Thursday, June 18, 2009

I Just LOVE People Like This!!!!

This guy is just bursting at the seams with creative social projects.  He started a Ricksha-service, and then turned it over to students.  He came up with a bicycle version of the ice-cream truck, and turned that over to someone (with MINT-CHOCOLATE CHIP! a rarity!).  He has worked as a spinning trainer.  He was taking a course to be a city tour guide, when he got the idea to rev. up Augsburg’s image by initiating the worlds longest city tour!  It lasted 2010 minutes (basically the whole weekend) and was a huge hit.  He organized a semi-successful program for the youth of his area who could earn points for doing helpful services around the neighborhood, doing chores for elderly neighbors, clean up, various things, and then be able to “spend” those points at different stores in the neighborhood.   All this from a banker turned stay-at-home-dad! And I haven’t even gotten to the part that really gets me excited!

Living in Oberhausen, a neighborhood in Augsburg, where people from over 70 countries live door to door with little interaction between them, Bernd Beigel was wracking his head trying to come up with ideas of how to help especially the women overcome their isolation and become more integrated into their multi-cultural neighborhood within their new country.  He held language courses using methods similar to those of TEFL (using pictures/photo, real life trips to stores, doctors), and although they were well attended, the women dispersed back into their own isolated worlds after the course was finished.  Looking for something that would offer these immigrant women an integrated community over a longer time-frame, he found it in the one, world-wide common denominator: food!  The one thing that connects women everywhere, so Beigel, is cooking!  

Advertising in neighborhood kindergartens and schools for recipes from their home countries for an international cook book, and volunteers to form a cooking group to test the recipes, got a resounding response - over a 100 recipes, of which 60 recipes from 30 countries were published in the Oberhausen 5 Star Cookbook.  But this is only the beginning of the story!  The group of 15 women who formed the cooking group to test the recipes displayed such enthusiasm, initiative, team spirit, and appetite for learning new skills, despite the language barriers, that Beigel sought ways to expand the integration project.  The women were trained in the “how to’s” of a professional kitchen in a rented kitchen, and with the city’s Social Minister pulling a few strings (are we ever sad that he was replaced when the new elected mayor took office), they began cooking lunches at the main school in the neighborhood for well over a 100 kids and locals every weekday.  The Kulturküche (Culture Kitchen) was born!  

The 15 women from 9 different nations working on a part time bases, with two working full time, have since expanded their range and now include cooking for a second school, an afternoon Cafe, a Jam (as in strawberry) factory, and a professional Catering-service! (The one we engaged for Jonathan’s Confirmation Lunch).  The whole project just thrills me to death, because it brings together so many things that are close to my heart and addresses the particular social problems that have been becoming a growing concern to me.

I mean, way to go for bringing together compassion (seeing, and being moved, stirred to action by someone else’s plight or suffering) and creativity (out of the box problem solving, trying something new)!  What a rare breed!  Here is a man who had eyes to SEE these otherwise invisible women and the conflicted situations they are in: NO money, completely isolated by a language barrier from the host culture as well as the multiple cultures around them, often left alone with their children, and little to zero self-confidence or independence.  These women needed to learn German, gain at least some financial freedom if not full independence, regain their self-confidence and be included in true community.  And that is exactly what this project enables.  

Mr. Beigl makes a conscious effort to organize the cooking teams into a good mix of nationalities, trying his best to avoid putting more than one woman of a nationality together for the same shift.  This way they are forced to use German as the common language for communicating.  Katja had been in Germany for years when she began at the Culture Kitchen one and a half years ago, and even Mr. Beigl wasn’t aware of just how little German she understood when she started.  Thanks to the safe group of women, who were more or less in the same boat, and a language dictionary, she now has a good grasp of the language and is improving her skill steadily.  Finally being able to communicate with offices, schools, doctors, sales people herself, instead of being dependent on her husband and children, has not only given her greater independence, but has boosted her confidence and self-esteem as well.

A Turkish woman, perhaps in her mid-forties, is now able to afford what for many years seamed an unreachable dream: getting her drivers license!  Both the learning material for the extensive theoretical exam, as well as the many hours of payed lessons behind the wheel in preparation for the practical exam can run up to a couple thousand Euro in Germany and were well beyond her family’s budget.   Seda is not only proud of herself for accomplishing this long sought for goal, but she is also enjoying her new found freedom and independence.  A woman from South Africa is saving money, in order to return to her homeland, now that her husband has left her and their four children.  Two and half months ago, Mr. Beigl was approached by social services and asked if he would consider incorporating a war trauma victim from Serbia into his colorful catering service.  (Sergio) makes the first male employee in the Kulturküche and is already well integrated into the group of women.  

Because Beigl’s main focus is to address what he sees as the social concerns in his neighborhood, and less on just generating profits, his hiring and scheduling practices veer considerably from the beaten road of the “anything and everything for profit” corporate practices.  For starters, hiring a bunch of people who can’t talk to each other definitely won’t make the best sellers book of must do managing tips.  But the women, most of whom have children, also enjoy flexible schedules and a relaxed work climate, so that when their children are home from school or need to go to the doctors, the mothers can easily switch shifts or bring their kids to work with them, finding odd jobs for them to do as well.  Child labor?! Not in the least.  I am growing increasingly suspicious, that the separation of work and family life that has prevailed in our industrialized era is an unhealthy dichotomy and is one of the major contributors to many of our societal ills.  But that is a blog for another day.  For now, I see the opportunities and the climate that the Kulturküche is offering the women in this multi-national community to be strengthening and empowering the family rather than putting a strain on its vulnerable seems.  

And the Bavarian Minister of State for Family and Community, Christa Stewens, seems to agree with me.  She presented Bernd Beigl with the Bavarian Award of Women’s Advocacy for Best Practice last October.  And wouldn’t you know it, tho Beigl’s initial motive was not to start a lucrative business, the idea of an international catering service seems to have filled a gap in the market here in Augsburg.  The Kulturküche has several engagements weekly to keep track of, and is continually expanding its range.  And the Banker turned stay-at-home dad is not close to being out of ideas.  Not only is he hoping to expand the Kulturküche to another neighborhood this fall, but he is also looking for a location to open up an international cafe, where the cultures can find not only a place to meet, but also a space to embark on an array of other crafty projects, a sewing group being one idea of many.  

I am putting this guy on my Boaz list.  (if you haven’t a clue what that might be, you’ll have to blow the dust off your Bible, or go buy/steal one, and read the book of Ruth in the Old Testament).  Since Boaz is probably my favorite dude in the bible, this is a pretty honorable list, and in all honesty, not too many people have actually made their way on to it.  But Bernd Beigl is on it for sure... I just LOVE people like that!!!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Dupont Circle

It seems kind of kooky, but I have lots of fond memories of Dupont Circle.  My friend Niki and I, who were shopaholics even at the tender age of ten and eleven, loved to go to “Nicely Nicely,” a little shop with just the kinds of pretty trinkets and colorful shnick-shnack an eleven year old girl can embellish her fantasy with.  I would smuggle this wonderful world out of the store by purchasing the tiniest, and cheapest item I could find.  At home this small and insignificant purchase would swell and release its magic, transporting that entire store into my otherwise uninspiring room.  The magic never lasted very long, so we made frequent trips to Dupont Circle, or to Georgetown, which also had many such shops.

The middle school (6th thru 8th grade) I went to was on the other, better, side of NW DC, and to get there, I had to take the #42 bus down to Dupont Circle and transfer to the D2 bus. On the return tour, the bus stop for the #42 was right in front of Kramer Books and Afterwards.  Obviously a book store, but it was also a cafe, restaurant.  If I hadn’t already spent my piteous allowance at the penny candy store across from the school, I sometimes could afford to buy an ice cream at Kramers.  Mostly, though, we liked flipping through the picture books and magazines (especially in the Sex and Marriage section), the smell of coffee, the clatter of plates and glasses, the swish of the waiter’s apron as they passed by with delicious looking treats on their tray.  Sometimes we even caught a later bus, just so we could stay longer.  This was when I first knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: someone who can afford to go to breakfast at a cafe just like Kramers, drink coffee and talk all morning long!

I haven’ t a clue if it is still true, but back then Dupont Circle had the Metro stop with the longest escalator down to the underground subway, and it was at the top of this escalator that two historical moments in my life converged.  My first and only blind date ever, and the loss of my... gullibility (ok, partial loss, to the joy of my children, I’m still pretty gullible).  

The blind date wasn’t humiliating, but it was no winner either.  I had been to Europe twice at that point in my mid 20’s, mostly in England and Germany, but also doing my own version of the summer Euro-rail tour.  I never attempted to hit every major city between Stockholm and Rome, but instead visited friends in different countries and stayed with them for longer periods of time, getting the feel for life in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, etc.  The blind date was set up by my college roommate and was the brother of her best friend, who studied German and apparently also had a “thing” for all things German.  He (name long gone) had invited me to see a German movie, with subtitles, playing at the Goethe Institute on 19th, I think, just behind Kramers somewhere.  The movie was a bomb. Some advent-guard 60’s Psycho movie that seemed more like a recording of someone’s bad dream than any real artwork, but no harm done, he and it were quickly forgotten.

What I didn’t forget so quickly, was what happened while I was looking for this person I had never seen before at our meeting spot at the entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro station.  Since I wasn’t charging past like the other commuters, I was easy prey for the young pawn who was being payed to pass out flyers.  It was a glossy, designer flyer, eye catching and trust inducing with a picture of the sweetest old women you’ve ever seen.  On it were several points simply explaining why I should vote against the proposal to introduce deposit bottles in DC.  I wish I could remember all of the silly points on this otherwise very serious looking pamphlet, but I can only remember the tear wrenching claim that frail old ladies, like the one pictured, would have to carry those heavy deposit bottles back to the store, and we couldn’t be so heartless as to impose such a hardship on the elderly.  

And that was it! My moment of awakening:  the world is evil and full of liars, and even in broad day light at Dupont Circle, you had to be on your toes or someone was going to try and pull the wool over your eyes.  Growing up in Adams Morgan, I knew about being on my toes and what dangers were lurking in the neighborhood, but not until that day did I understand that even little old ladies and white people in nice suits would take me for bad, if I let them!  The really sad part is, that if I hadn’t spent over a year in Europe, witnessing first hand what a perfectly normal part of society the concept of deposit bottles are, I probably would have fallen for the glossy lies on that flier!

I haven’t thought about that day in a long time, and probably would have forgotten about the blind date altogether, if it hadn’t been for the recent debate and propaganda campaign against Nationalized Health care.  Until that day at Dupont Circle, I had assumed that “propaganda” was something the Russians did, a Russian word even, which we don’t need in our vocabulary, because Americans tell the truth!  But hearing of the recent parade of videos depicting Canadians dissatisfied with their health care, I can almost feel that glossy printed page in my hand, and I am on my guard.  Again, I think I would myself be easily duped (it all sounds so convincing and compassionate), if it wasn’t for my own experience these last 17 years of living overseas with “no worries” health care, and the testimony of the same from many, many others I know in countries with Health Care systems superior to that of the States.  It seems like a no-brainer to me, but I guess there are a lot of people who are still falling for the glossy fliers and biased advertising.  I can live without deposit bottles, after all, you do have to carry them back to the store, but I can’t live without health insurance, not in todays world of high medical costs.  What will it take to get people to stop being so gullible?!

Here are a few links to what I believe is real information about Canadian health care.  Please ignore the first paragraph of the first link, she wigs out on Republicans.  I know that is rot, but the following points she makes are good ones I thinks.  I had a third link on here, but there was really only one sentence about the survey of Canadians which found that 91% are happy with their health care.