Sunday, July 13, 2014

That German Thing

     Don't know about you, but watching the German soccer team do its thing on the pitch impresses the hell out of me. And this isn't because of the drubbing they laid on Brazil the other day. For me, it was equally evident in their 2-2 tie with Ghana awhile back. It's the discipline and order with which they play. When I watch soccer - not being a regular viewer of the sport - it often strikes me as pretty random. I fail to perceive any plan or rhythm to the action. It seems that players are kicking the ball forward with nothing more than a vague hope of it arriving where directed, and it's as likely to end up at the feet of an opposing player as at a teammate's.

     Not so with Germany! That's a team that's clearly playing with a plan, with intention, and with the ability to execute. As is suggested so often, when talking with others about this team, it operates like a well oiled machine!

     But it's not just a soccer thing. I spent a few days in Berlin recently, and I absolutely fell in love with that city. Ponczka did too.  Both of us lived in Berlin for a time - she, as a young adult in 1980 or so, and I, as a child in the early sixties. And while we both had decent enough memories, it never occurred to us as a destination of choice. But after passing through a couple of times during our recent Europe/Israel vacation, we were so taken by it that we rearranged our schedules to spend our last day and a half there. It's a clean, tight, vibrant, well-ordered, stimulating, varied and welcoming Metropolis. And here's the thing: Berlin functions like the German soccer team plays!

     I'm drifting into a kind of national stereotyping that's generally rejected these days. It's very often me that's rejecting it, because the down side of it - assigning negative characteristics to a nation and its people - can be so devastatingly oppressive. But I can't help but acknowledge, and admire, this something-something about Germany that makes it so impressive.

     Let me get specific. You see very little litter and mess in Germany. The public transit system in Berlin runs beautifully, and on the honor system. There are no ticket gates to navigate; you simply enter a train station, board a bus or street tram, and buy and validate your own ticket. Apparently, there are monitors who will lay heavy fines on cheaters who are caught, but just the fact that trust is the default says a lot. People don't jaywalk in Berlin (as kids, my brother and I - coming from the upper west side of Manhattan, where dodging moving cars was a taken-for-granted survival skill, found it laughable that adults would stand at a street corner devoid of traffic, and wouldn't cross the street until the light changed! Now, my appraisal is more respectful).

     To top it off, Germany offers one of the best driving experiences a driver could ask for: no one on the roads and highways is being an idiot! Streets are clearly marked, directions to attractions and city centres are abundant. And drivers drive with a degree of patience and consideration rare in most places. I drove on the autobahn and was amazed to see that even the muscle cars blazing by at 200 kph moved out of the passing lanes as soon as they overtook you.

     Of course all of this raises the question of German "ordnung", the pre-disposition of a people to do as instructed, which unavoidably brings to mind the spectre of the WWII death camps. Yes, order and obedience have their downsides. Short of all that, it's simply intimidating to the rest of us that a country can operate so well, with such an apparent sense of common purpose. For goodness' sakes, Germany suffered two of the most complete slapdowns of modern history in just the last hundred years, and yet, it's already well established as a world leader in virtually every respect. That's a little scary!

     But it's also beautiful, impressive, and even inspiring to see how East Berlin has been rebuilt into the dynamic center it is, to witness a united Berlin that - to my eyes - is surprisingly diverse, and to find the citizens of that city so friendly and welcoming and helpful at every turn.

     When I discussed this with a friend, from Austria, she reflected on the phenomenon in two ways, each confirming the other, but carrying contrasting, implicit judgements. On the one hand, she said, Germans seem to require strong leaders, and plans, to which they are capable of responding with vigor and with relatively little dissent. She said this almost apologetically, because it suggests a nation of followers, executing orders with no creative (or moral) input. But then she recalled the words of John F. Kennedy, who admonished Americans to, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." This is a lesson, she suggested, that Americans and much of the rest of the world have yet to take to heart, but which the Germans have mastered. That puts a very different spin on that German thing, doesn't it?