Election Diary 7: Election Eve

Bill Clinton gave me this button!
Bill Clinton gave me this button!

Monday: Good news on all fronts:

  • The FBI has closed the case on the additional emails that caused a stir last week.
  • The SEPTA strike is over! The public transport system should be back to normal in time for Election Day.
  • The weather forecast looks great for Tuesday. (Yep, that makes a difference!)
  • As I write, crowds are gathering in front of Independence Hall for an election-eve rally with Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Bruce Springsteen!!!

Meanwhile, I’m here in a split-level suburban home, surrounded by forms and clipboards, checking canvassers in and out, listening to their war stories and entering their results into a spreadsheet. There’s a local Democratic organizer named Bill Clinton, and he’s hanging around the place today. (I can tell he enjoys introducing himself to people.)

I thought we were pretty far off the beaten path, but dozens of volunteers have found their way to us today, including 4 hipsters on a day trip from Brooklyn and a couple of young women from Washington.

One of our local volunteers, an older man, told us he recognized one of the names on his list from long ago. “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but this guy’s sister was the first girl I ever kissed, when I was 13 years old!” The brother was hostile, at first, when our man knocked on the door. The canvasser said, “Didn’t you used to live in Upper Darby?”, and they were off down Memory Lane…

The women from Washington had spent the weekend knocking on doors in Northeast Philly – their team of five knocked on 1,000 doors! One of them even persuaded a single-issue, anti-abortion voter to vote for Clinton with the argument that Hillary is the candidate who will reduce abortions – by extending access to contraception, sex education and health care! Woo hoo! The hipsters found the suburban landscape somewhat challenging, but they finished their shift and are on their way to the rally in Philly.


Election Diary 5: Who keeps stealing my campaign signs?

Tuesday: Aargh! Another two of my lawn signs are missing. A Halloween prank? Later in the day, I realize three magnets have been stolen from the back of my car: a Clinton campaign magnet, but also a “26.2” marathon magnet and a non-partisan Maryland crab. Highly annoying.

Have you seen my car magnet?
Have you seen my car magnet?

Wednesday: SEPTA transit workers are on strike, and large sections of the public transport system in and around Philadelphia are at a standstill. Instead of taking the train and risking getting stranded, Eric and I decide to drive into Center City for an evening event. The traffic is awful. It takes us half an hour just to cover a few blocks.

Thursday: The SEPTA strike is taking a toll on city residents, many of whom now have to walk or cycle to work. Some employers have organized shuttle buses, but they, too, get stuck in the extra-heavy traffic. If it continues, the strike could have a significant effect on voter turnout in Philadelphia. In fact, because turnout in Philly is decisive for Pennsylvania, the SEPTA strike could actually determine the outcome of the presidential election and the balance in the US Senate. Scary!

Meanwhile, Melania Trump is speaking in nearby Berwyn, taking a firm stand against cyberbullying – the very behavior upon which her husband’s political career has been built. #youmustbejoking

Election Diary 4: The Repat branches out

Friday morning: I hop on my bike and cycle to the home of the leader of the local Democrats. I’ve volunteered to be a “poll watcher”, and she’s going to explain to me what it’s all about.

I’ll be at a polling place in a nearby Republican neighborhood on Election Day, greeting voters, asking if they’d like to see a sample Democratic ballot. I’ll also be watching to see that the Republicans don’t receive unfairly favorable treatment – being allowed to station themselves closer than 10 feet from the entrance to the polling area, for example.

It’s unlikely any Trump supporters would try to disrupt voting at this location, since most of the neighborhood is already in his camp. “Take a book to read,” advises Colleen. Most folks will vote before or after work, so I won’t have much to do in the middle of the day.


Saturday afternoon: Instead of canvassing, this weekend, I’m filling in for my friend Linda, who has been coordinating the canvassing in a neighboring township. Linda’s territory is just to the west of where I live, slightly further from the city of Philadelphia, mostly Republican. These are suburban neighborhoods with an almost rural feel. The landscape is mostly wooded, houses are far apart.

This part of Pennsylvania was settled by Quaker farmers in the 17th century, so, while many of the housing developments are new, the main roads are old, often narrow and winding. There are no sidewalks. (Indeed, there’s nothing within walking distance.) Canvassers have to drive from house to house.

The staging area for canvassing is in a private home. Donna has turned over the lower level of her house to the Democratic campaign. She’s an avid quilter; every room is filled with handmade quilts. Upstairs, in the kitchen, she provides soup and snacks for campaign workers.

Around 6:00 pm, an African-American woman and her young daughter return from canvassing. They’re followed by a middle-aged man, then, finally, two women, one of whom I know from my non-profit work.

canvassing-packetTheir canvassing packets are just like the ones in my neighborhood, but they also carry a letter explaining that canvassing represents the legal exercise of their constitutional right to free speech.

The previous week, a local resident had called the State Police to complain about people going door to door. The police came and challenged the two older women (although they were not the ones who’d actually caused offense). Pennsylvania is considered so important that, in addition to these folks from the campaign, there are other canvassers out and about, working for various political interest groups.

campaign-lit-2No one wants to knock on doors after dark in this area, so we’re not sending anyone out for the 6:00 pm shift. I grab a cheap “flip phone” and a phone list – one hundred names and numbers throughout Pennsylvania, mostly young people in their twenties. I dial one number after another. Not many people answer the phone on a Saturday evening, but one guy is friendly: “I don’t actually live in Pennsylvania any more. I moved out to Oregon when I graduated from Penn State, and now I’m doing exactly what you’re doing out here!”

The repat returns to Berlin

Berlin Marathon, September 25, 2016 (photo by Britta Boltz)
Berlin Marathon, September 25, 2016 (photo by Britta Boltz)

Last Sunday at 1:50 pm, I ran through the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s best-known landmark, as one of 36,054 marathon participants. With just 200 meters to go to the finish line, I wasn’t thinking deep thoughts. However, after I’d gotten my medal, my snack bag, and, most importantly, my Erdinger alkoholfrei beer, I looked back at the gate and reflected on the first time I’d seen it, in 1983.

I spent the autumn of 1983 in Mainz, West Germany, with one of Dartmouth College’s language study programs. In Bonn, massive demonstrations were underway against NATO’s plan to station medium-range ballistic missiles, aimed at the Soviet Union, in West Germany. The Cold War seemed to be heating up.

Our group took a trip to Berlin, traveling by train through the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (East Germany) to the walled city of West Berlin. We were warned not to attempt any humor when the train stopped at the East German border for the inspection of documents.

In the center of Berlin, the Reichstag building, which had housed the German parliament before and during World War II, was still partially damaged and was mothballed except for a small exhibition area. Just behind the Reichstag, we climbed up onto a platform and looked out over the Berlin Wall to the Brandenburg Gate, on the eastern side. When the wall was constructed in August 1961, the gate became a symbol of the divided city, stranded in a no-man’s land between the graffiti-covered wall to the west and fortified barriers to the east.

When I returned to Germany to work in 1992, the Cold War was over, and Germany was reunited. Tiny pieces of demolished Berlin Wall featured heavily in the souvenir shops. Parliament had decided to relocate the federal capital from Bonn back to Berlin, and, throughout the former Soviet sector, a construction boom was gathering steam. Riding through the Brandenburg Gate in a taxi gave me goosebumps.

Brandenburg Gate 2016
Brandenburg Gate 2016

How do I explain that goosebump feeling to my children, who were born years after the wall fell? Many Americans of my generation and younger are aware of the Berlin Wall as a Cold War symbol, but don’t understand how it came to be in the first place.

At the end of WW II, the four allied victors divided Germany into four zones of occupation: American, British, and French zones in the west, and a Soviet zone in the east. The wartime capital, Berlin, located within the Soviet zone, was similarly divided into four sectors.

The marriage of convenience between the Western allies (France, Great Britain, USA) and the Soviet Union, expedient for defeating Hitler’s Germany, was already on the rocks. A currency reform in 1948 and the announcement of a new German constitution in May 1949 laid the groundwork for a new, economically vigorous state in the western zones of occupation, the Bundesrepublik Deutschland [Federal Republic of Germany]. The Soviet Union countered, first with an economic blockade of West Berlin and then with the declaration of a rival state, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik [German Democratic Republic], in the Soviet zone.

Germans residing in the Soviet zone had gone from the frying pan of one totalitarian system into the fire of another. The border between the two Germanys was all but impenetrable, so many people travelled to Berlin in hopes of getting through one of the checkpoints into the western part of the city. One of them was our friend Günter, who, in 1958, invented a reason to travel to East Berlin that would withstand the scrutiny of border guards. Luggage would have aroused suspicion, as would traveling together with his wife. So they traveled separately, with little more than the clothes on their backs, made it through the various checkpoints and inspections, and were able to pass into the western part of the city.

Of the 4 million East Germans that fled to the West between 1949 and 1990, some 1.35 million (including Günter) passed through the emergency reception center Notaufnahmelager Marienfelde in West Berlin, where they received immediate aid and were resettled – most in West Germany. It was a brain drain the East could ill afford, and the Berlin Wall was built, virtually overnight, in an effort to stop it.

May 23, 1977: Rainer Pekar escaped; Uwe W. was caught.
May 23, 1977: Rainer Pekar escaped; Uwe W. was caught.

On Monday after the marathon, after a good night’s sleep, I decided to go in search of what remains of the wall today. The Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer [Berlin Wall Memorial] stretches almost a mile along Bernauer Straße. It includes fragments of the original wall, but mostly it evokes the wall using simple elements of landscape and sculpture, old photographs and explanatory text. Plaques in the ground remember those who fled to the West and those who died trying.

Berlin Wall Memorial
Berlin Wall Memorial

Bernauer Straße itself belonged to the French sector, so the wall was built along the south side of the street, cutting off access to all of the cross streets. In the houses abutting the wall, people climbed out of upper-story windows and jumped into blankets held ready by those below on the western side. These houses successively had their windows bricked up, were vacated and demolished by the East German authorities.



Escape tunnel
Escape tunnel

Along much of its length, the Berlin Wall was actually two walls, running parallel to each other with a no-man’s land in between. That no-man’s land was known in German as the Todesstreifen – the “death strip”. A line of lamp posts kept the Todesstreifen brightly lit around the clock, so soldiers in watchtowers could easily spot anyone trying to cross. It’s estimated at least 138 people were killed trying to flee over the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989.



Along Bernauer Straße, parts of the death strip have been redeveloped with apartment blocks. One section is a park where kids play soccer and tourists pose for photos. Elsewhere in the city, the Todesstreifen is completely obscured by new construction.

Berlin Wall Memorial
Berlin Wall Memorial

Back in 1983, I remember we had a German instructor who, when asked about the future of the Berlin Wall, said that living standards in East Germany were steadily improving and that a day would come when East and West would be equally prosperous and the wall would be superfluous. Could he have been more wrong? His answer ignored the fact of the wall an instrument of political power. Moreover, it wasn’t rising prosperity, but the economic collapse of the Soviet system that led to the end of the Cold War and the destruction of the wall.

Alcohol-free wheat beer at the finish
Alcohol-free wheat beer at the finish

R is for Rheinschwimmen, W is for Wickelfisch

Rheinschwimmen After cropped
Refreshed Rheinschwimmer

The Reluctant Repat is back! After a month in Europe with my family, I feel re-energized by visits with old friends and enriched by new experiences. As I adjust to the sauna that is Swarthmore in late-July, I want to capture and share the single most refreshing highlight of our trip: Swimming in the Rhein [Rhine] in Basel, Switzerland.

Colorful Wickelfische

After a long drive through the Alps, we arrived at the Basel youth hostel on a hot summer afternoon and met an old friend with a good idea. Packing our towels, shoes and a change of clothing into watertight bags known as Wickelfisch, we waded into the river near the Museum Tinguely and let the current carry us about 3 kilometers downstream to the Dreirosenbrücke.


Rhein water temp

A sign at our point of entry put the water temperature at 20˚C (about 68˚F), and I’d estimate the swim lasted about 30 to 45 minutes, carrying us past the city’s
main historic, commercial and residential districts. We knew the scenery well from many visits to Basel during our time in Germany, but this was a very different perspective – a duck’s eye view!

To get out of the river, we swam to the side and made use of a set of broad stone steps leading up to street level. We emerged refreshed and elated. It was awesome!

The mighty Rhine flows out of the Alps through or between 5 nations and countless cities and towns, but I believe no one has quite as much fun on and in the river as the people of Basel. On warm summer days, they gather along the riverside, and dozens of heads can be seen bobbing in the current. That image is surprising to many Europeans, who think of Basel in terms of the chemical plants and rail yards they see from the highway as they drive by on their way to somewhere else. The Rhine is a working river, and Basel is indeed an industrial center. However, by protecting watersheds upstream, the Swiss have ensured that the river is clean. And the city center – on both sides of the river – is compact, accessible, polyglot and utterly charming.

Rheinschwimmen Wegweiser
Swimming on the safe side!

Rheinschwimmen [swimming in the Rhine] is potentially dangerous and not recommended for inexperienced swimmers. The current is so strong that a close encounter with a buoy, boat or bridge abutment can be fatal. A few simple measures are intended to minimize casualties: Jumping into the river from bridges is illegal, as is swimming with water wings or other flotation devices. (An exception is made for the Wickelfisch.) Blue buoys positioned at regular intervals help guide swimmers away from the central channel used by commercial ships. Nevertheless, on days when the current is especially swift, the local authorities warn swimmers to stay out of the river.