She's already sitting at a window table when he walks in, her back to the valley outside, misty with rain. She has ordered a large bottle of sparkling water, the first of five that the two will drink on this afternoon.
"Yes, the surroundings here, and this place. It's quite beautiful," he says in slightly accented German.
She nods. "It is gorgeous here," she says in perfect high German.
"Yes, but the concrete block buildings up there, it's simply ...," he begins.
"It's just a nice contrast," she says, ending the sentence he had begun.
He laughs. "An ugly contrast."
"Where should we start," he then asks.
Iris Gutmann and Vladimir Hepner have met up in Ústí nad Labem, a town just on the Czech side of the Czech-German border, because it is roughly equidistant from their hometowns. They are in the restaurant of a hotel – a magnificent structure that rises above the town like a castle in a James Bond film – where they intend to talk about Europe as part of the Europe Talks event, one of more than 8,000 debate pairs that met up last Saturday afternoon for the same purpose. Hepner has chosen the spot; he once worked in the town.
Iris Gutmann lives in Sebnitz, a town just east of Dresden. Originally from Bremen, the petite 56-year-old spent many years working for a large bank in Frankfurt. In 2014, she moved to Saxony to be with her husband after 12 years of commuting back-and-forth on the weekends. She is a member of an organization that rescues dogs from extermination and finds new owners for them and she also volunteers as a language teacher for women refugees.
Vladimir Hepner was born in Prague and describes himself as a member of the so-called "Wendegeneration," the generation marked by the collapse of communism. He was 23 when the Soviet Union disintegrated: His adult life began with the end of history. He lived for three years in Germany as a consultant for a software company, but now works in the Czech capital, where he lives with his wife and two teenage sons. Sports are his primary free-time activity: skiing in Austria, hiking, golf and playing tennis with his oldest son.
When Gutmann speaks of Europe, she refers to it as the "Island of Blessed." The EU, she says, is responsible for the fact that the continent has been at peace for the last 70 years. She and her husband travel frequently to Dresden to take part in Pulse of Europe events, though such gatherings tend to be small. "The Europe thing is unfortunately something of a stepchild in Dresden. Most people go to Pegida," she says, referring to the virulently Islamophobic demonstrations that take place regularly in Dresden.
When Hepner speaks of Europe, the first phrase he uses is "economic area." There is, he says, no alternative to Europe – it's the only way to compete with markets like China and the United States. Hepner isn't much of a fan of Andrej Babiš, the billionaire EU-skeptic who was elected as Czech prime minister in 2017. "Babiš is a businessman and protects his interests. I think he is capitalizing on his office too much."
In the restaurant overlooking the Elbe River near the border between their two countries, the two address each other using their first names, but nevertheless use the formal term of address in German. All they know about each other is how they answered seven questions posted on the internet – and that based on those questions, they seem to have very little in common.
This isn't the first time she has been in a situation like this. Last year, she answered similar questions as part of the Germany Talks event, and ultimately ended up meeting up with a man whose answers to the online questionnaire were completely different from her own. She says her discussion with the man wasn't particularly pleasant, but it was interesting. Her debate partner was convinced that isolationist societies are the best, that the Allies had forced Germany's constitution upon it and that Germany didn't start World War II and had merely returned fire. After three-and-a-half hours, the two had ended their discussion. "I have that on my mind a bit when thinking about what I'm in for," Gutmann said ahead of the meeting in Ústí nad Labem.
"Where should we start," Hepner asks, as that meeting begins.
"Wherever you'd like," says Gutmann, her hands crossed on her knees.
The two are hesitant at first, and then decide to work through the Europe Talks questions one-by-one. Gutmann had printed them out prior to their discussion and she pulls a piece of paper out of her bag and unfolds it.
"Would you exchange your national passport for a European one?" was one of the first questions listed.
"I answered: No," Hepner begins.
"I answered: Yes," says Gutmann.
The Czech man says that he sees it primarily as a logistical problem. "Imagine that I am overseas and something happens. I call the EU Embassy and I hear: 'Bonjour, Monsieur!' What do I do then?"
"I actually didn't see the question from that perspective," the German woman says. "My first thought was: Why not? I'm European ..."
"Are you more European or more German?"
"I'm both," she replies, and at almost the same time he answers too: "I'm b ..." He stops short.
She tells him that she views the passport idea as a nice symbol.
"The idea is a good one, but implementing it would be extremely complicated," he answers.
Ultimately, they agree that a common EU passport isn't exactly the most pressing problem facing Europe. And Gutmann is pleased that they are essentially of the same opinion.
She also ends up being pleasantly surprised when it comes to the second issue to be discussed. When answering the questions on the internet, Hepner had indicated that he didn't believe that the EU made the lives of its citizens better. Now, though, he says: "Fundamentally, yes."
"Aha," Gutmann responds.
They discuss the advantages that come with EU-wide standards for medical drugs and agree that the EU directive cancelling roaming fees within the bloc is a good thing. They also briefly address the 2017 Nutella crisis – which focused on accusations that the spread's manufacturer used lower quality ingredients in the product in Eastern European markets – but then quickly move on because neither of them eats Nutella.