Missives from this corner of Old Europe

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Light on the River Isar that runs through Munich

For quite some time, I’ve intended to change the tagline on this personal blog. I’m not certain how long it’s been, but it might’ve been from back when I started that if you clicked on my site, you’d see:

pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

It was an allusion to the Wizard of Oz, as well as a commentary on the way in which each of us creates our persona online. Essentially, I was saying: read my thoughts here, but please don’t expend any energy looking backstage.

I’ve chosen to live in a country that takes privacy very seriously. Because of Germany’s complicated history with the government surreptitiously observing its citizens, there is a genuine desire to ensure users ability to control how much of their private lives they display. It’s easy to be cynical about such a position, and my friends who work in cyber security would quickly insist that most of what we think of as online privacy is an illusion. However, I continue to respect the lengths to which they go to keep fighting the proverbial good fight. Europeans in general and Germans in particular are earnest about this. Quite commendable, if you were to ask me.

Yet the above tagline no longer works for me. It’s no longer the message I want to get across here. Not remotely. Instead, I’ve decided to take on an entirely new position. Frequently some event will happen hereabouts and I’ll receive queries along the lines of, ‘What in the world is going on over there?

My response is to write this blog as a meta answer to that exact question. The new tagline:

Missives from this corner of Old Europe

Implied in this is my eagerness to take on whatever questions you might have. If you read something here that you’d like to know more about, say something in the comments or drop me a line via email.

Hope you enjoy the new direction, and I’m already looking forward to some lively exchanges.

The Media’s ‘Silly Season’ is Upon us – What the Germans call the Sommerloch

This originally appeared in MunichNOW, which you can find here:

The Media’s ‘Silly Season’ is Upon us – What the Germans call the Sommerloch

We have entered what the Germans call the Sommerloch, which is yet another example of a German word for a situation that we did not even know was needed. Directly translated, this is the ‘summer hole‘, but for some it is more colloquially referred to as the media’s ‘silly season‘.

To fully understand this phenomenon, one first has to understand that many Europeans are on holiday for the entire month of August. Small shops are closed and getting a craftsman to do even the smallest job is inconceivable. Politicians are far away from their constituents, and as a result, there is little traditional news to report . Because these newsmakers are absent, journalists are left to write about topics that would not normally make it into the news.

Several years ago, a lot of both real and virtual ink was spilled to describe Yvonne the wild cow which had miraculously escaped from a slaughterhouse in Upper Bavaria. A few years previously, there was an octopus who could accurately predict World Cup game winners.

One of the most recent examples of such stories we read only last week on the German news site Focus Online. We were alerted to the plans that some Swiss had to annex regions of Southern Germany; culturally and philosophically, the southerners are far more aligned with the Swiss than with Northern Germany, after all.

These feel-good stories would perhaps otherwise be mentioned in the local section of a regional paper, but for a few weeks in the summer they receive unexpected national and even international exposure. Whether this is proper news is debatable at best – and certainly laughable.

In English, we might say that we are having a slow news day. In this case, we have an entire season of it. In Germany, we are right in the middle of the Sommerloch.

Contemplating the Continental Breakup

the idea of Europe

I’ve thought quite a bit about how I’d introduce this topic. It’s complicated and nearly impenetrable. Notice I didn’t say impossible. But many Europeans I talk to don’t know where to begin.

Or they’re so overwhelmed with the whole thing that they shy away from even trying to start. Many people simply don’t want to talk about it.

That’s why I was pleased to hear Ira Glass turn his NPR radio show This American Life over to the people at Planet Money, who would very succinctly and understandably explain the European debt crisis.

They ask the question that many people in the US and around the world have been asking themselves since this situation exploded: Do I really need to be concerned about this? Like the story itself, the answer is more complicated than you might think.

Here’s the podcast:

I know it’s nearly an hour, but the whole situation is explained rather well. Go back, click on the link, and let the story wash over you. It is quite impressively made.

The most telling part of the whole piece happens between 27:50 and 29:40. The guy working in the Greek Statistics Office says that the newly-elected government informed the citizenry, ‘The deficit is closer to 13% not 6% (what was stated by an earlier administration),’ The male journalist’s voice explains that the money had been lent to Greece, ‘…based upon very specific information, and suddenly that information turned out to be very, very wrong. And they wanted to know, “How did this happen?”.

Then the female journalist’s voice goes on:

‘And see, it’s a little hard to answer that question. The Greek politicians explained, “The last guys – they lied to you. It was never 6%. We are telling you the truth. The truth is 13%.” (my note: always be wary when anyone says outright, “We are telling you the truth.”)

But when you ask the people at the government’s statistics office – the very people who came up with the numbers – …they say things like this: “Everyone here in Greece said, ‘What number is this? It’s outrageous.'” Instead of the Greek Statistic Office saying, “We messed up. Here’s what went wrong. Here exactly is how we’re going to win back your trust and make sure it never happens again.” 

No. Instead, the workers just kinda shrugged their shoulders. The government worker says, “Nobody knows.” ‘

The female journalist challenges him abruptly, ‘But you guys work in the statistics office…you’re the first people who would know that, because you work here.’He answers, ‘The people here who worked about this matter said, “We did our job very correctly.”‘

That’s part of the story right there. The people who made the mistakes were human and neither want to point fingers at their colleagues nor admit that they actually did anything wrong.

But now here I am. How do I even begin talking about all of it? Well, what’s most interesting to me is the stereotypes and cultural pitfalls that’re inherent in the whole thing. When they were doing the planning to bring Greece into the Euro, no-one wanted to offend the newcomers. Everyone in the room probably knew that the figures (for Greece‘s application to join the Euro) didn’t add up, but everyone’s feelings had to be taken into account.

 

When I was talking to some of my German acquaintances about this, I started by saying something like, ‘The impression is that the vast majority of Greeks make a game of not having to pay their taxes.’

‘No! That’s not an impression-that’s a fact,’ the German said. ‘The fact is that both middle class and even higher class people there do everything to avoid paying taxes.’ Here’s the thing. Here’s the crux of the matter.

Can you imagine paying your taxes fastidiously and then finding out that you’re paying for an untenable situation in other countries? That even if you dump money into that situation, the other countries’ systems will continue to go on as they did before?

The conclusion at the end of the podcast seemed to be that Germany should try being more like other countries. Or be somehow grateful that it has to bail out the others. It’s sort of a weird conclusion, but I think the Germans might be more willing to accept such a plan if it appeared it would even work.

Just because I live here doesn’t mean that I’m going to argue the German perspective. When I don’t agree with a policy or the direction things are going, then I say something. But all the way through this crisis the conventional wisdom is that in the end the Germans are going to pay. The fact that they’ve dragged their heels or questioned whether paying would do any good whatsoever has been met with outrage. Which is also rather curious.

The other thing here is that it’s easy sitting outside of the situation to assume you know what the players should do. The Hatfields and McCoys look ridiculous unless you actually are either a Hatfield or a McCoy.

What’s difficult for someone outside of Germany to comprehend is the blowback that’d occur if the German government were to accept the demands of other European countries to continue to throw money at the problem without stipulations. Without somehow believing that they were somehow setting up a system that’d make sure this didn’t happen again.

Does anyone (except for those on the fringe of Europe) really believe the Common Currency is going to dissolve? It might be talked about theoretically, but the vast majority of people I talk to can’t even comprehend the failure of the grand experiment that is Europe.

And strangely enough…even with the crisis and the cultural differences and all the other problems that are thrown about in the papers and on the television political shows…even with all of that, I tend to agree with my friends who say ‘How could there not be a Europe?’

How indeed.