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In late September 2009, Chancellor Angela Merkel swept to reelection, making her one of the longest-serving leaders among Europe's major powers. Her Christian Democrats formed a new center-right government, triumphing over Social Democrats, who fared badly in the election.

In a union with the probusiness Free Democrats, Merkel strengthened her hand in Germany, and in the next year or so may begin to enact the kind of liberalizing economic plans she proposed when she first ran for chancellor.

Her victory was muted by Germany's rising budget deficits as a result of the global economic crisis.

As an example of the changing times, Ms. Merkel, Germany's first female chancellor, is joined by the first openly gay vice-chancellor and foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who shepherded his Free Democrats to their strongest showing ever. All this occurring in a country that a few decades ago sent homosexuals to the concentration camps and the gas chambers, along with Jews and Gypsies.

It is still ranked low on the threat of terrorism in spite of memories of the 1972 Munich Massacre at the Olympic Games, in which 11 Jewish athletes were killed.

Germany has about 84 million citizens, making it the most densely populated of the nations in the E.U. The capital, Berlin, has the largest population, with some 3.5 million residents, trailed by Hamburg and Munich.

Germany today remains split between Protestantism and Catholicism, and it is not homogeneous, as each year it greets an influx of non-German immigrants.

Turks form the largest group of immigrants (2.3 million), followed by Sorbs (about 60,000) and even some 50,000 Dane, who live in Schleswig-Holstein near the Danish border.

In spite of a gloomy economy, Germany still remains the third-largest economy in the world, with exports counting for 40% of its GDP.

Although East and West Germany long ago united as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, conflicts remain. Westerners often express resentment at having to spend so many of their euros on propping up the less affluent Easterners, who lived for so long under Communist rule.

The Ossis, as Easterners are known in Germany, often claim that they feel like poor cousins come to live with a far more affluent family, the Wessis (those from the former West Germany).

The friends you're likely to meet in Germany (and you're likely to meet many) will probably be well educated and will possess linguistic skills (almost certainly including English) that, by the standards of the rest of the world, particularly the United States, are astonishing. Many younger Germans are likely to be guided by a sense of idealism, even zeal, for ecological and other causes.

Germans, like Americans, are worried about job security. The greatest fear sweeping across Germany today is of "job hemorrhage." German companies are finding that more and more of their manufacturing plants and jobs can be farmed out to other locations, including, ironically enough, Alabama and South Carolina, where wages and benefits for workers at a BMW plant are about 30% less than in Germany. In the Czech Republic, just across the border, wages are equivalent to 10% of those paid in Germany, for workers nearly as well qualified.

But in spite of its problems, a modern Germany, centered around Berlin, continues to remain at the epicenter of European culture and a continuing powerhouse in the E.U.

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