Monday, 9 April 2007


During my week away I visited the "Musée de l'image populaire" in Pfaffenhoffen, Alsace. This is the only town name I know (and indeed the only word) with five Fs. The museum displays pictorial souvenirs dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, which were given to commemorate christenings, marriages, conscriptions, deaths and other important events in the life of the people. The earlier examples are mostly hand-written, drawn and painted, while many of the later examples were produced in specialised workshops.

Alsace has alternated between being part of Germany and part of France for centuries; indeed other French folk often accuse Alsatians of being German, which they thoroughly resent. They have their own language, which resembles German much more closely than French, but are proud of being French while remaining on good terms with their neighbours across the border. I found it very moving to visit the "Pont de l'Europe" in Strasbourg a few years ago. This is a simple (though extremely elegant) pedestrian footbridge across the Rhine. On the Strasbourg side there is a formal French garden. You walk across the new bridge, where there has never been any sort of border control, and find yourself in a leafy residential suburb of the German town of Kehl. Walk a little further to the town centre and you can sit in a café and pay for your drink with the same currency you use in Strasbourg. This may seem inconsequential to young people today, but as someone who was born little more than a decade after the Second World War I found the symbolism potent.

Many of the Pfaffenhoffen "images populaires" were written in German, often in almost indecipherable tiny copperplate handwriting. But many of the marriage souvenirs had four words written in large friendly letters, one in each of the corners: "Glaube", "Hoffnung", "Liebe" and "Zufriedenheit". The first three of these are recognisable as the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost: faith, hope and charity (love). These are familiar to us, and the hymn writer tells us something about their order of priority:

Faith will vanish into sight;
hope be emptied in delight;
love in heaven will shine more bright;
therefore give us love.

In order to fill the fourth corner those perspicacious Alsatians added the quality of "Zufriedenheit", which is arguably even more important for a good marriage. This turns out to be one of those German words for which, like "Schadenfreude", there is no simple English translation. A rough translation is "satisfaction". A better one is "contentment". But my Alsatian friend tells me that the true meaning is even deeper, and has almost religious connotations of being perfectly balanced and requiring nothing else.

Perhaps when we feel dissatisfied with life and want more money, more possessions or even a new spouse, what we really lack is Zufriedenheit. A valuable gift indeed.

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