Sulzberg’s twinning with the French commune of Chailland in the département of Mayenne is 23 years old. For ten of these years, I have chaired the local association that supports the twinning and organises cultural activities and citizens’ trips, both in our German village and in Chailland. The work is voluntary and on the whole fulfilling, but can, at times, be frustrating.
Shortly after the signing of the Elysée treaty in 1963, when France and Germany decided to bury their differences and turn a negative inheritance into a positive cooperation, twinned towns and villages popped up like daisies. This turned into a popular development throughout Europe. In my home town of Skegness, a twinning with Bad Gandersheim in Germany was sealed in the eighties.
Swabia, in the South of Germany, and the Mayenne, in the North-West of France, signed their regional twinning in 1966 and 1967. After three years of “courtship”, Sulzberg and Chailland followed suite in 1990.
Twenty odd years ago, the world was a different place and we tend to forget how backward communication, in particular, was. Back in 1990, my husband’s company was starting to install computers in their offices. A couple of years later we bought our first home computer, an Amiga on which the eldest of our children did little more than paint and produce simple documents that were printed on those rolls of paper with a series of holes down the sides. In a word, computers were few and far between, so the communication between our village and Chailland took place via telephone calls, during which a certain degree of fantasy was required to fully understand what the other side were trying to say, or by letter, which were generally easier to decipher.
It was usually in the Rathaus or the mairie that the communication took place, between members of the twinning association committees or those working for the commune. Initially, the villagers themselves were not required to interact, though it was not difficult to find curious or adventurous souls to undertake the fourteen-hour coach journey across Europe to visit the twinned village. These trips were not expensive, since the European Union was keen to fund the citizens’ meetings, as they are still called. Not only in the name of peace, but also – and increasingly in fact – to encourage the European identity. The trips promised a touch of the exotic, a breath of something foreign. They were EXCITING!
The trips boomed, friendships blossomed, Europe grew and the idea of twinning started to be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, Sulzberg has a website and Chailland is working on one. We communicate almost entirely via email these days, with occasional Skype sessions among committee members. Our young people are more or less active in Facebook and Instagram, Facebook groups provide ideal platforms for the communication of information.
But not only the means of communication have changed dramatically. The past couple of decades have seen an increase – nay, a regular flood – of affordable leisure opportunities. The European Union, however, with a whole series of new lands that need to be incorporated into the twinning scheme, has understandably narrowed down its generosity to the “old” countries. A trip to the twinned village, which has become more expensive, no longer has the novelty it once wore. And besides, we are so busy working, sorting out our emails, ferrying the children to and from the leisure activities that will make them complete beings, singing in the choirs that have become so popular, keeping fit in the club round the corner, logging into umpteen networks and partying, that we cannot really afford to spend the time to take part in twinning events.
What’s more, owing to the changes brought about by youtube and discounters and mass tourism, the French way of life is no secret to Germans these days, just as the French know all about Germans and their habits. Baguettes and a good Bordeaux can be found in every Supermarkt, just as German Bier and Wurst are sold in any self-respecting French hypermarché. Germans readily greet each other with a kiss on each cheek and today, the French turn up to their appointments as punctually as the average Prussian. We have even started to take on each other’s characteristics! In other words, we have undoubtedly become good neighbours and friends, but we have also reached the stage, after our silver weddings, of a faded, slightly stale relationship.
Thus the frustration that sometimes arises when reciprocal visits are due to be organised. It has become increasingly difficult to fill the coaches en route for Chailland, which raises the costs. Furthermore, the expectations of such a visit have risen; the exposure to a new household culture is, in itself, no longer a thrill. We know all about each other, our European friend and neighbour has become predictable and commonplace.
An estimated 300 citizens from Sulzberg have either visited a French family or hosted a French national in their homes since our twinning began. Friends, neighbours and family members of those who have taken part in the exchanges are also, secondarily, familiar with the habits and gestures and appearance of our European counterparts. Haven’t we already achieved our goal?
I suggest it is time to look where we have come from and find out where to go from here. We have a situation in which the former enemy is not only a friend, but part of the family. We know all about him and have learned to accept him, have even adopted some of his habits and respect him for those which make him different from ourselves. We communicate via a few mouse clicks with those with whom we have a personal relationship. So do we still need twinnings?
Without a structure, I feel sure that the communication between our Gemeinde and Chailland would slowly peter out. Perhaps it is no longer necessary to organise trips backwards and forwards between our villages. Those who wish to keep in touch will do so without the help of our association. And the habitual organisation of French-style cultural events, many of them designed as fund-raisers, may be entertaining for some of our German villagers, but they are neither vital nor novel and certainly no longer lucrative. The occasional report about our French neighbour in our weekly bulletin and an organised visit now and again to commemorate some special event should suffice to keep the relationship going strong and let the mutual respect and acceptance that we have achieved breathe into our European future.
Twinning, yes. Association, maybe. Stress to preserve a concept which could, arguably, be outdated, no!