Friends in a Cold Climate: the Travelogues

A Citizens Search for Common Ground in a Divided Europe.

The project Friends in a Cold Climate reflects upon the 1960’s, a time when Great Britain was not yet a member of the EEC (European Economic Community). An era dominated by a physical, concrete wall between Eastern and Western Europe and the Treaty of Rome. A time when borders were guarded by Customs Officers. A time when each country had its own currency: Pounds, Dutch Guilders or the Deutschmark. A time when travel was special. 

Friends in a Cold Climate is a journey back in time and examines the phenomenon Twin Towns or Jumelage in order to establish what hides behind the signposts welcoming visitors, stating the names of foreign cities at the town’s borders. Signpost which signify there are official ties with Twin Towns in Europe and beyond. 

These ties are shaped by exchange programmes for citizens and officials in order to encourage and inspire peace, safety and prosperity. 

What were the hopes, dreams and cares of the participants in the 1960’s and 70’s?  What role did they envisage for themselves in the Europe of that day and age? How have these views evolved in time? 

Friends in a cold climate is a documentary project which consists of two parts. Firstly participants of Twin Town exchange programmes talk about their aspirations and experiences in filmed oral-history interviews. The interviews will be archived and published in a digital archive. 

Secondly a print version will expand on the visual interpretation of Jumelage since the 1960’s. The book will consist of historical photographs of exchanges, official documents and archive material, current photographs and segments of interviews. Together the book and digital collection will form a travelogue of journeys through an emerging Europe.

THE ESSLINGEN CONNECTION

After the Second World War a number of friendship ties were established between cities in Europe. Citizens, council-officials and church representatives were looking for peace and prosperity in a fragmented Europe. “Once Europe will become a reality” the Schiedam Foundation “De Schiedamse Gemeenschap” vows in 1964 about establishing friendship ties between Schiedam (NL), Neath (UK) and Esslingen (GER). 

The connections expanded and in 1970 a circle of friends was established tying the towns Esslingen, Schiedam, Udine (IT) Velenje (SL) Vienne (F) and Neath together. Each town in this so called “Verbund der Ringpartnerstädte” had to keep in touch with at least 3 towns within the network. 

In 2010, after 35 years of friendship the town Schiedam decided to leave the “Verbund” because developments within the European Union had enabled “different pathways”. Another factor was the perception that travel to a partner town was suffering from a decline in interest. The modern Schiedam generation had already travelled to foreign countries on a regular basis. That citizens carried a responsibility to form a unified Europe, where wars would be unimaginable, was a past notion. The new council strategy was aimed at gaining access to practical foreign skills and EU subsidies. 

In 1984 the town of Neath had entered a competition for the most inspiring Twin Town. Answering the question of The Council of Europe on motivation the Council stated it had made a true effort “To Foster European Unity”.  Despite this the town of Neath Port Talbot left the “Verbund” in 2015. Next to economic reasoning it was argued that the Second World War had ended 70 years ago.Because of the increased influence of the European Union the former importance of Twin Towns to create unity had in the eyes of some become slightly diminished. The town Neath Port Talbot confirmed that leaving the “Verbund” would not have any effect on its citizens. 

Geo-political developments within the European community could have a measurable effect on the life of citizens. Social-geographer Virginie Mamadouh describes the polarisation between North and South within the Eurozone (the financial crisis) and between the old and new member states (internal migration or domestic migration) or the imbalance of power between the European Union and the neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe and the southern more Mediterranean area (The Refugee Crisis). Disputes which have also sparked for example the enthusiasm with which the Brits have said their goodbyes to the European Union. 

The “Verbund der Ringpartnerstädte” (Brotherhood Alliance) has always managed to survive the political, economical and social movements of the past fifty years such as the Cold War, the rise in prosperity as well as the growing pains of the European Community.

The story of this “Verbund”  can be seen as a small history of Western Europe. As told by citizens, officials and organisers from Esslingen, Schiedam, Udine, Velenje, Vienne, Neath Port Talbot and later the Polish town of Piotrkow, can be seen as a small history of Western Europe. Together they witnessed the developments of the EU, something that did not just happen as a matter of course. 

The project Friends in a Cold Climate begins with recording and archiving the experiences in the town of Schiedam. We examine the early days after the war, the time of the “Wederopbouw” – the rebuilding of the Netherlands, followed by the Cold War and the ever increasing globalisation. We hope to hear from members how the Schiedam Male Choir “Orpheus” was welcomed in Esslingen in the year 1963. We are curious about the international encounters teenagers had in the turbulent year 1968.

We ask the people of Schiedam how they experienced the devastating earthquake in Udine in 1976. We effectively examine the reasons for the departure of Schiedam from the “Verbund”. It is our intention to mix the stories and images of all partner towns with those from the partnertowns and thereby establish a chart or blueprint of the “Verbund der Ringpartnerstädte”. 

In May 2017 after the departure of Neath Port Talbot and Schiedam, the remaining mayors of the “Verbund” gathered together in order to discuss their common future. The meeting was intended to provide a counterbalance towards eroding developments of that time and to – as yet – present an example “for a communal and peaceful Europe.“Der Ring soll wieder geschlossen werden” –  the ring should be closed again, the mayor of Esslingen declared.

Schiedam Alderman Marcel Houtkamp tweeted in 2015 “Would it be worth while to reinforce the friendship ties #Vienne #Udine #Esslingen # Velenje # Neath # Albacete # Piotrkow?

Friends in a Cold Climate is about the journeys and encounters by a transnational peace movement that flourished after the Second World War and which perhaps should be regarded as relevant now as then.   

HISTORY AND RELEVANCE

Friends in a Cold Climate is part of an epic story about citizens looking for common ground in a divided Europe. After the Second World War around 11 million people roamed about Europe as so called  “displaced persons”. It was a time of chaotic movement. Freed forced labourers, prisoners of war, refugees and the stateless were all heading home or attempting to find one. Shortly after 1945 an opposite outward movement occurred. Civilians left home and hearth in small groups to travel to and from Germany and other European countries. Small circles of people assembled to prevent Europe falling into battle again. Appeasement was seen as an important instrument. 

“The post-national, welfare-state, cooperative, pacific Europe was not born of the optimistic, ambitious, foreward-looking project imagined in fond retrospect by today’s Euro-idealists. It was the insecure child of anxiety. Shadowed by history, its leaders implemented social reforms and built new institutions to as a prophylactic, to keep the past at bay”. (Tony Judt in ‘Postwar, a History of Europe since 1945’)

Originally driven by the fear of repetition of animosities between countries, post-war Town Twinning can – however multifarious – be seen as an institution, following the definition historian Tony Judt offers in “Postwar a history of Europe since 1945”. Since that time Town Twinning has provided many reference points on the mind map for many European citizens. Not only because of the many welcome signs placed at the towns borders. Rather it were the many friendly encounters with foreigners ‘abroad’ which are engraved in peoples’ memories. 

It was the intention to form long lasting and formal friendships between towns. In 2018 there were about 20.000 Twin Towns or Jumelage connections or Städtepartnerschaften listed across Europe. Of which 2200 between towns in France and Germany. Although each tie between cities has its own character, they have a common ground or modus operandi; the face to face connection between citizens on the basis of reciprocity and mutuality. It is all about the other and to be able to engage in understanding, peace building and the improvement of mutual well-being. 

In the course of 75 years Town Twinning has evolved. The initial partners had to digest the aftermath of the Second World War and grasp the threats of the Cold War or conflicts within the European Union. Later, from the 1970’s on, municipalities were also engaged in exchanges with cities in the Third World.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 friendship ties expanded eastwards, anticipating the EU’s enlargement. However, not all partnerships lasted. For some municipalities it was not evident to keep in touch with other Twin Towns as the European Community was regarded as having reached its boundaries.

Presently the old East/West contradiction is playing up again and nationalism and populism pressurizes the unity of the European Community. Covid-19 and the overall disaster the pandemic has caused plays havoc in the relationships between the member states. “Social Distancing” has dramatically narrowed down the freedom of movement in both literal and metaphorical sense. The high infection risk makes it impossible to organise international exchanges and expand one’s horizon.

Conducting interviews on a face to face basis also suffers under the current restrictions. This implies that a number of interviews will be held via the internet. This specific form of “social distancing’’ will become a visible element within the project, referring “in situ” to the role of media as a substitute for personal encounters. 

“Even in a time when satellite television, internet and social media liberates individuals from the state monopoly in international relations, it is the proven scheme of Twin Towns which can properly unite athletes, schoolkids and dance companies more than anything and can liberate citizens from stereotyping and half truths cherished about one another..” says academic Mamadouh. 

Friends in a Cold Climate carefully examines practices, customs, patterns and symbols, both formal and informal, which are frequent during the Partnership City exchanges of the sixties and seventies. We investigate if these practices are a possible exclamation of “civic agency’’, of the capacity of the individual citizen to, in one way or another, work with others on ideological and cultural differences and issues. 

(c) 2021 Stichting Reis van de Razzia

(Translation Jeanette Tierney)