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Not what I expected

I've always wanted to visit Europe. Exchange students from other countries attended my high school, but no one from my class went overseas. When I was in college, study abroad wasn't as commonplace as it is now, and besides, I was in a hurry to g...

I've always wanted to visit Europe. Exchange students from other countries attended my high school, but no one from my class went overseas. When I was in college, study abroad wasn't as commonplace as it is now, and besides, I was in a hurry to graduate and start paying off those college loans.

This fall, Agweek was invited to attend the World CLAAS event in Germany, and I was thrilled when my editor offered to send me. Not knowing any German, I bought a book and a CD to study the language and history in my spare time. Even so, I was surprised by many of the things I experienced overseas.

My group, jet lagged after our red-eye trans-Atlantic flight, was treated to a hearty German lunch, then stumbled onto a charter bus to take in the sights of Berlin.

The big city

I knew the weather would be gray and chilly, but still, the city didn't have the dreary overtone I'd expected. Windows on former Soviet office buildings still are covered with spiked iron bars, but many apartment buildings have flower-filled terraces.

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Bullet holes from World War II still pockmark stone foundations and concrete bridge supports, and many cement structures, including remnants of the Berlin Wall, are covered with graffiti. I think it may be the city's way of rebounding after decades without freedom of speech.

Although Berlin is the second-most populous city in the European Union, the sidewalks and parks are quite clean, and that afternoon, the streets were filled with young professionals, walking or bicycling home from work.

I was reminded, in some ways, of Grand Forks, N.D., after the 1997 flood. In Berlin, signs of devastation remain, but there's also a strong sense of moving forward. Construction cranes tower over the city skyline, rebuilding important landmarks. Countless detours make even the shortest trip a sightseeing venture.

The countryside

From Berlin, we set out on the Autobahn, which is not one highway, but a series of them like the U.S. interstate system. Contrary to popular belief, speed limits are posted on many stretches of the highway.

Traffic does move quickly, but drivers are courteous and competent. You must be at least 18 to get a German drivers license, and I couldn't help wondering how a 14½-year-old North Dakota driver would fare there.

We didn't see any SUV's or pickups, even off the Autobahn in rural areas. Everyone, including farmers, seems to drive compact, dark-colored cars kept in impeccable shape.

The people

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I've always found people more interesting than machines or metropolises, so getting to know the German people was the highlight of my trip. I'm one-quarter German myself, and that side of my family tends to fit the stereotype of stoicism and rigidity.

But that is a stereotype. Many of Germans I met were very warm and accommodating, with a dry sense of humor I found delightful. For some reason, I expected to sense despair, but instead found the German people to be practical and not prone to complaining.

In turn, I wondered what they thought of us. Eating breakfast in the hotel lobby, I noticed nearly everyone spoke multiple languages, conversing easily with visitors from all over Europe. Is it really so surprising that Americans are often considered ignorant and arrogant, at least in terms of language skills?

I returned home having learned some valuable new lessons. I'm more aware that, all over the world, people of strong character can and do find new ways to survive and thrive. And I'm reminded that it's not where we're from, but how we handle ourselves, that earns us respect.

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