Tuesday, May 14, 2024

An Amazing Three Months: Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin

 This winter/spring was the first time I lived abroad for three months--Japan was six weeks broken up into two parts in 2016 and 2017 and London was seven weeks back in 1987.  I have had a great time and have learned a lot, and while I am eager to go home to my much bigger kitchen (Mrs. Spew is with her mother right now), I am also looking forward to coming back next winter.  The Humboldt Award brings foreign academics to Germany for six or more months.  So, I have completed half of that time, and as I have to return home for a variety of family stuff (a wedding most importantly), I will do the second half next winter.  

Any academic will say that they didn't get enough done, and I definitely did not get enough done, but what did I do?

  • I helped my co-authors revise the book on parliamentary oversight and submit it.
  • I interviewed enough German experts, MoD officials (past and present), and military officers (retired and active) to have enough to draft a rough case for the MoD/militaries book.  I have more interviews to do, and will do those next year hopefully.  I haven't really cracked the case yet, but hopefully things will fall together as I write the case study.
  • I went to Finland to do that case study for the same project and talked to pretty much everyone I needed.  I transcribed all of my notes, but have not yet written the case study--one of those things I wish I had gotten done.  But upon returning to Berlin, my wife arrived for two weeks of great tourism by car, plane, boat, train, tram, and bus (do busses to and from the planes at airports that don't park their planes at the terminal count?) followed by my sister and her boyfriend and then by Melissa, the CDSN's COO, and her daughter.  My last week in Berlin involved one conference, one presentation, and much packing.
  • I wrote up more of the South Korean case study from October for the same project, but didn't finish it because, damn, this book is hard.
  • I received much feedback on the MoD/militaries book with multiple presentations at Hertie, a presentation at Central European University in Vienna, and a talk to a class in Potsdam. 
  • I have done much networking to develop more European partners for the next CDSN grant application and to develop more ways for us to work together to make the partnership more meaningful.
  • I had opportunities to learn how the Europeans are seeing things these days, especially at a Hertie conference on whether each country is experiencing its own zeintenwende (watershed/turning point in its world view after Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine) or not.
    • I also learned the whole "the Germans have a word for everything" gag is very true but also played out.
  • I learned much about comparative authoritarianism at a workshop organized by Hertie folks.
  • Speaking of Hertie, I had some chats with some of the students here about their work as folks here are working on NATO and on other stuff I have studied at some point.  I am crashing a dissertation defense today as the student used some of the data from my long languishing diaspora project with Erin Jenne that Kathleen Cunningham and Connor Kopchick resurrected.
  • I saw a lot of Berlin, first by myself and then with the aforementioned waves of visitors towards the end.
  • I saw much more of Germany than I had seen before: Bamberg, Dresden, Leipzig, Nuremberg, Erfurt, and more of Potsdam than before.
  • I saw much more of Austria than I had seen before: Vienna (my first time) and the Austrian Alps (Zurs and Lech and the train ride to and from the Bodansee).
  • I saw more of northern Italy than I had seen before: Venice, Milan, and Como.
  • I learned much about the German politics of EU parliamentary campaign via interesting campaign signs (see my this post).
  • I found out that people use the gym in so many different ways.  There was a largely unstaffed fitness center near me, and I went nearly daily, trying to recover from the combo ski trip/amusement park trip.  I was amazed at how every person has a very different exercise regiment.  I was mostly treadmilling and doing various knee stretches/exercises.  My first time in a 21st century gym essentially, and I was almost always the oldest, most out of shape person there.   Oh, and the kids really do have a lot of tattooes.

So, nope, didn't do much, I guess ­čśë

To dig up one of the oldest tropes here, what did I find to be the most surprising, troubling, enchanting, and humbling from my time in Berlin and Europe? 

  • I guess I have been the most surprised by how much English I heard, not just by me, as I wandered through Berlin.  Apparently, East Berlin has many foreign folks, including North Americans, so it is increasingly a bilingual city.  That and the graffiti of East Berlin.
  • I am most troubled that Germany is so hamstrung by past decisions and laws that it may not make the changes it needs to make to thrive.  Just the other night, I heard folks complaining about the governing coalition being frozen by the wide ideological divide between Liberal Democrats (think libertarians), Greens, and Social Democrats.  Good for the Steve and Dave book of yore, not so good for dealing with Russia, climate change, or China.
  • I am most enchanted by, yes, the good weather of Berlin (it rained a lot my first few weeks but has been mostly sunny since) that allowed me to explore lots and lots of neighborhoods, finding great gelato places and Indonesian food and absolutely terrific doner kebabs from the many, many T├╝rkische places.  
  • I am most humbled by how sharp the people at Hertie and at the Canadian embassy and the various other folks I have bumped into.  Berlin is chock full of really smart, incisive, multilingual, experienced people.  I again feel like a recently unfrozen caveman when hanging around with these folks.  I have learned a lot, and, yeah, I got into this business because I have an insatiable curiosity, so woot!  I am also humbled by how crappy I skied on mixed snow in Zurs.

Was this my best sabbatical?  I could say it is too soon (IT IS TOO SOON!!) as my sabbatical does not end until July 1st.  However, most of the next 1.5 months will be doing catch up on paperwork and CDSN-ing, family stuff (that aforementioned wedding, the first of the next generation of Saidemans and perhaps the first millennial wedding I will be attending), and then conferencing.  So, probably not too soon.  I have had three sabbaticals and one leave (the Pentagon experience), so, as is my tendency, a few rankings:

Best food:

  1. Toyko in 2016-17
  2. Germany this year (mostly the non-German food I ate), as I learned what the Hokey Pokey is really all about (ice cream).
  3. The sabbatical at home plus travel of 2006-2007
  4. The Pentagon year.  Most of the rankings here are of relatively good stuff, but that year was not good for my diet and was not tasty either.

Biggest career impact

  1. Pentagon year and it is not close as it helped get me the jobs at McGill and Carleton and re-directed my research from the IR of ethnic conflict to alliances and then civil-military relations.
  2. Tokyo--I had never done any research on Asia before that sabbatical.  I am not an Indo-Pacific expert, but I have a far better idea of what the big questions are out there, and that has influenced my teaching, and the Tokyo work did lead to the question I am exploring this year in Europe.
  3. Sabbatical at home as it gave me a chance to catch up and shift to civ-mil
  4. This one--I am nearing the end of my career, so it is hard to move it that far from the current path.

 Most productive in terms of academic research/output:

  1. It might be this one--two case studies, revising the book (we made a lot of progress last summer and then this winter), getting feedback.  
  2. the sabbatical at home--I finished the Steve and Bill book on irredentism if I remember correctly and shifted to a new research agenda
  3. Tokyo: I got that case study done, but the survey took years to complete and we haven't published anything from it yet.  I thought I had a partnership that was going to produce a lot of work, but it fizzled.
  4. Pentagon: I got one week of fieldwork done, and it fostered a heap of questions, but I was too busy desk officer-ing to do much academic stuff.


  1. Pentagon.  I learned so much about so many things at a pivotal time in US foreign policy and international relations from the nexus of US defense policy.  Did I mention it helped get me out of Lubbock?
  2. Tokyo.  Watching Shogun this winter reminded me of how wonderfully addictive Japan is--I went from never going there to visiting at least six times--so many times that I am losing track.  Which competes with how many times I have been to Germany.
  3. This one.  It has been a terrific three months in Germany.  My sabbatical this year also includes the South Korea trip, which was also pretty cool.  
  4. My first one in 2006-2007.  It wasn't bad, it just wasn't as special.  I barely remember what I did that year.  I will always remember my times in the Pentagon, in Japan, and, here.  

I will soon start counting down until the next one, and I have a cool idea, but we shall see if I can make it happen.  It will be my last one, so I hope I can make it count.

As I keep saying, I am very lucky.  The Humboldt Award was a great break, giving me the chance to hang out with the sharp and generous folks at Hertie.  I haven't baked in three months and desperately miss my kitchen (facebook is reminding me of the renovation that took place this time last year).  So, I am ready to go home, but I will soon be eager to come back.  My plans for my next Eurotrip?  More Germany, more Nordic case studies (Sweden and Norway), the Italian Alps, and probably Greece.

 I will write another post about what I have learned over the course of the past few months.  


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