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Everyday Life

Regardless of where I live, I find that daily routines dominate life. I’m convinced that if I can’t derive joy from the everyday experiences then I’ll have difficulty deriving value in my life. Interestingly, some of my favorite memories of my time in Berlin are tied to those daily, mundane routines – as dull as they sometimes felt, they were defining characteristics of my experience. I think it’s important to say now that interning at the State Department was my first experience working a “9 to 5” (or in my case, 8:30 to 5:30) – this created a far more regimented schedule than I followed during university semesters.

One of the best looking cups of coffee I got in Berlin — gotta love oat milk Flat Whites

            I’ve talked about coffee already in these blogs, but every day starts with coffee. In my case, coffee starts with a hand grinder and an AeroPress. No later than 6:30 every morning I’d have a podcast on, fresh grinding my beans, and boiling water. Those quiet ten minutes set the tone for my day – if I miss my morning brew, I can tell my day just isn’t set up the way I want. My kitchen window (on the fourth floor) overlooked Gesundbrunnen, a neighborhood in the former Soviet section of Berlin. I saw some amazing sunrises – the apartment might not have been much, but that kitchen was home to the best 10 minutes of my day.

This isn’t the worst view I can imagine waking up to

            As noted, coffee essential to starting my day. But the gym is essential to finishing my day. I didn’t get off work until sometime around 17:30, and I didn’t really get anywhere fast in Berlin. So I wouldn’t get to the gym until sometime around 18:00, and I wouldn’t leave before 19:30 or 20:00 (I’m a self-acknowledged compulsive exerciser). But the thing that sticks with me about the gym isn’t really the workouts; it’s the commuting. In the US, I can’t imagine commuting more than about 30 minutes to get anywhere (a consequence of growing up in a small town). My shortest commutes in Berlin were ~30 minutes and commuting home from the gym would always take 45-60 minutes. I’d have to stop by the store for groceries 2-3 days during the week on the commute. Sometimes it would frustrate me since I’d just want to be home. I was frequently exhausted, spent from the day. But at the same time, I’m not sure I’d change it if I could. It gave me a new perspective – it taught me that there’s a lot more to life than what you see at University. It taught me patience; I needed to accept a 45-60 minute commute, because that was outside of my control. I learned a lot from that commute, and to be honest, I was ultimately able to let that hour be my time to decompress from the day.

It just doesn’t get old

            But there’s one true highlight from my time in Berlin: and that’s the Brandenburger Tor. For those unaware, the US Embassy in Berlin is on Pariser Platz, the square near the center of Berlin where the Brandenburger Tor stands. Every day I’d exit the S-Bahn station and walk up the stairs to, perhaps, the most iconic view in Germany. That view was new every morning; it never got old.

It’s beautiful at all times of day

            I’m grateful for the cool stuff I got to do while living in Berlin, but those aren’t the only memories with which I leave Germany. I’ll remember the peaceful mornings brewing coffee, the Brandenburger Tor coming into view from the S-Bahn station, long commutes home at night. It’s those little things that really make the experience memorable.

            P.S. (This title is borrowed from Coldplay’s latest album “Everyday Life” – give it a listen, especially “Orphans,” “Champion of the World,” and the titular “Everyday Life.”

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This will Change the World

Well, I’ll say this: I didn’t imagine that I’d intern with the State Department during the most significant challenge the world has faced in my lifetime. If you had told me that freedoms across the Western world would be restricted in response to COVID-19 just as in China, I’d have told you that could never happen. That we’re be facing a financial crisis that’s likely greater in magnitude than that of 2008 – it’s staggering. The world, the economy, the way of life that we all thought was resilient and stable, just isn’t. My boss at the State Department was repeatedly said that “everyone’s going to know where they were doing the Coronavirus crisis. It’s this [my] generation’s 9/11.”   

From an overarching perspective, a few things strike me about this outbreak. First, the fragility of our economic system is shocking. Having watched this outbreak closely from a single nation’s perspective, its startling to see how a system that seemed so strong, so resilient, can crumble in the space of two weeks. When I got to Berlin in early February, we were just reporting on potential downstream economic consequences from China’s shutdown. We weren’t really looking at a potential outbreak in Germany. I don’t think any of us saw it coming; no one planned for an outbreak, much less one of this scale. And even two weeks ago, as of writing this, I was just a tourist in Copenhagen – flights were still mostly full, very few people had any sort of mask on, and life more or less went on as normal. Today, 90% or more of the scheduled flights in Berlin and Amsterdam have been cancelled and there’s probably someone with a mask on every row of this plane; there are no tourists. In airports, there’s a pervasive sense of impending calamity. It’s a different world than two months ago.

The fragility of the system has come through in my research on government responses to COVID-19 – it’s never felt like the government knew what to do. They’ve been playing catch-up, intensifying restrictions as the virus afflicts greater and greater swaths of the population. This isn’t just true for Germany – it’s true for virtually every nation in the Western world. The system that I assumed was solid enough to weather virtually any storm . . . just wasn’t.

Second, the human impact of COVID-19 is shocking. The terror of the virus came long before the virus itself. We saw “hamster buying” – hoarding essentials like toilet paper, eggs, and non-perishable foods – a stigma against those of east Asian descent (a stigma that still persists), and I’d argue a general discomfort of our fellow people (because we don’t know who has COVID-19). One needs only look at the disastrous situation in Northern Italy to see the necessity of quick and decisive action limiting social interactions, but we can’t allow these measures to pull our intention into ourselves exclusively. Now is not the time to lose our connection to others. There’s tremendous uncertainty on all fronts for us all – let’s not add isolation on top of the uncertainty that already permeates society.

As a part of my reporting on COVID-19 at the State Department, I read stories of hospitals being robbed of personal protective equipment (like respirators and the like). I’ve seen stories of people ignoring social distancing restrictions – choosing their temporary wants over the good of society. Let’s not be like them; let’s choose to act in ways that put the good of society first – if there’s one thing that came through virtually all the messaging in Germany, it was this: as citizens, we have the ability to control the effects of COVID-19 on the world. We can take actions that allow the healthcare system to support the burden. Chancellor Merkel said it well: this is the greatest crisis faced by Germany (and possibly the world) since WW2.

I don’t know what the future holds; when social distancing’s efficacy in slowing the outbreak will be seen, if we’ll become a more coherent or isolated society, etc. There are many unknowns. But one thing is certain: COVID-19 will change the world.

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Gratitude

As I get older (which feels ironic at 21), the importance of expressing gratitude is made clearer and clearer to me. In that spirit, looking back at my two months in Germany, I’m struck by all the awesome stuff I got to experience. I visited Dresden, Prague, Cologne, Düsseldorf (unfortunately), Wroclaw, and Copenhagen. Besides that, I was living in Berlin, and Berlin is pretty awesome, not going to lie. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to travel, and even though my experience was different than I expected, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. On the topic of travel, I just have to mention Prague. Every street corner looks like a fairy tale, the Prague Castle complex is probably my single favorite landmark in Europe. It’s a bit crowded, but it deserves every bit of the attention it gets. Prague also has (in English) Chimney Cakes – delightful baked treats that can be slathered in Nutella to become even better.

            But Prague doesn’t have a monopoly on cool things – The Cologne Cathedral is awe inspiring. The imposing verticality, the mixture of monolithic permanence and spiritual elegance, is a sight to behold. I got to see a quartet perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. They were frankly fantastic – it’s probably the most fun I’ve had a concert. And on the topic of music, I have to mention a street performer in Dresden who did acoustic covers of classic rock songs; I could’ve listened to him all night. I saw some incredible modern art at K20 in Düsseldorf – Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso are incredible artists; it’s not just a question of form, they have an incredible ability to communicate torment, joy, confusion using a only few brushstrokes. But on the topic of art, I also found my new favorite artist at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Denmark. Anna Ancher is a Skagen artist, and her work, in perhaps a wild understatement, made me feel things. Her works are beautiful, emotive, (in a word) human. However, I’d say the single artistic highlight of my time in Berlin was a Jan Van Eyck at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin – he’s just an astonishing artist.

I didn’t just get to see lots of awesome art, there’s also great coffee everywhere; and I certainly had plenty of it. This one coffee shop in Copenhagen had an awesome espresso blend that had strong, clear notes of strawberry; I think it might be my favorite cup of the trip. I had some fantastic breakfasts in Poland, great pizza in Prague (of all places), an awesome hamburger in Dresden, and my favorite donuts of all time that also happen to vegan in Berlin. You could say that food was an important part of my experience.

I’m grateful for the experience to intern at the State Department – I didn’t have any experience in an office environment before, and I hadn’t even interned anywhere previously either. It was a great first experience. I got experience on working eight-hour days (that’s not a nothing experience), reporting on a whole range of topics, and engaging with another governmental system. Even though my time there got cut short, I wouldn’t trade that experience for a semester at university.

Just like before, I’m ready to go back to Europe. See more things, eat good food, drink great coffee, and see some incredible history. I’m grateful for the time that I had, and I’ll always remember that on this trip to Europe, I didn’t just get to see historical sites: I saw history in the making.

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