by Brooks Riley
(I began writing this article months ago, long before the refugee crisis.)
—Guten Morgen! (Good morning!)
—Morgen zusammen! (Morning, you two!)
—Morgen Ihr zwei! (Morning, you two!)
—Kalimera! (Morning, in Greek)
—Servus! (Hi or bye, in leftover Latin from upper Bavaria)
—Buenos Dias! (Morning, in Spanish)
—Tag! (Good day, in North German)
—Einen wunderschönen guten Morgen! (A beautiful good morning!)
This is how my day begins. R and I sit at one of two tables in front of the wee Greek café on a shady street in the Giesing neighborhood of Munich. Like the proverbial all-weather postman, we show up every day, sit outside, smoke cigarettes, share a Zimtschnecke (a kind of cinnamon bun), drink cappuccinos, and watch the world go by—quite literally.
Giesing, with its Obergiesing and Untergiesing, is a now a melting pot of Munich—a quiet oasis of multicultural harmony. It’s always been a working-class neighborhood, not frequented by the grand, but also not ignored by the city fathers. Its 5-story balconied apartment complexes are spaciously nestled in lush green landscapes and along tree-lined streets. A vast elegant park provides meadows for dogs that need exercise and people who want a solitary walk or a picnic or a meditative sit on one of the many benches. Franz Beckenbauer, the second most famous German after Goethe, comes from Giesing, a paradise for families with limited means, born of functional, benign socialism, and a model of integration.
I’ve been sheltered all my life, isolated by acreage or a fine address. Even in New York, where I used to live, there was never a neighborhood feeling, even on the Upper West Side. New York is too big. The chances of seeing the same person on the street on consecutive days are slim. The chances of speaking to a stranger are nil. Los Angeles is worse–no one walks at all.
In Giesing, we know nearly everyone who passes by the café between 6:30 and 8 a.m. Even if they don’t stop to chat, they nod or greet us warmly. They come in all shapes, ages and backgrounds—from Africa, South America, Turkey, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Germany.
There’s F, a svelte pensioner in his mid-seventies, who arrives on his bicycle in his gym shorts (his calves are enviable). F has two favorite subjects: his perennial aches and pains—a stiff neck, a bad back–and 1860, that other Munich soccer club which dropped to the 2nd league years ago. Giesing is 1860 territory, fan base for the working-class club. R and I try to keep our enthusiasm for Bayern Munich to a minimum.
There’s H, the good-looking building superintendent, an Überlebenskunstler (survival artist) splattered with tattoos, who’s seen more of the underbelly of American life than I could ever imagine. H has been places, climbed mountains, worked in Miami, has stories to tell. He swims in frigid lakes in March and owns an enchanting white bull-dog who has just passed her behavioral test for a dog license.
There’s A, the Greek controller of newspaper-dispenser boxes, whose job is to catch people who don’t pay for their newspaper (payment is on the honor system, like the subway) by dressing up in different disguises—a street sweeper, a taxi driver, a ‘blind’ man. A has been featured on a local TV show, confronting deadbeats. His humor is quick and kind, his exuberance palliative. On one particularly gloomy day, I said to him: ‘The sun is here,’ meaning A and his sunny disposition. He immediately pulled out a pair of imaginary dark glasses and put them on, indicating that I was the sun, not he.
There’s the jolly pensioner with a handle-bar mustache, all but swallowed up in his day-glo-green uniform greatcoat, shepherding schoolchildren across the street at the stop light.
Not everyone is gregarious. An old man sitting at the other table never used to greet us and always stared glumly into his coffee cup. One day I went over to him and said, ‘Guten Morgen’. An enchanting smile reached his eyes, taking years off his face. Now we converse, his Bavarian dialect enriching a healthy dose of sardonic wit.
The café is located next to a complex of buildings in a park-like setting where disabled people of all kinds live in groups called Wohngemeinschaften. Many of them go to work every day, and as they pass by, they greet us in their singular, special ways.
There’s K, the sartorially sophisticated young man with Down syndrome. He shakes our hands every morning before continuing on to the subway, punctuating his chipper farewell with a ‘Pfürti‘ (Bavarian for ‘Bye’, from ‘god protect you’). In another life, I would ask his advice on combining colors: Without a hint of narcissism, he trots out a different look every day, selecting a palette of shades and hues with a painter’s finesse.
There’s the lovely guy with the heart-melting smile, on his way to work in a wheelchair. He always looks happy to see us, even when it’s snowing like crazy and he has no gloves to protect his hands as he pushes those metal wheels.
There is A, the zaftig, energetic blonde, who thinks R and I are crazy to brave the elements, who has just been thrown a party at her place of work to celebrate her ten years employment: Her disability remains a mystery to us. There are many others, some we know by name, some not. They share details of their lives with us–grief at the sudden death of a roommate, joy over a trip to Berlin, a new girlfriend, a new job, or a new smart phone. One young woman announces her birthday every few months. As V the café owner muses, at this rate she must be well over 70.
If I worry about an uncertain future, I still consider myself lucky when I see the ones who are severely disabled, trapped inside bodies or minds that don’t work right or don’t work at all. They too pass by, their caretakers wheeling them out for a round of fresh air or a visit to the park.
Germany has learned from the past, and that extends to its treatment of the disabled. Instead of shunting them off to some sterile institution out of sight, out of mind, they’ve been integrated into the life of the city. There is much to learn from seeing these citizens every day, their joie de vivre and proud participation in a normal life to the extent that it is possible.
This country has been kind to me, too. It’s full of rules, and sometimes absurdly regulated in the name of common good. But between the ‘verboten’ and the ‘bitte nicht’, is a deep sense of responsibility toward its citizens and residents.
It should come as no surprise, then, that this new kinder, gentler Germany has welcomed a vast new population of refugees with open arms. What better way to start a new life than to be welcomed in a foreign land? What better incentive can a refugee have to return the favor by becoming a functioning, productive member of society and giving something back? Germany has had a heterogeneous population for quite some time. Porsche workers in Germany represent 83 nationalities. German railroad employees represent over 100 nationalities. The country quietly evolved long before this transforming moment in its history.
Refugees from Syria are not migrants. They are here to save their lives, not to improve them economically. Many have expressed the wish to return someday to their homeland. If the situation in Syria improves, some will go back and some will stay. Does it matter?
I wish my own country, the USA, would respond to the crisis by doing what it’s done best over the last 240 years: welcoming those from other lands in search of a safer, normal life. Instead, it’s doing what it’s done best the last 25 years, pondering a thirteenth-hour military solution or pouring money into refugee camps to keep those refugees–who have waited four years under tents in neighboring lands for the chance to go home again–right where they are, instead of letting them come to our shores.
We live in a world of economic globalization. Why are we not willing to accept a humanitarian globalization? Under pressure from its public, Great Britain has just ‘relented’ by offering to accept 20,000 refugees over a five-year period—a paltry gesture. Munich welcomed more than 40,000 this past week alone. And the country will have taken in 800,000 by the end of the year.
The humanitarian catastrophe at the gates of Fortress Europe cannot be solved by grudgingly taking on a few more refugees every year. It requires a paradigm shift in thinking at the highest levels of government. And courage. No one is saying it will be easy. But if the world’s richest nations don’t respond quickly and decisively, the consequences will be unthinkable. So far, only Sweden and Germany seem to realize this.
I am proud of my second homeland, proud of Chancellor Merkel, who has put the moral imperative before Ordnung and intransigence. I’m proud of its people, the majority who have dared to do the right thing by welcoming the refugees and helping out where they can. It’s a bold, stunning move, not without risk, and a logistical nightmare in the coming months. But Germany will be better for it, not worse.
Germany is where ‘yes-we-can’ now resides, itself a refugee from a land that has all but forgotten that spirit.