The summer of 2020

I will remember the summer of 2020 as that summer when COVID-19 wiped out large swaths of my plans to travel. I had planned to deepen friendships and was looking forward to my connection to family and loved ones. All live in different parts of this world. I imagined that I would regularly meet professional interlocutors by traveling all over the Western Balkans, I would travel to see friends, and I would contribute to nurturing the buds of a new relationship. I would form new memories, making it easier to live with the memories of those summers in the U.S. which I, until today, miss with excruciating pain. July 4th was a tough day for me.

So far, nothing like that has happened. Shortly after I arrived in my new center of working and living, Covid-19 struck. For a few weeks I had enjoyed meetings with new and old colleagues. Within a day or so in March, I saw them only in their home offices, on Zoom, and that is lasting until today. I found myself in an increasingly intense lockdown, organizing work from my own home office, structuring the day keeping me sane, in ways allowing me to get the basics done, including shopping, before the curfew hit, getting work done, staying in connection with friends and family, and not overdosing on Netflix during the evenings. A seemingly never ending string of weekend-long curfews culminated around christian and orthodox Easter, locking me into the routine of my apartment for days without end.

Everything happened on Zoom, WhatsApp, Signal, FaceTime, Skype, and using a myriad of other communication tools. There was a phase of enthusiasm at the beginning, both on the work side and the private side of things new forms of communication offered more intense opportunities to connect. But that began to wear out after a few weeks. People started to crave personal contacts. Everybody struggled with the fear of an economic downturn affecting the financial foundations of their lifes. I found myself increasingly dealing with mood swings, and planning when to travel to Germany was a nightmare of calculating when there would be the ideal slot, being able to travel, to self-quarantine on arrival, doing the things I needed to do in Germany, and traveling back to Belgrade hopefully with the least complications possible. My mind went into such a frantic mode that I began to be affected by not being able to decide, constantly worrying.

So, when the counter-measures to the pandemic which shut down the entire continent of Europe yielded success, the feeling of relief was incredible. I felt it personally, I was able to travel to a remote campsite in Croatia for two consecutive weekends, enjoying peace in nature on my own. Yet, my children in Toronto lived through extraordinary restrictions, and they do so until now. In Europe, temporary border control measures were lifted in the European Union, and here in the Western Balkans, people put their hope on being able to travel for holidays, and to travel into the EU by getting their regular visa again. I was hoping to travel to Bucharest in Romania, and until today this has not materialized. Like my children in Toronto, I saw my friend in Bucharest last time January this year. And once I travel to Germany again, with plans to see my father, I will have to be extremely vigilant taking his fragility at old age into account. His health is deteriorating.

Whilst hope kept me in limbo, I saw the figures of new infections rising again. We experience a second wave here in South-East Europe, almost everywhere registered new infections rise to the level where they were in spring. I worry again about when to travel for the summer time, which I plan to spend in Germany, and in Canada. Traveling just to neighboring Romania remains a distant dream. I have days where I feel overwhelmed by frustration, and only connection to my friends helps me accepting this new reality that is there to stay.

This is the regional picture, here in parts of Europe. Already this picture is overwhelmingly complex. In the United States the situation is much different, the pandemic is in full swing, currently out of control, and in the stranglehold of a cultural war. And though I believe that I pay attention to news on a global level, I see that my focus is on the developments in the so-called West. I see things being equally out of control in countries in Central and South America, and in Asia. In Africa, too: South Africa’s figures are going through the roof, whilst there are so many underdeveloped countries which I traveled and love where I doubt even the capacity to register new cases is there.

But the overhelming news I consume relate to Europe, and North America. Including obsessive paying attention to how one of the oldest democracies of this world is under attack from the inside, fighting for its life. It is mindblowing that even the person who is a main driver of this attack would agree with my statement. Because he says too that this attack is happening, but he, the attacker, brazenly blames the other side for everything. Madness. History is repeating itself, and with the legacy of what happened to my country ninety years ago, and with twenty years of personal experience with worst-case-scenarios all over the world, I have to be careful in not allowing my emotions taking over and coming up with Doomsday phantasies.

The anxieties and fear which I have described using my own personal example, they hold true for everyone on a global level. My example is the example of one within billions. The fear, the anxiety, the attempt to find entry points into understanding what is going on, the helplessness and the wish to control things, the anger and despair, the resentment, these are global commonalities. It creates a highly combustible mix, as we have seen on occasions of global movements against racism and police abuse of power. 

I also see that I am part of a privileged group of people who are educated, sticking to the guns of science and truth, and who have developed strong tools for not allowing irrational fear taking over. I am privileged through my global and longstanding experiences, and the knowledge how to carefully assess, and to contribute to complex situations. Many people do not enjoy these privileges, but they share the same fears, the same anger, the same resentment, and they crave to control the situation by being able to give meaning to what is happening.

This summer is presenting challenges for my fighting hard to separate my personal disappointments, fears and pain from my assessments on larger issues, like the pandemic, like global anxiety, or economic depression, like the global rise of authoritarians. Emotions can amplify each other: When pain, fear of the unknown, and the feeling of having no control hit, the result is more fear, and helplessness. The result is more anger and more anger fuels more resentment. Like everyone else, I want to make this unpleasant feeling go away.

When it comes to how emotions drive people, I use my personal example by saying that this is a summer when I found it increasingly challenging to turn anger into compassion. My personal experience helps me to understand how other fellow human beings struggle the same way during this summer: How hard it is to stay away from the ever more tempting wish to simplify things, to find explanations allowing for shifting the blame to others. How much the constant battle rhythm of indoctrination through lies, conspiracy theories, and manipulation establishes a fog meant to control people, by keeping them angry, and controlling the direction of their anger, and how to discharge it against an enemy being created by those who manipulate.

When someone defies the explosion of new cases in the U.S., rallying people for extremely divisive speech, some believe this is one of the last acts in this disgusting performance. But make no mistake, what is happening is cold-blooded calculation: It is about using the pent-up anger, locking people into a narrative that they are warriors for a higher cause, using the psychological effects of the Stockholm Syndrome in combination with the kick coming from openly defying social distancing and wearing masks, indulging into national pride and a false sense of freedom. National pride is being manipulated into nationalism, fascism is established by blaming the others for left-wing fascism. It is the oldest trick in history: Do something openly and claim that it is the other side doing it. Keep people in your walled garden (which is a mental prison) and shut down all channels of alternative explanations of the reality for them. One of the most cruel things, aside of open racism is the weaponization of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are those who let down their guards by believing this will be over soon. History shows the power of victimization, combined with a relentless narrative based on lies and manipulation. Even in a best-case-scenario this won’t be over for a decade to come.

In this war, real people are dying already. And from all predictive modeling and experience with what happens when social distancing is abolished, there will be thousands more. Having contracted the Covid-19-virus, they will deny themselves the acknowledgement that they got it because the pied piper called on them.

I will remember the summer of 2020 as that summer when I, a pacifist and idealist hoping for change to the better, for the first time ever in my long life accepted that resisting the global nomenclatura of greed and unbounded selfishness may require to accept that standing up for this fight includes being prepared for that the nomenclatura fights back and that retreat is not an option, at great personal cost. And that we may have to accept tears and sorrow.

 

 

On Truth – To My Youngest Children

Lila and Oscar, you went through your graduation ceremony after Class 6. Congratulations!

Dressed in your red school tees you sat in Toronto in front of a computer screen. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic everything including this celebration has to be online at schools in Canada. We are so sorry that you could not enjoy seeing your friends in person. Some may accompany you on your new paths, others will go to different schools. New paths will open up for you. Parents always get emotional when these milestones happen, for you the impact may have felt differently. But this, by no means, has been an insignificant event. I hope you will keep that memory, though for sure it will be buried under many more memories to come.

Mom held up the iPhone with a FaceTime connection to me. That way I could take part from Belgrade in Serbia, on another continent. And I heard your Principal talking about values, speaking out against racism, and more. It made me so happy. I know, daily life at school sucks more often than not, teachers also are humans and some may have double standards, as is also true for your peers. But the speech was wonderful, and it reflected a deep commitment which I always felt when I had the opportunity to come with you to your school. Nothing is perfect. It is about best sincere intentions and progress, not about perfection.

Because of COVID-19, I have not been able to see you since January and I don’t know yet when I will be able to travel again. The summer holidays for you in Germany fell apart, we may have to write off the plane tickets. Whether Canada will be on the list of third States which will be considered for travel being allowed into the European Union, we don’t know that yet. It is still too risky, your visit to Germany will be for next year.

I also do not know yet from when on I can travel to Toronto without having to quarantine myself from you for two weeks in the basement. If that would happen, how painful will it be reducing the distance from 6500 kilometers to a few meters if I can’t hug you and you have to put the food on my doorstep? How long will be the joint time then before traveling back? It is never enough time, but how much time will it be? And you know what? It will be okay, either way, in the basement, or not.

Arriving back in Europe, will I have to go into quarantine then, again? Mom and I are beginning to wrap our minds around it. And we see no other way than facing the truth, which is that this is not going to go away anytime soon. The truth is that our world has changed in ways we would have never ever imagined just half a year ago. When we accept the reality though, things get back into a healthy proportion. So we see, over time, that we can adapt. We have come such a long way, it brought us closer together in some ways and in other ways, we feel the pain. But we always feel love thriving between us. The way how we deal with it, it will give you the skills and tools to deal with everything.

I am making our personal story a story on my blog because it is an example for the extraordinary times we live in. I have friends in countries of the EU which I still can not visit because I live partially in Serbia. I have friends in the United States who I won’t be able to visit, the pandemic is pretty much out of control in the U.S., so no chance for seeing any of my friends, and not those who have come closest to my heart.

I am living in Berlin, Germany, and Belgrade, Serbia. Early June, restrictions were lifted here because of the thoughtful handling of the pandemic. For the last two weekends, I left Serbia twice, enjoying solitary time in nature in East Croatia. I sent you pictures from that great nature reserve, Kovacki Rit. Since a few days we have an increase in numbers of new infection cases in countries of the region. Wednesday night I learned that the Croatian government re-imposed two weeks of quarantine for people entering Croatia from Serbia, except passers-through. So, no weekend travel outside Serbia, again. Will there be new curfews? No idea, the stories about new cases keep coming. For sure, all hopes for travel are off the table again, who knows how long.

Of course, the sun is shining at Belgrade’s Waterfront, too. Here is my double espresso:

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More often than not, I have too many espressos, and then I feel especially sad about not being able to see you when the evening arrives. And like you, I miss human contacts. Videochats can only do so much. But people need people. So even the bright smile of the waiters and waitresses at CoffeeDream where I have my morning espressos, it is a blessing to my soul.

I am someone who travels permanently. It’s part of my job. And because I always lived where I worked, family, loved ones and friends are spread all over the globe. I do remember the times, up until 20 years ago, where most of my travel was only in Germany, except for holidays, once a year. Friends were mostly local friends. Seeing family was about taking a ride for a few hours. Using a plane was the exception, and exciting. You, my children, you were born into a world where the iphone was already changing everything. And your first travel happened when we moved from Brussels to Germany, for a few weeks. Then we took you on the plane to Sarajevo, you were a bit older than six months then. Visiting Nana and Granddad in Canada, or Grandma and Granddad in Germany, you were on international flights from your earliest years on.

From my childhood I remember times when we had neither a landline phone, nor a TV at home. For my parents, even visiting family 25 km away was a day travel when I was a little boy! When my parents and us three kids sat squeezed in a little VW beetle, riding 450 km to Switzerland for holidays, that was huge!

Aside of all changes which came with the Internet, and then with smartphones, since twenty years I often sit on a flight every week. It is safe to say that you will travel a lot during your lives. That is where the pandemic hits. We see how much we have become global, we see what it means when we are forced back into a situation of the past. Because progress is always forwardlooking and never backwards, we have got to find out how we move on in this new reality. Dreaming of old times doesn’t help you, the young generations.

Since January I only travel by car. But I’m still writing my blog on my phone. Well, let’s knock on wood that we won’t have the digital equivalent of COVID-19… Mom and I lived in countries where we often would only have electrical power two hours per day. But the entire and months-long shutdown of air travel and, at the same time, no FaceTime or WhatsApp and Zoom, that would be hard. COVID-19 showed that catastrophes can happen and can affect the entire world. Don’t take the Internet for granted. We live in very fragile and unstable times.

Whilst global travel has become the norm, there are still many people, whether in countries like Germany or the U.S., or Canada, who only travel beyond borders on occasion of holidays. Their life is local, and often rural. Like if you’re living in remote towns in the U.S., and you saw the TV news of COVID-19 ravaging the big cities on the East Coast and, now again, the West Coast, and the South. In that small town, you wouldn’t know much about COVID-19 from personal experience. May be a neighbor got sick. But that a megacity like New York fell silent and that it took only ten minutes by car from Brooklyn to Manhattan on deserted streets, that would not shape the reality in that small rural town. People would, though, hear other people including in highest offices belittling the pandemic and the impact, which would fit into your daily experience of what is happening around you: You don’t see it, so it can not be there…

But the economic standstill, that you would feel in your financial bone marrow. So, if you hear that COVID-19 is just like the flu, but the economy is imploding, whom do you blame? That’s right, you blame the others. Politicians and government officials continue to belittle the challenge, and to lie about it. The toll is real, the deaths are real. Not only high-risk groups are affected, now the impact is hitting young people, like you. 

Life is very different in Berlin or Toronto too, compared to small towns in Germany or Canada. But the world in a small town in the U.S. includes a daily reprieve of propaganda lies and radical polarizing news from people in highest offices. That is very different from, let’s say, Germany or Canada.

I’m not singling out America, there are many countries where the truth is systematically buried for selfish reasons of people, politicians, public servants. Selfish reasons in order to stay in power. There are lots of countries where the free press doesn’t exist or has a very hard time. Like here: News in Serbia are mostly under government control, for example. 

It hurts to see this erosion of norms and values in a country which prides itself to be the “Leader of the West”. True and stable democracies cultivate and respect the freedom of press. Autocrats, despots, dictators, of which many, if not all, are narcissistic sociopaths, they go for control and for sidelining or abolishing what they name the “fake press”.

The truth is the adversary of all people who want to control. If you control, you need to bend the truth, at least. Often you are the first victim of this, yourself. And often you won’t notice.

Sociopaths do know that. Control, manipulation, lies, that’s their nature and they do fundamentally lack a moral compass allowing for empathy. These people perfectly know that they lie, and they couldn’t care less. They need to control the pawns, the sheep. But in the case of Covid-19, these lies cause deaths.

Consent is the opposite of control. If you want to achieve consent, rather than controlling and imposing your will, truth is an absolute fundamental. I know the reality is a bit more complicated. Yet, consent is the only means which we have to mitigate the threat of this pandemic. Like, consenting that we, as a family, need to stay mindful of the risks seeing each other in person. Like, consenting that friends can only see each other with strict mitigation measures. People gathering for parties or other events without being mindful of the virus, they act irresponsible towards their friends. People who belittle others for wearing masks and who call upon you to not to take the virus serious, they are of a devious and mean mindset. They endanger you. 

And there are those who perfectly know that some people, including Presidents, lie. That group may include politicians, but there are also ordinary people who know that “their” politicians lie. Why do they accept that? Well, the reasons are complicated, and there are many reasons. But at the heart of putting lies out there, or accepting lies, there is one chief motive: Selfishness. 

In a democratic society, elected officials do not only speak on behalf of the people who have given them their vote. They take an oath speaking on behalf of All. That means that they have to stick to speaking the truth as a principle which is absolutely fundamental for representing all members of a democracy. By which I mean: If your elected official lies on a systematic level, she or he does not represent you any more. Resignation and silence are not an option. Because that is what these people want. They yell and lie as long as they can, in order to silence you.

They make truth meaningless because they accept and participate in shamelessly eroding any truth to ground zero because they want to control, they put themselves first, leaving crumbs at best for others.

And that, my loved ones, includes that they want to control you. They want to leave you with one of two options: Take it, be part of it, or suck it up, and take a ticket. If you choose the third option, meaning to speak your truth and to do it in large numbers on the streets, your streets, these people show their real faces: They threaten you with sheer power, and they label you radical, radical left, antifa, terrorist, or just the enemy of the people.

What is the advise that I have for you? You know my story, there is no secret and no surprise in what I say. It’s pretty simple, and radical: Do not accept, in any part of your lives, anything else than truth. You know that I learned this lesson in some of the hardest ways imaginable for myself, and others. And because of this I have made it a principle to not even accept a “white lie”, not for myself, and not for others.

It is this principle only that you should accept in all small and big affairs: If somebody lies, walk away. Do not allow anyone to control you. It is your world and these are your lives. And don’t try to control, either. Control hurts others, and yourselves.

That is why I was so proud hearing your school giving you the same message on occasion of your graduation ceremony.

Walking away from people who shamelessly lie doesn’t relieve you from your responsibilities as a member of a democratic society. Speaking your truth can be expressed by many means, and demonstrations are an important part of it. Mom and I encourage you to use your voices for telling what you want, and what you do not want. Our times are times of a crisis of legitimacy of democracy, and those who act as our representatives, speaking on our behalf. Hold them accountable, by all means. 

Otherwise we all wake up in a world with much less freedom, peace, and security. A world with much less dignity, and no human rights at all.

I can’t wait seeing you again.

Love, Dad