WILL GRESSON EUROPE ENDLESS
Will Gresson explores everyday life as lived in a student accommodation called the Fforst—with its complex intricacies, multicultural diversity, and enhanced sense of collectivity.
Frankfurt (Oder) is a small town on the Oder River, right on the German-Polish border. Visually it feels typical of other towns and cities in that part of the country; a mix of Gothic and socialist-realist architecture that hints at the region’s dramatic political and social history. It’s a little known corner of the world, and yet somehow totally emblematic of both Germany, and Europe's past. The town is also home to Viadrina European University, which was established in 1991 after German reunification and is highly regarded particularly for its diverse and multicultural student body.
When I moved to Germany in 2009 from my home in New Zealand, Frankfurt (Oder) was the first place I came to. I was not a student myself; having recently graduated from the University of Auckland, I was in no hurry to return to the classroom. I had come to stay with a friend, at the time a student of Viadrina, before settling properly in Berlin only a few hours away by train. I spent roughly two weeks in Frankfurt (Oder), participating in a mock United Nations exercise as part of the University’s English and Political Studies departments while sleeping on my friend’s floor. It was during that time that I first encountered the Fforst Verbuendungshaus.
The Fforst was established by a group of students in 2006, in conjunction with a design studio called anschlaege.de. Situated on Forststraße (‘Forest Road’), Fforst is a play on both the street’s name and the official abbreviation of Frankfurt (Oder), FfO. Comprising 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartments, the repurposed apartment building is a familiar relic of the socialist housing which can be found all over the former Eastern Bloc and beyond. Over the last ten years it has emerged as a unique and socially focused attempt at providing student accommodation in the town, while also addressing issues prevalent in the wider setting of the University. Since German reunification in 1990, FfO has seen a steady decline in population, as well as dwindling economic fortunes; its story an all too common symbol of the demonstrable imbalance that exists between the formerly communist German states and their western counterparts. The initiative was imagined not only as a way to house students at Viadrina, but also to help foster a dialogue with the surrounding city through a series of coordinated events and gatherings, from group dinners and concerts to poetry slams and language courses.
The experience of living in the Fforst allowed me the opportunity to witness the intimate mechanics of trying to foster a diverse and multicultural community in an area which frequently feels at odds with that diversity, even for many of the native German students who come to study in the city. My friend and host, a German from another part of the former East, lived with two other women hailing from Poland and France. As a general rule in their small and slightly ramshackle flat, they alternated languages between their respective native tongues as well as English (all three were language students among other things), and situated throughout the flat were small yellow post-it notes with the names of things written in different languages to help with their studies.
The building itself was the perfect vessel for this exchange, not just because it provided an affordable and semi-informal space with which to build this community, but because the very nature of its architecture was explicitly fashioned to formulate an idealised notion of collective social(ist) cohabiting. Each apartment featured a bedroom for a couple, alongside one or two children’s bedrooms, a large living room and a kitchen which was designed with a purpose-built sliding window to facilitate the serving of the archetypal shared family dinner. On the ground floor of the building was a communal space, dubbed the Eventetage (‘event floor’) by the students at the Fforst. It was originally designed to be a place for the occupants of the building to come together in an attempt to engineer community ties between inhabitants during Communist times. It serves a similar function now for the Fforst residents. Also inescapable to me was the extent to which I could hear others moving around, not just in my friend’s flat but on lower floors as well. The front door scraped loudly across the concrete floor every time it was opened, the sound of it slamming shut rattling the metal handrail in the central stairwell. Lying awake at night, I could hear every time someone came home, something which was later explained to me as one of the ways in which the communities within these apartment buildings were able to police each other during the communist period. In a country where the word Stasi can still elicit a shudder of acknowledgment (even from younger Germans who never had to fear the secret police’s reach themselves), this awareness of the thin walls in the building left something of a lasting impression.
On my first evening in the building, the students gathered together in this communal space to watch a film (Lemon Tree, directed by Eran Riklis and selected by a German-Palestinian-Jordanian student), before sharing a meal and drinks afterwards. I have vivid recollections of sitting next to my friend in the middle of the room, as around me I become aware of conversations happening between students in French, Polish, German, Spanish and English. At one point, a bottle of vodka comically fashioned like a machine gun was passed around, kindly provided by one of the Polish students and described off-hand as a ‘gift from home.’ Later a bottle of Greek Ouzo followed. As I looked at this incredible collective shifting easily between languages and conversations (every student spoke at least three), it was difficult not to contrast the scenes in front of me with what I had witnessed as I came out of the train station earlier during the day, and passed through the town via taxi to the Fforst building.
The signs of the city’s economic stagnation and under-population were unavoidable, and everywhere I looked abandoned buildings and rundown apartment blocks, which bore none of the dishevelled charm of the students’ home, rose up before me. The duality of a multicultural student body at a prestigious University studying for careers that would take them far away from places like FfO, contrasted strongly with the well-intentioned efforts to foster a community that extended to the local residents of the city as well as the wider student body. The surrounding area of the Fforst betrayed the economic precarity that many locals have lived in all their lives, but particularly since the collapse of East Germany, and succinctly demonstrates the divide between those in the process of benefiting from the opportunities of globalisation with those simply left behind by the pace of change.
East Germany is a unique space in the former Eastern Bloc, and is frequently viewed as separate due to its reintegration into the rest of Germany. At the end of the communist period, it effectively ceased to exist in a way which other former Eastern Bloc countries like Poland or Romania, for example, did not. Instead, the German Democratic Republic became simply part of Germany; currently, the most economically and politically dominant nation in Europe, and in many instances the de facto lead voice in the European Union (the organisation that has come to embody the promise of globalisation on the continent). Narratives from the former East Germany are often subverted by the prosperity of contemporary Germany, in a way which fails to acknowledge that for many people the collapse of communism and the community of the Eastern Bloc as a whole left only a gaping void. The reality is that for many, there is a sense that they had greater stability and security prior to the collapse of communism; an inconvenient idea all too readily swept under the carpet each October when the country celebrates German Unity Day. While the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolises a hypothetical moment when notions of ‘East’ and ‘West’ fell away, in places like FfO the sense of dissolution has never really left, and in basic economic terms the situation has arguably only worsened.
With this in mind then, the Fforst has developed over the last ten years or so as an attempt to balance the scales through concerted efforts to foster a sense of community, particularly with the local German population but also with neighbouring Poland. In recent years this has expanded somewhat, and many students from all over the world attend the University and live in the Fforst. In real terms, the project seeks to address not only the cultural fissures that exist between countries as a whole, but also crucially the ones which exist between the East and West of Germany itself. It’s an implicit acknowledgement of the imbalance which has gone neglected in Germany’s wider public discourse post-1989, and needs to be rectified to stop the kind of decline evident in Frankfurt (Oder). At the same time, as the East-West divide is slowly left behind by younger generations who never lived through the pre-unification era, new and more complicated divisions within Europe are also creating pressures which need to be confronted. One of the results of this has been a rise in populist nationalism that veers uncomfortably close to the darkest moments of both the country and the continent’s history.
Another important acknowledgement is that it has always been a largely independent project, albeit one which was readily supported by the University (and other institutions) early on. Gesine Schwan, former President of Viadrina University, once remarked of the Fforst: ‘Hier also fängt Europa an’ (‘So here begins Europe’). In many ways it could be seen to act as a counter to those increasingly vocal populist movements which have begun to spring up across Europe, sparked by those who challenge an open embrace of cultural diversity and backed by those who have never received the oft-touted economic benefits that closer European integration supposedly promised. What is interesting too is that in order to try and foster a sense of shared solidarity in the area, the students are resorting to a less dogmatic but clearly related notion of shared communal living that is even built into the very foundations and design of the apartment blocks themselves. It’s a bottom-up solution that ignores convenient political ideology in place of something much more organic and instinctive.
The question remains however, how can those links be established when so many of the students will later move away? A community of ‘former residents’ was established early on for those who wish to maintain closer ties to the project, even after leaving FfO. Perhaps this more than anything else demonstrates exactly what a huge undertaking projects such as these really are, over a period of many years. At the same time, while FfO perhaps benefits from its place as the site of Viadrina University, how would the success of the Fforst project be translated into areas that don’t benefit from an influx of young students, with their idealism and energy unmarred by years of harsh economic realities or complicated by increasing globalisation? Plans to try and replicate the success of the Fforst have been mixed, if nothing else a testament to the particular strength of this project, its founders and those who have worked so hard to keep it going for so many years.
Living in London in the wake of the British referendum on membership of the European Union, it’s difficult not to think back on those early days when I first moved the Germany. In particular I recall those formative early weeks in Frankfurt (Oder), and wonder if there isn’t an important message in how things have changed since then. Schwan’s declaration in particular comes to mind, if only to wonder: if that’s where Europe begins, where does it end? As the situation in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe continues to grow increasingly complicated, one wonders if in the face of economic austerity and turmoil, it’s this follow up question that has galvanised so many people to now challenge what was before seen as an inevitable social and economic transformation in Europe. While the community orientated approach behind the Fforst can be found in pockets of space, the opposite drive to push these multicultural spaces to the periphery and return to more mono-cultural views of the world seems very much on the rise. While I think back to that moment in the communal lounge, surrounded by languages I could barely identify much less comprehend and feel totally inspired, I’m painfully aware that for many there is only the fear that this is simply another political shift which will result in them being left behind. In the same way that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc heralded massive economic and social transformation, so too the new dynamics in Europe reflect that once again, the balance of things is shifting around people.
It begs the question, can the Fforst’s promise be developed further? Or will this community be seen in years to come as one of the last signs of a disappearing era as the continent moves further and further away from its idealistic mantra of globalised integration? The refugee crisis combined with lingering effects of the Global Financial Crisis are creating a perfect storm, and, at some point, the question must be posed, what is the end point? And, are we willing to accept it without a fight?
The author gratefully acknowledges Alexander Gerald Sasse from the Fforst for his assistance.