Growing up in New York, I had a view of the world similar to the famous old New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg: after Ninth Avenue came the Hudson, then a brief stretch of America with Japan, China and Russia in the distant horizon.
It is easy to be a myopic New Yorker and think that the world revolves around the issues that concern us.
So to get far away from the city, as I did last week, is refreshing.
Last Thursday I took an overnight flight to Munich, Germany, a beautiful city that is home to my 93-year-old uncle and a place where I spent a momentous 18 months of my childhood; I had not been back there since 1975 and, not surprisingly, much has changed.
I was struck by how much nicer the Munich airport is than rundown JFK; arriving to a new, clean facility drove home the fact that our crumbling infrastructure is a bigger problem that we acknowledge. When we talk about losing our edge in the global economic race, our subpar transportation grid is one reason.
The Lufthansa airplane that I took to Munich provided the most efficient aviation experience I’ve ever had. The interior was vast and the coach seats were comfortable. Bathrooms were located on a lower level and there was plenty of room to move around. With the winds at our back, the entire flight was a mere seven hours, and with an impressive menu of newly released films in my private screen, the time flew by — literally.
Munich is truly a bicyclist’s paradise — the lanes for cycling are as wide as many car lanes in Manhattan, and in some places the riders outnumbered the drivers. Munich is the city we should emulate for its bike-friendly grid.
The people of Munich are incredibly helpful and friendly. The street traffic seemed orderly, the locals and tourists mixed gracefully and the city exuded a sense of calm. Maybe it was the perfect 75-degree sunny weather, but I suspect that the dog-eat-dog nature of New York is in short supply in Germany’s large cities.
My cousin was my guide, bringing to the new hot spots in Munich as well as my old haunts from the mid-’70s. The outdoor dining was delectable and the omnipresent “conditoreis” — dessert stores — dotted the streets, giving the city a festive feel.
The biggest surprise for me was how much changed around the American military base on the outskirts of town; in the 1970s, thousands of American military personnel were stationed all around Germany, and now there are but a few. In Munich, I attended the American military school in a place called Perlacher Forest. Today, there aren’t any Americans there, and my old school has been converted to a German kindergarten. The housing for military personnel is now affordable units for the German middle class.
A big topic of discussion in Germany is the flooding in of Syrian and African refugees and the controversial open-door policy of Prime Minister Angela Merkel. The million refugees that are being acclimated are an expensive government project, and German citizens are concerned whether the economy and tax base can absorb this influx of needy citizens.
It is quite an ironic situation that the country responsible for much of the destruction and misery in the 20th century has become a paragon of enlightenment in the early 21st century. Germany has become the national embodiment of our Statue of Liberty’s hopeful message. America has taken in fewer than 20,000 refugees (50 times fewer than Germany), and Donald Trump is talking about deporting more than 10 million immigrants and banning an entire religion from our shores.
I never thought I’d be living in a world where America could take lessons in compassion and humanity from our Teutonic allies. When I discussed the horrors of the Holocaust with my 93-year-old uncle, a survivor of Hitler’s death camps, I was overcome by the enormous burden our generation bears for trying to repair the world and ensuring that this century’s history is one of hope and healing rather than war and genocide.
It was almost exactly a century ago that our European ancestors began a bloody, epochal-changing world war that set in motion the tragic events on the next four decades.
Munich may be a world away — but a quick hop over the Atlantic opened up a wide, wide world to me last week.
Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallo