Narrative cafés are a low-threshold way to learn. They are almost like any casual get-togethers, but participants learn about their environment and their city mainly from people who have experineced the events personally.

Stories create identity for one’s own urban life

Reportage. Life in a city is shaped by common history. How can these roots be best discovered? By telling stories! At "narrative cafés", people sit comfortably together and talk about their experiences.

Michael Sommer Photo Michael Sommer

17.12.2019

Traunstein is a small, typically German town. It is located in Bavaria – a region where people like to sit together over a beer and tell stories.

A citizen of Traunstein, Sepp Häusler, has spent his entire professional life there since the beginning of his gardening apprenticeship in 1960 until his retirement in 2011. That means 51 years of insights into the transformation of funeral and cemetery culture.

Now he sits in the hall restaurant “Haidforst” in Traunstein together with 100 mostly older, but also some younger people, and tells how the processes and rituals used to be and recounts many personal memories and stories.

Theme of today’s narrative café: the local forest cemetery.

Narrative cafes: adult education for all

“Narrative café” is the name of a method in adult education that conveys history that people have experienced in the most authentic and realistic way possible.

Narrative cafés were created in the 1980s in the larger cities and have become a popular form in Germany, and the method is widely used in local adult education. The learning is mostly about – as in Traunstein example – the lived history. The method is used primarily for the education of seniors, in intergenerational learning and also in work with the mentally ill, disabled or disadvantaged people.

A feature of narrative cafés is the low threshold to participate, the casual get-together, which is directed by a moderator and is on a certain theme. Usually, relevant objects can also be brought to the cafés to be shown while talking.

For organiser Silvia Nett-Kleyboldt, manager of the local Catholic training centre (Katholisches Bildungswerk), these evenings are more than just a nice get-together. According to her, the storytellers feel appreciated and the audience receive an enriching experience through shared memories and get new insights into life and the world as they used to be.

“This is a chance, especially for younger people, to hear stories from the mouths of contemporary witnesses. It is ‘history from below’, subjective, individually presented, contemplative and humorous. It also promotes cohesion in the social space. People get to know each other and their history better, and that creates an identity for their own homeland.”

Every evening of narrative café, a specific new topic is chosen from city life: the police, fitness centres, the city council, the local economy and many, many more things.

In each case, a moderator presides over the evening, during which three to five guest witnesses tell their stories. Often, the evening is further relaxed by folk music.

The whole series in Traunstein, which has existed since 2012, bears the title “I like to remember that …”

Silvia Nett-Kleybold, also a trained trainer for biography work, says that people prefer to look back on positive events in history, funny circumstances or interesting developments which are still relevant.

Storytelling in in hard covers

Passing on experiences and keeping them alive was also the aim of a model project in Austria.

The Adult Education Centre (Bildungswerk) in Salzburg did not want to let the lived history and the subjective memories of local people over 80 years of age get lost. In each community, the Bildungswerk interviewed at least two people of each birth cohort before 1933.

The stories were then not presented in a café, but published in a book called “That was our time! One generation… remembers “.

In 2017, two volumes were published. Each life story is portrayed in a personal narrative style on two or three pages. The book is not just a local historical treasure trove, but also a readable insight into the everyday world of the time.

Do you want people to know more about their town, neighbours history, and themselves? Start a narrative café!

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