“My parents speak [the Kerkrade] dialect to each other, but my brother and I speak Dutch,” says Eline Schmeets. “There’s even a border in our household, if you will.” What do everyday stories about life in Europe’s border regions tell us about the role of heritage and identity in our own lives? Researchers Joep Leerssen, Christoph Brüll, Irene Portas Vásquez, Akudo McGee, and Eline Schmeets are working to answer this very question, collecting stories from the region around Maastricht, Aachen, and Cologne. They all agree: “There’s something special about border regions.”
Find out about the communities that straddle European borders in the two short stories below or watch the entire panel discussion, organised by postdoctoral researcher Nicole Basaraba, here.
1. The plight of the sleep-deprived customs officer, or why Europe’s borders were so porous
“Today, we tend to think being a customs officer is a pretty well-paid job,” says Irene Portas Vásquez, PhD candidate at the University of Luxembourg’s Centre for Contemporary and Digital History. “But between the interwar period and the 1970s, customs officers in the border regions earned very little, and their experiences were tough. They didn’t have the big patrol cars we associate them with nowadays, so they policed the border by foot, whatever the season. To combat corruption, the officers didn’t know what sort of trail they would be responsible for in advance. What’s more, they slept in horrible conditions; there are countless stories of customs officers’ anger at their working conditions.”
The plight of Europe’s customs officers is an example of what Vásquez calls a ‘micro-history’. These histories help us to understand big European issues like migration better. “Initially, you might ask why we care about customs officers and how they were living back then. But little by little, by studying these personal stories, you start to understand that the border wasn’t at all well guarded, it was very porous. And that’s partly because of the situation these individual officers were in.”
“The motions of everyday life are what European integration is all about”
“[The issue of European customs officers] is the perfect example of how a small, hyper-local thing that very few people think about eventually leads us to a really big issue, like how porous the border was”, adds Akudo McGee, PhD Candidate at Maastricht University’s Studio Europa. “The motions of everyday life are what European integration is all about.”
That’s not just Akudo’s belief; each of the researchers on the panel look at the ordinary experiences of people in former industrial areas in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany. The regions faced similar challenges, not least changing borders due to both World Wars and, latterly, the decline of the mining industry. Finding those personal stories in areas marked by such big historical shifts is a challenge.
“In the case of industrial regions, the typical historical accounts tend to quantify things,” Vásquez says. “How many tons of iron are extracted, how many workers have been working overtime?” But that approach ignores a huge part of our everyday lives, Vásquez claims. “Questions about how work felt for people, or what it was like just travelling to work, are not discussed.” How do we dig up and dust off those everyday stories? Vásquez: “It’s all about speaking to locals. The beautiful thing is that you don’t just meet with them once or twice. You meet over years and you start to build a relationship.” Joep Leerssen, Professor in Transnational History and Culture in Limburg, adds “There’s more than just memories that we can work with. There are material representations of cultural history, too”.
2. The story of the not-so-unique firefighting inventions
A seemingly unlikely example is found in Eline Schmeets’ research. “I don’t speak with people that often, but I do look at objects”, the PhD Candidate at Maastricht University replies. Schmeets just finished fieldwork in the Nieuwstraat/Neustrasse, a street that runs through the Dutch town of Kerkrade and Germany’s Herzogenrath. “I recently stumbled upon this object, a coupling device for fire hoses that allows Dutch firefighters to use their hoses in Germany and vice versa.”
People in the area, Schmeets says, always claim that the coupling device is their invention. “So I went to a firefighting historian and asked him: is it true? Was Nieuwstraat/Neustrasse the place where the device was invented? He told me to wait a minute, then he came back with a box full of these same coupling pieces from all along the Dutch border! ‘No, of course they were not the first’, he said.”
This encounter led Schmeets to visit more fire stations on the border. “I heard how firefighters struggle with the different rules and regulations across borders, and how the Dutch system is based on the German system, so German-Dutch cooperation is easier than Belgian-Dutch cooperation.” Those stories represent a bigger issue, Schmeets thinks.
“There are firefighting conventions on a European level every year, and they result in big reports full of insights. But then nothing really changes. Instead, the firefighters themselves come up with solutions that are not registered anywhere. The firefighters argue that they’re only human; if they see a house burning down on the other side of the street, they’re not going to wait for the rules and regulations to be arranged, they’re going to help. Often they tell me: ‘hey, this is off the record, because what we’re doing is basically illegal’. These acts of civil disobedience are very informative for how the European integration process could proceed in the future.”
“If we fail to see all the intangible cultural elements that play a role in integration, it’ll fail at some point”
Even with these technical fixes, many of the firefighting problems are still unsolved. “The real problem is not so much an issue with infrastructure, but an issue of culture”, Schmeets says. “Nowadays, firefighters have to use a dictionary because they don’t speak the local dialect [formerly the mainstay of conversations in and around Kerkrade] anymore. Most of the time, they are raised just speaking Dutch. Coming up with a solution to the infrastructure problems across borders is often a quick process, but bringing a dialect back or trying to decide what language we share our thoughts in is not something we can fix overnight. If we fail to see the intangible cultural elements that play a role in integration, it’ll fail at some point.”
“No way people around Maastricht and Aachen would say: ‘Oh yeah, we belong to Holland or Germany’”
The different languages and dialects spoken in the border region is something all researchers have to grapple with. Christoph Brüll, Assistant Professor, C2DH, University of Luxembourg, created a digital exposition of the history of conflict-scarred eastern Belgium, an area where people historically could go to sleep as Germans and wake up as Belgians. “Really the most complicated part of the website was language”, Brüll says. The team translated the exhibition into German, Dutch, French, and a language hardly spoken in the region, English. “Sometimes the vocabulary for what we wanted to express didn’t exist in English.”
“Those linguistic borders are felt deeply in this region”, McGee adds. “You can be in the same country and depending on what area, what neighborhood, or even what bus stop you get off, the languages and dialect are different. It even creates a social border. I often hear people say ‘Oh, this person’s not from here, so now I have to speak Dutch with them.’” Schmeets agrees. “My parents speak [the Kerkalde] dialect to each other, but my brother and I speak Dutch. There’s even a border in our household, if you will.”
“People in the border region realise that the national narrative is not for them”
In short, the border region continues to attract the interest of the researchers. Leerssen: “There’s something special about border regions. Usually, a region is a part of the national whole; if you go to Burgundy, you’re in a particular part of France. But you’re still in France, and regional characteristics are presented as a continuous whole within the nation. That’s just not the case in border regions.”
These border regions are characterised by their tendency to resist the bigger states. “There were cities like Maastricht, Aachen, Cologne, Liege, which were important in their own right but suddenly became marginalised within the states that formed in the 19th century. Those historical bruises gave them a sort of regional exceptionalism. No way people around Maastricht and Aachen would say that they belong to Holland or Germany. People here realise that the national narrative is not for them, so you get stories which question the grand narratives of historians. I think that is what makes border regions different.” Nicole Basaraba, organiser of the panel, concludes: “That’s why border regions present such interesting questions about the concepts of identity and heritage.”
This panel was organised as part of Nicole Basaraba’s postdoctoral project “Heritage, Identity and the Citizens’ Perspective” at Studio Europa. Want to hear more from those researching the border region? Check out the entire panel discussion here.