Why have a German reunion in Salt Lake City?
In 1969, I traveled to Kiel, Germany, for a “junior year abroad” at the Christian-Albrechts University. I ended up staying out of the US for three and a half years, during which time, besides living in Germany, I spent significant time in Sweden, Afghanistan, and India. I returned home at the end of 1972, after the Vietnam draft had been abolished.
Those years in my early twenties were very important to forming my current attitudes and beliefs. I’ve spoken of my realization that leaving Columbus, Georgia, for Kiel, Germany, was the most important single decision I ever made, which changed my life immeasurably. Thus my general advice for everyone: No matter where you’re from, you have to leave. You have to live somewhere else and learn about another perspective, another culture. Then you can come home again (maybe), but your understanding of the world will have undoubtedly changed.
I spent most of 1969 and some months of 1972 in Kiel. During this time I bonded with the other American students there, as well as becoming close friends with many Germans. About twelve years ago, we reunited under the rubric “Kieler Old Farts”, and we have been meeting at locations in the US and Europe every year or two for the last decade. This year’s meeting was just held in Salt Lake City. SLC was chosen because one member of our group grew up there and owns a house there, even though he is the sole American from those early years who remained in Kiel ever since. He is now retired in Kiel and continues to do freelance translation work.
We’ve had previous reunions in Kiel, Tuscany, and Poros, Greece, as well as Remsen, New York, Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. We alternate between the US and Europe for our reunions, in order to alternate the financial burdens. Oslo, Norway, is under consideration for our next reunion in a year or two. It’s a challenge to find a time agreeable to all would-be participants. However, most of the group is now retired.
Typically for reunions, only the happiest and most successful people attend. First, they have to be able to afford the expenses. Second, they have to be free enough of personal dramas to be able to enjoy being with old friends from an earlier time in life. Nobody from the old group has undergone any drastic personality changes. We’re basically the same characters that we were decades ago. And so, much of our time together was spent recalling and retelling our old stories. Recalling history with someone who was there makes those old times come alive. We relive the feelings that we felt way back when…For a few minutes, we feel young again!
Comparing the politics of Germany and America
Of course, we had to discuss current politics. The Germans expressed shame at the rising neo-Nazi movement that demonstrates against immigrants. Germany has accepted more Iraqi, Syrian, and Afghan refugees than any other country. We Americans expressed our shame at Trump’s campaign against Mexicans and Muslims, a sentiment that exactly echoes the propaganda from the neo-Nazi’s of Europe. In fact, the German people have done an amazing job of accepting, caring for, and promoting the integration of thousands of refugees from the wars originally started by America as a reaction to 9/11.
The conversation turned predictably to a comparison of American and European systems. I read somewhere that in Japan, where rice is a staple of the Japanese diet, Japanese-grown rice costs twice as much in Japan as it costs when it’s exported to America and sold here. This is due to the many middle-men in the convoluted distribution system that separates the farmer from the consumer. This reminds me of the American healthcare system. We pay twice as much as Europeans for our healthcare and yet receive inferior care in comparison with many other countries. I have American friends who live in Germany, Sweden, and Norway. All of them prefer their European healthcare systems. Nobody longs for any aspect of the American system. Nobody leaves Europe to receive American healthcare.
The simplest healthcare system seems to be the Norwegian. Last year, Susan and I were given a tour of the main hospital in Trondheim, Norway, by our friend Knut, a former hospital administrator. He explained that in Norway, healthcare is very simple. It is free for all: citizens, immigrants, refugees, even tourists. Healthcare is recognized as a human right in Norway. All are treated for free, because hospital workers, doctors, and nurses, all are employees of the hospitals and receive generous salaries. Higher taxes finance healthcare for all. However, in the US we pay twice as much for our healthcare when we add what our private insurance companies charge.
Germany: world leader in alternative energy
I’ve written in previous years about my friend Per, a Norwegian living in Kiel for many years, and a very successful entrepreneur in the field of alternative energy. I met Per in 1972 in Kiel. We saw each other in California when I lived there, and more recently at our KOF reunions. His most successful company contracts and installs windmills. Windmill power is very popular in Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein, which is where Kiel is located, due to the prevailing winds blowing across the state from the North Sea. There are so many windmills installed in Schleswig-Holstein, that on windy days one hundred percent of the state’s electricity is wind generated.
Germany has no petroleum reserves. Therefore, lacking its own resources, Germany has to import all its petroleum. Any energy that can be generated from wind and solar reduces the amount of the petroleum that has to be imported. Thus, the German government encourages the expansion of the wind and solar industries by legislating that the traditional power companies have to pay alternative power generators (private wind and solar) at the same rate for the energy they add to the grid that the power company charges its other customers for its petroleum generated electricity. This is the exact opposite of what the state of Nevada allowed the Nevada Power to do, which was to charge an extra fee for anyone generating their own power, while paying almost nothing for extra power added to the grid by these private alternative energy producers. This caused the two biggest solar installation companies to withdraw from Nevada.
Gross National Happiness
No country is perfect. Different parts of the world have differing advantages and weak aspects. For example, in the US we benefit from very low fuel costs, low taxes, and abundant resources. We suffer from income inequality, a large poverty-stricken segment of society, rampant gun violence, and the corrupting influence of money (e.g. corporate largesse, lobbyists, and secret donations to buy influence) on the government. Germany benefits from a highly developed industrial sector, a cultural commitment to efficiency and conservation, and being the de facto leading company of Europe (despite what the English or French might think of themselves). Germany suffers from the tensions surrounding the large influx of Middle East war refugees. Indeed, the coherence of the European Union is threatened by the fragmented and widely different reactions by individual members of the EU to the refugee crisis, as well as the possibility of Britain leaving the EU (so-called Brexit).
My wife and I recently visited the isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, which pioneered the concept of “gross national happiness,” which recognizes that material riches do not guarantee personal happiness. Assessing personal happiness as well as general societal happiness requires one to try to take a long-term overview of current trends, especially during an election year, when the electoral result can set the course of history for the immediate future.
Here in beautiful Reno, managing a successful business, living close to wonderful nature, being able to afford to travel, surrounded by wonderful friends, playing music as much as possible, my “gross personal happiness” level is very high. It’s easy to feel insulated from the violence, poverty, and conflicts present in much of the world. Millions of people in the world simply struggle to survive, to subsist through back-breaking manual labor. By the luck of my place of birth, my life has traced a better path. I feel blessed. Because of my travels and meeting people who will never have the opportunities that I have, I feel a responsibility to be as aware as possible of the effects and consequences of my government’s policies in relation to its own citizens as well as to the rest of the world. We, the people, are responsible under our political system. We will have the government and leaders that we choose. We can’t avoid the consequences of our choices on a personal and global level. Choose wisely.