Germany is another country I have visited multiple times and I have to say has
provided multiple learning experiences.
The first occasion was in 1982 when the World Curling Championship (Silver
Broom) was being held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In true German fashion the name is
derived from compounding the words; in this case Garmisch and Partenkirchen, twin
cities on opposite sides of the Partnach River.
I was the curling reporter for the local radio station and had done a weekly curling
show on Radio Southern Manitoba. At the time Air Canada offered working media
complimentary airfare to the Men’s World Championship, of which it was the title
sponsor. Coupled with a positive experience at the previous year’s event in London,
Ontario, the current offer of a reduced fare to the Championship had us hooked. We
attended the Silver Broom for several years following and I continued covering the
games till I joined the station full time as a Farm Broadcaster.
It was our first over the pond trip and we learned a lot, for e.g. compared to
Europe, how inexpensive things were in Canada; we learned about small hotel rooms and
that breakfast could be included with the price of the room, the list goes on and on.
As a result Sandra and I became addicted to travel and have visited every
continent since. The first trip to Germany was an eye-opener in so many ways.
My second time to Germany came as a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press. I
was writing travel pieces at the time and was a guest of the Erfurt Christmas Market, an
outdoor market that marks the beginning of advent with sellers of all things Christmas, in
most cases several sellers of anything Christmas. The trip was good and resulted in a
feature in the paper’s travel section but did not require or allow for much investigation of
German culture. I did manage to squeeze in a trip back to Garmisch to do some skiing
and write another travel story for the paper.
In January of 2002 when a guest of the Germany embassy I had the trip I would
rate as most important in giving me an understanding of the culture of my ancestors. It
had been 20 years since my first visit and 10 years since the crumbling of the Berlin wall.
I had worked for a German firm during my tenure in Russia and had some understanding
of the perspective of the former West Germany on opening the border and their wallets to
the residents of the former East Germany.
“It has been 10 years now, and they are our brothers but they are pulling down our
economy and we are tired of the decrease in the standard of living,” a cabby told me
shortly after my arrival. Cabbies have a way of being succinct and capturing the feeling
of the population, and this one did that very well.
My invitation to visit came via a program of the German Embassy in which they
invited 35 agricultural journalists to attend Gruene Woche (Green Week) in Berlin. For
whatever reason Canada had two representatives, Garry Enns and myself. We were part
of a group of journalists representing 34 countries and at least a half dozen languages.
Organizers had addressed that issue. We were placed in smaller groups and assigned a
translator; English and Spanish were by far the largest, followed by some African
countries where French was the dominant language. Speaking English meant we had the
delegates from Panama and Greece in our group.
The fellow from Panama was concerned about losing his ears. His wife had read
somewhere that in Germany it gets so cold that people’s ears actually freeze and fall off.
Garry and I assured him that it was much colder in Canada and we had not yet come
across this problem. He almost believed us. Perhaps our laughter had something do with
convincing him. He was extremely proud of the sheepskin coat he had bought for the trip;
we would have rated it a light fall jacket but to him it was serious outerwear.
The lady from Greece wrote mainly food stories and was on a mission to see if
olive oil from her country was available in Germany. Whether it was a tiny corner
grocery or a large supermarket, she was off to check the oil and it’s country of origin, and
every time she would come back with the same smug answer: “It says Italy, but I know it
was from olives grown in Greece.”
I mention those two only to give you an idea of the diversity of the group and how
each had a specific area of interest. I was writing mainly about production agriculture at
the time and was interested in new equipment and produce in the European Union, but as
is so often the case things don’t turn out as you expect.
When I got the invitation to attend a trade show during Green Week, I thought it
was a week dedicated to Environmental Concerns with a new approach to agriculture.
That was not the case at all: The week in mid-January had been dubbed Green Week
decades earlier when Berlin was typically invaded by farmers coming to the city to sell
their merchandise; in time a show to capture the crowd and sell new equipment had
developed. “Green” was a reference to the colour of jackets normally worn by
agriculturalists: the number of farmers in the city during this time literally turned it green.
We were also given an opportunity to meet with Renate Künast, Minister of
Agriculture (in what had been named the Red Green Party) under a coalition of the
German parliament. The meeting was much more revealing and open than typically
afforded visiting journalists, at least in my experience.
She clearly outlined how the Germans planned to move to a much greener form of
agricultural production. The attitude of self-sufficiency in food production was no longer
of prime importance; the environment had taken over as Number One.
For me this was a revelation, an about face from my findings during my Nuffield
Scholarship. In 1995 my travels in Europe had shown me that European governments
were willing to open their treasuries to support farmers and that self-sufficiency in food
production was the primary concern. I deduced that it was because many of the people in
power had been hungry as children during the war and did not want to repeat those
Now not even a decade later the next generation was making political decisions
and they were not as concerned about self-sufficiency because they had not experienced
hunger. Künast was a prime example, being born in 1955 she did not have first-hand
knowledge of a country at war.
The support for food production that came through the European Common
Market or as it was now called European Economic Union was taking a large part of
Canadian farmers’ profits; over production had meant surpluses in many commodities
which had driven the price down. Seven years earlier I had come home from Europe
saying it looked like Europe would continue to support its farmers with subsidies, and
now Künast was saying something quite different. It was the first time I had been
exposed to the concept and she was direct about it. It was a taste of things to come.
I spend a few extra days in Berlin to follow up on the East-West situation. One of
the most interesting spots was Checkpoint Charlie, so named for the third letter of the
phonetic NATO alphabet. Alpha and Bravo were already used at other crossings so the
one on Friedrichstrasse was named Charlie.
I spent some time with the locals and heard stories of the Brandenburg Gate
opening, how residents of the former communist portion able to cross to the West were
overcome by the opulence and the assortment of consumer goods.
To put it in perspective, I visited a dairy farm in the former East, and spoke to the
farmer about the change in levels of production.
There was also opportunity to buy a little piece of the Berlin Wall in a small
plastic bag, with a 2×2 inch certificate of authenticity. My bit of cement is blue.