News Flash

I have 508 Facebook friends. One of them is a girl from Israel and another is a boy from Gaza. I met them both in the summer of 2009 when I went to study for a month at the University of Bayreuth in southern Germany.

This weekend the boy from Gaza posted pictures of destroyed homes, families covered in blood and clouds of smoke in the sky. The Israeli girl posted pictures of the sub-par bomb shelter she had been hiding in.
Some people left comments along the lines of “We stand with Israel” on the girl’s wall. She said it was the worst thing to say because Israel had “started it.”

At work, we’re following developments. The politicians are so tentative. Obama talks about Israel’s right to defend itself and neglects to mention the mounting civilian deaths. The German press secretary reminds us that Israel is firing in response to rockets from Gaza.

We showed footage of an overturned truck carrying tomatoes in Gaza. Three brothers inside were killed when it was hit by a rocket.

The screens showing agency video feeds flitted back and forth between footage of destruction and diplomacy. The UN condemns civilian deaths, western politicians don’t mention them, Egypt says it won’t tolerate them.

Image source: retrieved 19/11/2012

Polite conversation skirts around the violence. People don’t like to pass remarks on Israel. They think Hamas is dodgy so maybe there’s no other way. Not many like to defend killing children, and brothers driving trucks full of tomatoes. And when images of wailing women searching for loved ones amid destroyed buildings pops up on the screen, they don’t know where to look.

Meanwhile in Mali, Islamic militants have taken control of the north. Their leaders hold up guns and say they’re fighting with weapons, not words. Women have begun covering their hair. They might make the news tomorrow.

The Republican

We met on the platform of Berlin’s main train station early Sunday morning. He looked confused. I glanced in his direction and appeared pleasant and approachable. It worked. He came to me, pointed at the complicated travel itinerary he had printed out and asked if he was in the right place for Magdeburg.

He was. And I was going his way.

We sat in separate parts of the train. I looked out the window. Little patches of snow glistened on orange and golden bushes. Once I saw an animal I couldn’t identify squatting in a field. I guessed it might be a weasel, and then wondered if I knew what a weasel looked like.

We were scheduled to arrive in Magdeburg at 10.53. At 10.51 the display screen changed to “MAGDEBURG” and the train ground to a halt.

I disembarked. I looked around me and my heart sank. This looked nothing like the main train station to which I was headed. Then I saw the young man from before. He looked confused again. The station was otherwise deserted. “We’re wrong,” I said and suddenly sprung to action, trying to re-open the door that had closed behind me. It was too late. The train slid away.

I looked frantically at my own itinerary, which I had scribbled down on a scrap of paper.

“We need to get a taxi really quick,” I told him, as we made our way through the tiny, empty station. Our connecting train left in 7 minutes. We had landed in a station slightly outside of town. We had a choice of three taxis.

“Got off too early?” the driver asked. “Happens a lot.”
“We’ve got 7 minutes to get the next train.”
“I’ll do my best,” he said.

And so I sat in the back seat with the stranger. “Sorry I look so dishevelled,” he said. “I was out very late last night.” Four and a half minutes later we pulled up at the main train station. The driver opened the car boot and 30 seconds later I was running wildly with my suitcase and bag flying behind me and my new friend in tow.

We made it. My head was spinning with lack of sleep and the sudden exertion. That particular sensation was to become a feature of my day.

My new friend was in his early twenties. He had short brown hair and a nice face. He was polite, measured and American. He was spending some time studying in Germany while he completed his dual studies of international politics and officer training in the US army.

Over the next ten hours, we got to know each other intimately.
In Leipzig, over a steak sandwich (his) and a vegetarian kebab (mine) we talked about the responsibilities we had to our parents. He told me about his rural upbringing and how excited he was to get his first army salute. I talked about my German background and he told me about his Lithuanian one. I told him about Ireland and he told me about New Jersey.

Near Lutherstadt he said “I think I saw a fox earlier.”
“A fox?” I asked. “Where?”
“On the way to Magdeburg.”
“Was he alone?”
“Yeah, just sitting in a massive field.”
“I saw him too!” I said. “But I thought it was a weasel.”
He smiled. “I’m pretty sure it was a very small fox.”

Later still he said, “I’m not really into partying. But my friends were in town last night, and they made me stay out. That’s why I’m such a mess.” Then he paused and said “Did you say Let’s dash, earlier?”
“Yes, do yanks not say “dash?””
“No we don’t” he replied. “It’s cute though. Dash is a neat word.”

When we got to Hof he said “I hate talking about politics, especially in Europe.”

I bit my lip. This sounded interesting.

“I was talking to some French Canadians last night,” he continued, in spite of himself. “They just started attacking me. It’s so annoying. People here don’t know how American politics works.”

Ha, I thought. So I have finally met a Republican.

I was disappointed by how nice he was.

“I’m not a Republican,” he said. “I’m a libertarian. But Obama’s economics just doesn’t add up. I’ve studied it. And nationwide health insurance doesn’t make sense. This stuff has to come from individual states.”

I said the system seemed to work in Germany. “The US is a lot bigger,” he said.

We stopped there but politics hung in the air. He was right though. Along with most Europeans, I don’t really know how American politics works. I write snappy headlines about it, and I cut pictures and match them with entertaining soundbites. But do I know the numbers? Do I understand local government and the make-up of each state’s senate? No Sir, I do not.

I thought about this pleasant mild-mannered young man, with a life in the military in front of him. I thought about his girlfriend, also in the army. I thought about what he said about college boys having to be at least as fit if not fitter than the squad they lead. I thought about his mother, who has been sick. And I thought that there’s something very human that politics misses.

I hugged him when I got off the train in Regensburg and warned him that he might end up on my blog. As I was walking away, he turned in his seat and waved goodbye to me.

How Ireland looks on Al Jazeera

I was gazing around the room during a quiet spell at work yesterday when I was startled to see Jesus Christ pop up on O’Connell Street. He’d appeared on one of the display screens featuring rival TV stations. The channel was Al Jazeera.

The Qatar-based news channel was reporting on how the economic crisis in Ireland is affecting women seeking to travel abroad to have an abortion. The piece is 2 minutes and 57 seconds long. It begins with some black and white shots of Jesus in his plastic display case on O’Connell Street, then cuts to a church and a lady with a pram. Finally it turns colour to reveal the reporter, Laurence Lee, formerly of the BBC, standing in a park.

It is an embarrassing watch. Ireland is painted as backward and its society described as “conformist.” We’re mentioned in the same breath as Iran and Afghanistan.

Travelling for an abortion from Ireland works on the same principle of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” which used to apply to gay members of the American military.

Nobody I know has told me they’ve had an abortion. Conversely, I’ve never asked if they’ve had one. But according to Lee’s report, the number of requests to a UK-based charity offering financial aid to women travelling to get an abortion has tripled in the last three years.

While I strongly support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, the report left me feeling slightly defensive. Do we really live in a culture of silence? Is abortion really taboo?

Sadly, yes. But things are changing. The Irish Times ran a series on abortion a few months ago which invited women to tell their own stories. It got a huge response. Scores of women who had never before shared their experience finally elected to, spurred on by the sudden knowledge that they were not alone.

I do have one concrete objection to the report. Lee says that in Ireland a woman cannot have an abortion even if the fact of her pregnancy is putting her life at risk. Following the X case ruling, that isn’t quite accurate. However, so far there has been no legislation to support that judgement. The European Court of Human Rights is on our back about that too and it’s deeply embarrassing.

On the same day that the Al Jazeera report ran, at least 2000 people turned up in Castlebar in Mayo to demand Fine Gael live up to their pre-election “pro-life” promise.

Mostly the report left me dissatisfied because I thought, “What an unfortunate and reductionist view of Ireland to beam throughout the world, one which ignores the enlightened existences of my liberal-minded friends and me.”

Then I remembered that simplification and exaggeration are the hallmarks of a 3-minute news report. And that in a way, a piece like this might actually give me more of an insight into my country than my restricted and evidently unrepresentative social circle does.

I got back to writing my own three-minute international report, a little wiser about how little I know about everything.