Student reflections from the course
Do you believe in love at first sight? I do now. The moment I stepped foot on German land I was captivated by its beauty and its incredibly unique vibe. Being raised in Mexico, and living in South Texas for almost 7 years now; I was rarely exposed to the amount of snow I saw when I got off that plane and let me tell you, I loved it. Definitely, I cannot generalize any of my perceptions nor can they all be applied to all German culture. With that said, what is being shared on this paper is only part of my experiences during the beginning of 2015 in Munich, Dachau, and Starnberg.
First thing I noticed when I walked out that plane and arrived to the Munich Airport is that in comparison to Mexico and the United States, “small talk” isn’t quite as I know it. In both Mexico and the United States, you can politely ask someone how they are doing and you might get a small simple answer that will set the ground for you to say a closing statement and continue with whatever it was you were doing. In order to start a more engaging and in depth conversation, more specific and detailed questions should be asked in order to avoid “small talk”. That was definitely not what I experienced when I exchanged a few words with the first German people I met. A simple “how are you?” can lead to a quite extensive and detailed answer.
I remember feeling a little disoriented and asking for directions when I first arrived to Munich. I’ll never forget when I approached a young lady and initially said “Hi, how are you? Do you know where luggage claim is?” Her response included information on how long her flight had been and how tiring it was to cope with a person snoring right next to her for almost the entire flight. After she had explained in detailed how she was, she proceeded to tell me where baggage claim was. I remember telling this story to classmates as if it were a unique situation. However, I ended up running in similar situations with rather long talk than small talk when I greeted other Germans in my stay in their beautiful country. I must admit I was captivated by it, I had heard some stereotypes of Germans being rude but I never experienced anything that would support such stereotype. On the contrary, my stay in the country was pleasant and I felt welcome. Another aspect in which German culture differs from Mexico’s and the United States’ is proximity and personal space. In Mexico, it’s not uncommon to talk to someone you know and stand pretty close to them as long as you know them. Now, if you don’t know them, you’d keep an arm’s length distance while having a conversation just as most people do in the United States.
While waiting in lines to pay at convenience stores or restaurants, most Mexican and US Citizens would also remain an arm’s length apart from the person in front and the person behind them. That was not the case in my encounter with proximity in German culture. I remember feeling pretty uncomfortable the first time I stood in line at a store since the person behind me was extremely close to me in comparison to what I’m used to. I remember turning my head repeatedly as a sign of discomfort hoping the person behind me would take a step back. Yet, it never happened. After experiencing this proximity issue repeatedly I came to realize it’s not unusual for Germans to stand very close to each other in lines, in the metro, in buses and so on.
During conversation, I also noticed Germans aren’t concerned or bothered by close proximity. I remember having a beer one time at the bar of the Jaeger’s Hostel and meeting a two young men from Frankfurt. As we talked, I took a step back whenever I felt they were too close to me but never felt it was an issue for me. The steps back were more of an automatic response I’m used to. I never expressed discomfort because I was really enjo ying our conversation. Nevertheless, I noticed one of them probably felt offended by my marked need of space as he asked “are you OK?” The awkwardness of the situation was calmed with a simple explanation of mine that ended up leading to a more enjoyable conversation.
After the first three days in Munich, I realized small talk was not something Germans were used to and that in order to be respectful I shouldn’t ask questions I wouldn’t give them time to respond appropriately. I also learned that proximity isn’t an issue for them and that I shouldn’t be concerned about it unless I felt threatened (which never happened).
Solidarity is a necessary factor to have for a well-developed welfare system. Germany holds the idea that falling into poverty could happen to anyone, even themselves, which means that citizens are okay with paying into the system through high taxes. Whereas, the United States as a whole believes everyone is on their own and therefore citizens should not have to pay into a system to support another individual.
The welfare system brings up concerns of public attitudes toward the system and questions which individuals/groups are receiving benefits. In the United States, people generally ask themselves whether a person on welfare is deserving versus undeserving and who should be responsible for providing these benefits, the individual or society (Horton & Gregory, 2010). Unfortunately, society as a whole in the United States thinks that the burden should fall on the individual and that this individual can get out of poverty by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Germany as a whole, accepts a universal view of the welfare system. Germany believes people are deserving and that individuals should have an opportunity to get out of poverty with outside help.
There are pros and cons to both outlooks, targeting versus universalism. Targeting a specific population, such as the poorest individuals is the most efficient way to spend money and redistribute resources (Horton & Gregory, 2010). However, targeting certain individuals and groups of people can raise many negative outlooks. Some of the harmful consequences include, a risk of fostering stigma toward people receiving benefits, an increase in resistance toward welfare policies, and a decrease of willingness to contribute through taxes (Horton & Gregory, 2010). Universalism provides wider coverage to individuals and is better at tackling the issue of poverty (Horton & Gregory, 2010). Yet, this type of welfare system will cost more money to the taxpayers (Horton & Gregory, 2010).
Through my 10 day experience in Germany, the site visits demonstrated how a universal system truly benefited these organizations. The organizations did not seem as concerned about the lack of funding as many site representatives mentioned they did not have to do much outside fundraising. Whereas in the United States, many non-profit organizations rely on donations and grants to subsidize their programs, which puts them at risk of closing down if they do not receive that necessary piece of funding. Additionally, government funded programs cannot always serve a large number of people because of the lack of money from the state or federal government.
I do not see the United States ever implementing a socialized view on the welfare system. Some people in the U.S. are not interested in paying higher taxes toward a system that does not benefit themselves directly. Unfortunately, many citizens of the U.S. are too concerned about their own well-being and unwilling to help individuals who are less fortunate. A targeting welfare system only deals with immediate issues of poverty and many times fails to get people out of poverty in the long-term (Horton & Gregory, 2010). On the contrary, a universal welfare system is better at making tangible and long-lasting changes to poverty (Horton & Gregory, 2010).
The course allowed me to better understand the differences of the welfare system between Germany and the United States. There are positive and negative aspects to both approaches, however, I hope the United States can move to a more universal system, so that there is less stigma toward individuals receiving benefits. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to succeed and the welfare system is one way to provide an equal playing field for individuals in poverty.
Horton, T. & Gregory, J. (2010). Why solidarity matters: The political strategy of welfare design. The Political Quarterly, 81(2), 270-276. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2010.02083.x
When I decided to take the Global Seminar in Munich, Germany, I really had no idea what to expect regarding what Germany would be like as a country, and simply as a place to visit. It’s dark and storied past seemed so paramount as it’s legacy, as someone who had never visited the country before, let alone any country in Eastern Europe. Yet I knew a handful of people who had visited more recently, discussing vacation time there like they were talking about any other country in the World.
As a Jewish child and teenager and even adult, I had heard stories, seen movies, read books, and even visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam – any visuals and mental pictures, even emotional feelings of Germany were from these experiences. I could so viscerally see the rows of the soldiers in the military saluting Hitler, Hitler himself, a swastika, and of course, all of what I had heard and seen in pictures and movies of the concentration camps.
But I also knew that those visuals were old, yet I had nothing to replace them with. I was wildly curious. Especially because I knew that my best friend’s mother, a Jewish Israeli, and avid traveler who had been all over the world, loved to visit Germany. I still had no idea what to expect.
What I found after spending a week in Munich, to me, was a profoundly lovely and fascinating country. I found myself falling in love with the place. Aspects I learned about Germany while there - that in some respects I feel that I was deeply ignorant, or, at least uniformed and uneducated -were many. Firstly, I learned that Germany is a country still trying to make amends for it’s past. That the country and it’s people, at least from what I learned and experienced, are ashamed and feel regret and remorse for what happened there. That the plaque in Dachau, so well known, that I am so happy to have seen myself, decreeing the words “Never Again” in several different languages including German, English, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish - seem to reverberate loudly throughout the country and it’s people.
Other aspects I learned about the country relating to what I have written above is that it is a pacifist country, aware of the dangers of nationalism, and militarism. It felt progressive, open to learning and entertaining new thoughts and ideas.
The agency visits, and meeting those who ran the agencies, the Germans and the country itself felt like a country who cares about it’s people, and takes responsibility for caring for them. From the visits to the homeless agency, the AIDS/HIV intervention agency, the Refugio, and even the senior living facility in Starnberg, there was a caring and empathic feeling from the staff, that I have rarely felt in US agencies and organizations for such vulnerable populations. I can still viscerally picture and hear the smile and giggle of the Director of the Senior Home, and how happy she was with what she was doing in helping to provide the elderly with a fulfilled and healthy lifestyle – this agency was the most cheerful and optimistic-feeling “old-age home” I had ever seen. I remember thinking I would like to live my elder years here and jokingly told friends at home that I had found a place for us in a few years.
I remember the therapist at the Refugio, her hushed, careful, and empathic tones she used in dealing with her clients, and the gratitude the refugee women showed and spoke of in their own words and tones. Again, I was beyond impressed and moved with these agencies and how they were caring for their people, and even those who were not their own, but came to their land for safety.
Finally, I felt that Germany to me felt very international and open, not an ethno-centric country, isolated from the world around it. I was able to use my Spanish daily to speak to the staff at the hotel, and met people from Turkey, England, Spain, France and Russia.
For all these reasons, I fell in love with Munich. From the people I met and everything I learned, my time there will forever hold a deep place in my heart; I was wildly surprised, and I think because of that gripped, by what a special, and deeply interesting, place I found it to be.