Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year’s in Strasbourg

I’m about to start writing up an account of our recent travels, but in keeping with the day, it feels appropriate to do specifically New Year’s post.

Tonight, Amynah and I are heading to a small party at Julie and Sebastien’s place. They live in a slightly sketchy part of town, which should make it interesting for us. Remember those riots they had in France last year, when all the cars were getting burned? Well, about the only thing we knew about Strasbourg before we came here is that car burning is the local New Year’s custom – especially out in Meinau, where the party is. I just hope those guys have somewhere safe to park.

I’m getting a little nervous as midnight approaches – fireworks aren’t restricted here, and we’ve been hearing window-rattling Howitzer-like booms for days, set off by over-enthusiastic teenage boys. Once the hour strikes it’s going to be insane.

Though I knew it was coming, it's still a little strange to be celebrating New Year's here. It’s been a heck of a year and Canada feels much further in my past than just six months. A year ago, my job at McGill was becoming enjoyable again, both because I loved the work I was doing but more because I enjoyed being around the people I worked with. That made it harder to quit than it might have been a year earlier, but on the other hand it was good to leave on a high note. Even before I came here I got to do a lot of traveling, to New York, Nashville, Costa Rica, Alberta, BC and Nova Scotia. I also lost my Uncle Richie far too soon. That I was able to say goodbye to him first is no consolation at all.

Since coming here I've managed to get some writing done, but far, far less than I intended. On the other hand, I've managed a couple of European commissions along with the Globe articles, so I'm on the right track. I've also been to Germany, Switzerland and England, driven on the Autobahn, visited a handful of castles, a zillion churches, a few museums, two spas, shared many excellent meals with remarkably kind and hospitable French-folk and learned when to serve Gewurztraminer (dessert, apparently, though I prefer "never.")

My friends are moving on in their lives as well: a few have had children, others have or are planning on buying houses, some are going back to school or changing jobs, moving to places like Japan or the Congo; they're grown-up people doing grown-up things, and since they're my friends then I must too be a grown-up. All of which is enough to make a guy feel pretty old (having a friends five-year-old daughter guess that I was “fifty-eight years old” didn’t help).

So, after six months in France, what happens in the New Year? We have a horde of guests descending upon us in the coming months, so there’s that to look forward to. I’ll be doing more travel writing, and I’m planning on getting back into magazine writing as well. We have tentative plans to visit Ireland, Serbia and Romania this year. I don’t do resolutions so much, but that’s not a bad agenda for keeping myself occupied.

I hope the New Year brings all of you health, happiness and good cheer – and travel! To France, for instance!

Now I have to go mix me up some Molotov cocktails – those cars don’t burn on their own, you know.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Velocipedic villainy

Spent the last two days scooting around Alsace and the Black Forest of Germany in a rental tin can masquerading as an automobile. It went well - despite nearly smashing into a highway abutment in the Rhine fog (it was probaly marked, but how was I supposed to know what "Achtchung! Detour! Speedreducktionzone" meant?)

Anyway, other than that and the general feeling of imminent fiery death that driving on the Autobahn in a car with less power than a wind-up dancing monkey entails, it was an awesome two days, all of which will get a proper write up with amazing photos soon (not to mention a continuation of the Baden-Baden spa epic , wherein our hero incurs ocular strain in his efforts to avoid getting an eyefull of dangling Deutchweiners.

But first, sad news. My bike has been stolen. Due to doctors orders and lack of enthusiasm for activities where limbs - my limbs, especially - can be broken, I haven't been riding it much lately. But as my arm has healed, I've got out once or twice, most recently on Christmas Day. I've liked it, and the car trips have reaffirmed my desire to get out and about the country more under my own steam.

This morning Amynah and I headed out to return the little-engine-that-almost was-adequate. We were gone for about an hour. When we left, my bike was safely locked up, leaning in the corner of the main floor hall of our building, behind three other bikes, including Amynah's. When we came back - gone.

My suspicion is that a tenant or landlord simply put it outside because the tangle of bikes was partially blocking the hallway and it was opportunistically stolen from there - it's happened to other tenants, apparently. Mine is not used much (see above), and is the biggest. For a casual thief coming in off the street (the door is usually locked, but not everyone is careful) it would have been the most difficult to easily remove, but also the most obvious for an irritated resident to take out, so I suspect an inside job.

A bit of a bummer way to end an otherwise delightful holiday.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas all (or belated, if any of you are actually here on Christmas - go away! Spend time with your families!)

Christmas here, so far, has been awesome. Amynah cooked up a magnificent roast chicken with all the trimmings last night, then we read for a bit and then watched the 1951 "Scrooge" (the only one worth watching). We started it at about 11:30 PM, and so got to hear the cathedral bells go off at 11, 11:30, 12 and 1 AM for midnight mass, which was delightful (I didn't go, though we could here snatches of choral singing and organ music as we watched the film).

As is the tradition in my family, we slept in, before starting with our stockings, which apparently aren't too common in France. They do sell them, but not in great numbers, and they're very expensive. Amynah and I bought a pair of small ones made from burlap, with little felt Santa's brandishing sticks of indeterminate purpose (ski poles? reindeer crops? cudgels?) Mine held socks, one pair of which were green with black death's heads on them and Toberlone. Amynah's had a half-dozen People magazines and Toberlone. I then made pancakes (from a mix).

Then on to the presents: we had far more than I had expected, thanks to my parents and older sister. My folks, smart-asses that they are, had sent a care package with all sorts of things we had requested from Canada wrapped up in Christmas finery - peanut butter, deoderant, more socks - but they also sent me gloves, chocolate, and slippers for Amynah.

My older sister went nuts, as usual - Tim's coffee for me (woo-hoo!) tons of family photos including a homemade calendar with all the important birthdays and anniversaries and Nova Scotia cookbook and oven mitts. All of which seems calculated to ensure that I spend the next three months bedridden with homesickness, but appreciated nonetheless. I'm looking forward to making Blueberry Grunt for the first time.

However, the tippy-top gift of awesomeness came from Amynah. In addition to a book of travel writing for me (inspiration, that) she also gave me a framed ten sous note from 1792, from the French Revolution. Printed as the Terror was about to take off, it has a note on it that warns people that counterfeiting it is a capital offence, and that those that denounce such criminals will be compensated by the state. Very, very cool.

Amynah seemed fairly pleased with Santa's offerings - she received a pajama pants, a sweater (too big) and a traditional Alsatian pottery tea set (and an alarm clock, but that's no fun). The tea set is beautiful - Santa has good taste.

Tonight we go for a second Christmas meal at the house of a Canadian family we know here (a professor who is on a year's sabbatical from Queen's in Amynah's lab, her husband and their two kids). After that, we plan to create a new Christmas tradition of our own by settling in for the night with a Bollywood movie.

Anyway, sorry to have dwelt on the material things, but they are a lot easier to write about than the happiness I feel for having such a wonderful life, good friends, great family and an amazing wife who, despite it being her first kick at the can, is taking to Christmas like a duck to water (though she still seems to identify with pre-reformed "humbug" Scrooge much more than post-reformed "Merry Christmas" Scrooge).

Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Longish post folks – though I beg you to click the links, not because the photographs are so great, but because they are a huge pain in the butt to put up. I'd hate to think I was doing all that cutting and pasting for nothing.

This year marks the first time Amynah and I have spent Christmas together as a couple without our families around. That’s not counting last year’s trip to Costa Rica – Christmas simply does not count if you live in a country where you do not at least have the option of cutting down your own conifer (those with sensitive eyes might want to put on some shades before clicking that- tropical sun and my pasty flesh combine to create quite a glare).

It’s been interesting, so far. By visiting England, we managed to cram in a few of the Christmas traditions that I had become accustomed to in Canada: malls, visiting family and friends, shopping for pirated Bollywood movies in the South Asian neighbourhood of South Hall, sipping a spiced chai while watching a parade of tabla-beating revelers sing “O Holy Night” in Hindi… you know, all that Norman Rockwell-esque type stuff.

Back in France, Christmas is a big deal. Strasbourg is currently Europe’s most illuminated city – each street has its own lighting theme. There is a tree, pictured above, that must be 100 feet tall in Place Kleber. And of course, the largest/oldest Christmas Market has completely taken over the city.

The market consists of three hundred shacks grouped in locations around the city that sell all sorts of things – spiced wine, crepes made while you wait and enough ornaments to encase the forests Northern Canada in an impenetrable shiny shield of tinsel and plastic.

There's more, but I can't tell you what, largely because I cannot actually visit the Christmas market myself, despite the fact that two of the squares are within one minute of my front door. Sadly, entry points to its wonders are clogged with gape-mouthed tourists who flock from town to town in their busloads to see the marvels of… a bunch of huts full of destined-for-the-flea-market dustcatchers.

Not that there isn’t some gold amongst the mountains of scented-candle-etched-glass-healing-crystal-Dungeons-and-Dragons-chess-set dross. Nor do I mind scented candles, etched glass or themed chess sets when they are not ensnaring swarms of slow moving Germans with their irresistible hypnotic power. I just wish they were all in a section by themselves, so I could more easily locate the good stuff, especially as I have not yet found a present for Amynah, while I know she’s bought me something absolutely amazing. Probably a couple of amazing somethings.

We have located a tannenbaum to call our own, which if you click the link, you will see we have overcome our lack of a stand by employong the string we use to truss our chickens for the rotisserie, tying the tree to the oh-so-quaint exposed beams in our ceiling. And yes, it is sitting in a soup bowl. It has been topped by what we have dubbed “The Ayatollah Claus.” It’s an ornament that my friend Jon made for Amynah eight(!) years ago, inspired by Amynah's childhood confusion between Kringle and Khomeini (they both had beards, dressed in robes, ruled over distant, desolate realms and seemed to inspire hysterical paroxysms of joy in their populace wherever they went - understandable, really). I shudder to think what the consequences of being an Unbeliever in that Santa would be - a bit more traumatic than a lump of coal, I'd imagine.

Merry (early) Christmas Everyone!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Just got back from Merrie Olde Englande (where they're evidently still suffering from a glut of silent "E's"). Had an excellent time, met many members of Amynah's extended family, all of whom were warm, generous and funny. Also met Maarten, the newest member of Todd's family. He has his Mother's hair, as far as I can tell, and his father's slow way of speaking - "Wah!" (long pause...) "Wah!" (furrowed brow, as he ponders what to say next) "Wah!"

I will write a more full account of those adventures and the Strasbourgian Christmas we're in the midst of soon, but first a final bit of self-promotion: the Globe printed my article on Grasse, on Saturday, along with two photos that don't appear to be online.

That it was a Rocky-themed article that bumped me off the front is a perverse honour. Amynah's gearing me up to get back on the front page. She keeps yelling at me - "Eye of the tiger! Eye of the Tiger," and whacking me with a side of beef. I suspect she might be mixing up some of the details.

Friday, December 08, 2006

I just finished my piece on Grasse (which, if the magic beans I purchased worked, should be manifest on the screeens of your thinking machines). I have been told that it will be out next weekend. I was also told that it's part of a Christmas movies special, which could cause problems as I barely mention the movie (Perfume) which, loyal readers will recall, I hated. The book was great however (as is my article) so pick up the Globe next week. I'll do my best to post a link here and send out a great big self-congratulatory email as the time draws near, if I can.

It might be difficult, as I'm not sure how much posting I'll be able to do in the next few day, since Amynah and I will be in London. I've never been, and am looking forward to being able to understand the language. Though my joyful singing of the Clash as the day gets nearer means I might be mistaken on that last point: "London calling! Drew Barrymore frowns! Two squared is four! Batman eats clowns!... and aaaaaaaaargh... I ripped out my liver!"

Those guys must have been awesome live.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I just checked my mail (not an easy prospect - it involves going down four flights of stairs, then back up) to learn that I had received my first two Christmas cards of the season. One, unsurprisingly, is from my preternaturally considerate friend Carol.

The other is from my neighbourhood garbagemen.

I am a little weirded out here: our garbagemen gave us a Christmas card. Now I feel I have to start throwing out nicer stuff.

Friday, December 01, 2006

In an effort to prevent this space from degenerating into a space for writerly one-upmanship (thanks anonymous!) I am forced to write about my own life here for you, my loyal, yet not entirely responsive audience.

I recently earned another commission for another travel article. This one took me to a small-ish town not far from Nice, in southern France - the Côte d'Azur. I'll spare you an account of the trip (for that you'll have to watch this space) but I will take the time, just briefly, to praise the friendliness of the French.

I flew on an airline that I won't identify here, other than to say that they seem to be taking their business model from big box home renovations stores. They pay attention to all the details, from the shopping-cart-orange colour of their aircraft to the polyester stock-boy smocks their flight attendents are forced to wear and on to the passenger-as-livestock treatment as we boarded (by lot number, through aisles in which passengers jostled with each other in a manner that reminded me of nothing if not cattle entering an industrial slaughterhouse).

On my flight back I had the pleasure of sitting by the window. Shortly I was joined by a couple of French vacuum cleaner salesmen or penny-stock promoters or drudges in some similar profession that doesn't remunerate its members well enough to allow them to purchase non-shiny suits or decent deodorant. The one next to me kept up a non-stop patter of what could only have been unanswerable Buddhist koans, judging by the relative silence of his companion. However, he evidently felt it was rude to leave me out of the conversation and so, in an effort to make me feel included, tried to cross the language barrier by leaning over in such a way so as to take up half my seat. I appreciated the thought - after all, we're all travelling and probably in need of a good cuddle.

So, in a similarily friendly spirit, I jabbed him in the back with my elbow. He sensed, evidently that I was just one of those stand-offish North Americans and persisted in his efforts to overcome my resistance to his hospitality. So great was his ardour that I had to repeat the point three times in an increasingly emphatic manner before he shifted enough that I wasn't forced to sit as if I were attempting to impersonate a bonsai tree.

Due to the fact that the airport I flew from is jointly run by French and Swiss authorities, I had to go through customs at both ends of the trip - despite the fact that both my departure and arrival points are in France. My Canadian passport threw them for a loop as well - they pulled me aside and asked me if I had anything to declare. I pointed out I'd never left France, to which they replied that I'd gone into an international area after clearing customs before, and could have purchased things in a duty free shop. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought the point of duty free was that it was free of duty, i.e. customs charges? And if not, weren't the other people on the flight also a risk to smuggle French-purchased items into France?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Happy birthday to you! Boom! Boom! Chee! Chee!

Happy birthday to you! Boom! Boom! Chee! Chee!

Happy Birthday dear Amynah!
Happy birthday to you!

Boom! Boom!

Chee! Chee!

Long may you ride!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Publication news!

Headway, McGill's research magazine is online now. Yours truly edited the last issue, and so I was eager to see what the next one would look like.

I knew that it had been left in the more than capable hands of scriptwriter, author, and all around swell guy James Martin. However, it was my baby for six whole months and I can't help but care.

With that in mind you can take it with a grain of salt when I say that while the obvious high point of the issue is a fascinating article about the intersection of nanotechnology and neuroscience, overall, it might be a little bit better than the last issue. But only a little.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hi all.
Just got my first porn-bot posting in my comments, and thus have enabled "word" verification that forces you to prove that you're a sentient being before posting here. THe posting (which I haven't found yet) was reduntantly advertising "Lolita and teen Lolita models." Assuming that the models aren't actually named Lolita, isn't it kind of assumed that they're teens?

Not much else to write sadly - so I'll just post a link to yet another pretty picture. That one is a bit of public art in Ste Marie aux Mines where Jon and I visited a five hundred year old silver mine. I like how this shot came out - it looks almost photoshopped, everything is so crisp (it isn't, trust me).

Thursday, November 23, 2006

First of all - Belated congratulations to Todd and Jane for the new addition to their new home. Look forward to meeting Maarten when we arrive next month (can I call him a Kramlet?)

Second of all - I'm still looking for music suggestions. The near total lack of them from you, the indifferent silence into which my words are sent on electric currents to cascade into nothingness, is making me suspect that either A) people are hoping that I go mad re-listening to the 80's era Aerosmith that makes up the bulk of my CD collection or B) have better things to do with their time.

As the universe revolves around me and my needs, I highly doubt the latter, and so can only sadly conclude the former must be true.

Also - I'm serious about sending postcards to people who answer my various challenges here. I sent out a bunch a while ago for the six word story thing, they should have arrived by now, so those of you who doubt me need only ask around. I am a man of my (unread) word.

I will eventually get around to writing up a bit more about Jon's travels here, but I actually have some paid writing to get out of the way first. More on that later.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A quick write up about Basel.

This was about a week ago now, but I wasn’t able to get around to posting anything until now, for various reasons.

Basel, (or Bâle in French) is only a couple of hours away by train, and is in fact the terminus of the Alsace commuter train network.

Sadly, my ambition to get another stamp on my passport was not met – there was a customs point, but there was no stamp. In fact, the guard didn’t even look to see what nationality our passport was from. Presumably they operate on the principal that complete neutrality makes all foreigners equal in their mind. Also, that no foreign government could possibly care if you went to Switzerland.

In high spirits, we made our way down to the centre ville. Jon and Amynah had great fun with my assertion that I knew exactly how to get to the downtown, despite never having been in the city before. I, in turn, had great fun when I was right.

However, amidst all our joking and laughing, we began to feel uneasy. There was something strange about Basel… something… quiet. Despite the fact that the streets were fairly busy, silence reigned. In fact, most people were giving us scowling looks as we passed by. We had entered The City of Librarians, and stood the risk of being violently shushed at any moment.

Which is not to say the place lacked colour. Oh, the sites we saw! The Rathaus, (city hall) is, as you can see, a bright red. You’d think this would be a sign of some sort of barely-suppressed Swiss funkiness – “Like heck we’ll live up to our stereotypes – look at our city hall?” Then we went inside the courtyard. Within were a number of bikes, presumably belonging to the employees. Each one was lined up as neatly as cutlery in a Martha Stewart Living spread. NOT ONE HAD A LOCK (cue Twilight Zone music here).

So, moving on, we went to the waterfront. The Rhine bisects Basel into the main city and Klein Basel (little Basel) on the German side. Typically, the Rhine here is apparently clean enough to swim in during the summer. We caught a cable ferry which took us across the river. Unable to decipher the fare, we simply held out handfuls of Swiss Francs to the ferryman could take what he wanted. Needless to say, he gave us exact change.

Mid-river we caught our first glimpse of Abominable Eye of Swiss Neutrality. It reminded me of the Martian machines from War of the Worlds, only colourful, Swiss, and presumably harmless. For fun, I’m not going to explain what it actually was – but I’ll send a postcard to whoever sends me the a) closest guess and b) most amusing theory. Jon is excluded from this, but he apparently only reads this thing when he’s about to visit, so no worries there.

We checked out the cathedral, in which we saw the final resting place of both Erasmus (the guy who invented the typo) and Bernouli (the guy who invented flight. Or currents. You people all have access to Wikipedia – look it up yourselves!) In the crypt area, in addition to all the memorials to all the dead people, we also found a memorial to the Great Vegetables of Basel. I’m not supplying an explanation for this one simply because, well, I cannot for the life of me determine why anyone would make a giant cast-iron vegetable buffet in a church crypt. It’s beyond parody, really.

Not put off by the blindingly high prices (I saw a watch on sale for the equivalent of $20,000 Canadian in one of the shop windows) Amynah went shopping, finishing the day with approximately 20 lbs of fine Swiss chocolate. Jon and I, discovering that the main local museum was closed, wandered around randomly.

At one point, in search of the Pharmacology Museum, we found the old city gate.The doors don’t work anymore, making it a big hit with fans of British comedy. Why?

Because it’s Basel’s Faulty Tower of course.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Jon's last full day in town, and we're heading out to Baden-Baden before having dinner with our friends Julie and Sebastien.

Rented a car the other day, so as to see the surrounding region. Somehow, Jon and I, in search of a castle we saw near Ribeauvillé, managed to climb the completely wrong mountain while trying to reach it. Very clever defences those French had - poor trail marking was probably the cause of far more military defeats than conventional history would suggest.

Also went to a town called St Marie aux Mines, because in the midst of all the castles, Medieval villages, mountains and other things that normal tourists want to see, Jon was struck by an overwhelming desire to visit a 500 year old hole in the ground.

We had lunch in town before seeing the local museum (rocks, textiles and mining). The waitress, honouring our request to speak to us like we were retarded toddlers, explained the special of the day, which included something called "Bich." We asked what that was "C'est comme La Bambi," was the reply.

This led me to two conclusions: Globalization ain't all bad, if it can make communication so easy. Also, only in France would one evoke Bambi while encouraging someone to eat deer. It was delicious, by the way, though I was disapointed that they didn't offer an appetizer of Thumper.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Basel today. Is it geeky of me to be kind of excited about the idea of going to Switzerland simply for the pleasure of a new passport stamp?

I should be excited. Basel is notable because they have "less fog" than the rest of Switzerland, and "most" of their dungheaps have been turned into flower gardens.

Also, they use Olympic curler and bronze medallist Marcus Eggler as a celebrity endorsement. Who could fail to be charmed?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Remembrance Day, lighter posting to come

I will likely be falling behind in my postings here over the next week, as my good friend, former room-mate and erstwhile groomsman, the Fantabulous Jonny V will be descending upon us. Typically, his arrival will force me to get up at six to meet him at the airport, which will be a nice reminder of what living with him was like.

Incredibly, after four months with no visitors, our erstwhile nearly neighbour, husband-of-former-boss, gourmand and boulevadier Bio-Dave is also arriving in town, a slight diversion from a meeting in Germany where he is plotting with his colleagues to save the Blue Whale and it’s fellow threatened critters (the Blue Whale, is after all, the tastiest of the great whales).

Also tonight, I’m going to my first “live” French soccer… ahem, Football… match – RC Strasbourg vs some team from where our Bourdelais friend Sebastien is from. I plan to pretend I don’t know him if he starts cheering for the other guys.

So, probably no post tomorrow, which of course is Remembrance Day in Canada. Here it is Armistice Day, focusing strictly on WWI.

Both the wars are a particularly touchy subject in Alsace. The region was, after all, part of the German Empire at the outset of the Great War, and had been for 44 years. The Alsatian language remains very similar to German and the half-timbered houses that are typical of the area are seen as very Teutonic – so much so that France, upon re-occupying the area, plastered over many of them. At the end of the war, the French refused to allow Alsace to hold a referendum to determine which country would hold their loyalty, as they were fairly certain they would not like the results.

Hitler repeated the Kaiser’s tack of absorbing Alsace directly into the Reich, going so far as to rename Place Kleber – the main city square – after an Alsatian “separatist” that the French had executed for treason the year before the invasion.

Incorporating Alsace into the Fatherland meant, in both cases, that residents were subject to the draft. In World War II most went to the Eastern Front, spending years in Soviet prison camps after the Russian triumph there. Others ended up in the SS, and participated in a mass slaughter in a small village in Limousin, burning women and children alive in the parish church while punishing the townsfolk for the actions of the Resistance.

Needless to say, there were hard feelings after the war. The trial for the former SS members gave the Alsatians ridiculously light sentences, to the rage of the rest of France. They claimed that they were forced into their actions by the German officers. Theiy became known as the “Malagré Nous” – “despite ourselves” – and their name and opprobrium they earned was attached to all Alsatians that had served in German forces.

None of the Malagré Nous – including those that served, and suffered greatly in legitimate military units in the Eastern Front – ever received military pensions from either the French or German governments.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

This past weekend we had a family of one of Amynah’s co-workers over for dinner. They have two children, who were so ridiculously blond and charming I half expected the Archangel Gabriel to descend from the Heavens saying “There you two are. Get back upstairs immediately, you little monkeys.”

Anyway, the girl, who is about 6, is learning English in school. This evidently consists of the first line of “Do Re Mi” which she will sing, then “Hay, a drop of mumble mumble” and then let the adults finish the rest of the song by prompting us with the first word of each line: Me! Far! So! La! Ti!… before starting us all over again with “Do, a deer, a female deer, Hay…”

She also knows a kick-ass version of Happy Birthday, much better than the one we Anglos are familiar with. It starts the same as the classic version, but adds Euro-flair that I thinks really freshens the whole song: Happy Birthday to you – Boom! Boom! Chee! Chee! (the new bits come with hand motions roughly approximating “reach for the sky” disco moves).

At one point she was singing it while walking behind Amynah into our living room. She greatly added to my amusement factor by slapping Amynah’s butt to the rhythm of the “Chee! Chee!” part.

Speaking of music, I'm still looking for music input. Tara? You out there? Jocelyn? Anyone?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A couple of days ago we received a letter in the mail from la Republique informing that we owed them several hundred Euros for a licence for a television we don't own, and residence tax. The latter is applied to anyone who was living at their current address as of January 1.

We were surprised by this, to say the least. French bureacracrats are the Spidermen of civil servants, able to produce streams of red tape at will, but they rarely make mistakes. So, we went down to the local tax office with the usual ream of documents - our lease, passports, copies of our lease and passports, cartes de sejour, banking information and a note from my Mom. The bureaucrat, upon seeing our lease was shocked that we had been sent this letter in the first place, and assured us that although she would need to generate the normal 5-to-10 kilos of etape rouge she was confident we wouldn't need to hand over our pound of flesh (0.45 kg of flesh chez nous) in light of the evidence.

Further inquiries among Amynah's co-workers clarified the mystery - apparently, if the apartment was empty of changed hands after January 1, the landlord is stuck with the bill. And it was the landlord that fills out the relevant forms that led to us being sent the tax notification. The theory - and even I'm not naive enough to believe that somehow a mistake could have occurred in triplicate - is that the owner of our building was hoping that he could stick the ignorant foreigners with his bill. I'm hoping that he'll get fined for fraud, but I'm afraid that all that will really happen is he'll be pissed off, and we can therefore kiss our substantial damage deposit goodbye (not that we had much hope of getting it back anyway).

Friday, November 03, 2006

Globe update: They haven’t changed their page – they did briefly update with some travel articles that were published after mine, but took those down after a couple of hours. I suspect it's never going up, not surpriseing as I never signed anything with them. So, for those who really want to read my deathless prose, lemme know and I’ll send the text and associated images via email. Until then, you’ll just have to reply on my assurances that it was awesome like an embarrassed Zebra – black and white and read all over.

Moving on, more life in France stories for you. Except this one is in Germany…

November 1 is a holiday here – Toussaint or All Saint’s Day. So, on Hallowe’en we went out to the spas of Baden-Baden with a few of Amynah’s co-workers and their families.

Baden-Baden (the name means “Bath Bath” in German, the redundancy necessary to distinguish it from all the other spa towns in the region) is only about 60 km from Strasbourg. Historically it was where all the European aristocracy would go to take the waters to cure themselves of their gout, ennui and other illnesses that afflict the wealthy and idle.

It’s still a haven for their 21st century equivalents, though they’re more likely to be Middle Eastern oil-Princes or celebrities. The English Football squad was based here during the World Cup. Apparently, Victoria “Posh” Beckham spent something like 45,000 Euros on a single shopping trip.

There are two main “Bads” in Baden-Baden – Friedrichsbad and Caracalla. We went to the more modern one, the Caracalla Baths. (you can click on the arrow under the photo and you can see photos of both).

We walked in to be greeted by a sign that informed us that Caracalla is an officially-recognized “Wellness Spa” a designation authorized by the German government. I was familiar with this, having done some previous research on it – it’s the spa equivalent of Michelin Stars, and has the slogan “Where it says Wellness, there is Wellness!” Personally, I love saying that with my best “Wehrmacht-prison guard screaming at Steve MacQueen in The Great Escape” accent.

So, to the spas. First of all, my commodious Bermuda-short-like bathing suit caused a bit of consternation with the French folk we were with. Apparently, in many European public swimming/bathing facilities, males are “required” to wear Speedos. So, that explains that stereotype. They claim it’s for hygiene reasons, though no one really explained how that works.

Carcalla has 18 different pools in the non-nudie portion, both inside and out. They’re all heated to different temperatures. Most have bubble-jets or waterfalls by which means poolgoers massage themselves. I also discovered the utility of a Speedo at this point – bubble jets had an unfortunate tendency to fill my shorts with air which had a number of effects – it created buoyancy in my mid-section that made it difficult to remain seated on the in-pool benches, it made it look like I was passing wind underwater when I tried to release the air, and it made me look like I was enjoying the proximity of the various bikini clad Teuton-ettes much more than I actually was, if you know what I mean.

The pools all had different features – though with 18 I think they started to run out of ideas to put in each. One that I found bewildering was a giant outdoor pool with no discernible attraction, other than being cooler than the others. At regular intervals, the jets would start up, creating a fairly strong current that circled the pool. I believe in German it’s called the koldkurrentzpool. Yay!

There was a hot-tub contained within, but it was being monopolized by the Speedo-clad Sasquatches so I went back inside. Here I spent some time in the sauna, baking, until Amynah’s impatience with just sitting around being hot forced us to move along. We then when to the freizyernutzov pool (say it out loud) and then into the genuine hot tub. The temperature difference between the two is supposed to be about 20 degrees, and I must say, it was a lot of fun going to the first, reducing my core body temperature until even…my… thoughts… were… congealing… and then jumping into the hot tub, which stung at first, but then warmed you to your very soul.

We finished our trips by collectively taking over on of the smaller, warmer baths. Using one arm to hold onto the side-railing, I let the currents take me, swaying underwater like seaweed. I looked over at Amynah, eyes half closed, as I slowly turned into a human hammock: “I could get used to this,” I said.

“Good – because I want to come back and go to Friedrichsbad” she said.

Ahhh. Friedrichsbad is the older and more traditional spa in Baden-Baden. Not for it the modern “relax, take your time, enjoy yourself” indulgence of modern spa philosophy. Rather, it is a regimented series of 16 baths, taken in sequence for specific times, and completed with a vigorous massage that I am told is administered by misanthropic stone-masons. Oh, and did I mention that all of this is in the nude? (the customers, not the stone-masons. I think).

I clutched my Bermudas. Suddenly, I’m not so relaxed.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hallowe’en post!

I will refrain from (self-congratulatory) France-posting for a the time being for a “ripped-from-the-archives” bit of House of Horrors: Canadian Wilderness Edition. This is a true story!

In 1829, the sailors of the Victory , a fishing schooner from the Magdalene Islands put in at Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence. On reaching the shore near where the government supply house was supposed to be, they spotted a rowboat pulled up on the shore, but no sign of a larger vessel from where it might have come. They suspected it might have been from a shipwrecked vessel, common enough on the fog enshrouded, storm-wracked island that already was known as The Graveyard of the Gulf.

A party from the Victory landed ashore to investigate. Pushing inland, they called out for survivors, growing increasingly nervous as their shouts were abosrbed by the gloom that covered Anticosti like a shroud.

Finally, they came to the government shelter. Opening the door, they saw a single man, lying dead on a hammock, although he appeared to have been in good health and showed no sign of injury. As their eyes adjusted to the gloom they saw strips of meat hanging from the ceiling rafters, and more stacked near the wall. Scattered over the floor were scraps of clothing and bones.

The fisherman, on finding a ship's log, realized that the rowboat was from the Granicus, which had left Quebec City in October of the previous year with a crew and passengers totaling 28 people, heading for Ireland. It had wrecked on Anticosti and, like the Victory, came to the government shelter looking for food. They discovered that for some reason known only to 19th century colonial bureaucrats, the stores had been removed.

The fisherman realized that the meat was not that from the government stores – the dead man on the hammock had been the last survivor of a horrifying ordeal of starvation and cannibalism. The remains of his fellow crewmen were lying behind the shelter, flesh stripped from their bones.

And in the fireplace, the sailors found a giant stewpot, in which the arms of the unfortunate passengers of the Granicus bristled, in one man’s recollection, “palms upward as if beseeching the Heavens for mercy.”

Monday, October 30, 2006

Thanks everone for your congratulations and praise. Amynah and I are now looking for a new, larger apartment that can accomodate my increasingly big head.

The piece is not online yet, but should be soon. They did a hell of a job with it - it's front of the section, and my photo dominates the front page. Very cool, especially as I'm generally surprised when my photos manage "reasonable looking."

On the note of photos - does anyone ever click the links when I do this? I know I am often leery of clicking through links, but if people would rather I put my photos directly on this site (which I can do at some cost of size and resolution) I can. That shot, by the way, is me experimenting with my new tripod and long exposure. It's also the view out my apartment window, for those to whom I have not bragged about that already.

So now that's I've brought my reading public so much joy, I need to ask a favour: I need music. Before I left my previous employment at McGill I asked many of my colleagues, as a going away gift, to give me ten songs. My orginal plan was purely selfish - I don't listen to the radio, and knew I'd be spending a lot of time listening to my iPod. On the other hand, I've been introduced to a lot of great music and am generally rent by nostalgia ten times a day as various songs come on (who knew that William Shatner's dulcet tones could be so moving?)

So, from you, my loyal reading public, I am asking only for song names. What are you listening to right now? What's a song that makes you happy? What did you hear recently that made you bop your head, sing along, remember your first kiss, want to get in a fight, dance, be 17 again... anything. All I need are names (titles/artists) - I have the means to acquire them in a way that completely violates my views on copyright infringement. Give me one! Give me 20!

Email them or post them here and let others see them!

Friday, October 27, 2006

I've already sent out a fairly comprehensive email about this, but in case I missed anyone, there will be an article in tomorrow's Globe and Mail on Alsace, in which you can find out why I was tromping around a graveyard at sunset two nights ago taking pictures of this and an explanation of what the heck is going on here.

However, it won't explain how the Devil managed to turn Martin Luther's head into a bagpipe, as depicted here.

Nonetheless, it will be the travel section and probably accessible online.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Every once in a rare while, a movie is released in Europe before North America. In this case, I have been afforded a rare opportunity to save friends and family from gouging out their eyeballs should they make the mistake of seeing "Perfume: A history of a murderer."

It's by the same guy who did "Run Lola Run" so I had high hopes.

Well, I see that the film is scheduled for a December 27 release in North America, which would seem to indicate that they are planning on duping people into believing it's a "prestige" picture. I've also read snotty commentaries that seem to hint that the "climactic" (pun-intended) final scene (which features levels of nudity that, as that guy in "Spinal Tap" might have said, have been turned up to eleven) scared off prudish American distributors.

Don't believe it. "Perfume" stinks. It was based on a book that I understand was supposed to be quite good but the movie is unforgivably dull. It tells, for no reason that I can discern, the story of Jean Baptiste Grenouille (get it? Grenouille! He's French you know) who was born in 18th century Paris with a remarkable sense of smell and very poor social skills. He becomes a perfumer, in order to learn how to capture scent. He also becomes a serial killer of beautiful women for related reasons that I won't bother going into.

Highlights include Dustin Hoffman as Grenouille's mentor. I'm sure that, as I write this, Dustin is looking into faking his own death and assuming a new identity before his excrebable Italian accent makes him an object of scorn Stateside (why, by the way, is it ok for everyone else to have or fake a British accent in order to convey their Frenchness, but Hoffman had to fake Italian?) Also, Rachel Hurd-Wood, as the object of Grenouille's obsession, set new standards in the realm of facial control: Poor Alan Rickman, playing her Dad, tells her that the mysterious killer is after her: no reaction. Dad tells her he's effetively sold her into marriage to a near-stranger: no reaction. Our boy Grenouille kills her in the end, but damned if I can figure out how anyone could tell. Apparently no one told her that acting requires, in addition to dressing up in pretty costumes and learning your lines, some semblance of, you know, acting.

Anyway, I started checking my watch roughly ten minutes into this turkey, and continued to do so at intervals of five minutes. How the director managed to make a movie about a serial killer sprinkled with magic realism and lots of nudity so excruciatingly dull is beyond me: It's a testament to some kind of otherworldly badness that only happens when the stars are aligned just so. And when Dustin Hoffman is pretending to be Italian.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

There's a crowd of angry Frenchmen on the sidewalk below my window, angrily gesticulating in the general direction of my apartment. They are standing around the remains of a tile that just fell from the roof of my building and shattered on the concrete fifty feet below. When I poked my head out, the gathering mob seemed to think it was my fault.

I feel rather like Marie Antoinette.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I'm not keen on putting overly personal information on the Internet, but yesterday was, as many of you remembered, the first anniversary of the day that Amynah, taking advantage of my semi-concussed state, won both the "jumping on the pottery to determine who is charge of the house" competition and the "finding coin in rice to determine who controls the household finances" competition.

I, meanwhile, won the "marrying the most wonderful person I know" competition. Ha!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Six word story winners!

Here it is, the long awaited results to the first annual Six Word Story Challenge. It wasn't an easy one to judge, what with the twentieths of hundreds of entries we received, but I stuck with it.

So, without further ado, the winners:

In the category of best non-fiction six word story: Jaideep Oberoi, for "Hooked by blog: wasted more time."

In the category of most drama conveyed in six words: Tasha Ogryzlo for "MADMAN LOOSE. Hello? Anyone there? AAAAAHHHH!"

In the category of "Oooh, been there" Alan Suen for: Boy? Girl? "Not pregnant" Awkward silence.

In the category of best absurdist six word story: Travis Webber, "Iron plate in head. Magnetic bullets" (part three of a five volume series).

And finally, best haiku submitted in a contest for a six word story, Craig Martin, for "And Supergoat died too./The wolf was inedibly lean./Goat, on the other hand...

All our winners will receive a real French postcard with real French stamps, on which I will write a note with a realistic signature. Winners will also receive an invisible gift bag filled with hypothetical items from our non-existant sponsors, with an estimated value of zero Euros ( 0.6 zero CDN).

Congratulations everybody!

PS - I need your addresses.

Friday, October 20, 2006

My vain attempts to excite interest through "teasers" bearing no fruit (not a single person asked me what a trumpet of death was. Not one!) I'll just give in a do a post and pretend like someone requested it. Also: last day for six word stories! I take email submissions as well.

Sunday Amynah and I visited our first castle, built in the 13 century or so and now a ruin, though they're working on it.

The Andlau family still owns it, though they had to repurchase it from Napoleon III after it had been claimed in the name of France by Revolutionaries. It's blocked off now, in order to prevent the structural integrity of visitor's heads being irrevocably violated by falling bricks. That didn't stop me and our friend Sebastien from sneaking into the courtyard for a better look.

It's pretty small, by castle standards (I will confess that my castle standards are easily influenced by whatever guidebook I'm using) but is notable for its sandstone window frames.

So, what of the Trumpet of Death? You may well ask. Well, on the way back, our friend Julie - an avid mushroom picker in a nation of amateur mycologists - suddenly stopped.

"I smell mushrooms" she said.

“Really? Where?” I asked.

Rather than answer, Julie cocked her head, listening. She tensed.

“Shhh! Here come people! Don’t let them know - act like we’re just hanging out,” said Julie. In the middle of the woods? I put on the best “Fungi hunter? Who, me?” expression I could muster under the circumstances.

After they passed, we hopped off the trail and Julie introduced us to our prey - La Trompet de la Mort. These are, despite the name and the fact they still carry radiation blown in from Chernobyl, a local delicacy.

Julie, by the way, is not paranoid. People will hire armed guards to protect a good mushroom patch, the secret locations of which are passed down through the generations. Julie and Sebastien seemed quite pitying when we told them that Canadians pretty much only eat those mushrooms that grow in plastic wrapped blue boxes in grocery stores.

The mushrooms, by the way, were delicious.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Allrighty, I now have several entries from Travis, a couple from Tasha (whose are fine on their own and not front-runners just by virtue of not having bashed mine) one from Jaideep (which will be revealed later as more entries come in, and also kind of bashed me) and a haiku. I don't even know what to say about that.
So - time is ticking down. I know you're out there reading, and I know many of you are current and former wordsmiths. Dazzle me! Dazzle each other!

The rest of this post is semi-political, semi-anecdotal.

France is seen by many to be a smoker's paradise. In many ways, this is true: there's a large tobacco factory a ten minute walk from where I live, and "non-smoking" sections in restaurants tend to consist of whatever table Amynah and I are sitting at. This, however, is changing - a new law will ban smoking in many public places at the start of next year. To my bewilderment, this includes schools, where evidently it was ok to light up before.

In any case, this measure is not nearly as draconian as those in Quebec, where they have their own puff police. That law took effect on the last day of work in Montreal, forcing me to smoke my last-day-of-work cigar the mandatory 30 feet from the entrance to my building during a thunderstorm.

However, a ban is not something that a little French elan can't solve. One of Amynah's first interactions with one of the senior researchers in her institute occurred when Amynah was fixing some substances for her experiments under a fume hood, which vents gases outside the building. The professor - a formidable woman - approached her and asked what she was doing. Amynah explained, at which point one of Amynah's colleagues realized that it was 3 pm - time for the professor's mid-afternoon cigarette, which she would enjoy under the fume hood. Amynah expressed some surprise that she would smoke in a laboratory, to which the professor, in classic French style, replied "It is my priviledge."

Monday, October 16, 2006

Ok, so far the frontrunners to my six word story challenge are all from the same household in BC. Does no one want to compete with them? I can't send a postcard to a guy who called my example "bullshit!"

So, on that basis alone, Tasha's in the lead. Other competitors are welcome. You have until Friday midnight, Left Coast time (North America's Left Coast, not Europe's, Africa's or Asia's respective Left Coasts).

By way of encouragement, a little bit of Alsatian folklore (which I'm gathering at a prodigious rate, considering how little of it I understand). This also an opportunity to experiment with putting my photos online. I'd post my 1600 word account of yesterdays quest for the Trumpet of Death but I don't feel like any of you deserve it yet.

Last weekend, Amynah and I took a bike ride to Le
Chapel de Loup
– the wolf’s chapel. According to my guide book, the chapel (which is literally in the middle of a corn field) got its name in the 1700s, when a goat wandered a little to far afield in search of green-tasties. Suddenly, a wolf appeared, menacingly, as is their wont. The goat ran away, hiding in the chapel. Yet, when the wolf gave chase, the goat somehow slipped out, kicked the door shut, and trapped the wolf inside.
The goat (which, at this point in the story is starting to remind me of Lassie or The Littlest Hobo) ran to the nearest town (Innensheim) and, through some means of goat/human communication that has been lost to history (mime? charades?) summoned whatever the eighteenth century equivalent of the police was, who came back to the chapel and presumably made short work of the wolf.

Why, after all of that, the chapel became known as Wolf’s Chapel and not Church of the Super Goat is beyond me.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Oh, and in an effort to encourage participation on this thing, I'm going to steal an idea I've seen on other blogs (I have a wee-bit too much free time here) and post a challenge for the literarily inclined. It's called the "Six word story." The original was (unsurprisingly) Hemingway: "For sale: Baby shoes. Never used."

My effort is semi-biographical: Saw doctor, bought sling. Sold bike.

I know many of you are frightenly talented, if not notably terse. Give it a shot! I will judge all entries and dispense a prize of a real postcard, to be mailed using real French stamps!

For my former colleagues, if any are reading this, bonus points if you can work the word "excellence" in there somehow!
OK, my first political post!

It's a bit of a tempest in a teapot, since there's a good chance it will never be confirmed by Senate, but much has been made of the French legislature's motion to make it a crime to deny that the WWI-era Armenian massacre was a genocide.

I'm no fan of these laws - I find all they do is make it harder to identify the idiots. Turkey has rightly pointed out that the law seems to be aimed at throwing up further roadblocks to their EU membership.

"Turkish-French relations, which have been meticulously developed over the centuries, took a severe blow today through the irresponsible initiatives of some short-sighted French politicians, based on unfounded allegations," the Turkish foreign ministry said.

Irresponsible? Short-sighted? Good thing France doesn't have a law that makes it a crime to "insult Frenchness."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Using techniques relayed by Julie in Japan, I'm attempting fancy hyperlinking.

I would also recommend clicking the link for an amusing story about Bean Jum Man: "Do you know me? If you don't know me, please search by the Internet."

Soon, I will start competing with her odd-life in foreign land stories. I have a great one of rules governing who may and may not eat road kill here.

The answers will surprise you.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Just got back from the orthopedic surgeon, who confirmed that my arm is no longer broken, but it's still weak. The break was small, but it was on the radial bone, near the elbow, making it both fairly debilitating and difficult to heal. I have to see him again, and get a new (third!) X-ray in three weeks. Technically I'm also supposed to keep wearing my sling, but since I can niether write, eat, brush my teeth or dress myself with it on, I tend to only put it on when going out, rather than spend my days naked, smelly and bored. In that way the sling is as useful as a big medical-surplus-warehouse necktie - I put it on, but it doesn't serve any discernible purpose other than make me uncomfortable. I sort of chalked it up to being the same sort of venal sin as saying "Yes Mr Dentist, of course I floss after every meal!"*
Of course, I didn't tell him that I've not really been wearing it as directed. Nor did I tell him that I went for a 40 km bike ride on Saturday which (temporarily) aggravated it.** I've already been called a stubborn ass by my Mom and my Mother-in-law, I don't need it from my doctor.
By the way, thanks to Shannon and Adam for the chestnut explanation (comments, last post). Coming from them, I'm not sure if it is inspired conjecture on their part or known fact. I'll go for known fact: as an engineer, Shannon knows all about trains (whaddya mean you're not that kind of engineer?)

* As I'm posting this on the great big Internet, I will rush to confirm that yes, I do floss after every meal, snack, meaty conversation and issue of Reader's Digest. In fact, dental floss is a bigger portion of my domestic budget than electricty and phone - I use roughly half my body weight of the stuff a month. You know it's true, because it's on the web!
** More on that to come.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A minor cultural observation: In Canada, there are annual complaints that the stores start selling Christmas merchandise even before the trick-or-treaters have egged the last car of Hallowe'en. Well, in Germany Christmas displays start going up in September. Here in France, on the very first day of October the morning light revealed that all of the streetside ice cream vendors had been magically transformed into roast chestnut sellers, all in booths shaped like minature steam locomotives (I'd appreciate it if someone could explain the chestnut/locomotive link, by the way - the one on Phillips Square in Montreal had a similar set-up).
I have to head out to French class now, where my classmates and teacher all believe I'm some kind of paranormal expert, which better reflects my supernatural ability to mangle the French language than my actual interests.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Update: per Travis's (remarkably fast) observation, comments should now be open to anyone, meaning you needn't sign up for one of these things to comment on mine. That Travis did speaks to just what sort person he is. I love you man!
If it doesn't work, let me know and I will attempt to fix it again.
Hey all,
I'm not certain how often I will be using this site - the whole blog thing seems to be a pretty good way to divert myself from doing more productive writing. On the other hand, it's not exactly like I'm doing a huge amount of more productive writing, ergo, here I am.
Not, however, with anything to say. I guess the first thing to do would be introduce myself, if by chance anyone should cruise by this thing accidentally. In order to increase the chances of that happening, here's one for the Google search bots: Tom Cruise Naked! Angelina Jolie Naked! Naked Nudie Nudes!
All right, on to me. First off, I'm niether naked, nude, nor some freaky naked nude Angelina/Tom hybrid. I'm a Canadian writer of some (i.e. vanishingly little) repute. I live in Strasbourg now, thanks to the brilliance of my wife, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology.
So what will this blog (Ye Gods! I shudder to write the word!) be about? Well, I don't know yet. Accounts of being an ex-pat in France, in part. Possibly comments on current news and events, though lord knows that's a market that must be near saturation by now.
I suspect that I will also be using it as a way to share my cleverer emails with a wider audience. I suspect that I'll end up reposting material I've already tried out on smaller audiences, rather than my current practice of tailoring the same message for a dozen different people like some kind of Interet-based telemarketer.
Anyway, here's my first such one of these: it was based on a email I sent to my friend Julie, who is currently doing the whole teaching English in Japan thing and adjusting to the whole ex-pat thing herself. Her take on it, being original, is worth reading much more so than my "me-too" response. Hers is here: (ya gotta scroll down to Thursday Oct 5 and the section entitled "Country" - Julie is at least as verbose as I. Although, after to scroll down scroll back up to read about her karaoke adventures).

My dittohead response, edited:
Moving to a foreign place is interesting - after the initial thrill wears off, it becomes "home" very quickly. I didn't bother seeing a bunch of things I should have in Montreal when I lived there - Musée de Art Contemporain, several history museums, a dozen churches I always wanted to see and never did, various parks in the West Island, 90 percent of the east island, La Ronde, all of the various little Ste-Whoever-de-les-Laurentides. It was just home - I'd have plenty of chances to see things.

And when I came here, everything was new (or rather, really freakin' old) and fascinating. The buildings are beautiful, the history oozing up from the streets and dripping from the walls requires a full time city cleaning crew to keep it in check. In many ways, it continues to surprise - I recently learned the hospital has its own wine cellar, dating from the Middle Ages when people would pay for their leechings with in-kind goods. They have a reisling from 1472, and an on-staff sommelier. Vive la France!

Yet, at the same time, no matter how different Strasbourg is from Canada, now it's just home. I no longer get (too) lost in the tangle of streets, the various gargoyles and goblins carved into the architecture no longer entrance, I don't feel compelled to take pictures of every slate-roofed-half-timbered-flowerbox-bedecked building I pass. And though in many ways, it's like home, it's worse, because I have no friends of my own with whom I can go for a last-minute beer (though there are people from Amynah's lab that have adopted us, sadly my French is not yet up to par, or anywhere close to it. Plus, they don't drink beer).

On the other hand, the banks of the Ill are not crowded with beret-wearing painters capturing the setting sun, and the cafés are pretty much empty of poets. France, while indisputably French, is not a 24-hour postcard. So what do I have? Novelty - occasionally. Homesickness - pretty much daily. An experience I'll never forget - yeah, of course. But these ain't days of wine and roses - often they're days of Internet and groceries, same as they would be in Montreal, only without the nearby friends and family.

On the other hand (to repeat a segue), this weekend I biked through farmers' fields to visit an 800 year old tower reputed to be used by devils and sorcerers, and hiked in the Vosges, stopping in at a chapel dedicated to St Leon that sits on top of a giant rock atop a mountain overlooking the valley below. I can, and have, walked to Germany and can probably bike to Switzerland in half a day. When we are invited out for dinner (which we are frequently) the food is confite de canard, the inevitable four different wines (one for the appetizer, one for the main course, one for the cheese plate and one for dessert, plus a digestif, often schnapps) uniformly excellent, the cheeses decadent and plentiful, the company delightful.

So, it's good, and it's bad. Sometimes I'm miserable and bitter and alone (freelancing is not a very social activity) and other times I'm content and completely at home.

As a first post, that's a bit of a downer and I didn't mean it to be. I actually am, for the most part, enjoying myself. I'm also really looking forward to company (which will soon be supplied in the person of my friend Jon, for whom I am planning a full-on ex-Stras-aganza (ha!) so he will tell people and encourage them to visit as well.

Thursday, September 28, 2006