I just spent a week and a half in Flensburg, Germany. Flensburg is up in northern Germany, right near the border with Denmark.
It’s so remote and small that it didn’t get bombed in WW II, so there are still all the old original buildings and streets from hundreds of years ago. It’s also on a little bay on the East Sea (or Baltic, as we call it). Here’s a few impressions:
Every day, we’d see people strolling along the central shopping area, talking, sitting at an outdoor cafe with friends. I simply didn’t see the kind of stress written onto people’s faces like I see here in the US. I was told that the employers have done some sort of little trick to add onto the work week, but even so, it seems to me that people have more free time.
Standard of Living
I understand that wages are lower in Germany – around $20/hour for a skilled worker – at least in Flensburg. Rents seem to be about the same or a little lower, at least there. One huge difference is that there is a national health insurance, so workers don’t have to pay for that. In general, although the living standards aren’t quite as high – for instance it seems that workers wouldn’t live in quite as big a house or apartment as they would here – but you simply don’t see the extremes that you do here. Not as much poverty and very little homelessness, although I’m told that it is increasing a little bit.
There’s been a lot in the news about the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party. This is a far right, anti-immigrant party that’s actually had riots and physically assaulted immigrants. But one recent survey showed that 75% of Germans think that immigration is positive. Being pretty remote, there aren’t a lot of immigrants in Flensburg, and one thing I did notice was that there didn’t seem to be a lot of mixing, you could call it. There was some, but it seemed to me that mainly the Mid East and African immigrant people seemed to be hanging out among themselves. Overall, in Flensburg, though, I didn’t have any impression of anti-immigrant feeling. I saw one graffiti on a wall and it said something about fascists out and support Palestinian rights. Below is a float that the City of Flensburg has in its harbor. It’s mean to be a boat, representing support for those on boats – in other words, people coming to Europe across the Mediterranean.
As for the roots of the anti-immigrant sentiment that does exist: In the US, some of it is due to economic competition. That’s not the case in Germany, I don’t think, because there seems to be full employment and rents aren’t that high.
If there were a real, vibrant workers movement there, it could have played a huge and important role in this issue: It cold have organized for people to “adopt” a refugee family. Take them around, have a cultural exchange (from cooking to politics), and really help them integrate into German society. This would have enormously strengthened the working class movement and would have helped build direct links between German workers and those from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Where we were staying was right near a little mini-golf place. Every afternoon around 1:30 or 2:00, the mini-golf would fill up with kids 8, 10, 12 years old, playing mini-golf. (They get out of school at 1:30 or so.) Not an adult in sight. It really did my heart good to hear the
sounds of kids laughing, shouting and having fun. Another day, we took a short ferry ride – about an hour – from Flensburg to the next town and back. Around 2:30 or so, we passed by a group of kids clearly taking sailing lessons. From how far out they were, it was clear they’d been out there at least a half hour, probably more like an hour. In other words, when kids get out of school, they have the afternoon to do what they are supposed to be doing: exploring the world, having fun… in other words, being kids! The idea isn’t to keep their noses to the grindstone for hours and hours a day.
Having said all that, and being an ex-New Yorker (and still one at heart), I have to say that I don’t know if I could live in Germany. Here’s why: