In School in Germany: Is President Obama too American?

Frage für das Forum:  Is President Barack Obama too American or too International?

Two years left until he finishes his second and final term as President of the United States and soon, we will be looking at the legacy of President Barack Obama. Once loved by many Americans and Europeans alike because he was a symbol of hope in the midst of the second worst economic crisis in the history of the US, he is now a target of criticism from the same people who voted him into office.

Here’s a latest example which will provide room for discussion at home over the Fourth of July weekend and latest when social studies teachers talk about his legacy in the classroom:

During the final exam at the Gymnasium where I’m doing my practical training, also known as the Abitur Exam, as it is the key exam needed for entrance to college, one of the students took part in the oral portion of the exam (consisting of both written and oral parts) in the subject of English, and was asked about how she thought of Barack Obama and his presidency. After mentioning the positive aspects, such as health care, employment programs and stricter environmental policies, the negative aspect she pointed out was the fact that Obama was too “American” because of his support of the NSA activities- Spygate- which has damaged relations between the country and Europe.

Too American?  And on the US side, he is considered too much of a socialists, something that is common even on the international scale, if we look at some of the countries that have socialist-like governments, like France, Greece, etc.

In the past five years, President Obama has tried to bring the US and Europe closer together, which includes trade policies, adopting health care and environmental policies, and the like. This has made many Americans feel that he is too international and demand that the US return to the policy of Exceptionalism- every man for himself, no matter the circumstances. Yet from the European perspective, American is trying to exert its influence on the European front, which goes beyond the NSA-Spygate scandal. One of the hottest issues at the moment is the American’s attempts of importing genetically modified foods, which is banned by the EU and rejected by Europeans who have been used to eating organic foods. In other words, the Europeans do not mind what America does as long as they are not forced to do what they want them to do.

This leads to the question worth considering and even talking about: Is President Obama a true American or an Internationalist? Or even better if one wants to criticize his policies and the effects on US-European relations: Is Obama too American or too European, and what are your reasons? Speaking from an expatriate’s point of view, there are enough arguments supporting both criticisms although Obama should keep focusing on the policies at home, as they are still in need of being addressed. This includes the policies involving education, environment, food, and even health care, for the policies passed so far still need some improvement.

But seriously, if you want to judge his legacy and criticize him, which side would you take? Is he too American or too European? Maybe he is just a one-man show? What do you think?  Think about this and consider this question for your next meeting or even social studies class. You’ll be amazed at the different opinions you’ll get.

The Flensburg Files and sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to wish the Americans both at home and abroad a Happy Fourth of July. Enjoy the fireworks and the celebrations honoring the declaration of independence and the creation of a new nation, which took 13 years of blood, toil and tears to make.

We have our man for the job! Now let’s get to work! Thoughts on the US Elections

A replica of his office when he was president located at the Truman Presidential Library. Photo taken in August 2011

What does it take to become the President of the United States? And what does it take to ensure that the man you voted for is elected to office?

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself ever since watching the elections this morning at 4:00am in the comforts of home in central Germany. After voting by mail a few weeks ago, watching the TV debates and then the climax of President Obama taking the swing state of Ohio and with that the elections, all I can do is breathe a sigh of relief and say that it’s finally over. We have the right man for the job. We chose one who will continue his path of patching up ties with our neighbors, fixing a series of systems that are broken down and in dire need of reforms (health care, Medicare, education, social system, just to name a few), and providing Americans and people abroad with a sense of hope in the form of job growth and trade, improving the environment and saving what is left of our cultural and historical heritage, and providing peace and good will both within America and to the rest of the world.

The 2012 elections will go down as the most expensive in modern history, but it will go down as the most vulgar and in the end, the most unpopular among the people both in the States and around the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent to overwhelm the public with ad campaigns, slamming each candidate and providing promises that were empty, miscalculated, and irrelevant to the real problems we are facing. Even the debates between Obama and Romney and between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan depicted a professional wrestling match with each person throwing barbs and flies toward each other. Comparing that to a real wrestling match with the likes of Sara Del Ray and Awesome Kong, they were anything but entertaining.  While Main Street was being plastered with the campaign signs on every building and Rush (fatso) Limbaugh engulfing the radiowaves, it made us feel that we were being forced to vote against our will, when in all reality, we just wanted the facts: Who will handle the issues that affects us? Who will take us out of the worst crisis since the Great Depression? And most importantly, who will make the United States the world superpower like it should- setting examples for our European, African and Asian counterparts to follow?

The decision today marked a turning point. We#ve turned away from the billions of dollars spent on the campaign (almost all of it came out of our own pockets), all the vulgar language that alienated many people regardless of background, and the issues that have cut families into pieces and destroyed friendships and voted for someone who really will get the job done- one who started the process and will finish the job by the time he leaves in four years. We found someone with a great track record, despite the shortcomings, and especially one who is honest and patient, and willing to work with the people on the many issues that we have yet to settle.

The lists of tasks to be completed may be a mile (or 2km) long but if there is one piece of advice to give to the president it’s this: Aim high and let the Heavens take care of the rest.

The Flensburg Files and its sister column, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to congratulate President Barack Obama on his victory and wish him the best of luck in the next four years. No matter how different our views may be, we are right behind you all the way to the end. Let’s hope the opposition will do the same.

Annie’s Kiosk Coming Soon to Schleswig Holstein

Annie's Kiosk in Sonderhavn. Photo taken in May 2010

During my trip to Flensburg in May 2010, I did a pair of bike tours along the Flensburg Fjord, a bay area that is part of the Baltic Sea and enclaves the border city. On one day I toured the south end, finishing up at the eastern most point of the peninsula at Holnis. On another day, I toured the northern end, going through Denmark and biking past many small Danish towns en-route to my final destination of Sonderburg. On the way to the university city of 30,000 I stopped at a particularly interesting fast food stand in Sonderhavn called Annie’s Kiosk. This small stand resembles the appearance of a Dairy Queen ice cream stand  in the United States during the 1960s and 70s and may not seem to offer anything spectacular in terms of its outer appearance. Yet one should not judge the book by its cover, especially when thousands of tourists- consisting of bikers, boaters and passers-by- stop at this restaurant daily. Apart from offering a wide array of typical Danish goods, like ice cream, Annie’s Kiosk serves the finest hotdogs in all of Europe. It is unknown what the secret ingredient of the hotdogs is let alone all the dressings you can put on there. But if compared to any hotdog served at a soccer or baseball game, Annie’s tops them all.

But there is an underlying reason why I’m starting this column with Annie’s. While the restaurant does not have any franchises neither in Denmark nor in Germany, it is possible that an Annie’s may be coming soon to a city near you. But if that was the case, it would not be in Sonderburg, Flensburg or even Schleswig, but in Kiel- the capital of Schleswig Holstein.  A historic moment occurred during the state elections on 6 May 2012. Apart from Peter Carstensen, the former minister stepping down after ruling the state for seven years and calling it quits as a politician for the CDU, a change in guard occurred as the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Danish Party (SSW) managed to garner enough votes to form the Danish coalition. Yesterday the coalition contract was signed and today, the new administration under minister Torsten Albig will take office, making Schleswig Holstein the only state in Germany that has a coalition that is not traditional of the coalitions that are common in German politics (like the Red Green coalition, the Grand Coalition, the Jamaica Coalition with the FDP, etc.).

What makes the SSW different from the other parties in Germany? Founded in 1948, the party, which is headed by Flemming Meyer, represents the Danish minority that is living in the state, as between 15% and 20% of the population have a Danish background. The majority of them live in the former Duchy of Schleswig, which was once part of Denmark before 1866. The region consisted of the western two thirds of Denmark and the northern half of Schleswig Holstein. Since the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the northern half belongs to Denmark while the southern half belongs to Germany with a border located at Flensburg dividing  the two regions. An agreement in 1955 between Germany and Denmark recognized the former region and its minorities and provided exceptions to the norm. Border controls no longer exist. The two divided regions are part of the EuroRegion and take part in cooperative efforts to foster economic growth. The Danish minority is allowed to construct schools in the northern half of Schleswig Holstein, and lastly, in accordance to the state laws of Schleswig Holstein, the five percent hurdle does not apply to the SSW Party. This means even if the SSW receives 3% of the votes in the state elections, they are allowed to participate in the state parliament, which is not the case for any political parties originating from Germany.

So what does the SSW Party have to offer in comparison to the traditional parties and why did the coalition with the SPD and Greens work out? For instance, they favor equality, not only within the gender but among people with ethnic and regional backgrounds. Therefore allowing foreigners to work for longer periods of time, providing equal pay for men and women, and stressing the importance of multi-culture especially among their people, like with the North Frisans, the Danes and the Germans are very important to them. Integration through establishing a general schooling system but providing free education to all are especially important. Unlike this concept, which is based on a Scandinavian model, the school system in Germany consists of elementary school followed by the separation of students into the Gymnasium (high school for those attending college), Realschule (for vocational training) and Hauptschule (for those wanting to work after 10th grade) after the sixth grade year. The party has been pushing for reforms of the education system for many years, stressing the need for education (both in and beyond school) to be user-friendly. The job market must be more flexible and family friendlier, according to their policies. This includes not laying off people in the event of an economic crisis, like we saw in 2008-9 and are still feeling the effects from it, but also cooperating with the schools to allow families to spend time with their children. They do favor improving the infrastructure to make the delivery of goods easier and safer. One of the projects they support is the extension of the West Coast Autobahn A 23, which starts in Hamburg and currently terminates in Heide. Some improvements are being made near Itzehoe but the plan is to upgrade the main highway B5 north of Heide so that vehicles can access the freeway. And lastly, environmental policies is based on the concept of regeneration of nature. That means existing areas that contain flora and fauna should be left alone and areas that were occupied by industry in the past should be given back to the nature. This includes supporting reforestation and establishing wildlife refuge areas.

The three parties agreed to focus on three main aspects during the five-year administrative period they have in Kiel: Social Equality, Education and Energy Reforms.  Unlike the previous regime, where cuts in spending for social and education programs were frowned upon by the public, more money will be invested in programs that will help the residents succeed. The traditional German school systems will slowly but surely be integrated into a general school system similar to the Danish model.  Energy policies will consist of producing more renewable energy than using it, while at the same time, ween its way away from coal, fossil fuel and nuclear energy. Even the underground storage of carbon dioxide was rejected by the public and is not in the program of the coalition. The West Coast Autobahn will be improved and extended, while another motorway A20, which starts in Prenzlau in Brandenburg and currently terminates near Lübeck in eastern Schleswig Holstein, will be extended to terminate at motorway A7 north of Hamburg by 2017.  And lastly, the goal of allowing 16-year olds to vote before the next state elections in 2017 is also on the table. A brief overview of the plan can be found here.

Should the plan work to the advantage of the newly created coalition, it will not be surprising if Schleswig Holstein becomes greener, more culturally integrated and worker friendlier than it is right now. It is clear that these policies will make the state become more attractive, not only to the Danes living in the north but also elsewhere in Germany. Unlike some regions in the northern and eastern parts of Germany, the state has a consistent population growth of 2% annually, but the unemployment is about the same as the national average of 8%. But with this new set of policies to be implemented, it will not only make the northern half of the state with its minorities happy, but also the rest of Schleswig Holstein. And it would not be surprising if one day, we will find an Annie’s Kiosk somewhere in the state, along with the rest of the Danish delicacies, which many of us look forward to when visiting and living in Schleswig Holstein.

 

The flag of Schleswig-Holstein Photo taken in May 2010

Copenhagenization: The contagion that could change the way we think of bicycles

Here’s a pop quiz for you to consider before you read the column further: What is  Copenhagenization and who thought of the idea to begin with?

On road with a rented bike

When I first heard of the term Copenhagenization, it was during the time I was teaching the city planners English at the university and the crew at CNN and its host, Richard Quest filmed a documentary about this subject as part of the series on Future Cities (Link: http://business.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/07/tackling-copenhagens-traffic-with-bicycles/      ).  Basically Copenhagenization, which originates from the Danish capital, is the process of encouraging people to use their bikes on a regular basis instead of the cars, by constructing bike trails in areas needed the most and in many cases, such as wandering through Copenhagen on a sunny day, making bikes available for people to use.  As one can see while wandering through the city, one will see the most basic characteristics of Copenhagen and the much dense bike trail network: bike racks full of bikes in the city center and the railway station filling up a Wal-mart SuperCenter store, six to eight lanes of traffic; two of which are designated for bikes only and 1-2 for pedestrians only, traffic signals for bikes only, and a recent development which Mr. Quest pointed out in his documentary and I can only confirm from my own personal experience, bike jams!
Unlike cars, which clog the streets with fumes from the engine and lots of noise (a major problem in the 1950s which led to the Copenhagen city council to convert the city center into a car-free bike and pedestrian zone and push cars back to the outskirts) bike jams imply that there are too many bikes on the trail, making it impossible to pass anybody in front of you who is going slower than your speed. While the jam was not bad during my time in Copenhagen, it can be potentially worse during rush hour traffic; especially when people commute to places outside the city as well as its Swedish neighbor across the sea, Malmø.
But while biking through the city, I can see with the few cars that are on the streets, the close quarters many of the residents live in, and the lanes that are designated for bikes only, bike jams are only a part of daily life that most people have to deal with.  It is as if people biking to work is the way of life in the city, and from my own point of view, there are many advantages to biking around a city like Copenhagen than by travelling with the car. You can meet new people along the way, reach your destination in the city with little or no complications, and if you’re like me and have a hobby like bridgehunting, you can visit and enjoy the places that clearly belong to your hobby (Please refer to the sister column’s  article on Copenhagen’s bridges for more details).
For me though, while Copenhagenization also has a hidden meaning, which is reduce the carbon dioxide emissions and make the capital a carbon-neutral city by 2025, it does provide people with a chance to get acquainted with the city and its surroundings while at the same time, be awed and amused at the type of bikes that are being used on the city’s designated routes.  I rented a city bike for the day and toured the city before heading to the shores of the Baltic Sea in the vicinity of the Øresundbro-Bridge, going through many villages, like Ørestad, Tårnby and Dragør, and even going through a large section of birch tree forest, which represented a scene from a fairy tale with a white deer roaming through. More on the harmony between nature and city-life will be in a later article. On the way to the foggy shores of the Baltic, I encountered many fancy types of bikes that residents use for getting from A to B and realized that when there is a will to go places (with or without cargo), then there is the bike. Apart from the 2-3 man tandem bike, there is the bike taxi, where the biker transports people sitting in the back seats from one place to another. As far as children are concerned, while parents would place their kids on a seat behind them on the back carrier or on the horizontal frame  in front of them, there are 3-wheel bikes where the compartment is at the very front of the bike-supported by two wheels. One can use the compartment for transporting goods if he does not have a child to transport around.  Others use bike trailers that are attached to the back of the bike to carry their goods around. And then there are the homeless who use their bike to carry their belongings around and camp out somewhere where no one sees them.  No matter where you go, there are bikes everywhere. When taking a break on the bench, you will see an average of 40 bikes passing by in the span of only two minutes! Compared to US or even German standards, that is a lot; especially since Americans are more automobile oriented and Germans are more dependent on public transport. Admittedly though, the trend is changing as more trails are being constructed in both countries (more so in the former) so that more people are encouraged to use the two-wheelers for getting to work and back. It is no wonder why in Copenhagen, two wheels rule the streets!
In case there are some people who think differently about biking and prefer taking the car, one should list the reasons why the car is more convenient than the bike and then look and even ask the residents in Copenhagen (and even the Danes, in general) why they choose the bike instead of the car. When looking at how Copenhagenization is influencing the way city planners both in Europe and America are making the streets more convenient for cyclists and pedestrians and seeing how each town- big and small- are introducing the bike trails in their communities, there are three underlying motives for encouraging biking: cost reduction, improving one’s health and the environment, and most of all, convenience.  While it may be a pain in the popo for those who were accustomed to using the car, in the end when looking at how the Danes treat biking as if it is a way of life and thinking of the long-term benefits, biking is well worth the efforts that are being encouraged by the communities and those who favor them. Speaking from the experience of a cyclist who has been biking in Europe for over 12 years and has seen the expansion of the bike trails over the years, I can say that Copenhagen deserves to be recognized for not only its efforts to encourage people to bike and make it convenient for them to get to their destinations without using the car, but also influencing others to consider making their streets and other areas of the communities biker-friendly. The more bikes that are on the streets and trails, the more people will leave their cars in the garage and take their two-wheelers  to the streets and enjoy a beautiful day, like I did going by bike through Copenhagen.

Photos:

Numerous bikes crowding an ice cream parlor in Copenhagen's city center

 

Bike with baby trail parked in front of the apartment

 

Parked for a visit

 

Bike taxis at your disposal

 

Night on the Town by Bike

 

Eight lanes of traffic at Tarnby (near Cph.): Outmost lanes for pedestrians, followed by bicycle lanes and two lanes of traffic before meeting the center median

 

Cycling in the wildernis outside Copenhagen near the airport

 

 

Rows of bikes at Copenhagen Railway Station

 

Example of a traffic jam at Norreport (Cph)