Could Donald Trump Make Europe Great Again? #MEGA

When it comes to dealing with Donald Trump, European leaders should turn to parents of toddlers for advice.

As any three-year-old can attest, there are times when throwing your toys out of the pram is an excellent negotiating strategy. In other situations, it simply limits your supply of fruit gums.

The challenge for parents is to reduce the opportunities for unavoidable concessions. These include busy supermarket lines and long-haul flights. In all other circumstances, presenting a united front does the trick.

The European family is of course going through a period of extreme dysfunction. A messy divorce has triggered a heated debate about its future. The question of what to do with the hundreds of thousands of people who have sought refuge or a better life in its midst has polarised opinion and sparked questions about whether Europe can even be considered a family at all anymore.

At a time of low morale, a good rallying cry can work wonders. No one knows this more than Donald Trump. His promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ managed to combine hope for a better future with indignation for his country’s faded glory.

Hope and indignation are powerful political forces, which Europe has so far failed to package into a digestible message of 140 characters.

This is a pity because as any social media professional will tell you, messages of hope and indignation have a tendency to spread.

In November of last year, Irish Labour politician Aodhán Ó Riordáin shot to Internet fame after he posted a video of himself lambasting Donald Trump. “America has just elected a Fascist,” he told the handful of senators gathered in the Dublin chamber. “And the best thing the good people of Ireland can do is ring him up and ask him if it’s still okay to bring the shamrock on St Patrick’s Day.”

Fast forward a few months and the taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny found himself in a bit of a pickle on St Patrick’s Day. Ingratiate himself with Donald Trump for the sake of the economy like his British counterpart Theresa May, or stand up to him and earn brownie points at home? He opted for the latter and extolled the virtues of St Patrick, the immigrant.

Donald_Trump_and_Enda_Kenny,_March_2017

Attribution: Shealah Craighead [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His speech too went viral.

These examples demonstrate the extent of an appetite in Europe – and beyond – for an unequivocal response to Donald Trump.

A day after Enda Kenny’s visit to the White House, it was German chancellor Angela Merkel’s turn. When Trump ignored her request to shake hands for the cameras, she responded with the kind of bemused expression one might direct at a sulky child who has rebuffed their caregiver’s command to “say hello to Auntie Angie.” Once again, the Internet exploded in delight.

The positive attention such encounters have attracted prompts a provocative question: could Donald Trump Make Europe Great Again? (#MEGA)

The answer is that he could, if European leaders keep three important things in mind.

First, they must show that despite Brexit, the continent remains bound by common values.

While many Europeans found British Prime Minister Theresa May’s charm offensive in Washington cringe-inducing, there was widespread respect for the decision by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, not to welcome Donald Trump to address parliament during his return visit. For pro-Europeans, this was a welcome reminder that the UK’s divorce from the EU has not made it an unquestioning bedfellow of the United States.

The next thing leaders must do is take serious action to stem the rise of the Trump-loving far right at home.

On this front, there are reasons for cautious optimism.

The defeat of the far-right populist Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections in March was a promising start. Then in France’s presidential elections in May, Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetic fan of the EU, scored a decisive victory over Marine Le Pen, who had threatened to leave the bloc.

The selection of former European parliament president and crowd pleaser Martin Schulz to challenge Angela Merkel in Germany’s upcoming elections makes it a near certainty that the continent’s most powerful economy will continue to be led by a Europhile.

The third and most important thing Europe must do is launch a major PR campaign.

Ignorance of what the EU does and what it stands for remains embarrassingly widespread.

Here it can learn a thing or two from Donald Trump, who leaves little need to speculate about what it is he believes.

With European identity abstract by definition, social media provides an ideal opportunity to present the spirit, if not the nuts and bolts, of European identity.

If there was any doubt before, Britain’s decision to leave the EU confirmed that Europe is in disarray. But hitting rock bottom is often what it takes for a family to pull together. After all, the only way to withstand the outrageous demands of a screaming toddler is with a united front.

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When the world gets smaller

When I came in, her eyes did not light up as usual.

She tried to fake it, a little, but her smile was all wrong.

I wasn’t in good form either. I was cranky from spending too much time indoors wedding-planning, while the sun shone tauntingly outside.

As so often happens, small frustrations had given birth to a greater sadness.

Earlier that week, Frau B’s telephone had stopped working. The man who came to fix it asked her to dial a number she knew by heart. The only one that came to mind was that of an acquaintance she’d lost touch with. She got through to the answering machine and didn’t know what to say.

It was humiliating.

She couldn’t call me. My mobile number is too long for her to remember, let alone to dial.

We’ve tried before.

Frau B keys in the digits too slowly and gets cut off mid-way through by a dial tone.

We’ve resigned ourselves to this fact, and she knows she can rely on me to get in touch instead.

But there aren’t many others she can call.

“Everyone I knew is dead,” Frau B said, as if she had to justify it.  “If I didn’t have you….”

She trailed off.

We both needed escapism, I decided, and reached to the shelf for a book.

It’s another one full of stories about early twentieth century Berlin.

Usually, the descriptions of the streets, cafes and institutions that defined the era prompt delighted interruptions from Frau B.

“My father would take me to that funfair!” she will say. Or, “Oh yes, that café! Full of artists! We’d only ever pass by and look through the window.”

Today though, I got through several pages uninterrupted.

A bad sign.

She was listening though, so I continued.

Finally, I got to a passage about death masks.

Totenmasken!” she said suddenly.  “I remember seeing some in Vienna!”

“You did?” I asked, a little startled. “When were you there?”

A long time ago. But she remembers everything. The city’s main museum is home to the death masks of Beethoven, Mahler and Klimt.

Frau B can still see them all. And as she began to speak, a cloud began to lift.

She has a cartographic mind, with a remarkable ability to mentally navigate the places she used to know.

One of the best presents I ever got her was a laminated map of the world.

She looks at it through her magnifying glass, while I hover over her.

“That’s Ireland,” I’ll say. “It’s shaped like a teddy bear.” Then, drawing my finger all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, I’ll land somewhere in America and say: “And that’s where my sister lives.”

Frau B’s  life now takes place within a room of 20 square meters. Day-to-day, her greatest sojourn is down the corridor to the dining hall. Sometimes, if she is feeling energised, she will wheel herself all the way to the terrace.

She is meticulous in her use of space. Order, for her, has become synonymous with control.

In the last year or two, she has begun hiding things.

She squeezes bars of chocolate into the bottom of her sock drawer and tucks brooches into a box that slides behind the books lining her shelf. She slips banknotes beneath the insoles of her shoes.

She says she is scared of things being stolen.

They never are. Sometimes I think her fear is more about losing herself.

Institutionalised and immobile, the world is ever closing in.

But deep inside her, preserved with care: a rich tapestry woven from the people she once knew and loved, the places she explored, the personal tragedies she endured and the triumphs she savours.

A wealth of memories a death mask can bring back to life.

JT Foxx: World’s Number 1 Trier

UPDATE: A shorter version of this post has now been published on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. You’ll find the link in the “Clips” section of the site. 

The ads appeared relentlessly on Facebook in the days leading up to the event. Some were pink, featuring the slogan “Women make the best speakers” alongside a photograph of the so-called JT Foxx. Some users pointed out the irony in the comments section and afterwards, the ads I saw looked more like this:
j t foxx facebook ad.png

JT Foxx, formerly known as Justin Gorenko, advertises himself as the world’s number 1 wealth coach and a billionaire in the making.

But despite his cunning-sounding surname and the gravity implied by the two initials that precede it, JT Foxx doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page to his name.

The Berlin event was to take place all day Thursday in a remote hotel beyond Schönefeld airport. The tagline? Start unknown, Finish Unforgettable.

Who on earth, I wondered, attends such events?

I signed up.

I prepared by watching a poorly produced and comically absurd promotional documentary titled JT Foxx: A biography: The Untold Story of a Millionaire Underdog. It includes awkwardly staged endorsements from Eric Trump, son of the US president as well as actor Al Pacino. The video claims to be produced by ‘Hollywood Kingmaker Films,’ an impressive-sounding entity I can’t find mention of anywhere else on the Internet.

JT Fox’s Facebook page also features several examples of his appearance on the cover of magazines, including this one:

j t foxx business mag .jpg

The incorrect placement of the euro sign was one indication that this may not be a high-caliber publication. Another was the appearance of the publication’s website, which features JT Foxx’s associate Francie Baldwin on a different cover.

Having done some research, I went into the event expecting to encounter a charlatan and a group of people ready to be told that this was the first day of the rest of their lives.

But I was unprepared for the depth of moral debasement* that lay ahead.

The walk from the airport train station to the hotel takes you past fields and down roads decidedly off the beaten track.

It wasn’t long before I met others going the same way.

The dress-code was the giveaway. The men were in suits and carried briefcases. The women were wearing dresses and heels. One told me she was a musician from London. She’d just brought out an album but needed to make some money. Speaking, she’d thought, could be the way.

At the hotel, we lined up to be registered by a young man with a crew cut and the kind of faraway, smug expression associated with those who see themselves as uniquely enlightened.

hotel

The hotel were the mega speaking event took place

At 9 o’clock the doors opened and we were ushered into a nondescript conference room. The opening act was a man called Reggie Batts. Tall, attractive and self-assured, he told us there were two types of people in the world: “right-brainers” and “left-brainers.”

The former act impulsively, the latter think first. Right-brainers always burst in the door and sit at the front. Left-brainers wait for the others to shuffle in, then take their seats at the back. In the front row, a middle-aged woman in a headscarf nodded along enthusiastically, frequently blurting out “yes!”

This binary view lay the foundation for the oppositions J T Foxx would later present to us as facts of the world: there are winners and losers; his followers and the haters; touchy-feely women and tough, money-loving men.

His own entrance was underwhelming. Less charismatic than the support act and sporting two pins on his lapel (one the American flag, the other the German) he opened with a rant about Berlin’s airports.

In the hours that followed, J T Foxx fed the 167 people gathered a cocktail of hyperbole concerning his fame and wealth, vacuous clichés masquerading as business advice and menacing sales pitches.

Early on, he told us that by the end of the day, he would have selected ten people to make into star speakers. “If you’re not one of the ten, your life won’t change.”

He listed his celebrity connections with risible zeal. They include Al Pacino, John Travolta, 50 Cent and his “good friend” Vanilla Ice. He admits to paying them tens of thousands of dollars to appear on stage with him, so that he can use the footage to boost his online image.

Many of the clips I had already seen in the documentary resurfaced during the presentation.

In a tragic attempt to flaunt his supposed wealth, he claimed the watch he was wearing cost more than a million dollars and that the previous Friday he had “made a million in 90 minutes.”

At one point, perhaps in an attempt to assert his authority, he rounded on a member of the audience.

“You’re not fucking writing anything down!” he said, segueing clumsily into an anecdote about Richard Branson (just one of the many millionaires he purports to hang out with) who apparently refuses to do business with anyone who doesn’t take notes during meetings.

T Foxx makes no secret of the fact that his brand is built upon the celebrity connections he has bought.

He claims to pay Travolta, a known Scientologist, half a million dollars for a joint appearance. His connection with the Hollywood A-lister apparently earns him enough street cred to make him back the money he invested several times over.

He described an instance when he annoyed Travolta by going off-script, putting him on the spot and making him perform a song from  Grease during a paid appearance. It was part of a plot engineered to generate more clicks on the Internet. He said it worked though the relationship with Travolta soured as a result. (Footage of that event can be seen  here)

“He’s never quite forgiven me,” Foxx said. “He’s a Scientologist. And they have 14 stages of forgiveness.”

Perhaps it was a moment of indiscretion or an attempt to boast about the intimacy of his connection.

But he continued:

“I’m not a Scientologist … For one, they give 20% of their income to the church… “I would never do that … I might put 20 euros on a collection plate.”

“I’m Catholic,” he added, pointing to the existence of a photograph of himself as a young altar boy which could prove it.

The deflection came too late. I had already perked up.

Scientology provided a good starting point for investigating the foul whiff of dodge associated with this event. It also helped me uncover a whole lot more about who the real JT Foxx is.

Let’s start from the beginning.

JT Foxx is actually a Canadian called Justin Gorenko who has had several run-ins with the law.

According to a report cited by Cult Education, in 2014 a woman named Victoria Comfort accused him of defrauding her of $92,000, of which $14,000 went to a lecture series presented by Foxx’s employee Meir Ezra, who allegedly used the events to promote Scientology. Both parties later agreed to arbitration.

But that wasn’t JT Foxx’s first time in court. Two years prior, he was sued by a high school student with whom he allegedly tried to have a sexual relationship, and two former employees who accused him of harassment. The outcome of that case does not appear to be available online.

He has been on the motivational speaking/business coaching circuit for several years and reports of dubious events similar to the one I attended date back to at least 2011.

Keen to show he is not afraid of a lawsuit, J T Foxx warned those gathered in Berlin that he would not hesitate to sue anyone who published a report of what went on that day. “I might lose,” he said. “But I’ve got $50,000 to burn … Do you?”

The first product JT Foxx tried to sell in Berlin seemed harmless enough: a set of CDs, apparently featuring business advice he himself had paid a former coach $250,000 for. The catch was that there were only 15 copies available. They would be for sale at the back of the room during the first break. The woman in the headscarf was among several people who joined the line to buy.

As the rest of us filed out, I was desperate to find out how the rest of the crowd felt about JT Foxx.

“He sure knows how to close,” a middle-aged man said in German. “You could learn something from him.”

“I don’t like his way of selling,” a young man from Köpenick said, to which an older woman who frequently attends events like these retorted: “You’ve got the wrong mind-set.”

Things took a more sinister turn after the break, when JT Foxx began speaking about women.

“Most women can’t sell” he said, claiming that they “love telling their sad story.”

This led to an anecdote about a first date with a beautiful woman who told him 36 minutes in that she’d been raped.  This proved a massive turn-off for JT, who told us that: “No one cares about your problems. They only care about themselves.”

Further enlightened views about women included boasting about his connections with the winner of Miss Capetown and that he was considering “buying the Pageant.”

miss capetown twitter.png

He also reeled off some remarkable statistics, including this gem:

“90 % of German women will ask their German husbands before buying a coaching program,” he said.

The problem is that the men are often resistant. This, says JT Foxx, is “because men don’t want women to make more money.”

He admitted that three women he personally coaches are having “spousal issues” as a result.

He cautioned against women’s tendency to care for other people (in JT Foxx parlance this is “broken wing syndrome”) and encouraged them to see money more like he, and other men do, “as a game.”

The purpose of the rest of the event was to “select” the ten people who were to become mega speakers.

This is how it happened.

We were given a sheet of paper with four “options.” Our job was to write down the usual prices and then the incredible, one-day-only-just-for-Berlin offer.sheet

Option 1: a day of one-on-one coaching or four days of group coaching with J T Foxx. The cost – today only: €4000.

Option 2: Getting coached at JT’s mansion, either in Florida or Thailand: a steal at just €8000.

Option 3 and 4 were for people who really meant to “take action:”

The opportunity to speak for 15 minutes in front of a large crowd at South Africa’s “Money, Wealth & Business” conference: €12,500. A unique opportunity to build your brand.

Finally, the ultimate prize: the once-in-a-lifetime, career-enhancing opportunity to interview either Al Pacino or Mark Wahlberg only €20,000.

Those who really wanted to “take action” were to go to the back of the room to sign up during the second break.

At least eight people did, most of them young women.

Towards the end of the day, another speaker named Francie Baldwin (she of Business Fit magazine fame) took to the stage to talk about marketing. Her purpose was to fill time while the people who had been “selected” were taken outside for one-on-one interviews with members of JT Foxx’s team.

I left the event at this point, because I had to get to work. By that time, several others had already left. On my way out, I passed one of the young women “being interviewed.” There was a lot of nodding going on. When tens of thousands are at stake, reassurance is essential.

In the days before, JT Foxx had held similar events in Singapore, Dublin, Manchester, London, Birmingham, Stockholm, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Amsterdam. His next stops were Frankfurt and Zurich.

foxx schedule

And each time, he was likely to get what he needed: a handful of people willing to gamble away their life’s savings for a shot at stardom.

It was a sobering event that felt like an episode of Black Mirror: bleak and uncomfortable; a terrifying reflection of reality.

But the bridge between the world’s unfortunates and those whose mission it is to exploit them lies in enlightenment.

The truth has a way of coming out.

*************************************************************************************

*My personal definition of moral debasement includes demeaning a woman for opening up about her experience of rape, threatening people with a lawsuit for publishing the truth about an event and charging extortionate sums of money for the “privilege” of performing at a speaking service.

*************************************************************************************

Postscript:

Sections of this blog post have been slightly amended since the original publication for the sake of clarity. 

I don’t have the time or resources to answer the following questions. But perhaps someone reading this post may know something that will help us together to form a more coherent picture of who JT Foxx is and what he does. Leave a comment or send me an e-mail if you have any insights!

Why are celebrities like Al Pacino, John Travolta, 50 Cent, Vanilla Ice and Mark Wahlberg accepting cash in exchange for appearing on-stage with J T Foxx?

Why have JT Foxx’s connections to Eric Trump not attracted more comment? Even a superficial online search reveals evidence of a relationship dating back years.

foxx and trump

JT Foxx describes George Ross, Vice President of the Trump Organisation, as his right-hand man. That prompts the question: what, if any, if J T Foxx’s connection to the US president? 

george ross.png

 

Failure: the greatest story of all

For an aspiring writer, there are few sweeter, more reassuring things than learning about how the authors you admire have struggled.

When I discovered that the Indian-American writer Akhil Sharma spent twelve agonising years writing his exquisite novel Family Life, I was delighted.

And even though I’ve never read her, I was perversely pleased to hear that it took Booker prizewinner Arundhati Roy 20 years to write her latest book.

On the other hand, when Caitlin Moran told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs that she published her first novel at 16 and doesn’t ever run out of things to say, I was furious.

My novel is 16,043 words long so far. It’s rubbish.

I spent about 10 weeks writing the opening page.

I’ll probably scrap it for something I write in a 10-minute burst of inspiration.

notebook

Failed word-count goals recorded in my little green notebook

In January I set myself monthly word-count goals, all of which I failed to meet.

I wrote a plot outline. It didn’t work.

In March, I had a few unexpected days off work. I wrote a couple of thousand words. All of them are thanks to Lisa Cron, who wrote a very helpful book called Story Geniuswhich I stumbled upon online.

Her approach uses neuroscience to describe what a story is and how to lure readers inside your characters’ minds.

It was exhilarating to re-evaluate what stories actually do. I was filled with a fresh sense of purpose.

The wave of enthusiasm did not last long. I worked a lot in April. A mixture of early and late shifts, along with a host of out-of-work commitments, meant I didn’t even have the time to try – and fail – to write.

It made me feel restless and discontented.

I finally managed to get back to it this past weekend. I scraped together a few hundred words.

I’m not allowing myself to re-read them until I write some more.

For whatever reason, writing a novel is a desire that eats away at me and punishes me when I fail to submit to it.

I am under no illusion as to how painfully slim the odds are but perhaps, someday someone else will come across this post and smile with resolve as they return to their own blank page.

On enountering a tipsy punk

I was on the way to work the other day, preoccupied with global problems, like Donald Trump and the war in Syria. I’d just read a New Yorker article covering these topics and, not uncommonly for the newly enlightened, was energized by the urgent conviction that I must act to better the world. Immediately thereafter I was filled with the foreboding that I didn’t know how. And that even if I did, I probably didn’t have the courage to follow through.

I’d rolled the magazine up and packed it under my arm as I waited to change to the U9 line. The screen revealed I had a three-minute wait.

Enough time for a woman with a large dog and a leather jacked adorned with Tipp-Ex to engage me in conversation.

“Is this the right side for Hansaplatz?” she asked.

I paused to think (I shouldn’t have had to since this is my daily commute but remember, I was carrying the combined weight of the world’s problems as well as my New Yorker).

Punk-27947

By Pax – Transferred from pl.wikipedia.org to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2118607

Then said: “Yes!” a little too brightly, hoping to make up for my hesitation.

“Good,” she said. “I was afraid of getting it in the wrong direction.”

“Oh, I do that all the time,” I said. (It’s true.)

“My friends will be wondering where I am!” she continued. “I spent all night partying in Tiergarten with the other punks.”

I nodded knowingly, hoping to convey mindfulness of alternative lifestyles.

It seemed to work because she kept talking.

“I turned 30 yesterday!” she said.

“You did?! Happy Birthday!” I blurted enthusiastically.

She combed her hand through a mass of hair in the center of her otherwise shaved head.

“Thanks!” she said. “Got my hair done too. Had to, for the occasion.”

“It looks great,” I said, and meant it.

“Check out my jacket,” she continued. “All my buddies signed it.”

She pointed to various names signed in Tipp-Ex. “That’s my best friend Nina .. and my buddy Timo!”

She was the kind of intoxicated we all aspire to: cheerful but not embarrassing, her non sequiturs redeemed by elegant syntax.

As I was nodding along, I couldn’t help but think: we’re almost the same age! And she lives in the park, with her huge dog and all her lovely punk friends, enjoying life instead of obsessing over her failure to make a meaningful impact. And then, because such things are in my nature, I felt inadequate in the presence of such hard-won resilience.

As the train came, she pulled out a bottle of liquor from the inside of her jacket pocket and waved it in the air.

“Breakfast!” she said happily, before ushering her hound on board.

Drinking at the fountain of the AfD’s youth

Being right-wing in Berlin is like turning up to a steak house and announcing you’re a vegetarian. At best, it’s a mild provocation and at worst, downright offensive. Being young and right-wing is akin to adding that you can’t have the burger buns either, because you’ve decided to go gluten-free.

A primal curiosity for the proverbially maligned vegetarian prompted me to make my way to the leafy district of Zehlendorf on Thursday evening for a meeting of the youth branch of the far-right AfD (‘Alternative for Germany’) party.

Grilling_Steaks_(with_border)

Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons by BuBBy

Getting to this point had been no walk in the park. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Junge Alternative’ (‘Young Alternatives’) do not disclose the location of their monthly meetings on the Internet. Instead, they ask prospective attendees to send an e-mail to the party to register their interest. I got through that step and when I wrote to thank the individual I’d been dealing with (he turned out to be one of the group’s three deputy chairpersons) he replied that the “license fee should, after all, be justified.”

It was accompanied by a winky emoticon but the implication was clear: he’d Googled me and discovered the identity of my employer. After all, I’d never mentioned being a journalist.

It was only a mild provocation but it foreshadowed the offensive he was to launch when we met in person.

From the outside, the façade seemed like a highly unlikely meeting point for Germany’s right-wing youth. A generous, gated two-storey house in a residential area, it was the kind of nondescript place you might imagine one of your posher friends to have grown up in.

The meeting took place in a backroom, which had been converted into a bizarre kind of pub. The young man I’d been communicating with via e-mail was standing behind the bar. He was wearing suspenders.

People came and went but there were about a dozen of us at any given time. If I had to guess, morbid curiosity had attracted at least three others to the event. The rest were hard-core members. I’d expected some formalities but soon realised the evening was to offer something far more enlightening: a drinking session.

These are the fragmented stories of four individuals I spoke to over the course of the evening.

The first was a young woman from Swabia, who’d welcomed me and shown me where to hang my coat when I arrived.

(For readers outside Germany, Swabia is a region in the south-west associated with either good old-fashioned values or bourgeois pettiness, depending on where you stand politically. The stereotype of Swabians as hardworking but miserly is common in Germany and casual racism directed at Swabians is alarmingly widespread in Berlin. An airport bus run by the BVG transport company even features the slogan “Dear Swabians, we’ll gladly take you to the airport.”)

This young woman found her move from Swabia to Berlin a challenge. “I found it hard to get used to everyone being late,” she told me. “Where I come from, things happen on time. You turn up when you’re supposed to, you eat lunch at 12 pm. It’s how it goes.”

She struck me as a sensitive, conscientious type and I can imagine the brashness and condescension she encountered in the capital felt like an affront. “I used to be in the CDU,” she said. “But I felt completely betrayed by them.” She was referring to Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to refugees.  “Without borders, we are no longer a country.”

In late 2015, she applied to join the AfD. Weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, a wave of sexual assaults took place in Cologne. They appeared to have been coordinated and carried out by both asylum-seekers and refugees.

The police’s slow response and apparent reluctance to release information about the origins of the suspects caused consternation and eventually led to the resignation of the city’s police chief.

“It was at that point I knew I’d made the right decision to join the AfD,” she said.

Another young man I talked to had come to the party as a Christian who felt it provided a safe platform to express his conservative values.

“I feel like these days, the traditional family structure is hardly represented anymore,” he said. “You know, mother, father, child… I’m not saying that alternative structures like homosexuality are necessarily wrong but I feel like the conventional way no longer gets a look in.”

An opponent of abortion, he said the AfD allowed him  to air his views freely, even if they didn’t necessarily reflect the party line. He also told me he believes the state should provide subsidies for families who choose to keep one parent at home to look after the children.

In the context of what he perceives as a movement to strip people of their right to feel proud of where they came from, he mentioned his reverence for his grandfather, who had a clock-making business which the post-war East German Communist regime tried to suppress.

Like the young woman I’d talked to, he seemed like someone who felt the modern world was denying him the right to hold fast to his values.

The third person I spoke to was by far the most intriguing. He immediately piqued my interest because his German, both fluent and a tad academic, had a hint of an accent I couldn’t identify. He turned out to be an American and an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump. “I was behind him from the very start,” he said. “He is the best thing ever.”

Having studied German, he moved to Berlin in 2012, where he now works for the AfD. When I asked him what it was specifically that he did, he responded politely that it was nothing personal, but he didn’t want to tell me in case it was “all over Deutsche Welle tomorrow.” I assured him that I was at the meeting in a personal capacity and not on behalf of DW but, wisely perhaps, he insisted on keeping his job description under his hat. Fascinatingly, being a foreigner (and ineligible to vote in national elections) in a notoriously anti-immigrant party did not seem to faze him.

In the interests of not playing into the hands of my suspender-wearing correspondent, I have deliberately kept a description of our encounter to last.

As I mentioned earlier, he’d done his research on me, and laid his cards out on the table pretty early on.

I, for my part, had kept mine closer to my chest. I knew he was a law student who’d stood for regional elections last year and that one of his main concerns appeared to be a decision by Humboldt University to change the name of their Student Union from Studentenwerk to Studierendenwerk at a cost, he claims of €800,000. The subtlety is lost in the English language, but the new term neutralises the gender of the word from “union of male students” to “union of those who study.”

He also lamented the loss of what he described as deutsche Erholungskultur, roughly translated as the culture of German recreation in the city’s central Tiergarten park to what he termed ‘bunter’ Krawallkultur, or ‘colorful’ riot culture.

As far as Internet research went, it was one-all.

At the beginning of the evening, I was treated to an unsolicited appraisal of my journalistic credentials. “I don’t like your work,” he said. “It’s boring and one-sided.”  I was genuinely baffled by what he was referring to but on reflection, I suspect he may have found this article I wrote about my experience of welcoming refugees coming off trains at Schönefeld airport or perhaps this video report featuring a soundbite expressing the opinion that refugees could help boost the Greek economy.

syria

Aleppo in 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/

While others I spoke to appeared to have arrived at the party following a personal journey of increasing disenchantment, this young man spoke with totalitarian-style conviction. “You’re either born right-wing or you eventually see sense,” he said.

He maintains that German culture is in the process of being eroded. I asked him several times if he could define the term. He said it was too complex. But he is sure it is being destroyed.

When it came to Syria, he denied that Bashar al-Assad is bombing his own people. This was the only point at which I mildly lost my cool. “Are you serious?”

“He’s bombing Islamic State,” he said, dripping with derision. “And you deny that civilians are dying?” I asked. He eventually conceded that ordinary people were likely to have been caught up in the process.

Still, he maintained that vast swathes of Syria were perfectly safe. “What about Aleppo?” I asked. “Do you think the harrowing images we are seeing are doctored? Overblown?”

“A tiny part is under bombardment,” he said, and told me a story about a refugee he knew who recently returned to Syria and apparently posted pictures of himself having a jolly old time at the beach. “It certainly makes you think,” he said.

When it comes to recruitment, he was keen to advertise the attractions of being a member of the Young AfD.

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Graffiti I spotted at the train station on the way home.. It says: “Why must my son beg? Because he is German.”

Addressing the three individuals I suspected to be open-minded sceptics, he said: “we provide training in public speaking, we go climbing… we go for beers.” He went on to describe the ‘Junge Alternative’ as “more radical” than its parent and spoke in somewhat scathing terms about the “boring people in their 50s” who come knocking on the youth wing’s door for help navigating the Internet.

Despite riling against the various “extremist” Leftist movements at his university, he did make some concessions:

“If I go drinking with a Communist, we often find after a beer or two, that we’re not actually that far apart.”

When it comes to common ground within the party though, or the elusive “alternative”promised in its name, there was little evidence of either on display.

My dominant impression was of a group of youngsters with profoundly conflicting sensibilities. From a conservative Christian who reveres his clock-making grandfather to a disaffected punctual Swabian and a chirpy American taking on a nationalist cause in a foreign country, this was a group of various misfits bound together by little more than the sense that the world is moving in a direction that doesn’t suit them.

That, however, is no reason to dismiss their potential.

All it might take to gain mainstream approval for a gluten-free, vegetarian option in the steak house, is another terrorist attack on German soil, perpetrated by someone with a foreign-sounding name.

We said yes

It was the beginning of August and we were holidaying on the island of Rügen. Again.

Our third year in a row. Our second time staying at Apartmenthouse Anne, located ten minutes away from the beach and run by a straightforward but formidable woman whose disdain for small talk both impressed and alarmed us.

“We’ve become middle-aged,” I told LSB over dinner one night. He already knew. An annual retreat to the Baltic Sea is the hallmark of habits belonging to German couples in their 50s.

“Maybe we should get married,” I suggested.

“Okay,” said LSB.

He was humouring me. In our decade together, we’d had multiple conversations about the institution, most of them featuring grand statements of our indifference. Our relationship defined itself, I would conclude. We didn’t need a ring, or a party, or somebody else’s blessing.

LSB agreed.

But over the past few months, something gravely unnerving had occurred: the idea of marriage was becoming less off-putting.

I couldn’t explain the phenomenon, so whenever anyone asked (which they would, quite often) I would respond in my usual way that marriage was an outdated tradition, which we were in no hurry to embrace.

As my arguments grew in force, so did the suspicion that I was protesting too much.

Restlessness had something to do with it, I suppose.  My career was ticking along solidly but unremarkably, Berlin had become home and LSB and I were embracing the stage of life where spending a Friday night streaming Sabrina the Teenage Witch at home was envy rather than pity-inducing. Amid all this stability, the milestones I’d been conditioned to anticipate from life were becoming more opaque.

swans

Because swans.

Pragmatism played a role too. The bank manager who told me in passing that it’d be easy to buy property with a husband but tricky with a partner had no idea what he was setting in motion.

Add to that the slowly-dawning realisation that if anything were to happen to either of us, the other would be a nobody in the eyes of the law.

By the time dessert came, LSB had raised no objections to my revised attitude.

The topic didn’t come up again until a day or two later, when we were walking along a wilder, stonier part of the beach on the far side of the island.

It was a grey day – the sky a patchwork of ominous clouds ready to erupt.

A family of swans drifted along the shore. Their feathers unruffled by the breeze, they appeared indifferent to the approaching inclemency.

Some couples have a song. Others have a meaningful place, where memories were born.

We have an animal. And it happens to be a swan.

I think LSB invented it but I can’t be sure.

If he did, it was to ward off questions like this:

human swans

human swans

“How do you know you REALLY want to be with me?” I would ask out-of- the-blue, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes out of insecurity and sometimes fishing for compliments.

I’d remind him that we were young when we met and that he hadn’t really had much opportunity to compare my charms to that of others. “How do I know you’re not just settling out of resignation, or a shortage of initiative?” I would ask, infuriatingly.

LSB would sigh, frustrated and answer: “Because swans.”

Swans: notoriously and unquestioningly monogamous. Unapologetic as they glide along, proudly navigating the world in pairs.

It always shut me up.

“Here,” said LSB, as the sky grew a shade darker and a clap of thunder sounded in the distance.

We moved towards a large rock and as their graceful silhouettes passed us by, we asked each other.

We said yes.

Then the sky opened up and it began to rain torrentially. We found cover at a bus stop and stood huddled together for half an hour.

That evening, to celebrate, we ate a meal at a superior restaurant, where they served us a plate of exquisite vegetables, the most succulent I have ever tasted, prepared sous vide.

The next day, back on the beach, I Googled the cooking technique and discovered that you can get special kitchen appliances for the purpose. We discussed extensively the possibility of purchasing one. In the end, we concluded it probably wasn’t worth it.

After all, one doesn’t have to say yes to everything.

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