As I stepped off the platform onto my train to the Frankfurt Airport, my world seemed to transform into a slow motion flood of memories. After three weeks in Germany as a fellow with the RIAS Berlin Commission, this life experience had just become my standard by which all others will be measured. Gazing out the train window, I realized how much this opportunity had provided in such a short time. Surrounded by the chatter and bustle of business travelers and vacationing families heading the airport, those final 20 minutes on the ICE train seemed to last forever. Could I have really immersed myself in so much history and culture in such a short time span? Absolutely.
Just three weeks earlier, this whirlwind of an experience began in Brussels, Belgium. I knew this fellowship would be an immersive learning opportunity, as trans-Atlantic relations are ever-evolving. In retrospect, I grossly underestimated how eye-opening my first visit to Europe promised to be. Feelings of excitement and anticipation were initially overwhelming, but they ultimately helped me absorb and process so many lessons and observations.
Without hesitation, I am certain the people and connections made during this trip had the greatest impact on my experience. This fellowship certainly provided opportunities unique to each fellow, but our group dynamic was a significant factor in its success. This small cadre of journalists represented a broad cross-section of our industry, through various levels experience, geographic difference, cultural backgrounds, and interpersonal dynamics. As we learned about German-American relations, the fellows also learned from each other.
Upon arrival in Brussels, our first stop, it was time to put my years of French language classes and months of studying German history and current events to the test. While overcoming language barriers was no problem, some simple, laughable cultural differences caught me by surprise. I struggled to turn on the lights in my hotel room, unaware the room key must be inserted behind the wall switch to activate power. Hours earlier, I happened to connect with another fellow on my inbound flight, so we set out to explore the city before the program officially got underway. After swapping stories of our journalism backgrounds and previous travels, I realized that the camaraderie among the American RIAS fellows would be a critical take-away. After getting lost several times and exploring the historic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, we gave in to gastronomic tourist temptations – devouring frites drowned in mafia sauce, followed by Belgian waffles drizzled in hazelnut chocolate. Those few hours served to only whet my appetite for immersion in culture, cuisine, and conversation.
Our two days in Belgium couldn’t have been more fascinating. Our visit to the European Commission provided an eye-opening look at the intricacies of the body and its strategy to strengthen member nations economically through competition with the U.S. This experience helped to personalize the Commission, giving me a new appreciation of its true purpose, successes, and areas of inefficiency. Our meetings at NATO’s headquarters were among the most fascinating and engaging conversations of the program. Speakers were refreshingly candid, helping us to navigate the policy versus politics within the alliance. I left with a new perspective on the organization’s shift from Cold War operations to combating terrorism and addressing tensions with Russia. Touring NATO couldn’t have been more a more timely appointment, with President Trump having spoken here months earlier. Diplomacy and world affairs have never been more important. These visits led me to the realization that American journalists, including those in local news, should have a vested interest in educating their audiences on developments within these entities.
The RIAS program’s timing, whether intentional or coincidental, couldn’t have been better. Arriving in Germany the week before the Federal election served to boost excitement about an already exhilarating itinerary. Appointments with political foundations, journalists, and political analysts provided a thorough and engaging crash course in German politics and government. Not only did we navigate the complexities of the Bundestag, but also the political issues and national landscape that would serve as key factors in the ultimate election outcome. I was struck by how invested in government the average German appeared to be. While some might compare the current state of American politics to fans rooting for their favorite sports team or player, I gathered that many of the Germans with whom we interacted were actually quite intentional about understanding where in the political spectrum they belong. Election coverage in the local and national media was straightforward and less about a story line or political drama.
Seeing the political process in action was necessary for a real understanding how German politics differs from the United States. From attending a campaign rally for candidate Martin Schulz, covering election night returns from SPD party headquarters, to attending a post-election analysis session, we were able to observe the key players in real-time. Producing reports for my station’s broadcast and digital platforms served as a much-need “pop quiz” over the lessons and information we absorbed in one short week. In the final days of the fellowship, our meeting with a member of parliament was enlightening. We were able to dialogue about the implications of the election’s outcome and his views on working in a coalition government. His candor was refreshing.
With the election behind us, I was ready to delve into learning how Germany’s past plays such an important part in its present and future. Through conversations with everyone from government workers, restaurant staff, and journalists to people on the street, I was struck by the level of awareness about the country’s dark 20th century history. I sensed a widely shared pain and embarrassment connected to the atrocities of the Nazi Party and oppression wrought by the communist East German government. Despite this, so many seemed upbeat about Germany’s progress. Many societal safeguards and institutional mechanisms are now in place to prevent a repeat of past mistakes. Though I hesitate to make a blanket statement based on my limited experiences, enough tangible evidence exists to assert that Germany is not shying away from its past. So many monuments, museums and individuals are dedicated to educating the population about Nazism, the Holocaust, totalitarianism, corruption, and division. This approach came as a surprise, as I often heard the phrase, “Never again a perpetrator,” repeated by so many people.
A life-long history buff, I’ve read countless books and articles about Germany’s role in two world wars, its decades as a divided nation, and its resurgence after reunification. However, it wasn’t until I re-traced the footprint of the Berlin Wall, toured a Stasi prison, and wandered the halls of the Reichstag Building did those historical “stories” impact me in a real and personal way. Putting my hands on the Brandenburg Gate, I suddenly thought of historic photos and videos of this iconic location that was once a no-man’s land, nearly destroyed by shelling. It wasn’t enough to simply visit relics of war, but we were impacted by the personal accounts of victims of tyranny. I’ll never forget reading about the lives lost trying to escape over the Berlin Wall, nor the chills I experienced after gazing at their photographs at a memorial in Bernauer Strasse. That sobering walk in such a beautiful park left an indelible mark on me. It’s still quite difficult to imagine the anguish of the families that spent decades divided by a physical and ideological barrier. A certain level of distrust or skepticism seems to remain. We were told many people are highly protective of their privacy.
This immersion in Germany culture and society also provided the chance explore the role of journalism in Europe. Our visits to Deutsche Welle, ARD, ZDF, and DPA provided a deeper understanding of not only the standards and practices of journalists, but the organizational differences within the industry. I gathered that Germans view journalism as an essential investment in maintaining an informed, educated society. Each household pays a monthly licensing fee, which is collected by the government, then distributed among the broadcasters. This seems to free broadcasters from a hyper-focus or obsession with ratings and profits. Instead, coverage dictates staffing and resources. Perhaps this is one of the factors contributing to a growing broadcast audience for many of the traditional broadcasts in Germany.
One might question the government’s involvement in this process as a potential influence on content. However, we were assured that there is no editorial pressure or control from outside the organization. Another observed difference between American and German newsrooms was the division of duties. In Germany, it seemed that a media organization’s staff members had a more specific task or role as part of the editorial process. I was so impressed to learn that many broadcasters have staff members whose sole responsibility is fact verification. In many American newsrooms, especially in smaller local newsrooms, media professionals “wear many hats” simultaneously. We observed a common commitment to responsible and factual coverage among the agencies we visited. I learned that while fervent protections of free speech exist in Germany, the response to libel and the associated legal ramifications seem to be just as serious.
My “blind date” dinner with a RIAS fellow and his family was one of my favorite exchanges with German journalists. Not only did we have candid conversations about the differences within the media and communications industry, but this served as a very real and personal opportunity to witness the home life for the average German. The warmth and hospitality of my host family helped broaden the conversation to the topics of day-to-day life, family values, culture, history, education and recreation. This newly-formed trust allowed an opportunity to ask questions and share observations that may not have been best-served in the more formal meetings and lectures of the previous days.
This fellowship also provided so many “firsts” for me, as I had never before traveled to Europe. Whether taking a high-speed train or the experience of travelling solo abroad, this served as an exciting adventure. I have a new appreciation for language barriers, as well. Patience and empathy put me at ease when interacting with individuals who didn’t speak English. Never before in my life had I been in situations where the majority of those around me didn’t speak my native tongue. I’ll never forget that feeling of vulnerability. When the lack of shared language seemed to slow communication, I was amazed at how other factors filled in the gaps. Food, music, or a simple smile seemed to bring us together without speaking a word. Surrounded by thousands of people in Hamburg’s Elbphilharonie, the world’s most acoustically advanced concert hall, we shared an understanding without a single word being spoken. The music moved us in such a way that was universally appreciated. The same could be said for interacting with people on the streets. A simple smile on someone’s face sent a powerful message, setting the tone for any further interaction. For such large cities, I was so impressed by how friendly people in public were throughout our stay.
Not everyone, though, is received the same. When you look different in this relatively homogeneous society, there arises the opportunity for discrimination. We saw this in context while taking a tour of Berlin’s Neukölln district with Samer, a Syrian refugee who escaped the civil war in that country. Right now, it seems Germany is largely divided over the refugee crisis in Europe and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept more than a million people seeking asylum. While it may be accepted as the right decision from a humanitarian standpoint, there is much discussion over the political fallout. Samer told us that economic and societal opportunities are not always the same for refugees. Security concerns and fear of the unknown elicit different reactions. This fear seems to be driving the rise of the AfD party, whose success in the parliamentary election shocked many in the country. For the first time in more than 50 years, a far-right nationalist party would hold seats in the Bundestag. The AfD used immigration and the refugee crisis as one of its main talking points during the election. This has been a difficult conversation in many circles. Samer told us the majority of refugees have been welcomed with open arms and specifically chose Germany because of its values. Hope is not lost in this land of opportunity.
Downtime between appointments was often spent with RIAS fellows, making touring and exploration a shared experience. I’ll always cherish these forged friendships, which reminded me why journalists are some of my favorite people. Most are great listeners, who seek to understand people on a deeper level. While differences often divide communities, I’ve witnessed what can be accomplished when people realize they have more in common than they think. The art of empathy is a skill that must be learned, practiced, and embraced. This experience of a lifetime reignited my curiosity and passion for learning.
As our RIAS program came to a close, my next adventure began. My week-long extension would serve as another test of my skills. I must admit, I was quite nervous about this portion of the fellowship. I simply didn’t know what to expect. I swallowed my pride, allowed myself to be vulnerable, and jumped into the proverbial “deep end.” I set out to explore the country on my own. That month marked the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, so I hopped another train to the town considered the cradle of the Reformation. It was in Wittenberg that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and spent his years preaching and teaching bible studies at the university. Using the communication skills I had formed over the previous two weeks, as well as my training as a digital journalist, I was able to report for my home station while gaining a deeper appreciation for this moment that changed human history. The next day, it was off to Germany’s fourth-largest city, Cologne. Here, I was able to soak up history around every corner, learning about the country’s history within the Holy Roman Empire. It’s also home to Germany’s most-visited destination. Even after an entire day inside the Cologne Cathedral, I felt l had only glazed over the real reach of modern Christianity’s roots in Germany. The cathedral, which took 600 years to build, served as the focus of another report I filed as part of my ‘Power of Prayer’ series for my station.
Now having been exposed to Germany’s ancient, Medieval, and modern history, I wanted to gain a better understanding for the challenges of post-reunification. I rode the train to Mainz to take part in the country’s official ‘Germany Unity Day’ observance. This event, which drew tens of thousands of people, was the perfect way to witness the evolving identity of Europe’s largest economy. The people I interviewed were hesitant to use the word “pride” or “patriotism,” I could sense they were excited by their country’s progress in the last 27 years. The best of Germany’s culture, food, music, art, and technology were on display. Educating the attendees about government, both state and federal, was a well-planned and significant part of the event. It was refreshing to watch people, young and old, express such sincere concern and interest in ensuring efficiency and cooperation within government. Not knowing any German, much of this day was spent in silence, listening and reflecting on the environment around me. I can’t recall another time when I was so intently focused on observing my surroundings.
Only a week after returning to the U.S., I was able to host a German journalist in my newsroom in East Texas. I never imagined how important this element of my RIAS fellowship would become. Planning this week of learning and cultural experiences for my German fellow helped me apply all of the lessons I learned abroad. Our conversations and reflections taught me that despite the differences between our two countries, we have more in common. I now have a true friend across the pond.
I will always consider this one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I’ll be forever grateful for the kindness, expertise, and dedication of the RIAS staff, who were essential to the success of this exchange. Erik, Isabell, and Lisa were highlights of the trip because their personalities added a fun factor to each day. On our final day in Berlin, the U.S. Embassy’s Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs Mike Reinert told us, “When you walk down the street (here), history speaks to you.” Now that I’m home, it isn’t just history that’s speaking to me. We have so much to gain, personally and professionally by broadening our horizons. I expected this exchange would provide me with a new world view and appreciation for Germany, but I didn’t count on being inspired to do some self-reflection. It is my hope that more American journalists will seek opportunities in the spirit of international cooperation and understanding. I now have a deeper appreciation and respect for Germany’s role in the world and the importance of every person’s access to free, unbiased information.
Video Playlist: Germany in Focus
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KLTV/KTRE-TV or Raycom Media. They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2017 Lane Luckie