Since 1966, the partnership between Reutlingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and my own home-town, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, UK, has been a source of cultural and economic enrichment for both. Nestled at the confluence of the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal and within sight of Liverpool, the Port enjoyed a postwar economic boom and rapid growth. Our town always had a more industrial and commercial demographic than well-heeled, elegant Reutlingen, though, and over the years some have felt the partnership to be a little lop-sided, if not something of a cultural mismatch. Not so. In fact, the very goal of these mid-twentieth century exchanges, set up between so many British and German towns, was to foster ‘closer people-to-people, political, cultural, educational and/or economic links’ according to the British-German Association, as well, of course, to try to overcome the deep-seated animosity of two world wars. Indeed, the experience of mutual difference was what gave twin towns and exchanges a meaning. I, for one, gained so much from our exchange and that is why I continue to advocate for it to this day.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the Port/Reutlingen town exchange grew, drawing in young people from the Port’s schools for regular trips back and forth. My own alma mater, now the Whitby High School, set up a musical and choir exchange in the 1980s with the Friedrich List Gymnasium, led by Mrs Anne Rushworth, which took me and my sister Laura to Germany for some of the most transformative experiences of our lives. I still recall my exchange partner standing in the living room of my mother’s family home in the late 1980-s, a terraced house on Overpool Road, shaking hands with a senior family member who had lived sheltered, local life there for decades and who was meeting a German for the first time since the war. Little was said, but years of history fell away, and barriers tumbled in that moment.
The exchange put me on a trajectory that saw me study German at school, pursue German as my main degree subject at Durham University, complete a PhD thesis on German literature at Trinity College Dublin and, eventually, end up working as a senior academic teaching and researching German culture at Warwick University. That career has, in turn, taken me to Austria, India, Poland, Italy, Sweden, the US and most recently Australia: and of course, as often as I can manage it, I return to Reutlingen. When Laura, who also studied languages at university, spent a year in Germany, she reconnected with a friend from exchange days and the two ended up marrying some years later. They live and work in Cambridgeshire, UK, Laura has made a career as a language teacher in schools in the region and, without the exchange, my two nephews would never have come to be. Our exchange made new people in every sense of the word.
My own time in Germany would bring the further growth. As a student during my own gap-year in Hamburg I was quite badly assaulted by a group a German Turkish youths and ended up in hospital with a concussion. It led to an ongoing obsession with the position and role of Islam in modern Germany, which has remained with me to this day, and which is at the heart of my academic work. That interest has, in turn, nurtured a deep and evolving relationship with Islam and with Muslim communities of places in which I have lived in recent years – notably the UK and Australia. German culture and language have been the catalysts that made me a more worldly person. Once again, our town exchange must take some credit, albeit indirectly, for laying the foundations for this.
The last decades have brought challenges to our twinning arrangement, though also creative and passionate responses from those dedicated to it. Drastic changes to patterns of trade and work, along with wide-ranging mass migration arising from the UK’s membership the EU, and yet further changes resulting from our departure from it in 2021, have all exerted pressure. The quite particular relationship the Port had with Reutlingen became one of many cultural shifts and economic challenges faced by our towns and thus, perhaps, less of an immediate focus for local government – certainly at the UK end. Ellesmere Port, once part of a borough with Neston, has since 2009 sat within the wider administrative unit of Chester and Cheshire West. The running and promotion of the exchange has passed to a highly engaged, voluntary Friendship Group, which testifies both to region’s changing priorities and the struggle to rearticulate the value of the exchange, but also to our town’s ongoing commitment to this enduring bond. Even after the COVID19 pandemic, during which we could barely leave our own homes, let alone travel internationally, the spark of the partnership flickered back into life, with delegations and schools resuming smaller and larger visits around the calendar. Historical change, then, both major and minor, has not so much damaged the exchange as it has prompted it to evolve.
On the educational front, the study of German in British schools and universities has contracted quite sharply since the 1990’s, in keeping with a wider, if slightly less severe decline in modern languages generally. Our district’s schools, though, have continued to teach German, buoyed in part by the real and living links with Reutlingen, now over half a century old, and the sense of mutual cultural indebtedness they bring. In the digital world of hyper-connectivity, in which information and communication platforms are instantly at our fingertips, it is perhaps seductive to think that we are better connected and are better communicators than we really are. Exchanges push us to be better in all these areas.
It is precisely for that reason they are such hard work. Teachers and volunteers must put a lot in to make them happen. The administrative issues arising from running school exchanges have grown exponentially in the last two decades. They can be overwhelming. As a pupil, I recall lying in bed at night at my exchange partners’ home on my first exchange, aged 12, tearfully wondering if I’d survive the week: they were wonderful, hospitable people, of course, and my younger self was merely working through the slightly fearful threshold of growing up and broadening my sense of self. The experience was one of deeper exchange, one which asked you to live with others, hear their languages, eat their food, to live with and live as them for a time. In an era where so many of us, not least our youngest, are so often glued to screens, exchanges are with real people and they almost invariably change us for the better. They may need so re-imagining and rationalisation. But long may they continue, evolve to meet the challenges of the twentieth-first century, and demonstrate their unique value over and again.