The first parts of the trip set a high bar. Munich had its bikes, counts and beer gardens. The opening half of our time in Berlin took us deep into the worlds of the German Chancellery and the Reichstag. But the American-German Young Leader Conference did not run downhill. At the end, the conference headed straight upward, toward Germany’s most newsworthy person of the moment. And karaoke.
But before I explain those details, I need to pause for two notes.
Note one: I never ate lunch or dinner at the restaurant at the Grand Hyatt, our conference hotel. But I did have breakfast there every morning, religiously. If our events hadn’t ended and they hadn’t shipped me back to America on schedule, I would probably still be at the buffet, running from one end to the other, flipping breads and cheeses and fruits high into the air and down into my mouth.
So, I would like to thank everyone involved with that breakfast, be they cooks, conference staff who arranged the breakfasts, or my fellow delegates who sat with me in the early hours, celebrating the experience of waking our guts.
Note two: I don’t know quite what to call them. My fellow young leaders sounds too fancy. My fellow delegates, too constitutional. Fellow attendees, too bland. So, I’ve settled on “colleagues” for the purposes of these posts. Professional but with an air of maybe going out after work for a bier and a Mercedes-sized pretzel.
I wonder if a more fitting word might exist in German, with its ability to combine the linguistic stems of objects and ideas. Is there a German word for people you’ve known only a brief time — but with whom you have experienced much together and begun to develop friendships out of shared labor, focus and kindness?
My English-German phrasebook fails me.
But to a person, my colleagues at the conference were great people. We spent more hours together than I have with people at any other conference I’ve attended, and I would have spent more if I could have. (Sleep had to win on occasion. And I did have a return ticket.)
I won’t list everyone here because they will be too many. If they come across this little post, they’ll know who they are. They are my seat-mates on the buses and biergarten benches, my fierce teammates and opponents in the simulations and debates, my mentors on issues beyond my field or knowledge, and so on. They are or clearly will be somebodies, either to the world or those around them.
But I should give a special shout-out to my Berlin roommate David. (Everyone was paired in Berlin just as we were in Munich, only with new people.) Two grown men living in a small room is the stuff of which sitcoms are made. We each had a single bed, but the hotel had built the room so the beds were right next to each other. I wish I’d taken a shot of it. But I did capture what the hotel staff did with our toiletries.
Finding our toothbrushes and whatnot each day strewn across the full expanse of the bathroom — as two grown men living in close quarters yet uninvolved with each other are wont to do — housekeeping would collect the toiletries and arrange them into a near-artful bath tableau.
Thank you to David for enjoying this just as much as I did. The result was a little different every day. Now — back to the week’s events!
On Wednesday, day three of the conference proper, we had discussions and a spying ethics/tech debate for most of the day. But we talked at lunch to Stefan Mair of the Federation of German Industries about lobbying in Germany and then headed for the Ministry of Finance late afternoon for… something big.
Now I’m going to use the word amazing a few times.
In the ministry’s home, amazingly, there were working, modern paternosters. A paternoster is an elevator that has no doors — and never stops moving. “The paternoster is definitely the most dangerous type of lift,” a top German elevator overseer told the Wall Street Journal in a truly enjoyable A-Hed article this spring. “It’s easy to imagine a situation where one would lose a limb.”
But a photo can’t capture the amazing. So, I made you a video. It’s vertical and vertical videos are bad. But whatever. Elevators are vertical. (I was too excited about the existence of these paternosters to remember to turn the phone. To make up for this, I’ve found a German version of my favorite elevator song.)
Then, most amazingly, we got to ride! We survived, colleague Steve and me. But the experience was not un-stressful. It’s no escalator. Photos by colleague Q.
Next, also cool, not as cool as the paternosters (what is?), but still: According to our tour guide, this hallway is one of the longest hallways in the world.
The cool continued back downstairs.
To answer my previous question of what’s cooler than a paternoster, a family escaping East Berlin on makeshift zip-line — or just hand-over-hand on a rope, depending on your source — from the top of what’s now the Finance Ministry and what were then central East German government offices, over the fortified wall cooridor, into West Berlin.
Last stop on our tour? The main event. For an hour, we had a chance to talk to Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister of Germany and maybe Europe’s most powerful man regarding the Greece situation.
The very next day, Schäuble made remarks on Greece that went straight from his mouth to the front page of The New York Times.
How our organizers managed to book Schäuble, who knows. How the Greece crisis managed to somewhat resolve and hit pause just a day or two before our meeting, who knows. But it happened, and we got in good questions.
We went from Schäuble to Lt. General Peter Schelzig, deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Germany. Former roommate Andy gave Schelzig a nice intro, and Schelzig in turn broke the news to the room that it was Andy’s birthday and promptly led the room in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
After dinner? Karaoke. Karaoke, in particular, at a place called Monster Ronson’s Ichiban Karaoke, en masse, in its “cabin” rooms named after Elvis and others.
It was a blast. We all stayed out later than we should have. We all paid the price the next morning. But it was worth it. And you know what? For the first time around karaoke, I sang instead of fleeing.
I’d long been on the record as only being afraid of two things in life: death (which helpfully covers a lot of things) and karaoke. Threatened with karaoke, I’d skipped certain events in the past. Or fled if the menace showed by surprise.
But the packed rooms helped. So did everyone else from the conference committing and me knowing them well enough to know they weren’t the judging types. Or, I figured, if they were the judging types and I just didn’t know it, none of us would be around each other enough to impart judgment.
Not pictured below, because I was singing: When the hour got late enough and one of our rooms cleared out enough for three of my German colleagues and I, the only four remaining in the space, to cover Hungry Heart together.
The next morning, Thursday, saw the last of our discussions and debate. Joining for a lunch talk was the American ambassador to Germany, John Emerson.
In the afternoon, we got our only daytime break of the week. Some delegates took much-needed naps. Some went biking. I hopped in a taxi and found the great Jeremy Pennycook, until May my cube-mate at NPR, now a new product manager at SoundCloud in Berlin. He gave me the tour. Nap rooms! A dog!
Jeremy took me next door to the SoundCloud HQ, where a park ran a long stretch of the remaining Berlin Wall. The park brought the wall to life more than I’d seen anywhere else and memorialized those who had escaped to West Berlin — such as in tunnels, below — as well as those who had tried valiantly and failed.
We climbed a tower that holds a museum and gives a view of a reconstructed (never disassembled?) part of the wall, including a guard tower. As usual, you’ll need to click to enlarge the panorama. Or just see the image below for detail.
Me and the wall and the sun in my eyes and the six-foot-high glory hole.
From there, I took a taxi to Checkpoint Charlie to meet up with ONADC friend Jessica Binsch, now a tech reporter at German newswire DPA and, then and now, an inspiring digital product thinker and terrific person. In contrast to so many newsrooms these days, it was cool to see the DPA office full of reporters and editors, with its open-plan space really coming alive. I wish I’d taken a photo!
My final stop before dinner was the mall next door to the hotel. You wouldn’t expect a mall to give you a new perspective on the Berlin Wall, but apparently malls built right next to the former wall provide the unexpected. An exhibit of wall history and photographs — and a guard tower — ran between the stores.
All kinds of people were in the mall on mall business, but many stopped at the photos. Even an aerial shot — with one critical dot — packed real power.
Our closing ceremonies were at Berlin’s Soho House, with, from its porch, the best view of the TV Tower I’d seen all week. It was on my list for my next trip.
At the end of the night, colleagues Q and Sonja took the mic on behalf of us all to thank the conference’s coordinators, who had pulled off an amazing week and unforgettable experience for all of us delegates. They had kept us all running in the same direction, toward fascinating interviews, debates, views, and food.
How they picked such a wonderful group of delegates — generous in ideas and spirit, to a person — without meeting any of us beforehand was a mystery.
A long-standing goal of the conference has been to study transatlanticism in a way that builds transatlanticism. Attempting as much requires not just great ambition but bringing together the right people with the right methods. Each person who comes to the table must be able to take away knowledge and/or meaning (close cousins but different). The digital person must head home as fulfilled and open as the banker or lawyer or soldier or teacher or politician.
I can’t speak for all. But I’d like to give heartfelt thanks to our coordinators and leaders, in alphabetical order: Ed, Karen, Ron, Sarmad, Steve, and Tony. I did not head to the airport the next morning wanting or closed.
The first flight said goodbye to the iterative, intense sprawl of Berlin.
And we flew into and out of the Bavarian farmlands around Munich.
After fifteen hours of travel — hotel out to TGL, TGL to MUC, MUC to IAD, IAD into Washington proper — I made it home. I was glad to be there. I’d been on the road about five of the previous eight weeks, but the end of the run had arrived. Lori was on a trip to New York City, but she’d left me a new LP, perfectly fitting.