Most of the participants from the United States landed in Berlin on the morning of Sunday, December 8. Although I didn't realize it until after arrival from my Newark connection, I had one participant (Heidi VanGenderen) behind me and another (Steve Southerland) in front of me on the plane.
Having traveled in Berlin on three previous trips, I felt comfortable with public transportation and opted for the bus/U-Bahn (subway) to get to our hotel. Poor Steve got roped in with me, as we had been chatting while we walked down the concourse. I think he probably would have taken a cab otherwise, but Steve played along good-naturedly. There was some slight confusion at the Zoologischer Garten transfer, until eventually we found ourselves walking up Friedrichstraße to our hotel, the Westin Grand in the former East Berlin.
Since my first visit to Berlin in 2002 (some 12½, years after the wall came down), the city has changed quite a bit. In 2002, the differences between West and East were much more pronounced both aesthetically and in attitudes. The central dividing point along the wall between Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz was not yet fully built out, and Berliners were still working through the idea of being a united city once again. These days, it feels like one large metropolitan area. One 20-something politician I chatted with at a dinner says that the younger generation does not think much about the once-divided aspect of the city. The Berlin Wall is an abstract concept to them. Something from the history books.
After getting settled in at the hotel, I met up with my friend Hero Warrings, who is a Managing Editor for Germany's RTL Television Network. Hero spent a week in Las Vegas just over a year ago as part of the RIAS-Berlin Kommission German American Journalist Exchange Program, and was able to broadcast a report on the US presidential elections back to RTL live from the Channel-3 studios. Hero took me to the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) in Gendramenmarkt a couple of blocks away from our hotel. You can see a bit of our visit in the video at the bottom of this page.
In the evening, members of the ACG Study Tour all met for the first time at the Café Einstein on Unter Den Linden ("Under the Lime Trees")--a famous boulevard on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate. It was a chance to at least lay eyes on everyone and start to put names with faces. Over the course of the next week, we would all get to know one another much better. And in fact, I would say I learned almost as much from side conversations with my fellow travelers of diverse backgrounds and approaches, as I did from the scheduled presentations. During bus trips, walks and chats between formal meetings, we all had chances to speak with each of the other participants one-on-one or in small groups, and get different viewpoints and specialized areas of knowledge.
But the most startling encounter on this first evening came shortly after sitting down at a table for dinner. I was at the end of a table surrounded by three or four people. Looking at the bio sheet, I saw that one--an Edward Stern--was from Colorado, where I have some family history. "What part of Colorado?", I asked.
"Mostly Denver these days," replied Edward. "Though I've spent a lot of time in a small town off the beaten trail called Crested Butte that you've probably never heard of."
"Actually, I have," I said. "In fact, I've spent a couple of days there almost every year since the early 90s, because my sister works there most summers, directing theater."
"Really..." Edward paused. "What's your sister's name?"
When I told him, Edward's eyes widened. "Not only do I know your sister," he said, "But I know you!"
Then my eyes widened. "Eddie!?!?!"
Sure enough...I had not put the name or the face together, but Eddie had dated my sister in Crested Butte some 19 years ago, which is when I had first met him. We'd also run into one another a couple of other times on subsequent Crested Butte visits, though it had been a a number of years. File this one in the "Small World" department. We'll get to Eddie again on the last day of this trip.
But back to the main order of business. I chatted briefly with an interesting guy named Tom Miller who is Director of Public Affairs for the U.S. Embassy in Germany. When talk turned to our previous experiences in Berlin and I mentioned my association with the RIAS-Berlin Kommission, Miller needed no back story. It turns out that he became the Deputy Chairman of that organization about a year ago. We would see Mr. Miller again.
The guest speaker was Dr. Norbert Röttgen, the Former Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety under Chancellor Angela Merkel from October of 2009 to May of 2012. Dr. Röttgen introduced us to three themes which we would be hearing much more about in the coming days:
1) First and foremost, the "Energiewende" (EN-er-gee-VEN-duh). The term was new to me, and it took me several hearings to catch on to what this new word was about. But by the time the trip was over, we had heard and used it several hundred times. In a nutshell, the Energiewende (or "energy transition") is a complex set of goals for Germany to aggressively reduce emissions, transition to renewables (primarily solar and wind, also hydro, thermal and bio) and phase out nuclear over the next three decades. We'll be getting into the nuts & bolts and challenges as time goes on.
2) The Grand Coalition. Our visit came a couple of weeks after the German election, where Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party prevailed, but along with their coalition partner the Free Democratic Party (FDP) did not get over 50% of the vote. So in order to form a government, there was a tentative "Grand Coalition" agreement with the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP). But the SDP was taking the unprecedented step of making the 180 page agreement available to its entire 480,000 person membership, who would then vote on the party's participation in the coalition. While passage was widely anticipated, the vote would not come until after our trip was over.
3) The NSA wiretapping scandal. Most Americans are familiar with the news stories about Edward Snowden leaking classified National Security Administration information, including--among many other things--wiretaps on the phone of Chancellor Merkel. While this news may have run its cycle in the US, it is still reverberating in Germany. The German government and the German people took great offense at this, and the US representation in Berlin has spent a lot of time hearing about it.
This was all basic groundwork. All of these things would become much clearer over the next few days. But first, an early return to the Westin Grand for a good night's sleep to get past the jetlag...and then on to the main program.