Sabine Conrad plays with her French sheepdog El Lobo in front of the snow-covered rooftops of Erfurt, central Germany, on Jan. 17.
Slideshow: Winter's frozen splendor
Johanna Quaas is an 86-year-old former sports teacher from Germany who stays in shape by practicing gymnastics every day. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.
MAINZ, Germany – Trying to stay healthy in your senior years? You might want to follow the example of 86-year-old German retiree Johanna Quaas.
Almost daily, Quaas practices on the parallel bars and has already won 11 gymnastic medals in the German senior citizen championships.
During a break in the recent Cottbus Challenger Cup gymnastic competition she wowed the audience with her performance. She not only performed a full planche at the bars, in which she held her body flat on the balance bars supported only by her arms, but also showed a handstand, the cartwheel, backward rolls and a headstand.
A video of her recent performance by GymMedia.com has gone viral on YouTube and gotten more than 1.4 million clicks. She has even had to hire a media agent in Berlin because she’s been so overwhelmed with interview requests.
Quaas, a former sports teacher who comes from the eastern German city of Halle , first gained public attention when she appeared on a health program by local German television MDR in early March.
She says she now does gymnastics “just for fun” and that she has stopped participating in regular competitions. Maybe it’s because she hardly has any competition in her age group. The only other athletes in her senior category are in their mid-70s.
“I want to give the others a chance too. And to perform against 70-year-olds all the time is no fun after a while," Quass told MDR television.
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Courtesy Of Fackeltraeger Verlag / Courtesy of Fackeltraeger Verlag
Christiane Voelling is a 52-year-old intersexual who lives in Dusseldorf, Germany and has fought for greater rights for people like herself whose sexual gender is indeterminate.
MAINZ, Germany – Pink? Or blue? For most parents this is the paramount question when it comes to organizing a baby shower or choosing a color for a newborn's room.
But, what happens if the exact gender of the child cannot be determined? It is estimated that in Germany alone approximately 80,000 people are intersexual, so-called hermaphrodites, who have physical features – such as chromosomes, hormones, gonads and outer sexual organs – which cannot be unambiguously attributed to just one gender.
Christiane Voelling, 52, is an intersexual.
She is a nurse living in Düsseldorf who was born without defining gender characteristics.
Because German law requires that a newborn's personal data – including gender specification – is registered within a week, Christiane was proclaimed a boy at birth and called Thomas after a midwife supposedly mistook her enlarged clitoris for a penis.
In Voelling's case, it was later diagnosed that her indeterminate external genitalia were the result of a rare genetic disorder of the adrenal gland, the so-called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or CAH.
"My childhood and teenage development was often agonizing because I did not really know what was wrong with me and where I belonged," Voelling said in a recent interview with NBC News.
Following a push from various human rights groups, Germany‘s government commissioned its National Ethics Council in December 2010 to consider the issue and come up with recommendations on how to identify intersexuals so they could live with greater dignity. The council, which in February of this year released its recommendations, even grappled with the question of whether or not a “third sex” should be introduced.
For Voelling, her gender issues were rarely discussed in her family growing up in a small town in a rural area of western Germany since her parents were convinced that they were raising a male child. Yet, in school, she would often be reminded of her ambivalence, when she played soccer with the "other boys," but also felt very much integrated in the girls clique.
She was experiencing an inner conflict that is rather common among intersexuals, or so-called differences of sex development (DSD) affected individuals, experts say.
"By the mid 90s, the first intersexual patients started seeking psychological help at our offices and most of them were preoccupied with feelings of shame, humiliation and a burdening tabooization of their problems," said Dr. Sophinette Becker, a sexologist and psychologist from Frankfurt.
For Voelling, her emotional trauma grew significantly larger at age 18, when physical scars were added in an unnecessary operation.
After being admitted to a local hospital for an appendix surgery, doctors diagnosed that their patient had mixed male-female genitals and an atrophied reproductive system.
But, when the young adult landed on the operating table, the surgeon found a full set of female reproductive organs, including an intact womb and ovaries.
Without consent from the patient, the organs were removed.
"I never received a truthful explanation of my condition and after the operation I felt a lot of physical and emotional pain for many years," Voelling said.
"Some 95 percent of all intersexuals systematically undergo genital surgery and other interventions without medical informed consent and without clear scientific proof," said Lucie Veith, the head of "Intersexuelle Menschen eV" in Hamburg, a group that represents hermaphrodites in Germany.
Gratification after legal battle
Only a couple of years later, Voelling also started receiving the regular administration of testosterone, or steroid male hormones.
"For 27 years, I was more or less exposed to severe doping," Voelling said.
"At age 47, when I felt more like a woman than a man anyway, I said enough is enough," she added.
Today, intersexual activists are trying to educate the medical community, affected families and the public about the often harsh consequences of genital reconstruction surgery and other severe medical interventions.
"These massive medical interferences plunge the intersexed child into total imbalance and lead to irreversible damages," said Veith, whose organization has nearly 600 members in Germany.
In 2008, Voelling decided to take her case to court and sued the doctor that had removed her female reproduction organs over unlawful intervention.
In its verdict, the court ordered the surgeon to pay 100,000 euro, (approximately $133,000) in compensation for performing an operation converting a hermaphrodite into a man without consent.
"I felt very relieved and it was really more of a moral reparation than anything else, but it unfortunately did not have consequences for the legal rights of intersexuals," said Voelling. She officially changed her gender from male to female, as well as her name from Thomas to Christiane, in a long bureaucratic process that same year.
Preparing legal framework
While experts say that Voelling's case is legally unique and will not set a precedent, the topic nevertheless started to receive more public attention after she wrote a book called "I was man and woman – My Life as an Intersexual.“
Despite some disagreements with the recommendations of Germany’s National Ethics Council released last month, Voelling and other intersexuals hope that the council’s recommendations will help give their status a legal framework in the future.
"In our recommendation to the German government earlier this year, the main message was that intersexuals are different from other human beings, but they need to be respected and belong in the center of our society," said psychologist Dr. Michael Wunder, a member of the German National Ethics Council.
Because irreversible medical interventions of gender assignment in people with ambiguous genitalia are typically conducted during early childhood years, the German Ethics Council determined that these operations present an infringement of the right to physical integrity, thus a violation of basic human rights.
The Ethics Board also said that "a non-justifiable encroachment on the personal rights and the right to equal treatment is present when people who cannot be assigned as ‘female’ or ‘male’ because of their physical condition are legally compelled to assign themselves to either category in the civil registry."
Following Australia's example, the German Ethics Council recommended that in addition to the registration of "female" or "male," the German government should introduce the category "other" or should allow a “no entry,” until the affected person have made a personal decision themselves.
Last September, Australia introduced new guidelines, which allow its citizens to change the sex details on their passport to female (F), male (M) or indeterminate (X).
"This amendment makes life easier and significantly reduces the administrative burden for sex and gender diverse people who want a passport that reflects their gender and physical appearance," said Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.
In Germany, rights activists, representatives from the Ethics Council and intersexuals now hope that German lawmakers will soon implement regulations, which will help to protect the rights of hermaphrodites and remove discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Using a scraper, nail-polish remover and a camera, 66-year-old Irmela Mensah-Schramm is tackling neo-Nazi hate in Berlin. The retired special-needs teacher has removed more than 90,000 hateful stickers and graffiti.
(This report has been updated to correct an error.)
By Andy Eckardt, NBC News
BERLIN – Irmela Mensah-Schramm has embarked on her very personal "combat mission" almost daily for 26 years. Her weapons? A scraper, nail-polish remover, a camera and lots of courage.
Come rain, heatwaves or stormy weather, the 66-year-old sets out to battle what she calls "extremely disturbing" neo-Nazi and racist graffiti, stickers and posters that blight the streets of Germany's capital.
The retired special-needs teacher has now removed more than 90,000 stickers and scribblings.
"Even when I injured my leg several years ago and was walking on crutches, it did not stop me from removing the muck off traffic light poles, bus stops or building walls," Mensah-Schramm says.
Mensah-Schramm travels by commuter train to areas she believes are right-wing strongholds, places where xenophobic propaganda and spray-painted Nazi symbols mix with gang-related graffiti and the more colorful works of spray-paint artists.
Her "vocation" started with a single neo-Nazi sticker on a street light outside of her apartment in the upmarket Berlin-Wannsee area.
"One morning, I saw a banned Nazi symbol well visible on a lamp post and was appalled that people in my neighborhood ignored it day in and day out, without removing this trash," Mensah-Schramm recalls.
"Only a short while later, I witnessed an incident in which my Indian brother-in-law became the victim of racist bashing. This shocked me so much that I decided to act."
John Macdougall / AFP - Getty Images file
Anti-Nazi activist Irmela Mensah-Schramm scrapes a sticker off a drainpipe in eastern Berlin's Lichtenberg district on December 20.
She documents much of the offensive material in photographs and has compiled a scrapbook, which she always carries with her. Mensah-Schramm calls her project "Hate Destroys".
"For many years, I have been displaying my pictures in exhibits across the country," Mensah-Schramm says. "I talk about my experiences in schools and I regularly host workshops with children and students, generating awareness for the bad impact of these ugly racist messages."
Even ill health hasn't stopped her determined drive to wipe out extremist propaganda. After undergoing a cancer operation at a Berlin hospital in 1995, Mensah-Schramm found two swastikas painted in a stairwell. She rushed back to the nurses, asked for acetone and scrubbed away as much as she could before becoming too weak to finish the job. It was the first day Mensah-Schramm was able to get out of bed.
"In some journeys, I need to take tougher measures with black spray-paint or anti-graffiti solvent to remove writings off walls, and sometimes I even ask people on the street to help me out, if I cannot reach the graffiti," Mensah-Schramm says as she walks past run-down apartment buildings in an economically depressed neighborhood in the Berlin suburb of Koenigs Wusterhausen, which was once part of communist East Germany.
"Look, that is my work," she proudly points out, as she walks past a black square, which was once a swastika that she recently painted over.
Her message is clear: Don't look away.
"You cannot achieve something by doing nothing," explains Mensah-Schramm, whose husband was born in Ghana.
"This type of xenophobic propaganda on the streets can help to spread dangerous ideologies, which can be part of a radicalization process that ultimately can lead to extreme violence," she says, referring to recent revelations about a neo-Nazi terror cell that shocked Germany and led to a nationwide debate about the danger of right-wing extremism in the country.
Two men, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, and their 36-year old female accomplice, Beate Zschaepe, formed the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU). The group is believed to be responsible for the murders of at least nine small businessmen of Turkish and Greek origin between 2000 and 2006, as well as the slaying of a police officer in 2007.
Much to the embarrassment of German authorities, the country's law enforcement agencies only connected the crimes and their xenophobic motives in late 2011 after two of the three cell members committed suicide, following a bank robbery that put police on their trail.
German investigators originally suspected that the victims were most likely killed by fellow immigrants and might have been involved in gang-related crimes.
While critics say that German authorities had turned "blind on the right eye", by focusing instead on tackling Islamist terrorism, lawmakers set up an anti-terror center for right-wing extremism in December. Last month, Germany's parliament also appointed a commission of inquiry into the series of killings.
The German government has also established a database aimed at better coordination in the fight against violent neo-Nazis, partly because the NSU terror cell apparently remained in the shadows for so long due to poor lines of communication between different national security agencies and state authorities.
"Attacks on local politicians and violent acts against foreigners show that the goal is to spread fear and terror," Heinz Fromm, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, told a recent symposium in Berlin.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency estimates that there are about 9,500 potentially violent neo-Nazis among the 26,000 right-wing extremists in the country.
"For years, we have been seeing that brutality within right-wing extremism has been on the rise," says Dr. Alexander Eisvogel, vice-president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.
However, Mensah-Schramm insists that she remains unafraid.
"I have been threatened many times by neo-Nazis, who have seen me remove their works,” she says. “And once, I came across big letters written on a wall that read: 'Schramm, we will get you'.
"Another time, I found my photo illegally posted on a well-known neo-Nazi website, where the subtitle indicated that nobody would care if I was dead," Mensah-Schramm describes.
She filed an official complaint over the violation of her personal rights. "Unfortunately, that got me nowhere because the server for the page was based in the United States," Mensah-Schramm says.
Andy Eckardt, NBC News
This neo-Nazi sticker that reads "nationalism" in German is among the thousands that have been removed by Irmela Mensah-Schramm.
In fact, German authorities are facing a growing challenge when it comes to online enforcement.
Extremist groups are turning to web servers in the United States to host their content and spread their messages beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities. While displaying of Nazi symbols and the incitement of racial hatred are outlawed in Germany, neo-Nazi websites take advantage of free speech laws in the United States.
As the retiree counts sticker number 70,076, removed at a bus stop outside a local high school, she turns and says, "There are these small, but very rewarding moments."
"A former neo-Nazi, who had massively threatened me in the past and later exited the scene, stopped me on the street one day," Mensah-Schramm says with a choked voice. "He took off his sunglasses, looked me straight in the eyes and said that he wanted to thank me for never giving up my fight.
"I was so overwhelmed by the gesture that I started to cry," Mensah-Schramm says, before walking off to complete her mission of the day.
Burt Steel / AP file
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke speaks to supporters at a reception in 2004, in Kenner, La. Duke was fresh out of prison after serving 15 months for tax fraud.
Former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke is making an online appeal for financial support after his arrest in Germany prevented him from speaking at a nationalist gathering.
The ex-Louisiana state legislator, 61, who was dubbed an “undesirable foreigner” and detained in Cologne before he could address a group called Outside the Network on Friday, said he needs the money to stay in German and wage a battle “for my rights and the rights of the people of Europe to hear me.”
“As much as I would like to, I can’t just go back to Louisiana right now as I have to fight this improper action against me and our brothers and sisters,” Duke, who is now free but reportedly facing deportation, declared on his official website. “The truth is that I and all who stand up for the heritage and freedom of the European and American people… and the right to preserve their identity and unique human rights.”
While most of you will be getting ready for the warmth and love and friendship and family of Christmas, I will be far from home fighting the good fight… Please remember me and this sacred struggle for our people at this beautiful time of year that is such an expression of our exquisite culture and values... I believe you will come through with great generosity, even sacrifice at this time, even with all your personal needs during the Christmas season."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks hate groups and fights discrimination cases, describes Duke as the “most recognizable figure of the American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Klan leader and now international spokesman for Holocaust denial.”
Supporters see Duke as a political dissident.
“Because the person being persecuted was a pro-White advocate … his arrest has so far been ignored by the mainstream media, and the U.S. government remains quiet about this too,” wrote James Buchanan, who describes himself as an advocate for white civil rights, on the site Whitelaw Towers.
Grounds for Duke's arrest are unclear. The German embassy in Washington, D.C. directed enquiries about Duke to the U.S. embassy in Germany.
In Germany and several other European countries, laws prohibit hate speech that may incite violence against any racial or religious group and speech that denies or minimizes the Holocaust perpetrated under the Nazis. He was arrested in Prague in 2009 on suspicion of denying the Holocaust and promoting the neo-Nazi movement, and expelled from the country hours later. Duke denied the charges, saying he was there to lecture about Israeli control of U.S. foreign policy.
Duke served as grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. He gave the organization a make-over — shedding the white robes for business suits and arguing that the organization was “not anti-black” but “pro-white” and pro-Christian.” Duke was elected to the Louisiana Legislature, where he served from 1990-1992 before making an unsuccessful run for U.S. president in 1992.
In 2002, he served 15 months in prison term and paid a fine of $10,000 after being convicted of federal tax fraud.
He now travels regularly to Europe touting his books espousing white separatism and opposition to what he views as Jewish control of media, government and financial institutions.
Andy Eckardt/ NBC News
Restaurant worker Christos Mentissidis discusses the Greek economic crisis in Athens.
by Andy Eckardt, NBC News Producer
ATHENS – Greece’s recent financial and political crisis has led to tension between once friendly European neighbors.
Many Greeks blame the German government, as the major economic force of the European Union, for the radical austerity measures that threaten to cause a decade of misery for many Greeks.
The tone hasn’t been helped by some graphic depictions – such as a poster seen around Athens depicting Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in a full Nazi outfit.
"Almost every German tourist who visits our restaurant these days asks me whether the Greeks hate Germany," Christos Mentissidis said Sunday as he set up tables and cleaned the floors at the Greek Taverna, a tourist-frequented restaurant in the heart of Athens.
"I immediately tell them that only a minority complain about Germany and other rich EU countries. But, it hurts to see what kind of image is painted of Greece in this crisis, here and abroad."
For Mentissidis, 50, the differences are personal – he spent nearly 20 years living in Germany, where he worked as a taxi driver, at a security company, at Lufthansa Cargo and in several jobs in Greek and German restaurants. Perhaps more significantly, he has a son who was born and raised in Germany and still lives there.
"Both countries are home for me," Mentissidis said. "But the love for the country where I was born was a little stronger in the end.”
He returned to Athens in 2006, but said he was immediately disillusioned by the corruption and byzantine bureaucracy of his homeland – and now is even contemplating going back to Germany.
"Corruption, tax evasion and the whole pension plan structure are just some of the burdening problems here. Nothing is secure in Greece."
The recent upheaval has also had a direct effect on Mentissidis’ bottom line because his job is at a restaurant that appeals to tourists.
"This year started great for us,” he said. “In May, tourism really picked up and we were quite busy, with lots of foreigners visiting our restaurant. But then the first violent demonstrations happened and pictures of burning cars and masked protesters … were sent around the world and suddenly, we saw a decline in business of more than 40 percent.”
However, that doesn’t mean Germans have stopped going to Greece – it remains a popular beach destination and statics show there was actually a 6.5 percent rise in Greek tourism this past summer – supported by a jump in the number of German visitors especially to the Greek islands.
Mentissidis is not alone. As private businesses suffer, tax revenues shrink, meaning the Greek government cannot pay salaries and pensions to more than 2.5 million people.
Andy Eckardt, NBC News
An English-language newspaper seen in Athens on Sunday blares the headline:
"Economically, it was a great mistake to come back to Greece and I am very worried about the future," he said.
It’s a different story for his 26-year-old son, Themistoklis, back in Germany.
"When my father returned to Greece, I strongly considered going with him, but I am so happy now that I stayed here. There is no future for young people in Greece," said Themistoklis, 26, during a recent interview in Ruesselsheim, a town close to Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital.
While Greece's unemployment rate currently hovers above 16 percent, with the jobless rate among 15-24 year olds soaring to 42 percent, Themistoklis has a job as a machine operator at a big pharmaceutical company in Frankfurt.
There are, however, constant reminders of the plight of his ancestral country.
"Every time people in Germany hear that I am Greek, there is no other topic than the [economic] crisis and I often have to justify things when I hear negative remarks about my country," he said.
The young man and his Greek girlfriend say that the "unnecessary tensions" are often caused by adverse depictions in the German media and, on the Greek side, by references to the 1941-45 Nazi occupation of Greece.
The situation was not helped when Greek Prime Minister Papandreou announced last week that he planned to hold a referendum on the European bailout measures (a decision that was later reversed).
"Take the euro away from the Greeks!" was a headline on Germany's mass-circulation tabloid BILD after Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the prospect of Greece’s exit from the Eurozone for the first time.
"We've had enough!" BILD wrote in the article, signaling growing exasperation in Europe's largest economy. "We're spending hundreds of billions of euros to save the Greeks and now a referendum there should make clear whether they want to make savings at all. Now we want our own referendum: No more billions for the Greeks, Greece out of the euro!" the article wrote.
But that would be a worst-case scenario as far as Christos is concerned.
"Despite all the criticism I am still very proud to be Greek, but the last thing we want is a return to our old drachma currency," said Christos.
But he’s not dismissing a return to his old stomping ground. "With all the chaos here, I am strongly thinking about going back to Germany, where I would rather take up a low-paid taxi driver job than approach retirement age in a country that lacks a real system.”
NBC News’ Andy Eckardt is based in Mainz, Germany, but is currently on assignment in Greece.
By Andy Eckardt, NBC News Producer
MAINZ, Germany – In a major victory for the anti-nuclear movement, Germany announced Monday that it will phase-out nuclear power over the next 11 years. The plan is for the country’s 17 atomic power plants to be shut down by 2022.
Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision was made in response to public outcry over Japan’s Fukushima disaster, which reinvigorated the country’s somewhat dormant anti-nuclear movement and gave Germany’s environmentalist ‘Green’ party a boost.
But Germany’s alternative energy movement is nothing new. Just ask the Sladeks.
After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when people in central Europe were increasingly worried about toxic fallout, Ursula Sladek and her husband Michael decided it was time to act.
“Radioactive residues from Chernobyl were found on the playgrounds and farmland of our community. We were not certain anymore, if the milk, the vegetables and other farm products were safe to eat for our children,” Michael Sladek told NBC News.
The Sladeks have five children and live in Schönau, a small town in Germany’s picturesque Black Forrest region.
They knew they had to look at the broader picture and started questioning the use of nuclear energy. Chernobyl became a wake-up call for them and, eventually, for their entire community.
At first, the Sladeks took a very “domestic” approach and searched for ways to preserve energy at home, while gradually looking into access to green energy resources and “green models” in the region.
“We were naïve to believe that after Chernobyl politicians would wake up and put an end to nuclear energy. But, when we saw that nothing was happening, we knew we had to roll up our sleeves and do something ourselves,” Ursula Sladek said in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF.
Pete Souza / The White House
President Barack Obama meets with Goldman Environmental Prize winners in the Oval Office, April 13, 2011. Ursula Sladek is in the center on crutches.
“While we were campaigning for local support and running competitions to generate environmental awareness among the residents of Schönau, we soon realized that we had to take the fight off the streets and to take new projects into our own hands,” Michael Sladek added.
The result: In a 1996 town referendum – after 10 years of intensive research, protests and battles with local authorities – the residents of Schönau voted to take over the local power grid, supplied by renewable energy only.
Today, Ursula Sladek, runs EWS, a local utility company which is collectively owned by 1,000 citizens and which provides more than 400 million kilowatt hours of power to more than 100,000 households and businesses across Germany.
Needless to say that Ursula, a former primary school teacher, and Michael, a doctor, have become environmental heroes in their region, and beyond.
In April, Ursula Sladek was awarded the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize for Excellence in Protecting the Environment. The prize, awarded by a San Francisco-based organization, recognizes six grassroots environmentalists across the globe annually and awards them $150,000 “to pursue their vision of a renewed and protected environment.”
For Ursula, the highlight of her recognition in the United States was an invitation to the Oval Office to meet with President Barack Obama. She presented him with the first English copy of her book, “100 good reasons against nuclear power.”
“Sladek has addressed climate change and energy security from the grassroots level, illustrating how social entrepreneurship and environmental stewardship can come together to tackle two of the world’s most urgent challenges,” the official Goldman Environmental Prize citation reads.
“Several American businessmen approached me during our visit to the award ceremony in San Francisco, and while they all admired our plight, their first question always was: ‘Can you make profit with this?’” Michael Sladek said
“And my answer always was: ‘Yes, we can,’” he said.
More than just green
Since its beginning, the company has been profitable, according to Michael Sladek, and grown annually, with total sales reaching approximately $95 million in 2009.
From the overall profit, company shareholders receive dividends; also, some of the money is reinvested in new projects or is used to support other local communities who want to run green energy companies that are independent from the large leading utility firms.
“We truly believe in the success and the future of decentralized renewable power facilities,” Michael Sladek said.
Experts, including the Sladeks, say that German politicians will now need to find the perfect mix of off- and on-shore windparks, solar farms, hydropower plants and other sustainable energy sources in order to meet its ambitious goal of closing all nuclear plants by 2022.
“Next week, we will have a delegation of officials and regular citizens from Japan visiting. They want to pick up some ideas for the future,” said Michael Sladek.
MAINZ, Germany - Germany's reputable Der Spiegel magazine calls Italy's leader a "bizarre archon." The Süddeutsche Zeitung daily writes "Europe is bewildered by Berlusconi".
As Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces charges that he paid a teenaged nightclub dancer for sex and later covered it up, have Italy's European neighbors become enstranged by a “bella Italia gone wild“?
"I am very surprised that the family-loving Italians have not gotten rid of Berlusconi yet," says 25-year old Sarah Levy, who is a mass communication major at the University of Mainz. "But this will not stop me from vacationing in my beloved Italy," she said, adding that she spent her family vacation in Italy every year until she turned 18.
Since the 1950s, when vast amounts of war-torn German tourists started flocking over the Alps with a yearning for picture-book summer beach nights with kitchy sunsets, Italian seaside holiday resorts, like Rimini, have been dubbed the "Teutonic Grill."
Today, Germans do not have to travel far to express their love for the (so non-German) laid-back, disorganized and flirtatious lifestyle of their southern European neighbors.
A visit to the Italian-run pizzeria around the corner, with names like "da Bruno" or "da Mario," or simply a scoop of "Straciatella" at one of Germany's Italian ice cream parlors – traditionally run by families from northern Italy during the spring and summer seasons – will often suffice to catch the spirit of "bella Italia."
Yes, in fact, Germans are more Italian than most people think.
The young generation here no longer bids farewell with a good ol' German "Auf Wiedersehen," but commonly uses "Ciao" these days. And a coffee is no longer called "kaffee," but has to be "espresso," "latte machiatto" or "cappuccino" in German street cafes and restaurants.
Yet, something seems to be different about Italy at the start of spring this year.
Suddenly, leading German radio stations have been cracking jokes about Italy's new image and its troubled prime minister, who has repeatedly been described as a “horny old man“ in the German press due to his alleged relations with a woman who goes by the stage name of Ruby the Heartstealer.
Ahead of Silvio Berlusconi's "Rubygate" sex scandal trial, German public radio SWR3 ran a 30-second Italian-German-English song parody that ridicules Berlusconi and feeds only negative cliches.
First Waka Waka, now Bunga Bunga
Inspired by Shakira's World Cup tribute “Waka Waka,“ the tune received new lyrics that read "Bunga with the Grappa / Daddy will pay / Shake Shake with the bottom / that's how Silvio is."
And now “Bunga Bunga“ has become a hit on German radio, and even inspired a lifestyle.
"The Berlusconi scandal is the hot topic when I chat to my German guests," says 71-year old Giuseppe Bruno, who has been running his restaurant Da Bruno in Wiesbaden for more than 38 years.
"Many of my German friends say that Berlusconi's behavior is terrible. But honestly, I don't mind Berlusconi and we usually laugh it all off over a glas of red Italian wine anyway," says Bruno, who has become somewhat of a legend after living 53 years in and around this central German city.
Meanwhile, university students across Germany are catching on to Italy's new party lifestyle and are organizing their very own Bunga Bunga gatherings.
"Celebrate like a real statesmen" read the invitation for a Bunga Bunga party at the law department of Hannover University.
And, students from the economics department in Mannheim designed a stylish and catchy "Silvio Wants You" poster for their Bunga Bunga celebration.
"I would do some intensive research before visiting one of these campus parties," say Sarah Levy. "Bunga Bunga sounds like it is all haywire, pure anarchy, without any rules and morality," Sarah added.
But frivolous Italian entertainment concepts are not all new in Germany.
In the early 1990s, German private broadcaster RTL aired a popular adaptation of Italian erotic game show "Colpo Grosso" (“The Great Coup")which was callled "Tutti Frutti" in Germany.
With some very basic and to the viewer often confusing games – which none of the people who tuned in probably really cared about – candidates on the show scored points that made a group of female striptease dancers in funny fruit costumes take off layers of their already minimal outfits, until they were left dressed with only their panties on.
And to top the cheesy game show concept, candidates could take off their own clothes to score additional points.
"The Berlusconi saga is no more than a modern-day Tutti Frutti show. It will soon be forgotten in both countries," says Albert Knechtel a German filmmaker, who speaks Italian and has shot documentaries in Italy.
'Pray for Germany' was the headline on the cover of Germany's Bild newspaper on Sunday
MAINZ, Germany – In Germany, football (or soccer) is often called the “greatest minor matter in the world.” On Saturday, which traditionally is the weekly game day in the country, Germany’s number one sport really became a minor matter with regard to the worrying news updates that were flocking in from Japan.
On several occasions, the moderator of the top rated sports program “Sportschau” on public television ARD reminded viewers of the catastrophic situation in the Far East country. And, many of the after-game interviews with coaches or players were focused on questions about the status of friends and relatives in Japan instead of game results.
“This is terrible; we could follow the whole drama of events through the pictures on TV. Especially the situation in the megacity Sendai affects me a lot, as I played for the Brummell team there,” said Wolfsburg coach Pierre Littbarski, a former German soccer star, who is married to a Japanese woman.
Makoto Hasebe (VFL Wolfsburg), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Shinji Okasaki (VFB Stuttgart) – all well-known Japanese players, who are big stars in Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga, and favorites of many German soccer fans.
“The good news first: Shinji Kagawa is in good health after the earthquake in Japan” read the headline on the official website of leading German soccer team Borussia Dortmund. A note of comfort for the team’s fans, as Kagawa is currently recuperating in Japan from a sports injury.
With respect for their Japanese teammates and the Japanese people in general, most players wore a black “mourning band” around their arms during the matches and in many stadiums a minute of silence was observed before kick-off on Saturday.
All eyes on Japan
“Pray for Japan” was the Sunday headline of Germany’s mass circulation BILD newspaper.
Germany has a large Japanese community, one of the largest in Europe, and many were following updates from Japanese TV on the Internet all weekend.
The biggest concentration of Japanese ex-pats can be found in Dusseldorf, where more than 8,200 Japanese alone have found a home. More than 490 Japanese companies are operating in this western German city, which is located on the banks of the Rhine River.
Organizers of this year’s “Japan Week” – scheduled to take place from May 21-28 marking 150 years of German-Japanese friendship – say that they are not certain, if celebrations will now be able to take place as planned.
Over the past few days, journalists and residents of the city have been rushing to Japanese restaurants, supermarkets and Japanese travel agents, asking their Japanese neighbors about the status of their families back home.
“We are constantly updating our guests and our 45 Japanese employees with what we know from Japan, which is a lot and nothing” says Bertold Reul, the general manager of the Japanese hotel Nikko that has been operating in Dusseldorf for 33 years.
"All of our flat screens at the hotel are tuned to German, English and Japanese channels that are carrying news from Japan," Reul told NBC News.
NBC's Richard Engel reports from Cairo on optimism among the young people of Egypt that fueled a successful revolution and their sense that the United States has supported their cause.
Update 1:38 p.m. ET: The White House no says President Barack Obama is expected to speak about 3 p.m. ET.
Updated 1:03 p.m. ET: The White House now says Obama's remarks will come at a "time to be determined." It previously had said Obama would speak at 1:30 p.m. ET.
Update 11:48 p.m. ET: Reuters is quoting a military source as saying Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi is the head of the Higher Military Council that has taken control from Hosni Mubarak.
Update 11:45 a.m. ET: NBC's Richard Engel reports from Cairo that a communiqué from the military — in essence, the new interim ruler of Egypt — is expected at any moment.
Update 11:20 a.m. ET: President Barack Obama will make a televised statement at 1:30 p.m. ET, the White House says.
The president was told of Mubarak's intention to resign during a meeting and watched the announcement on television, it says.
Update 11:15 a.m. ET: As word of Mubarak’s resignation spread through Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a raucous celebration erupted among the protesters who have made his departure from power their no. 1 goal. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who returned to Egypt to join the protests, said, "This is the greatest day of my life. The country has been liberated."
Update 11:03 a.m. ET: Suleiman came out for a few seconds and announced that Mubarak is resigning and that the Supreme Military Council has been appointed to administer Egypt.
The hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir Square immediately erupted in joyous cheers.
Update 10:29 a.m. ET: NBC News, citing U.S. and Egyptian officials, reports that the message will come from Vice President Omar Suleiman, who the officials said will try to "clarify" exactly what Mubarak's speech meant.
"Obviously, they had that opportunity last night, and it was muddled," a U.S. official said.
Amid widespread reports that President Hosni Mubarak has left Cairo for his home in the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, Egyptians are awaiting what's being described by state television as an "urgent and important" announcement from the "presidency," NBC's Richard Engel reports from Cairo.
A White House official called Mukarak's departure for Sharm el Sheikh a "positive first step," but other officials cautioned against reading too much into it, noting that it's been essentially a second full presidential center for years.
Mubarak typically spends a good part of the year in his "rest house" in Sharm el Sheikh, often receiving official guests and convening summits and conferences there, NBC's Charlene Gubash reported from Cairo.
As for the oending announcement, the word "presidency" leaves it unclear whether that would be a message from Mubarak or from Vice President Omar Suleiman, who U.S. officials are increasingly convinced has assumed full presidential authority after Mubarak's ambiguous speech yesterday, NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports from Washington.
In fact, it's unclear exactly what role Mubarak could play except to officially hang on to his title, a U.S. official said this morning, adding, "There are nuances to this that we still don't understand."
The German government told NBC News that it hasn't gotten any "official request from the Egyptian government for Mr. Mubarak to come to Germany," referring to widespread speculation last week that Mubarak might be headed to a health clinic in Baden-Baden.
WIESBADEN, Germany – Could a German resort town become Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s new home in exile?
Media reports are speculating that Germany, because of his previous medical visits to the country, could be Mubarak’s next stop.
The rumors were triggered by a recent report in the New York Times, which claimed that secret talks were being held between the U.S. government and Egyptian military officials over a possible German exile for Mubarak.
For years, statesmen and politicians from Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and even Yemen have been treated in cities such as Munich, Berlin or the spa town of Baden-Baden.
The list includes Mubarak, who underwent a gall bladder operation at the University Clinic in Heidelberg in March of 2010 and had back surgery at a hospital in Munich in 2004. There were also rumors that Mubarak was being treated for cancer here, but the Heidelberg clinic has refused to comment on his medical status, citing Germany's strict data protection laws.
NBC’S Andrea Mitchell reports that intelligence experts and other foreign policy experts advising the White House believe arrangements have already been made for Mubarak to go to Baden-Baden, which he has visited in the past, when he agrees to leave Egypt.
According to Der Spiegel, the plans for his exile are so far along that there have already been talks with a private luxury clinic, the Max-Grundig-Klinik nestled at the edge of Germany's picturesque Black Forest near the southwestern town of Baden-Baden.
However, the press spokeswoman at the facility refused to comment on the issue.
While European leaders are still grappling with how to deal with Mubarak, it should comes as no surprise that politicians across the German political spectrum have been quick to comment on whether Germany should host the ousted dictator.
On Sunday, Elke Hoff, security policy spokesperson for the liberal Free Democrats, said she would welcome Mubarak, if it helps to stabilize the situation in Egypt. But she added that Mubarak's possible stay should not be considered “political asylum.”
Elmar Brok, a European Parliament member for Germany's conservative CDU party, told the Frankfurter Rundschau daily that, "The German government should discretely signal to Mubarak that he can come to Germany if he wants to.”
Cem Özdemir, a leader in Germany's Greens party cautioned, “Germany cannot be a luxury sanctuary for deposed despots.”
He added, "Care must be taken to ensure that Mubarak doesn't use a stay at a German hospital to duck his responsibilities toward the people of Egypt."
But officially, the German government has remained mum.
"There have been no formal or informal requests to grant Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak exile as part of an extended medical leave in Germany,” said Steffen Seibert, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman. "Therefore, there is no reason for the federal government to deal with this question even hypothetically," he said.
If it brings a peaceful solution, he’s welcome
Yet, even Egyptians living in Germany, who have been protesting against Mubarak and his regime, say that they would not necessarily oppose the idea of Mubarak finding refuge here.
"If Mubarak does not continue his political activities from afar, and if this helps to bring a peaceful solution for our country, then why not," Sarawat Ramadan, a leader of Germany's Egyptian community told NBC News on the phone.
"Most Egyptians I know would favor any type of solution, if it leads to stability and freedom in Egypt," said Ramadan, who recently demonstrated against Mubarak along with 1,500 people at a Berlin rally.
Others remain opposed to the idea.
"Mubarak stands for a system that is based on oppression and corruption," Thomas Krämer-Engemann, a commentator wrote in the regional Wiesbadener Kurier newspaper. "He [Mubarak] does not need us and our sympathy, and we also do not need him.”
Update 1:50 p.m. ET: White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says he has nothing to say about the Mubarak-to-Germany speculation.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel advances The New York Times' report yesterday that a possible resolution could involve President Hosni Mubarak's transferring power to Vice President Omar Suleiman and heading to Germany "on one of his annual medical leaves."
"Plans for a possible hospital stay in Germany are far more concrete than had been assumed so far," Der Spiegel reports today, citing "sources close" to one of the hospitals supposedly under consideration.
Currently, Mubarak is residing in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in a holiday villa. Politicians from Germany's center-right coalition government under Chancellor Angela Merkel have said in recent days they were open to a hospital stay by Mubarak in Germany.
"We need a peaceful transition in Egypt. If Germany can make a constructive contribution in an international framework, we should receive Hosni Mubarak -- if he wants that," said Andreas Schockenhoff, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
The hospital in question, the Max Grundig Clinic near Baden-Baden, declined to comment, Der Spiegel said.