One of the best things about traveling is how much it teaches you about yourself, and about your home place.
We had a few observations about our time in Germany that lead Paul and I to question a lot of what we look at as normal life in the United States.
Let me give you three examples.
The first event happened while we were walking through the streets of Berlin with our friends. It was a cool, cloudy day and we had taken a beautiful boat tour of the city along the River Spree. Now we were walking toward the Reichstag, winding through the crowds of people on the busy streets.
Berlin is very quiet. In spite of all of the traffic, we rarely heard a horn beep or a siren wail. But now a police car went by with its siren on. Paul and I both stopped, but our German friends kept walking. My heart rate had picked up and I wondered how the others were feeling.
We found out that when a police car stops in the city with its siren running, the Americans think “Is it a terrorist attack? Is it a shooter?” Our German hosts think, “Somebody parked in the wrong place.”
The second event was late one night. We were going to sleep at our hosts’ beautiful little house on the outskirts of the old East Berlin. The neighborhood is quiet and serene, even though it lies within the city borders.
Our window was open to let in the breeze, and we suddenly heard a series of loud, percussive booms. We looked at each other, both of us slightly alarmed.
“That’s not thunder.”
Paul went to the window, looked out. Everything looked peaceful, but the sounds continued. We both thought next about guns. Was there a shoot out happening somewhere? Was it a terrorist attack?
The house was silent. Whatever the noises were, our German friends were sleeping through it.
The next morning we asked about the noise, and found out that it was most likely fireworks being displayed as part of a concert somewhere in the city.
The last event is the one that stays with me and bothers me the most. We had just had coffee and dessert at an old, typically German restaurant on the shore of small lake in Berlin. It was a beautiful morning, and the area was filled with families boating, kids chatting, and people enjoying tea or coffee on the deck.
As we walked across the parking lot to our car, we saw two men getting out of another vehicle. One of the men, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, was wearing a baggy pair of camo pants, heavy black boots, and a black vest with many deep pockets. His forearms were heavily tattooed and his ears were decorated with large gauged earrings.
I whispered to Paul, “Yikes.” Katja looked at me with slight surprise. “Are you looking at his arms?”
“No,” I said. “But that vest……” She looked puzzled. I explained, “He looks like he is armed.”
Katja and Lucas were both surprised. “No!” she said. “He is a worker. He has tools in the pockets.”
Lucas summed it up. “Karen, nobody here has a gun.”
So that makes me think about life in the U.S. In the country that loves to call itself “free”, I am unable to walk past an innocent young man in a vest because I am so afraid of being shot. I don’t have the freedom to enjoy a lovely morning, because my assumption is that most of the people around me are carrying guns. I’m afraid of my fellow citizens, and I’m right to be so vigilant.
I live in fear of terrorism in a country where very little has happened. Meanwhile, in a European country that is filled with refugees from the Middle East, our friends go about their lives with no fear.
Makes you think.