Ever since my first day of Saturday morning German school, I’ve looked forward to traveling to Germany to experience the culture I’d grown up only hearing about. And ever since the first presidential election I can remember, I’ve looked forward to the day that I would be able to cast my own vote and have my voice heard. For me, these two long-awaited, much-anticipated events coincided.
Initially I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be in America for the 2016 Presidential Election season. I’d imagined being surrounded by fellow politically engaged citizens, engaging in lunchtime debates and generally soaking up the spirit of democracy. In Berlin, I found all of these things and something more: a bit of perspective.
While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump competed for the most powerful position in the United States, five different parties in Germany duked it out for seats in the Bundestag, which is the German parliament. The streets I walked on my way to class were lined with campaign signs and slogans ranging from serious to provocative to hilarious.
“Your god? Your sex? Your thing!” read one sign created by the Grüne Partei—a political party in Germany focused specifically on environmental issues.
“A Nazi could hang here,” read another sign, this one from Die Partei, a political satire group in Germany whose platform centers on reforming politics through humor.
Seeing so many different signs like these every day, while following the goings-on of my own country’s politics, led me to question the effectiveness of a two-party government system—a system I had taken for granted until now. My fascination with the German system grew, and I welcomed every opportunity to learn more.
I visited a polling booth with my German friend, Helge, and celebrated alongside my host family when their preferred party, Die Grünen, secured a good number of seats in the parliament.
And, the political interest was mutual. The American election was a favorite topic of discussion among my German peers.
“So that Trump guy, eh?” was a question I heard often, whether I was on the U-Bahn or in a bar. German people remain hyper-aware of what it looks like when a fascist rises to power, and as a result I found many of my German peers were more invested in the American election than some of my American ones.
And then it happened.
When Trump won the election, it was not my fellow Americans who gave me solace, but rather my German friends. It was my German host mother who hugged me as I sobbed in the early hours of Nov. 9 after returning from an election results viewing party. It was my German host brother who bought me a giant hamburger with a side of fries to remind me of the good things America had to offer, and as I ate them tried to convince me that everything was going to be alright. It was alongside Germans, and yes, a few Americans, that I protested at the Brandenburg gate.
Experiencing the 2016 American presidential election in Germany did not make me feel foreign and isolated—rather, it showed me that as separate nations, we are more interwoven than I originally understood. As Trump was elected in America, Germany turned out in droves to remind us that “Walls Don’t Work.” And when the Kurfurstendamm Christmas Market was attacked by a terrorist, signs of love and support in every language appeared in the market a day later.
I have seen firsthand, and it is now more clear to me than ever, that during times of trouble, we can overcome borders, languages and cultural differences in the interest of human rights and freedoms.