Fatima Küsters: MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING FROM THE GROUND UP

WHEN: 10 July 2014

WHERE:  Verdun, France

INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski

Q: It is evening and we are sitting on the bank of the Meuse River in Verdun, a place sacred to the identity of France because of the 300-day battle that claimed the lives of ca. 400,000 French soldiers in 1916. It is day six of SISTERBIKE XIV, a cycling adventure involving 38 participants, mainly from Aachen and Arlington, that started in Aachen, Germany, went through Belgium and Luxembourg before entering France. Today we pedaled some 50 Km from Lac-de-Madine and plan to cover around 500 Km by the time we reach the French Champagne capital of Reims on July 13th. We are both pretty tired after a long day, but armed with a fortifying libation, we are determined to do this interview.

 

Let us start with your beginnings—where you were born, your family growing up, and your early years.

 

FK: I was born in Clermont-Ferrand in France in December 1955. I was the third of nine children, the first girl. After me, two brothers and four sisters. My parents came from Algeria, former colony of France. My father came after World War Two because he was looking for a job. He found his way travelling through Tunisia and Italy, to Clermont-Ferrand the headquarters of Michelin, and was hired there. I visited the Michelin School in Clermont-Ferrand until the very end of the Michelin school system patronage. It coincided with the national diploma level. Afterwards I changed to the Institution Monanges, a Catholic School, where I graduated (O’level)

 

Q: How did your dad meet your mom?

 

FK: I think it was an arranged marriage, as is the custom in Algeria.

 

Q: He was already married when he left Algeria for France.

 

FK: Yes. And my 2 elder brothers were born in Algeria.

 

Q: Can you remember you dad talking about his situation in Algeria? Did you go back to visit?

 

FK: When I was small, 7 or 8, my mum wanted to go on holiday back to Algeria, because she missed the country and was a bit lonely. She didn’t speak French very well. So we went for a holiday, but we ended up staying a year, as she didn’t want to return. I had an opportunity to live there for a year as a small girl. I went to school as well there. I returned to Algeria when I was older. The last time I visited was with Ulrich, my husband. That was already 26 years ago, in 1987. It is not easy to go there. It is a bit dangerous. Neither Ulrich nor I felt secure there. So we didn’t go back. Anyway, we no longer had anyone to visit.

 

Q: In your family did you speak Arabic?

 

FK: My parents spoke Arabic. I picked up some of the language. When they come from another country, people bring their language. But I didn’t get enough of it to speak fluently later on. I wanted to learn that language sometime. Maybe I will do it yet!

 

Q: There is still time!

 

FK: No kidding. When we were in China for the past three years, I thought that if I had the time, I might learn it. The sounds of Arabic are still in my memory.

 

Q: But it sounds like you are a product, primarily, of the French education system.

 

FK: That’s it, yes. I went to school in France. I graduated in France with the Bac B (economicsbaccalauréat), nowadays renamed Bac ES*. Then university. It was a funny year, 1976, a year of many riots and strikes. I remember it very well, because it was a year when a new university course of study was launched at the Clermont-Ferrand University — L.E.A. (Langues Etrangères Appliquées= applied foreign languages) — I was really very interested in learning languages, because they are such a central mechanism in defining our lives. I sensed that my parents had somehow missed this. I was determined to speak the languages of wherever I found myself. And these days you need English to get through life. You get to know and understand people better. So many things in life can be put down to misunderstandings—even among those who share one language. (laughter)

 

Q: When did you learn English?

 

FK: It was my first foreign language at school in France. Two years later, I started with German as my second foreign language. I took German in large part because my dad was a prisoner of war in Germany and had picked up a little bit of the German language.

 

Q: Really!?

 

FK: Yes. He was an escapee of war(évadé de guerre) because he escaped captivity 3 times. After the war he received an escapee pin and a small pension, which was very welcome since he was not earning enough money to feed a family of nine children. He didn’t talk much about it with me. People differ in how much they are willing to reminisce or divulge. Similarly, not much penetrated about the Algerian War (1954-1962). Looking back, I know that much was happening, even where we were living there.

 

Q: You were growing up during the time when everything was happening between France and Algeria. It was a war of independence.

 

FK: Indeed it was.

 

Q: What was it like? How were you treated in France?

 

FK: I think we were treated very well. My dad was respected. He liked his work at the Michelin tire company, whose headquarters are in Clermont-Ferrand. My father was living a normal life, working hard. He always deeply regretted that he did not have the chance to go to school! We had very nice neighbors. It was a time when not too many people were coming over, before the big waves of immigration. At the time we were there, it was very peaceful. Neighbors used to enjoy my mum’s cooking. She used to cook her national dish “couscous” and share it with them. The atmosphere was friendly. We attended the Michelin School. It was very patriarchal. My dad was a worker at Michelin. The school was for the children of staff members. Everything was Michelin-owned: the athletic and gym center, the swimming pool and the medical center. Last but not least, we were offered fairly big Christmas presents, which were highly appreciated. My entire life was inscribed by Michelin. My brothers were doing very well at school, but they didn’t want to stay there. They wanted to go back to Algeria and did just that. And I did not want to end up working for Michelin either.

 

Q: Your brothers moved to Algeria?

 

FK: Yes. They pursued their careers there. Now they are older. One of them studied Physics in Algeria and returned to Clermont-Ferrand for doctoral studies. After earning the PhD, he again returned to Algeria to work. My other older brother ended up in the Algerian diplomatic corps. He was stationed in Hanoi (Vietnam), Bern (Switzerland), London (U.K.) and Dakar (Senegal). So, you can see that the members of my family chose different paths.

 

Q: What came next? You finished university…

 

FK: No. I didn’t finish because of these stupid riots and because at that stage the recognition of degrees (guinea pigs university course) was not guaranteed. It was not easy to change course because the taught subjects were all a challenge: of course English and German applied to economics, sociology, philosophy, geography and history! More or less a continuation of the same disciplines I had had in High School…

 

This break occasioned a lesson in cross-cultural communication for me much later. I had to fashion a curriculum vitae after I moved to Germany with my husband. We were married in 1984. We went first to Ecuador for three years. I was pregnant when we came back and our daughter was born in September 1987. After a while, when she was about 2, I felt like going back to work. I didn’t like staying home. Husband Ulrich told me “you don’t say that you did not complete your university course; your CV must be seamless, without any gaps.” “What are you talking about?” I replied. “It wasn’t my fault; I couldn’t continue.” First, the university project was disrupted. And then I had to earn my living. So I switched to a school in Vichy (a very historical town about 50 kilometers away from Clermont-Ferrand) for training as a trilingual business assistant. The qualification has a specific title: B.T.S. Assistant Trilingue (Brevet de Technicien Supérieur Assistanat Trilingue). In addition to language training, English and German in my case, there was an internship requirement. I wanted to go to Germany and was appointed to an internship of two months with the Stahlwerke Bochum in the city of Bochum which was extended to four months and then proceeded to my next internship, which was with the BBC, Langham Street, London in the sales department. It was quite nice, right in central London. I was very lucky to meet one of my student mates from my Vichy school; but I did not like the hard winter and living in a shared room in the Earl’s Court area.

 

Q: When did this unfold?

 

FK: This was in 1978-1979.

 

Q: Before you met Ulrich?

 

FK: Yes. I met him in Paris. I came back from London around Christmas time and did not go back after because I luckily had a recommendation from my former teacher for German in Vichy to go to Paris for a position in the Export Department of the SGGSEMF (Société Générale des Grandes Sources d’Eaux Minérales Francaises). The husband of my teacher was General Manager of the Vichy Water Company which belongs to the SGGSEMF Group and I used to live for free in their big house in Vichy including a bicycle at my disposal! In exchange I was asked to do some baby-sitting. That was fine with me.

 

After the time in Vichy and the internships in Germany and England, I went for the interview in Paris and stayed there. A few months in, I met Ulrich in Paris, who was also there on an economics internship with a French Bank. He was placed with the Societé Générale. As it happened, I used to meet up with students from AIESEC – Association Internationale desEtudiantsen Sciences Economiques et Commerciales. I met them in Bochum; AIESEC-Germany offered organized trips and I went on one to Berlin. When Ulrich was in Paris, he participated in AIESEC events. I joined, too, both for social and professional reasons. That is how we met. I also met my best friend there—Ulrike, a German.

 

Q: How did you get to Germany from Paris?

 

FK: How did I get to Germany? Oh, well, there was a café latte…(laughter) There was an opera evening with AIESEC—that’s where we met—it was at the Café de la Paix, Place de l’Opéra. We met again on a couple of AIESEC-events and he went back to Germany as his internship finished. I enjoyed living in Paris. After Perrier SA (the successor of the former mentioned SGGSEMF) I worked briefly for an international bank on the ChampsÉlysées, moved to yet another bank on Place Vendôme. My boss there was an American, my first encounter with an American. He was a former director of the Bank of America operation in Caracas. He did not conform to the French cliché American prototype. He was well educated, fluent in French, historically informed, and was writing a book about François Mitterrand, French president at that time. I helped him translate some sources. The work environment was congenial.

 

At that time I met Ulrich again upon his return from the U.S.A. and Mexico. He had received a scholarship to study one term at Penn State University in Pennsylvania. At the end of his Penn State term he found a job in Mexico City and was almost a year there. He told me that he kept a picture of me and would tell that I am his girlfriend! Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? He then graduated in Business Administration and found his first job in Berlin. So I visited him a few times there and he did the same in Paris. So we were living between Paris and Berlin, at that time (1983-1984) a divided city. East Berlin was always a draw, a contrast beckoning to the curious.

 

Q: You were married in 1984 and then went to South America?

 

FK: That’s right. We married in May 1984 and I moved to Berlin with him for a few weeks. Ulrich was working for a pharmaceutical company, Schering. He got then an interesting offer for an assignment in Ecuador from another pharmaceutical company Grünenthal GmbH, a company located in Stolberg, near Aachen, sadly associated with the Thalidomide tragedy involving sleeping pills connected to birth defects when taken by pregnant women. Grünenthal posted Ulrich to Quito, capital of Ecuador in South America. The company was doing good work in South America with other products. On the 2nd of January 1985 we flew to Quito. We were there for more than two and a half years and opened a new chapter in our lives. We were there for the opening of a new Grünenthal plant in Quito. A strong desire to operate freely in our new environment led me to learn Spanish. For that purpose, I attended the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador and after a while I could speak Spanish. And I enjoyed very much taking visitors from Germany around, especially to the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world) which Charles de la Condamine, a French naturalist and mathematician who first determined the distance of a degree of the meridian in 1735-43, marks the location of 0 degrees latitude at Mitad del Mundo, north of Quito, Ecuador.

 

Q: You came back to Germany in 1987. Then what happened?

 

FK: We returned to Stolberg and our daughter was born. For a few months thereafter, Ulrich continued with Grünenthal as a Head of Controlling for South American Affiliates and trained as well as a pharmaceutical representative to get familiarized with the product line. He left the company in 1991, the year our son was born, to take a position as Head of Finance at the Kerpen cable company in Stolberg and a few years later as a Managing Director. He has been working there for more than 20 years.

 

Q: Stolberg is part of the cluster of cities around Aachen.

 

FK: Stolberg has a proud industrial heritage and has played an important role in the region’s industrial history. Leading members of Aachen’s chamber of commerce have come from Stolberg. The city’s main early industrial fame is associated with the manufacture of brass. Brass is an alloy of Copper and Zinc and Zinc ore is relatively abundant around Stolberg and the neighboring Belgium, which explains the origin of the industry there. Another ingredient of Stolberg’s success was inter-confessional tolerance. Aachen was very Catholic and Catholic guilds attempted to restrict the production of Protestant Copper-smelters and other Protestant businessmen, so they left Aachen and moved instead to Stolberg and Monschau (especially the cloth manufacturers), where they were very welcomed. The Burgherr (Lord of the Stolberg Castle) was more focused on expanding tax revenues and encouraged Protestants to settle down in Stolberg. Stolberg prospered as a result. Aachen became part of predominantly Protestant Prussia and one of its regional centers at the post-Napoleonic peace settlement in 1815. I subsequently learned that little Stolberg manufactured and sent its brass-products worldwide. This history was attractive to me and I found myself becoming more engaged in the community as a result.

 

Q: Tell us about your activities in Stolberg.

 

FK: At the time our daughter was born, tradition still assigned women in Germany three roles—the three Ks: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (care of the children, running the kitchen, attending church). This was a strong contrast to France, where a woman could return to work a few months after the baby arrived. It was normal to have competent child-care facilities with a loving environment in France. In Germany the mere mention of that possibility would make you suspicious of being a bad mother. Childcare facilities outside the home barely existed. When Sophia was born, I was happy that my sisters could join us for a while to help out while seeing the country and learning German. I took that opportunity to find a part-time job in the export department of SCHUMAG, a big company in Aachen manufacturing precision products. I could continue because my other younger sisters, also curious about Germany, rotated in. When my son came along several years later, I withdrew from the workforce to focus on domestic duties. That is when I was able to focus on Stolberg’s history. I took tours of the city with our very young children at that time (carrying our baby son as a backpack), discovering a fascinating story, also affected by the period of French occupation during the Napoleonic period. It was a vocation that I felt guided for.

 

After a few years, a museum was opened there, the Zinkhütter Hof (literally Zink Smelter’s Museum, but as a matter of fact Industrial Museum for the Aachen Region). They were looking for tour guides conversant in different languages and I thought this could be something for me, since I could make it work with my other family responsibilities. Thus began my career as a tour guide. I conducted tours at Zinkhütter Hof for a few years, a period during which I also began engaging in the work of Stolberg’s historical society as its business manager. Our team planned programs. One of my specific tasks was to plan annual discovery/sightseeing trips and supervise different groups during these exploring trips. We had a series dedicated to the visit of companies or various institutions like sculpture workshops, museums, spin-offs of the RWTH and the like, so   I frequently chaperoned groups. I then decided I might do this in a professional way and found a school in Belgium offering vocational training for tour guides and travelling companions. It was very challenging. We were a class of 7 adults and had to perform all sorts of guided tours in all kind of museums, city walks, churches, in the nature and sometimes do some funny exercises like talk about a hair barrette or a biro…! Beside many essays consisting in writing texts and note cards, we organized day tours all over the Euregio 3 times a year. There were feared exams with real customers. Since it is a Belgian school in Eupen -German-speaking Community of Belgium- (I did not find a similar school in Germany at that time), cuisine is very important, so we had to include the best lunches for our guests. We designed the advertising flyers for our tailored tours and had to promote them to find customers. So we contacted many mediums like radio, television and newspapers. So you see, it was an all-round program, very time-consuming since we had to check all the details in teamwork. The final exam after 3 years was a one-week trip to the Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic) which we obviously could not prepare on the spot. We prepared many sights and had evidently some surprises. I enjoyed this training very much and was quite sad when it ended (like my colleagues! We are still in touch and meet every now and then). We suffered in the same way and that tied us together. That’s the way I completed my international collection of diplomas and certificates in 2007 with two “royals” from the Kingdom of Belgium!

 

We were talking about my role with the Stolberg’s historical society which I did on a voluntary basis for many years. In addition, I also became interested in Stolberg’s sister city relationships. Stolberg has two of them, both in France (Valognes in Normandy and Faches-Thumesnil nearby Lille). I became involved in the Valognes sister city relationship in a variety of ways—translating, planning programs, visiting and the like. The chairwoman of the partnership committee in Stolberg then asked me in 2006 to take over when she gave up her position. This new responsibility immediately made me curious about how other sister-city relationships were being managed, so I investigated Aachen’s, specifically Aachen-Toledo and Aachen-Arlington. I did that for around ten years altogether and it was really a great challenge keeping me very busy with the various activities I was involved in.

 

One of the best trips among others was to explore our sister city area in 2008 when the iconic Citroen 2 CV turned 60: I arranged the German 2CV Club of Stolberg to meet with the French Volkswagen Club of Valognes! I had to relinquish the position when we moved to China.

 

We were particularly drawn to Arlington when our daughter became interested in finding a year-long student exchange opportunity. We visited Arlington. It was soon after the 9/11 attacks and we concluded that Arlington might not be the right place for her just then. I found it very exciting that Aachen had sister cities like Arlington and Toledo, Arlington because we had visited the Arlington National Cemetery and assisted with some very moving funerals. We were surprised that more than 20 funerals take place every day! We visited a lot of places, among others of course Penn State University , Philadelphia (I was very impressed by Liberty Bell), the Amish Country, Boston on our way to Niagara Falls and Washington D.C. where we were very enthusiastic about the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

 

Q: I sense that we are ready to talk about your experiences with Aachen-Arlington and Aachen-Reims. I have always considered you to be a special person in this context. You are from France and know the French. And of course you know Aachen as well. So I have come to view you as the embodiment of this triangular relationship, starting with the basic circumstances of your life’s trajectory. You have a unique perspective to offer.

 

FK: Maybe, but it’s accidental. (laughter)

 

Q: A fortunate accident in this case.

 

FK: For a long time our interest in Aachen’s sister city relationships was greater than circumstances would allow us to engage. Ulrich and I had been following the SISTERBIKE program for years before we could participate in it. I began to show up for events in Aachen to mix with those involved in the relationship. My first intense experience with Aachen-Arlington was in 2008 on the art appreciation tour which Iva Haendly-Dassen organized, that moved between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington/Arlington. Enthused by that trip, I decided to find a way to become more active. Around the same time, I had started working for the tourist office in Stolberg. It occurred to me that maybe it would be a good idea to visit a counterpart office in the United States as a point of comparison. With the help of Jennifer Wright, leading member of the Arlington-Aachen committee, a five-week internship with Arlington’s tourist An office was organized for me. Jennifer also found a host family, so my experience was much richer than it might otherwise have been. And that’s when I met you.

 

Q: I remember it well and fondly! That was the summer of 2009, right?

 

FK: Yes, 2009. It was a very positive experience. I was delighted to be in the Washington metropolitan area with access to the Smithsonian and all the other museums.

 

Q: You were working out of the Arlington Tourist Office’s Pentagon City location, as I recall.

 

FK: That’s right. It was an interesting place, but the office relocated since then.

 

Q: Finally, you were able to join the SISTERBIKE rides.

 

FK: Oh yes. This is our third and we love them. Ulrich loves cycling. The program is well conceived.

 

Q: What was your first SISTERBIKE experience?

 

FK: We joined the Vienna-to-Budapest ride. Our second ride was last year’s through Italy’s Po Valley. The weather along the Po was much better than this year’s!

 

Q: Many of the same people?

 

FK: It is always a different mix.

 

Q: Were you able to engage with the Reims committee?

 

FK: I would have liked it, but we decamped to China, which put that beyond reach for several years. I did keep up contacts with Aachen-Arlington friends and colleagues. That is how I came to do the SISTER-HIKE along the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah range in October 2010.

 

Q: How would you compare the SISTERBIKE and SISTERHIKE experiences?

 

FK: Above all, both bring people together in a meaningful way. Each SISTERBIKE is unique. And so, too, was the SISTERHIKE. It’s all about conversations and exercise in great settings. What about maintaining a SISTERHIKE series and/or introducing new sports like sailing? Or any other challenge?

 

Q: I am surprised that Aachen-Reims have not tried to involve you in their programs.

 

FK: I would be delighted to take part. Of course, in 2010 our China adventure—Ulrich got a job there—intervened and we haven’t been back in Stolberg very long. We were based in Changzhou, about an hour by fast-train from Shanghai. Driving takes longer. With the fast train I could go into Shanghai daily to attend a language course. Not that there was nothing to do in Changzhou. But in Shanghai the various nationalities were organized. There was a Cercle Francophone (CFS); there was the Deutscher Club (DCS); the Shanghai Expat Association (SEA) as well. So I had at least three opportunities for meeting people from all over the world and sharing activities.

 

My focus was the Cercle Francophone—it was helpful in learning how to organize your life in China. I became involved in a welcome group there for newcomers—offering advice on where and how to get to know the city and its various museums, outings, and the like. The Deutscher Club and Shanghai Expat Association also had very interesting programs. The most interesting one I can recall from SEA was a “funeral tour” of China—covering customs for handling the deceased, what sorts of ceremonies are organized and the like. The Cercle Francophone put on cooking classes, discovering trips, Mayong classes. I felt like I need at least 3-times as much lifetime to be able to attend all these exciting offers.

 

Also, I had to calculate a lot of time to travel in and out of Shanghai. This was not easy because at that time you could not buy a weekly train ticket and plan in advance. You could only buy a train ticket 7 days in advance under normal circumstances, which means out of the peak periods (China New Year and other big Chinese Festivals). It was very restrictive in these peak times because you could only buy a train ticket a couple of days in advance. I was very flexible since only the two of us lived in China. Our children came to China whenever it was possible to pay us a visit.

 

I was nevertheless still involved with the Stolberg-Valognes Sistercity. Before I left, I was working with my fellow-campaigners on founding an association which occurred in January 2011 with my successor. Since then I am still an active member and when I came back to Stolberg from time to time, I could support the sister city Board. It just happened that my stays in Europe coincided with some visits of the People from Valognes or the People from Stolberg to Valognes. The 20th sister city anniversary was celebrated in Stolberg before I left for China in November 2010 and at the same time the Pont de Valognes was inaugurated. I had submitted a request to the Stolberg Municipality to have a street, a place or any other suitable landmark to be named after Valognes. There was nothing alike available but that bridge in the Old Town. We liked this idea. I am right now working on the portrait of Valognes and the Stolberg-Valognes sister city history which will be published on the City homepage, soon hopefully.

 

Also the municipality of Changzhou was interested in sister cities. At that time the Chinese had about 19 (in the U.S.A. Rockford/Illinois and Buffalo/NY) and were looking for a German one! So I was asked by the Chinese Authorities to convey this wish to our former Mayor. Which I did immediately. I thought it was very exciting. The Chinese had already signed sister city agreements with Tilburg in the Netherlands and Lommel in Belgium. As you know, we live in this particular border area and it would have been easy for the Chinese to handle these three cities because they are not too far away from each other. But the City of Stolberg is in a very bad financial situation and demurred. The Chinese were in an understandable manner disappointed because Stolberg shares many common features with Changzhou: both are near a big City: Aachen for Stolberg and Shanghai for Changzhou, both are industrial and very concerned about the environment, innovation is an essential part of their economic growth, and last but not least their citizens are open-minded and happy to meet the world. I remember that Ulrich was working on a pilot project consisting in introducing a typical German standard of education to Chinese companies: the dual system of vocational professional training. But our past Mayor was not willing to engage the financially fragile City of Stolberg in a new relationship. It was my job to inform the Chinese who were very understanding and persistent at the same time. They immediately told me that they would go for an economic partnership. But Stolberg preferred to decline this offer too. I think that it would have been a great deal for Stolberg and might have worked out as a triangle sister city…..

 

Q: When did you return from China?

 

FK: It was February 2013, a bit earlier than anticipated, because the project was wound up. It felt a little strange to be back in Germany.

 

Q: We are happy to have you back!

 

FK: Thank you! With Ulrich waiting for his next assignment, it is hard to make a long-term commitment to a project here. I am impressed with the obvious vitality of the Aachen-Arlington student exchange programs. I noticed that this year the group visiting from Arlington is larger than usual.

 

Q: Well, since you just introduced the topic, why don’t we focus now on how well our various sister-city programs functioned in practice and what kind of future there is for them. You have participated in a variety of Aachen-Arlington programs and you also bring a unique perspective as an Expat living abroad often. So, with your global perspective, how do you think the Arlington-Aachen network has functioned?

 

FK: My first reaction is that the relationship is functioning well. The idea of making something of the Aachen-Arlington-Reims triangle is wonderful.

 

Q: What has the Arlington-Aachen relationship achieved?

 

FK: First and foremost, it has brought people together that otherwise would not have been. Ulrich and I visited the Normandy beaches this June to be part of the commemoration of the D-Day landings 70 years ago. It was not only about remembering; Germans previously never had been invited to D-Day ceremonies, so this was particularly moving because we could witness how two countries and people that have been enemies for centuries now have become true and close friends. It is so very important that we go there and meet each other.

 

The same issue applies to the mission of the Aachen-Arlington programs. To visit, to live together in each other’s homes, is a privileged channel for mutual understanding. The insights into how we lead our lives are the richest of experiences. Topics of conversation are almost all the time every day’s live subjects — it’s the difference of perspective across the entire spectrum you learn to discern and appreciate. More broadly, you can always communicate. Even language is not that important. You must have the right attitude. I saw that in China. I didn’t have the language, but there is body language, gesturing. You have to be willing to throw yourself into it. Body language is very significant in such situations.

 

Q: The sister-city idea was launched in the United States 60 years ago. People weren’t travelling as much as they do today. We knew fewer foreign languages, forgetting them in the second or third generations. Nowadays, there is instant communication with anyplace on the globe. You can use Google or Skype to learn what is happening anywhere or communicate with anyone with access to the Internet. So the question is, can sister-city relationships be as important now as they were in the 1950s.

 

FK: I am convinced that the internet does not replace personal relations. Sister city relationships are more important than ever, they avoid letting you have a digital view. Part of it has to do with the velocity of change and the quantity of available information. You need time to absorb and make sense of developments. For this, it is much more important to meet people and talk to them. Intimacy of contact—face-to-face encounters—counts for something. There is good future for sister cities. Skype has become popular because people want to maintain contacts already established. You are right that distance plays hardly any role anymore. In this respect the world has indeed been transformed. We are sitting in Verdun, the site of mass organized killing a century ago. My vision for peace proceeds from mutual understanding that is built from the ground up, person by person. Sister cities facilitate that.

 

Personal contacts and activities play a key part in the development of sister city relationships. I would like to acknowledge all the volunteers on both sides of the ocean who made this development possible over 20 years (Aachen-Arlington) as well as the Reims-committee and pay a large tribute to the work they have accomplished. I definitely know what I am talking about and I you bet you do too, Dear Carl.

 

I am very much looking forward to the next encounters with all our friends from the U.S.A. and France.

*(Wikipedia definition: Students of the Baccalauréat économique et social prepare for careers in the social sciences, in Philosophy (and other human sciences) in management and business administration, and in economics. The subject Economics & Social Sciences is the most heavily weighed and is only offered in this stream. History & Geography and Mathematics are also important subjects in ES)