Friday, November 12, 2010

Where Are You From?

I have spent a lot of the past two years reenacting a geographical area that does not conform to today’s geo-political rules. When someone asks me where I am from when I am in character the answer is: “the Barony of Reischach in Bavaria, that is a part of the Holy Roman Empire.” If I’m not in costume in character and someone asks me what I’ve been spending my time on lately I’ll tell them Renaissance Germany. Today, there is no Holy Roman Empire, and technically, there is no Germany during the time of the European Renaissance. This makes for all sorts of challenges, but presents a pretty good lesson too.
When in costume, in character, we’ve got to find unique ways of telling people we’re from the area that they think of as Germany. We talk about the German speaking lands, we mention Bavaria hoping that some adults will recognize it as a region in Germany, We talk about being north of the Italian city-states and south of the Low-Countries. Some make jokes when people ask if we are from Germany and say stuff like: “What a preposterous notion that all the German-speaking lands would be united. Next you will be saying that all the Italian speaking lands are under one government!”

It doesn’t always work the way we want it to. We set up at a school last spring. We had different stations focusing on different aspects of military and daily life in 1528, and as the students shuffled around we tried to give them things to see, things to do, opportunities to ask questions, and tons of knowledge. But in the bathroom after the event was over I heard a group of girls talking (they did not know I was in there) saying how they loved our Russian accents and wondered how hard the accent was to learn. They then did horrible fake Russian accents until I came out in my huge dress and hat with my Bavarian accent (it is different from a Swiss German, or Austrian, or northern German accent) and shocked them all into silence. I did not really feel like explaining while washing my hands, the context was just too weird and they were probably too embarrassed to hear me as they pushed each other out of the restroom.

The opportunity in presenting a past from a place that today has a very different identity is we are letting people know that our modern nation-states are inventions. Many would like us to believe that our current countries are almost inevitable. But by reenacting times when most of our modern countries did not exist, when the definition of a nation and one’s sense of place were far different, we can bring to life the concept of a paradigm shift. We can show that people thought differently about the places they lived in how we react, in what we say, in how we define ourselves. And that is a discussion worth having, an idea worth exploring.

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