LETTERS FROM BERLIN

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The Pain and Privilege of Being an American in Berlin during Covid-19

By Annie Mark-Westfall

Being an American in Germany right now is heartbreaking. I sit in my enormous privilege here, and wonder when, or if, I will ever see my extended family again. When will be the next time that I can safely visit the United States? Even if the U.S. response to the virus remains so pathetically inadequate for another year, hopefully I will eventually see my parents, brother, nieces, cousins, aunts and uncles again. But Grandma Bea is 101 and has been in the hospital three times this month.  

And again, I recognize that I type this in enormous privilege. For now, my own family remains fine. A college friend described spending eight hours with his family on speaker phone, saying goodbye to his unconscious father who died alone in a hospital room, from Covid-19. I was going to say that countless others have sadly suffered the same fate, but it is not countless. It is more than 180,000 Americans, which is three times the amount of Americans who died in the Vietnam War.

The Trump administration itself is like the Covid-19 infection, sickening a country that was already high-risk. The U.S., with its myriad pre-existing conditions. Vulnerable healthcare systems with millions un- or under-insured; no mental healthcare; no paid time off for many of the nation’s workers, who cannot afford to stay home; a crumbling education system; institutionalized racism in basically every aspect of society; a democracy that has succumbed to gerrymandering and corporate election finance; etc., etc., ad nauseam. I am staring through the glass of the Intensive Care Unit, wondering how the nation can recover from this. 

Here in Berlin, my life is largely back to pre-Covid-19 normalcy. That means my children can go to their daycare without restrictions (this varies by institution); I have the occasional in-person work meeting; we can visit the zoos and amazing playgrounds around the city, and have picnics. My family still avoids public transportation, though that is perhaps an over-abundance of caution.

Yesterday in all of Germany – a nation of 83 million people – there were roughly 300 new Covid-19 cases. The state of Florida has approximately 21 million people, and has been reporting 8,000 to 10,000 new Covid-19 cases each day over the past month.

People in my small Ohio hometown share videos on social media that propagate conspiracy theories that these numbers are false. Following the paranoia of fake death counts, next comes testimony from individuals who are “OSHA certified” (meaning they have completed a 30-hour course on the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration). These statements discuss the utility and effectiveness of masks for commercial paint jobs, and then compare and draw conclusions about mask effectiveness in containing the spread of Covid-19.

In other words, some of my hometown believes the Covid-19 advice of professional painters over doctors and public health administrators.

I have been dealing with the stress through retail therapy. I have found myself in a delightfully weird subculture of mostly U.K. women who collect brightly colored Scandinavian children’s clothing. It is a toss-up whether I am more embarrassed by the amount of hours or euros that I am spending on this new hobby. I stay up late, Google translating Dutch and Maltese websites, and arranging “swaps” for the items that my children have outgrown or rejected. Each time I score a hard-to-find (“HTF”) print, I get a hit of dopamine. Packages arrive almost daily, and my children develop a Pavlovian response to the doorbell. “Clothes!”

My other form of escapism is my rediscovered love for children’s literature. Unfortunately many old favorites do not hold up in 2020, including Indian in the Cupboard (which should have been obvious by the title, but was so so bad). Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction books do hold up, and I remember learning the word mitochondria thanks to her. I wonder what else from my ‘80s childhood can provide comfort right now.

I used to love the Chicken Soup for the Soul books: anthologies of feelgood stories with Judeo-Christian life lessons – an unusually religious interest for me, in fact. I still remember a few stories. One such story can be summed up as the imagining of Heaven and Hell, and here is how I remember it:

Someone is given the chance to visit Heaven and Hell. In Hell, there is a large pot of soup, and each resident holds an incredibly long spoon in his/her hand. The spoon is long enough to reach into the pot, but too long to reach into one’s mouth. Each resident is in agony with starvation. In Heaven, there is the same large pot of soup, and each resident holds the same incredibly long spoon. Yet in Heaven, everyone is happily rotund. The moral of the story is that in Heaven, people have learned to feed each other.

My initial reaction to this story remains my overarching reaction today: why did no one, in either place, drop the spoon and use their hands? I suspect that might be a particularly American takeaway. However, I do appreciate the moral of the story, and the idea of Hell being not a fiery inferno of externally inflicted suffering, but rather one of your own making and hubris.

Germany is far from perfect, but it feels like Heaven to me. It has showed me what it means for a government to use its spoons to feed its residents. But it is a terrible thing to feel well-fed and happy, while watching my birth country suffer so horribly. I click open a new tab on my browser, find a pink sweatshirt with smiling pizza slices, and move it into my Shopping Cart.  The relief is instant.

Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.

3 Comments

  1. Bob

    I believe that near 400,000. Americans died in WW II. Over 54,000 died in Viet Nam War. Check your history .

    Reply
    • Annie

      Thanks Bob! Yes, I meant Vietnam War. Hope you enjoyed the rest of the piece Xx

      Reply
  2. Ally

    I’ve gained so much from reading stories of Americans abroad during this pandemic. A friend in South Korea on an Army base who welcomed her third wearing a mask- she would send words of encouragement early on and shared what the reopening was like- gave me home during a dark mental time. A friend in Kenya who welcomed her first child in a room full of other people. A friend in Zurich who seems to be living a totally normal life. A friend in Italy who was locked down in the worst of times. The US is a dumpster fire in comparison and it is embarrassing. There are pockets of hope- kids are wearing masks all day, even the 3 year olds. Some colleges have been successful to date (it’s still early) but shows faith that we can get through this. For my own mental health- I have to look at those bright spots now and again and pray that with a change in the cheeto in charge, we can have the type of leadership to get us out of ALL of this darkness. And yes- I realize my bubble is very privileged, so all of this is to be taken with a large grain of salt.

    Reply

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