The coming of the apocalypse in most people’s minds usually involves the destruction of Earth. Today’s news from Russia was certainly disturbing–and for once it didn’t have anything to do with Putin. Meteorites hit Russia’s Ural Mountains, and while nobody was killed, thousands of people were injured when windows on the upper-floors of buildings exploded, sending glass shards everywhere. The Christian world, it would seem, is facing a crisis: the recent news of Pope Benedict XVI resigning from his post of head of the Holy Roman Catholic Church has left the world’s Catholics in disarray. And while I am strongly against homophobia, for Conservative Christians I am sure the fact that France adopts a law allowing gay marriage is another sign that the world is going bonkers. For me, the fact that people are still protest the law is important-and not in a good way. What do these things mean for international relations? Plenty.
The trace of a meteorite’s trail in Tcheliabinsk, sourced from Lemonde.fr
Le Monde reader “Elizabeth Daunis” commented on an article about Russia’s meteor shower saying “pour quoi, alors Que la tere est ronde, tourne sur Elle meme etc. est-ce toujours en Union Sovietique que ca tombs. La poisse?” At first one might be tempted to say that this reader is trolling, deliberately trying to say something stupid. But Internet trolls, as people who like to stir up emotions with radical statement are known, do sometimes reflect popular sentiments of a segment of he population. “Elizabeth’s” comment indicated two very important things: one, that she may think that either the Russian government is making up the meteorite event or that other world governments are covering up other meteor showers, and two, her using the name Soviet Union indicated that she likely thinks unfavorably of a nation which hasn’t been Communist or Soviet in more than twenty years.
Thus, even though the meteor might have showered down over a remote part if Russia, it still effects the whole world. Even governments cannot stop the laws of nature, although they can certainly try to cover them up of make them seem like something else. Apparently, what is clearly an actual event where people got hurt in the face of nature turns into a political discussion. Perhaps this is because man cannot control nature, try so very hard as he does.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (that might be a good idea at this point) then you’ve probably heard of asteroid 2012-DA 14which is passing dangerous close to Earth–the one with the 45-meter diameter. It would behoove the nations of the work to cooperate with each other in an event hat something like a asteroid hit actually occurred. I also believe that governments should share information they have in the science fields, because i think it’s wrong and utterly inhuman that one country wants to have a monopoly on information that could help save lives in another one (this kind of hearkens back to my comments on space exploration). When it comes to natural disasters, the disaster can only be mitigated by how well we work together.
Another example (at least for Christians) that the sky is falling, although not literal: the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the first pope to do so since the Middle Ages (to be precise, the last Pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415). I’m not sure what all the hoopla is over, at least on a practical level: if the pope had died, people would be sad, but they would deal with the task of appointing a new pope no differently. The issue here, then, is the image his resignation gives to the Catholic Church. One could say that he’s tired of the politics tied in with the church and the burden of being such a figurehead; cynics and anti-Christians would say that faith is not strong enough to keep him in his position, that he doesn’t appreciate te task at hand. Certainly, I must say that I have a hard time imagining a Muslim cleric “stepping down” from a n important role (alas, the almighty caliph tradition was strangely dissolved by the Turkish Empire, leaving their no Muslim equivalent of the Pope). Indeed, I feel that many would say that the Pope knows he’s fighting a losing battle.
For Christians I could thus see this being a crisis of faith amongst them; bucking tradition is always difficult to appreciate. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this means a religious war, but i wouldn’t be surprised if the pope’s resignation will one, cause Christians to question their faith and it’s legitimacy and two, to reassure believers of other faiths that they are stronger. Religion may no longer play the center role in the western world, but elsewhere (on a local scale at Least) it matters.
A third reason Christians (conservative ones, that is) might feel that the apocalypse is coming: the advent of gay marriage. Conservative, fundamental Christians have long stressed that a marriage is between “a man and a woman”. Certain states here in America have legalized gay marriage, including New York, and several other countries have legalized it on the whole, but one country that’s feeling the tension right now is France. In a move that shocked a country that’s rarely shocked, France approved “le mariage pour tous” after months of protest. The move was bold, when you consider that’s its still illegal in most of the world, and the French are still protesting: 700,000 opposing signatures were delivered to the CESE today (I guess the Valentines Day spirit was a little thin this year in France). But why should we care so much about this–at least homosexuals in France, one might argue, have other legal rights and aren’t, say, executed for their practice as night happen in an Islamic country. Why is this so important to the rest of the world?
The clear reason is that France has elevated human rights; no matter what the public thinks, the government has continued it’s secular tradition and further distanced itself from the tradition if Catholic France and granted people what should be (sorry, Christians) their God-given rights. Obviously this means that other countries could be inspired to follow France’s path. But there’s also a dark side to this. A government can enforce a law, but it can’t enforce an attitude. If religious fundamentalists in developing countries see that the “rich, educated” French, who don’t treat sex as a dirty word, don’t like fat marriage, then they may feel that it truly is bad if these Frenxh who live different (and, importantly, liberal!) lives don’t approve either. They may continue their subjection of homosexuals. A pro-gay government and irate, anti-gay-rights population also sends a mixed message to the others: does their government always act democratically? Does it have the public interests at heart? And, (kind of a stretch but] do they feel like they always have to follow their public’s wants and demands if this democratic, ‘liberal’ country does not?
Christians should take a breather: I don’t think the world is going to end just yet. After all, 2012 was supposed to be the apocalypse and December passed without incident. The asteroid is supposed to pass Earth, not hit it. Another pope is ultimately going to be elected, no matter what everyone thinks. I’m not sure how soon the anti-gay marriage flame is gonna take to burn out, but lets just hope that all of this doesn’t make a bigger impact on society.
In my last post about North Korea I mentioned how, what with the North Koreans issuing nuclear threats and Russia’s ever-increasing frigid attitude towards the USA, that it seems that the Cold War never ended. Well, I would like to expound on that idea a bit more, and say that indeed, it looks like we’re entering the age of Quiet Threats and Uncertainty again. The Cold War never ended, it was simply dormant: as The Soviet Union collapsed and had to start rebuilding, the world experienced what I would like to call a Hot American thaw-out.
Russia has since rebuilt; one can certainly say that it is strong. Unlike most European countries Russia is not crushed with piercing debt; one could even say that, monetarily, it’s better off than the USA. Russia can’t be internally absorbed with domestic issues like immigration (besides Gerard Depardieu, who wants to move there?) or human rights because, oh wait, Russia doesn’t really give a shit about those. So, a relatively strong economy, a controlled society and a ruthless dictator (yes Putin, what else would you call yourself)? Seems like the USSR is back in business.
This time around, however, we’ve got some new players. Cuba is sitting this one out; with Castro in ill health, Cuba a crumbling castila and the doors open to more foreign interaction, Cubans suffered isolation long enough. Instead, we’ve got North Korea (headed by the fabulous Jong-Un), Iran (ah, Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ayatollah in his own right) and China, ever-still Communist. China is unique in the fact that while they’re not outright (or even subtly) threatening in the way of words, their special ties to the USA and Position as (Perhaps) most Powerful Player (not to mention their good old Communism) mean they’re in on this little party.
The threat of nuclear war is probably most imminent than it has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not Russia making the threats this time, but instead North Korea. As I discussed in my previous post, the threats by NK might lack pomp and circumstance, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous; uncertainty and subtlety are hallmarks of Cold War. North Korea, according to Fox News, is planning to conduct an above-ground nuclear weapon test, this time possibly with joint Iranian assistance on (NK’s) own borders. This is a more welcome plan than testing out their nuclear weapons on the USA, as they have stated they will do. Iran, although not officially conducting it’s experiments with nuclear material to make weapons, is nevertheless widely suspected of doing just that, given the fact that it usually won’t work with United Nations inspectors. Furthermore, as reported by Japanese Kyodo News Agency, ”Iran has stationed staff in North Korea to strengthen cooperation in missile and nuclear development,” which thereby indicates that Iranian scientists have knowledge of building nuclear weapons. Iran proves quite the cold threat; a nuclear bomb in the hands of the ayatollah is more formidable than in the hands of attention-seeking Jong-un.
“The North Korean psyche is such that, every time the US downplays the significance of a successful ballistic missile test or nuclear bomb test, the North Koreans feel they have to prove the US wrong,” writes Van Hipp in this Fox News article (yes, I was reading Fox, imagine that!) and it’s an important point: the US government/media tries to act indifferent to these “bluffs” but in reality, they’re just giving the North Koreans more of a reason to prove their might. At least when it came to the Soviets, we acknowledged the threat.
Another highlight of the Cold War, the Space Race, has also returned, only this time it’s not just between America and the Russians. North Korea finally successfully launched a Uhlna rocket into space back in December, having successfully sent off several satellites in the past. Iran has just sent a monkey into orbit, strapped onto a padded seat in a Kavoshgar rocket.
(sourced from msnbc.msn.com)
According to Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank (Reuters), “…Iran has an ambitious space exploration program that includes the goal of placing a human in space in the next five or so years and a human-inhabited orbital capsule by the end of the decade.” Iran’s Space Plans represent the lack of information that is transferred to this day between countries: the USA has sent people, for example, into space; so have several other countries, and yet this information is apparently not shared on the open market. How positively chummy the countries of the world are!
The key divide in the Cold War I was, above all, ideology: specifically, Soviet Communism versus American/Western capitalism. And while Communism might not be the great divide (China is quite materialistic, at least if you look at Hong Kong), differing ideologies still stand. Iran is an Islamic republic and takes Islamic teachings (or non-teachings) seriously. The government’s position is firmly against the decadent, tyrannical West-and that, in fact, seems to be the underlying common link between all of these cold states: their hatred of US foreign policy and the US in general, especially democracy. Thus, this is a war of Democracy versus Dictatorship. Russia, China, NK and Iran all are tightly controlled countries where daily life is monitored and personal freedoms limited.
Russia? No freedom of the press, the possibility of being thrown in the gulag for going against the government…they’re even stopping the adoption of Russian children by Americans after 2014 by enacting the Dima Yakovlev law (if that isn’t a cold move, than I don’t know what is). Iran? Leaving the country is difficult (or entering), TV and film is censored, religious police are on the street making sure women don’t wear nail polish or show their socks. China monitors the newspapers, TV and internet, tussling with Google and even forbids people from having more than one child, for God’s sake (although perhaps this is a blessing…) NK? Well, we don’t really know what goes on, but that’s kind of the whole point: the citizens have little contact with the outside world.
In short, world politics have gotten a bit scarier. The Bush years, what with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and terrorism, were tough–but least the bad guys were clearly stated. This time around, everyone’s trying not to point fingers-but finding it difficult. There’s so much hatred, so much competition…and this time, the United States doesn’t have the dough to throw around like last time. NASA’s been on the down-and-out, and our citizens are too preoccupied with themselves. Strangely enough, it was Russia which recently said for “everyone to stop acting like children” and for Iran and the West to finally schedule their damn talks about Iran’s uranium. Kind of strange coming from a country who likes to play (and support; look at Syria) the bad guy, but it’s true: let’s all stop acting like sulky, passive-aggressive siblings, get rid of the nuclear weapons and stop this Cold War from (yes, I’m going to say it) becoming incendiary.
What is up with North Korea?
Frankly, I’m so shocked that the American media is not in a frenzy over North Korea’s recent threats against the United States that I can’t even be bothered to write a serious post. If sarcasm is dripping from my pen (don’t slip) it’s because apparently, if the US government isn’t too bothered about the North Koreans, why should I take the threats so seriously? For a country that jumps at the word ‘terrorist’ or ‘Muslim,’ we don’t seem to care if a longtime enemy is threatening us with nuclear warfare.
You have to do a Google search to find any talk of NK–and even that’s difficult. I am not one of those crazies that feel that all the news is 100% controlled by the government, that we only hear what the government wants yadda yadda yadda (there’s a lot of those where I work) but I know all too well that much of the news is selective. Something similiar happened recently in Paris: 3 members of the Kurdish resistance (all female) were shot in cold blood, execution-style, in their secret (and guarded) offices. Le Monde’s first article on the execution appeared not on l’une or even as a bonafied article, but as a blog. 3 people are murdered in Paris, where these types of things don’t happen, and no one gives to write about it? Yeah, there’s something wrong with that.
So, for those of you who haven’t heard the news, NK has announced that they are preparing to do some nuclear warfare ‘tests,’ which means testing out some long-range missiles as ‘part of their plan of confrontation against the USA.’ Uh, say what? You’ve got rhetoric up to here about Iran and it’s nuclear site-which, according to the Iranians is supposed to NOT be about making weapons, which even if you think it’s an outrageous lie, we’re supposed to believe them, right?-but yet here we have a country blatantly saying that they want to use missiles against us, and it’s considered a Slow News piece. Perhaps the White House doesn’t want everyone freaking out. That’s the reason they don’t tell the general public most things in the first place. But I had to laugh at the U.S. envoy to NK’s comment reported on CNN, which was
“We will judge North Korea by its actions, not its words.”
Pardon me, but I feel that the US government prefers to judge people based on presumptions and tends to take “preventative measures” to ensure safety and democracy (see: Afghanistan, Iraq). But this time around, when confronted clearly with the threat of nuclear warfare, we just sit back and wait around for words? We let the United Nations impose new sanctions and hope that’ll do the trick?
I’m not advocating war. I hate war, and I hate the damn fool who created nuclear weapons. But I think the US ought to puff itself up a little, if just for show, n’est-pas? Of course, many feel that that’s what the North Koreans are doing: puffing and bluffing with little substance to back it all up. My question is,
What does North Korea have against the United States?
Yoo-hoo, NK, the Cold War has been over since 1989 (side note: I believe that the Cold War never really finished, and is in fact back in full swing, given NK’s new actions and Russia’s increasingly cold stance). NK even took out references to Communism and such from it’s constitution. Is this really about a bunch of sanctions, NK, because I kind of feel like you might just deserve them. For being called a “People’s Democracy” you sure are the most undemocratic country possibly ever. Everything is controlled by your dictatorship-cum-kingdom, the Kim Jong dynasty. If you’re depending on China for most of your food and aid, that doesn’t really make you “self-sufficient,” as your motto goes, either. Maybe you should think about playing nice and then some of those sanctions might be lifted.
I also find their (relatively) new leader quite disturbing. Kim Jong-un, you are what, 29 years old, possibly 30? (Note: is birth-date like everything else, remains unclear). What are you possibly so angry about? You lived a spoiled life, going to school (somewhere; they can’t verify between two possible boarding schools) in posh, international Switzerland, where you met other people, aka non-North Koreans. You are already married (and purported to already have another hier, I mean child) to a woman who is younger than you, and hey, you’re a world leader! The youngest in the entire world, in fact. That’s a pretty impressive resume, so what are you trying to do? Your father, Kim Jong-il, although a human rights violator and dictator, at least kept things calm and peaceful towards the outside world during his reign. You shouldn’t copy most things your father did, but in this case, why don’t you give it a try?
It’s hard to believe that the once-sister country to the birthplace of “Gagnam Style” and the infectious, Barbie-doll-fake but cutesy K-Pop, is such a land of evil. Perhaps they need to send Psy over to the North Koreans to show them how to have a laugh, since there are never any smiles on the faces of the NK leaders, except for, of course, this one on Jong-un’s face when talking about the launch of an Unha-3 rocket:
(sourced from globalpost.com)
Troubling, isn’t it, the one time they’e caught smiling is over nuclear missiles?
La Somalie, ou un otage francais etait tue. L’algerie, ou 23 otages etaient tue apres ayant ete souleves d’un site de gaz. Et bien sur, la nouvelle combat en Mali de l’armee francais et l’armee Malien contre les insurgents. Mais alors, qu’est-ce qui s’est passe avec la diplomatie francaise?
Je suis choque. Les relations internationaux des etats-unis sont longtemps deplore par la france: notre guerre in Iraq, en l’Afghanistan (meme si l’armee francais a participe) mais on faut oublie pas que l’armee francais etaient aussi present la dans ces conflits. N’oublie pas que c’etait la France qui a bomborde la Libye et non pas les etats-unis. La prise des otages en Somalie n’indique qu’un veut un otage occidentale, peut-etre (c’est quoi les relations somaliens-francais?) mais au cas de l’algerie, et surtout le Mali, la France connait une histoire coloniale avec ces deux pays.
Clairement, la France-ou Francois Hollande, president-veut faire le role du policier du monde, comme lest Etats-Unis. Selon Le Monde, President Hollande a dit le suivant:Question numero un: qui s’en fous du Mali? L’ouest laisse d’habitude les pays africains disintegre en la crise civile, prennant l’action parfois quand c’est trop. Mais cette “guerre contre le terrorisme,” lancant le 11 janvier est donc absurde d’ailleurs: que faire ces terroristes contre la france? Oui, il y a vait des otages francais au mali aussi, mais celui a moins valeur d’envahir le pays que des raisons vindictives americains justifiant l’Irak et l’Afghanistan. On fait la retourne a la colonialisation? A-t-elle la france appris rien des gros erreurs americains?
L’enjeu n’est pas pour nous de conquérir un territoire, d’accroître notre influence ou de chercher je ne sais quel intérêt commercial ou économique, ce temps là est fini. En revanche notre pays, parce que c’est la France, doit venir en aide à un pays. Ce pays ami est l’un des plus pauvres du monde et il est victime depuis trop de mois, pour ne pas dire d’années, de ce terrorisme qui prend maintenant des formes de plus en plus redoutables”, a-t-il poursuivi, répétant que “la France n’est pas seule”.
Alors, selon a Presidente Hollande, la France intervien au Mali parce qu’on doit aider les autres? La theme de relations internationaux des Etats, n’est-ci pas? Mais laisse les autres changer sans intervention!….Parce que le Mali est un ami, parce que ceux sont des terroristes, ah bon! le Mali etait une colonie il y a une fois, pas un ami. Et en fait, au debut la France a deplore le gouvernement actuelle car ca a pris le pouvoir dans un coup militaire d’Amadou Sanogo, apres que les islamistes ont pris le pouvoir du nord (region desert) en l’appellant Azawad et demandant pour la loi chariah. Mais desormais la france donne l’aide a Sanogo! Et oui, les groupes du nord (comme l’AQMI, al-qaeda du maghreb) sont des islamistes dur, mais pourquoi ca concerne la france? Et n’est-ci pas la raison d’invasion d’Irak pour les etats-unis??
23 otages tue et 32 terroristes apres l’armee algerien a fais un assaut sur le site gazier d’IN Amenas. La prise des otages en algerie n’etait pas seulement une affaire francaise: les otages brittaniques, americains, belges, japonais, norvegien, roumanien et colombien etaient aussi tue dans le soulevement. Mais c’est grace a la france que les citoyens de ces autres pays ont ete tue: selon le gouvernement algerien, l’attaque etait en reponse a l’action du gouvernement francais au mali. Mais les autres pays ont perdu plus des otages que la france. L’attaque c’est le travail d’une groupe islamiste–mais pas exactement algerien: la plupart des membres etaient d’ailleurs, de l’Egypte, de la nigerie, de la mauritanie. Mais, compatissant aux islamistes en mali, on a decide de choisir une site de gaz a In Amenas ou travaille des francais.
Alors celui est donc un autre raison pour la france de quitter la guerre civile (je demande: pourquoi on l’appelle un ‘guerre mondiale?’ apres tout, c’est pas exactement la guerre civile quand on a dest combatants des plusiers pays) au mali. On a desormais les victimes qui paie le prix–le prix de la france: le French resistance affecte des autres pays, c’est pas une choix isolee.
Au moins, ceci n’est qu’une mission quasi-coloniale: La Misma (Mission internationale de soutien au Mali) inclut aussi les pays africains comme le Niger et le Tchad. Bref, j’espere que la MISMA gagne du sucess vitement, et j’espere que la france arrete ces folies et donne l’oeil a ses propres problemes et civiles. C’est pas le temps pour les pays austeres de l’Europe de commencer le jeu d’hero. C’est une nouvelle ere de la politique etrangere.
What will the world be like in 2013?
Obviously, 2013 has already begun. We’re not talking about some moment in time, years and years away (I always disliked how, when people made predictions about mankind’s future, they always sounded so detached, as though we weren’t talking about our world). But seeing as the New Year has only begun, there is plenty to speculate about.
The state of world affairs (or what I would like to coin “The World Scene,” aka the blend of politics, economy, nature and culture that is known to people throughout the world-i.e. not just the citizens of one country but many) is at a strange point at the moment: a mix between a stalemate and a powder keg. We’ve got the fiery Middle East, which is in it’s umpteenth stage of the Arab Spring protests and revolution; Europe, which is about to go under with it’s debt crises; and Asia, which leaves everyone guessing as to what the next political and economic moves are (hello North Korea!) But ontop of this turmoil, there is also stagnation: witness Africa-can we say that the continent as a whole is in a state of progress, when there are rebel armies and kidnappers everywhere holding court? South America and Oceania-where is their presence on the World Scene? Located away from the Eurasian mass, the Middle East which joins Africa into the fold, what impact do these south-of-the-equator nations hold?
2013 I believe will be a strange year. There is both possibility and impossibility. I fear that more countries will succumb to the the pressures of debt and have no choice but to turn to austerity, including the United States. I am no economist–I’ll be taking my first Economics class ever this first semester of grad school–but I feel that the mounting debt crises has the possibility of changing the face of world politics and power. As the United States finds itself in fiscal cliff battles et al., it’s kind of difficult to go in and start a new war in, say, Iran or Syria; hopefully, the debt we incurred from Iraq and Afghanistan will mean that US foreign policy will become a little less invasive. Europe too will have little choice but to focus on itself and keeping the European Union from falling apart.
I also believe that 2013 will be the year that political correctness will come to a head. I am all for political correctness, as usually this equates with fairness and equality. In the United States, I do feel that we’ve taken it to an obsessive level–oftentimes, using “politically correct words” really is just a polite cover-up for what one’s really trying to say, and ultimately how does that change anything? Don’t we get the freedom of speech in this country, why should we be so afraid of insulting someone? In other countries where freedom and respect are less common, I feel that the battles for human rights will only become more intense. The Arab Spring highlighted this, since the region is so sensationally against political correctness and liberty for all, and I feel that social issues will only become more pronounced, for as societies try to grapple with depressing economic news and dwindling power, they will turn onto social issues as a sort of outlet (this is of course what happened with the women of Afghanistan, where extreme political and economic situation caused the men to reflect on the only thing they could really control-women).
United States: Gun Control! Need I say more. Let’s get guns off the streets and educate people. The list of resolutions for America goes on and on, from changing our approach to school and college (lowering school costs?) to getting universal healthcare for all
France: Focus on what’s important. No more mass protesting about gay mariage (seriously? The French of all people are protesting about gay marriage?) or the construction of airports: I hope France focuses on being an open-minded, democratic country (and manages to keep it’s economy in check!)
Germany: Play nice with the poor people. We know Germany has things in check, but that doesn’t mean Angela Merkel et al. need to be cruel to those countries that are sinking in debt
Russia: Embrace freedom of the press. After watching an Al-Jazeera documentary on Russia’s handling of protesters and free speech, I really hope that the Russian government will have a change of heart. After all, you’re not a Communist country anymore, it’s not the Cold War–what’s up with all the secrecy?
North Korea: Open up. What does North Korea have against the rest of the world? There’s always so much talk about Iran’s nuclear program, but everyone seems to forget that NK too has nuclear weapons and, I feel, goes unnoticed. When is the country going to stop playing the spectre?
Greece: Get a new government that isn’t corrupt. Isn’t there one honorable person in Greece, or has democracy turned into a dirty word over there?
And lastly, a worldwide resolution: women’s rights!
This will be my resolution for the world every year until I am satisfied with women’s status in the world. I hope that in 2013 women gain more ground in terms not just in legal rights but also in society (which is often harsher towards woman than governments are) too. I’m calling on India to resolve gang rape and how politicians respond to rape. I’m calling on Saudi Arabia which beheads women with little trial. I’m calling on the Western world, which stereotypes women on a daily basis. Let’s hear it for women in 2013!
Transportation is something that fascinates me. I’m not a car or boat buff, and I don’t know the different types of planes or trains, but man’s modes of transport nevertheless interest me, perhaps because getting there is so important to me. Air travel, for one, although obnoxious when things go astray or you’re traveling by yourself, has always given me a thrill of adventure.
It’s a cliche that Germans are efficient when it comes to transportation, but it’s a deservedly true reputation. Traveling in Germany I got to sample many types of transportation, and I got the impression that there were infinitely more: from short- to long-distance trains, from u-bahns to s-bahns, Germany’s got you covered:
- Airports: Germany airports are a study in how all airports should be: compact and easily laid out, so you don’t get lost. Munchen’s Airport has unique architecture (see above) and a quick baggage-retrieval system (that is, if Air France doesn’t delay your bag first). Berlin’s Tegel Airport was nondescript in terms of frills (apparently the Frankfurt Airport is Germany’s largest hub) but small and easily accessible.
- Automobiles: BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes are commonplace, of course (just like the Hamptons!) Sadly, my favorite car of all time-the Volkswagon Beetle-is not, although I did catch these classic VB Buses outside a parking garage in Munchen.
- Trams: To me, trams are just above-ground subways that go really slow (unless we’re talking the picturesque ones in San Francisco). In Germany the train tracks run right on the road with the cars. I didn’t take the tram, but I almost got hit by the one above in Berlin: I was walking in what I presumed to be the sidewalk/open space in snowy Alexanderplatz ( the tracks obviously covered by the snow) when I turned around just in time to see a tram quietly looming up behind me. It was literally mere seconds away from me, and when I started to laugh in shock at my near miss, I realized that other people around me were laughing to. Ah vell….
- Buses: I was forced to take buses from the train depots during my sightseeing tours. They seemed par for the course, although they had a little screen announcing then next stop and were actually quite roomy.
- Trains: Although buses might be used for short distances in a town or city, they’re not a popular choice for between-city travel. And why should they be, when Germany has such excellent train service? I took short-distance trains out of Munich’s hopbahnhof as part of my tours to Dachau and Neuschwanstein Castle; these trains are composed of little campartments of seats facing each other, sometimes with an upper level, and ride smoothly. I also took a high-speed bahn from Munchen to Berlin (highly pricey unless you book ahead). The trains are spotless and well-lit with carpeting and soft seats with neck-pillow hybrids. There was a restaurant compartment, and enough legroom so that the 6 hours (!) I spent on there were much more comfortable than sitting on an airplane.
- Subway: Ah, my favorite. Just as I critiqued Barcelona’s subway system last January, I again have plenty to say about Berlin’s Untergrundbahn, or U-bahn. Again, Berlin’s system puts New York’s MTA to absolute shame. The train stations were mostly clean and well-kept (the Princesa station at top being an exception to this; it’s long-time down escalators were scrawled with graffiti), and some, like Alexanderplatz, had massive networks below with shops ranging from flower/plant stalls to trendy clothes brands and fast-food outlets, not to mention your standard magazine-and-candy stalls. Trains were announced on screens and they arrived constantly so you never had to wait long. The trains themselves were, again, spotless and smooth rides, never sending you flying or wobbling as you hold on to the railing (ahem, MTA…) There were little tv screens inside showing short clips and ads (I even saw an ad for French female group Brigitte). The one flaw I found was that the train’s seats were not a very efficient design in terms of providing more seating room. But what absolutely surprised me about the U-bahn was that technically, you don’t have to pay! At each station there are your customary guichets (which refuse anything higher than a 10 Euro bill and seem to prefer coins) as well as “validating machines.” In lieu of having to pass through a turnstyle, you simply “validate” your ticket by holding it under the machine so it gets stamped, and when the train comes, just step on…After a few rides and diminishing cash, I realized: who would know if I just…didn’t buy a ticket? I don’t condone stealing, but the system in Berlin completely mystified me: was it a sort of honor system? Did the Germans only expect to gain revenue from tourists too stupid to realize that no one would know (nor did they physically need) if they bought a ticket or not? It’s possible that they have policemen do random checks on the trains sometimes, and if you’re caught without a ticket you have to pay a heavy fine on-spot (this was the only possible solution I could think of) which would deter people from sneaking on. The first time I “snuck on,” my two-stations-ago-validated ticket in my pocket, I couldn’t help get a little thrill-at the shock that a country would be so un-greedy as to allow their citizens to essentially use public transport for free!
Come Christmastime, I have often found myself traveling abroad. This stems from the fact that, when I was in college, my sister and I would go on a vacation during winter break when the weather in Sag Harbor was less than illustrious (we would never dream of leaving there in the summer), and it is a tradition that has continued even after I graduated college. Visiting another country during Christmastime is an experience I’ve grown fond of (though not so fond of the weather, depending on where I go) as it’s a great look at how different cultures celebrate Christmas.
I’ve seen Puerto Rican houses with Christmas decorations (something I find amusing, given that Christmas doesn’t equate with palm trees in my book). In Cairo hotels were decorated with Christmas lights, and in a shiny sort of mall people were taking their photos next to Santa decorations made to look like the North Pole. In La Rochelle, France, the tours gaurding the port entrance were colored red and green, and the wall of the hotel de ville had a great blue spotlight spelling out Joyeux Noel (although on the individual houses I did note that people were not so inclined to put up decorations). Barcelona had lots of lights strung up across it’s narrow streets off Las Ramblas. I remember a towering lit tree in Rome’s Fiumicino airport; although I’ve never officially been to Italy, I spent Christmas Eve 2010 at the Satellite Hotel just outside Fiumicino, as my flight had been cancelled. My dinner was a lonely affair of eating bad Italian pasta and even more horrid mineral water at the hotel’s buffet dining room, though not as bad as spending actual Christmas day sitting around Charles de Gaulle airport with nothing but some Pringles and my laptop to keep me company.
Germany, however, does Christmas overload, and boy was I happy for that: the legendary German Christmas markets or Christkindlmarkt are not to be missed. Although it was breathatking to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, and humbling to visit Dachau and Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin (site of the former Berlin Wall) it is the Christmas markets that will forever stand out in my memories of Germany.
The Christkindlmarkt in Munich literally take up the old quarter: Marienplatz is nothing but the little huts and ‘cabins’ that they erect starting the end of November, and this spills over into the adjoining streets. The Christmas festivities actually start right before the entrance to the old quarter, where the medieval-y castle-looking gate is: a huge ice-skating rink is erected, bordered by a two story affair, the bottom a series of stalls selling food-German bratwursts, knackwursts, all types of -wursts which I have no idea what they are-and hot drinks, the upstairs where people congregate to view the skaters.
(I decided to be brave and try brombeerwein, hot blackberry beer/wine since I couldn’t pass up trying beer in Munich. It came in a cute little mug that you gave a deposit of 3 Euros for in case you ran off with it. The brombeer was disgusting, I kid you not. I am not a fan of hot drinks like coffee or tea, and so a hot drink +blackberry taste + alcohol was just too much. I managed to gulp down half of it, and left feeling buzzed. Apparently brombeer is alcoholically potent-good for those who want to get drunk, as long as you can mind the taste!)
The vendors sell everything from their charming little stalls: food (from the aforementioned ‘wursts to delectable chocolates rolled up in log shapes to ‘nusse’-nuts-to huge decorated pieces of gingerbread), leather hats and gloves, handblown candles to, most importantly, Christmas decorations! There were countless shops selling all the components you’d want to decorate a creche (or manger), complete with palm trees and decked-out elephants (I didn’t know there were elephants in Jerusalem?). Finely carved wood ornaments dangled from the ceilings so that you couldn’t stand beneath them. There were advent calendars, very traditional Christmas cards, wall hangings, even the little handmade pinecone elves I brought back for my mother and sister.
The Berlin market was equally cute, although interestingly juxtaposed with the tall modern buildings that surrounded it (actually, there are several Berlin Christmas markets but I visited the one in Alexanderplatz). The Berlin market had the added bonus of a mini theme-park: pony rides for the kids, choo-choo trains and a huge enclosed ferris wheel which this kid got to ride, listening to Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’ booming from speakers placed at the ice rink.
Take a look at the magic of Christmas in Germany, and Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noel! Felix Navidad! frohe Weihnachten!
The Christmas tree in Marienplatz.
Everything you need for your creche.
Food stalls and a replica of the famous church that is faintly seen in the background.
A chocolate shop in Munchen.