'People With a Different Skin Color Don't Feel Comfortable in Eastern Germany. It's Sad'

A history student from Berlin talks about European refugee crises; a scientist from Canada has figured out how to make fish happy

Clara Fochs.
Tomer Appelbaum

Clara Fochs, 21, from Berlin, and arriving from there

Hello, can I ask you how long you’ll be in Israel?

I’ll be here for 10 days. It’s my first time in Israel.

What are your plans?

I’m planning to be in Tel Aviv and also to go to Jerusalem. I have a boyfriend who’s been living here for a year, and I will stay with him.

What do you do?

I’m doing an undergraduate degree in cultural studies.

What do you learn in cultural studies?

You have to read a lot of texts about socialism and 20th-century philosophers. Recently, for example, I read a lot of Hannah Arendt. But I am only in the fourth semester of my studies, so I assume there is still a great deal ahead of me.

Did you like Hannah Arendt?

I enjoyed reading her. I feel it gives me a sort of perspective, a new way of thinking about the news and the countries I’m visiting.

Did it change your perspective on Germany?

Yes, of course. For example, there is now the crisis of the refugees in Germany. Many people are complaining about why we got into this whole thing, but I read explicitly that it’s always been like this in the history of Europe – there have always been refugees from all sorts of places. Maybe instead of complaining, it would be more effective to learn about the cultural history leading to such situations, about their context. I attend a small university outside Berlin, close to the border with Poland, in a place called Oder Frankfurt. About a year ago, a large number of refugees arrived in the area, and now there are many ugly incidents in these parts of eastern Germany. I go there three times a week. It’s a totally uninteresting city, a typical, really ugly east-German city – the cliché about east-German cities.

I’m from Israel – what’s the cliché?

That people are xenophobic, that local residents are against outsiders. I didn’t plan to study there, but the truth is that I wasn’t accepted by other universities. Anyway, people with a different skin color don’t feel comfortable there. It’s sad to see. And even sadder is that we, the students who come from Berlin, do nothing to change the situation.

What do you think has to be done?

I volunteer occasionally in a house for refugees in Berlin, in my neighborhood, and I think it would be good if everyone in Germany met with them and spoke with them. They are not “refugees,” they are just people like you and me.

What do you do as a volunteer?

I teach them German and play with the children. I think it’s really sad to see how these people are stuck in those houses, month after month, waiting and waiting until they receive some sort of legal status, because only then can they find work.

Will you be able to find work with a degree in cultural studies?

I don’t know. I’m taking these studies for myself, and I don’t have a clue exactly what I will do with them.

That doesn’t sound very German.

Yes, I don’t have a very planned future and I don’t know what I want to do to earn my living.

Enjoying the moment? Many Israelis dream of living in Berlin.

I am not originally from Berlin actually. I am from Cologne and had a tough start when I moved. Berlin is such a huge city, and each part of it is like a small city in its own right, and it’s hard to be in contact with all the people. There are all kinds of scenes and “sub-scenes” in Berlin – maybe I just haven’t found my sub-scene yet. I really like photography, I read a lot and mostly I hang out with people and meet more new people.

Sounds like you miss home.

I really like Cologne, but I felt that it was time to see something else. Cologne is a relatively big city, but today it feels like a village. Berlin is a bit dumbfounding. If you want to do something, you don’t have just one opportunity to do it but 20, and people often feel that they are missing out on things all the time. Sometimes it’s just better to do nothing and stay home under the blanket, just so as not to feel uptight because you’re missing out on something. No?

Fred Archibald (left) and Trevor Watson.
Tomer Appelbaum

Fred Archibald, 70, from Canard, Nova Scotia, left, and Trevor Watson, 69, from North Saanich, British Columbia; flying to Toronto

Hello, can we ask you a few questions?

Trevor: Are you from the Mossad? What are you looking for? Someone from the radical fringe?

No, we’re just folks.

Trevor: I’m kidding. I’m Trevor Watson and I’m a family doctor. So, I’m Dr. Watson. Only please don’t say “elementary.”

I promise. How do you get along with Sherlock Holmes?

Trevor: I read all the books and I love them. I’ve also seen the new TV series.

Did you like it?

Trevor: A bit loud for my taste. Like Dr. Watson, I write, too.

Books?

Yes. I wrote one called “Straddling the ’Hound: The Curious Charms of Long-Distance Bus Travel.”

What’s it about?

Trevor: I did a long trip on a Greyhound bus, and I spoke with people and wrote about the trip and about them. I like to travel, and then go home. Then I get bored and I travel again.

Where do you know Fred from?

Trevor: We’ve been friends for 50 years. We met in a university biology course; I was a premed student and Fred is a scientist. 

Fred: Sometimes the cliché is true: You meet your best friends at school.

Trevor: I went on to medical school in Nova Scotia.

Fred: And I, an American citizen, was drafted and sent to Vietnam.

You fought in Vietnam?

Fred: Let’s say that it was a meaningful event in my life, and today I’m here and there aren’t many holes in me, so I’m glad.

Indeed.

Trevor: Thousands of miles were between us, but we stayed in touch. After Vietnam we traveled together, and with our partners, too.

Fred: In 1969 we motorcycled across Europe with them.

Trevor: We had a teensy accident in France. Oops!

Fred: Afterward Trevor married his girl from college, and I also married my college girlfriend. We’re very consistent.

Trevor: Then I worked as a doctor in a rural farming area of eastern Canada.

Fred: And I did a master’s in microbiology and a Ph.D. that dealt with meningitis. I taught at McGill University.

What’s retirement like?

Fred: A good scientist has an inner engine that compels him to work. I loved working and teaching; what I didn’t like was obtaining money for research. I miss my students and my lab, but I discovered you can do other things with your time. Like touring Israel.

How was it here?

Trevor: My wife and I came with a Christian group; 10 days later Fred arrived and we did a different trip. We took guides, swam in the Dead Sea and were almost killed by a camel.

Sounds like you enjoyed yourselves. You’ve been friends for 50 years – how does that work?

Trevor: Fred is really good at it.

Fred: We write emails about things that interest us, and it’s always interesting for us to travel together.

Trevor: He’s an intellectual and I’m only a joker.

Fred: But we’re both interested in American politics. Beware of Trump!

We’ll try! So, what’s changed professionally over the past 50 years?

Trevor: To a doctor, a cough is the same now as it was 200 years ago... As the saying goes, “If you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras.” But what I think has changed in medicine, and should be learned, is that you must treat the person himself. The patient’s main feeling is anxiety. And it’s important for me to say that I’m against euthanasia, and I would shoot myself before doing that.

Fred: Science is accelerating; so much new knowledge has accumulated. People in the 19th century lived 45 years, and the causes of death were mostly organismic. Today we have cancer and nutrition and environment. In my research, I dealt with the medical and afterward the environmental, in connection with treating waste water. In Canada many sawmills use water. The water gets polluted, and if we return it to the river it will kill the fish. The treatment we developed, which is aided by bacteria, accelerates into a year or two processes that would [naturally] take a river decades or centuries. It was very satisfying to save hundreds of tons of water, and the fish are now happy.