Mach’ was mit Deutschland

Herba’s and Die Pö’s “Mach was” (“Do something”) challenge this time around is to do something with Germany. That topic is a personal one to me and I’ll gladly jump in. Be warned, this will be quite long…

When I was 10 years old, in 1980, my father, a Dutch protestant theologian, became the General Secretary of an international interfaith organization which had its head office in Heppenheim, situated in the southern tip of the German province of Hessen.

And so, at the very beginning of that summer, we packed up all our things from our house just outside Jerusalem in Israel, we piled into our VW van and with a caravan in tow we took a ferry from Haifa to Ancona in Italy and drove up to Germany.

We at first didn’t have a house yet when we arrived in Germany. When his appointment had come through my dad had been searching for suitable living quarters for us but we are a large family (8 kids as in the picture above) and it was difficult to find something affordable and big enough for all of us. So, we lived at a campsite for the first month until my father found a house large enough and affordable enough for us all to live in to the north of Frankfurt in a little village called Rosbach vor der Höhe. It did mean that he would have a daily 80 km commute to his new job in Heppenheim.

Last winter Mr Esther, mini-me and I spent New Year’s Eve in Frankfurt and while we were there we also drove by the houses I had lived in. Our first house in Germany was an empty “Pfarrhaus” (pastor’s house) next to the Nieder-Rosbach village church. My father would sometimes do guest preaching stints there. Now, in hindsight, I wonder if he was considered too liberal for such a small village church. Anyway, below is a picture of the street we lived in, in the first grey house on the right. Across the street (the yellow house) they kept a few pigs and on occasion slaughtered one which they’d hang in their yard for a little while, I guess to drain the blood. We could see that from my younger brother’s bedroom window and I remember it shocked us as kids.

The house was quite large and was surrounded by a walled garden. Looking through the gate last January, I could see that the swing set we had always used as kids was still up!

Moving to Germany from Israel was a huge change in my life. I had gone to an English language school in Jerusalem (I loved going to school there) and in Germany my younger brother, sister and I were to attend German schools while my five older brothers and sisters were to go to an international school north of Frankfurt in Oberursel. My younger siblings and I were young enough to learn the new language well enough to be successful in German school, that would have been harder for my older siblings to do, so my parents somehow (don’t ask me how) coughed up tuition for their international school. I desperately wanted to also go to the international school but there just wasn’t enough money. Rosbach was on the schoolbus route to Oberusel for my older siblings, my younger siblings went to the Grundschule (primary school) in our village and I went to a middle school in a neighbouring village called Rodheim (little red circle on the map above).

After two years my two eldest siblings (maybe three, not quite sure) had graduated the school in Oberursel and my father found us all a house much closer to his work in Bensheim. We moved there in 1982. We lived in the last house of a row of houses (the white one at the end) and had to descend quite a few stairs to get to our front door.

My older siblings commuted to schools and colleges by train. My younger siblings and I were now the most fluent German speakers at home due to our schooling and my younger brother went to a local school, while my younger sister and I attended an all-girls “Gymnasium” run by nuns in Bensheim.

My Chemistry teacher lived right next door to us with her husband and her spoilt brat of a son. We didn’t get along very well and that was tough in school as well, as she started picking on me until some classmates called her out on it. I quit Chemistry as soon as I could. For some reason, we were not very popular in the neighbourhood we lived in – they didn’t take that well to a large multi-coloured, foreign family. So, another two years later, in 1984, we moved again, this time to the neighbouring town of Heppenheim and there we stayed put. My room was to left of that little balcony at the back of the house.

Adjusting to life in small town Germany after having lived just outside a multicultural world city like Jerusalem was quite difficult. For the first two years I was quite miserable, I missed Jerusalem terribly. It got a bit better when we moved to Heppenheim but I just always felt like the odd one out, never quite fitting in and finding my place with the other kids. Also, I found the society and mentality quite rigid and inward looking (it took a while to get used to all the dubbing on German TV) compared to what I felt was a more open and worldly society in Jerusalem.

We did search out some international communities, like an English-speaking Anglican/Episcopalean church we’d go to in Frankfurt on Sundays. After church we’d visit the American Forces library there (on a library card lent to us by a church friend) and I was always happiest then. Also, my father’s work brought us in contact with some very interesting people. For instance, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, became a bit of a family friend. He was a darling man and used to call us kids his “scallywags”.

The head office of the international interfaith organization that my dad was the General Secretary of was situated in the Martin Buber House, where Martin Buber himself had lived in Heppenheim (Martin Buber was a renowned Jewish scholar and philosopher, my father had been a fan of his since university days and had even met him once then. Buber had lived in Heppenheim before he decided to leave the country in 1938 because of the Nazis).

Near the Buber House there is now a lovely small statue of Martin Buber that wasn’t there when we lived there. I’m also including an old picture of my dad outside the Buber House.

My mother became the Buber House librarian (she worked part time) and there was some other staff as well (see the picture below on the left with them all standing on the balcony at the back of the Buber House). There were many lecture evenings like in this picture below, on the right. I’d sometimes also attend (and help serve drinks and play hostess) but as a young teenager often found the lectures very tedious. I’m thinking I’d find them more interesting nowadays.

We did have Richard von Weizsäcker visit once, though! We were fans. 🙂

Some pictures of Heppenheim’s lovely, historical town square…

I always felt very caught between two worlds when I lived in Germany. I think it took me about four years to finally feel somewhat at home. I tended to be social and talkative at home or when I was helping out at the Buber House, in school I was a withdrawn, quiet mouse, never quite able to feel comfortable enough to be myself. My parents saw that and were able to help me get a scholarship to an international school in 1986, which is when I left Germany to go to that international boarding school in The Netherlands. However, I did leave Germany on a high – that last year in German school was the most fun I’d had in all the years I had lived there. I finally came out of my shell and showed more of myself, maybe because I knew I would be leaving and I didn’t give a shit anymore what anyone thought. In hindsight, I think that may have been when I started learning that it pays off to just be yourself.

As all the kids were flying the coop, my parents didn’t need the more costly bigger house anymore and moved to an apartment in Heppenheim where they lived until 1997. They had two extra bedrooms so all kids could always visit (and yes, my mom had painted the kitchen pink for a while!).

Once I wasn’t actually living and going to school in Germany anymore I did love coming back. I kept in touch with a few German school friends who I liked to hang out with and I even went on a Holocaust study trip to the US, Berlin and Auschwitz in the summer of 1989 with German and American students and me the only Dutch student joining from the German side. That 1989 study trip made a huge impact on me and became extra memorable because I visited Berlin for the first time then, without knowing that a few months later the Berlin Wall would fall. I visited Berlin again soon after the wall fell and that was a very strange experience. I can’t believe it’s been 31 years.

During college I used to work in the Buber House library during my holidays to earn some extra money. When Mr. Esther and I finished college in 1995 our first job out of college was at the Buber House, where we were both hired together to implement a computer catalogue for the library collection. We lived at my parents then for some months, who by then were living in that flat with the pink kitchen. That time in Heppenheim did wonders for Mr. Esther’s German knowledge and, apart from the summer of 1987 when I had a blast with two German friends of mine, I think it was my favourite period of time I spent in Germany.

Being associated with Germany has sometimes also been problematic. When we first came to live in Germany, I remember my grandmother being scandalized that we’d move there. My grandfather had been in the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation and although he wasn’t alive anymore, the family was quite anti-Germany. I also later remember driving through The Netherlands with our German numberplate car once and a group in the street brought out a Nazi salute and jeered as we drove by. And then I remember when I went to school in The Netherlands, some kids at first thought I was German and not worth their time. They then went on to think I was a German Jew (not only is Esther a Jewish name, my surname could also be mistaken for Jewish and I was born in Jerusalem) and that meant I was OK in their eyes after all because of my ‘Jewishness’. It was always quite a surprise to explain that I was neither German nor Jewish. I always wonder how much anti-German sentiment Germans themselves must feel while abroad, when even I, as a non German, have felt some of that, I think my whole life. The Second World War is long over but not always forgiven, even not now, 75 years later.

There are many mixed feelings and memories I have about Germany. Some very good feelings and memories, some not so great. Really, those can be a whole post of their own but this one is long enough already. Suffice it to say that, in my experience, Germany is not the easiest of societies to grow into when you come from a Middle Eastern country, but when you finally do find your spot, it can be a very good place to be. Nowadays when I walk around towns here in The Netherlands and I hear and see Germans walking around, I always smile and feel a certain affinity, just like I always feel a special kind of affinity for my German blogger friends. By the way, I credit reading the German blogs and meeting a few German bloggers for helping me keep up with my German, which is not as fluent anymore as it used to be. Reading and commenting forces me to use my German more and that is a good thing.

For all the good and the bad, I am very grateful for my time in Germany, and especially in hindsight I see that it has given me so much that is valuable. I don’t think I could ever really live there again but I do like going back to Germany for visits. Auf Wiedersehen und bis bald, Deutschland! 🙂

39 thoughts on “Mach’ was mit Deutschland

    1. Thanks for reading all of that. 🙂 I could have gone on and on, but needed to stop somewhere…

      I also really enjoyed meeting you in Newcastle and would love to come and visit you sometime! You’ll have to bear with me with my spoken German though, it takes a little while for me to get back up to speed. When I speak German a lot again my mouth gets a muscle ache! I don’t remember that happening when I was in my teens and twenties… 😂

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        1. CraMERRY

          Meine Güte, Esther, die Welt ist ein Dorf: ich habe 30 Jahre in Oberursel in direkter Nachbarschaft zur Frankfurt International School gewohnt und immer den Konvoi an Schulbussen gesehen. Und jetzt wohne ich fast neben Rosbach in Friedrichsdorf 😃 Dann hast du ja neben der deutschen auch ein gerütteltes Maß an hessischer Sozialisation a gekriegt. Hessisch gebabbel ….. 😂
          Ich stelle mir das tatsächlich nicht einfach vor, Anfang der 80er aus Israel hierher zu kommen. Für uns war das fast normal (wenn auch lästig) dass der Blick auf uns als Deutsche immer noch vom 2. Weltkrieg beeinflusst war. Gerade auch die Niederländer waren in der Betziehung immer etwas sparsam mit ihrer Akzeptanz uns gegenüber. Die Traumata sitzen halt tief. Aber richtige Ablehnung habe ich persönlich nie erfahren.

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          1. Wow, die Welt ist tatsächlich ein Dorf! Ich kann mich nicht mehr an Friedrichsdorf erinnern aber bin da bestimmt schon mal hindurchgefahren. Es ist eine wunderschöne Gegend. Den ersten richtigen Schnee in meinen Leben habe ich in Rosbach erlebt inclusive zum ersten Mal schlittenfahren. 🙂
            “Niederländer etwas sparsam mit der Akzeptanz” ist ja ein ganz nettes “understatement” von Dir. 🙂 Niederländer urteilen ziemlich scnnell, was mich manchmal zum Wahnsinn treibt. Ich bin immer froh wenn es kein Deutschland – Niederlande Fussball spiel gibt, ich hasse die Hysterie, die dann entsteht. Vielleicht habe ich vom anti-Deutschen Sentiment mehr mitbekommen gerade weil ich Niederländerin bin und auch noch die persönliche Erfahrung in Deutschland hatte, wodurch es mir vielleicht mehr aufgefallen ist. Ich muss aber sagen, dass es in den letzen 15 Jahren oder so viel besser ist als in den Achtzigern und Neunzigern und ich die Antipathie jetzt viel weniger spüre.

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  1. Esther this is such a beautiful and relatable post because I too felt like a quiet mouse in school (still do in many social situations) but I loved living in Germany and would go back in a heartbeat. We moved around a lot growing up as my dad was in the US Army and he loved day excursions and wound plan meticulously trips from Frankfurt all around Germany
    I won’t bore you here with my reminiscing but your pictures remind me how magical and preserved much of small town German cities are and how much I treasured living in Germany
    Great read !! 👍❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I said, I have a mixed bag of memories and feelings, especially about small town Germany, but the overall takeaway for me is that my experience in Germany has indeed been very valuable. I’m glad you enjoyed reading and it brought back nice memories for you. 🙂

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  2. really interesting post, thanks for sharing. My Grandmother moved here when she was 19 to escape the Nazis. I don’t know how much anti-German sentiment she experienced-i know of one instance when a Pakistani man in a factory she worked in told her to go back to her own country and that my Grandfather (who was Norwegian) insisted none of their kids spoke anything bar English.
    I would love to visit Germany more in depth-but years of anxiety over traveling then C-19 have scuppered me so far!

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    1. Ha! How did I miss this reply? Sorry! Answering now. 🙂
      Yes, you mentioned that about your grandmother once before, very interesting.
      Germany is a well-organized, safe country to travel in, with some great cities and beautiful landscapes but alas, travelling in times of Covid is not great, no. However, once all this disease stuff is over, it would be worth it to give it a go.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting post, thanks for sharing your german history with us.
    Like CraMERRY said in her comment: die Welt ist ein Dorf! and to see my birth town and my home town on your map mad me grin from ear to ear

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  4. This was such an interesting read, Esther, thank you for sharing this really personal account of your relationship with Germany. You have written it with so much honesty and sensitivity, and I appreciated that. No reflection on your post *at all*, but just to say that reading about non-Germans’ bad experiences with Germany always makes me feel that tiny bit defensive. In this case there was no unreasonable generalisation in the text, and I felt very clearly that you were telling a story honestly and voicing criticism in the nicest of ways. So I didn’t feel defensive – I just felt sad and a little bit ashamed that Germany didn’t make you feel more welcome! And especially so at such a time in your life when you are entering puberty and things are difficult at the best of times. I grew up in a small town, too, at the same time as you, and non-German class mates were few and far between. There were always a couple of children of Turkish descent in my classes, and their treatment because of their “being different” is another unpleasant memory. I remember, though, that we had a new boy starting when I was 12. He was English, and wow, that made him a star. We were all fascinated by him *haha*. – It is just so ironic that your move to a new school back in the Netherlands then initially made you a mistaken “foreigner” on your own soil. (That story reminded me of the term “Deutschländer” – used for young Turks who were second generation immigrants born in Germany. They were seen as foreigners in Germany – yet when they went “home” to Turkey, a country that was somewhat foreign to *them*, they were seen as Germans… Weder Fisch noch Fleisch, as we say in German – not fitting in in either place.)
    But leaving Germany aside – what an interesting childhood/youth you had. Certainly with challenges, but it also looks as if your parents provided an amazing background of love and stability. Which has also reached further in the sense that you have a balanced view of your ambiguous experiences in Germany. Here’s hoping that the generations behind us, who have grown up in a far more multicultural world than we did, look beyond the differences of culture, language and descent.

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    1. Gotta say that your comment brought a tear to my eyes, for your own honesty and candour. Thank you.

      It didn’t help that I didn’t speak the language when I started German school, so that instantly set me apart. My mother had tried teaching us some German basics before we left Israel but we didn’t take it seriously, so the real learning started when school started. It was my good fortune was, though, that because I did speak Dutch, I could understand quite a lot of German and it really helped with learning the language. When other kids got English lessons (which I didn’t need as I was fluent), I got extra German lessons and so I learned the language quickly and well enough to go to a gymnasium two years later. I think I probably had it easier than many Turkish kids in school, because once I had the language down, I could ‘pass as a German’ (someone later once said that to me and even then I didn’t think of that as compliment – I didn’t want to pass as German, I want to be me). However, the damage of feeling like an outsider had been done in that first school I went to, I always remained the outsider in the two years I was there.
      When we moved and I went to that girls gymnasium, I think I had lost all confidence, so remained in my shell at first. I think I only really started integrating properly when we moved to Heppenheim and I had to take the bus to school and I started riding the bus with a popular girl in my class who lived close to where we lived. Somehow, we started hitting it off (the only friend I still now have occasional contact with!) and from then my acceptance grew, as did my confidence. Before, I had tried everything to not stand out and be different, things got better when I accepted my difference and I didn’t care anymore. That was a huge learning curve for me (and I’m still not always good at it – showing myself).

      Having said all that about not always feeling accepted, what I did come to like about a lot of the German youth in my time was the ability to be critical and reflect. I remember just before I started school in The Netherlands, I looked at the teenagers walking around Dutch towns and was terrified I would again not fit in. They all looked so fashionable and air-headed, and I didn’t feel right with that either. I think if I had gone to a Dutch school after German school, I would have felt like a fish out of water all over again. I’m glad I went to the international school as that was a good way for me to ease into Dutch society, which also has its ups and downs!

      Yes, I can very much identify with that Deutschländer syndrome. After all these years in The Netherlands I feel that less now but even so, sometimes people will say things or make offensive jokes (mostly about Muslims or Moroccans, very occasionally about Germans or Jews) and then they find out how personally I take that and I am reminded yet again that I do have this whole different background. And yes, we were brought up with a lot of love and care. Despite being one of eight children, I did always feel seen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your experiences just go to show that it is imperative that we all have to teach our children to look beyond those coincidences of birth – nationality, language, skin colour, religion – and really nip the tendency to exclude people because they are “different”, in the bud. It’s so tough starting in a new school, I just wish that people had had more patience in getting to know you. Eternal optimist that I am, I feel that “being different” is nowadays possibly seen less critical as it was in the blinkered and small-minded time of our youth. Mind you, your last paragraph sounds as if that may just be a pipe dream of mine. The thoughtlessness with which people sometimes make such statements, is astounding. I think it also stems from the fact that the majority of people still do not have the privilege of ever experiencing what it means to live in another society as a foreigner. My sensitivity for that only ever developed after I had lived abroad as a student.

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        1. I also feel more optimistic for the generation coming up now. When I hear my kids talk and their friends, then I do think they are far more aware and open minded than people in our generation and older were. Having said that, intolerance alas is not dead.Very visible now in the US but also here in The Netherlands, especially when it comes to anti-muslim sentiments. Our second largest party in parliament is an anti-muslim party! Luckily no one wanted to rule with them, so they were forced into opposition but it scares me that such parties can amass a relatively large following! People still have a long way to go in accepting the other…

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  5. Servetus

    Fascinating post. Thanks for taking the time to write it. So much of this squares with experiences I had in Germany in the 90s. It’s a great place to live if you can “pass” (my last name is a very common German name), but you’ll never feel totally comfortable there, even if you know exactly what to do in every situation, follow all the rules, and your German gets good. At some point when I was contemplating a permanent move to Germany, the wife of a friend of mine, an American who’d immigrated in the early 70s, said, You can move here, but you will never belong here. The neighbors still refer to my kids (born in Germany, with a German father) as “die Kinder von der Amerikanerin.” Still I remain grateful for everything Germany gave me over the years.

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    1. Interesting that you have comparable experiences. You lived in a bigger city, though, didn’t you? I always wonder whether maybe if we’d lived in a bigger city, where there is more diversity, it might have been easier but I don’t know.
      These challenges have definitely made me stronger and I am always grateful how living abroad, and in Germany, has widened my perspective.

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      1. Servetus

        In the 90s I lived in Göttingen (3 years), Mainz (1 year), and Wolfenbüttel (broken up, but about a year and a half altogether). (In the 00s it was Berlin, Erfurt, Erlangen, and Wolfenbüttel.) From a diversity perspective, Wolfenbüttel was horrible (and even then there were right-radical rumblings). There were plenty of non-Germans living there, but I wouldn’t have wanted to live there if I had been from Turkey / the Balkans etc. Göttingen as a university city was really diverse, but my impression was that people found their enclaves and stuck with them. There was a kind of practiced toleration for newcomers that was better than nothing but often seemed condescending to me. Mainz was the most diverse. I spent the least time there, though, and I was heavily enmeshed in a cocoon myself, so it’s hard for me to comment on the situation there. I wasn’t really integrated into the community in the way I had been in Göttingen. I think, too, after a while the lack of diversity sort of rubs off on one — I remember one trip from Wolfenbüttel for a weekend in Berlin, I got off the train and saw a Black person and practically stared — it had been so long.

        Too much stuff to get into as a comment — but speaking as an outsider I found German cultural prejudices really complex and it made me think a lot at the time about how American prejudices were organized. We have many similar blindspots, I suspected at the time, and now it’s really blatant.

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        1. Thanks for all that! You spent more years in Germany than I thought, cool.
          I always imagine university cities as more diverse. Don’t think I’ve ever been to Göttingen. When we were looking to move away from Rosbach, I remember there was talk of moving to Heidelberg (beautiful city!) and I always wondered that if we had moved there, how things would have felt different.
          For all the 3 small towns I have lived in, I felt happiest in Heppenheim but I’m not sure if that’s because I had finally opened up and adjusted more or because it really was more diverse and open.

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          1. Servetus

            I suppose if you’d moved to Heidelberg your father would have been involved with the (illustrious) theological faculty — and those are like their own small towns on some level.

            I feel like small towns are hard no matter where. My father is from a small town (near where the farm is) but he built our house in a different small town. Although he’s lived here 50 years we are not considered native / legit. The people who are really “from” here are those whose families moved here in the 1840s/50s. What’s occasionally frustrating about that is that the people who are moving here now think of us as natives, even though we don’t really have that social position. It’s all very subtle, but also real nonetheless.

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  6. Servetus

    oh, re: the pig — most meat is hung for a period of time after it’s slaughtered but before it’s processed. This is not (only) about blood, but also because the meat tenderizes as it ages due to enzymes breaking down meat fibers. Usually you don’t hang a pig all that long, though.

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    1. Thanks!
      Yeah, it never did hang long. The shock was not only over the slaughtered animal (which is silly, really, because we eat meat) but that it was a pig. We were used to pigs being forbidden food, we never ate them (having lived in a Jewish state and all) and to see one hanging like that, for future food, was a bit of a shock. I only ever started eating pork after I met Mr. Esther but pork being forbidden still feels so ingrained that, while I do buy it and quite like the taste, somewhere deep down I still feel a twinge of doing something wrong when I eat pork.

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      1. Servetus

        That totally makes sense. As an American whose default meat is beef, I was also somewhat surprised by the prevalence of pork in Germany.

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      2. Servetus

        Random questions about pork:
        1) Do you eat slavinken?
        2) If so, do you purchase them from a butcher or make them yourself? (I guess Mr Esther would make them?)
        3) If you or Mr Esther makes them, do you go with straight pork, or do you cut it with ground beef?

        Thanks in advance for your input.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You want to make some?
          We never make our own (not even Mr. Esther), ours are always store bought. So, I’m of no use except that the slavinken from the store are all pork and that we also have “rundervinken” here which have only beef in them. We’re actually having slavinken for dinner tonight. 🙂

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          1. Servetus

            I ended up with a half hog in my freezer last month (don’t ask) and we’re going to have to eat at least some of it (we will give away / donate some, too). So I was googling ground pork recipes and it came up and I thought it’s the kind of thing dad would eat, so yeah, I will probably try it at least once.

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  7. Thanks for sharing Esther. I love your story because it’s personal 😉
    I never lived in Germany but at the ned of the 80’s (88-90) I spent 2 years on the French/German border, in Alsace. That was a real experience as I was quite young (in my twenties and still at uni). We often went in Germany. Even if Alsace is not Germany, it has a similar culture (History again).

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