Bush Visit: Bonding Over Barbecue on the Baltic Sea
President Bush's Stralsund visit got off to a sunny start on Thursday when he was formally welcomed in the city square by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The president shook hands with the smiling Germans in the crowd, then accepted a small ceremonial barrel of herring, miming eating one of the fish in jest.
"I bring a message from the American people: We're honored to call the German people friends and allies," the US president said. "America and Germany stand side by side."
The president touched down in Germany late Wednesday in the northern city of Rostock en route to the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations in St. Petersburg, which Merkel will also attend.
Following his welcome in Stralsund, Bush signed the town's "golden book" before sitting down with Merkel before a fireplace in the town hall for talks. The two discussed the renewed violence between Israel and Lebanon, as well as how to respond to Iran after it failed to respond to incentives aimed at ending an impassse over its nuclear program.
The two-day stop in Merkel's constituency on the Baltic Sea coast is meant to give the two leaders time to get to know each other better, as well as show Bush the "real Germany."
During Bush's last visit to Germany to the southwestern city of Mainz in February 2005, Germans displayed their talent for thoroughness by effectively removing any signs of life from the city's streets. Bush reportedly said himself that he thought the security precautions were exaggerated. He is keen for his experience in Stralsund to be different.
But those in charge of security just can't help themselves, it seems. For days now, helicopters have been circling over the Stralsund while security personnel have been busy repeating precautions taken in Mainz -- welding shut manholes, sealing off letter boxes, and cordoning off the historic town center.
Will the real Germans please stand up?
Many locals and tourists in Stralsund are less than amused at the way their lives have been turned upside down in order to ensure the safety of Merkel's prominent guest.
"Look at the shops here in the town center," one tourist said. "They'll all be closed during the president's stay. We're here on holiday and want to have a good time shopping, but they just won't let us."
"According to the politicians in Berlin, the whole town should be happy to welcome the president," a resident said. "But then most of the people here are locked away from the president so as not to present a threat to him. That doesn't make any sense to me."
Though Bush got the desired contact with the locals during Thursday's market square welcome, he met a crowd of handpicked Stralsunders who had undergone extensive background checks. A quarter of the crowd was made up of students from the nearby naval academy. Critics say it was hardly an authentic encounter with the people of Stralsund, most of whom -- like Merkel -- experienced life under the communist East German regime and the transition to democracy following reunification. Many say it's precisely that experience of recent history that makes Merkel and her constituency so fascinating to the president.
Bonding over roast boar
The president and the chancellor will have a further chance to bond over a wild game barbecue night in the nearby village of Trinwillershagen. Meant to echo the type of informal barbecues the Bushes frequently host at their Texas ranch, the atmosphere of Merkel's grill party is planned to be "deliberately relaxed" -- at least as relaxed as you can be with 12,000 police officers on alert all around you.
And, as was the case in Mainz last year, Bush's visit to Stralsund will also be accompanied by protest rallies. An estimated 5,000 people intend to demonstrate against the US administration's foreign policy, and especially, the ongoing conflict in Iraq. But they'll mainly be protesting for their own satisfaction because just as in Mainz, Bush is unlikely to see any of the campaigners and protesters, who've been relegated to the outskirts of the city.