Paula Niemietz: AMERO-GERMAN INTERCULTURAL AMPHIBIAN
WHEN: 14 May 2015
WHERE: at her home in Roetgen, near Aachen
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: First the basics: when and where were you born?
PN: I was born on May 8th, 1957 in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in the suburb of Park Ridge. When I was 13, my parents decided to move to Phoenix, Arizona.
Q: Why did the family move?
PN: It’s a longish story. My mother had Polio as a child and was in a wheel chair. When my parents were in their early 30s with four kids, they decided: forget the snow. Let’s go somewhere warm. Literally, unbelievably, they flipped a coin to determine whether it would be Arizona or Florida. Arizona won. They packed everything up and drove, with dog and four kids and landed us in Phoenix, without ever having been there; without knowing anything about the area. Looking back now, that was a pretty amazing thing to do. So, I finished growing up in Arizona, attending the fantastic Xavier College Prep High School, and then studying at the University of Arizona in Tucson. That’s where I fell in love with Linguistics. I went on to graduate school at MIT and ended up getting my doctorate in Linguistics in 1983.
Q: Thanks for that overview. Let’s explore your roots a little. Before we started recording, you mentioned that your maiden name, Pranka, is Polish.
PN: Yes. I am Polish through and through, on both sides of the family. I grew up with grandparents and great-grandparents who spoke Polish and didn’t want their kids to learn Polish—and I was always curious about that. I think that’s where the roots of my wanting to learn languages and becoming a linguist came from. I thought it was really interesting that they could speak this other language. We lived a completely normal family life in Chicago. My parents were very young—only twenty years older than me. One of the things I remember about Chicago is the Democratic National Convention of 1968. My parents loaded us all up in the car and took us downtown just to watch history being made. So, we actually saw the riots. We saw everything from the safety of our car, because my parents thought it was something important to do. So, Polish-Catholic, living in Park Ridge, going to Catholic school.
Q: Were your parents born in the U.S.?
PN: Yes. My great-grandparents came from different parts of Poland, both north and south. My maternal grandfather was born in Krakow and came over when he was a little boy; all the other grandparents were born in the US.
Q: Where were they from in the north?
PN: From around Gdansk. But for my parents and then for my siblings and myself, it was Chicago and Polish. No one cared where you were from as long as you could speak a little and do the Polish Hop at weddings and eat Polish food. Good Polish cooking is great. It was a very tight-knit community and extended family has great meaning and I think it still does today. Although I haven’t lived in Chicago for over 40 years, I still have relatives there, and we correspond, we see each other when possible. Family is important there.
Q: But they didn’t want you to learn Polish.
PN: No. My great-grandparents wanted their kids to have every advantage. That meant learning English and “being English” and having nothing to do with being Polish. That was the times.
Q: Me neither. And I think for the same reasons.
PN: Really! I hadn’t assumed you were Polish. Back then a different attitude prevailed. My husband’s parents, while German, grew up in what became Poland after WW I, and their kids didn’t learn Polish there either, although the parents spoke Polish at home. It was not done.
Q: Talk about your husband’s story, which is also an interesting one.
PN: I met Dieter at MIT in the dorm, one of those crazy stories. He did what his parents said not to do: he went away for a year to study, ended up staying four years, and came home with a doctorate in Physics and an American bride.
Q: Where had he been living prior to that?
PN: Here in Aachen. He went to the RWTH Aachen University. He doesn’t come from Aachen; he comes from a small town near Dortmund. He was studying Physics in Aachen and then went to MIT on a German government scholarship. We got married in the U.S., then came back here.
Q: When did you get married?
Q: Oh! The year you got your Ph.D.—you celebrated by getting married.
PN: Yep. All in the matter of two months: I got married, I finished my Ph.D., and we came here to Germany. And I have been in Germany ever since then.
Q: Wow. That was a big decision and a big challenge.
PN: Yeah, but I was 25 years old and what did I know about life? You just go with the flow. Dieter said: I’m going home to Germany and I said OK. I never, ever imagined it would be forever. I thought we would be moving around, doing different things. Suddenly, it’s 32 years later and I am still here. You know, I sometimes have to shake myself and ask: how did that happen?
Q: But it has been a good 32 years.
PN: It has been great! I feel at home. I feel that this is a second country I belong to, at least as much as I belong to the U.S., even though I remain something of an ‘exotic’ – we speak English at home, for example. One small irritation is that, while I think I am the perfect candidate for dual citizenship, Germany does not allow dual citizenship for non-Europeans, unfortunately. The only way to become a German citizen would be for me to give up my American citizenship and I have no intention of ever doing that. It is something I have talked to officials about, wherever I could, trying to encourage a more open attitude towards people like me, who are definitely making a life here, paying taxes, contributing to the community, and should be allowed to vote. Citizenship to me means, among other things, being allowed to vote in elections. It remains a little bit sad for me that I cannot do that here. I make up for it by voting in the U.S. But maybe it will change.
Q: I’m sure you raise our turn-out by doing that. How did you acquire German?
PN: I learned it here. It was learning by doing. Part of it was that once I got here, I couldn’t find a job. I had just finished my Ph.D. As an academic, I was considered both terribly over-qualified for the kinds of jobs I was trying to get, and at the same time terribly under-qualified, because I was a theoretical linguist. There were no open positions at the university at that time, so I was looking to do something else and I wasn’t trained for something else, in the German understanding of having the right “certificates”. With nothing else to do, I went to the Goethe Institute for a couple of months, where I met another American who was working at Merrill Lynch in Frankfurt. From that person I learned that they were looking for somebody in their foreign exchange department, and the main requirement was to be able to speak English. Well, I could do that, and so I started working for Merrill Lynch in Frankfurt in 1984.
Q: That was before telework. How did you manage that?
PN: We weren’t living in Aachen then. At that time Dieter had a position as a post-doc at the University of Mainz, and we lived near Mainz. From there it was an easy train ride to Frankfurt. We did that just for a while. Actually, that’s how I got into the rest of my career. At Merrill Lynch at that time there were no computers. We did everything with pencil and paper. Dieter and I, having come from MIT and the world of technology and having had access to the state of the art, were shocked to discover the situation at Merrill Lynch. So I offered to write them little calculation programs. It was again learning by doing. I didn’t know how to program, but I had an idea of what to do and Dieter is a great computer programmer, so he helped me in the evenings and we wrote the first programs used in forex—foreign exchange—just to run calculations of what we had done during the day. Nothing big or important, but at least it got me started and after I had worked there for a year and a half or so, I started applying for computer programming jobs and ultimately got one in Stuttgart. So we moved to Leonberg, near Stuttgart.
Q: Who did you work for there?
PN: I worked for Standard Elektrik Lorenz (SEL). They are now a subsidiary of Alcatel. At that time they were a large German company producing telephones and radios and eventually PCs, which is where I came in, working on software in research and development. I did that for several years until our first child was born. It was a great team; R&D at that time was developing whatever it was they told us to develop. One project involved radio telephones for North Africa. This was before cell phones. They would have radio stations transmitting signals from place to place and we were developing the user interface. And that was when I really learned German!
Q: When was that?
PN: That was from 1985 until 1989, when our oldest son, Kai, was born. Germany being a wonderful place for employed mothers—maternity benefits were so generous, even at that time—I was able to take about a year off with Kai. Two more sons were born, Jan in 1991 and Mark in 1993. I stayed at home with them for about 5 years. In 1994, Dieter, who had been working at a company in Stuttgart, was offered a position directing an operation in Aachen. So we moved up to Aachen in 1994.
Q: The position in Aachen was not at the university, right?
PN: Right. He was working as a software consultant for a company called IKOSS out of Stuttgart, which had a subsidiary in Aachen. He came to open a new department here. In 1996 Dieter decided to leave IKOSS to open his own consulting company. By that time I had re-joined the workforce as a free-lance programmer. So I joined his company then: first doing some programming, but then taking over the business side. Dieter did the technical management and I did the business management.
Q: By then, the sister city relationship between Aachen and Arlington had been launched. How did you come to intersect with it?
PN: I heard about the sister city relationship from Kiko Kösters, who was my gynecologist at the time. He suggested I come to a meeting and I was introduced to Traudl [Kösters, member of the Aachen-Arlington leadership team]. Heinrich Friedhoff was still the president at that time and Traudl was the vice-president. I was charmed, just thrilled. That was the first time in the years I had been in Germany that I felt, all the sudden, that the “American side” of me had an outlet. Of course I was always an American living in Germany. Now I had a chance to interact with Germans and Americans in a way that made being American central to what was being done. Meeting the Partnerschaftskomitee was pure serendipity.
Q: What year was this?
PN: I have to look this up, but I think it was 1998.
Q: You mentioned having been exotic as an American here. Talk about the demographics here then, and the texture of society, the Menschenlandschaft.
PN: There were, of course, other Americans in Aachen. However, I was meeting people from the position of being a German wife. Through that prism, I didn’t meet that many Americans. Curiously enough, however, when we moved here to Roetgen in September 1994, it happened that in the very same week, another American moved in down the street. The woman has become my good friend; her name is Joanie Blümich. Similar situation, married to a German man. We found out because neighbors kept saying to each of us “there is another American here.” In this small village, our neighbors are never sure which of the two Americans each of us is. We look fairly alike—we have short dark hair, we both wear glasses. For a long time, she had a dog and we didn’t, so it was: are you the American with the dog, or are you the other one? That’s how we were distinguished. I found that so amusing. Aside from that connection, I didn’t come across many other Americans. Sister cities opened up a whole dimension of my life that I hadn’t had before. It was very welcome.
Q: Before we proceed with this, describe the physical space surrounding you here in Roetgen. Aachen, at roughly 250,000 population, is bigger than Arlington County, but it is concentrated in the city. Then you have these outlying villages, of which Roetgen is one.
PN: We chose this place to live because we had three small kids and wanted to have room and quiet. We’re hikers. We like to be outside. We had a vegetable garden for many years. We’re nature people and it just seemed like having a city just ten miles away with all the amenities you could want, but living out here where it is totally quiet just really appealed to us. Also, the department Dieter was taking over was halfway between here and Aachen.
Q: If I am not mistaken, when I was driving over here I noticed a sign referring to an attribute of the physical landscape, the hohe Venn.
PN: Yes. This is the high Venn, a landscape of high moors and heather. It is part of the Eifel region of Germany, a series of volcanic remains and moors that extends way past Trier to our south. In Roetgen, we are on the north edge of the Eifel. It’s not Aachen yet; Aachen has its own distinct ecology. The Eifel was historically a fairly poor area. The people were rugged; the weather was rugged. You did what you needed to get by. I still feel that about my neighbors. They are people that are down to earth; they deal with what comes up; they are straightforward; they are not flashy. And I like that about them. And I think that describes this area in general. We are higher than Aachen and colder, which means that we get more snow in winter than Aachen does and we are always a little cooler than Aachen. It’s a good combination: I commute to Aachen, work my day, then return here to the woods. On the drive you smell the fresh air and it’s quiet. It’s great for hiking. We have the woods right back here. It was also a great thing for our kids. There were 1200 people here when we moved in; slightly more now. Everybody knew everybody else. The kids ran around in the woods. They played in the creek—you know, that idyllic thing you would not find in very many places in the U.S. anymore. You find a little more of it in Germany, but even Aachen kids don’t run around as wild.
Q: Where is the school?
PN: The elementary school was in the main part of town, five minutes by bus. All the kids were collected on a nearby street corner. For secondary school you have two choices. You can go south into the Eifel—more protected, more idyllic—or you can go into Aachen. The bus to Aachen leaves at 7:00 each morning and every kid being schooled in Aachen is on that bus. It’s standing room only. We chose a school in Aachen where the kids were in a bi-lingual French program. We decided that they have English anyway, as it is the language we speak at home, and German comes anyway, with all of our friends and relatives. We told them they couldn’t start with English as a foreign language, because that meant that they would never actually learn a foreign language that way. The bi-lingual French program gave them the opportunity to learn how to learn a language. All three struggled and didn’t end up really liking French that much, but they all made it through the program. Including, incidentally, several exchange trips to France, and our hosting many French students across the years.
Q: So they are all tri-lingual?
PN: All of them are tri-lingual. At least latently tri-lingual and could reactivate the French if they wanted to.
Q: Also, especially on this day, when the Charlemagne peace prize was conferred on a local son, European Parliament president, Martin Schulz from Würselen, it is relevant to point out that this is a place where three countries come together.
PN: It is. We are in the tri-border area [Belgium, Netherlands, Germany] anyway. That’s significant here. It’s not an accident that the third language was French. We are five kilometers from Belgium here. In fact, during World War II, in the creek that runs along the next street, this was the border area where a lot of smuggling went on. Some of our neighbors still remember the smuggling routes. They point out houses that were safe houses or smuggling houses. That history continues to resonate today. We are not very far—about 10 Km—from Hürtgenwald [scene of one of the U.S. forces bloodiest engagements in Germany], so the presence of the war is palpable, also because of the borders. The border with Netherlands is also just a few kilometers away. So language has always been important here. I’m a linguist, so I think language is important anyway. Together with languages, this area is immeasurably enriched by its multiculturality.
Q: How do you think this affects the tenor of the community?
PN: I don’t want to be too hasty in drawing generalizations, since I have not lived in that many places in Germany, but I think people here are used to people like you and me—they’re a little bit different, but that’s OK, because there are people around who are different. All of us cross the borders, for instance to Belgium, for certain amenities—for the delicious cakes and the good Belgian beer. There are the markets in nearby Maastricht in Holland, where you can get good vegetables and cheeses. We have learned to do this as a matter of course, which means that you live valuing something that is outside of your own community. There is this give-and-take that I personally really like. And of course, we lived here long enough to remember border formalities. I can remember not taking my passport one time, forgetting that the friends we were visiting in the Aachen region lived across the border–and not being able to cross, being left at the border while my companions collected our friends and brought them back over to Germany, so that we could visit together. Those things were in the early 1990s. That fell by the wayside with the implementation of the Schengen treaties. As did my habit of always carrying three wallets in my bag, one for each of the national currencies—Belgian francs, Dutch guilders, German marks—once Euro coins and notes were introduced in 2002. That was exciting and made a real difference in our lives. To come back to your point, these things have become part of the daily fabric of life. We are so used to them, we don’t notice them so much. But if you are in Belgium, the houses look different and this bring variety that makes the people here more tolerant, more open to differences. I like the people of the Aachen region, the ones I know. I consider myself part of Aachen. People are friendly; they’re curious. I like that about them.
Q: We are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and you mentioned you were born on May 8, the day that the Nazi German government surrendered and marks Allied victory in Europe in 1945.
PN: The thing that really astonishes me is when I hear 70 years, it seems so long ago and then I look at the date and realize that is only twelve years older than me.
Q: You also mentioned your close proximity to the Hürtgenwald, which I think was the site of a particularly bloody engagement in 1944.
PN: There have been some documentaries and I have learned a lot about it in this past year. It was an astonishing, depressing, horrible battle which lasted months and cost tens of thousands of people their lives. Living here now, I can’t imagine that; I can’t imagine that with our neighbors. The Belgians and the Dutch and the Germans are here together and a mere 70 years ago that could have been different. It boggles my mind.
Q: Aside from the bullet holes you can still see in the façade of the Aachen cathedral, there are other reminders of war nearby, right?—tank traps…
PN: Oh, yes, the tank traps are still here and have evolved into biotopes. They were left there intentionally as a reminder. There used to be a sign, just before you turned off the main road into the woods, which read: “the war started here, too. You are part of peace. Don’t ever forget this.” Every time we had visitors we stopped at that sign and showed them the concrete remains and told them: this is important.
Q: So, the barriers literally ran right through this village?
PN: In our town of Roetgen, yes, though not in this neighborhood.
Q: Well, with all this under our belt, we are ready to talk about your sister city experience. You learned about it first from Kiko.
PN: I did. Sister cities Aachen-Arlington has enriched my life personally in unimaginable ways. It gave me a sense of belonging for the American part of my self. I am ‘Germanized’ in a lot of ways by now; I am no longer a typical American. Often, when I speak German, people know that I am foreign, but not necessarily that I am American. I’ve been married in a completely German environment, with German relatives and German holidays and German traditions for the last 30 years. There is that part of me. But meeting the Americans and being involved with them to share a bi-culturality and treasure that—it has added richness to my life, I think to the lives of my whole family, but to me in particular.
Q: Trace it out for us. How did you become engaged in the sister city relationship?
PN: I became engaged through Traudl Kösters and Heinrich Friedhoff at the moment when their board was having elections to replenish the leadership. They asked me if I would become vice-president and I did. I served as vice-president under Traudl Kösters for about six years starting in 1998. I learned an immense amount from her about how you do things, how you organize, what’s important. I took over responsibilities as things came up and tried to get people involved.
During that period, in 1999, John McCracken approached the sister city committee and asked if we would be interested in an elementary school exchange. The idea resonated with me; I jumped at the chance and said yes, let’s do it! I needed to talk the rest of the Partnerschaftskomitee into it, a bit; I am not sure they were equally enthusiastic. After all, we already had a thriving high school exchange at that point. So I began working on it, and we started the exchange at Easter 2000, with three kids from Arlington in Aachen. Then it just took off. I know you are aware that there were 30 youngsters and their parents from Arlington here last year, but we have hosted as many as 45 families at a time. We feel that it is a defining program in our relationship. It has touched the lives of so many kids in Aachen, including several who are now my students at university. It’s a funny thing: they will come in and my reaction will be, oh my goodness, there they are, all grown up, ten or twelve years later.
From the beginning it was a great program, conceived with the idea that the child is accompanied by a parent, with the intention of involving families. And we wanted to let kids understand a couple of things—that people in the other country are a lot like they are; that foreign languages are important to be able to learn and communicate with somebody else; and that you can go out of your own environment and discover something new and learn something by it. Those were the things that I thought were important about the program and I still think that. We have the added benefit that a lot of families become friends and stay that way, including my own. And this is what I think is so funny, how life works out: my son, Kai, who was born in 1989, was one of the first participants, one of the original three. But as it happened, on the day of the first exchange, when the Arlington people got here, he woke up with chicken pox. Luckily, we had one family on the waiting list here in Aachen, and they stepped in. Kai and I ended up going to Arlington in Fall 2000 with the first group of Aachen kids in Arlington, but matched with a new family. For me, it felt really weird to be on an exchange in the United States, in a place I knew already, because my brother had been at Georgetown University. Happily, we got the best family ever – the Frazier-Hoopers–and have been friends ever since. Even under those circumstances, it’s so strange, but if you open yourself to opportunity, good things happen. Kai and ‘RW’ Hooper, his partner in Arlington, are still friends. They saw each other a couple of years ago when Kai was traveling through the States, and that’s something really nice to come out of this program.
Q: How did you arrive at the idea that you should proceed in this fashion, focusing on kids of this age with a parent? Was the idea already developed philosophically by John McCracken?
PN: No, not at all. John’s invitation was a general one. He had in mind 5th graders, the last grade at Nottingham Elementary School, where he knew people. We countered with a proposal to focus on 6th graders, because at the time Aachen kids started learning English in 5th grade. Our view was that in 5th grade the kids were too young, because they only had a month or two of English. In Nottingham, they were going on to middle school after 5th grade. So it had to be the 5th graders there and the 6th graders here. From there, we just developed the program as we went along. We were wary of taking kids without a parent. They were just too young. So we decided on the one-parent-one-child formula in each exchange pair. Nottingham said OK; John McCracken said OK, and we decided to try it out. And it worked out well, so we kept that format. Everybody on each side was so excited to say: this is how I live; this is my place; and let me show it to you—on the level of the kids, who shared toys, who shared giggles, who shared playing around, on the level of the parents who told each other their life-stories. If you meet a friend from your own culture, there are short-cuts. You say a few words and you know where they’re coming from. But not if it was a completely new experience. Long conversations were common. I watched this happen over and over again down through the years. There was a real sharing of “this is what is important to me.” But there was no pre-ordained plan; it just worked out.
Q: And Heidi Addison became your counterpart in staging at some point.
PN: That’s right. She came in about the second or third year. Heidi’s older daughter participated and Heidi started working with us. She became and remains the heart of the program. She is present; she is thoughtful; she is careful. She is super-organized. Working with her made it easy. We could talk for a few seconds and have a plan. We could exchange a few remarks and know, OK, we’re not going to do this particular activity; next time we want to focus on this, instead. I did it for seven years. When Reinhard Germ and his daughter participated, he was absolutely enthusiastic about the program, and I asked him to help me. The numbers were getting big; I was leery about doing it all on my own. If something goes wrong and happens to one organizer, there’s nothing else in place. So it was good to get Reinhard on board. Ultimately, he took over; after my own kids were past that age, it was time for me to move on. Along the way we met so many great people. They supported us.
Q: I think you wanted to introduce a topic that we had talked about last night at dinner.
NP: Yes. It is about the “9/11 effect.”
Q: Right. You launched the elementary exchange program not much more than a year prior to the attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington on September 11, 2001.
NP: Our second group was going to Arlington in the fall of 2001. At the same time, we were organizing an exchange between the youth orchestras of Aachen and Arlington, and both activities were taking place at the same time.
Q: How big was the elementary group that year?
NP: We had about 12 kids and the 12 corresponding parents. The 9/11 attacks happened in the middle of the youth orchestra rehearsals. I had already gone to the orchestra rehearsals and talked to the parents about what they could expect in Arlington. All of the kids were going to live in host families. Heidi Addison and Jim Rowland found places for most of the kids and the orchestra leaders were involved, too, so that everybody was assigned a host family. Everything had been set up and then 9/11 intervened. The response here in Aachen was that the parents of the youth orchestra were worried. They wanted to cancel. A defining moment came when I went to a rehearsal attended by the kids and their parents. The sentiment expressed by parents was to cancel because it was too dangerous. And I remember this moment where one of the kids in the orchestra stood up and said: I am not going to let the terrorists take this away from me—we have got to show them that we are strong. And then another kid in the orchestra stood up and said: me, too. And then another kid. All the sudden, they were popping up. Voices belonging to them said: I’m going, I’m going, me, too, I’m going. It was one of those moments when you really just get goosebumps. Ultimately, with the understanding of their parents, we took the orchestra with all the kids to Arlington. The same thing was happening in the elementary school. A couple of families pulled out because they thought it was too dangerous and decided not to go. But by and large the tenor was: we’re not going to let this act of terrorism influence how we live our lives. That meant that just a few weeks after the traumatic attacks, in the last days of September 2001, we were on a plane with all the youth orchestra, their conductors, our exchange people and their parents—a big plane full of people.
One of the highlights of our visits was the big memorial service at Yorktown High School, out on the football field. All of the orchestra members attended and got to see something I never expected them to see—something completely, uniquely American and something that was important historically. The memorial service featured the reading of the names of those killed in the attacks; there were speeches; all in a football field outside, something they never expected to see. The visiting Germans were quite impressed—not in the sense of “that was a great performance”—but experiencing how Americans in this community reacted, mourning the dead and dealing with this tragedy. That was really important. It was a cultural moment that they otherwise never would have gotten to see. It’s not the same to see something like that on TV. They were a part of it. They were subdued at the end and they were affected by it. That’s one of the things that happens when you get the two cultures coming together at a moment like that.
Q: Profoundly moving.
PN: It was.
Q: I wonder if that is the same program Jim Rowland describes in his interview for this project.
PN: Yes, it is. He was one of the ones getting housing and organizing festivities, picnics and stuff, for the band members. He found rehearsal space for them.
Q: How old were the kids in the youth orchestra?
PN: As young as 12 and as old as 20, though most were 16 or 17 years old.
Q: There was a group of kids performing in front of the Rathaus as part of the Charlemagne Prize festivities this afternoon.
PN: Yes, but that was a school group selected for the occasion. So, those were my main activities with the Aachen-Arlington sister city relationship—being vice-president, and the elementary exchange. Inge Marquardt followed me as vice president. In 2007 I obtained a full-time position at RWTH (Aachen University), and now serve as the liaison between the sister city committee and the university.
Q: We should probably have a conversation about that.
PN: There are, of course, programs connecting the Fachhochschule (School of Applied Sciences) to Arlington for which Alfred Joepen is the key person. There is a program with Marymount University. RWTH would be more than interested in setting something up. I would be happy to talk to anyone who would like to pursue this!
Q: So, something momentous happened to you, career-wise, picking up that thread again.
PN: In 2002, I realized I needed a break from computers and wanted to do something with linguistics again. So, I started teaching part-time at both the FH (School of Applied Sciences) and the RWTH. I did contract teaching from 2002-2007. And then in 2007 I was offered a full-time position at the university teaching English and Linguistics. That’s where I have been ever since.
Q: “English” goes under the name of “Anglistik” here, right? How would you describe that for our American readership?
PN: It’s one of those quirky differences. The Germans are clear on the distinction between “English” and “American,” and never the twain shall meet. Hundreds of times in my years in Germany I have said, well, I can speak English. Invariably, the person I am speaking with looks at me quizzically and retorts, no you don’t, you speak American. It’s such an odd thing but is so ingrained in Germany. Actually, my department is called the Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik — “English and American Studies” would be the English translation. We do two things in my department: we train teachers of English for high school and we have a Literature and Linguistics BA/MA program.
As with sister-cities, at RWTH I felt an American piece of me coming back into play. That has increased since I have been at the university. I speak English in all of my classes. All of the classes in our department are held in English. There is a real English-American culture, a great international group.
Q: You describe this as coming full circle in a certain way. Let me try to take this thought a step further by asking what the impact of the sister city experience is on your development.
PN: It is at the heart. That’s why I treasure this so much. This has given me not only the opportunity to be an American in Germany. It has also allowed me to be a German in America. When I have gone to Arlington, I went as a representative of Aachen. I haven’t been the American there. I’ve been the German. That has let me meld both sides. The fact that we entertain guests from Arlington means we have these absolutely beautiful friendships. I have the incredible luck to live in one country, but I have a social circle and an important part of my life is from both places—and not just because I come from there and have family there, but because I have developed friendships over the years that are just as alive and just as rich and almost just as frequent. I see some Arlington people almost as frequently as I see some in Aachen. It’s both things coming together in one group that shares both characteristics.
Q: You have described a special status—a kind of apotheosis of the sister city idea.
PN: It is. And it happens because I happen to be in this place and not in any other place. I’m not sure I would have done this the same way if I were living somewhere else. When I was in high school I did exchanges. I came from Phoenix. I was in Mexico on exchanges. But here, I get to be at the center of both places. I can talk to the Americans and chuckle with them about the quirkiness of Germans and I can chuckle with the Germans about the quirkiness of Americans, and know in both cases that I know what I am talking about, though I am sure I have some blind spots.
Q: We all do, but what is fascinating to me is that you are describing the interior arrangement of this cultural confluence. If one were to attempt to describe what the sister city idea is trying to achieve, what you have said comes very close to the ideal.
PN: It would. I know this sounds completely like a clichee, but any thriving sister city relationship allows people, individuals, to come together and share parts of their lives. For me, that means a couple of things. It means we are ambassadors, in an informal way, of the culture we are representing. We are representing in the sister city relationship. But it also means that, to take the example of the elementary exchange, kids from one sister city partner learn the kids of another sister city partner; it makes me believe that years down the road, they are never going to shoot at each other. I find that makes me really emotional. But it just seems like that’s at the heart of this. I know one of the founding ideas was sharing culture, specifically sharing culture for peace. I think that is coming out here. In our sister city relationship and in all the other sister cities that Aachen has. And in all the ones that Arlington has, there is the idea that we come together to build, I think the word is friendship. To build friendship. But in doing so, we give each other something. We share something that without each other, we would never get to. I would never know. Good. For me it is different, because I am involved in the sister city of my own homeland. If I were involved in Aachen’s sister city relationship with Toledo (Spain), say, I would still be saying this, but not quite with the same centrality. But I would still be saying: I am bringing the German things and learning about the Toledo things: what—what are the attitudes, what’s important, what do you believe, how do you live? That’s what I think the whole sister city ideal is about. And I personally think it works.
Q: We have well and truly made the transition already to the final phase of our conversation. Let me press forward by asking you about your sense of the continuing relevance of the sister city idea in an age of technological developments enabling instantaneous communication. In the 1950s the level of “foreignness” was somehow greater, even in a land of immigration like the United States.
PN: But it’s different. Because if I sit down with you, my sister city partner, over a cup of coffee, and I can watch your face, and I can see your movements, and I can show you this is me and this is my environment, this is different than a Skype interview, or a documentary, or using my phone to have a video conference. It doesn’t have the same quality. I’m convinced that we need individual-to-individual, person-to-person contacts in order to really understand each other. I’m going back to the kids again, because I think that’s especially the case there. Watching two kids, one of whom has English consisting of a few words and one whose German also consists of a few words, look at each other and then share a piece of gum and grin. Or crawl around together on the floor, Or climb a tree. Or go swimming together. That’s irreplaceable. You can have all the modern technology you want, but that doesn’t come through. And so I think there is a great relevance for this today, also because these documentaries and technical connections only give us part of the picture. We see slices and those slices are interesting and quite possibly accurate and all of that, but it doesn’t replace one person communicating with another. And so my prediction is that sister cities will actually grow stronger, not weaker, because I think that we’ve got all these technical things and we can get around easily. Flying to Washington today is much easier than it was 25 years ago…though it might not be as pleasant [laughter]. We are a more mobile society and I think that encourages the person-to-person dimension and lets us see that it is important. So I think that sister city will have, if not more meaning, then at least meaning in a new direction. It lets us see that it’s not only via machines that we are people together in the modern world. We’ve got to actually meet each other. You can’t do that without having something like this. It starts with, like I said, having a cup of coffee, with the mother of a child you’ve just met in a different culture. Or with somebody who comes and is doing a folk dance and then you get to have a glass of wine with them afterwards and you discover in what ways you’re alike and in what ways you aren’t. You can’t replace it with the other. I think there’s a great future here.
Q: You make a compelling positive case for sister cities. Let me try to sharpen it by reversing the polarity of my overture that technology substitutes for the people-to-people experience. Now I will take the other, more critical tack, by stating that technology actually does damage by pre-framing experience and presenting partiality as some sort of objective projection. In handing the frame to someone else, do you not disempower yourself in interpreting reality?
PN: Of course. You undermine your capacities. You hand over to somebody else the choice of focus, which might not be your focus. I can only be my authentic self when it is one-to-one. You can’t do that with someone else’s chopping up of reality. So we need this more, not less. In all of our use of e-mail and social networks, where we don’t have people-to-people, I don’t think we are getting better at communicating. We need practice in every social circle that we’re in—in confronting a real person and in dealing with a real person. I would make the same plea to get off Facebook and start talking to people again.
Q: Where do we go from here with the sister city idea?
PN: One thing we need to do is to discover ways to get more people involved. Often, it’s the same people revving up in different activities. We need to involve more people. In small ways. Maybe one way to do it is expanding the diversity of activities. We just mentioned the universities. What about getting students involved? We used to have some sort of baseball exchange. We have the Aachen Greyhounds baseball club. Maybe we need another sports exchange. My idea is that young people are central to this. Something else about my history that is possibly relevant here: all through my childhood my parents had exchange students stay at our houses. In church if they said we’ve got a bunch of Filipino nurses coming and need to stay for four nights, or if our town said there were Japanese students coming, my parents opened their house. We always had people in our house, always had guests, teenagers, students, young people, and I think that experience shaped my idea that you can reach out to people and share with them without really knowing them. You could make a gesture, an overture. You could welcome them. And you always go away with more than you put in. My conviction is that whatever you are doing, they bring so much richness into your life. Every year we had lots of exchange groups. Going back to sister cities, getting young people involved in such things now fosters this idea, makes it more possible for them in their own turn do that down the road somewhere. Many Germans I meet here tell me they never had these kinds of exchange opportunities. So I say let’s make those opportunities. That is where sister cities have a particular strength.
Q: Sentiment in Germany about America and Americans measured in opinion polling fluctuates. It was low in the first decade of the 2000s, came back, and has now fallen again. How does your “amphibian” status work in interacting with both Germans and Americans about the aggregate views each of the other in that context?
PN: Let me relate one thing that happened that particularly impressed me. Immediately after 9/11 Oberbürgermeister Jürgen Linden and Traudl Kösters wrote to the Arlington government and said: if we can help in any way, if we can take kids to let them stay here for a while if they need it because of some horrible thing happening in their own personal environment, we’ll do it. We had people lining up in Aachen with offers of help, to take people into their homes, whatever is needed. We have neighbors here—I’ll never forget this—a man who lived across the street that I say hello to but didn’t really know, came to the door two days after 9/11, rang the doorbell, stuck out his hand and said: I just wanted to say I am with you and I am so sorry. And you think, wow. That is the high point. Then there were all the things that led to the low point and we are not out of it yet with all the things linked to the NSA. I definitely felt the amphibian status to which you alluded. People care. It’s back to the media. People confide: I read these things about the Americans—they’re a bunch of spies, they’re this and that. That’s the public image that comes through the media. But then you look at people who are involved and who know people in Arlington and they don’t say that anymore. They stopped saying THE Americans. They might say that some of them are, but they temper that because of their experience. It is knowing individuals that lets you look away from the generalities. Remember dinner last night. I said to ones sitting near me: Germans will sit forever at dinner. That’s borne of this culture. Observing that not in a critical way, but as a cultural artifact, lets me mediate between the two cultures. It’s also a role I like to have for myself because I feel at home in both cultures. So I can also explain to the Germans something about Americans who won’t stay as long at dinner during the week. That’s just something to know. It’s not a criticism. It’s information that facilitates the coming together.
Q: We also wanted to talk about the visit of President Bill Clinton to receive the Charlemagne Prize in June 2000.
PN: Right. You had asked me about particularly memorable moments about the sister city relationship. Through my sister city involvement we were invited to meetings and saw the preparations being made. I was in the background, but knew more than your average citizen about what was going on when Clinton came. Then we ended up attending the ceremony with Clinton. What I was saying last night is that I remember a couple of snapshot moments. The security preparations were impressive. They soldered the manhole covers and the like. Then there were receptions for the advance team. Up to the day before Ascension Thursday, the day of the event, it was raining, as it often is in Aachen. Rain was predicted for that day as well and everybody brought umbrellas. But the day dawned brilliantly sunny. That made a big difference because we were out in the Katschhof, the courtyard between cathedral and town hall, in the open. There were just too many to fit into the coronation room in the Rathaus. All the dignitaries filed in, what a thrill, much like today—Queen Beatrix and many others, people I had only ever seen on TV before. Now, the flashback I related is the one statement I will make in this interview that portrays me as an unalloyed American. Bill Clinton stood up and for me embodied the power of the United States of America. I was very proud. I can happily admit that. Germans, as is their wont, waited warily for his comments. Would it be the typical American blah blah? But it wasn’t. It was a deeper speech, harkening back to the spirit of Charlemagne and the spirit of Europe and the spirit of standing together, and the spirit of knowledge. Those are the things that I remember. Once his speech was done and he stopped, and you would expect everybody to break out into applause, they didn’t. It was totally silent. I had never seen the like. You sensed that everyone was taking a breath and letting what he said settle. And when the applause started, it was one here and there, then a couple more and then escalated to thundering applause. I think that was my most American moment ever in Aachen. I wanted to say that because I am so much in the German environment here. I was just proud. He did a good job. It was a good moment, one that brought him a lot of German sympathy that he might not have had beforehand. Some had questioned what he had done to deserve the award. Ostensibly, it was for his interventions in Ireland. It was also the 50th Charlemagne Prize with its own set of expectations. Never were Americans and Aachen so side-by-side as on that day. That’s what I wanted to tell you.
Q: This fits nicely into your commentary about fluctuating sentiment vis-à-vis America.
PN: We are possibly at a low point with this sentiment. If you talk to people, they will aver to being at a low point and they have generalities. But if you talk to people who are involved in the sister city relationship, they always temper that with: well, those are just some of the people, or that’s the government, or that’s something else, because I know the Americans aren’t like that in general. It’s the fact that they can say that and look beyond the generality that the sister city experience brings. It makes you aware that there are individuals involved and not just groups, and not just labels, and not just Culture with a capital C and Nation with a capital N. Sister cities has enriched my life and the lives of so many people; it has got to keep going. I’m all for it. Sister city rocks.