Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Twin Towns

I first heard about twin towns when the Dutch town where I went to school had a German twin called Alsfeld. I never went there, and there is probably not much to see but somehow the concept of a town having a "twin" in another country appealed to me.

Later on, another school, another town was twinned with Chateaudun in France, Motherwell in Scotland, and a Finnish town I can't remember the name of. But precisely this Finnish town exercised a real pull. Everybody who had access to a car drove up to Finland in the summer, and came back full of stories about gnats, lakes,wild camping and the glorious sunsets. It sounded terribly romantic, and many of my school mates moved to Finland, or came back with blond, good-looking girlfriends. It was "otherness" brought into the small world of a small town. In the winter we got an enormous Christmas tree for the market square from that Finnish town, and everybody gazed and imagined how cold it must be up there in Finland.

With Motherwell (now inexplicably called "North Lanarkshire", as if it was a region) a similarly lively exchange took place. People came to our school, and we learned that "Snickers" was a funny word, and "Anne" was pronounced "Unn".My best friend fell in love with a law student from Motherwell, and it was a complicated and romantic affair because his specialisation in Scottish law meant he could never practice anywhere else. This was a great tragedy, and my friend wrote many many letters and cried a whole summer long.

I love twin towns and in any town I live in, I look them up. I also have every reason to be immensely grateful to the scheme. Bonn, where I went to university, is  twinned with Oxford - and therefore both universities are also partnered. This enabled me not just to go to an Oxford college, but to actually be selected to teach there. In itself already a brilliant thing to do at an early age, it was also where I got to know my future husband - time well spent  indeed!

Munich, where I'm currently living is twinned with Bordeaux and Verona (and Edinburgh). I've made great plans to visit both Bordeaux and Verona soon (having already spent a year in Edinburgh, I don't need to visit). Of course, I might have gone to those towns anyhow as they are most attractive in themselves, but somehow the twinning adds extra interest.

So I can only say how ghastly and utterly deplorable I find it, that some English towns (most notably one going by the name of Bishop's Stortford which sounds more like an illness than a place)  unilaterally cancelled twin arrangements which had existed for decades. On the grounds of not wanting to have any ties with Europe anymore. Anti-Europeanism comes in many guises, and has many loathsome and ugly aspects, and what they all have in common is that ordinary people's lives are made poorer, more provincial and more isolated.

I for one would not like to have missed out on the many aspects that all the various twin towns have brought to my youth and later life!

Monday, 11 March 2013

How Do Germans See Britain?

A recent article in the BBC News Magazine "Affection for Britain Brews in Germany" http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21628274 seemed just the kind of topic the interculturalist with a particular penchant for British/German relations is keen on. And yet, apart from a few feeble puns, a confusing array of tea brands, and a quite unbelievable revocation of the oldest clichés in the book - yes, believe it or not, "Don't mention the war" popped up, what - to stick with the feeble puns so beloved by the author - did it all boil down to?

The article can be summed up in 1 sentence:  "The Germans" don't know how to make tea but believe that Brits aren't too bad".  Right.

Whilst it is true that recently there seems to be a groundswell of sympathy for Britain and things British, I really honestly, and with all the force of my intercultural, bi-national awareness, cannot put that down to  either the Kate-factor, the opening ceremony of the Olympics, or, as the author seems to suggest Britain's "tough" (?) stance on the EU.

The fact is, very very few Germans are either interested in or aware of contemporary British on-goings. Personally, I've never once heard the Olympics opening ceremony even being mentioned here. As for Kate, no - really not. Hardly anybody is even aware of her. Much as Britain still sees itself as the centre of the universe, its news - good or bad - doesn't travel. Aside from hard political events which occur in the newswires, people don't follow discussions, events and changes in British society.

If it's true, and I would agree with the author of the BBC article there, Germans feel sympathetic to English (!) culture, it is very much with a focus on the past. A nostalgic Britain with its tea ceremony, its slight eccentricities, ist Miss Marple-ish villages, its incessant rain - yes indeed, all those nostalgic cliches have been gaining  clout in Germany. But this, to me, has a lot more to do with the current collective psyche than a real-life England. In times where nothing is stable and secure anymore (money, prospects, jobs etc) where a books means a 3-second download, where your social media friends seem more real than the people you went to school with - in such a world, a nice cup of tea, a juicy murder in the vicarage, a stormy love affair in the Yorkshire dales or the sweet vales of Devon seems a haven of comfort. And what's wrong with that? It might even be a useful insight to the British tourist industry.

But let's not confuse that with a genuinely informed, knowledge-based appreciation of a  different culture!

(Maybe I'll describe the most salient features of British contemporary society in my next post.)