Shake It Out II

Irony would have it that South Park would be right in saying that "the Simpsons already did it": He who shall not be named elected president of the world's largest economic and military power.

Waking up on that Wednesday morning, the garden covered in this winter's first fresh snow, even before I could fire up the computer and catch up on the news, a message on my phone, on a single line, announced the unimaginable:

I can't believe what I'm observing. I'm in utter disbelief.
Over the last couple of years, we've seen the rise of populist, mostly right-wing movements, not only around here in Europe - illustrated with examples from Poland and Hungary, to Germany and Austria - but virtually everywhere, the controversial impeachment/coup d'etat in Brazil being just one more to hit somewhat close to home. In the beginning, I could rationalise: it's a minor problem here; it's a banana republic issue there. It progressed to a stage where even the people in supposedly well-educated countries - grüezi, Switzerland! - start veering off down this road.

And yet - now this reaches the last remaining superpower. I will refrain from trying to explain or analyse what took place, or what may come to pass in the upcoming months and years. But seen from the perspective of my recent visit to South America, reading first-hand reports of how antisemitism and racism more than once affected my family's trajectory, splitting relatives and destroying lives, the viral message from a certain "Johan Franklin" made me question: have we not, as a society, as a civilisation, learned our lessons?
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In the news one finds many a well-written piece warning of the imminent apocalypse.  Maybe also my initial reaction that morning would have been one of despair, were it not for the lucky coincidence of a completely senseless conversation which, just at the right time, arrived at the works of Douglas Adams and discussed an interpretation to the answer to his Ultimate Question. Precisely in time to remind me that, in the cover of the eponymous book, one reads, "Don't panic".

Indeed: everything's not lost. While the easy way out may be to decry the fall of civilisation as we know it and go running to the hills, one has to be reminded that in the end, however painful progress may be, the forces of reason, compassion, and equality always prevail. Love conquers all.

History will shows us that such conquests do not come easy. Thus the need, precisely in such times, to rally together - not only to defend rights so hardly won, but above all, to continue to inspire others. And to remind ourselves, however faint and distant, that there is some rightness in the universe, an ideal order in the world worth seeking, and fighting for. (Apologies for the cliches).
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Escaping persecution and finding refuge in South America, my grandparents woke up one day in 1942 to find their storefront destroyed - with Brazil finally joining the Allies and declaring war on the Axis powers, German-owned businesses were suddenly target of a series of attacks indirectly motivated by the populist Vargas regime.

Similar deeds were, and are, routinely observed in my vicinity, with Germany having absorbed a record-breaking number of Syrian refugees over the past two years. Now, seeing acts against minorities on the rise following the American election, one can't help wonder if the past is bound to endlessly repeat itself.

Finding some comfort, after those turmoils of almost 75 years ago, good did prevail. They rolled up their sleeves, cleared the store of the glass shreds, and eventually managed to raise, with good health and proper education, all their four kids. Others obviously didn't share the same luck: a call to remind us that it is up to us to ensure it may yet be different this time around.
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It's always darkest before the dawn.

Shake It Out I

I didn't update the blog as of my last visit to South America, exactly this time last year. On that occasion, it marked my first trip back in over three years. In 2012, Brazil was arguably still enjoying its commodity-inflated bubble, and yours truly still a Ph.D. student, living the student lifestyle, with numerous expectations, but less settled, less found of the structured routine I came to enjoy over the last years after settling down in Munich. My grandmother, while weakened following her stroke in 2010, would still greet me and ask on the progress of my studies. Both my parents' business were blossoming, and boarding an overcrowded bus downtown was an experience I could, if not enjoy, at least laugh about. All in all, nothing far from the status quo I remembered when I first packed and left, in 2008.

Contrastingly, the situation last year had a different flavouring. If in the years prior, friends and relatives would ask when would I come back ("we need people like you here"), this time, the tone was borderline sombre ("I'm happy at least you managed to get out"). The burst bubble of expectations following the hosting of the 2014 soccer world cup, the downfall of commodity prices coupled with the sudden devaluation of the national currency and rising unemployment were all cause for desolate perspectives permeating virtually every conversation back then. Experiencing first hand a particularly graphical example of all that seemed wrong about the country just as I was checking in for my return flight, I remember feeling a sudden jolt of relief when the doors closed on the plane which was to take me across the pond - cue escaping war on the last civilian machine out of the conflict zone.

(Obviously, the situation was not, and is not, in such dire state. An alarmingly increase in crime rates, while by no means to be taken lightly, still doesn't translate into an open civil war. Strolling around our neighbourhood on a sunny Sunday morning, I even remarked that, minus the desolate sidewalk pavement, one could be excused for mistaking the surroundings for an European suburb).

This time around, the impressions were different. If a year ago I was still awed, shocked by the downfall, today - perhaps due to the context surrounding my journey - the conditions only seemed to leave somewhat of a bitter aftertaste. Often I would be somehow all too aware of a certain trait of the local lifestyle, manifested through a disdain for the system - or which perhaps defines the system itself. Moral relatives are exceedingly commonplace; all justifying their actions by acknowledging that much worse undertakings take place on the spheres above, or, in a Machiavellian tone, that such actions are in the end necessary to achieve whatever good purpose lies at the end. Others, if not acting upon similar guidelines, seemed reluctantly accepting of having to go through the motions, reinforcing my view that much revolves not upon concrete ideas, actions and results, but rather on the external appearances, with the representation, the outside shells, more important than the actual content.
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And yet: not only by developing a growing appreciation for certain nuances of my parent's characters, in particular over the course of the many evenings as we extensively talked about family, relationships, past, present, and future plans, but also through lively gatherings, dinner and lunch meetings with friends and former colleagues, this week served to once again remind me that there is still so much more in heaven and that tropical part of the earth than often dreams my vain philosophy.

As my flight pulled from the gate, I did not feel like I had just managed to escape a collapsing pandemonium. Being ever more certain that staying in, or returning to, Brazil would not be a decision I could come to terms with, I can still recognise it's a part of me and will forever explain a little of how I came to be who I am.


All that you can't leave behind

"Dear Dieter - on this blurred photo you'll see our house, and to the right the shed with my coach. We could retrofit it as your room so that you're left undisturbed. Knowing you I believe this will be your preferred choice. Let this sink in and come! Yours Geist + Herta"

Learning that that my grandfather was stranded without means in Rio de Janeiro after Hitler had passed an exchange embargo, Paul Weirich wrote the above letter, offering his former school classmate a place to stay. After journeying over many weeks, across unfinished and failing railroads, Wolfdietrich Wickert reached the small town of Jaguary the day after Christmas with nothing but a worn-out suit and a small handbag. The year was 1934.
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After a week going through numerous shelves and cabinets filled with glass and silverware, maps, books, table cloth from my Oma, paintings and woodwork from Opa, I'm flying back with an extra suitcase to ferry home some of those items. Ironically, a large share was once brought over from Europe - maybe when my grandparents first flew back to Germany after the war, precisely to go through whatever was left of their original belongings, or what they inherited from their parents. At some point, holding Brazil to be their new home, they took the decision never to move back - and had thus to go through a similar process in deciding what to bring, and what to leave behind. Granted, it's much easier to put items on a box and ship them overseas nowadays, but allow me some historical nostalgia as I pack...
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I was also completely dazzled by some of stories recovered from family chronicles, travel memories and diaries. How my grand-grandfather, just days before he was about to emigrate to North America, went to say farewell to an old friend - and meeting his daughter, decided for a complete change of plans, eventually settling down in pre-WWI Kassel. Or how my grandmother and her brother worked two jobs to afford bringing the rest of the family to South America, literally with the last ship before ports were closed ahead of WWII. And of course my grandfather's journey, a little glimpse of which is illustrated by the postcard story above.
My transatlantic musings, past and present, pale in comparison.
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