There is a point in the very centre of a seesaw that doesn’t move at all, as if in an effort to restore some order in the constantly changing up-and-down world around it. Although this is maybe not the most graceful of metaphors, many philosophies and entire religions are based around the idea that finding this central point of balance can lend one harmony, peace and contentment. And yet the geographical equivalent of this – the borders between countries – is often a place that gets a bad press. They are not quite one culture and not quite another and, historically at least, have a reputation as places of conflict.
Without quite meaning to, I have spent most of my life living at these balance points. I grew up amongst the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders, a place that, despite natural beauty and an indecipherable accent to match any Rob Roy fantasy, doesn’t get the same level of press as the northern Highlands. Being only a few miles from England and the southern Other, it simply isn’t Scottish enough to put on a half-decent postcard. Yet neither can we fit in with the strong northern English identity – a few thousand years of burning villages have seen to that. So we exist in a certain limbo. In Canada, I lived in a similar borderland, at the very southern tip of Vancouver Island below the 49th parallel, where people claimed they were proudly and aggressively not American despite the fast boat to Seattle and the Olympic Mountains of Washington State dominating every skyline. And now, on my year abroad as a language assistant working in a high school, I find myself in a small German village, barely a few miles from the French and Luxembourgish borders that, but for the road signs, could easily be the setting of Chocolat.
In these places where cultures collide two things tend to happen. Firstly, it is important to remember that borders are arbitrary and often a lot more recent than people might realise – for example this part of Germany was French until the 1950s. This means that there is an awful lot of crossover. This can be in terms of language: many French words make their way into the local dialect here, and the accents of men in a village pub a few miles either side of the Scottish-English border are almost indistinguishable. It can also apply in terms of societal norms: people from rural or northern Canada turn up their noses and complain that folk from the southern cities on the border with the USA (where the vast majority of Canadians live) are hardly different from Americans with regard to the TV shows they watch, the way they speak and the products they consume. By and large, this is right.
Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the second thing that happens at these borderlands is that people begin to define their culture by othering themselves from the culture across the border. In my village in Scotland, despite the English border being only a few miles away and many people even commuting across for work, local people support any team but an English one in the World Cup. A hint of an English accent in a shop can earn you a dirty look. Here in Saarland the local people have embraced the dirndl-and-lederhosen-wearing culture that, strictly speaking, was never theirs, because it allows them to not be French. The forests of British Columbia, while stunning, are almost the same as the entire US Pacific Northwest – think of Twilight – but any cheery local will tell you that the trees are uniquely Canadian, as if this gives them some kind of extra significance.
Arguably, then, in order to properly see a culture one must escape these borderlands and venture further in. However, the problem is that allowing yourself to be totally immersed in one culture can be incredibly enlightening but also very limiting. I think it is definitely possible, and even necessary, to understand a people or nation by seeing them at their most stereotypical or quintessential – I will be attending Oktoberfest and enjoying every Bierstein and bad German pop song along with the locals – but where a culture becomes most interesting is where it must face another one head on and somehow adapt.
Last week I visited Schengen, the tiny town in Luxembourg where in 1985 26 European countries signed to abolish border controls in mainland Europe. If you stand on the banks of the Mosel River, vineyards spread up the hill behind you, you can see across to Germany; a few hundred yards along the road to your right is France. Signs are in multiple languages, the flags of all the EU countries fly and cars with number-plates from at least 4 different nations flash by in relatively even number. There are probably better examples in the world of a place that epitomises this point at the middle of the seesaw, but surely is one of the most fitting. The place might lack the specific national identity of the Canadian tundra, the Highland mountains or a Montmarte café. But nevertheless there is a harmony – perhaps enhanced by the anonymity – that is unique to this borderland. After all, a life lived on the edge is so much more meaningful than a life led without ever knowing that the edges existed.
First published in The Interpreter 2/10/2016