Today is the hottest day in Berlin in at least a year, perhaps several. I haven’t experienced truly hot weather in so long I’d forgotten how irritable it makes people. This morning I saw several shouting matches between drivers and bicyclists, which is unusual for Berlin. This wasn’t just about the heat, though: my neighborhood is clogged with vehicles seeking alternate routes because much of the city center is in lockdown for Barack Obama’s visit. Rumors of spectacularly high security were afoot long before Air Force One touched down at Tegel last night: people said that all the manhole covers around the Brandenburg Gate (where Obama is speaking) were being welded shut, that nobody who lived in the vicinity of Obama’s hotel was allowed to open their apartment windows or use their balconies this week. I won’t be attending the speech, nor will anyone I know, because it isn’t open to the public, only to several thousand invited dignitaries.
Overall, the local mood about Obama’s visit feels like one of heat-aggravated annoyance, compounded by anger about the NSA surveillance story. Above is a photo of a protest last night at Checkpoint Charlie. “Yes we scan” is a clever slogan, but I find Stasi 2.0* much more interesting: while the NSA story is news around the world, in Germany it taps into – and seems to a certain extent to be experienced and discussed through the lens of – the living memory of the GDR Stasi surveillance state.
Things were different when I saw then-candidate Obama speak at the Siegesäule on a sweltering day in July 2008. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the speech, and while the US media reported on a crowd of jubilant Germans, most of the people I encountered there were American expats from around Europe. One couple in front of me in line for the metal detector had flown to Berlin from Stockholm just to see Obama speak; a group behind me had come in on the night train from Paris. Many of these people had, like me, left Bush-era America at least in part because they found it politically unbearable: Obama represented the promise of being able to go home again someday.
I was very pregnant at the time — five days past my due date and pretty miserable standing for hours in the heat, however excited I was about Obama. I went into labor shortly after the speech ended (a woman I know was named after Jesse Jackson when she was born under similar circumstances in 1984, and in retrospect I’m glad the Obama speech was of the less-inspiring general election season variety, because otherwise I might in the enthusiasm of the moment have named my son Barack). Going into labor at the Obama speech was one of the definitive experiences of my life abroad. It was the moment at which the promise of an end to my abstract reasons for leaving America – the Bush wars, human rights abuses — converged with the beginning of concrete benefits to staying in Europe: a healthcare system where my son’s week in the hospital as a newborn wasn’t financially ruinous, a year of paid maternity leave, high-quality affordable public daycare, universities my son can someday attend without incurring staggering debt. Five years later, for reasons that are mostly not President Obama’s fault, this difference between US and European family and educational policy remains largely and depressingly unchanged.
*which refers not only to the NSA but also to German government telecommunications data retention