BORDERSPosted: June 19, 2021
by Circe Olson Woessner
In the 1960’s and 70’s when my parents went out of town overnight, I stayed with Frau Menzel. After supper, we settled in her tiny sitting room and played a hand or two of rummy or the board game, Mensch ärger Dich nicht. Some nights we watched TV. She’d let me carefully peruse the TV guide, circling the shows I thought I’d like to watch. Sometimes we’d watch Star Trek—Captain Kirk spoke perfect German! So did the cowboys on Bonanza and the family in the Waltons.
She and I loved musical variety shows. I still remember many of the popular singers: Heino, Nina und Mike, Udo Jurgens, and Freddie Quinn. One of my favorite game shows was Am Laufenden Band. Rudi Carrel was the host and I felt reassured that if someone who spoke German with a foreign accent was beloved, then I, with my imperfect German, could be, too.
Am Laufenden Band was sophisticated: pairs of family members performed stunts, solved puzzles and role-played until one pair won the round. In the last round, the final two contestants answered questions about events in the news. Ultimately, the winner sat front of a conveyor belt while an assortment of prizes, including a mystery gift (a box with a question mark on it) passed by. Afterwards, the person had thirty seconds to list as many things as s/he could remember, and the ones recalled correctly, s/he could keep. I was terrible at remembering—and so were some of the contestants!
My very favorite TV game show was Spiel Ohne Grenzen, which translates to “games without borders.” It featured teams from different European countries competing to complete a series of challenges in very unusual circumstances. The teams were scored after each game and there was an overall winner at the end of the show.
According to Wikipedia, the idea for the show came from French President Charles de Gaulle, whose wish was that “French and German youth would meet in a series of games to reinforce the friendship between France and Germany. In 1965, Guy Lux and Claude Savarit spread this idea to other European countries. Teams representing France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy took part in the first edition of the show called ‘Inter Nations Games’.”
The games were part athletics, part cultural celebration, part bizarre contests and a lot of plain luck. The show was hosted in a different European city each time, and the opening and closing ceremonies consisted of people wearing local costumes performing music and folk dances from the region. The competitions were culturally thematic. For example, when the show was hosted in Verona, Italy, famed for its flag-throwing, one of the competitions consisted of two team members standing on pillars in a pool of water, jumping straight up as another team member swept a huge throwing banner in a circle under their feet. The goal was to jump as many times as possible without anyone falling into the water. Another contest involved a team member from one country dressed up like a centaur with a big ribbon on its tail running around the track being chased by team members from another country trying to pluck off the bow.
I can’t recall how often the show aired –Wikipedia shows 30 episodes in 34 years. I thought it more frequent. I do know that Frau Menzel kept me posted on when it was on TV, and I made every effort to watch it.
So, who did I root for? Germany, naturally!
When I look back at my childhood, I realize that I am a TCK—a third culture kid. Like most TCKs, I moved between cultures before I fully developed my personal and cultural identity.* I knew I was American, but didn’t think of myself as an American—at least not in a nationalistic way. I knew I wasn’t German, yet; I rooted for German teams, spoke German and was comfortable in Germany. I blended cultures and customs seamlessly, and along the way, adopted customs from other places I lived. Borders meant little to me—wherever I was, and if there were kids to play with, we became friends—if only for an hour or an afternoon.
While the Europe of my childhood was divided by physical borders, as far back as the 1940s there were people conceptualizing and planning for a unified, united Europe. In 1989, Bill and I were stationed in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, just a stone’s throw from the East-West German border, where we witnessed the end of a divided Germany and the beginnings of reunification. Soon, Europe did away with its frontiers and ushered in a new era of European collaboration.
In writing this piece, I learned some things about Peter Gabriel’s song, “Games without Frontiers.”
Gabriel was familiar with the game show of the same name. He used its concept as inspiration for his song. His lyrics are a social commentary about how some world leaders, exhibit childish behavior as they make life-or-death decisions on behalf of their countries. They seem to be playing a game, but their actions have serious consequences. On the surface the TV game show is jolly and harmless, but underneath the silliness of the games, there are elements of nationalism, territorialism and competitiveness. In his song, Gabriel switches back and forth using analogies to the TV show and real-world events. The children’s names and flag colors in the lyrics refer to countries, politics and specific people. The refrain is French translation of the game show title: Jeux sans frontiers.
Throughout the song, Gabriel balances the harmless (a game) and ominous (political bullying) using descriptive lyrics such as “dressing up in costumes, playing silly games/Hiding out in treetops, shouting out rude names.”
As an adolescent growing up in Cold War Germany, I took Spiel Ohne Grenzen for what it was: a funny, friendly game show. I had no idea that there were political leaders using people as pawns and playing more serious, sinister games. Communism, Watergate, repression and terrorism were not in my vocabulary. As a teen, I began to understand the deeper meanings of Gabriel’s song—and as an adult, having experienced the fall of the Iron Curtain first hand, the isolation some citizens experience at the hands of their governments, I am all for countries tearing down walls (real or imaginary) and collaborating instead.
My dad once told me that Peter Gabriel’s agent talked with him about performing a concert at Pourtales and attracting German and French attendees. His boss Dr. Leibrecht wouldn’t let him do it, fearing too much traffic would damage to the grounds.