“Welcome to Germany…
would you mind taking a survey on your experience so far in Germany?” Seriously.
Let me state from the get-go that my ancestors were German. Please remember that as you read this. There were also Swedish, English, and Scottish ancestors in the mix, but most of my ancestors were from Germany. Yet Germany was the country that exposed my deepest concealed and previously unexposed-to-self prejudices.
Right off the bat, I heard a voice making an announcement over the loudspeaker and froze in terror. For some reason, the man on the loudspeaker sounded to me like recordings we listened to in high school of Hitler speaking to his troops. Maybe the announcer was from Berlin. Who knows? Probably I have only heard one man’s voice yelling in German over a loudspeaker and all men yelling in German now = Hitler yelling in German. Shame on me, but I dropped my bag.
At the Frankfurt airport, I discovered with delight the administrative efficiency for which Germans are known in Europe. Going through German immigration, customs, and security was positively breezy. People were smiling… people that worked at the airport. But when they opened this huge metal cargo elevator as an alternative to the stairs, I had a second freak-out. Something in my reptile brain screamed “don’t get in a huge metal room operated by the German government!” and I took the stairs. Shame on me, but my brain would not let my legs go on that elevator.
Perhaps my time living in Chicago in a predominantly Jewish retirement hotel has led me to identify with American Jewish people to the development of my particular prejudices. It’s not at all that they taught me the prejudice or even had it themselves; it is clearly that I developed these particular issues completely on my own in respect to our sharing of stories. Some of our residents were Holocaust survivors with the stamps of the concentration camps still tattooed on their arms. I helped one resident search online for the art stolen from his childhood home. One of my professors was a rabbi who had escaped Germany just as the threat began in Munich. Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, and Germans – these are the only people I’ve known who tell me stories with German words sprinkled in with Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. Something about knowing and loving these Jewish survivors has lodged so deeply in me that I had visceral fight-or-flight reactions that were nonsensical in modern Germany where the people were friendly, open, and offering Kosher refreshments, reactions these survivors were definitely not trying to instill in me.
While I tried to get over my gut reactions, I treated myself to a $5 Starbucks coffee and tried unsuccessfully to get on the airport Wifi. Then it was off to security, where they pulled me aside because I had my ipad in my carry-on that they wanted to test for explosives residue. The man running the test started a friendly dialogue with me in German and then realized I had no idea what he was saying. “YOU don’t speak German?!?!” and my ancestry kicked in. Oh, yeah! I look German. I AM German, in a way. I said with glee, “I don’t speak German, but my ancestors were German.”
He smiled. “Your parents are born in Germany?”
Yeah, I’m not THAT German. “No, my grandparents.” Okay, honestly, my grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents, but how (and why) would I say that? He shrugged and told me my ipad was cleared. It all took less than a minute.
I found my gate and was approached by a young German man who was taking surveys of airport travelers from different countries. He asked me if I spoke English and then proceeded to ask me very politely to take a survey about my experiences in Germany.
“How many times have you been to Germany?” This is my first time.
“How long have you stayed here?” Half an hour.
“Oh! Welcome to Germany! May I ask how you like it so far?” Seriously? Seriously.
“Where are you going?” Italy.
“How many times have you flown to Italy in the last 12 months?” Twice.
“How long do you stay in Italy this time?” Two weeks.
“Why don’t you stay in Germany?” Because Alex… because I’m going to ITALY!
“Why have you felt any irrational fear or unqualified prejudices while you have been in Germany this half hour?” No, he didn’t ask that, but that was the question I was dealing with in my mind and gut. I tried to reconcile myself to accept my own prejudices. I even prayed for forgiveness. Then we were off on a bus to our flight. We passed airplanes from all over the world. We saw Asian airplanes, North American airplanes, European airplanes. And then I saw it: two planes that said, “Iran Air.” My jaw dropped as I scanned the bus for another American with a dropped jaw. I found few eyes as surprised as mine. IRAN Air???
Germany was good for my soul, exposing the kinds of prejudices I undoubtedly stand against when I preach about the openness and inclusivity of God’s kingdom. It took Germany to bring them out. Germany and about 200 smiling, happy airport employees.
Landing in Italy, I grabbed my suitcase and headed out of the airport, expecting the usual Italian disinterest in processing me through customs or having anything to do with me. To my surprise, I was stopped by a customs official. The man in the fancy uniform stopped me to look at my luggage tag. I thought he was checking my information, but no. He was looking at my luggage tag. I had purchased it in the airport in Springfield, and it had a holographic picture of cardinals on it. He moved it, checked out the picture, shrugged as if it was minimally cool, and let me go. Ahh… now THAT’s an Italian for you.