August 2010
    Just came home to California after 3 weeks in Germany with the family. Here’s
what I learned:
                                  
    Stumbling off the plane in Dusseldorf after a 9 hour flight- (husband) Thomas
and I juggled bags, stroller, baby EJ in her car seat, and 8 year old Allie. None of
us slept on the plane.  Least of all EJ, who seemed determined that no other
passengers should sleep either.
    
     First thing we noticed, walking down the gangway- it was hot as hell.  Germany
was in the midst of a heat wave.  As it turned out, the heat lasted the entire three
weeks we were there, and it was called “unprecedented” in strength and duration.  
Just another sign that the global climate is shifting faster and harder than most
people are willing to admit.
     
     Anyway, in a herd of passengers, we trooped along hallways and down stairs to
the passport control area.  The ceiling was ripped open. Big fat silver snakes of
ducting running this way and that promised climate control at some point in the
future. Meanwhile, we waited, and we sweated, like packed animals, for our
passports to be processed.
   
      Now, baby EJ’s passport is, unfortunately, mico-chipped.  All new U.S. passports
are now, and the reason for this is, which I quote from the State Department, “The
electronic chip in the back cover enables the new passport book to carry a duplicate
electronic copy of all information from the data page. Use of the electronic format
provides the traveler the additional security protections inherent in chip
technology.”  
    
     Huh?  Exactly WTF
are the additional security protections inherent in chip
technology?  
    
     There’s also an enticing statement about moving quickly through passport control
with this chipped passport- processing is done by electronic readers instead of
waiting in lines quite like the cluster I was standing in.  And yet, within the forty-five
minutes we waited while German authorities scrutinized every non EU passport, I
had plenty of time to look around.  There were no electronic passport readers.
    
     Finally, we made it outside. The Dusseldorf airport is a madhouse.  In the mob of
milling people and honking cars, I spotted a cab big enough for all our crap and the
four of us. I spoke to the driver in German and arranged transportation to the town
of Ratingen. He was surly. He communicated in nod and grunt and avoided eye
contact.  I was wondering, maybe he doesn’t want to take us, maybe it’s too close, or
too far, or we have too much stuff, maybe he doesn’t like Americans.  
   
      Because I went to Germany every year when I was a kid and stayed with my
grandparents who didn’t speak English, I learned to speak German fairly well.  I’ve
noticed things changing over the years- notably a huge shift in attitude toward the
USA.  Germans used to love anything American.  They still talked about how the
Americans “saved them” during the war by winning against Hitler. My Mother’s first
taste of bubblegum came from a US soldier, who also gave her hungry family rations
to eat.  In the seventies and eighties, if people found out I was from the USA, they
would ask tons of questions, practice broken English, and admire my jeans.  
    
     All that changed with President Bush II.  The outrage and sympathy expressed
after 9-11 gradually gave rise to disbelief and then fury as Bush’s policies took
form.  By the end of his second term, I was actually subject to political rants from
total strangers.  They could understand him being elected once, anybody can make a
mistake. But twice? What was wrong with Americans?
    
     When Obama was elected, Germans had renewed faith in the American people.  
But the last time I visited was before the economic crash, so I was ready for
anything. I got into the cab’s passenger seat with a smile for the driver, wondering
what his beef was and why we seemed to trigger it. He ignored me.  Until, that is, I
turned to talk to my husband who sat behind me.
    
     The driver looked at me, startled, and asked, “You’re not German?” When I said
no, that we were American, he beamed, welcomed us to Dusseldorf, then proceeded
to spill his guts for the entire twenty five minute ride to Ratingen.
    
     He was Turkish, a Muslim. First thing he did was apologize for 9-11, saying many
Muslims were devastated by that attack, and that by no means do Muslims hate
America, and how he wished Americans knew that most Muslims were not terrorists
but peace loving individuals.   
   
      Then he told me his story- and why he was so angry became quite clear.  He had
been in Germany for 20 years.  He and his Turkish friends had learned the language,
worked hard, and tried to integrate into German society. But to no avail, they still
felt like outsiders.  He expressed a grief and animosity toward the German
unwillingness to include them in society, for always calling them foreigners,
auslander, even though they had lived and worked there for decades, many doing
menial jobs the Germans don’t want to do.    
    
     He told me many Turkish people eventually give up on Germany and return home,
saying they would rather face economic hardship than prejudice.  Germany is a
heavily Christian culture, he said, and Muslim foreigners were not welcome.  He was
also pointing at the history of prejudice within Germany- most notably what
happened to the Jewish people during WWII.
   
      Now, I’m from Southern California.  It’s hard to find someone without a strong
opinion one way or the other about illegal Mexican immigration, a passionate debate
that rings very similar to this one.
    
     I also have German friends, and I’ve heard their side of this auslander issue.  
What makes immigration more acute in Germany is the socialist aspect of that
government.  The free benefits immigrants get from German taxes are mind
boggling, even by US standards- they are educated, they get health benefits, jobs,
etc.  Many Germans feel that they’re being bled to death for the benefit of the
foreigners.  There is a 19% sales tax on all goods, just for starters, and the
government takes a huge whack of every paycheck to keep up this socialist
government and its benefits.
    
     Meanwhile the cost of living is also mind-boggling by American standards.  We
had a hard time living there for 3 weeks, and we stayed in a private home and not a
hotel for most of that time.  Part of this high cost of living can be traced back to the
reunification of East and West Germany, and the rest is often attributed to the
year 2000, when the Euro took the place of the Deutschmark.  The way the
exchange was done wound up doubling prices for goods and services overnight.  
    
     As a result, in German families, both parents have to work.  If they do have
children, they only have one or two because it’s just too expensive to have more.  The
6 week summer vacation from school is a hassle because parents cannot take that
time off work and camps are astronomically expensive.  Grandparents step in to
help, they each take a week off work to spend with the child, and in this way,
parents patchwork childcare together for the vacation. And because they can’t even
spend time with their kids, they say sacrifice too much for the benefit of immigrants.
    
     Now, factor in how the EU is looking to Germany to help bail them out.  With
Germans working hard and saving like crazy in hopes to retire some day, they have a
hard time thinking they’re going to be supporting countries where the retirement
age is 55.  Countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy are seen as slackers, people who
live in the moment and don’t plan for the future.  It’s a deep rooted part of German
society to save for a rainy day- the poverty after WWII is still fresh in peoples’
minds.  Plus, Germans cite the millions they paid out as reparation for their part in
WWII- so to now ask them to help other countries is causing serious animosity.
     
     One more piece to this puzzle- as a result of the high prices of everything, there
is a healthy black market. People are constantly coming up with ways to avoid paying
taxes.  For example, we got a washer and dryer delivered for my mother’s condo- it
was delivered after 5 p.m., and all cash.  The German government is now actively
working with the EU to block this black market in every way they can- the obvious
way is to eventually eliminate cash from the marketplace.  I heard rumor that the
EU governments are working together on a system where a micro-chipped card is
used for all transactions, like a bank card or credit card, I suppose- so that the
government can keep track of everything and get their taxes.  
    
     And here’s where I perked up to listen, because it seemed to tie my
observations together: German news says crime is a huge issue, that thieves on
crime sprees travel in busses from countries like Poland and former Soviet nations
into Germany, coming in gangs to steal and kill.  Now, crime would drop significantly
in a cashless society- where every transaction is tracked and logged by banks- so
much for selling stolen goods, right?  The idea that outsiders come to steal from
Germans only inflames the already strained relationship between the German people
and the foreigners who live amongst them.          
   
      I smell a setup.  It’s possible that within a few years, the EU will go cashless,
and everybody will be happy about it.
    
     And what about us, here in the USA? What scenario could make us willingly get
rid of cash and the ability to buy and sell without government oversight?
I have a theory…and I’m writing that scenario into the sequel to The Thief of
Sacred.  Stay tuned!