and 22 countries including Russia that are partners with NATO and there is dialogue going on with several others.
I learned so much about Afghanistan and how NATO is working with the country to build and maintain a security and police force there.
Right now, even though there are other operatives going on such as Kosovo, and Operation Ocean Shield concerning piracy, Afghanistan is the top priority. A NATO official who spoke with us stated that they hope to achieve the goal of Afghanistan taking control of its own security force and police force by 2014. NATO also wants to make sure Afghanistan will never be another safe haven for terrorists.
But this will take time and NATO says it will continue advising, assisting and training troops for Afghanistan.
It was fascinating to listen to this because I understood it better after I was able to ask questions.
NATO also talked about its missile defense concept and the recent summit where they discussed ways to bring all nations within NATO under the same model of weaponry defense.
I thought it was going to be difficult to understand, but our NATO speakers were great.
Our last day will be a trip to Bruges. I’ll have one more entry for you. Until then…

Radio Free, last day in Prague

Our last visit in Prague was to the offices of Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, RFE/RL.
It’s a radio, television and Internet not for profit service funded by the U.S. These journalist risks their lives to provide radio, tv broadcasts to countries that ban free radio. Journalists have been murdered, kidnapped, jailed, threatened, their families threatened because they provide informational broadcasts to places that restrict what’s on the public radio. Our guide mentioned that she remembers her father climbing to the tops of mountains to get a radio signal that gave the facts and not propaganda.
There are bureaus all over including Russia, U.S., Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan. I felt privileged to be among these journalists who believe in what they do. Bringing justice and information to people who would not otherwise here the truth. Pictures were not allowed inside. But the website is http://www.rferl.org.
We had quick lunch at Nota Bene, an authentic Czech cafe which was delicious, (see photo me and another RIAS fellow) and we’re on a plane to Belgium. Until then…

In Prague!

The images below are real. It looks as if I’m surrounded by palaces. The cobblestones streets of Prague in the Czech Republic leads you through narrow roads of apartment homes and cozy little cafes. Prague is busier than the other cities we’ve visited. Dresden in Berlin had an older crowd, here in Prague…lots of young people.
Our first appointment, after the 3 hour bus ride from Saxony, was inside the German Embassy in Prague. Maike, the press secretary showed us the gates where nearly 6,000 refugees from East Germany camped on the grounds for weeks.
It was in 1989, East Germans were trying to escape to freedom and went to the German Embassy in Prague for help. It was heartbreaking seeing mothers trying to get their babies and children over the steel gates and into embassy territory to escape East Germany. The yellow building in the first photo is the balcony of the embassy where the secretary of state made the announcement to the Germans telling them they were free to leave the embassy and enter into West Germany. Many people had know idea how they would start their new lives as free people in West Germany, they just knew they would be free. They left everything behind. There’s a video on-line…if you search Genscher, Prague 1989 you should see it. After our visit at the embassy we strolled through the streets of Prague.
A castle that’s at least three to five blocks long sits at the very top of the hill. The city is picturesque and people are moving, walking fast. I see more cars here than I did in Berlin where it seemed everyone was riding a bike but still people do a lot of walking here.
Tomorrow we visit Radio Free Europe. Only one night in Prague, so tonight we feast!

A unique factory, a Jayhawk in Germany!

Dresden, Saxony in Germany is also the home of one of the Volkswagen manufacturers. But the one we visited today was unlike any other factory. Here, Volkswagen produces the Phaeton. A luxury line of cars. These cars are made only at the customers’ request. You won’t find a parking lot full of Phaetons. Leather interior and a fridge in the back seat is standard! One customer put a 19″ TV screen in his Phaeton! And they showed us the raw wood from which the paneling comes from. It didn’t even sound like a factory. They call it the “transparent factory” and its green environment feels like an office. I mean, have you ever seen a car factory with wooden floors! It smells like a new car inside the factory. A Phaeton price range starts at 67, thousand Euros and can cost up to 105 thousand Euros ($130,000 U.S. dollars) and currently their biggest buyers market is Asia. Volkswagen presented the Phaeton in the U.S. market in 2006 but discovered that Americans were more interested in SUV’s so they pulled the Phaeton out of the U.S. and introduced the Toureg instead. They employ about 500 workers all of them are from the state of Saxony. And the crew on the line has a minimum of three years experience. The line moves very slow and workers have 12 to 16 minutes to put in their specific part. Mostly all work is manual. Very few robots. Here are a few photos of us in our white coats, no goggles or ear plugs. We all got a chance to sit in style in one of these luxury cars.
After our tour, we visited with a professor and currently Saxony Commissioner of Integration over cake and coffee (an afternoon thing here in Germany). When I mentioned I was from the Kansas City market, imagine my surprise when the German professor Dr. Gillo, said, “Rock Chalk Jayhawk!”. He completed his graduate studies at KU and spent 20 years in America. When asked what he liked the most about the states…”I loved Kansas and the people” was among his remarks.
Dr. Martin Gillo, in the last photo, talked about the immigration issues in East Germany. Saxony is in East Germany. This part of Germany has very few foreigners. I mean, 98 percent are white Saxons. I walked the beautiful streets of Dresden and I didn’t see any black people, Turkish people, dark people. Sometimes I felt as if I was in display. Nothing bad, but I caught a few second glances. I saw a few groups of Asians. Dr. Gillo says the state is working on increasing integration but its moving slow. Refugees seek asylum in Germany mostly coming from Vietnam and Russia.
It’s difficult for Saxons to open up to foreigners. Dr. Gillo explained. He says long ago the SS, Secret Service, often followed foreigners, so people stayed away from them. Saxons are not the type of people who will come and talk to you but if you talk to them they will likely open up to you says Dr. Gillo. The former chancellor of Germany Chancellor Kohl would often say, “Germany is not the place for integration!” but the current Chancellor Angela Merkel says the opposite says Dr. Gillo. Recently, Saxony citizens completed a research survey and were asked if they wanted to change things and open up to integration or do they want things to stay the same…56 percent said yes. But the other 44 percent wanted things to stay the same. And its worse in rural areas.
Saxony is the first state in Germany to implement a migration program. The state is working on better conditions for refugees to become German citizens by changing the laws so they can work in this country upon arrival instead of waiting a full year. Also, allowing refugees to live in apartments other than the dormitories they are required to live in today. This was among one of the best speakers I think we’ve had. Not because he was Jayhawk but because he helped me to understand Germany a little better. Tomorrow, we leave Dresden and head to Prague. More to come…

Dresden, Saxony…gorgeous view

Dresden is a remarkably beautiful town. It’s the capitol of the state of Saxony in the country of Germany. Unlike Berlin which is a city/state.
It’s hard to believe that most of the town, well practically the entire town, had to be rebuilt from the ground up after World War II. Our tour guide, Tom Ehrlich, who could definitely serve as Brad Pitt’s stand-in, showed us pictures of what Dresden looked like after Russia’s air bombings in 1945. Thousands were killed and the town was leveled with merely shells of buildings left standing. It has taken nearly 70 years to rebuild. Some of the buildings finished as early as 1993. Masons used what pieces of sand stone were left to try to reconstruct Dresden to its original version. But you can tell where the original pieces start because of the black sand stones on the statues and brick moldings. Every corner warranted a picture. It was that cool! Unfortunately, I haven’t learned yet how to post them all.
Below is my group, RIAS Fall 2012,(good looking crowd,huh) sitting in one of the “chill out” houses of King Augustus the Strong’s courtyard. He once held a wedding for his son which lasted 30 days. I’m sure there’s more things important to remember about him but the one thing that sticks out in my mind was that he had a beautiful mansion built for one of his many mistresses with a bridge connecting it to the palace. With his Queen in the palace! Then on the other side a bridge connected to the church. In the words of our tour guide, “I call that rude!” :) My sentiments exactly.
Our evening ended with a traditional German dinner and our guest was a professor of economics and former mayor of Dresden, Dr. Georg Milbradt. He talked about the Euro Debt Crisis in-depth. It seems parliament has a different opinion than Dr. Milbradt about what to do with debt laden Greece. Dr. Milbradt, from what I gathered, believes Greece should put a tight belt on its spending and work themselves out of the debt situation rather than depend on Germany or other countries in the Euro Zone to bail them out. Taxing others to pay for Greece’s irresponsible leaders…who he says ignored warning signs…bothers some Germans. On the other hand, the countries started this treaty with the intent to unify. They are one with one currency. Together, the euro is strong. And if they turn their backs on Greece and the people who are reeling from unemployment and uncertainty then what does that say about why the Eurozone was formed in the first place. I don’t know.
I’m still learning about all of this but I can keep learning over a hot plate of German food. We visit the Volkswagen plant tomorrow. Till’ then…

Bye to Berlin, On to Dresden!

This is our last day in Berlin. Tomorrow we take a bus to Dresden to the Volkswagen Factory and later to Prague and Brussels to NATO.
But I have to say my last day in Berlin was a both somber and fascinating day. All of these emotions!
We took a bus to Potsdam. This is where the “House of Wannasee Conference” mansion still stands. It’s the place where plans were drawn to murder all European Jews. We read the actual documents drawn up and carried out by the Reicht and the SS, Secret Service. They discussed killing methods…gas or executions. How to deport Jews. It was all written down by governing officials.
Our next meeting house was after Hitler’s dictatorship and allies took control of Germany. We visited the Cecilienhof Palace. Cameras were not allowed inside. We saw a huge round table where the treaty was signed by then three leaders…President Harry Truman of United States, The Soviet Union leader and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They made the decision to divide Germany into sectors. It was decided that United States, Great Britain and France allies would take over West Germany, the Soviet Union took over the East. Thus became a country divided…East and West Germany.
We then went to a palace…the home of King Frederick the Great…Sanssouci. It is the yellow brick palace below and it was beautiful. And this was just his summer home! We toured the garden and saw where King Frederick was buried.
The last half of the day we were to explore on our own. I chose to visit the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The large gray rectangular stones represent a mass grave of millions of slaughtered Jews. Underneath the stones, there’s a museum where cameras weren’t allowed. This was very emotional. My heart dropped as I read a letter from a 12 year old girl who decsribed how children were being executed. It was taking longer than the German police had expected. Some of the police would run out of ammo, so the children waited and watched as the officers reloaded and killed more children. Their bodies fell into a pit. This little girl wrote a letter to her father while she waited in line to be killed and threw the note to the side before her death. It was only a few lines detailing what was happening but the words that I remember most were, “I’d rather live but I cannot.” She along with six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
There were many stories like this throughout the memorial. Mothers killed with their babies in their arms..babies left to starve to death in the pit.
It was so troubling and unbelievable that it was hard to read. But at the beginning of the tour, you understand why you are there. To never forget. At the entrance a quote from Primo Levi reads, “It happened, therefore it can happen again”.
I feel forever changed.

Blind Date, Real Life

On this day we got the chance to see real life in Berlin.
We walked one of the districts in Berlin called Kruezberg. It is one of the areas with the highest unemployment rate and most of the residents are of Turkish descent. Their district representative, Mr. Ozcan Mutlu, walked us through the area. He is of Turkish descent and fights for equality and civil rights for what is considered the minority population in Berlin, the Turkish. This was a real eye opener for me. After visiting with officials in parliament and the foreign office, I had the impression that poverty and discrimination were minimal but I saw the poor, the homeless people in Kruezberg today. Mr. Mutlu told us about a case of discrimination that his office fought against. Parents wanted their German children separated from the Turkish children in the classrooms and the principal granted this request. Even though the Turkish children were born in Germany but because they were Turkish, they were considered “not smart enough”. This happened recently…not ten, 20 or 30 years ago. Mr. Mutlu says he spoke out about the unconstitutionality of such a request and helped others put an end to the segregation in that school. But he told us, he was only able to because someone spoke out. He’s concerned that the same thing could be happening in other schools.
It was something I wasn’t aware of and I thank RIAS for showing us real life in Berlin, the good and not so pretty.
We also toured one of the cable news stations, N24. This is similar to our CNN. I was under the impression that all news channels were only hard core news channels. But I learned differently today. N24′s target audiences are ages 14-49. Mostly young people watch N24. Older people, 63 and above, watch ARD 1…the other newsroom we visited.
Something that I learned which was a shock…during campaigns, those who are running for elections do not pay for ads (commercials) for TV time. What! They place ads in order of who had the most votes during the last election. And finally…
Yes, I went on a blind date but my date was married with two children. Not a real date, I’m married too.
This is the one night that RIAS pairs each one of us with a person who does the same job as you in Germany. We don’t know who they are until we meet them and vice versa. My date was wonderful! Her name is Katharina Kroll, a correspondent for Hauptstadtstudio here in Berlin. She was just as kind as she was funny. And she had a sense of humor, check out the gift she gave me along with a bottle of wine…it’s an Angela Merkel juicer :). She took me to her home and I spent time with her family.
Her two friends, who are also in our field, joined us at a fab restaurant called Jolly. We talked about everything…women working, balancing working and motherhood. They were very interested in politics and the upcoming presidential elections. Katharina was surprised that I did stories everyday. She says, she gets a few days to write a piece. I was privileged to have met such warm and welcoming people. I gave her a book of some of my favorite places in Kansas City…the jazz museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. And coffee that I bought at the Kansas City store. Her son plays baseball, so I think it was a hit.
She gave me all of her attention and a girls’ night out that I will never forget. Here’s to new friends and new experiences.