Back in the 1960s, when I was in college and then grad school, I spent some time studying in Germany. I haven’t been back since, but I do try to read something in German from time to time to brush up my skills in the language.
Toward that end, I recently bought a copy of one of the more influential German newspapers, WELT AM SONNTAG (The World on Sunday). It is one of the papers published by the vast Axel Springer conglomerate that is best known for its daily DIE WELT (The World). The Springer papers all have a conservative point of view. In their tabloid versions they can be a bit nutty, but both The World and The World on Sunday are usually quite upstanding in their journalism.
In WELT AM SONNTAG, you get mostly feature stories and opinion pieces. From the April 24, 2016, issue I happened to buy, I learned many things: for example, that Germans are hoping to become a world leader in robotics manufacturing, that Vladimir Putin is worrisome to Germans, that Donald Trump is a puzzle, that the idea of free trade is currently a subject of great debate, that there is a thriving market for summer beach homes along the Baltic Sea, and that the Germans are just as obsessed with soccer as they have always been.
I also quickly learned from WELT AM SONNTAG that Germans are very interested in California (Kalifornien). I don’t mean to exaggerate. The paper said nothing about city council meetings in Vallejo or Barstow, or latest vintages of California wines (the focus was on German whites, and imports from Italy and Austria). Nor did the Travel section in this particular issue have any photos of Disneyland or the Golden Gate Bridge: subjects that, I assume, have probably appeared at other times. But there were enough entries about California in this one issue to make me believe that the Golden State probably exerts a continuing fascination for Germans.
One item of interest concerned Apple’s CEO Tim Cook. The Business section of the paper contained a large photo of him along with speculation as to whether Apple would be able to continue its rapid growth, given that its latest quarterly earnings figures are not as impressive as in the past. In light of Apple’s huge importance in the world economy, the presence of this story was not surprising. But one could sense from the tone of the article that it held special interest for Germans, who must cope with the kind of slow growth that characterizes mature economies.
California celebrities from the entertainment world grabbed a fair amount of attention. WELT AM SONNTAG ran a photo of Jennifer Aniston and noted that, for the second time, People Magazine selected her as the most beautiful woman in the world. Supplementary stories quoted fulsomely favorable comments by her current husband, Justin Theroux, her former spouse (“der Ex-Mann”), Brad Pitt, and her close friend Julia Roberts, who remarked that she was glad to have never played in the same scene with Aniston, believing she would be overshadowed.
Tom Hanks also garnered attention. The paper reported that he is looking to buy residential property in Berlin where he and his wife Rita Wilson can stay comfortably for large parts of the coming years. Tom Hanks likes working in Berlin and plans to produce several films there, using the Babelsberg Studio, which he regards as first-rate. WELT AM SONNTAG also contained a full-page story, with a large color still, on the new Tom Hanks movie “A Hologram for the King,” which the paper’s film critic judges to contain the best performance of Hanks’ career.
WELT AM SONNTAG has a multi-page section on travel. Most of the stories I ran across were about getaways in the Mediterranean, Italy, the Baltic coast area, or the mountain spas in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, on one page of the paper, tucked between weather maps for Germany and Europe, there was an ad for Lufthansa flights to California, with a color photo of a romantic young couple on a grassy hillside next to a Live Oak tree, and the text, “Honeymoon Suite under the California Sun. The World Very Near: starting in July 2016 fly to San Jose.”
My guess is that the story in WELT AM SONNTAG that fit most closely with German preconceptions about California was the full-page feature about a Los Angeles man named Twain Taylor, who has recently set himself up as the proprietor of a mobile hair salon. The story describes Taylor as part of a long-line of van-based enterprises in Los Angeles, ranging from Taco trucks to Yoga instructors to tanning facilities. The story points out the long American tradition of businesses on wheels, perhaps best symbolized by the ice cream truck; and it reminds readers that street vendors are also an old European tradition, for example in the presence of hundreds of food trucks. WELT AM SONNTAG reports that Taylor and his wife have dreams of someday expanding their business by rolling out mobile hair salons in London and Berlin.
WELT AM SONNTAG is, to be sure, strongly focused on Germany and Europe. But the presence of stories about California is significant. At least in the edition I read, I didn’t find any mention of Nebraska or Alabama or Indiana or even New York. Those places probably are mentioned in other editions of the paper. All the same, it is clear: Germans pay attention to California.