EU birth ground
The French Alsace province has all ingredients to position itself at the centre of the European Union. Nevertheless, the Alsacians have created a small island in the north-east of France, with only Strasbourg serving as an accessible exception. Strasbourg is the part time basis of the European parliament, which twice every month picks up all its paper mess to move from Brussels to the Alsacian capital and back again. This traveling circus was installed to satisfy French demands to have EU institutions on their territory, even while many French don`t even consider the Alsace region to be part of France.
Flammenk?che, white wine, Saint Nicholas, Fischer beer, Christmas markets and choucroute. To those who know the Alsace region and can appreciate its differences from the rest of France, the Alsace is rich in culture and even cuisine. To those who cannot be bothered, it either doesn`t exist or is thought of as a region in Germany. The expression Casques ? Pointe is a common denomination for the Alsaciens and the Germans alike. It refers to the pointy helmets worn by the Germans during one of the many territorial battles.
..can get annoyed by the many pensioned Germans making day trips to Strassbourg
Titles like Europ?le, Quatrop?le and La Grande R?gion have been allocated to the region Wallony-Luxembourg-Saarland-Alsace to emphasise its geographical position as crossroad of Europe. The social reality is a little different. Many people on either side of the border are very much attached to their own region and nothing but their own region. The Germans in Saarland are known for sticking to their own region and for neither traveling inside Germany, nor across the border to their Alsacian brothers. The Alsacians do the same. They refer to the rest of their country as France Int?rieure, `The middle of France. The Alsaciens may not be very keen on independence from France, they in many ways behave like the Corsicans. Herv? (23) calls the typical Alsacian mindset as an island mentality.
Although the regional language L?Alsacien has a mixed French-German origin, it is mostly incomprehensible to both Germans and French. At the same time, many Alsaciens don`t speak German, in the same way the people across the border don`t speak French. The region has a history of coal mining and metal production: industries that brought financial prosperity in the beginning of the 1900s. The relative isolation of the Alsace can to a large extent be explained by the low level of education required for the mining activities, as well as the relative richness compared to other regions in France. For extended periods of time, the region was not dependent on external support, which helped develop the island mentality. Younger generations tend to be more flexible, and the reduced popularity of coal has forced the region to regain an open-minded spirit.
Chloe (23) explains that the city of Strasbourg makes a nice exception. More than any city in the area, Strasbourg depends on its international institutions. Most street names are marked in French and German. `There is obviously a preference for German as a foreign language here, just like the Southwest has more affiliation with Spanish and the Southeast with Italian`, she says.
So far, that faint preference does not help many people being bilingual in German and French. Much rather, people who do speak both languages usually have a have a weak command of the one that is not their own. The Christmas market draws many Germans from over the border into the city centre of Strasbourg. German is spoken on a wide scale, but when interacting with the French, most of the Germans have English as their only option. Or they would only be able to order and eat Flammenk?che: a regional pizza-like dish with cream, bacon, cheese and onions.
The French central government is trying hard to develop more `internationality` in the Alsace region. Two major developments in recent years include the new TGV line to Paris and the relocation of France`s prestigious `political university`, the ENA (Ecole Nationale de l?Administration). Moving this vital institution to Strasburg aims to show that French politics are eager to commit to a European political future. The recent opening of a TGV connection between Strasbourg and Paris will further boost an internationality which so far has been a geographical issue rather than actual practice.
Business and politics may become more and more international in the Alsace region; people`s daily reality is not really. Matthieu (21, photo) is one of many people living in Strasbourg without being able to speak German. Still, he has no difficulty in recognising them in the street. `There is a huge population of rich pensioned Germans here, especially in the area around the cathedral. That can annoy me at times, for a number of personal reasons that I prefer not to list, and that are certainly not shared by everybody`, he says. According to the general stereotype, Germans should be recognisable by their tendency to wait for a red light, or to perfectly follow the marked path when crossing the streets. When it comes to cars, Germans can be expected to drive a Mercedes, Audi and BMW instead of Renault, Peugeot or Citro?n. It suffices to check a few number plates to prove the theory.
Sebastian (30) explains that Germans do not often see a need to visit their neighbours at the other side of the border, with the Christmas market in Strasbourg as one out of a few exceptions. People living in Kehl, which is only separated from Strasbourg by a bridge over the Rhine river, have everything they need on their side of the river. France is not a particularly popular holiday destination. Germans who do go to France either head straight for the southern beaches, or use it as a transit country on the way to Italy or Spain. `Germans do not feel any remorse for no longer counting the Alsace region within their territory. Our 17th Bundesland instead is Mallorca, because so many Germans go there for holidays or own houses. We have no such name for the Alsace region, even though it has actually been German soil during different stages of history`, says Sebastian.
Sebastian`s own appreciation of France is to a large extent incited by the food culture, which he considers much more developed on the French side of the border. `The French think about food, the talk about food and they enjoy food. We tend to see food as simply serving as nutrition. Our food therefore contains more fat and more substance. France has smaller dishes but much more variety, in dishes and ingredients alike,? he says.
Reasons for the French to cross the border are mainly price driven. Unlike Germany, France does not have a no-fringe discount culture. No discount airlines and no widespread low-cost supermarkets, no cheap electronics stores either. Even established chains often sell identical products cheaper in Germany than they do in France. In many cases, the difference is explained by the German habit of streamlining the distribution process, while France is very much attached to having intermediaries who all want to earn their share for each transaction between manufacturer and final consumer.
Germans are thought of as wasting less time than French, being punctual in their appointments and at times very direct in their communications. The French are appreciated for their appreciation of the good life, being conveniently late and talking in circles rather than speaking out in a straightforward manner. So far, even geographical proximity and a shared history have only minimally been able to ally the extremes. At the same time, the idea of using economical collaboration as a means against wars has so far proved to work. The first stage of the European Union concentrated on sharing resources in the coal and metal industry, which were at the time flourishing activities in the border region between France and Germany. The Alsace region may well be considered the birth place of the European Union ? with the minimal level of cross-border interaction in people`s daily lives serving as a small-scale example of the current European reality.
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