During my last University years, I joined two cultural studies groups, led by members of The Third Europe Foundation in Timisoara. One of them focused on literature studies, while the other carried on social study to achieve an anthropological view on history. With all the debate today in the UK regarding immigration and countries like Romania, my home land, I’m not sure of how The Third Europe sounds, but for me it has a lot of meaning. Let’s see if we can decipher it together.
How many Europes do you know today? Yes, of course, we can think of Europe as being a big book with so many pages of history, culture, social changes, economy, geography and so on. But generally we speak of Western and Eastern Europe. Well, apparently this leaves things out and the people who started the named foundation were aiming at filling the gaps. This “Third Europe” is actually what has been torn apart by the two wars of the XX century, and ever since the whole world seems to have forgotten about it. It is that part of the continent which has been more or less covered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one which many of the people living in the countries nowadays considered Eastern Europe are still praising in their memories, even if only for the cultural heritage. It’s Central Europe.
While some people might have heard or known of it, most haven’t, not even in the countries politically transferred behind the Iron Wall after WWII. Ask a Romanian which countries are part of Central Europe and the chances are very slim they would pick out their own.
To tell you the truth, I have to admit myself that I had no idea whatsoever before attending these two cultural studies groups. Then I had the chance to learn from people like Mircea Mihaies, Adriana Babeti, Smaranda Vultur, most of them professors I’d known from the University, about the heritage of this lost Europe. It was then when I understood where the high esteem people in Banat (Western part of Romania) had on German ethnics came from. And at the same time I could see that this lost Europe was never, in truth, found, ironic as it may sound. The paradox of Central Europe is that it has always existed, but never fully acknowledged until it came apart, was wrapped and buried. People from the countries which became part of the communist block were indeed looking with high esteem towards Wien and the “Kaiserlich und Koniglich” (Imperial and Royal) power, simply because it brought a lot of good investment in their lands. At the same time, apparently the Austrian Germans and the Hungarians, the two ruling nations, were not so happy anymore, looking further on the map.
The world I’ve studied about more than ten years ago and to which my thoughts go back now was as such the heir of an Imperial and Royal dream, a Utopia in which people worked in a joined effort for the benefit of all nations living and prospering together. Ordinary men and women from Timisoara and Praha and Warsaw, be them locals or German colonists, played their part in this world built on the music of Strauss and the image of a benevolent ruler, emperor Franz Joseph, as Encyclopaedia Britannica states: “ he was to his civil servants an unequaled model of exactitude, devotion to duty, and justice”.
(lamps in Union Square in Timisoara, probably not the first ones in Europe, though they might as well be)
Born and raised in Banat, a region which was highly colonised with Austrian Germans, and with the colonists came investment in the mining industry, as well as agriculture, tourism, education and infrastructure, I grew up praising this heritage. I have as well inherited that sense of pride all people in Banat had, summarized by the saying “Banat is the crown” (“Tot Banatu-i fruncea”). One of the last regions to be incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, taken back from the Ottomans, who have conquered it from the Hungarians (complicated, isn’t it?), Banat saw some of the best projects in Europe of those times. How many people know today that in 1884 my home city, Timisoara, was the first city in Europe, yes, in Europe with electric light on the streets? There were about 731 lamps to start with. And this is not the only premiere in Timisoara that gave local people that sense of pride and of being the chosen ones, as well as the ones capable of bringing the Imperial and Royal dream to life, in peace with all their neighbours, no matter if they were Serbian, Hungarian, Jewish or German.
By joining The Third Europe groups I could now base my pride as a Banat born and raised person on something certain, on historical facts, as well as understand the ups and downs history has brought us to. Funny enough, it wasn’t the literature studies I was most drawn to and most involved in, but the anthropological ones.
The main project going on at the time was based on collecting stories from the elderly locals about how life was and how things happened. We were using the “life story” method, encouraging people to tell us about their lives as they pleased, with little to no intervention from ourselves, not to alter their stream of thoughts and memory. All we did was to politely start a conversation and briefly explain that we’d like to know how life was for them, and then just use our active listening skills, encourage them to keep telling whatever they wanted, and politely support their effort. Of course we would record what they told us, with their permission. In the end books were published about Germans in Banat, or other ethnic communities. The study was based on recurring things in people’s stories. What they thought was important and mattered and was worth sharing in their lives spoke about the thinking of their time, about how people experienced history first hand, what made a great impression on them, what their traumas, dreams and disappointments were. This was history from live memory.
Now I remembered all these because I’m about to write about my life story, in a way that maybe can help other people see more in me and other nationals from the same home country than just a Romanian dreaded as the poorest of Europe, unskilled and ready to do anything to get a piece of the cake, involving mostly crime, milking the British benefits system or stealing a job of a worthy Briton. Maybe my life story can tell more about these Romanian people without a face, “vermin” as some say, coming from a “rat hole” as others claim, maybe it can show that Romanians like me have a lot to offer to whoever wants to learn from other’s experience, history, hopes and dreams and, in the end, their humanity.
Saying stories are like windows to the world is probably a cliché. But maybe when visualising this cliché sometimes we don’t grasp all its meanings: a window is an opening to another world/side/image, but at the same time it’s a mirror. We might not always consciously see our reflection in it, but it’s always there and we do grasp it, even if just with a glimpse we don’t even realize dangling at the corner of our eyes.