Civil Involvement

As an immigrant I do not get to exercise my civic duty in voting in the German electoral system, at least not federally.  As a town citizen I do get to vote in municipal elections.  A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Burgermeister’s office asking me to participate in some of the town planning.  On my invitation I could choose to be in a small group, but that I would need to pick my top three interests from a list of several themes.  I ended up placed in Gemienshaft, Integration, Seicherheit (Society, Integration, and Security).  Truth be told, my invitation letter sat a long time on my desk, and even made its way to the recycling bin before I pulled it out and filled in the forms and then posted the return letter.  I had huge doubts about attending as I believe my German skills are lacking, and I felt particularity vulnerable to any sort of criticism that might occur because I am an immigrant – why should I get a say in the future of this town?  I eventually sent in my invitation as I then began to thinking that part of my own integration means participation (at any level) with the community.  My observations of the day once it finally arrived were punctuated with urges to run from the room feeling incompetent and inadequate.

The event took place in the Kur Park, a scenic park which is usually full of flowers, strutting Peacocks, and long chains of Nordic Walkers.  This morning was damp and cool and no sooner had I entered the doors of the building that I found I was standing under the one area where the roof leaked – cue my desire to leave.  Sitting alone and comfortably anonymous amongst the 60 or so people I sat through the initial explanation of the purpose of the day, the welcome by town officials, and 5 minute presentations by the local town staff on the several areas of focus.  After the first hour I was about ready to leave again as I felt like the only migrant in the room who struggled to make sense of the talking, reading of the slides and making sense of the various graphs of statistical information being beamed onto a large screen, all in 5 minute bursts.

I stuck around for the entire day, and I am glad I did.  I got to ask questions to officials such as – why is society, integration and security all lumped together? It made me feel that, as a foreigner I was somehow a security threat to the German populous.  The day gave me some insight on how society functions and how people think.  Of the several pin boards anyone could write on different colour coded note paper and then pin up the papers onto the boards for all to see.  The colours were Red – for Bad, Yellow – for Idea, and Blue – for Good.  Within about 15 minutes the vast majority of the boards were covered with red cards.  If I was at a Fussball match there would have been plenty of whistling!

Once separated into our smaller subject groups of about 10 people each, we began to look at some ideas, and some positive remarks.  Slowly there became more of a balance of Red, Yellow and Blue cards plastered on the boards.  For most the day we remained in our small groups and narrowed down some practical aims and appropriate tasks despite all of us having to struggle with what constituted and aim and a task.  The moderator of each group was able to help us formulate a vision statement, and our top 5 priorities. There was argument over the grammar of our vision to which I jokingly said that I wholeheartedly agreed with a incomprehensible compound word – hey, at least some people chuckled.  Our information was then presented to the wider group, and then the citizens had the power to place our 7 kleine rote Klebepunkte ( 7 small red stickers) on items we felt were a main priority.

I have to say I was a bit shocked at the end of the day as the small red dots were tallied up and the last point on my groups chart rocketed to the top of the popularity contest.  To give you an idea of the range of the list, the top priority in our group was Die Tafel which is the local food bank for lack of a better comparison.  I thought this was great as it is a place were all sorts of people gather and a wide range of society meets.  A place were strangers may become friends.  It is a place I have thought about volunteering at for a couple hours a week so that I can meet new people and aid my own integration into society.  In short, Die Tafel was a place that covered our topics of Society, Integration and Security.  The last item on our list had to do with security in the form of a Police presence in the town centre – taking on a form of a 24/7 police office.

When the red stickers were counted from the plenary group it came as a surprise that the clear forerunner was 24/7 Police presence in some kind of office in the centre of town.  Somehow people seem to think that this is going to make the place a lot safer – not that I was ever concerned with the level of crime in Bad Krozingen to begin with.

At the end of the day we were all applauded for our participation.  Out of the 1000 people invited, we represented the 60 -70 people who had found some interest to participate.  I realized that there were no visible minorities present.  I realized that for all our brainstorming, visions, aims and tasks, a huge amount of trust is given to a bureaucratic process that is already well established.  For instance, a civic department would be the place to act out our task.  It makes me wonder if we, in fact, thought hard enough on things as it seemed that everything fit nicely into some department or other of the town hall.  I was a bit worried to see that for some there was a big sigh of relief that because the tasks had been named and at times a department head was named alongside the task, that somehow we had done our duty.  It was a bit like being an armchair athlete as no real grassroots movement seemed necessary.  No civic responsibility seemed present to understand that it is the people that make society, the people that help with integration, and the people which leads to a safer and more secure future.  It is not just some state department task, we are all responsible.

At the end of the day I feel exhausted having learned a lot about local government processes.  I also am glad to have met some very talented and dedicated people.  I found the people to be overwhelmingly friendly in my small group so much so that I did not have to eat alone, or stand in a corner wondering what I should say.  I am glad I did not leave the event despite the few times I thought I had nothing to contribute as I hope to have a coffee with a few of these people in the future.  I hope also to continue practicing my German language skills, meet people at Die Tafel and perhaps show others how I try to adapt to life in Germany.  Certainly it is through participation that I find strangers are now neighbours, immigrants are part of the grass-roots of society, and that German society feels a little bit more like home.


The Glass dropped and the Wind rose

According to national news broadcasts Germany has just experienced the worst storm in ten years.  High winds which swept through Netherland in which large shipping containers at harbour ports were seen blowing over like a child toppling a stack of Lego bricks.  In Germany warnings to avoid ‘non-essential’ travel, especially by train, were announced.  Footage of collapsed signs on the Autobahn, and downed trees over rail and road filled the network news.

In all my time living in Canada I don’t remember hearing about people being killed by falling trees.  Given that there are a lot of trees in Canada, the stories of ‘death-by-tree’ were more mythical warnings about ‘widow-makers’ – dead trees that still stand waiting to topple at the slightest breeze – trees that concerned those in the forestry industry rather than the average citizen.  Unfortunately, death by falling tree seems much more probable in Germany.

My immediate geographical surroundings are almost pancake flat, with a barely noticeable, slope towards the Rhein.  Despite being within walking distance of some of the ‘larger’ mountains of the Black Forest, the scenery, especially in the winter months, is flat and wide.  Now that there isn’t a cornstalk in sight and the only thing growing in the numerous fields surrounding our house is ‘feldsalat’ also known in English as Lambs Leaf Lettuce, and the winter barely, or rye grass that leaves fields looking like freshly shorn sheep with a green stubble poking up from the ground.  The dog has his winter coat on, which I suspect is more fat due to his inactivity, so I have started to walk the dog further into the fields.  At times we will go via bicycle; the dog tied to the bike running along side me, while we travel down busy bike paths, or areas close to the busy streets.  Once in the fields, with nobody around, the dog is off leash, and he can easily sprint past me. Stop to water a bush. Rush ahead again to jump on some poor unsuspecting field mouse. We can easily cover 5-7 kilometres on one outing.  The dog would happily do this three more times a day if possible, but that has yet to happen.

Riding by bike with a dog running along the field roads that network their way over the land I notice that I can get a lot closer to the hawks that sit in the fields scanning the horizon, and edges for signs of prey.  There are rarely trees on which to roost, so the birds of prey either hover in air, tirelessly flapping, or they sit on the ground.  When I walk through the fields, the hawks, and other birds, usually take flight when I am a good distance away from them.  Perhaps it is from generations of interactions by which the birds are wary of humans.  However, while riding a bike, the birds remain on the ground for much longer periods before being spooked by my presence.  This reminds me of canoeing and gliding silently up to all sorts of creatures as if you are just part of the natural scenery.

The weather extremes must do something to the bird populations, as wind storms surely push migrating birds off-course.  There is also the temperature differences that must make it difficult for birds.  The severity of temperature fluctuations gives people migraines, and it is not unusual for one day to be 16 C and the next -3 C.  My wardrobe is not large enough to contain four seasons worth of clothes at one time, and it feels as if I am going to open up my box of summer shirts that is stored away under the bed, only to find myself running for a parka the next day with a cold wind that feels like it has come directly from Siberia.  On one of my recent outings with the dog and the bike  – Murphy’s Law – I find myself the furthest from home when all of a sudden the weak low angled rays of and early winter sun have been replaced with horizontal slashing rain and snow. As I pedal my way home faster and faster, I must soon stop as my rear wheel spins in the slimy mud.

The mud is different here.  I grew up with a ground that seemed almost sponge-like, where 58 days of continuous rain did little to make the ground muddy.  Huge cedar trees would suck up the moisture, and most of the water would flow into cascading streams and rivers.  Even in Victoria, mud was rarely as thick as it is here.  Certainly pools of water could form, especially in the rocking outcroppings where grass and sea salted stunted trees grew.  In German fields, the ground is a thick clay like mud, which has the unique ability to be both slimy and sticky at the same time.  It is the mud I imagined when watching old movie footage of Canadian soldiers in war.

A large crater has formed at the front entrance of our house in the last week.  Eight hours of near continuous drilling that vibrates the floors and has shook pictures from the walls is part of the landlords scramble to prevent flooding and mould from spreading in the basement suit.  The workers heads protrude from the ground, and shovel blades heave mud and debris from the hole that will soon have new perimeter drainage pipes.  The workers joke that the dirt contains rubble from World War II, and that they hope they don’t find any unexploded bombs.  I hope so too!

During yesterdays storm, while the weather conditions here were nothing compared to elsewhere in Germany or Europe, it did feel for a moment like some battle raged around us.  The window blinds screamed a high-pitched whistle, the mounds of dirt, brick and debris was piled in a few locations around the house like we were living in a bunker, a tarp rested over the hole in the ground at the foot of the stairs like it was a grave prepared to accept a body, and the ducks waddled their way around the garden like some sentry patrol – only that they seemed very happy with the wet weather and all the drowning worms that wriggled to the surface of the grass.

Thermal Bath

With the conclusion of the churches hosting of the German Synod, and later the congregations own annual general meeting my wife and I went to the Vita Classica.  The town of Bad Krozingen has the designation ‘Bad’ meaning bath and one of these baths is the thermal bath/spa of the Vita Classica.  A whole range of spa treatments are available, but we went for a swim in the several different pools.

The pools are warm, but not as hot as I was expecting from my experience of a Canadian outdoor natural hot spring.  However, what was nice was the ‘gong’ system.  The Gong works like this: each part of some of the pools has bubbles blasting away, and you get a nice massage as you go from one part of the pool to the next.  There is always a movement of people around the edge of the pool as a gong sounds signalling to those in the water that it is time to move to the next station.  If you have ever done a circuit training workout at a gym, going from different weightlifting machinery and cardio equipment, then you have some idea of what goes on in the pool.  Moving slowly from one blast of warm water to the next leaves you feeling like you have done a workout without really going anywhere.

Another interesting pool was the music room.  A large indoor pool with clusters of people floating about on their backs with the help of the Styrofoam ‘pool noodle’.  The water is almost at body temperature and nobody really talks beyond that of a whisper.  What is really great is once you relax and begin to float, and as your ears go under the water; you are serenaded by classical music which can only be heard underwater.

One more feature that I enjoyed about the pools were the changing lights.  My wife and I had hoped that the night sky would be full of bright stars to gaze at while we floated on our backs in the hot water, but the cloudy sky blocked out that hope.  The runner-up to the stars was the changing lights in the pools, or of the whole rooms if we were inside.  Deep blue lights signified the temperature of the pool was cool, or that the lights cycled around the pool like a visual gong, reminding swimmers to move on to the next active pool.

The basic pools were plenty to leave my wife and I more rested and relaxed.



Advent Ideas

Have spent the day driving to Freiburg and Bad Krozingen to see the apartment that we will be living in and wished that I’d had a hand free to snap a few pictures of the landscape. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my hands were full as we weaved our way through the crowds surrounding the Munster as they bought fresh produce and local crafts at the farmers market. One of my hands held Skippy’s leash, the other held my delicious bratwurst on a bun. Skippy was very well behaved as he sat and drooled eyeing up the meat that hung tantalisingly above his head. We stood at the front steps of the Munster and listened to part of an organ recital.

Later we met Judith and the landlady in Bad Krozingen to discover the new flat. Very exciting and feeling so very blessed to have had the help finding such a place. I am sure there will be lots to explore in both Freiburg and Bad Krozingen.

Heading back up to Stuttgart area for the evening we watched a beautiful golden sunset over Kaiser Stule (no wonder the vineyards grow well here). After supper we went to an event that is somehow connected with the garden club of my father in law. The dark field roads had interesting markers to show us the way to the garden centre where beautiful oil paintings hung beside floral creations. The ‘markers’ along the road were upright logs cut in a way that allowed them to burn from the inside out. That made me think of Advent candles as the season quickly approaches, but if we tried such a thing the Advent wreath would have to be outside! Nonetheless, the path of glowing lights certainly lit the way for us as I’m sure our own family tradition of lighting a candle each Sunday in Advent lights the path of Christ more brightly each week.