Learning from Germany: is it possible?

Savannah Morning News

July 10, 2016


Say what you want about visiting Europe.

I know I did.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” I complain in typical first world, privileged, entitled, whining fashion when trying to decide where to vacation during these long summer days and nights. What about Utah? Or Vietnam? Or South Africa? We settle on a quirky site-specific cultural festival in Terschelling. That’s a barrier island in the North Sea off The Netherlands, where bikes are the major mode of transportation and installations include an old Volkswagen filled with water – and people. The artist calls it “Carpool.” Or a midnight concert in the evocative sand dunes with dancers, choreographed lighting and the lone sound of a French horn off in the distance. Or a happening in another pocket of sand dunes, where a woman dressed in a flowing gown plays a grand piano.

Except sharing a six-foot-wide bike lane with hundreds of Dutch people – young and old (lots of old) – riding behind you, in front of you and past you (mostly past you), people who were born on bikes and could probably balance their checkbooks, make a complicated airline reservation and conduct an intimate conversation at the same time, if challenged, is not so easy. They are adept. “Speed is your friend,” one helpful rider offers as he passes us, advise meant only to help not to harm. They are only kind (and tall), these engineering-prone and ingenious Dutch who have reclaimed much of their land from the sea. Alas, most do not wear helmets when the ride. PS. I didn’t see one accident (well, maybe one, and she was an American).

Except before the festival, there’s Amsterdam. It’s drizzling. It’s damp. The narrow room we booked on a houseboat is like a cell with two sets of bunk beds. And forget visiting the Anne Frank house. The line is a mile long. Nothing to do but go to a coffee house which in The Netherlands has come to mean an alcohol- free establishment where cannabis is sold and consumed, all taxed, all regulated, all on the up and up, not unlike a handful of places in the States. We did not fit the prototype which might be why we were so well taken care up. “Everything ok?” the “bartender” signaled with a thumbs-up gesture and a smile. I believe we raised the average customer age three-fold. It might have been the only place on the continent where European soccer wasn’t being televised.

Say what you want about visiting Europe. They got the transportation thing down.  Just don’t go wandering into the bike lane. You’ll get mowed down. The trains are comfortable and on time. The buses are double-decker. The taxis are cheap. The metro system is easy to follow. But best of all is a variation of car-sharing called “DriveNow.” First you download the Ap. Then when you need to get somewhere, you check a map on your phone screen for the nearest available car. When you find it you punch in the magic numbers, open the door, drive to your destination, find a parking space and exit the car. You are charged by the minute, which is the only downside, our Savannah and Hamburg friend Imke Lass told us. People tend to drive too fast.

Say what you want about visiting Germany. I know I did. I’m never going there, I’ve said for decades. While I didn’t lose any relatives to the Holocaust plenty of other people did. I’ll never buy a Volkswagen either, I said. But then I went. To visit Imke. To visit a friend in Berlin. To see what it looks like when a country decides to remember victims of the Nazi regime, when a country decides to remember not brush under the rug its atrocities. Later in Berlin we would see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an uneasy and eerie five-acre site of 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid fashion and resembling a cemetery. Designed by an American architect Peter Eisenman, it was meant to be confusing and disorderly and it was. There are no names on the slabs. Each one seems to be a different height and width. It’s abstract, gray, disorienting and effective.

But in Hamburg Imke told us about the Stumbling Stones project. For this a Berlin artist, Gunter Demnig, decided to place a square cobblestone-size brass plate in front of the homes of people who were wrenched away and sent to certain death. The person’s name and dates of birth, deportation and death are engraved into the brass plate along with the words, “Here lived…”  The artist has said he feels it’s up to the younger generation in Germany to keep the memories alive. Unlike a conscious decision to visit a memorial, people have to “stumble” across the bricks, Demnig has said. He wants the decentralized memorial to intrude into everyday life so the memory of the atrocities can be kept alive. There are now 30,000 stumbling stones in 18 European countries. Each stone is manufactured by hand.

Say what you want about Germany or what happened when its people fell for a monster like Hitler. This is a country that has decided to own its despicable history. Do you think Savannah could learn a thing or two about its relationship to slavery to make sure something like that never happens again? I do.






When bankers were helpful

Savannah Morning News


June 12, 2016

The day had to come. We all knew that. It’s not the end of the world. No one died. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of competent, polite, friendly people to answer questions, ask us to initial something if it needs initials, gently point out the errors of our addition or subtraction (yet again) or hand back money. There are. They’re cheerful too. That says something.  Turnover is slim. That says something too. The handful of folks standing on the other side of the counter – no stainless steel trays for them, or bulletproof glass barriers – is consistent. Even with a change in name – and ownership – the same people show up every day. At some point, if you’ve been going year after year (some people even bring their bike inside as you would your own home) they become family. Our family.

That’s what makes it so sad.

The next time I go into the downtown branch of South State Bank (which I still refer to as Savannah Bank, a name reinforced by the squishy green garden kneeler the bank gave away one year and the blue pens), Barbara Hudson won’t be at her post asking what you need and what can she do to fix it. Someone else will be sitting behind her desk. Someone else – maybe Priscilla – will be offering hard candy. That’s what the bank buys now. But not chocolate. It disappears too quickly. That’s what Barbara and her longtime compatriot Charlene Crawford would hand out. They’d reach into their lower drawer and offer a Snickers or a Three Musketeers or a dog biscuit for people who brought their pups into the bank. The two worked together for 10 years. Charlene passed away in 2013 two years after she left the bank.

“She was a sweet lady,” Barbara said, drawing out her words as she is wont to do. “We knew what the other one was doing all the time.”

They had fun with their job, those two. At Halloween they would dress up as witches. When they won best costume award the bank gave them a day off.

Then there were the large piggy banks they would go out and buy – on their own dime. They would give these to any of their pregnant patrons. A Susan B. Anthony dollar coin would sit in each bank. Andrea Rhangos, who walked into the bank last week with her husband Jonathon to bring Barbara some going away flowers, remembered getting a bank when she gave birth to their daughter, Stafford, now 18.

“When Andrea first moved to town from Michigan she couldn’t quite believe how we do things here,” Jonathon said. “She said, ‘What do you mean you just call the bank?’”

Barbara, 71, spent 21 years at the bank, but she logged 43 total in banking, including stints at the old Savannah Bank and Trust, First Union, the Bank of Beaufort and the United Bank of Virginia. On a base in Okinawa she worked in a military bank.

“Funny how time flies,” she said. “But you remember the people. There’s a story behind every one. I love each one of them.”

She came in as a customer services representative and went out as a financial services representative. Both translate to the same thing: helping people with their problems. When she left she took her handy Rolodex with her, which, she says, she will shred. She knows her way around the computer. That’s not the problem. But sometimes flipping through the well-worn cards of a Rolodex was just easier.

“Honestly, sometimes it’s quicker to find an account number that way,” she said. “With a Rolodex you don’t have to scroll through all the Smiths to find the one you want.”

To show its gratitude, the bank gave Barbara a going away party earlier in the month. The tears and the stories were flowing. Jonathan Rhangos’ mother. Audrey Platt, who dropped in with a card, said if she were out of the country and something was amiss with her account all she had to do was call Barbara. “She would take care of it.”

That’s how things used to be.