Day one of the trip to the United States and we had one of the most bizarre episodes of “Die Bahn macht mich mobil” moments ever recorded in my time here in Germany. Actually we had two incidents but on the same train, an ICE-train to Frankfurt from Erfurt. And it involved a pair of seats and a retro-active reservation. A family boards the train in coach 21, expecting to have seats 81, 82, & 83 – with table and two of them next to the window. Another woman had the same seat reserved- seat 81. An elderly couple were sitting in two of the seats- 81 and 82- and refused to move. All three parties had their seats reserved. Which one of the parties lucked out and why?
Enter the conductor who speaks with a stuffy nose but has a Berlin accent but looks and behaves like Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, the first of most likely two Supreme Court nominees of President Trump. The verdict: the family is out of luck and has to sit somewhere else.
We found out that “Mr. Gorsuch” claimed that the train ticket was valid on the 6th instead of the 16th. AND here’s the kicker: That ticket was reserved on the 9th! Since when do you book retroactively, three days AFTER the trip had “taken place?”
How does the ticket person get out of this fix: Simple- defer responsibility on the customer. Tell the customer that the Deutsche Bahn has a disclaimer that says customers should pay attention to their ticket when they purchase it because they are not responsible for any mishaps that happen- all written in tiny little letters which require the magnifying glass.
Nice going, Gorsuch!
Same day, different situation, different place- Frankfurt Airport.
Sitting at Gateway 46 for hours, passengers going to Pittsburgh are becoming anxious and annoyed because our scheduled flight was for 4:00pm and it was well after the hour. One passenger decides to investigate the matter and ask the ticket agent who is extremely busy but was professional about it- friendly and persistent. End result: Gate 48 and we don’t leave before six!
The kicker here: The airline (Condor) offers us free drinks-including alcohol plus free premium entertainment for the entire flight to compensate the customers for the delay.
Now look at the difference between the two for a minute: one behaves like Gorsuch and chastises the customer and the other one apologizes and tries a “Wiedergutmachung” with the film and drinks. They are both German-run companies and they are both trying to win and keep their customers by providing the best service possible. Yet history shows if a provider makes a mistake and tries to defer responsibility onto the customers, chances are more likely that that provider will lose the customer more quickly than the one who makes the mistake, says sorry and makes up for it. It’s a principle I learned from working a hellish summer of 1997 for an eccentric restaurant owner in Iowa, which is always make the customer happy.
While some of things he did while working in a hot kitchen at 40° C left us scratching our heads, he realized that we were all human beings and sometimes mistakes can happen. Therefore if a customer was unhappy, he made sure that the food was done right. If not, he gave them a free dessert or cocktail of choice.
The Happy Customer model has worked for all businesses that provide services to their customers with a goal of winning and keeping them. If one defers responsibility, the customer leaves. If the provider begs and pleads for a positive feedback when addressing a problem by e-mail, the customer can also leave. The incident with the Bahn added to the pile of reasons for having bought a car for commuting purposes, which is a story saved for another time. Perhaps they should look to the likes of Condor to address their problems of service on the train.
And as for the second argument, that is in reference to the next entry on my trip through the States……
BTW: CHeck out this Genre of the Week about the Bahn. A song from the Wiseguys and more I will not say here. 😉
And to the person who taught everybody how to make the customers happy, enjoy your retirement. You taught us well. 🙂
This first article is the first of many to come as I embark on a road trip with my wife and daughter and try and answer the question of whether the American Dream still exists or if it is just a faded memory. The idea of a journal had several stories to go along with that. We’ll start off with my absence from the country. On our last visit in 2015, it was during the era of President Barack Obama and despite the States’ best relations with Germany, Europe and the allies, combined with a sound economy and low unemployment, the country was stuck with inner-strife both on social and political levels. Fast forward to this year, and we see a different environment. America is isolating itself, the conflicts have exacerbated and it feels like the country is on the verge of a civil war similar to what happened in Spain. Yet there has to be some bright sides to what is going on, right? That’s why I’m embarking on that journey to understand the logic of my (still) fellow countrymen from an outsider’s point of view and show the readers what I saw.
Another idea came from a presentation a former student colleague did for her student-teaching in Saxony a year ago. She wanted to know from me what the definition of the American Dream is and whether it exists. She teaches English and Geography on the high school level. And while this essay was based on my discussion with her on that topic, I’m hoping that my journey to Trump’s America will provide some light on some topics of concern, which includes our encounters with locals, discussions with family and friends and just simply looking at the landscape for people to see and better understand. And for me, as an American expat having resided in Germany for nearly 20 years, to understand.
So without further ado, the first entry here starts with this question:
What is an American Dream? Does it really exist?
This is one question that is really broad because of different success stories from people with different backgrounds, plus how it has developed since 1945. If one wants a very simple definition of the American Dream, it would be the strive for personal success, which means people grow up in a traditional family with siblings and two cars, who usually go to church on Sundays, involve themselves in extra-curricular activities in school to find their fame, find their sweetheart in high school whom they later marry, graduate and either go to college or take up a profession, and then repeat the cycle over and over again. But if I was to go by that definition, it would be similar to the question about freedom in America, which was discussed in an episode of Newsstory a few years ago and by today’s standards, the term of American Dream would be considered naive at best.
A link to a review I did a couple years ago is enclosed here:
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the success of the American Dream has not only been based on the materials they possess- be it clothing, cars, music they listen to, movies they watch and friends they have, but also based on the haves, have nots, used to haves, wished they had, wished they would’ve hads, etc., and I’ve seen that the success of the Dream has veered away from striving to become successful as a person to the strive to be associated with a certain group as a way of having a sense of belonging. This especially includes political affiliations for if you are a member of one political party, you alienate the others who are in the other party. If you don’t make the right amount of money to keep up with the Joneses, you are looked down upon as trash. If you cannot conform to the neighborhood, the neighbors will make sure you do with force. And if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, you don’t deserve to be in heaven. All of these senses of belongings started creeping up in the 1990s and have dominated the American scene ever since, especially since September 11, 2001 with the attacks on Washington and New York, which resulted in the lives of 3300 people being lost. Especially when we look at the key elements of money and power, religion and politics they have dominated the dinner tables and classrooms in the States and have destroyed families, marriages and even friendships because whatever opinion you might have, your own individual ideas and thoughts, don’t matter to the others because that’s not what they want in life. If you ask whether the American Dream still exists today as it was 25, 40, or even 50 years ago, in its original form, it no longer does because today’s American is raised to belong instead of raised to be individually successful. And if people look at you differently, they will make note of that either in person or through social media.
I’m actually happy that social networking never existed during my days in school because it would never have allowed me to be successful as a person because I was different from most people. I was raised poor with my parents having job-hopped during my time growing up. My father was a teacher before he became a robotics technician by the time I was in my last year in high school. My mom worked in many fields before settling down as a massage therapist and worked with people with developmental disabilities. The community in Minnesota I grew up in, had their typical American status quos where the baby-boomers and the war-generations had established themselves and it was expected that their kids were to follow their footsteps. If they fail or try and veer off in their own direction, they are looked down upon. This happened to me because of my dad’s father (my grandfather) being a successful American football player and sheriff of the county. Since my dad failed to live up to the family name, he tried to get me to make up for that, especially with American football. Didn’t work. The sport wasted my time and I wanted to spend time with other people, travel and take photos, bike and just be me. I had my own dream of becoming either a teacher or civil engineer and not having much “materialistic” items in the house got me to being creative with things from the nature when growing up. Despite all the bullying and peer pressure I got from my family and peers in school, I somehow bucked the trend and showed others that I could be better than others in things that are not mainstream and require pressure and boos from fans. But that was with direct confrontation and not what students are doing in school with facebook, twitter and other means of e-communication. Had that piece of media existed, I don’t know what would’ve become of me, to put it diplomatically speaking.
After high school, I followed the trend in going to college and collecting some very valuable experience, especially through travel and photography, but also through social work. Yet my breakthrough came when I met my college sweetheart who was from Germany and was doing her exchange program at my college. After she left I took her advice and went abroad- something that was absent in the American Dream, if looking at it from a naive person’s perspective- because a true American never lives abroad as everything he/she wants to have is in the States. However there are some like me who beg to differ and wanted to try something new, and learn new cultures, something that would make me a universalist like Emma Watson. To this day I have no regrets taking that step because I knew that I wanted to explore new places and try new things. It was at that time where I started my career as a teacher, something that I still enjoy as much as I do with writing.
But looking at the American Dream from a universalist perspective, and also from a modernist’s perspective, we see five different strands of Americans fulfilling their dreams:
The traditionalist role- following the footsteps of the forefathers by striving for a career, having a house and family and fulfilling the duties of going to church and engaging in social events in their own circles. The majority of people, esp. in rural areas still have this role even though the numbers are decreasing.
The universalist role- these are people who don’t follow the American Dream and are wanderers, looking for adventure until they settle down somewhere outside their home. This where I fit in. Ironically, two other classmates of mine are in that boat too, as they have been living in Germany since 2014.
The disadvantaged role- these are people who struggle to make a living because of adverse conditions, such as long-term unemployment, abuse, discrimmination and other social issues. Sadly this applies for over 65% of the American population and affecting all race. This also applies to the undereducated who are also ignorant.
The experimental role- these are people who instead of following the traditional role, they discover themselves through the creation of alternative lifestyles-regardless of whether they adopted them or created them. This also includes homosexuality, feminism, aethesism and the like. Basically it’s individual preference. These people usually don’t experiment with things from other countries so they don’t do much travelling outside the States unless they are doing it for a cause.
The multicultural role- these are people who used to lead the American Dream until they decided to travel for a while and see new cultures before they return home to share with others. I had one classmate who did just that, having left Minnesota for five states, three countries including Germany and then resettling in the States. Only a few of these kinds you will find in the country today
But the categories are not completely etched in stone as there are some outliers that have made it successfully despite having come from broken households. This applies to several players in the NFL and NBA who have come from that category but found their way to success, despite having still face adversity because of their skin color. Michael Oher (the film The Blindside) is the poster boy for this rags to riches category that still exists but the numbers have dwindled over the years. We also have some who followed the traditionalist line as a child but veered off to become a rebel and hippie, putting them into categories 2,4 and 5. That number has increased over the years because of their tiredness of being controlled by their parents regarding every step they take.
To summarize the debate and clear up the matter, the American Dream still exists today but definitely not in the form it used to be. And despite Donald Trump’s feeble attempts to right the country into that traditional role- which will never happen because he has been a symbol for dividing the country into the neo-right vs. neo-left (a recipe for a civil war similar to what happened in Spain in the 1930s)- the American Dream has branched off into several segments, each of which has its own ways of struggling to establish a foundation which families can thrive on, and each of them are so different that they can never get along unless they find one common ground that could destroy the US, such as climate change and all the fighting that has come from it. If they could at least look at the issues that threaten the existence of the American Dream in any way, shape or form and tackle them together without the use of religion, politics and other items dividing the country, then we can maintain this Dream for generations to come. Otherwise if they don’t, we won’t have much left of the US by the time our children reach our ages. And with my daughter closing in on the 10 mark at the time of this post, time is running short to make that change.
And from my experience, even if I’ve had my share of trials and tribulations as well as successes, if there is one thing we can learn from it, it is this: There is a thing called TEAM. Not like in German, where we have the Toll, Eine Andere Machts (I even witnessed that with our group presentation in Novels and Films with Volkmann a couple years ago), but this one I learned from football: Together, Everyone Accomplishes More. We just have to allow for others to develop their talents and utilize them to help others.
May the journey to find the good to turn things around begin. To be continued…..
There has been the call by Americans and people living outside the country to return America to what it was like when President Obama was in power. Barack Obama was US president from 2009 until 2017 and was touted as one of the greatest presidents of all time.
When he took over after George W. Bush stepped down, he inherited a country in shambles because of the housing crash, combined with high unemployment and issues involving the environment and infrastructure. Over eight years, the president brought the country back to its glory days under Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt, just to name a few. Yet everytime the country seemed to be going in the right direction, the next president decided to bring it down and implement his own policies to his own liking. And as we are seeing with Donald Trump and his cabinet, people are falling for his American First interest, which has indeed become personal interest.
But is this the America we know? Is this cycle very typical of America?
While some scholars and writers have said no because of the bright spots that presidents, politicians, movement leaders and grassroots organizations have created for the interest of Americans and other regions around the globe alike, others, like Langston Hughes (1902-1967) have claimed that this “Build-it-up-bring-it-down”, dog-eat-dog mentality is the fabric of the American society known to modernity. In this Genre of the Week, this poem looks at the ugly sides of America that we are seeing glaring before our eyes. The only difference is that this poem was written before his death in 1967.
Now why did he write this during the age of the 57 Chevrolet and the Baby Boomer generation? Have a look at the poem and feel free to coment on this. Enjoy! 🙂
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
The discussion about the preservation and reuse of historic places has existed since the 1950s, thanks to the preservation laws that have been in place. The German Preservation Laws were passed in 1958, whereas the Historic Preservation Laws that established the National Park Service and National Register of Historic Places in the USA were enacted in 1966. Both serve the lone purpose of identifying and designating places unique to the cultural identity and history of their respective countries. Furthermore, these places are protected from any sort of modernization that would otherwise alter or destroy the structure in its original form. Protected places often receive tax credits, grants and other amenities that are normally and often not granted if it is not protected or even nominated for listing as a historic site. This applies to not only buildings and bridges but also to roadways and highways, windmills, towers of any sorts, forts and castles, citadels and educational institutions and even memorials commemorating important events.
Dedicating and designating sites often receive mixed reactions, from overwhelming joy because they can better enjoy the sites and educate the younger generations, to disgruntlement because they want to relieve themselves of a potential liability.
Since working with a preservation group in western Saxony on saving the Bockau Arch Bridge, a seven-span stone arch bridge that spans the Zwickau Mulde between Bockau and Zschorlau, six kilometers southwest of Aue, the theme involving this structure has been ownership. The bridge has been closed to all traffic since August 2017 while a replacement is being built on a new alignment. Once the new bridge opens, the 150-year old structure will come down unless someone is willing to step in and take over ownership and the responsibilities involved. . Taking the structure means paying for its maintenance and assuming all responsibility for anything that could potentially happen. And this is the key here: Ownership.
Who wants to own a piece of history? To examine this, let’s look at a basic example of a commodity where two thirds of the world’s population wear on a regular basis- the author included as well: glasses.
Ever since Marco Polo’s invention, glasses have been improved, innovated and modernized to not only make the person look great in appearance. It also helps them to better see the environment surrounding them, regardless of whether they are near-sighted or far sighted, have astigmatism or require bi-focals to read, or if they want protect their eyes from the sun in the form of shades. Glasses can be plastic or metal (or even both). And like the historic structures, the materials can be recycled if no one wants them. Yet by the same token, many of us love to keep them for the purpose of memories or give them away to those who need them. For over 30 years, I have worn nine pairs of glasses and two pairs of sunglasses; this does not count the eight years that I primarily wore contact lenses, which was during my time in high school and college. Like our historic structures, glasses have a life span. They are worn until the frames develop rust and corrosion, the vision changes or they are broken.
In some cases, many look for a new frames because they want to “look cool” in front of their peers. The “look cool” mentality has overtaken society to a point where it can be applicable to about everything: cars, clothing, houses and especially historic places and structures of interest. Basically, people just ignore the significance of these structures and things that had been built in the past, which hold memories, contribute to the development of a country, region or even community, or are simply fashionable. Still in spite of all this, one has to do something about the glasses, just as much one has to do something about the historic building.
So let’s take these two pairs of sunglasses, for example. Like in the picture above, the top one I was prescribed by an optometrist in 2005; the bottom one most recently in June 2018. The top one is a combination of plastic and steel- the temples, ends and hinges are made of steel; the eye wires are plastic. The lenses are made with Carl Zeiss branded glass with a sealcoat covering to protect it from scratches. The bottom ones are plastic- frames, temples and nosepiece; the lenses are plastic but with a sealcoat protectant and dimmers to protect the eyes from the sun. The brand name is generic- no name. The difference is that the changes in the eyes required new sunglasses for the purpose of driving or doing work outside. As I wear the new sunglasses, which are not as high quality but is “cool,” according to standards, the question is what to do with the old sunglasses?
There are enough options to go around, even if the sunglasses are not considered significant. One can keep the old pair for memory purposes. Good if you have enough space for them. One can give them away to someone who needs them. If they are non-prescription lenses, that is much easier than those with a prescription. With the prescription lenses, one will need to remove them from the frame before giving them away. Then there is the option of handing them into the glasses provider, who takes the pair apart and allows for the materials to be recycled. More likely one will return the old pair to the provider to be recycled and reused than it would be to give them away because of the factors of age, quality of the materials and glass parts and especially the questions with the lenses themselves. One can keep the pair, but it would be the same as leaving them out of sight and out of mind.
And this mentality can be implemented to any historic structure. People strive for cooler, more modern buildings, infrastructure or the like, but do not pay attention to the significance of the structure they are replacing in terms of learning about the past and figuring its reuse in the future. While some of these “oldtimers “ are eventually vacated and abandoned, most of them are eventually torn down with the materials being reused for other purposes; parts of sentimental values, such as finials, statues and plaques, are donated to museums and other associations to be put on display.
One of examples that comes to mind when looking at this mentality are the bridges of Minnehaha County in South Dakota. The most populous county in the state whose county seat is Sioux Falls (also the largest city in the state), the county used to have dozens of historic truss bridges that served rail and automobile traffic. As of present, 30 known truss bridges exists in the county, down from 43 in 1990, and half as many as in 1980. At least six of them are abandoned awaiting reuse. This includes a rails-to-road bridge that was replaced in 1997 but has been sitting alongside a gravel road just outside Dell Rapids ever since. A big highlight came with the fall of five truss bridges between Dell Rapids and Crooks in 2012, which included three through truss spans- two of which had crossed the Big Sioux. All three were eligible for the National Register. The reasons behind the removal were simple: Abandoned for too long and liability was too much to handle
This leads me to my last point on the glasses principle: what if the structures are protected by law, listed as a historic monument? Let’s look at the glasses principle again to answer that question. Imagine you have a couple sets of glasses you don’t want to part ways with, even as you clean your room or flat. What do you do with them? In the case of my old sunglasses, the answer is simple- I keep them for one can reuse them for other purposes. Even if I allow my own daughter to use them for decorating dolls or giant teddy bears, or even for artwork, the old pair is mine, if and only if I want to keep them and allow for use by someone else under my care. The only way I would not keep the old sunglasses is if I really want to get rid of them and no one wants them.
For historic places, this is where we have somewhat of a grey area. If you treat the historic place as if it is protected and provide great care for it, then there is a guarantee that it will remain in its original, pristine condition. The problem is if you want to get rid of it and your place is protected by law. Here you must find the right person who will take as good care of it as you do with your glasses. And that is not easy because the owner must have the financial security and the willpower just to do that. Then the person taking it over does not automatically do what he/she pleases. If protected under preservation laws you must treat it as if it is yours but it is actually not, just like renting a house. Half the places that have been torn down despite its designation as a historical site was because of the lack of ownership and their willingness to do something to their liking. Even if there are options for restoration available, if no one wants it, it has to go, even if it means taking it off the historic registry list to do that. Sometimes properties are reclaimed at the very last second, just like the old glasses, because of the need to save it. While one can easily do that with glasses, it is difficult to do that with historic places, for replacement contracts often include removal clauses for the old structure, something that is very difficult to rescind without taking the matter to court.
In reference to the project on the Bockau Arch Bridge in Germany, we are actually at that point. Despite its protection as a historic structure, its designation was taken off recently, thus allowing for the contract for the new bridge at the expense of the old structure to proceed. Yet, like with the pair of old glasses, last ditch attempts are being made to stop the process for there are possible suitors willing to take over the old structure and repurpose it for bike and pedestrian use. While neither of the communities have expressed interest, despite convincing arguments that the bridge can be maintained at a price that is 100 times less than the calculated amount, the group working to save the bridge is forming an association which will feature a network of patrons in the region, willing to chip in to own the bridge privately. Despite this, the debate on ownership and the bridge’s future lies in the hands of the state parliament because the bridge carries a federal highway, which is maintained on the state and national levels. Will it become like the old pair of glasses that is saved the last second will be decided upon later this fall.
To summarize briefly on the glasses principle, glasses and buildings each have a short lifespan because of their functionality and appearance. We tend to favor the latter more than the former and therefore, replace them with newer, more modern and stylish things to keep up with the pace. However, the older structures, just like the discarded pair of glasses, are downgraded on the scale, despite its protection under laws and ownership. When listed as a historical site, the proprietor works for and together with the government to ensure its upkeep, just like lending old glasses to someone for use, as long as the person knows he/she is “borrowing” it. When it is not listed , they are either abandoned or torn down, just like storing the glasses in the drawers or even having them recycled. However the decision is final if and only if no one wants it, and this could be a last-second thing.
We cannot plan ahead for things that need to be built, expanded or even replaced, for there may be someone with a strong backbone and staunch support who will step in the last minute to stake their claim. This applies to replacing older, historic structures with modern ones that have less taste and value. In the face of environmental issues we’re seeing globally on a daily basis, we have to use and reuse buildings and other structures to prevent the waste of materials that are becoming rarer to use, the destruction of natural habitats that may never recover but most importantly, remind the younger generations of our history and how we got this far. While some of us have little memories of our old glasses in schools with the exception of school class and party photos, almost all of us have memories of our experiences at, in, or on a historic structure that deserves to be recognized and kept for others to see. It’s just a matter of handling them, like the glasses we are wearing.