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The Continent's Felix And Oscar


Letter From Europe

THE CONTINENT'S FELIX AND OSCAR

After a week on the road in Germany, I had heard almost no French being spoken. So, as I boarded a Paris-bound train in Cologne, it was pleasing to hear a raft of French voices. But something troubled me, a member of species Americanus Simplicissimus. Weren't the French and German tribes supposed to be building a common European identity? Yet here was an elderly frau sputtering in German over who should sit where and where her baggage should go. The French tourists couldn't understand a word. They replied in French, which she couldn't understand. Suddenly, I realized that the entire train car was a modern-day Babel, filled with French and Germans who couldn't talk to one another. Hey, isn't this a borderless, united Europe?

KISSATHONS. Well, not yet. It's hardly news that the French and Germans differ in many ways. But in recent years the two peoples have created heady expectations that they could transcend nationalism and create a "new" Europe. Just before the European Community is set to unify its internal market on Dec. 31, but I came away from two weeks in Germany and France convinced that differences--some amusing, some not--are deep enough to prevent these two nations from ever submerging their identities.

Language isn't the only difference. German couples don't display affection in public. In Paris, however, people greet one another sometimes with two kisses on alternate cheeks, other times with three or four kisses. A three- or four-kiss hello, I'm told, suggests that the kissers are from southern France. One thing to avoid: Never kiss someone just once on one cheek. That is an unfinished greeting and, therefore, an insult.

The clash between self-discipline on one side and individual self-expression on the other is apparent in any study of the two peoples. In Germany, you don't cross the street when the stoplight is red, even if there is no traffic. Any fool who does risks having a dowager wag her finger and express extreme disapproval. In contrast, driving through the traffic circle that surrounds L'Arc de Triomphe at rush hour is a brush with anarchy. The cigarettes are different (Germans smoke Marlboros, French their aromatic Gauloises), they drink different coffee (American-style in Germany, espresso in France), and they take their butter differently (The Germans put it on their bread; the French use so much in their croissants that slathering them with more would be redundant).

I experienced one such cultural whiplash firsthand because of a runny nose. It started on a bone-chilling, rainy day in Berlin. "My kingdom for a Sudafed," I cried. But it was Sunday, and no pharmacy was open. I couldn't find relief in any of the elegant shopping areas along the Kurfrstendamm, or at any hotel, or at Tempelhof Airport. Aside from bars and restaurants, German stores are locked up tight on Sundays. When I found an open pharmacy on Monday, a very kind lady offered me a choice of nose sprays or pills. I chose the latter.

REAR GUARD. Imagine my pleasure, on multiple accounts, when the following Sunday in Paris proved to be a movable feast of chanterelles, cheeses, flowers, breads, chocolates, and all other sorts of consumables. It was suddenly hello plaisir, goodbye angst. But what does one do for sniffles in the City of Light? Take a suppository. Yes, the French believe in attacking this dreaded syndrome from the opposite end of the body.

O.K., it's not all so trivial. The Germans have a sense of nation-building, of working toward the future. They recognize that 100 million people in Europe speak German, more than any other single language. And they are grappling with how to exert influence commensurate with Germany's raw economic power. "The Germans haven't come to terms with this new power," says Karsten D. Voigt, foreign-policy spokesman for the Social Democratic Party. "With the French, it's just the opposite."

That observation, repeated in Paris, fails to elicit the laughter it draws in Germany. The French have the air of a people who are working to preserve the moment. Even though Germany is clearly destined to grow still stronger, the French want desperately to believe they are the true force behind the new Europe. That helps make any notion of a "United States of Europe" more fancy than fact. "We are a tribe of tribes," says Andre Fontaine, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde.

But a traveler would be foolish to conclude that the French and Germans are headed for divorce. Despite recession, both are enjoying unprecedented prosperity, and they realize they need one another to preserve stability. In a perverse sense, they are even attracted to one another. The Germans, in one compartment of their souls, admire the French ability to live well. The French, between delicate bites of foie gras, admire the German ability to organize. An American who wishes both peoples well can only say, er, vive la difference.WILLIAM J. HOLSTEIN


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