I couldn’t identify what it is, precisely (genau, in German), that makes Germany eerily similar to the Midwest. Perhaps it was the rolling fields of grain punctuated by forests, or the food–carbs and sausages, all of it dense and satisfying–or something more ethereal in the air or the light (perhaps, I wondered, Germany has roughly the same latitude as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa and, therefore, receives the sun at the same angle). Perhaps it was none of these things, or all of them. Perhaps the Germans who settled in the United States were drawn by their intuition, like migratory birds, to land that just felt right, land they knew how to work and that would accept their transplanted practices.

All of Germany, of course, was lovely–I want to make that clear. But every so often its loveliness was followed by a kind of deja vu. In a small town outside Munich, we walked down a gravel road along which, I was for a brief moment all but certain, a high-school friend of mine lived. We ate fried things that could’ve been–and, really, should be–served on sticks at the MN State Fair. Their dirndls and lederhosen aside (which are almost worth a post of their own; suffice to say, traditional German dress is a great uniter, bringing together young hipsters wearing it with irony and older folks for whom ornate leather shorts are as essential in the summertime as sandals), the people at biergartens making industrious progress toward the bottoms of their steins had the same faces, the same bodies, the same rhythms of nods, glances, and laughs as my neighbors when I was a kid in Southeastern MN.

Germany was a kind of parallel universe, like a lost chapter from Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which past events occurred a bit differently, resulting in a present that mirrors our own with a few jarring distortions. Picture the Midwest as you know it, with its terrain, its weather, and its people. Now tweak that vision: make the beer better, for starters. Instead of an unsustainable reliance on cars and fossil fuels, connect nearly every town and city with a reliable train network, and install solar panels on every fourth roof. Hear people speaking German and see them inch beyond the shadow of oppression and genocide–on this, the difference between our universes is only a matter of specifics–by recreating, every day, a society that respects its inhabitants. If not for a few quirks of history, we could be them, and they could be us.

Photo: a crucifix in the chapel used by members of the German Parliament in the Reichstag, Berlin