Everyday Life

Regardless of where I live, I find that daily routines dominate life. I’m convinced that if I can’t derive joy from the everyday experiences then I’ll have difficulty deriving value in my life. Interestingly, some of my favorite memories of my time in Berlin are tied to those daily, mundane routines – as dull as they sometimes felt, they were defining characteristics of my experience. I think it’s important to say now that interning at the State Department was my first experience working a “9 to 5” (or in my case, 8:30 to 5:30) – this created a far more regimented schedule than I followed during university semesters.

One of the best looking cups of coffee I got in Berlin — gotta love oat milk Flat Whites

            I’ve talked about coffee already in these blogs, but every day starts with coffee. In my case, coffee starts with a hand grinder and an AeroPress. No later than 6:30 every morning I’d have a podcast on, fresh grinding my beans, and boiling water. Those quiet ten minutes set the tone for my day – if I miss my morning brew, I can tell my day just isn’t set up the way I want. My kitchen window (on the fourth floor) overlooked Gesundbrunnen, a neighborhood in the former Soviet section of Berlin. I saw some amazing sunrises – the apartment might not have been much, but that kitchen was home to the best 10 minutes of my day.

This isn’t the worst view I can imagine waking up to

            As noted, coffee essential to starting my day. But the gym is essential to finishing my day. I didn’t get off work until sometime around 17:30, and I didn’t really get anywhere fast in Berlin. So I wouldn’t get to the gym until sometime around 18:00, and I wouldn’t leave before 19:30 or 20:00 (I’m a self-acknowledged compulsive exerciser). But the thing that sticks with me about the gym isn’t really the workouts; it’s the commuting. In the US, I can’t imagine commuting more than about 30 minutes to get anywhere (a consequence of growing up in a small town). My shortest commutes in Berlin were ~30 minutes and commuting home from the gym would always take 45-60 minutes. I’d have to stop by the store for groceries 2-3 days during the week on the commute. Sometimes it would frustrate me since I’d just want to be home. I was frequently exhausted, spent from the day. But at the same time, I’m not sure I’d change it if I could. It gave me a new perspective – it taught me that there’s a lot more to life than what you see at University. It taught me patience; I needed to accept a 45-60 minute commute, because that was outside of my control. I learned a lot from that commute, and to be honest, I was ultimately able to let that hour be my time to decompress from the day.

It just doesn’t get old

            But there’s one true highlight from my time in Berlin: and that’s the Brandenburger Tor. For those unaware, the US Embassy in Berlin is on Pariser Platz, the square near the center of Berlin where the Brandenburger Tor stands. Every day I’d exit the S-Bahn station and walk up the stairs to, perhaps, the most iconic view in Germany. That view was new every morning; it never got old.

It’s beautiful at all times of day

            I’m grateful for the cool stuff I got to do while living in Berlin, but those aren’t the only memories with which I leave Germany. I’ll remember the peaceful mornings brewing coffee, the Brandenburger Tor coming into view from the S-Bahn station, long commutes home at night. It’s those little things that really make the experience memorable.

            P.S. (This title is borrowed from Coldplay’s latest album “Everyday Life” – give it a listen, especially “Orphans,” “Champion of the World,” and the titular “Everyday Life.”

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This will Change the World

Well, I’ll say this: I didn’t imagine that I’d intern with the State Department during the most significant challenge the world has faced in my lifetime. If you had told me that freedoms across the Western world would be restricted in response to COVID-19 just as in China, I’d have told you that could never happen. That we’re be facing a financial crisis that’s likely greater in magnitude than that of 2008 – it’s staggering. The world, the economy, the way of life that we all thought was resilient and stable, just isn’t. My boss at the State Department was repeatedly said that “everyone’s going to know where they were doing the Coronavirus crisis. It’s this [my] generation’s 9/11.”   

From an overarching perspective, a few things strike me about this outbreak. First, the fragility of our economic system is shocking. Having watched this outbreak closely from a single nation’s perspective, its startling to see how a system that seemed so strong, so resilient, can crumble in the space of two weeks. When I got to Berlin in early February, we were just reporting on potential downstream economic consequences from China’s shutdown. We weren’t really looking at a potential outbreak in Germany. I don’t think any of us saw it coming; no one planned for an outbreak, much less one of this scale. And even two weeks ago, as of writing this, I was just a tourist in Copenhagen – flights were still mostly full, very few people had any sort of mask on, and life more or less went on as normal. Today, 90% or more of the scheduled flights in Berlin and Amsterdam have been cancelled and there’s probably someone with a mask on every row of this plane; there are no tourists. In airports, there’s a pervasive sense of impending calamity. It’s a different world than two months ago.

The fragility of the system has come through in my research on government responses to COVID-19 – it’s never felt like the government knew what to do. They’ve been playing catch-up, intensifying restrictions as the virus afflicts greater and greater swaths of the population. This isn’t just true for Germany – it’s true for virtually every nation in the Western world. The system that I assumed was solid enough to weather virtually any storm . . . just wasn’t.

Second, the human impact of COVID-19 is shocking. The terror of the virus came long before the virus itself. We saw “hamster buying” – hoarding essentials like toilet paper, eggs, and non-perishable foods – a stigma against those of east Asian descent (a stigma that still persists), and I’d argue a general discomfort of our fellow people (because we don’t know who has COVID-19). One needs only look at the disastrous situation in Northern Italy to see the necessity of quick and decisive action limiting social interactions, but we can’t allow these measures to pull our intention into ourselves exclusively. Now is not the time to lose our connection to others. There’s tremendous uncertainty on all fronts for us all – let’s not add isolation on top of the uncertainty that already permeates society.

As a part of my reporting on COVID-19 at the State Department, I read stories of hospitals being robbed of personal protective equipment (like respirators and the like). I’ve seen stories of people ignoring social distancing restrictions – choosing their temporary wants over the good of society. Let’s not be like them; let’s choose to act in ways that put the good of society first – if there’s one thing that came through virtually all the messaging in Germany, it was this: as citizens, we have the ability to control the effects of COVID-19 on the world. We can take actions that allow the healthcare system to support the burden. Chancellor Merkel said it well: this is the greatest crisis faced by Germany (and possibly the world) since WW2.

I don’t know what the future holds; when social distancing’s efficacy in slowing the outbreak will be seen, if we’ll become a more coherent or isolated society, etc. There are many unknowns. But one thing is certain: COVID-19 will change the world.

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Gratitude

As I get older (which feels ironic at 21), the importance of expressing gratitude is made clearer and clearer to me. In that spirit, looking back at my two months in Germany, I’m struck by all the awesome stuff I got to experience. I visited Dresden, Prague, Cologne, Düsseldorf (unfortunately), Wroclaw, and Copenhagen. Besides that, I was living in Berlin, and Berlin is pretty awesome, not going to lie. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to travel, and even though my experience was different than I expected, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. On the topic of travel, I just have to mention Prague. Every street corner looks like a fairy tale, the Prague Castle complex is probably my single favorite landmark in Europe. It’s a bit crowded, but it deserves every bit of the attention it gets. Prague also has (in English) Chimney Cakes – delightful baked treats that can be slathered in Nutella to become even better.

            But Prague doesn’t have a monopoly on cool things – The Cologne Cathedral is awe inspiring. The imposing verticality, the mixture of monolithic permanence and spiritual elegance, is a sight to behold. I got to see a quartet perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. They were frankly fantastic – it’s probably the most fun I’ve had a concert. And on the topic of music, I have to mention a street performer in Dresden who did acoustic covers of classic rock songs; I could’ve listened to him all night. I saw some incredible modern art at K20 in Düsseldorf – Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso are incredible artists; it’s not just a question of form, they have an incredible ability to communicate torment, joy, confusion using a only few brushstrokes. But on the topic of art, I also found my new favorite artist at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Denmark. Anna Ancher is a Skagen artist, and her work, in perhaps a wild understatement, made me feel things. Her works are beautiful, emotive, (in a word) human. However, I’d say the single artistic highlight of my time in Berlin was a Jan Van Eyck at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin – he’s just an astonishing artist.

I didn’t just get to see lots of awesome art, there’s also great coffee everywhere; and I certainly had plenty of it. This one coffee shop in Copenhagen had an awesome espresso blend that had strong, clear notes of strawberry; I think it might be my favorite cup of the trip. I had some fantastic breakfasts in Poland, great pizza in Prague (of all places), an awesome hamburger in Dresden, and my favorite donuts of all time that also happen to vegan in Berlin. You could say that food was an important part of my experience.

I’m grateful for the experience to intern at the State Department – I didn’t have any experience in an office environment before, and I hadn’t even interned anywhere previously either. It was a great first experience. I got experience on working eight-hour days (that’s not a nothing experience), reporting on a whole range of topics, and engaging with another governmental system. Even though my time there got cut short, I wouldn’t trade that experience for a semester at university.

Just like before, I’m ready to go back to Europe. See more things, eat good food, drink great coffee, and see some incredible history. I’m grateful for the time that I had, and I’ll always remember that on this trip to Europe, I didn’t just get to see historical sites: I saw history in the making.

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Staple Foods in Egypt

I imagine that for many of us in the United States, it’s hard to appreciate the full import of staple foods, largely because it’s not a concept that exists within our culture. Generally speaking, a staple food is one upon which a diet is based, but its importance is far greater than that. Culturally, it is a commodity without which one cannot feel safe and secure in their land and life. While in the United States we generally don’t place such stock in one particular food, the same is not true everywhere. Specifically, in Egypt, the staple food is bread. Regardless of the other food available a family or individual might have available, if they do not have bread, then they might as well have no food at all. As a result of its importance to Egyptian culture and security, bread has been the source of great national unrest in Egypt. When the price of bread skyrocketed, and its availability was reduced, there were riots in the streets of Cairo protesting the government’s actions and ludicrous price of bread.

My awareness of the situation in Egypt is based off the work of a professor, Dr. Jessica Barnes, who teaches at the University of South Carolina. Her research is focused on Egyptian culture. She is in the process of writing a book that discusses Egyptian dependence on foreign wheat and the consequences thereof, given the country’s dependence upon bread. The logistics of the wheat industry in Egypt are fascinating, and the effects far-reaching.

The availability of bread is uncertain for many Egyptians because of financial limitations and a significant dependence on international wheat. In fact, Egypt is the largest importer in the world of wheat. Approximately half of the wheat used Egypt is sourced from outside the country. Given the strong relationship between a stable wheat supply and populace happiness, the government invests significant effort keeping wheat supply stable. This is challenge given the necessity of importing large quantities of foreign wheat, and its process has been frequently plagued by both corruption and paranoia.

Dr. Barnes’ presentation focused on the efforts of individuals on all levels of society, from the government’s effort to import adequate amounts of wheat to the residents of Cairo depending on (what is in essence) a “bread card”, allowing them to purchase adequate bread for their lives. She also discussed the rural farmers of Egypt who not only produce wheat for the nation but also for themselves. Each strives to provide a measure of security to their lives and the lives of those around them through effort to procure enough bread for their lives.

As I learn more about other cultures, I appreciate more and more both the commonalities and differences that exist in the world. Yes, we live in different places, under different systems of government with different levels of comfort in our lives. And yet, when it comes down to it, we are all looking for comfort and security in our lives. Now, the paths we follow to reach this comfort are vastly different. In Egypt, that comfort and security is grounded in the possession of enough bread to eat. What is it for you?

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Brazilian Politics and the Rainforest

I know that for most of my life I’ve imagined the Amazon as an expansive, untouched wilderness that is filled with an astonishing diversity of creatures, some unique among every other species on earth. As it turns out, although some of this assessment is fairly accurate, several of the assumptions I’ve made about the Amazon are not particularly accurate. Perhaps most importantly, the Amazon is not untouched. I recently watched a Vox YouTube video detailing how the expansion of Brazilian agricultural and forestry industries has impacted protected indigenous lands within the rainforest. Many tribes have lived on the same land within the rainforest for hundreds of years but in the mid-to-late 1900s, their lands began to be constricted by a booming industrial sector that thrived off the abundant natural resources of the Amazon.

Fortunately, the Brazilian government acted, protecting their historic lands. However, industries have cleared significant swaths of rainforest surrounding these lands, leaving only the tribes’ small pockets of land as the remaining rainforest in some areas. The political tides in Brazil have swung toward a reduction in rainforest production in recent years. FUNAI, the government agency dedicated to the Amazon’s protection, has had its budget significantly reduced. Further, enforcement of many existing laws regarding the Amazon’s protection has been either reduced or eliminated. As a consequence of these changes, illegal encroachments into natives’ lands by many industries have skyrocketed, specifically within the last year. These encroachments are frequently accompanied by threats warning against retaliation, leaving the native population frightened and unsure of where to turn.

I would argue that it is simple to understand that the Amazon is an invaluable natural resource – one that is essential to the world’s climate. The Amazon is an irreplaceable natural wonder – and for that reason only ought to be protected. Further, those whose heritage is within the rainforest should have that heritage protected – they should be able to live upon their land without fear of having their home taken away. To anyone who is interested in learning more about this issue, I’ll attach the links to the videos used in reference to this video – I hope you all find them as informative and interesting as I did.

Links:

“Brazil’s Indigenous Land is being Invaded” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGjRNbXeRXI

“The Destruction of the Amazon, Explained” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAZAKPUQMw0

 

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On Pastries and Internships

There are many things that I miss about Germany. The cold, kind-of blustery days spent discovering historic cities, exploring Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets), Dönner kebabs, among others. But I think the thing I miss most is the plethora of delightful pastries, purchasable at almost every corner. It’s hard to find baked goods that are quite that good here in the US. But I got a throwback to those delights the Friday before Thanksgiving, thanks to efforts of the OU German Club. At their annual Weihnachtsbäckerek (essentially Christmas baking), one instructor brought a traditional Austrian cookie, Vanillekipferl. These cookies are essentially a shortbread with almond flower, providing them with a subtle sweetness that can be increased with a dusting of powdered sugar. I’m a sucker for baked goods, and those hit the spot. They’ll definitely be incorporated into my Christmas traditions from here on.

The German Club provides many opportunities to experience German (and Austrian) culture throughout the semester, opportunities that enhance my appreciation for the unique and storied history of that region of the world. Additionally, the German Club provides its members with the knowledge needed to take advantage of opportunities to study or intern abroad. At this same event, they included information about an agency that coordinates internships for interested students in Germany. One of the barriers to entry to this program was possession of a Lebenslauf (resumé in German). Although I don’t currently have the requisite skills to create this document, I hope to take classes that will continue to increase my skill in the German language. The German Club is an invaluable resource for enhancing my immersion in German culture, and I hope to take greater advantage of those resources in the future.

South American Anti-Corruption Politics

Power corrupts. It certainly could be said to be generally true, and it’s a problem that is combatted in nearly every government in the world. In particular, South America is known for its struggle with and against corruption, an effort that continues into the present. The struggle in South America was discussed by two professors at OU at an international event that focused on corruption and the fight against it in Peru and in Brazil.

Corruption takes a variety of forms across the world – but the most common type discussed in this lecture was businesses taking advantage of government connections to make tremendous amounts of illicit profit. In both Peru and Brazil, companies would contribute significant resources to elect certain leaders who could provide government contracts – significant sources of virtually guaranteed revenue. Once these businesses, frequently large and potentially even popular with the citizens, had gained these contracts, they would drive up the costs significantly. This resulted in, essentially, the theft of millions, and in some cases billions, of taxpayer dollars.

As a consequence of this corruption, many politicians in South America have, in recent years, made strong (apparent) stands against corruption. Many of these leaders have ultimately been shown to be corrupt – accepting bribes from corporations to provide them with favorable rulings. Even judges, whose careers in the public eye had been made through strong anti-corruption campaigns have been shown to have been living in the pocket of these very same corporations.

In both Peru and Brazil, the situation seems to be improving in small ways, and corruption is certainly down from its all-time highs. The way forward is unclear, however. For virtually the entirety of their existence, the governments of Brazil and Peru have, at a minimum, existed with ever-present corruption. Should this corruption be eliminated, civil unrest would almost certainly follow, due to the dramatic changes in government structure. This is not an argument for corruption – rather, it is an acknowledgement that the situation is never black and white. There are always shades of gray.

P.S. One thing that I found very interesting at this talk is that at least some of what is considered corruption in South America, namely the participation of businesses in election through the contribution of funds, is legal in the United States. It makes one consider, at the least, what actually makes corruption wrong? And further, what actually is corruption?

 

 

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The Reunification of Korea

Among the most oppressed countries on earth is North Korea. South Korean leaders, with support of other nations, have attempted at various times to open peace talks with North Korean leadership, although the consensus is that little has been achieved through these talks. There are many challenges facing any unification effort, including enormous costs of reunification and incredible cultural disparities between the nations.

The significant challenge of potentially reunifying Korea can be likened to the reunification of Germany, a work still in progress. Although it has been 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still challenges Germany faces to become unified in the eyes of all it’s citizens. Many former East Germans still experience less prosperity than their former West German countrymen, and some still feel like “second-class citizens.” As they first entered West (reunified) German society, they expected that they would immediately reach the same level of affluence enjoyed by West Germans. This was not the case, and today there still exists a continuing effort to overcome the two economies’ differential. At the time of reunification, West Germans made ~2 to 3 times as much as East Germans.

Bringing this conversation back to the reunification of Korea, South Koreans today make nearly 25 times as much as the average North Korean – a staggering difference in the wealth of these two nations. The costs of overcoming this wealth gap would be undeniably massive – certainly in the many trillions of dollars.

A wealth gap is not the only challenge facing unification – another tremendous and saddening issue is the health of North Koreans. This was not a challenge experienced by Germany, and, as such, there is virtually no extant information on how one could appropriately handle such a challenge. Many North Koreans have diseases that are significantly less frequent in more developed nations with strong healthcare systems. Tuberculosis, parasitic worms, and Hepatitis C afflict a large swath of the North Korean population. Should reunification successfully be initiated, the government will have to create a plan to provide healthcare to and improve the health of the population of North Korea.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the cultural disparities between North and South Korea must be overcome. Even in Germany, where the cultural differences were comparatively small, there remain distinct political divides between former East and West Germany. Alternative für Deutschland stands as a representative of this divide. The cultural divide between North and South Korea is far more severe. South Korea is a strongly developed democracy, while North Korea is a ruthless and brutal dictatorship, one that allows any of its citizens few, if any freedoms. One defector who occupied a high place in North Korean government was given virtually no choice in his life. He was told to attend a university, he was told what he would study there, he was told what his job would be. Even high-ranking individuals are given no choices in life. This man was unprepared for life in South Korea, and today still struggles with the many choices that most of us consider a normal part of day-to-day life.

Its humbling to realize how little I know – it’s a big world out there. As I researched this post, I was struck by how little I actually knew about North Korea – the challenges faced by the people, the fight for unification, and even the challenges facing successful unification, after the process is begun. I’m reminded that I ought to look out more – after all, it’s so easy to get caught up in your own (or my own) world, wherever that world might be. And regardless of anything else, this story made me realize that there are people, many people out there, in need of help. And I need to do something about that.

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A Growing Threat?

In today’s volatile political climate, ascertaining the truly important aspects of (frequently dramatized) news stories is a consequential challenge. Within reason, especially in print mediums, American news outlets successfully inform the public on current events. However, as dramatic stories attract more viewers, television news outlets, as well as newspapers and the like, frequently focus on sensational events, sometimes letting equally important, if less exciting issues, fall through the cracks. One of these less sensational issues is the United States’ growing competition with China.

Dr. Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University, came to OU early in April to discuss the United States’ growing competition and “whole-of-government pushback” against China. China is rapidly becoming one of the most powerful economies in the world, currently standing (with respect to GDP) second only to the United States. Many politicians in Washington on both sides of the aisle are concerned about the growth of the Chinese economy and the impact that it could have on America. In particular, China’s influence in technology is enormous, and, according to Dr. Sutter, their goal seems to be becoming the dominant force in technological development in the world.

This desire for dominance is significant on a number of counts. First, the U.S. military is highly reliant on the United States being at the forefront of technological innovation. A Chinese takeover of this arena could, without exaggeration, pose an “existential threat” to the national security of the United States. Second, if the U.S. loses its status as the dominant world economic power, the dynamics of world politics will dramatically shift.

Dr. Sutter concluded by saying that he believed that China poses a greater threat to the United States than virtually any other nation or challenge today. He argued that something needs to be done on this front – but only time will tell if our strategies are effective.

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The Arab World Today

I cannot, and will not, claim to be any sort of an expert on the Middle East. I had only a cursory knowledge of current challenges prior to attending an event, hosted by OU’s college of International Studies, in March of this year. Although I can’t say I know much, I do feel like I, at least, have some concept of how much I don’t know about the challenges currently facing the Arab world. Since 2010, their has been significant unrest across many nations in the Middle East as the populace rises up, demanding improvements from their leaders.

Unfortunately, change never comes easily. The rulers in the Middle East, by and large dictators, regardless of whether they claim that title, are unwilling to relinquish their power. This is not unique to them; unfortunately, their desire to retain as much power for as long as possible implies that the unrest shall continue for a significant period of time, with rulers using virtually any means necessary to retain their authority. On the topic of authority, power comes, first and foremost, from money. And virtually all of the money in the Middle East is somehow tied to oil. The most economically powerful countries are tightly connected to the oil, often attracting the best workers from across the Middle East. A significant portion of the high incomes that can be earned in these countries is sent back, helping to keep the poorer countries running smoothly. Somewhat surprisingly, foreign governments are often responsible for keeping dictators in power, providing them with desperately needed funds. All this is to say, for the leaders currently in power in the Arab world, money is the essential ingredient to power retention.

Although there are still many significant problems facing the Arab world today, there are signs that things may be improving. And according to the speaker, the less involved foreign governments are in the affairs of the Middle East, the more rapidly change will occur. He does not believe that the Arab spring is spring – rather, he argues that it will be carried through until things improve in the Middle East.

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