A Pole and a German are sitting on the border bridge having a beer...
This is how a joke from the twin city Frankfurt (Oder)/Słubice could start - but maybe only a joke. Let's take a look at how the quality German-Polish neighbourhood in our European microcosm really looks like.
For 10 years now the border between Frankfurt and Słubice has been open. Today you can cross the bridge like any other bridge, without identity checks or other obstacles. Only signs on which "Rzeczpospolita Polska" or "Federal Republic of Germany" can be read remind you that you are about to enter another country. We study, eat, buy and move around easily on both sides of the Oder thanks to the Schengen Agreement. But it is not as easy as that with the German-Polish neighbourhood.
"When back then, at the end of the nineties [someone in Kreuzberg] asked us where we came from, we would always say "Frankfurt" in High German, shyly - hoping that no one would ask us which one we came from. We then drove back home, looked out of the train window past Erkner and saw the first swastika graffiti and prayed that no Nazis would get on board.”
Today it is certainly not as depressing anymore as Christian Bangel describes the situation in Frankfurt at the end of the nineties and how my parents and friends imagined the city before I moved here.
Because nowadays Frankfurt is a more multicultural city, which, at least in comparison with other cities in the east of Germany, can be considered a bit more cosmopolitan, according to recent election results.
And in the middle of this twin city there are located the European University Viadrina and the Collegium Polonicum: places that play a special role in international understanding.
At the university, there are countless offers for those interested in the other side of the river, of which the majority of students (whose attitude towards Poland is rather marked by indifference) take little notice.
Versatile courses, research facilities such as the interdisciplinary center "B/ORDERS IN MOTION", German-Polish student initiatives and, with the Bachelor of German and Polish Law, even a cross-border degree are only some of the features that show the Viadrina’s closeness to the border. But all these are aspects you only come into contact with if you are already interested in German-Polish topics.
The founding contract of the university rightly states that not only the scientific, but also the human encounter between Poland and Germany should be of special importance and that the university's mission is to provide young people with opportunities for their professional, personal and social integration into the emerging Europe.
When asked whether the criticism that the university did not meet the requirements of a "European University" was justified, even the former Viadrina-President Prof. Dr. Hans Weiler stated that "of course a lot of things happen at the university that have to do with Europe, but that this is more the cherry on top, rather than duty. In the substance of teaching and research, the European problem is not as present as it would be necessary today.”
This hits the bulls-eye. For some people, the European idea comes true at the Viadrina: studying in several languages, double masters with universities, e.g. in France, Poland or Turkey, Polish language courses at the highest level and on weekends with a 10€ train ticket off to Poznań, which is only a stone's throw away.
Of course, not everybody has to write their final thesis about Poland and spend their semester holidays on the Vistula river or in Masuria - even if it is very nice there - but a certain basic interest and respect for the neighbouring country is more than appropriate. Not only because of the difficult past of German-Polish relations, but especially because today we live together in a united Europe without borders, which should exist not only on paper but also between people.
The biggest obstacle in my eyes is the language barrier, which is a different kind of border between people. And this should not be underestimated, because Polish and German are not sufficiently related to each other that one could simply cheat their way through. Instead, many Germans sit helplessly in restaurants in Słubice, pointing at the Pierogi Ruskie on the menu and gesticulating with hands and feet, trying to convey what they want to order. They seem helpless and often insecure.
Communication or even understanding without common words? Difficult.
These everyday actions then suddenly become real challenges. Does it have to be like this?
The Polish language courses at the Viadrina are completely free of charge - yet only 2.13% of students took part in them in the winter semester 2018/19. This is very little if you consider how many of them regularly visit Słubice or if you compare them to the number of German-speaking Poles. These are the ones who often help out in a tight spot and enable communication between both sides.
This imbalance between Germany and Poland, which is not only visible in terms of migration to the neighbouring country but also in the acquisition of the other language, is certainly also the result of the different socio-economic realities and differences in mutual perception as well as existing prejudices. Nevertheless, I believe that the university in particular should create even stronger incentives to learn Polish and integrate it into everyday life.
The fact that the courses are free of charge is a good start, but perhaps one could also think about holiday courses, tandem concepts or easily accessible materials for self-study.
Outside the university, things look better at least with the acquisition of the neighbouring language: A total of 6 kindergartens in Frankfurt have a German-Polish education concept and have about 300 children (as of 2018). In addition, up to 40 places for German children are available at the Słubicer kindergarten "Pinokio", while 20 Słubicer children attend the "Eurokita" in Frankfurt.
Of the 7,247 Frankfurt children, 14.3% learn Polish. Among the primary school children, the proportion is even slightly higher. That is nevertheless only every seventh (whereas more than half of the Słubicer children learn German), but still. The tendency is rising - perhaps also due to various local political efforts.
One of these is the new common action plan of Frankfurt and Słubice, which sets far-reaching measures and goals for the period 2020-2030 in areas such as education, infrastructure, business as well as participation and was adopted by the joint municipal council of the two cities.
In terms of infrastructure, the twin city is often growing together for very practical reasons. For example, there is only one indoor swimming pool in Frankfurt and only one outdoor pool in Słubice. To have both in each city would not be economical, so sharing seems obvious.
In addition, more and more Poles are moving to Frankfurt (Oder) because of the lack of cheaper flats in Słubice.
Another great achievement, but one that needs to be fought for regularly, is the cross-border bus line 983, which connects Frankfurt and Słubice.
This way you can not only get from the Viadrina to the CP and the Słubice Olympic Stadium quickly, but also to the so-called "Polish market", where bargains of all kinds are waiting for the mainly German buyers.
According to Aneta Szcześniewicz, head of the German-Polish tourist information in Frankfurt, Germans not only appreciate the cheaper prices, but also the personal tone at the bazaar, during a manicure or at the butcher.
However, this is not a meeting at eye level if the German side always expects to be addressed in their mother tongue. (Isn't this actually a similar arrogance that many Germans accuse the French of?) Conversely, it is certainly rare that Poles expect to get along with Polish in Frankfurt.
Such fleeting contacts at the petrol station or on the "Polish markets" would hardly lead to a personal exchange, so Michael Bittner. According to him, this is mainly due to the indifference of the Germans. While many Poles are learning German, hardly any Germans are trying their hand at Polish. He points out, that on the Polish side of the border, signs in German greeted the guests, on the German side the only signs in Polish were those warning in supermarkets that any theft would be reported. - This observation seems a little exaggerated, but it nevertheless sums up the point: hospitality is not always our strength.
And yet the sense of European integration is something which is not being questioned here, while elsewhere there is a crisis.
That is why I find it all the more wonderful that the twin city wants to apply for the title of the European Capital of Culture 2029, even though it is perhaps not the typical tourist hotspot.
Because this is where Europe becomes tangible, even in the Frankfurt crime series "Polizeiruf 110", which is set mainly at the German-Polish police station in Świecko and demonstrates the advantages of cooperation in the EU on issues of security at the example of cross-border police work - without losing any of its entertainment factor.
Krystyna Baczyńska, a Słubicer city councillor, presents the twin city in 2050 like one city, without being able to distinguish between Frankfurt and Słubice. Whether this prophecy will come true is also in our hands. So let us not live side by side in ignorance, but come together with the "others", meet each other, live together and finally become like real neighbors.