Person of the Year

TIME has just announced its Person of the Year for 2015:


“For asking more of her country than most politicians would dare, for standing firm against tyranny as well as expedience and for providing steadfast moral leadership in a world where it is in short supply, Angela Merkel is TIME’s Person of the Year.”



Each year, the magazine profiles a person (or sometimes a group, idea or object) that “for better or for worse has done the most to influence the events of the year.” I think it’s a great choice. I assume the accompanying inspirational message about civil courage and leadership is meant primarily for TIME’s American readership, but it’s nice to think it might provide a bit of moral support to my friends and former neighbors in Germany.


Welcome refugees

Members of the student council of my kids' former high school pose with articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo credit: Schülervertretung Humboldtschule Bad Homburg
Members of the student council of my kids’ former high school pose with articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo credit: Schülervertretung Humboldtschule Bad Homburg

More than 3 years after moving back to the United States, some things still make me feel like I’ve landed on the wrong planet. One is the current discussion surrounding immigration, both legal and illegal. It’s nothing new, but it never ceases to amaze me how xenophobic this nation of immigrants can be.

The latest wrinkle concerns Syrian refugees. President Obama has committed to taking in 10,000 of them in the coming year – about one for every 32,000 Americans. Republicans are up in arms. Unperturbed by the lack of any supporting evidence, they have determined that Syrians fleeing the Islamic State are a threat to national security. Thirty of fifty governors say they will obstruct efforts to relocate any of them to their states.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was an American woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the effort to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Article 14 states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Nearly 70 years later, it is a German woman, Angela Merkel, who has emerged as the defender of human rights law. Sometime in the next few days, the number of migrants reaching Germany since the beginning of 2015 will reach 1 million. That’s one migrant for every 82 German residents. Many of them are asylum seekers from Syria. Those granted political asylum will be able to bring their families to join them in Europe, so the total number being resettled could grow exponentially.

Hoping to get some perspective on things, I asked friends and former neighbors in Germany about their view of the situation and their experience so far with the refugee crisis. Since fear is the driving force behind so much of the political rhetoric in the United States, I asked my German friends about their fears:


N is for Nächstenliebe


November 11th is St. Martin’s Day. Tomorrow evening in Germany, as it gets dark, children carrying paper lanterns they’ve made at home or in Kindergarten will gather with their parents to sing songs and walk in a procession – perhaps led by a figure on horseback. Afterwards, they’ll warm themselves around a bonfire.


The bonfire and lanterns surely relate to other ancient traditions that mark the end of the agricultural year and the beginning of the dark winter throughout northern Europe. But the children’s songs specifically commemorate Saint Martin, a Roman soldier who distinguished himself in the 4th Century AD. Riding on his horse, Martin is said to have come upon a beggar, shivering in the cold. Having nothing else to offer, he cut his cloak in two with his sword and gave one half to the beggar.

It’s a powerful story for teaching young children about Nächstenliebe. The Bible says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Nächstenliebe is a compound noun that packs that idea into a single word, meaning love for one‘s neighbor or, literally, love for the next guy.

These days, the word Nächstenliebe figures prominently in public discourse. The number one topic, naturally, is the Flüchtlingskrise – the refugee crisis. Germany is committed to accepting 800,000 asylum seekers – a number that corresponds to 1% of the country’s population. The construction of temporary housing began long ago, but the sheer flood of migrants has overwhelmed the original plans. Now, towns and cities all over Germany are struggling to erect temporary shelters that can withstand the winter cold.


The Pope has spoken. Were you listening?

In case you haven’t heard, the Vatican has a new leader, and he is a rock star! Pope Francis visited Philadelphia this weekend, and it was sensational. Catholics and non-Catholics alike say they have been moved and inspired by the Pope. One of his key messages is that we must combat climate change and protect the natural environment. But is anyone really listening?

trash in the traffic box
Trash in the Traffic Box: Sorry, Francis, I don’t think they heard you!


Another anniversary

911Some of you have already read the text of the speech I gave in a German church on the  10th anniversary of 9/11 . (Some of you even remember hearing it!)

I was preceded that day by a history teacher from the local high school, who had been asked to comment on the September 11th attacks in historical context. What I remember most about his talk was his assertion that, in the long run, the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 would eclipse 9/11 as an event of greater consequence.

I was skeptical of his thesis then, and I’m even more skeptical now. Millions of Afghans and Iraqis have been displaced. Civilians in both countries are being killed daily in terrorist attacks. Here in the United States, we’ve been quick to accept as the “new normal” security measures that should give us pause.

Meanwhile, StoryCorps has expanded its commitment to preserving the stories of 9/11. It’s a great resource for sharing with our teenagers – the babies we held extra close 14 years ago.




The positive economic impact of teenage boredom

MoiraSummer school holidays in Germany last only 6 weeks. (Children there have more, shorter breaks throughout the year.) So friends often ask me what American kids do with nearly 3 months of summer vacation. I’ve typically answered with an explanation of all the great camps that are available here, but my daughter has reminded me of another important feature of our long summer holidays: Boredom.


Kids say the darndest things!

I was asked to translate this post from German into English. It’s tricky, because the punchline involves some unintentional German/English wordplay. You need to know that Essen is the name of a city in Germany – a large-ish industrial city, of little interest to tourists. However, the word Essen is also a noun meaning food and a verb meaning to eat. Anyway, here goes:

When our daughter was born, we named her Katalin. It’s a Hungarian form of Katherine, quite common in Hungary, and we liked it. Little did we know how much trouble non-Hungarians would have pronouncing it. It was bad enough in Germany, totally hopeless in the US.