The Repat's Election Diary 2

Saturday afternoon: I’m feeling virtuous after my first canvassing effort, but the day’s schedule has begun to spin out of control. I need to crack the whip on kids with homework, and I said I’d pick up campaign lawn signs for myself and a couple of friends.

I have an address for the signs, and it’s easy to find. This lady has covered her own lawn with campaign signs, and her living room is full of hundreds more identical signs for Clinton/Kaine and a handful of “down-ballot” candidates.

That’s right: the Democratic Party Machine is a nice mom in a modest suburban neighborhood with a living room full of lawn signs. Sign Lady would love to chat, but I have to dash – I want to get down to Boathouse Row in Philadelphia to watch my daughter row in the first regatta of the season.


Sunday morning: I’m up early to run with my friend Liz. She’s a teacher, and, while I was going door to door on Saturday, she attended a campaign rally in West Philly organized by teachers’ unions. She was surprised to see a bus full of New York teachers drive up, but one of the organizers explained: New York is “in the tank” for the Democrats. All possible resources are being deployed to Pennsylvania, where they might be able to make a difference to the outcome of the election.

Monday evening: GOTV (get out the vote) training at the local campaign office. Three young campaign workers and a room full of senior citizens. Where are the younger people? Well, 6:00 pm on a Monday is the worst possible timing for parents with little kids, and the local college students have their own campaign organization.

GOTV will target voters who are registered as Democrats, but who have voted only intermittently in recent elections. (How you vote is secret, but whether you vote is a matter of public record.) There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in our county, so our best chance of success lies in making sure these people get to the polls on November 8th. Knocking on all those doors is time-consuming, but it’s been proven more effective than phone calls. Do people know where their polling place is? Do they have a solid plan to get there on Election Day? We should commit to specific canvassing shifts, but I need to check the family calendar first.

I walk home with my neighbor, a doctor from Germany. He’s married to an American, and they both work at the big children’s hospital in Philly. He canvassed for Obama in 2008 and 2012. “Are you a US citizen?” I ask. “Not yet. I’ve applied, but the system is so backed-up, it’s taking forever.” Extreme vetting? This is what people are referring to when they say the immigration system is “broken”: immigration and naturalization processes that are so slow, even for the most straightforward cases, that it encourages others to bypass the system.

My neighbor asks whether I heard John McCain on the radio. The Republican senator gave an interview a few hours earlier on one of our local stations.  He made the case for re-electing his colleague Pat Toomey. McCain is (finally) disgusted with Trump, but says we Pennsylvanians need to return Toomey to Washington, so that the Senate can block any Supreme Court appointments President Clinton might propose. So there you have it, folks: Split the ticket and vote for gridlock! Thanks for clarifying that, Senator.

Tuesday morning: The parade of celebrities continues. Bill Clinton is speaking this afternoon in the very neighborhood where I grew up! And Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood will be right here on the Swarthmore campus! Unfortunately, between family obligations and my non-profit work, I won’t make it to either.

Wednesday morning: I’m still trying to figure out when I can canvas on the weekend. The family calendar is complicated…

Out of the blue, my friends Deiv and Merit call from Finland, just to say hello! Merit is worried by stories of Donald Trump telling his supporters to watch polls for signs of irregularities. Is he encouraging the “deplorables” to take the law into their own hands? In fact, he’s been practicing this rhetoric right here in Pennsylvania, and he’s been pretty clear: His supporters upstate in Trump Country should vote early and then come on down to Philly to check on things in minority neighborhoods. Perhaps the real objective is to depress voter turnout through intimidation.

The piano tuner comes by. He’s registered as an independent, but, he says, “last time I pulled the ‘D’ lever so hard, I think I broke it!” We agree vociferously with each other for a good 15 minutes before he heads off to the next piano.

regattaWednesday afternoon and evening: It’s my turn to drive the crew carpool, so here I am, back again at Boathouse Row in Philly. Thousands of mostly young people are out enjoying the sunshine, on and along the river.

Trump describes America’s cities as hell-holes. He doesn’t know (or deliberately ignores) the transformation my beautiful city has undergone in the last 30 years. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but we’re working on it.

Finally, it’s time for the third and final TV debate between Hillary and Trump. I’m ready with a big glass of red wine. Things get off to an interesting start with a question about the Supreme Court. Trump reiterates the GOP platform, more or less. Hillary says just the right thing about abortion rights.

Soon, Donald’s attention span is reaching its limit. Friends keep up a running commentary on Facebook: Is he saying “bigly”? The whole thing becomes almost surreal as it appears that Trump is now impersonating Alec Baldwin impersonating Trump on Saturday Night Live.

The evening ends with the reality TV star declaring he will not necessarily accept the results of the election. And with that he ensures his own place in the headlines for the rest of the week.

Red state?
Red state?

Saturday in suburbia: the Repat's election diary


Picture my friend Anne and me: Two well-educated women in our early fifties, with professional backgrounds in financial analysis and public health. We’re stay-at-home moms to a total of six teenagers. We’re not particularly religious. We both come from that kind of immigrant family that emphasizes education (not inheritance) as the way to get ahead. We drive minivans and feed our kids organic kale. We love Hillary Clinton, hate Donald Trump, and – because we happen to live in the Philadelphia suburbs – we’re the Republican Party’s worst nightmare right about now.

Analysis suggests Pennsylvania might determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and the Philadelphia suburbs could decide who wins Pennsylvania. Nearly 21% of the state’s voters live in four counties surrounding Philadelphia, and we are being showered with attention and inundated with campaign advertising.

Anne and I attended a cocktail party on Friday evening at which Madeleine Albright – America’s first female UN ambassador and first female Secretary of State – made a personal appearance. She talked about her experience working with Hillary Clinton, and it was energizing.

campaign-officeOn Saturday morning, the two of us reported for duty at the local Hillary Clinton campaign office, a small storefront here in town, furnished with folding tables, a random assortment of chairs, and decorated with campaign posters. A couple of campaign workers were there to greet us. We’d volunteered for that most American of campaign activities: canvassing.

To understand what canvassing is all about, you have to understand that Americans are less likely than Europeans to go to the polls on Election Day. In the last presidential election, in 2012, only 53.6% of the voting-age population actually voted. Election results are determined by who shows up. Canvassing means going door to door to encourage people to show up.

Hillary’s local campaign organizer, a 20-something Texan named Chase, gave us a map and a list of about 40 names and addresses in nearby neighborhoods – all were voters registered as Democrats. Our job was to go to each house and try to speak to the person on the list. Had they already decided how they were going to vote? Could we count on their vote for Hillary? Did they need more information about down-ballot candidates? Most importantly, would they be willing to volunteer between now and Election Day to get out the vote (GOTV)?

Several of the people on our list were students who’d gone away to college and no longer lived with their (not necessarily like-minded) parents. One was the husband of a friend. She readily volunteered (and I finally got to meet the new puppy I’d been hearing about). Half the people we were looking for weren’t home.

The neighborhoods had no sidewalks. We parked the car, walked from house to house in a cluster of addresses, and then drove on to the next cluster. Progress was slow, but it was a picture-perfect fall day. As the sun grew stronger, Anne fretted that she should have used more sunscreen. I pulled off my fleece and repositioned my Clinton/Kaine sticker onto my Hillary t-shirt. (Note to self: next time, wear a lint-free jacket!)

Most of those we spoke to were supportive. At one house, we met what must surely be the nicest lady in the county. It was actually her husband who was on our list. “He’s painting in his studio, but you can go knock on the door. I know he’d love to talk to you – he’s very upset about this election.” We followed her directions. Turns out the world’s nicest lady is married to the world’s nicest man, and he’s already volunteering with the GOTV effort.

At another house, the front door was behind a fence that was clearly built to contain a fierce animal. As we wondered how to proceed, a car drove up. The driver wasn’t the guy we were looking for: “That’s my brother. You can go through the gate. They have a dog, but it’s stupid.” Stupid enough to eat us for breakfast? The brother turned out to be a teacher, a solid Democrat, but juggling work and childcare with his wife, no time to volunteer. We could relate.

Four hours and a dozen conversations after we’d started, we returned to the campaign office. We’d recruited three new volunteers – a pretty good haul, we thought. Now, in the middle of the afternoon, the office was a scene of organized chaos. Men with union t-shirts were milling around on the sidewalk outside. People were going in and out, dropping off canvassing packets and picking up lawn signs, some of them speaking Spanish. Inside, kids from the local school and their mothers were all over the place, eating pizza and making phone calls to registered Democrats. Chase was grinning from ear to ear: “These kids have made 500 phone calls!”


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.


W is for Willkommenskultur

Photo credit: Schülervertretung Humboldtschule
Photo credit: Schülervertretung Humboldtschule

Willkommenskultur [welcoming culture] has just been declared the official Wort des Jahres [Word of the Year] in Austria. It sums up the aspirations of those in Austria and Germany who want to create a welcoming atmosphere for migrants, both institutionally and individually. Based on my own experience as a foreigner in Germany, I believe that Germans as individuals are often more welcoming and open than they give their society credit for, but the current challenge is immense.

I asked friends about their personal encounters with refugees and their experience as volunteers. I received many responses, but one stood out, and I want to share it. Our friend Martin and his family live in a small village (fewer than 4,000 inhabitants) in a rural region of southern Germany. Here’s his story:*


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!