Birthday in Berlin

This will have to go down as one of the most memorable birthdays ever! I celebrated a milestone (and I dare not say which one) with my RIAS fellows and it was fantastic! The only thing missing was my beloved family and friends back home.
Today started with chocolates, flowers and my very own Beer-stein (mug) at breakfast. At lunch, another fellow treated me to a large basil and cheese pizza (Thanks Shanda:), and for dinner a chocolate cake topped with a sparkle to finish off a delicious meal. I was so surprised, I couldn’t even take pictures at dinner but it was so thoughtful and fun. The learning continued in between birthday songs and treats.
Our first speaker of the day was the senior political editor Mr. Thomas Habicht. He filled us in on German unification between East Germany and West. I didn’t realize that unification at one point, some Germans thought would never happen. After the Soviet sector take over of East Germany and even with the fall of the Berlin wall, some were not prepared for unification. Many lost jobs and currency became void so they had no money and psychologically both sides were unprepared for the future.
Shortly after, we heard from an MP, (member of parliament) similar to our U.S. Congressmen and women.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Klose will soon be retiring from parliament but he said some of issues he would have liked to see settle was something I didn’t even know was an issue in Germany…demographic problems. Germany’s birth rate is very low. Fewer babies are born and the older generation is well…getting older. Fewer people marry in Germany. Some couples stay together for a decade before marriage. Right now the population is about 80 million but in the next century, if more babies aren’t born, it will decrease to about 60 million.
Another thing I thought was interesting, because of the demographic issue…Germany welcomes immigrants. Currently, legislators are working to find out how they can implement religious studies…all kinds of religion…into schools. Educate their children about different cultures. That is completely opposite in the U.S.
We also visited the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. No cameras or phones allowed. We spoke with the U.S. Deputy Chief, James Melville and Ruth Bennett and Peter Claussen.
Mr. Melville explained the duties of the ambassador in Berlin and as I understand it, it’s to keep open lines of communication between countries. The ambassadors are representatives of the American President’s presence in other countries. Most of that discussion was off the record so I can’t discuss it but it was very interesting.
Our last speaker, Dr. Lutterbach filled us in on trade unions in Germany. This was particularly interesting to me because of the unions in my state. Unions in Germany work very closely with companies…large and small. Unions in Germany cannot give political funding to campaigns here because they represent all parties and there are at least four different parties, I think.
Currently, the Federation of Trade Unions are fighting for minimum wage for all workers. There is not a set minimum wage here. They are pushing for at least 8.50 euros/ hour.
Union leaders are also a part of boards of companies. Which I found that fascinating. Gotta turn in…big day tomorrow.
Here are a few of my RIAS colleagues below and a picture of me at the Brandenburg Gate…Napoleon and John F. Kennedy past through these same pillars and a nice ride on the Spree. Prost!

Race Relations, Stasi Prison and Foreign Trade

I will attempt to tell you all I’ve learned today. There was so much, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ll start with where we started.
At breakfast, we were introduced to an American journalist working in Berlin. I remember his first name was Eric and how he ended up making this his home. He told us, when he was a young man he left his home in the U.S. He didn’t have a job in Berlin but here, he was given health insurance. He was astonished! He said he was able to go to the doctor, the dentist without a job and it was taken care of by the government. If you have a job in Germany, health insurance is automatic and even if you don’t have a job. Oh, and by the way, mothers can take up to a year off with their newborns. And kindergarten (German word) starts at age 1 in Germany.
Anyway, back to Eric. He began writing for Reutgers. He became involved with stories on reusable energy. In addition to writing, he and his colleague started a successful business putting solar panels in homes, businesses and schools. Solar energy and the Euro are two major issues here. I remember him saying just one hour of solar energy could produce enough energy for one human for a year. Some side with utility companies and argue that solar energy is too expensive and it takes time to install the equipment.
After breakfast we headed to a Stasi prison museum where we met a former prisoner. The way I understand it, after the war…World War II…West Germany became more viable and alive as it was restored by allies but in East Germany, the conditions were worse. Many Germans kept moving to West Germany, leaving the East to decay. You may have heard that famous line , “There are no plans to build a wall”, weeks later, the wall went up. People began trying to escape. The Stasi captured and persecuted those who tried to leave East Germany. Our guide, Cliewe, tried to escape three times. He spent 18 months in prison because he bought a one way ticket on a train, which sparked suspicion. In those cells, prisoners had nothing but concrete walls and a bucket to go to the restroom. They were tortured and interrogated for trying to leave or criticizing Stalin. Some never knew what their sentences would be. The prison we visited opened in 1946. Very emotional to see the films of the slain Germans who tried to flee before the wall come down in 1989.
We also went to the Foreign Office…I guess you can say…the states office in U.S. I learned more about foreign trade. Last year Germany traded more with China than with the U.S….that’s the first time the U.S. has come in second, according to our guest.
It sounds as if some Germans are hoping President Obama wins another term. Germany and US governmental relations are good. They are in alliance on issues such as climate change and nuclear disarmament.
Lastly, at dinner we met with two members of the RIAS Kommission. Dr. Richard Meng, the press speaker of the Berlin Government and Peter Claussen, public affairs for the US Embassy in Berlin. RIAS is the organization that sponsored this entire educational trip. We discussed everything from race relations to families in Berlin.
I was curious about the minority population, naturally. They said in some parts of Germany…mostly rural…some Germans are not accustomed to seeing Blacks, immigrants, etc. There is a large Turkish population here (considered a minority group) and racism is still something Germany is working on. Some parts of Germany are very much integrated and there are leadership figures who are openly gay. Gay marriage is also legal here. But in other parts, Blacks might be snubbed. Sounds like the U.S. to me in that regard. I thought I was being shooed away because my German sucked (trying to ask for directions). Now, I don’t know. Maybe the two people I asked, at two different times, were just rude. My experience, however has been great and the people…genuinely kind. I wouldn’t change I thing. I’m taking it all in, even the small snubs. After all, I believe America is still working on race relations too.
Check out my Vienne Schnitzel! It was good!!! Especially with my lager but I thought if I put a beer on my work website, I might get called into the office. Hey…when in Berlin.

Germany and America, different or the same???

Another exciting day in Berlin. We visited the Federal Chancellory today, equivalent to the White House back home. We met with one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s top aides. One of her 3 right-hand men. He would be considered the U.S. Deputy Chief of Staff.
I couldn’t believe he took the time to speak with us for an hour. This man was busy running the country but he met with the 12 of us American journalists. It was interesting. For example, the Eurozone…comprised of 17 countries including Germany…is in crisis, as I’m sure you have heard. Germany is the largest and strongest economy of them all and other countries, straddled with debt and weak economies, look to Germany for help (bailouts). the Chancellor won’t leave countries like Greece hanging…even though some think that she should. The euro is stronger now than the Deutsch mark ever was. I asked him, what he thought of America’s debt. He said he thought it was concerning and America at one point was the leading economic country but now our dependence on China is concerning.
I could go on and on with our discussion but I want to tell more about where we went today. We had a delicious lunch at Tucher…a meal, cappuccino then desert.
We visited one of the first TV and radio stations in Berlin, ARD 1. Here, all the news is political news on the public TV station. No Hollywood gossip, sex scandals or rich wives charged with murder or vice versa on this channel. It’s all politics. One of the TV reporters who spoke with us visited a news station in the U.S. recently. She says she couldn’t believe that in America, journalists could obtain police records and personal records of others. In Germany she says, privacy laws are very strict. And famous tv personalities don’t make the 17 million dollar salary that Matt Louer makes. Highest earning, maybe a cool million. I could live with that.
One more thing, we saw the Reichstag parliament building, I would say that’s equivalent to our congress. It was incredible. Names of the MP (members of parliment) who were killed during Hitler’s reign are recognized throughout the building. The Reichstag’s glass dome was phenomenal (last picture)! When you reach the top…which spirals towards the sky…you can see all of Berlin. Until tomorrow.

I have arrived!

First day in Berlin.
I’ve met half of the RIAS crew at the hotel and our helpful instructor and guide, Rainer, on this journalism exchange program. First thing first, we found a cafe.
Later we split up to do some sight seeing. Some wanted the market, the Brandenburg Gate, others wanted museums and some wanted to sleep. I went for Museum Hall and what was the Berlin Wall. It’s 5:50 in the evening here…about 11 a.m there, I think. The flight was seven hours long. But it didn’t feel long at all. Flew into Newark from KCI and from Newark all the way to Berlin.
I watched Snowwhite and the Huntsman on my own little tV in the headrest (ok, I haven’t traveled much) and when I woke up, it was 40 minutes to landing. Nice view outside my window. There’s a huge hot air balloon. Everyone bicycles everywhere…kids in tow, women and men in business suits. Learning and classes start tomorrow.
Later, Heather

Time to Go!

Well, here I go again. Trying to do something adventurous…something I’ve never done before. Funny thing about dreaming…you never seem to stop. I told myself, “your time has come and gone”…the time to do things like travel abroad, work internationally and learn a new language should have been done when I was younger. It would all have to wait. Wait until the girls were gone to college or wait until I had more money. I just thought it seemed impossible and I would just pour myself into what my family needed…keep working and stay afloat, pay the bills. But when I learned about RIAS/ RTDNA and the American/ German journalism exchange program, I started dreaming again. Dreaming of becoming that journalist I’ve always wanted to be. One that was well rounded, well traveled and one that could write from a different, broader perspective. And even better when I found out it was an all-expenses paid trip, for two weeks! I’m so grateful to my colleague…Clare for introducing it to me. I researched for my essays, told the heartfelt truth about why I wanted to be chosen as a fellow for RIAS and nagged others for recommendation letters (Thanks Brenda:) and waited five months for a moment I’ve been waiting for since I began my career as a reporter 17 years ago. Here I am waiting in the airport lobby to board a plane to Europe. I hope you join me to Berlin, Brussels, Prague and Dresden. I want to share everything with anyone who will read it. I love it when my children experience something new…like when my 2 year old saw Tigger at Disneyland for the first time. I thought she was going to explode with excitement. I think that’s about how I feel at this moment. And this is just the beginning. Here I go!