Genre of the Week: The Beauty of What We’ll Never Know by Pico Iyer

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Take a few moments and ask yourselves these questions:

  1. What is beauty in your own terms? Is it what you look like, what you see, what you hear or feel, or is it based on a personal experience that you’ve encountered?
  2. What moment in your life was considered the most life-altering and how did this experience change you in a positive sense?
  3. What place (or person) would you like to see before you die? What about an activity or event?

These questions may be simple from the outside but have an important meaning when looking at them and ourselves more closely. We live in a society where we have a choice between two paths: one where we settle down, have a family, job, house and a set of friends to hang out with, talking about politics and sports and contributing to the good of the community. There is the other path, where you explore new places and experience new things that help you think about the beauty of the world and what it has to offer.

One can jump to conclusions and assume that Germans are wanderers of the world, travelling four or five times a year and exploring new areas, and Americans love to stay put and enjoy the local scenery- especially when looking at the younger generations starting with the ones born in the mid-1970s. However, when speaking from experience, I would go as far as saying that each of us have the urge of being a wandering family- having a partner and a child or two, while exploring both new places as well as our own surroundings.  It doesn’t matter what previous knowledge we have- if we have the urge to do something, we do it for a reason- for trying something new, experiencing the unexpected and lastly, being open about it.

And this is why we are looking at this Genre of the Week, entitled The Beauty We’ll Never Know, a TED Summit talk by Pico Iyer. Born of parents of Indian origin, who were both scholars of their time, Iyer was a Buddhist, born in Oxford, England in 1957,  and after having studied literature at the colleges of Eton, Oxford and Harvard, he started his career as a journalist at Time Magazine in 1982, before moving to Japan in 1992, having been married to a Japanese wife, Hiroko and settled down there, writing full time about life and his travels, while teaching on the side. He has written several British essays as well as those about Indian life, but has written several novels, including the famed Video Night in Khatmandu. He has done a lot of TED talks in the past five years about life and how we should take it for granted, as society has changed to a point where knowledge alone will not help in us understanding the process.

In this talk, he doesn’t talk about his experiences in Japan per se. That is only a side-dish. However, his theme of the talk deals with the way we should take in life and not worry about settling down and letting things happen, for after all, we learn something new every day, including all of the tiniest aspects that we don’t understand as a mainstream societal audience. Furthermore, there is beauty in everything we see, even if we don’t see it right away.   So have a look at the talk and think about the following aspects:

  1. Look at the environment around you and see it from outside the box. How beautiful is it? What aspects do you love about it? What would you like to do to make the environment even better?
  2. What things in life would you like to explore before you die? Could be things, people, places or the like.
  3. What holds you back from going out there boldly and learning something new?

Remember: The best knowledge is what we DON’T know.

For more on his work, please check out his webpage with details on his life as a British author of Indian descent, living in Japan and making the most of life. Pico has spoken many times at TED summits on many subjects. You can find this and other talks here.

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A Bridge Made of Boats in Flensburg

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A Bridge made of Paddleboards was Constructed to Address Attention to Dolphins. World Record expected. 

FLENSBURG- Flensburg has several things a person can take pride in. There is the Rum Industry with six generations of distilleries that are still in business today. There is the home-grown but well-known Flensburger Beer. There is the beloved handball team SG Flensburg-Handewitt. There is the historic city center and churches. And if one looks more closely, one can take pride in the city’s bridges (click here to see the guide).

Yet the city was placed on the map recently for another feat: bridging the harbor- using boats!   🙂

While Flensburg has several yachts, clippers and the steamboat Alexandra one can awe while walking along the promenade, hundreds of spectators this past weekend (July 9th) watched paddle boaters and canoers build a bridge across the Flensburger Fjord.  What was needed were 200 paddleboards lined up side-by-side and one person crossing it from side to side without falling into the icy cold water.  Although only 133 paddleboards were placed across the fjord, totalling 160 meters, the attempt to cross it by one of the two colleagues was a success!

The concept was developed by Ric O’barry of the organization Dolphin Project and his colleague, marine biologist Dr. Andreas Pfaender, as a way of addressing the senseless slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove in Japan. Alone from September 2015 to March 2016, approximiately 2000 dolphins of various kinds have been harassed, rounded up, captured and selected either for captivity at a zoo or the slaughterhouse to be eaten. This statistic alone is alarming and sobering, and it has forced O’barry to address this issue to the public. The feat of building this bridge was for two purposes: 1. To ensure that the public knows about the event and ways to protect the dolphins and 2. To commend the City of Flensburg for their part in handling a recent event involving dolphins swimming in the fjord- a rarity that has garnered national attention.   The idea of a bridge came from the history books, for a bridge was built for a limited time across the fjord in the 1800s.  O’barry, who started the project in 1970, has received many appraisals from his work, yet he was also the subject of criticism by the Japanese government for his interference in the business. Despite the travel sanctions imposed on him by Tokyo, it hasn’t stopped him from addressing the issue on the international stage. While his colleague Pfaender fell into the water in his attempt to cross the bridge, O’barry succeeded and now, the word on the acknowledgement of the Guiness Book of World Records is pending.

Yet no matter the result, the project brought people, young and old together to watch this feat, and has brought the attention of protection of dolphins and other marine life in the oceans to a higher level, especially as the numbers of species has plummeted in the past 15 years to a point where the oceans will have no more fish by the end of this century. It is hoped that an international concert of laws and organizations will put a stop to the fishing before it’s too late. It is just a question of how many more campaigns like this one will be needed to ensure that the issue of fishing and protecting marine life is brought to the international table and kept there until the laws are signed and action is taken.

 

The steamboat Alexandra at its dock.
The steamboat Alexandra at its dock.

 

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And now a row of Fast Facts  for you to read about:

  1. Albeit not listed on the bridge tour guide, the English Bridge was built in 1857 in response to the railroad line reaching Flensburg and its harbor. At 257 meters, the English Bridge crossed the harbor and connected the two railroad ports on each side. It is unknown whether the bridge was a pontoon span or one made of wooden trestles. Speculations are that the bridge was built in the vicinity where the Steamboat Alexandra is located today- and it was most likely the site of the world record feat. In either case, the bridge was removed in 1883 to accomodate shipping traffic. The railroad lines on both sides have been decomissioned for many years, while the eastern branch is to be converted into a bike trail. The western branch is abandoned, but one can see the tracks along the promenade.
  2. Ric O’barry was a dolphin trainer, who trained dolphins for the TV series, Flipper, which ran from 1964 to 1967. The turning point in his life came in 1969, when Kathy, one of the dolphins he trained for the TV shows, died in his arms. Her death was a result of a suicide, when the dolphin drowned in the water. It was at that point where he started the Dolphin Project, which was launched on 22 April, 1970- the same day as the first Earth Day celebration- and has been a success ever since.
  3. Apart from the Taiji incidents, the organization, featuring O’barry, several marine biologists, politicians and volunteers have been addressing the issue of dolphin protection and whistleblowing on several dolphin slaughter activities in the Pacific, including Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of Asia. Yet the Taiji Cove area in Japan is one of the largest issues as dolphins have been victims of drive fishing (mass fishing caused by dolphins being signaled to follow the fishing boats before being captured) and mercury poisoning.
  1. Two dolphins made their way to Flensburg Fjord in February of this year, a rarity that was documented (click here for a summary) and filmed, including this clip. It is unknown where they originated but despite its contact with people nearby, no harm was done to them, nor any known intervention.  The dolphins were first spotted on 7 February, as they escorted two fishermen towards Flensburg before disappearing. They reappeared later after a few days absence before leaving the fjord in March.

 

Many thanks to Bridge of the Week for the information on this project. This article is co-produced with sister column, The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, both proud supporters of this project to save and protect the dolphins. Please click on the links in the text to learn more about how you can help in the efforts.

 

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A Women’s Only Train Compartment?

A Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn Train at Leipzig Central Station awaiting departure to Chemnitz. Photo taken in February 2016
A Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn Train at Leipzig Central Station awaiting departure to Chemnitz. Photo taken in February 2016

 

Imagine this scenario: You travel on a regional train from Leipzig to Chemnitz, but wanting to get off at Geithain for an interview for a teaching post at a local school. The train has seven coaches like the picture above, but are mostly full of passengers. You try to find a seat somewhere so you can practice your presentation to give to the interview panel. You walk through one coach full of children returning to a school in Bad Lausick after a field trip to a popular church in Leipzig. Another coach is full of football hooligans from RB Leipzig as they prepare to crash the party in a friendly match with Chemnitz FC, taking place in the evening, the next two coaches are full of passengers, but one male is spying on a woman in the next coach you are entering, which is full of women and children. The sign says for women as well as children up to 10 years of age only.  You see mostly women occupying the seats, ranging from nuns and teachers to businesswomen and mothers nursing babies. You find it awkward but decide to pass on to the next coach, where you finally find a seat. Two seconds after you sit down, the aforementioned male predator sits next to his prey and pries her privacy open, only to get the “Blauste Wunder seines Lebens”- in other words, the biggest but most unpleasant surprise of his life (I’ll leave the scene up to the women to complete the story to their liking). 😉

Then the light bulb goes on!  Having a women’s compartment on the train is a great idea, but is it really worth it and why?

This experiment is being attempted by the Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn (MRB), where such a compartment mentioned in this situation is being reserved for women and children. Unless granted, men are not allowed to sit in the compartment reserved for this group. The experiment is intended to make the female passengers feel safer while traveling, according to a statement by the MRB. Other countries have similar coaches reserved only for women, such as Japan, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil, Mexico and India, while Great Britain is experimenting with reserving areas of the public transport trains, street cars and busses for women. While the goal is to protect women from being sexually harassed or assaulted, this measure presented by MRB has nothing to do with that, nor the incident on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, where over 1000 reports of women being sexually assaulted were made. Only one person has been charged. The attacks have sparked a backlash against refugees coming to Germany, as many assailants originated from the Middle East and Africa, according to the reports. Many refugees have been harassed and assaulted by right-wing extremists, their places of lodging were set ablaze, and the right populist party Alternative für Deutschland has been gaining success and votes as their anti-immigration policies have gained enormous support and traction.

Yet the idea of having a women’s only compartment on trains have sparked emotional outrage between those who are for such measures and those who consider it absurd. The article and question for the forum posted on many facebook pages including that of the Files’ have been met with mixed results. Proponents of such a measure believe that it would serve as place of refuge against people who are potential predators, giving them a warning of not to cross into their territory unless (….). Some who have supported this either experienced such incidents in person or know someone who has encountered such a person. Opponents claim that by designating areas solely for women would be going back to the age of segregation, where every facility was divided up between White people and Black people only, resulting in the likes of Rosa Parks breaking the barriers on the bus and Martin Luther King Jr. having a dream in his historical speech in Washington in 1963. Some people responded sarcastically by proposing everyone wearing burkas and having a men’s only cars, which had existed in Saudi Arabia until just recently. Others claim that such an arrangement is not enough and that more police protection and stiffer penalties are needed to keep predators and stalkers away. This includes longer sentences in prison and heavier fines. The German government has introduced tough measures to deport refugees committing such crimes, yet psychological counseling is patchy and only a fraction of the population, both victim and perpetrator alike, receive treatment, regardless of country of origin.

This leads to the question of the effectiveness of such a designation in the trains. Speaking from personal experience traveling in the family compartment of an ICE Train such designations are crowded and unwelcomed by “normal” passengers who believe that the safest and most convenient way to travel is by car. A 2011 article explains why (click here). Furthermore, should it be successful in the MRB, how can other railroad providers designate them in their trains, as the newer models are either double-decker InterCitys or sleaker Abellios, both of which have a major caveat, which is space availability, especially if other passengers have bikes to take with (another article written in 2011 on bike space can be found here).  The intentions are there, but better is civil courage either by standing up and saying NO or having others nearby stand up and help by shooing the person away. Then the person should be reported and tough(-er) measures will help him understand the meaning of NO! There are many reasons why women say no, and an article written by a columnist explains the meaning and reason why NO is used and many times ignored (click here)

Inspite of the opinions from all sides, the question will be whether this new experiment will be the norm for all rail services in the future, or if it will become a fad and other measures to protect people regardless of gender and ethnic background. Right now, the experiment is being tried on the trains traveling between Leipzig and Chemnitz along the Black-and-Blue Line, which connects the two with Halle and Magdeburg, each city having a storied history with their soccer teams and rivalries. If successful, it is expected to be expanded to other lines, and eventually to other train services, including the Bahn.

But is it really necessary?

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1. Do you think having a women and children’s coach in the train is appropriate? Why or why not? Make a list of advantages and disadvantages before answering, apart from the ones mentioned in the article.

2. Does your country have similar arrangements to the one being performed by the MRB? How does it work?

3. What measures does your home country have to protect women from predators and stalkers? Have they worked to date?

4.Using the two pictures below, how would you envision a women only compartment? Keep in mind that the double-decker train is an InterCity train with 10-12 coaches and the Abellio is a regional train similar to the MRB but has only one whole coach that can seat up to 300 passengers. Use your imagination. 🙂

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In School in Germany: Teaching Geography

This class is the first of many in the series on topics that should be taught in US schools from the point of view of the teacher observing classes at a German school. The first topic deals with Geography.

OK fellow Americans (and especially fellow Iowans and Minnesotans), before we get started with the subject of classes that should be taught, here are a few questions that you should try and answer.

1. Peaches are an important commodity in Egypt. True or False? If false, what crops grow there?

 

2. __________, ____________, ____________, ______________and ___________ are the  minerals that can be found in Minnesota. Of which, _______________ is still being mined there in the ___________________ Iron Range

 

3. What is the capital of Palau?  aPonce          b. Melekeok      c. Koror                               d. Kauai               e. Kuala Lumpur

4. Honey is produced in Canada. True or False? If false, what is produced there?

T/F   False: ____________________________

 

5. Which country has the highest crime rate in the world? Why?

a. Mexico        b. Germany       c.  USA                 d. Russia              e. China               f. Poland

 

6. Which province in the Ukraine joined the Russian Federation earlier this year and which ones want to join?

a.: __________________; b.: ______________________________________________

 

7. The Rust Belt, consisting of the states of O___________,W___________V _____________, P____________________, and I______________ and the cities of I______________, P__________________,P _____________________,C ________________,C _____________ received its name because of what industry that existed between 1860 and ca. 1970?

a. Steel             b. Tobacco          c. Iron                   d. corn                 e. wood               f. both a&c

 

8. Rice is grown in Iowa. True or False? If false, which US state grows rice?    T/F, If false, ________________________________

 

9. Which Eastern European Countries became part of the Warsaw Pact in 1955? Hint: there are seven countries not counting Yugoslavia?

 

10. Catholicism is the predominant religion in which German states?

 

11. Albert Lea, Minnesota was named after an explorer who founded the region. True or False?    T/F

 

Do not look up the answers, but try and guess at them, either on your own or in the Comment section. The answers will be provided in a different article. Yet if you cannot answer any of the questions, then chances are you should have either visited or paid attention in Geography.  Geography is part of the curriculum in the German classroom, yet it is one of core classes that is often ignored in the classroom in other countries, or are included as a tiny fraction of the curriculum of social studies, together with history, politics, and independent living. Yet one goes by the assumption that Geography is about maps, countries and capitals. In Germany, it goes much deeper than that, as I observed in the classroom during the Praxissemester. This is what a person can expect from a Geography class:

Using a student’s guide, in this case, Diercke’s Geography book, whose volumes consists of regions, the class has an opportunity to focus on a country and its profile based on the following aspects: landscape, population, industry/economy, resources, geology, culture, societal issues, environmental issues, places of interest, and politics (governmental system and its function and flaws).  Each aspect has its own set of vocabulary words pupils need to learn, both in German as well as in English. Each one has its own graphs and diagrams, as well as certain skills pupils are expected to learn, such as presenting an aspect, analysis, comparisons of certain aspects, as well as research and presenting facts, just to name a few.  While some of these skills can be taught in other subjects, such as foreign languages as and natural and social science classes, the advantages of geography are numerous. Apart from knowing the vocabulary and the places, pupils are supposed to be prepared to know about the regions, for they can be useful for travel, any projects involving these countries, and cultural encounters with people from these countries profiled in the classroom.

Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the example of the session I sat in, with Japan.  Some of us have some knowledge about the country, apart from the Fukushima Triple Disaster of 2011 (Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown) that the Japanese have been recovering from ever since. And for some of the older generations, Japan was the champion in the electronics industry in the 1970s and 80s, mastering the Americans and Europeans before the economy took a double nosedive in the 1990s and in the mid-2000s. Yet in the session, pupils became acquainted with the Japanese industry and its ironic environmental policies, looking at the competition of the automobile industry between the Japanese and the Americans in the form of presenting a comparison and a profile of each of the automobile companies in Japan. In addition, a discussion of Japan’s secret problem of environmental pollution was presented, using the facts from Diercke and some additional materials deemed useful for the discussion. With 127 million inhabitants on a small island, whose topography comprises of 80% mountains and 20% flatlands, it is really no surprise that the country has suffered from its overpopulation, yet the topic was brand new to the students, even though it was covered previously when discussing about China, Japan’s archrival.

The class is required in the Gymnasium, yet the curriculum varies from state to state. In Thuringia, it is one year with one region, beginning with Europe. The American aspect is usually covered in the 11th grade and, pending on the Gymnasium, some aspects are offered in English, with the goal of getting the pupils acquainted with the English vocabulary. While English has become the lingua franca and is used everywhere, one could consider adding Spanish, French, and a couple Asian languages (in vocabulary terms) into the curriculum as much of the world also have countries that have at least one of the above-mentioned languages, including Latin America and Spain, where Spanish is predominant.  This way, pupils have an opportunity to be acquainted with terms rarely seen in the primary language unless translated, which loses its meaning.

This leads to the question of why geography is not offered either solely in American schools, or maybe they are being offered but only rarely. Speaking from personal experience, many schools have different sets of curriculum where Geography is placed at the bottom of the food chain, especially with regards to it being integrated into social studies. And its focus: Only North America and in particular, the United States, where the country’s history, social aspects and political systems are discussed. Current events and presenting them in writing and orally are found in these social studies classes, thus encouraging pupils to research and present their topics, yet most of the events are found in the US and Europe, and there is rarely any mentioning of countries outside the regions.  Some schools had the opportunity to be hooked up to Channel One, where news stories were presented for 20 minutes in the morning, during its heyday in the 1990s. Yet too many commercials and controversies have prompted many schools to protest or even break ties with the network, even though it still exists today after a decade of changing hands.  By introducing a year or two of Geography at least on the high school level, plus tea spoons on the lower level, it will enable pupils in American schools to be acquainted with the rest of the world and the key areas that are worth knowing about. It will save the embarrassment of not knowing some places outside the US, as I witnessed in a pair of stories worth noting:

 

1. A professor of political science at a college in Minnesota draws a map of Europe, placing the Czech Republic above Poland and Hungary in the area where Austria was located- in front of a pair of foreign exchange students from Germany who were grinning in the process. Of course this was the same professor who chose Munich and Berchtesgaden over Berlin and Interlaken over Geneva and Berne for a month-long seminar tour on Public Policy, where every capital of Europe was visited except for Austria, Poland, the Iberia region and Benelux. But that’s a side note in itself.

 

2. My best friend and his (now ex-) girlfriend meet me and my fiancée (now wife) at that time at a restaurant, where she boasted about going to Europe for a music concert. Yet when asked where exactly (which country and city), she could not answer that question- only proudly responded with “But we’re going to Europe!”

 

3. Then we had many questions and assumptions that East Germany and the Berlin Wall existed. One was wise enough to mention during a phone conversation that the reason he could not reach a relative in eastern Germany was that the East German Housing Development had blocked telephone access from America. And this was 10 years ago, I should add.

 

There are enough reasons for me (and others) to add that justify the need to offer a compulsory Geography class in American schools. While the core requirements are being introduced in the American school system, it is unknown whether Geography is part of the core. If not, then it is recommended, for the class does have its advantages, as mentioned here.  While geography contests and individual work will be stressed by those opposing the idea of teaching Geography, the main question to be asked to these people are “Are you willing to learn something about another region and the culture before encountering them, or are you willing to be ignorant and be foolish in your attempts to encounter other cultures without learning about them first?” Speaking from experience, I would rather take the safe path than one unknown and fall into several traps in the process. But that’s my opinion.