In April 1969, I made what, in retrospect, was the biggest transformational step of my life. I left the USA for a “junior year abroad” in Kiel, Germany. I ended up staying out of the country for three and a half years. When I finally returned, I wasn’t satisfied living in Georgia, Alabama, or Florida any more. Within a year of returning from Europe, I moved to California to study Indian music there, and I never returned to the South to live.
That leads to the second biggest transformational step, which was defined by my first (of many subsequent) trips to India in 1971. The experience of living in such a totally different culture, along with my discovery of my love for Indian music, changed me forever. My love of world music and my passion for travel were initiated by that first overland trip from Europe to India.
I’m writing this blog from Germany on the occasion of another reunion of the friends I met on that first trip to Kiel, Germany. It’s amazing that the friendships initiated during those years have endured so long. We started meeting every two years over a decade ago. The last reunion in Kiel was in 2008. At our reunion in Reno, Nevada, in 2011, Susan said, “You guys are getting so old, that you better start meeting every year.” In 2012, we met in Tuscany, Italy. In 2013, we met on the island of Poros, Greece. Now, here we are again in Germany. Next year in 2015, we hope to meet in Salt Lake City.
As I traveled to Germany this time, from Detroit, Michigan, I reflected on how easy it was for me this time compared with that first trip back in 1969. Then, I might as well have been traveling to the moon. I knew nothing about where I was going. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know anyone there. I put up a brave front, but deep down I was terrified by my insecurity and ignorance. Now, I just get on the plane and get out at the destination, reconnect with old friends, and feel secure speaking the language. What a difference forty-five years has made!
We call ourselves the KOF’s…the Kieler Old Farts. Our initial meeting this week was at a Greek restaurant in Kiel. Not every one of the KOF’s attends every reunion. One good friend was in attendance this week that I’ve seen only a couple of times since the early seventies. We were thirteen people at that dinner. One notable feature was that the Greek-born waitress took all of our orders remembering them without writing anything down…very impressive. We kept the restaurant open until after midnight, despite their normal closing time of eleven. This was enabled, no doubt due to our Greek member Dimitrios, as well as the fact that we continued to order beer, wine, ouzo, and metaxa to fuel the conversations.
One day was spent driving around Kiel looking at the old locations of where we had lived and socialized. Of particular interest was the site of a former old house where many KOF’s had lived. The house had long ago been razed and replaced with a modern apartment building. There was no sign remaining of our previous lives there. The realization is that in forty more years, after we’re all gone, there will likely be no remaining signs of us either!
Some of us had the chance to visit the new biomass conversion factory conceived and realized by my old friend, that “captain of industry” Per. I will devote a future blog to his groundbreaking work when I receive the photos taken by my friend David. (The battery on my camera had given out by the time we got there.) For now, suffice it to say that I’ve made a connection with a potential US partner for development of a similar project in Detroit, a city that is starving for new development projects.
I spent an interesting evening in Hamburg (a city of several million) with Dimitrios at a celebration for the Greek ambassador who is leaving her German diplomatic post after five years. Dimitrios knew her personally, and received two engraved invitations. The celebration was in a stunning pre-war mansion in the ritzy part of Hamburg next to the river. We arrived as the only guests not wearing suits and ties. It was surreal, being surrounded by diplomats, government officials, and mysterious strangers. It had all the trappings of a movie set or a mystery novel, where certain roles were being played to the hilt, such as the Greek orthodox priest in full regalia, and the military officer wearing all his medals. The speeches could have been written for a movie as well. I got a little drunk after four glasses of wine (plus hors d’oevres), and I felt like I was playing the role of being a German, not wanting to stand out as an American. In a noisy crowd I could speak German well enough that I wouldn’t be immediately pegged as an American, as long as I didn’t say too much.
The first German that I befriended in 1969 was Gert. I heard Debussy and Ravel emanating from the piano in the student residence where I lived, and found Gert playing music by these two favorite composers of mine. It was together with Gert that I made my first overland backpacking trip to India and Afghanistan in 1971. Gert remained in India, and afterwards Nepal, for most of the years ever since. He founded a music school in Nepal and continues to travel there twice a year. Now, I’m visiting him at his new home in a rural area west of Kiel in the state Schleswig-Holstein. The landscape is totally flat, similar to Holland, with dikes protecting the low land from the sea and potentially overflowing rivers.
Gert studied tabla (hand drums) in India for many years. He’s also a virtuoso pianist and gourmet cook. In his house he plays a fantastic Fazioli grand piano, an incredible instrument and worthy competitor to Steinway. We’ve improvised together, gone sightseeing in the region, and eaten fantastic meals. Gert is my original model of a “lifestyle artist.” Wherever he has lived (which includes Kiel, Berlin, Bombay, and Bhaktapur Nepal), he has found the best food, sights, and decorations for his impeccably furnished living quarters.
As my blog-readers know, I try to observe, compare, and contrast the foreign cultures I visit with our American culture. Here are a few of my observations on some of the outstanding aspects of German culture:
- Germany is in my experience the cleanest (ordentlich und sauber) country in the world in terms of the lack of visible garbage and the consummate care with which people take care of their houses and yards.
- I have not seen a single electric line. They are all buried underground. Besides making a much cleaner appearance, Germany is not subject to the power outages and expensive repairs necessary after every hurricane, tornado, and snowstorm that damages our primitive American electric grid.
- There are absolutely no billboards and commercial signs to disturb the views along the roads. What a difference that makes in how beautiful the towns and villages look! In the US, only Hawaii has had the wisdom to realize how much our unfettered advertisements degrade our visual landscapes.
- Germany is a world leader in alternative energy, especially solar and wind. They are phasing out nuclear power, following the Fukushima disaster. Per explains that it depends on the mentality of the people. Germans realize that resources (such as petroleum) are limited and thus will become more expensive in the future. Americans, by way of contrast, believe that we are the richest country in the world with unlimited resources, and that our unlimited purchasing power allows us to acquire whatever we don’t possess natively. Therefore, our cars can be huge, we can leave our lights on all the time, we can waste electricity, gasoline, and water our whole lives without consequences.
- Germany has confronted the sordid chapters of its history better than any other country I can think of, with the exception of South Africa. Germany has paid reparations to holocaust survivors. The Holocaust Museum in Berlin takes an unflinching view of the cruelty of the Nazis, as well as the existence of historic anti-Jewish sentiment for centuries before. My German friends are very aware of what their parents or grandparents did during World War II. We’ve had interesting discussions, which have reminded me that we Americans have not been as pro-active in confronting our native racism, as evidenced by the current anti-immigrant sentiment within a large part of society, as well as the racism expressed against Obama and African-Americans in general by the enduring white supremacists, such as the so-called libertarian “patriots” that are against everything the government does.
- The German government supports its culture. I heard that the municipality of Berlin spends more on the arts than the US government spends for our whole country. Certainly, Germany’s symphonies, ballets, and opera companies are among the best in the world. They are a source of national pride, equal to the pride in their soccer team currently competing in Brazil. They will meet the US team next week and are favored by the odds-makers.
- Last but not least, I think Germany has the best most delicious varieties of bread of any country I’ve visited. The cheese, sausage, beer, and wine selections are excellent as well. After all, Germany is bounded by France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Switzerland…all countries famous for their culinary traditions. The German palette is more sophisticated than the American, due to the wider variety of foods and traditions. By contrast, the American food and drink palette is “basic” and simple.
Ultimately, it’s the friends one has that make any place attractive. This applies to Sweden and India as much as Germany, the three countries where I’ve spent extended periods of time. Being hosted by local friends gives one a much better impression of a culture than one could ever obtain as a common tourist. Speaking the language helps immensely as well. I would probably enjoy many countries, given similar circumstances. But for me, seeing old friends is certainly the best aspect of foreign travel.
This coming week, I’ll be visiting Sweden. Stockholm is a mere hour’s flight away, just like flying from Reno to Las Vegas.
A reflective self portrait showing the view from Gert’s living room.