Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Arm aber Sexy" ; Ende des Jahres Seminar in Berlin pt. 2

[ "Poor but Sexy" : Seminar in Berlin pt. 2 ]

During our week seminar, the scholarship recipients all went on a boat tour down the Spree river. It was a beautiful day, and down the river I saw parts of Berlin that I have never seen before. Starting west, we cruised by the cathedral and museum Island and saw a very historical Berlin, where religion, the sciences and arts, as well as power [ remnants of Prussia ] all stood side by side in scenic classical architecture; a fragmented view of Berlin past.

Further down the river we crossed by the Reichstag and its many office buildings that I weaved through as a Praktikant there just a few months ago. It seems that anytime I am around the buildings and hear some of its history, the Germans are extremely proud to admit that its abundance of glass is to promote an openness with the community and to omit a closed-government-“we are watching you”-persona from the capital of the country. We even crossed under the iconic bridge that – remember – was exclusive since only workers of the Bundestag had access to it.

Along the river, many people were enjoying the sun and lying along the banks in parks that have evolved along with Berlin and have become luxurious places to relax. However, being Berlin, it isn’t odd for everything around you to radically change in appearance in a mere few minutes of traveling along the river. Moving further into the former East Berlin, there is still a very prominent notion that great changes are taking place. Many old communist industrial plants now remain abandoned and empty. Some stand as graffiti covered memorials of the rapid facelift the city has encountered, while others have been transformed into sites for young artists and student populations. Some old factories along the bank are now popular clubs [ and after venturing out to visit them one night, for lack of a better explanation, they literally are skeleton buildings and train freights lined with stereos and strobe lights, no strings attached ]. One old freight ship was somehow cut in half by a student group, and now it floats as a huge swimming pool in the middle of the river – definitely a sight to see.

Even more interesting to discover beyond how this side of town is shaping up is the struggles and progress the city has made [ after all, it is not deserted, the east side gallery and the huge O2 arena are also there along with headquarters for MTV Germany and other companies ]. One more very relevant phrase or quote of the many that defines Berlin is “Arm aber Sexy” – Poor but sexy, and this is still very true. Berlin is still in the former East Germany, and in many areas this shows. As mentioned, it is the cheapest capital city in the Euro Zone, and definitely cheaper than other cities in the country.

Berlin faced a declining population after the wall fell down, and whereas the city is somewhat growing today [Germans as well as international students of my generation, that were children or born after the wall fell down and thus unaffected by its cultural impact, are now flooding the city to reap its benefits]. Even so, Berlin faces an issue of over 20% of its housing potential still left empty. It is incredible to realize how people live in Berlin as well, since over 80% of the citizens live in “vermietet”, rented places [ and most often in apartment style buildings in close quarters]. This only adds to the unique communities one can find in Berlin [ “one city, one thousand villages”] as well as the overwhelming amount of young people that settle there. Berlin was mentioned to be a new “New York” since it is inviting to the artistic, creative young crowd, and can still promise a lively and inexpensive lifestyle. This relates directly to the extremely diverse environment of Berlin – German only seems to be one of the many languages intermixed around with English, Turkish and many other languages seeming to be equally prevalent.

Seeing all this around me during my visit was what made this Berlin experience so eye opening. Much of what I just shared can be equally attributed to the potentials of Detroit and the struggles it faces as well. This relates to my post about what has been inspiring me over the last few months, and I am excited to share that the evolution that Berlin is experiencing right now is something that is worth observing, experiencing and sharing. Like I have critiqued Berlin before, overwhelming and complicated on the first impression or not, the city is fascinating and offers many opportunities to debate and contemplate the potential of urban development and restoration.

Ende des Jahres Seminar in Berlin pt. 1

[ End of the year seminar in Berlin pt. 1 ]

11 months. Didn’t I just leave Saarbrücken yesterday? What happened in between – I went to university in Europe, learned German, got an internship with this new foreign language, worked in the German Bundestag – I haven’t even really stopped to appreciate my own personal growth and progress this year. I finally had one small moment to realize that everything is slowly wrapping up. This week was the Ende des Jahres Seminar in Berlin for all PPPler officially commencing the program for all scholarship recipients as we finish our Praktikums and then have a bit of free time to enjoy a bit of traveling in Europe.

This was the third time this year that I was part of the large group of American scholarship recipients and each time the stories of how our years played out became more and more diverse and unique. Some with host families, some with paid internships that will lead to possible careers, some with great new international connections, some that just didn’t quite fit in to Germany – there were successes to celebrate and challenges to digest and learn from. As I mentioned in the previous post, I felt more overwhelmed at the surplus of exciting new ideas and skills that I have accrued this year, but now my new challenge will be how to incorporate them into my studies and ambitions back home.

It wasn’t just the seminar that had me thinking however. This trip to Berlin turned out to be the most profound – it seems that each time I visit, this city becomes even more complicated and exciting. This trip the weather was hot and uncomfortably humid – yet, not having to trek around with my winter attire like last time [ and also with a subway week pass ] I was able to see the city with a whole new flexibility. The past two trips were central to my politically oriented praktikums – I visited government buildings and saw the most important of Berlin’s historical landmarks. This trip I had the opportunity to go even further and see what makes Berlin one of a kind – as one person noted during one of our seminars “Berlin is a city with a thousand villages”.

Berlin has no down town. There is not even a main street. It just seems like there is something happening everywhere all the time. After the wall fell down, organizers anticipated the sides to merge and a natural city center to eventually form. 20 years later this is not the case, and there is no one place in Berlin that is “the place to be” [ alluding once again to the famous quote that Berlin will always changing and will never be "Immerfort zu werden, und niemals zu sein" ]. I found corners of Berlin that had perfect intersecting streets of dense apartments and pedestrians wearing the most eclectic combinations of clothes I have ever seen [ whether it looked good or not was not the case, but it was fascinating]. Art galleries, second hand shops, restaurants with foods from all over [and cheap – Berlin is the cheapest capital city in the Euro-zone! ]. Upon earlier visits to Berlin, I critiqued the city and was pretty blunt, but it has evolved into one of my favorite places.

Wie Gartenarbeit begeistern kann

[ How Gardening can be inspiring ]

Coming to Germany this year, I anxiously anticipated what new interests I would find that would inspire me for the future upon my return home. At the beginning of the year, I doubt I would have expected gardening to be something that would catch my attention. Even so, little by little, it has grown into an interest that may not just be a future hobby, but something that may influence my career.

I am not even sure where everything began. It may have started while I represented the Federation of German Industries and did thorough research about their dedication to the future of green technology at the Bonn International United Nations Conference. It may have also been working with the green party and discovering so many of the benefits of alternative energy such as wind and solar power. Even at the FDP, with possibly more political views that I didn’t agree with than did, it gave me an opportunity to ponder what were the best solutions to boost an economy in a world recession, while also being responsible about how actions can affect the future.

This was green technology, and as my interest peaked, I found it linking to many other interests of mine. Connecting this to back home, Michigan’s potential in the Green technology sector is profound, with many priceless assets that could blossom into a new industry for the future. Detroit has also been on my mind all year, since after working there through different jobs and internships ranging from education to community development, I have also been searching for ideas on how to return and get right back into the mix with new and productive ideas.

Detroit is an interesting place – an area of land larger than Manhattan, Boston AND San Francisco combined, however its population has dwindled to below the million mark making it only housing a fraction of its potential; in some cases it has become a wasteland with an international boarder and valuable land that is virtually left standing unused. It is also crucial to realize that the city of Detroit, an internationally known city, has no grocery stores that provide fresh fruits and vegetables – the citizens either going without, or spending very high prices at small corner stores for produce that is anything but fresh quality. Possibly this is where the connection arose – Michigan and Detroit have potential for new industries in environmentally friendly technology, however there are locations that don’t even have the abilities to provide its citizens with fresh produce. Somewhere along reading various articles on the subject, one trend kept reappearing as a possible solution to this issue – urban agriculture.

Maybe it is surprising that living for a year in the world’s 3rd largest economy would spark my interest in agriculture, however, the prospects of utilizing urban space, growing fresh produce [ that can be sold locally, thus helping promote small business as well as reducing the necessity to ship produce thousands of miles to reach the grocery store] and ultimately evolving the format of an urban economy became fascinating to me.

Detroit makes it into the world news normally with images of poverty stricken neighborhoods with the crowning RenCen in the distance – an image of a failing system: an auto industry that has had more than its share of controversy, surrounded by a once great city, now left behind. The potential of the city has not gone unnoticed however and many realize that Detroit can not only be an exemplary city for the US, but also for the world if it can optimize on the risks, and possible huge benefits of being an experimental society.

This would be an appropriate point to reintroduce my next steps in Germany. As my political oriented praktikums came to a close, I still had a few weeks left in my half year of working in Germany, and once again I was left searching for a short term internship. Using the connections that I had garnered thus far, I found some small, but nonetheless relevant NGO’s based in Göttingen. I began doing side projects for GreenPeace as well as a group called Internationale Gärten. Through GreenPeace I learned more about the activist approach to alternative energy. The Internationale Gärten was something that really represented where my new interests had led me. The group works with refugees and immigrant populations in Germany [ in Göttingen there is a notable amount of Turkish and other immigrants from bordering Baltic states ] and they provide plots of land for the groups to simply create gardens. These gardens however don’t just provide food, but provide a community area that is shared, and also a way to integrate into their new foreign home and practice a new language.

The times that I assisted were challenging and also inspiring. There were language barriers and a bit to learn about how running a garden works, but I found the ideas that I came across to be very motivating. Going to work, I would find other pockets of Göttingen that I had previously never known had existed. There were small blocks of gated gardens, each no larger than a normal back yard, and each had a small shed, fence and its own diverse set of crops or flower beds. These were community gardens rented out by those that live in Germany’s very typical community housing complexes – many live in these apartment type buildings and individual homes are rare to come by in a city the size of Göttingen or larger. I would find myself, even outside of work hours, going out for jogs and then taking a moment [ turning into an hour ] weaving through these little plots of land, each unique and personalized.

The blocks all had a community center, possibly where produce was shared or sold, but also where the people that had land there could get together and simply hold events. Here I was thinking that I saw something new – a semi-urban area with community gardens [not farms in the middle of nowhere] that utilized a sense of city style communities as well as the benefits of being self sufficient. Then I received an article forwarded to me from the states – not a major headline paper, but my university paper, the Michigan Daily.

Inside the article there was a look into a growing trend in community gardening – and as stated in the article “a practice that came over to the states from Germany” that was now finding popularity around the country and especially Ann Arbor, Michigan. This process involves investing in small plots of land and then receiving some of the benefits from what was produced – in this case, investing in these community gardens, and then receiving fresh produce and products grown and sold locally once a week.

The connection back home was already closer than I thought. Back in Detroit, with plots of land leaving many specialists puzzled on how to renew, there has been a new interest in this urban agriculture, along with incredible digital renderings of what this future could look like. It has all been incredibly motivating for me bringing all of these connections together. I cannot say that coming back from Germany I am going to aspire to producing several dozen acres of corn per year, but I am excited to promote ideas of self sufficient communities that produce their own foods and share ideas from diverse backgrounds on how to best utilize small plots of land with big outputs.

[ some futuristic computer renderings that are fascinating nonetheless. ]

My biggest dilemma now is where to go next. I will begin next year on my major in Public Policy, which will fit perfectly with these new interests in community development, but now I just need to refine these rather broad new ideas. I have learned so much from this year, as well as from my diverse praktikums, about issues ranging from green technology to urban agriculture, and now I need to figure how to bring it all together. I came to Germany this year with interests in history, educational policy, as well as my background in Japanese and a bit of Polish – now I have these intern experiences as well as the ability to speak functional German and I am left with more questions this year than answers. There is so much that I want to do, and although my experiences have been scattered and diverse, I am very excited to see what opportunities they will lead me too back home in Detroit and Ann Arbor.