ALPEN, GERMANY — As my days in Germany come to a close, what question am I asked the most? Will I be happy to be going home?
The quick answer is always an emphatic “Yes,” with the added disclaimer that home is and always will be Cincinnati. And as wonderful as it is to see my family overseas and experience a foreign country, it just isn’t home. I hope they understand.
A cousin, who has been to America on a few occasions, said to me simply, “Some things are better here, other things are better there.”
True, I told him, but I think traveling abroad always adds a perspective and a chance to learn a few things about ourselves. Take driving.
The U.S. infrastructure is deteriorating right before our very eyes. Roads in Germany are beautifully manicured and, for the most part, extremely well-maintained.
Absent a speed limit, I was able to drive whatever I wanted on long, straight stretches of the Autobahn, Germany’s famous highway system that looks a lot like American highways — minus the annoying billboards.
Drivers here are simply allowed to go as fast as they want. I often would lock in the cruise control right around 110 miles per hour.
The downside to this situation might be that Germans need to get their cars’ brakes replaced more frequently. There’s nothing like a truck — required by law to go no faster than 60 miles per hour — moving into the left lane right in front of you to pass another car or truck. Slamming on the brakes is just a matter of course here.
Traffic lights are the same, except there are fewer of them and they give you a little warning before turning green.
Stop signs are rare. Germans opt for yield signs instead, putting trust in the driver to stop if necessary. Main streets are marked with yellow diamonds to indicate who has the right of way.
Like me, Germans believe we have much to learn from each other. They’re relieved, as am I, that American voters have elected a president who has all the markings of a great leader. Germans believe it’s critical the United States become a team player again, cooperative in world affairs rather than a bully with the biggest guns and a go-it-alone philosophy.
Germans have seen how that works out, and it ain’t pretty.
Germany isn’t perfect by any stretch. The racial segregation that keeps the U.S. from really living up to our fullest potential plays itself out in other ways here. Germans commemorated the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the beginning of Hitler’s reign of terror on Jews that later fully unfolded as the Holocaust, while I was here.
In Holland, just a few kilometers from the German border, my aunt, cousin, grandmother and I visited a war cemetery where more than 31,000 World War II German soldiers are buried. It was a somber place, as you’d expect.
I have two great uncles who were drafted into the Nazi army and died for their country and another who lived but was badly wounded. In my family’s house there are photos of them in the their German military uniforms, swastikas and all.
As we began to walk out of the cemetery, a group of about 30 men walked in, close together. Some were holding a red and white flag that read “Blood and honor.” They were dressed in all black, many wearing combat boots, several with their heads shaved. Neo-Nazis, it dawned on me. They held a ceremony in the center of the graveyard.
It was like running into a Ku Klux Klan rally.
About a week later, this time in Bremen in the north of Germany, I watched as police and fire officials stood by while another group prepared to march in protest through the town. They were dressed very similarly and, as I snapped photos, gave me the finger and yelled in unison “Asshole!” More Nazis? No.
These were the anti-Nazis, a different brand of extremists who themselves often act out violently. All this in a country that suffers from high unemployment and an economy that officially entered into a recession while I was here.
Germans have had to learn some tough lessons in their history. Americans, too, have had some trouble coming to terms with aspects of our past.
I’m happy to be an American, overjoyed to call the United States home. Sometimes, though, it’s others who teach us the most about ourselves.
CONTACT JOE WESSELS: firstname.lastname@example.org