Monday, July 2, 2007


June 26, 2007—Bremen
Heiko and I took the train to Hamburg, where he headed off for a morning meeting, looking very lawyerly in his suit. I waited for a bit for the train to Bremen. Nothing particularly exciting about the trip, except how very, very easy it is to get used to good public transportation. Go into a train station, get a ticket, wait a few minutes, and the train comes. For example, I’m writing this on the train to Berlin. It’s a high speed train and the landscape is speeding past. I could plug my computer in if I wanted to. The people range from the businessman opposite with the tie striped in chartreuse and orange—I kid you not—who is typing on his laptop and talking on the phone to the old couple wearing knapsacks, to a group of American college students—from Humboldt State, judging by the sweatshirts (I will check later, even though it will embarrass Miriam (hey, mom’s gotta be embarrassing, right?)). I’m not paying a lot of attention to the landscape—it is familiar from the travels around Hamburg and, while it seems to be a little dryer as we travel east and a bit south, it is still largely farmland with the occasional stand of trees and a river or two. In town, there are buses every few minutes and tramcars as well. The sidewalks are divided for pedestrians and bikes and the center of town has lots of well-used bike-racks. Everyone walks or bikes in combination with one form or another of public transportation. And it works smoothly enough that I hardly even noticed how different it is from driving.
Anyway, Miriam met me at the station with no problem. We hopped a bus to her apartment. It’s on the second floor of one of a set of apartment buildings and consists of a living room, a bedroom, and a small office, which is where I slept. Very different in feel from Ilka and Heiko’s place—smaller, of course, and much more casual in feel—lived-in, I think. Miriam has a garden on the balcony with an abundance of different plants. The living room serves as a dining room as well, but also where the laundry is dried and any family life takes place. The office is crowded with books, included virtually every book that Isabel Allende has written (some in English). The computer was broken—the power supply was gone. It felt like a comfortable home—a good and loving place to be. Miriam said that they would be moving in September, to a three-story condo with more than double the space. This is a good thing, since she just found out that she is pregnant. This is very good news, unfortunately the morning sickness accompanying it is not such good news! Brings back memories long past…
We headed out to Bremen, for what turned out to be a fairly short trip. It was very cloudy and windy, but we walked through the farmer’s market (oh, yes, cherries. I have discovered the Fountain of Cherries—and they are substantially better than US cherries. I bought me some Joanna (I think) cherries and my life was complete. There was a fruit stand in front of the train station, so I found it necessary to get ½ kilo to sustain me for the train ride. They’re gone now), to a restaurant overlooking the town square where I had a salad with sautéed mushrooms and onions on lettuce. Sounds a bit weird—it was terrific.
We spent a few minutes wandering the city before it began to rain. Miriam, with some shy pride, took me into the library so that I could see the exhibition of pictures from her book. She was trained in social work and, with that background, developed and got funding for a project to bring immigrants and native Germans together. She went into ten different districts around Bremen and contacted the residents, then in each district, brought people together to cook traditional dishes, exchange cultures, and ultimately to produce a cookbook, which I saw sold in the bookstores. I will order a copy from home (maybe several!) but am trying not to buy anything while I am still in transit to Israel.
Still raining, so we went into the cathedral. Yeah, European churches and cathedrals. Rose windows, vaulted ceilings, stone and stained glass. How can you not be impressed? Yet the history of these great places is hardly unmixed. Religion doesn’t necessarily matter to the young—Ilka and Heiko got married in church; Miriam and Jan-Ole did not. Heiko’s mother sees the ties to history that religion provides and Heiko and Ilka see the social good it does. Jan-Ole is a deist and opposed to organized religion. I think it would be a great shame to give up the connection to history that religion—in Europe, Christianity of various kinds—provides, but the cathedrals are both beautiful and oppressive. Not to me—I come to them without the Christian history, so I can simply look.
The rain only increased while we were in the church and the wind picked up. Miriam is in the early stages of pregnancy and feeling really godawful. She was trying to be a good host and show me around and I was trying to show appreciation, but I finally gave up and pleaded tiredness, so we went back to her place. That evening she cooked the broccoli-noodle dish she made for us in the States and I was glad to tell her that Miranda still makes it—for herself and for Dan. While I was sleeping, Jan-Ole came in—he is a huge bear of a man, but like many tall and broad men, very gentle. He has a sweet smile and looks at tiny Miriam with such love—and she looks back at him with the same love.
Hamburg and Bremen are very different towns—Hamburg, Ilka told me, has a sense of arrogance about it. I didn’t see it when I was there—it simply looked like a big city—but in contrast to Bremen, I can see it. Bremen is smaller and more artsy, with a feel like Berkeley. Hamburg may have many immigrants, but they were not in the areas that I was shown.
The differences in the cities are real enough, but they are also representative of the people—Ilka is interested in working with children, but not with immigrants; Miriam wants to bring her project to the greater world (she will meet with people in Berlin later this year for that purpose). Heiko is a lawyer for a corporation, Jan-Ole is an occupational therapist, using the power of his body to fix people. Heiko sees no way for someone in his position to take time off to be with a baby; Jan-Ole is intending to do so with their second child. Neither is right or wrong, but are very different ways of looking at the world—and similar to different approaches in the US as well.
What was interesting, too, was that, despite their differences in worldview and despite the fact that Miriam works with immigrants, all four agreed on the problem that immigrants, particularly from Turkey and Lebanon, pose for Germany. They don’t integrate; they don’t learn German; the women are not treated well by the men and the men are arrogant simply because they are men; they don’t work, but get money for the state, and so have no motivation to work.
Ilka was concerned mostly about the lack of integration, while Miriam focused more on the way the women allow themselves to be treated, but both were concerned with the real problems that Germany is struggling with.
The next day, June 27, we went back through Bremen again, looking at the thousand year old buildings, renovated into shops and catering to tourists, at the statue of Roland and, of course, the Bremen town musicians, who were everywhere—donkey, dog, cat, and rooster. What was most interesting was the meeting for a district of Bremen called Tenever. It is a poor area, with many high-rise apartment building where the poor live—which means some Germans, as well as many immigrants. Every six weeks, the organization that Miriam works for—a government project, but different from the book project—holds meetings of the entire district. This includes the residents of the apartment buildings, their landlords, the police, the social workers, people from the schools and so on. The concept is that there is so much money and the people who live in the district can decide how to use it. They have to agree on how it gets used—unanimously—and, in fact, they do. Miriam’s boss is a thin guy, very fiery and charismatic. He gave the impression of including people in the discussion, but there was no question that he was in charge. It was a fairly impressive display—he really kept control, but with the intent of allowing individuals to state their cases. Makes me wonder about how power is used—it almost seems like you need someone in charge in order to create an egalitarian power-sharing. Contradictory, but there it is.
The meeting went on a long time. I could understand not a word—of course! But it was very interesting to watch the body language, to see how Miriam’s boss ran the meeting, to see how similar the personalities were to those I know from the congregation—the man who spoke way too long; the woman who was sure she was being discriminated against; the presentations; the group that came in to make a statement and then left. Eventually, the time came for Miriam’s presentation and then we left, stopping on the way home at a Turkish stand for Turkish pizza. This is like a tortilla in shape, but made of wheat and bit more yeasty. On that base is put a red spicy sauce, some lettuce or red cabbage, sauerkraut, tomatoes, feta cheese and/or meat, and a garlic sauce. It is rolled up and wrapped in tinfoil, just like a burrito—and is eaten in precisely the same way. And it is just as good, though quite different in taste.

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