Wanderer between Worlds
Foreigners in Germany – who thinks of French? Jean-François Renault from Cognac came to Berlin as an Allied staff interpreter, obtained his doctorate there, became a German citizen and now supports the Polish “SprachCafé” (language café) in Pankow to do something concrete for Europe’s everyday success. A Europe that learns from the experience and commitment of its citizens. A conversation.
When Jean-François applied for German citizenship after the turn of the millennium, he was summoned to the Eberswalde Bürgeramt, the citizen center of a Berlin suburb. “I met a nice lady who spoke a strong Berlin dialect. She asked me to take a language test. I thought that was funny, because I had done my doctorate in German ten years before! At least I didn’t have to explain what an Eisbein (pork knuckle) is”, says Jean-François of his journey to becoming German. And he wanted to be German above all because being non-German had simply become too strenuous.
Were the French discriminated against?
“No. The immigration authorities in Berlin and Brandenburg treated all foreigners equally badly. Later, when Europe started growing together, only the EU foreigners were treated badly. The others even worse. They really terrorized you. But unfortunately, I had to go there every year to renew my residence permit.”
At that time, Jean-François had not only lived and worked in Berlin for over twenty years, obtained his doctorate and a position at a major German research institute. Above all, he had experienced the many everyday dark sides that living across borders can entail in a Europe mostly regulated from the top. An example:
“During my doctorate in Berlin I had to take out double health insurance. Nevertheless, neither insurance policy was valid. I only paid for proof of a German policy, without which I could not have enrolled at the German university. And in France the insurance was compulsory – yet, it was not valid abroad. “I was very lucky that I was notoriously healthy.”
According to Jean-François, a common European identity continues to be overshadowed by strong national clichés and prejudices. He knows his way around it and occasionally plays with it.
“Wherever I am in Europe, people think I’m different. In some countries, I like to appear as a German, for example in Spain. The Germans are more popular there than French people. In Italy, I prefer to be French. Some of my favorite cultures are Italian and Polish. If necessary, I’ll be a Belgian. Nobody reacts to them, because in most European countries Belgium is apparently considered to have no identity”.
Are there any national idiosyncrasies?
“Of course! The Germans classify everything. A church somewhere in northern Germany is not simply called a church, but it is described as “the oldest sandstone church without a tower east of the river Elbe but west of Schwerin”. That’s really funny! It’s like having to prove something with everything.”
Isn’t that a cliché, too? Don’t other nationalities do that as well?
“The English, in any case, never come up with such tricks to prove they’re the best. Only the Germans do that to be special. Although they certainly don’t need to.”
Jean-François has spent half of his life in France and half in Germany (and the third half elsewhere). Nevertheless, he has been supporting the “SprachCafé Polnisch” in the Berlin district of Pankow for several years. Excusez-moi? Pourquoi pas un café français, Monsieur Renault?
“Good question. I was already in Poland back in 1984. It was a strange idea of my parents. At that time, no tourist travelled from France to Poland. Probably no tourist travelled there at all. There wasn’t enough to eat. But we went there and even had our dog – a boxer – with us, who fed exclusively on Baltic herring for a month.”
Our dog fed exclusively on Baltic herring for a month.
And that’s when you fell in love with Poland? What was it then – that nobody else wanted to go there, that is the exclusivity, or the good herring?
“Even then I liked the Polish people’s attitude towards their situation. All the more it is difficult for me to understand why they are voting for a party like PIS today. I like writers like Gombrowicz and Mrożek. They present difficult facts in an intelligent and even funny way. Julian Tuwim is also one of them, by the way. This culture fascinated me. Polish poster art, too.”
And that’s why you support the Polish language café?
“The background is more my experience of how different the relationship is between French and Germans, French and Poles, and Germans and Poles.”
What is so different between the French and the German relationship to Poland?
“After the fall of communism, I toured Poland with a German-French choir. I noticed something funny. The majority of the Parisians had already been in Poland. None of the Berliners. Not even my Berlin-born wife wanted to join the tour because she had something better to do. Yet in Germany, surprisingly little is known about Poland.”
What do you want to achieve with the SprachCafé? Should the Germans learn from the French to be enthusiastic about Poland?
“I want to infect the Germans with my enthusiasm for this country! Like the food. There are basically no Polish restaurants in Germany. So, most Germans think it’s all meat and sausage in Poland. They think it’s the same as in Germany, only Polish. That’s not true, of course. Because of the many questions I have written a rather thick book about it. It was read above all by Poles and Germans interested in Poland…”
Doesn’t the SprachCafé primarily address Polish residents in Berlin? What is the benefit for Europe?
“We have many activities, also for Germans. But it’s true, it’s about cultural identity. We do not want to make big speeches about the future of Europe, but do everyday things to strengthen a European identity”.
How do you intend to achieve this?
“There is a forced integration today. But that is changing. Today, people want to integrate while keeping the culture they have been born into. This applies to the growing number of Polish residents in Germany, as it does to the Portuguese in France. It’s a doubling of personality. The same person has two different personalities in both cultural identities. It’s fascinating that you can keep one culture and still accept a new one.”
Is that for everyone?
“In any case for many Vietnamese in Berlin, who speak excellent German but are rarely perceived as Germans because of their appearance. And unfortunately, there are people who don’t want to see that. Still, Germany is much more colorful today than it was a few years ago.”
How are the French in Germany doing? Don’t they need a SprachCafé?
“We French are always considered as ‘good foreigners’ – although I don’t distinguish between different groups of foreigners myself. However, the Parisians in Berlin are not here to hang out with their Parisian neighbors. In this respect, they are both popular and quickly well received. But all in all, the great interest of the French in Germany and especially in Berlin has faded away.”
Why don’t the French like Germany?
“For decades only nerds learned or were allowed to learn German in France. That was not a good sales strategy for the German language. In general, Germany is less interesting. There are more French in London alone than in all of Germany.”
And what image do the Poles have?
“Many Germans still associate Poles with cleaning ladies and plumbers. Berlin is not the only city with a lively Polish cultural scene”.