Borderlands 

February 2015

On the trip that ended with me living in Granada, I passed through Strasbourg (a circuitous route). I was only there long enough to wash my clothes, see the beautiful old centre of Grande Île and have a couple of glasses of wine in the sun. It felt very safe, clean and full of friendly people; a change indeed from Paris. 

Since the Alemanni took it from the Romans, the city has passed back and forth across the French-German border and had a long period as an independent state. Home to the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, coexisting Catholics and Protestants, and the largest mosque in France; its inbetween status has long given Strasbourg a unifying position. 

(The Alemanni tribe gave their name to the Germans in French allemand, Spanish alemán, Portuguese alemão, Cataln alemany and Turkish aleman. The Italians use tedesco and the Swedish, tysk, from the same root as Germany’s own Deutsch, which also gave us the English word Dutch until we heard of (from the Romans) people beyond in Germania. The Dutch in turn called themselves diuts before using it for the Germans. For the Finns, the Germans were the Saxons and so they call the country Saksa. While mutually intelligible Slavic speakers, who found the Germans unresponsive, took Russian niemiets, Polish niemiec, Czech němec, Croatian nemac, and Bulgarian nemets from a shared origin meaning mute). 

A school friend of mine went to Stuttgart for his Erasmus and completed a research project in Berlin. He has now been living in Germany for three years.

When I went to see him in Feb 15, he was living in Aachen; a town on the intersection between Belgium, the Nerherlands and Germany (and not far from Luxembourg). It has some wickedly rickety buildings and a great atmosphere.

My first night there, we went out for a few beers. Raucous 50-odd year olds were crammed in a small bar with low, wooden beams. Upstairs, in a larger bar, were the younger generation (potentially the children of the downstairs clientèle). 

Pils beer is served cold, in 20cl and constantly (Noch zweimal bitte!) and a tally is kept on your coaster. Once we had filled our coasters with dashes and the bar had emptied out, we descended to find the party in full swing. Somehow they had even found space to dance.

(Speaking of which, in 1374 Aachen was the site of one of the first large outbreaks of the dancing mania: a mysterious plague that afflicted people with the need to dance themselves to death. A group of children who travelled 20km in such an uncontrollable dance may have inspired pied piper and Strasbourg saw outbreak in 1518 that lasted a month).

Aachen has some similarities to Strasbourg across the border. It is an inbetween place and benefits from it, with people crossing back and forth between countries.

More recently, I caught a train across the Austrian-Slovakian border. Either side of the river March separating the two countries is farmland. What kind of national identity do those farmers feel? Can you feel Austrian as distinct from Slovakian when you can see Slovakia at the end of your field? 

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