With Europe in the midst of an economic crisis, reconsidering its very identity, is there still room for cultural exchange? The ECB's Culture Days bring a bit of color to what seems at times like a bleak political table.
In Marie NDiaye's poem "Y penser sans cesse," a foreign mother walks around Berlin holding her child by the hand. "My child looks at me and says, 'I don't know anything about you. Who are you?'''
Standing center stage, NDiaye, one of France's most noted novelists and playwrights, lets the words fall like a cascade, in French and German alternately. As she speaks on the Schauspiel Frankfurt stage, images of Berlin swirl by on a screen behind her, evoking the city's immensity and the mother's own foreignness.
As the poem goes on, the mother and child stumble upon a Stolperstein, a copper cobblestone engraved with the name of the child who had lived on their street before being deported by the Nazis. As the lives of the French and the German children get intertwined, the present and the past mix - and identities threaten to crumble.
Marie NDiaye's literary performance premiered in Germany last month as part of the European Cultural Days, a project of the European Central Bank founded in 2003 to foster understanding by showcasing the culture of one EU nation each year - this year, France.
Culture as a motor of integration
The event takes place at a time of widening north-south cultural divides over how to handle the European debt crisis. To many, European integration sounds like a distant, impossible dream. But against a backdrop of the worst economic and identity crises in recent years, the event organizers agree that it is all the more important to strengthen human and cultural exchanges across inter-European borders.
"Particularly in times such as the present, it is more important than ever to be aware of our shared cultural heritage and to strengthen this awareness further," said ECB President Mario Draghi last month ahead of the European Cultural Days' opening concert last month.
"Our culture forms an important basis for European integration."
With France and Germany, the two motors of European integration now split over conflicting approaches over the debt crisis, sharing the center stage and this year's Cultural Days, the event carries special symbolism. Not only were the two countries founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 - the EU's predecessor - but no other two European states are bound by such a dense institutional network of intercultural programs ranging from city partnerships to youth exchanges.
The strength of the French-German bond is often seen as a model in Europe - even though, or perhaps because, it has survived many strains. When French President Francois Holland disagrees with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's call for support for Greece, for example, the seasoned relationship between Paris and Berlin makes it possible for them to find a compromise, commented Dominik Grillmayer from the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg.
"There cannot be any national or nationalistic solution anymore," Grillmayer added. To be sure, art and culture will not solve Europe's problems, but every bit of understanding helps.
Unity in diversity
And understanding is closely linked to diversity. Culture is a "kaleidoscope" in France, commented Christian Noyer, governor of the Banque de France, which coordinated this year's Cultural Days program together with the ECB. "The people of France do not represent a uniform or homogenous population, and this naturally generates a broad diversity of artistic and cultural expression."
Capturing and presenting the multi-faceted culture of a country is an ambitious task. "It's also a big chance," said Elisabeth Höhne, Banque de France's artistic director for the European Cultural Days, who spent two years combing France's contemporary cultural scene for the best artists.
The outcome has been a broad package of 26 events, from concerts and readings, dance performances and lectures, films and arts installation, to culinary art and exhibits. Frankfurt's faithful Francophiles were targeted with events like the opera excerpts conducted by Christophe Rousset, a master of French baroque and early music, while organizers sought to attract new audiences with current films by Maghreb directors and hip hop and patisserie workshops.
Labeled Fabulous France, the four-week program wraps up Wednesday, November 14 with a circus performance by France's Compagnie XY at the Palmen Garten in Frankfurt. Several exhibits, however, will go on through January 2013.
"At long last a program that goes beyond the clichés," commented Céline Lebret of the Institut Francais in Frankfurt. The Cultural Days, she added, "point out what's original about French culture - that is, the mix of culture. It has gone beyond caricatures like 'Paris, the city of love.'''
Indeed, with Marie NDiaye, the 2007 winner of the prestigious Goncourt Prize and the first living woman to have one of her plays included in the Academie Francaise, organizers chose one of France's most important literary figures, said Elisabeth Höhne. They also selected an artist who, as a Berlin resident weaving issues of identity and nationality into her writing, testifies to a France increasingly looking beyond its borders for inspiration.
Axel Marceau, a Frankfurt resident who attended NDiaye's experimental literary performance last month, said the fact that the author's words were written in French and German "is a reflection of where we are today, of the fusion that takes place between French who live in Germany and the Germans who live in France."