Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In keeping with the season...

This photo is actually of last year's Christmas tree. Hey, if you want up-to-date imagery, look to Reuter's

Merry Chirstmas! I’m unlikely to be doing any posting here for the next week or so, as Amynah and I will be in Budapest, Prague and Vienna (not in that order). I promise to do something stupid that will bring some entertaining suffering upon me, that I will then render in what I hope will be amusing detail. Consider it my little belated Christmas present for you, my dedicated readers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Merry Old Execution-land

Tower Bridge, from where the heads of the executed would be mounted on pikes for display. That's just how they decorated things before they invented flowerpots.

Just got back from London, where we had an excellent time being shown around by Todd and Jane, looked at funny by their suspicious son Maarten (the kid literally backed into a corner, staring at me like I was the devil, when his mother stepped out of the room for a minute), catching up with Melania and Jaideep (who happened to be in town and who assures me that "everyone" reads this blog. I remain unconvinced) and hanging out with Amynah's cousins.

Anyway, we managed to get to the Tower of London, from where this picture is taken. The Tower itself isn't very towering - five stories, maybe, and full of all sorts of saguinary torture devices, the provenance of which was always blamed, disingenuously, on the Spanish. We were shown around by a Yeoman (Beefeater), who hollered at a volume attainable only by retired British Army sergeants, and who described for us with great relish the various Royal personages who had been separated from their heads at this location. He would go into great detail about how many hacks of the broadsword this sometimes took, causing me some concern for the delicate sensibilities of the young children on the tour. That is, until I saw one of them swinging an imaginary sword at the neck of his little sister, with accompanying sound effects I can only describe as a "wet thump."

Little monsters.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Le stuff

Relax, this isn't about my Speedo. That said, I'm the guy on the right

Sorry I’ve been remiss in blogging for the last couple of days… errr, make that weeks. Thanks to some prompting (Hi Peggy! Hi Victor!) I’m finally getting around to it now. I will have more and better stuff to write about next week, when I have returned from our trip to London to visit friends and family there. Back Tuesday!

Anyway, when I neglect the blog for so long, the stories tend to accumulate, leaving me with a surfeit of choice… no one wants to hear about my nascent career as a faux-scientist, I’m sure, and I don’t think I can get much narrative mileage out of our night at the symphony. I will save my Hot Underwater Speedo Adventures ™ for another day, which leaves me with… lemme see, something seasonal…. Shopping?

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but when Amynah and I moved here, we were suffering from “Stuff Shock.” When we quit North America, we had to store, sell or throw away everything we owned. We now have possessions scattered in the homes of friends and family across the country. Boxes exhumed from the nether reaches of our closets were emptied and parted with for a Loonie or two, not having been opened for years beforehand. It was stressful, and more than a little bit shaming: what were we* doing with all this crap in the first place?

On our arrival in France, knowing that we weren’t staying here forever, we were determined to not accumulate anything we weren’t going to be happy to part with later. On our first trip to Ikea, we got into an argument because I didn’t see the point of owning any more than two plates, two bowls, two forks… you get the idea. I was aiming to make the Spartans look like Caligula throwing a party for the Ottoman court.

We pretty much kept to this rule – we have enough dishes to entertain guests without having to eat in shifts, and a couple of wall hangings, but our esthetic has been “if we don’t use it, we don’t own it.”

And so things remained for the last 18 months. Right up until the weekend before last.

This has very little to do with the post, but these are traditional Alsatian costumes. Photo from http://hanau.folklore.free.fr/

That weekend, we were invited out to a Christmas market in Dachstein** by Annie, a friend of Amynah’s from her institute, and her husband Jean-Luc. The market was much like Strasbourg’s, in that there were thousands of slack-jawed tourists wandering around not buying anything from a bunch of bored looking stall-keepers while Dachsteiners in period costume wandered around.

Annie is a collector of the local pottery, of which Amynah and I are also big fans. We had a couple of pieces already, both of which were completely functional: a tea-set, and a pot designed for choucroutte in which Amynah cooks her briyani. Annie is personal friends with the potter who made our tea set and so, after the Dachstein market, invited us to an open house he was having in his workshop in Betchdorf, north of Strasbourg.

Amynah and I were, as far as I could tell, the only people there who were not already friends of Monsieur Remmy, who, entranced that such exotic Canadian creatures as us would know and appreciate his art, introduced himself to us and spoke to us for a good ten minutes, despite the other sixty-odd guests demanding his attention.
In any case, with that kind of treatment it behooved us to buy a few items, and so we walked out with a vase, two ornaments, a soup bowl and a second teapot (“For guests!” says Amynah).

The problem, we discovered on coming home, was that we had no place for all these lovely items. The window-sill is too risky a spot for the vase, and there’s no spare shelf space for the teapot.

And so we discovered the first law of stuff; namely, stuff begets more stuff. In order to display the lovely pottery to best advantage, we needed to purchase an end-table or shelving unit of some sort.

And so, the following weekend, we trudged off to Emmaus, the French equivalent of the Salvation Army thrift store. From there we purchased an end table… and why not another end table? And why not a small lamp to put on the end table? And why not a few more glasses while we’re at it? And so, after living a year and a half like monks, in the last few months of our expected time here, we finally cracked and moved in.

One of the end tables, with some of the pottery. Consumerism has given my life new meaning.

* By we, I mean me. Amynah had no extraneous crap in her life until I came along.

** Though Annie and Jean-Luc are from Alsace, I was the one who ended up giving directions to get to the village, as I had been twice before and it was their first time. This, combined with my recent Speedo acquisition, has confirmed me as a true Frenchman.

Monday, November 26, 2007

I'll be home for Christmas

Well, I won't, but if the Mark won't go to the Mont-Royal, the Mont-Royal will come to Mark.

Each year, Strasbourg hosts the oldest or biggest Christmas market in France/Europe (I'm a little fuzzy on the details, as you can see).

There are markets like this over most of the city. Roughly one-in-five booths sells "gluwein" (mulled wine) meaning that it is possible to get completely hammered while doing one's Christmas shopping. I will refrain from commenting on the utility of this innovation.

Each year, a country/region is asked to be a "guest" of the market, and set up stalls selling their traditional foods and handicrafts. In addition, performances and displays of art are mounted throughout the month from that culture. The invitee market is always set up on Place Gutenberg, next door to my building. Last year, in honour of their joining the EU, the guest was Romania.

Anyone care to guess which maple-syrup loving, strong-beer making, Celine-Dion-producing people were the guest of honour this year?

Right now they're playing a CD of Christmas carols by the Montreal Jubilation Choir. And while there's no shortage of weird little plastic Native American knick knacks for sale, not to mention a booth selling Fin du Monde and Maudite beer, I have yet to see any sign of either a merchant offering either poutine or Montreal bagels.*

Nonetheless, this is doing nothing for my seasonal homesickness.

* I know I'm really missing these; at a recent dinner with friends I described them as "round and golden, like the haloes of angels."

Le week-end

Went to see our arguably competent doctor on Saturday, in order to get some vaccinations for some travel we might be doing next year. I mentioned to him that I might have had these vaccinations before, but had lost my records and couldn't recall. The good doctor, who seems to believe that speaking quicker will help me better understand his poorly enunciated French, launched into a long discourse on the nature of the drugs he was prescribing and their potential effects. In any case, I heard a lot of negative sounding French words, but lost the thread of what he was telling me pretty early on in his speech. Nonetheless, I sat, mind wandering, nodding and saying "Oui" at the appropriate junctures. I snapped to attention at the five minute mark when he reached his big climax: "But there's no proof of any of that." No proof of what now?

Later that night, unsure of how long I had to live, I went out Saturday night with my language exchange partner Caner to felicitate our mutual friend Sebastien, who will be a father in a little more than a week. We went to see a local football/soccer match. Let me tell you, nothing makes sitting in the freezing cold for two hours while being deafened in one ear by the shrieks of over-stimulated French children worthwhile like a final score of 0-0.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

This day in history

... marks the end, 89 years ago, of the short-lived Bolshevik Republic of Alsace, declared in Place Kleber (briefly renamed Place Karl Marx) on November 18 and crushed four days later by French troops, who took advantage of the situation to repatriate the region from Germany.

It was a good four days to be a communist.

In Strasbourg, the date is marked by Rue Novembre 22, one of the larger streets in town. You can trace the progress of the French army through Alsace this way - I noted a few villages on our route with Rue Novembre 23's, and presumably further North you can stroll down a Rue Novembre 21.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Holy hike!

The Fall of France

So, this past weekend we decided to go for a short hike with our friend Sami the Finn. Sami the Finn is a pretty active guy – our most ambitious and delicious ventures into the local countryside tend to be at his instigation.

This time, he suggested a relatively moderate three-hour hike near Saverne, slightly to the north of here. This in itself would not provide sufficient “extremosity” to qualify as a true Sami the Finn hike. However, I believe our dour Nordic friend was counting on the forecast fifteen centimeters of snow to provide the challenge he requires for such endeavours.

Sadly, it was not to be. The day dawned as pretty much all days dawn when we’re doing something that will require us to be outside a lot: cold and foggy.

Don't leave me here!

While I was delighted with the fog, Amynah pointed out that there was hardly any point in climbing a big ole hill in order to see a thick mist that would be equally well viewed from the interior of a cozy restaurant.

Nonetheless, we came to climb, and climb we did. Due in part to the fog, and in part to somewhat unclear trail markings, we ended up taking a shortcut that effectively eliminated most of the actual trail.

We weren't the only ones confused, apparently

We saw fog enshrouded trees and fog enshrouded rocks, and a few fog-enshrouded trails, none of which were those that we were supposed to be on. Eventually, roughly at the moment we were going to give up, we stumbled upon the fog-enshrouded castle that was supposed to mark the last 1/8 of the planned hike. At this point, we’d only done, by my estimation, 1/4 of the distance we were supposed to so evidently the local fog was the result of a rip in the space-time continuum.

Yawn. Another romantic castle ruin.

We hiked up to the castle, snapped some photos, and then decided to wander a little further along a side trail which turned out to be the tail end of the trail we were supposed to have been on all along.

Here we stumbled upon the Grotto of St Vitus, a medieval pilgrimage site for those seeking the Saint’s protection against epilepsy. The site is still very much in use, with a well-tended garden and pond. The grotto itself contains a small chapel, which holds services right up until September.

It's a trap, I tell you! A trap!

This is a risk of hiking in the forest around Alsace. I have, by my count gone on at least four pilgrimages since coming here, all quite by accident. You never know when you’re going to stumble onto one of these things – chapels litter the forest like bear-traps, baited with the promise of redemption for the unwary. I don’t think it’s quite right that one should be at risk of having one’s soul saved when all one wants is a nice walk in the woods, do you?

Greve-digging II: The comeuppance

Further to my last post: As part of the Kafka-esque bureaucracy in France, I am required roughly every two months to present myself at the local “Tresor Publique” to pay taxes, correct their forms, fills out new forms and try to convince them that despite our different last names, Amynah and I are actually married.

One of the more tiresome chores is the need to repeatedly explain to them that, as I do not own a television, I will not be paying the television tax (such a thing does exist here). Yet every once in a while, they’ll send me a new bill demanding that I pay it.

Today, I went up once more, planning on speaking in French so tortuous so as to make the inutility of my owning a television self-evident. However, on arrival they were closed, in sympathy for the greviste etudiants.

That’ll teach me to question the power of the student unions.


Striking students. Sadly, I've nothing funnier to add to that

As I’ve noted before, one of the joys of living where we do is never wanting for entertainment. From here we can see such wonders as the Cathedral light show, bike races or, famously, Napoleonic disco zombies.

One of the more frequent sights out my window are street protests, a sight Le Monde tells me is likely to become even more common in the days to come.

Today it was the students. Now, I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of why they’re striking, as I’d probably get it wrong anyhow, but I really must ask: what vital service are students providing that their striking would be a threat worth taking seriously? I was on “strike” for the first two years of my undergraduate degree, and no one - not even my professors - ever noticed.

In any case, what I’ve observed about these manifestations is that they all, without exception, feature a pickup truck bearing a small rock n’ roll combo, belting out rousing tunes custom composed for the occasion.

On the road again...

Given that I was ill yesterday, and am therefore still a little giddy from lack of food, when today’s parade of discontent passed, I was left wondering how these guys come up with their songs. Is there a “Defending the social-contract in three-chords” songbook? Or are some gallic Lennon and McCartney spending their nights hopped up on bennies, churning out new lyrics for the cause du jour?

“Jacques, mon ami, what rhymes with Sarkozy?”

“Solidarité? It is close enough, no?”

“Ah, but we used that for the electricians strike, just last week. Our fans demand more of us!”

“I am not a machine, Jean-Paul. This is an art! One cannot just rhyme “revolution” with “etudiant” and call it poetry! There must be passion!”

"Do not be so hard on yourself Jacques. We cannot write an opus like "No to the reform of municipal blue-collar pensions" every time."

All right, I obviously need some lunch.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On a lighter note...

In French class yesterday we were doing an exercise to help us master the future conditional, in which we would ask each other questions like "If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?"

At one point, I was asked if I could eat any meal, with a dining companion of my choice, what and who would it be. Taking my role as class clown seriously, I answered duck (I do love me some duck), which I would eat with Kate Moss, adding "That way, there would be more food for me."

Later I was asked if I could be anyone in the world for 24 hours, who would it be, and what would I do. Again, thinking I was being clever, I answered Bill Gates, and I would give all my money to Mark Reynolds.

Topping me when his turn came, Gabor, my Hungarian classmate, answered without batting an eye "I'd be Kate Moss, and go to dinner with Mark."

Battle weary

Vimy memorial. Note the churned earth and sign to the right warning of unexploded shells

Note – I suspect the following post is a wee bit self-righteous, and possibly even somewhat pompous. Forgive me, I do get worked up sometimes.

I had intended a Remembrance Day post here about my visit, with my family, to Vimy Ridge last month. Unfortunately, the day we went to the memorial I forgot to bring my camera, and thus decided to wait until my Dad’s CD of his pictures arrived. Given that my Dad’s a far superior photographer, you can count yourself lucky.

In any case, I’ve ranted about Vimy’s place in Canadian history before and my opinion on that score is unchanged.

That said, that despite the Parks/Heritage Canada presentation of the site, the memorial is very moving. It is staffed by fresh-faced college girls reciting troop numbers, pointing out soldiers’ graffiti and scrupulously avoiding the topic of just who all these Canadians were in France to kill. Ask where the German trenches were and a vague hand is waved “over there.” German cemeteries are nowhere in evidence, German casualties never mentioned. Overall, the displays in the visitors centre are more about the act of “remembrance” itself than about what, precisely, we are supposed to be remembering. Needless to say, the site repeats the old trope that so enrages me about how Vimy proved to Canadians what we, as a nation, could accomplish

Death's tool chest in the tunnels. Not historic enough

At the risk of sounding needlessly provocative, what “we” achieved that day was monstrous. And it is this, no matter how much the myth-makers back home try to paper this over, is what the Vimy Memorial presents quite well.

The land around the battlefield is, ninety years on, pitted and scarred with shell craters, laden with unexploded ordnance. Two graveyards, filled with tombstones marked with nothing more than “A Canadian soldier” speak not just to the massacre here, but to the heartbreak of families back home who would never know what happened to their sons.

Canadian cemetery at Vimy

Vimy was won underground – an enormous network consisting of miles of tunnels allowed troops to burst onto the battlefield undetected. In these, old grenades, rifles and barbed wire fencing rust away, handled occasionally by some English major from Bathurst or Toronto who explains how they were improved upon over the course of the war to better aid the massacre.

And this, to me, is what makes this a monstrosity. So much effort, so much human labour and ingenuity spent improving the efficiency of the machinery of death.

Adolph Hitler famously visited the Vimy memorial in the 1930s, having been a runner in that sector of the front; he was invalidated out just prior to the Canadian assault. After invading France, he specifically ordered that the Vimy memorial be spared the Nazi programme of destroying war monuments, reasoning that our memorial did not express triumph over an enemy, but rather sorrow over the loss. How anyone could walk through those cemeteries or see those tunnels and think to repeat the exercise, then or now, is beyond comprehension.

Memorial detail

It does not take much of an imagination or sense of empathy to imagine what hell waiting in those tunnels must have been, feeling the reverberations of shells rumbling through the stone above you, knowing that eventually you would have to venture into the slaughter outside and, if you survived, walk up to a perfect stranger and kill him. It takes no great mental effort to imagine the lifetime of heartache a “Missing and presumed dead” telegram would bring a mother, wife, brother.

A word like “pride” has no place in reference to something like Vimy, and sadness is useless. I left Vimy angry, and I’m angry still.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Complaints choir

Just read this story about the Finnish complaints choir (video below, and it's hilarious).

The song is made of complaints submitted by choir members. My favourite from this one is "We always lose to Sweden in Eurovision and hockey." What would your complaint be? Mine would be people who zig-zag slowly across sidewalks, thwarting my attempts to pass them.

Share - it's good for the soul.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Ahead by a century

And we're off - the odometer at zero

Our two-year anniversary having coincided with my parents visit, Amynah and I decided to celebrate it this weekend. The “weekend” in this case having started Thursday, in honour of All Saint’s Day.

We decided to go with a “two” theme for our celebrations, (as opposed to cotton or china, as is apparently traditional) and thus dragged out our two-wheeled means of transportation (both second-hand, appropriately enough). Our destination: Basel, over one hundred kilometers away (we thought it was 120 km. Oh, what naïve fools we were!)

I had made an offhand suggestion to do this some time ago, and earlier this week had, without any sincere regret, mentioned that it was a shame that we hadn’t had a chance to do it this summer. My wife, being insane, said we should so it now, on the first of November, when neither of us had really been biking much at all for months.

In preparation, in the days leading up to our journey, I resolutely refused to think about it, on the assumption that a) Amynah would come to her senses or b) if she didn’t, I was better to not be dreading the misery ahead.

Nonethless, I made sure the brand-new odometer my younger sister and her fiancé bought me for my birthday was functional, and invested in a bike lamp, rack and pannier bag.

The forecast for Thursday was sunny, with highs in the low teens. However, the day dawned with a thick, cold fog blanketing Alsace, and temperatures hovering around five degrees. Also, I had the beginnings of a migraine.

Deciding to ignore it, and I still in the hopes that Amynah would admit to the whole enterprise being a practical joke, we saddled up, and headed to the Rhine-Rhone canal, that we were planning on following pretty much all the way to Switzerland.

It was not to be. Somewhere past Illkirch, we hit a “deviation” which sent us wandering through farmer’s fields and the empty little villages of Hipsheim and Nordhouse. This added at least 15 km, one hour of map-contemplating backtracking, and two or three extra degrees of pain in my head.

The detour through the land that God forgot

After getting back on the canal (after asking about six different sets of direction from six different people) we stopped for lunch at the fifty km mark. Damp and cold from the fog, nauseous from my headache and already aching, we decided to call it a day if we made it as far a Selestat, another 25 km away. Ignoring the strong smells emanating from the nearby hog barn, we choked down our sandwiches and pushed on.

Then, a miracle occurred – a cruel, terrible miracle. The fog began to lift, the clouds parted, and the sun came out. Suddenly our miserable slog through a brume-choked wasteland became a pleasant ride through sun blessed Autumnal countryside. Worse, my headache, which in retrospect I am convinced was my body urgently hammering the “Eject! Eject!” button, went away.

Soon, the villages began to fly by: Witternheim, Bindernheim, Wittleheim, Boesesheim, Schlobsheim, Hessenheim, Marckolsheim, Artzenheim, Baltzenheim, Kunheim… they all blended into one glorious “heim.”

We did, however, keep losing the route. At the 90 km mark, we stopped in a village (Bielsheim) and accosted a spandex-clad gentleman on a kitted-out racing bike, figuring he’d know all the local routes. His wide-eyed reply, on being asked where the route to Basel was, “Oh, you’re ambitious.”

Failing to take that as the warning it was, we pushed on. Sunset greeted us near Nambsheim, just as we hit the 100 km mark.

Soon, we were biking in the dark. And let me tell you, dark in an Alsatian village on All Saints Day is dark indeed. Worse, the fog of the morning arrived for an encore performance, penetrating our clothes, and chilling us to our very bones.

Soon, we were reduced to pedaling, half-frozen automatons, half-hoping the few cars that would appears out of nowhere in the foggy night would put us out of our misery. Balgau, Blodelsheim, Rumersheim-le-Haut… at Blantzheim we gave up on the bike paths, as my headlamp was failing in the cold and the only illumination we had was therefore coming from passing cars on the highway (Amynah’s bike had a generator-powered lamp but, as she was wearing a white jacket while I was wearing a black coat over a black fleece over a black t-shirt, I needed her nice and visible behind me).

Ottmarsheim, Petit-Landau, St Martin, Niffer, Kembs… we were beginning to run out of time. It was pushing 8 pm, and the last train left Basel back to Strasbourg at 9:20. We hadn’t brought enough for dinner, and I was paying less attention to the road – after the 130 km mark – than I was to the visions of the Basel Burger King, the only representative of that fine culinary institution I’ve seen in Continental Europe. My half-congealed brain wondered whether I should order two Whoppers at the same time, or each singly, to receive them at maximum heat. The coffee, I decided, would be poured directly over my feet which, having done nothing but sit on my pedals all day, had frozen solid.

Richardhaueser, Rosenau, Village-Nuef… at St Louis we were fooled by the directional signs which, in an effort to reduce traffic through their downtown, directed those seeking Basel to the Autoroute, a passage not recommended for two exhaused Canadians on bikes. After that detour, we zipped through Swiss customs, cheering and whooping. Though they don’t check passports there anymore (thank god: we had forgotten ours) we wanted to stop and tell the guards “Do you know where we just came from?”

Happy to be in Basel, and Basel's happy we're there.

At this point it was about 9:30 so, after snapping a photo of the carnival the people of Basel were throwing in honour of our accomplishment, we headed directly to the train station, with a plan to buy our tickets, and then run to the Burger King across the street. We got to the wicket, and the lady told us that the last train was leaving in five minutes, on track 12 – a four-minute walk away.

“Burger King….” I moaned, piteously, as Amynah started to run to the platform. We caught the train, and sat, shivering, sore, devoid of thought. Whatever sense of accomplishment I felt (it’s still sinking in) was overwhelmed by the unpleasant sensation of what it feels like to cry burger-deprived tears when you don’t actually have any liquid left in your body.

It's hard to read because of the crappy light, but trust me, it says 163 km. It took us 12 hours (nine and three quarters of actual riding) at just under 17 km/hr average. Given that Amynah rides a bike stitched together from old tin cans that has only three speeds, I will choose to believe this is impressive.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

First day and already hated by my classmates

So, French classes started yesterday. As part of a getting-to-know us exercise, my French teacher asked the motley crew that is my cohort about our travel experiences. For some reason, rather than asking me where I'd been, she asked me for a bad travel experience. I replied that I don't believe in bad experiences, just good stories. I then launched - in French - into this sorry tale.

My saga of suffering and woe was so well received, that she made it a homework assignment for everyone in the class to tell their own travel story for the next class. This includes me, despite my heroic efforts yesterday. Any readers have any favourites?

The Roof of Europe

Eiger, Eiger, shining bright...

There has probably been no phrase I’ve repeated so much since my arrival in France, upon encountering some new, old, or particularly Euro thing as “I can’t wait to show my parents this!” Why this is, I’m not sure – I guess you never really get over the desire to impress your folks.

In any case, my parents came for a visit about two weeks ago, thus the blog silence. It was an eye-opening experience. Your parents are always the ones who are on top of things: my Mom’s hyper-organized, my Dad able to navigate his way across the country and in strange cities effortlessly.

It was a little different this time. The only specific goals they had, after the Paris portion of their trip, was the Vimy Ridge memorial near Arras. Everything else was up in the air, other than a caution that they weren’t too interested in churches and castles.

This was awkward - as my parents, historically speaking, they're supposed to be in charge. Also, as anyone who has been paying attention to this blog knows, castles and churches are a bit of a specialty of mine, so I was left at a bit of a loss as to what to do with them for a week before heading north. The answer, as usual, came from my beloved, who suggested we head to the Alps. Where Amynah had been to Basel several times, the inner reaches of Switzerland had thus far eluded us.

Saturday, after a few days of taking them on my usual, top-secret tour of Strasbourg and the highlights of the Alsace region, we piled in the car and headed to the Jungfrau. At 4,158 metres it is probably the highest mountain I’d ever been on.

Fortunately, you don’t have to actually climb the Jungfrau. Instead, you take the Jungfraubahn, a train that goes up incredibly steep slopes with the aid of a third cog-rail, inside the mountain, through a tunnel hewn out the mountain leading to the peak.

Looking back on the cog-train. My Mom admirably resisted the urge to tell me to stop sticking my head out the window.

At the peak is an enormous metal and glass building that wouldn’t look out of place as the setting of the villain’s pad in a James Bond film (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed nearby). Since there aren’t exactly any competing businesses in the region, the station was filled with overpriced restaurants and overpriced winterwear.

My elders, wondering what possessed them to leave late-Autumn Canada for a colder locale on their vacation.

Fortunately, we had brought our own and ventured out onto the viewing deck. I was immediately hit with a blast of homesickness, in the form of – 15 degree temperatures, the likes of which I haven’t experienced in nearly two years. Refreshing! The platform was haunted by some very furry-looking black birds. Why they were there and what they ate were a mystery, but they didn’t seem nearly as uncomfortable as the many visitors at the station from India, none of whom, presumably fooled by hundreds of Bollywood movies featuring sari-clad starlets frolicking in Alpine snow, seemed to have brought gloves.

Where the heck am I?

Inside, the station featured an ice-palace, featuring well-crafted polar tableaux. These, for some reason, included a representation of an igloo. Given that this is a structure already normally made of ice, seemed to me to make the Swiss copy somewhat redundant.

Ghost penguins!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Star Chamber

The tuna moose, courtesy Craig Martin. Thanks Craig!

We join our intrepid trio where we left off in our last installment of “And this guy wants us to visit him?”

Last we saw Val, Andy and my own fine self, we were wet, tired, frustrated and hungry in the Alsatian village of Ottrott, having utterly failed in our second attempt to see the Medieval castle there. We elected to regroup over lunch.

Driving into town, (population 300, not including livestock) we espied a sign for the local restaurant. Parking the car, we trudged dinner-ward, minds dancing with visions of choucroutte and tartes flambées. Alas, arriving at the door of the establishment, we were crushed, upon reading and laboriously translating the sign hanging on the door, to learn the restaurant was closed.

For lunch.

Muttering many a dark imprecations against the French, Frenchness and France, our merry trio returned to the car, and headed to the nearby village of Klingenthal, the ultimate destination of our ill-fated bike trip two days before.

We stopped upon spotting a sign for a Restaurant l’Etoile which promised cuisine moderne. This is code for “Not cabbage and ham.” As I was in the mood for cabbage and ham, I was disappointed, but not about to argue with the increasingly murderous looks Val was shooting in my direction which promised that her cold, wet hands would soon be wrapped around my throat were a plate of something not in front of her post haste.

We dragged our muddy, damp selves inside, and ordered the 15 Euro menu. Though my French has improved greatly since arriving here, vast swathes of technical jargon remain beyond my ken. This includes the broad, and highly specialized category of “things French people do to food.”

The only item I caught, in fact, was “tuna,” which was supposed to be the appetizer. What form this tuna was supposed to come in was a mystery, though were I to hazard a guess I would have said “mousse.”*

Things went hairy immediately, when Andy attempted to order a coffee. I reluctantly translated this request to our waitress, who immediately blanched. “But are you going to eat?” she demanded. I replied yes, at which point she took a step back, looking at us with suspicion mixed with distaste. I quickly explained to Andy that coffee comes after the meal, and changed the order, lest we be thrown out entirely for food heresy.

This illustrates a theory I’ve developed about French waiters. Parisian waiters are famous for their rudeness, even within the rather high standards for such things in France. Some credit this to the lack of tipping, but I’ve another theory. In North America (and almost everywhere else I’ve eaten) the waiter sees his job as bringing you the food you order. In France, they see themselves as experts, there to guide you through your dining experience and enforce the norms and values that govern French cuisine. Ordering coffee before your meal violates customs so sancrosanct they were enshrined in the Treaty of Wesphalia. When we declined to order any wine, her contempt was palpable.

This incident set the tone for the next episode. Our waitress returned, making it very clear she felt we should be grateful that mud-stained wretches such as ourselves were even allowed to breath the rarefied air of her restaurant. She set down a porcelain cup, similar in size to a tea mug in front of each of us, filled with a steaming white liquid.

Andy immediately tasted a spoonful, reporting that it tasted like chowder. He went to take another but, panicked, I stopped him. “It might be sauce for the fish!” I said, terrified that the waitress would come back with our tuna, see us slurping the condiments and toss us back out into the rain.

However, a few minutes passed, and the waitress didn’t show. Andy decided that, as he believed all France now knew him as the Bermuda-shorts guy, he had nothing to lose and started spooning up the gloop. For my part, I would take furtive sips when I was sure the waitress was out of sight, while Val, risking nothing, had none at all.

It was Val that saved us, in the end. Soon though, our autocratic attendant returned, to be confronted with three teacups in varying degrees of fullness. Stymied by our tri-partite strategy, she elected to attack the closest target, turning on Val with eyes of fire; “Do you not like it?” “No, no, it’s great! I’m just slow” said Val, grabbing her spoon.

I am convinced that if Val too had eaten any of hers, the tuna-tyrant would have informed us with a sneer that we were eating our gravy and asked us to leave.**

* Please, someone with art or photoshop skills: can you make me a tuna-moose? It would make me so happy.

** In the interests of fairness, I must add that the chef greeted us personally and was very friendly. He gave us pretty much all of his leftover desserts, meaning we each received a slice of cheesecake, a slice of chocolate torte, a slice of wildberry pie and of apple pie.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Waiting for Ottrott

Amynah and I have had a lot of visitors here in the 15 or so months we’ve been in France – well over twenty in fact. Right now I’m catching a breather between my younger sister’s visit and that of my parents, who are expected in about a week’s time.

Most of the time when people come to visit, I give them my Strasbourg city tour, a harrowing ordeal that has left more than one participant in need of first aid by its end. I like to describe it as “being hit over the head repeatedly with a fact hammer.” I intend to put up a pictorial version of this before I leave, but not before, lest I spoil the joy for others. Past visitors are required to swear a strict oath of secrecy to not reveal the tour’s details, should they remember any through their haze of pain and exhaustion.

Outside of Strasbourg, things get a little dicey – I like exploring the region, but get a little bored hitting the same highlights again and again. Thus, when I discovered Val and Andy have recently taken up biking, I was happy to lead them on an exploratory bike tour.

My goal was a place called Ottrott, which has the nearest medieval castle to Strasbourg in the region. We started late, having a hardy breakfast in the local café before wandering down to my favoured bike shop to pick up Val and Andy’s steeds.

They were not pleased. Turns out when Val told me they were into biking, she meant the kind you might see on the Tour de France - narrow tires, thin seats, frames that were not constructed from recycled Panzers.

That’s not quite what they got.

The beasts with which I saddled them were large, and decorated with baskets in which a family of four could, if not live, then store a year’s worth of groceries. Undeterred, we hit the trail, and were soon on our way to Ottrott, via the Rainbows and Ponies Trail.

After about 18 km, Val started to complain she was thirsty, so we made a quick detour into Ergursheim. I asked a passerby for directions to a store where I might by water, and he directed me to a tobacconiste up the street. It was closed. We wandered on a little further and I asked some guy on a scooter leaving the village town hall the same question. He directed me to a hose behind the building, the water from which we slurped straight from the tap. This, and some apples we picked up from a local farmer, proved to be the only nourishment we’d get for the next five hours.

I won’t bore you with details of the bike trip. My repeated claims that Ottrott “was just around the corner” “just over this hill” “it’s only one village away” were met at first by cheers, then frowns, then sneers. As our protein reserves and hydration petered out my claims of Ottrott’s proximity were met only with grunts. At the end, these had given way to piteous cries for mercy. Needless to say, that while we made it to Ottrott the town, by the time we got there we were too tired to actually climb up to the castle. *

Rather than bike back, we coasted downhill into nearby Obernai and caught the commuter train back to Strasbourg, on which poor Andy was mercilessly mocked by French teenagers for his horribly square bike and plus pas chic Bermuda shorts.

Despite this ordeal, and the five-hour walking tour of Strasbourg we took the next day, I refused to give up. So on their last day in town we rented a car and drove out to Ottrott once more. That it was pouring rain didn’t deter me, nor did Val and Andy’s disingenuous claims of not being that interested in the castle – I do not suffer defeat lightly.

Therefore, we set up the mountain, mud running in rivers around our feet, in quest of the chateaux. It took an hour and a half (not including the inadvertent detour where we managed to walk right past it (fine medieval marauders we would be!) and by the time we got there – disoriented, shivering, legs trembling, clothed in muddy, sopping rags - it was closed. Which is to say, it is always closed – it had been sealed off for fear of collapse for years, a handy fact my guidebook had utterly failed to mention.

That my sister was still speaking to me is a testament either to her inherently forgiving nature or the fact that I had the keys to our only means off the mountain.

* To be fair, there were a lot of unexpected detours on the bike trip, one of which was to a village called Klingenthal, that prides itself as being a manufacturer of "armes blanches (swords) for the King of France. Way to pick a stable, long-term industry there, Klingenthal town fathers!

This I'm just throwing in here on the principal that blogs should have entertainment. The singer's name is Camille - she's like a French Bjork, but less aggressively weird. I think I'm becoming a fan, but am reserving judgement until I get a tranlsation of the lyrics to confirm she's not singing "Hit me baby one more time" or something.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Rome redux

Trevi Fountain

As Travis noted in the comments in my previous post, I have a certain fascination for Catholic religious iconography. There’s a number of reasons for this, almost none of which have anything to do with my own religious heritage (having been dunked as an infant, I can ignore it until the penultimate moment, say sorry, and still get a ticket to the Big Show. Betcha they regret letting word of that little loophole out).

For one with my interests (Amynah might characterize it as an obsession) all roads lead to Rome (I just came up with that phrase. Remember it).

St Pete's

We didn’t see the Pope, but I did see dozens of priests (all on cell phones) a few monks, two bishops, nuns in every hue of habit from black to deep blue and, in a sighting that would probably earn me twenty points on a scavenger hunt, an honest to goodness cardinal.

Nun, keeping an eye on St Peter's square, plotting something

Because we arrived only an hour before closing, we didn’t see much in St Peter’s itself: the area with Pete’s grave was barred off. We saw a couple of pickled Popes in glass caskets, many Pope statues (only one, interestingly, that was depicted praying) and Michelangelo’s Pieta, his only signed work.


Outside the many, many churches of Rome, we saw plenty of old Roman ruins. The Colosseum (named, I learned, after a long destroyed and brobdignagan statue of my favourite Emperor and yours, Nero) was surprisingly only a ten minute tour, while the Forum and Palantine hill next to it was another hour. We took another No Name tour for this one, and they were just as competent and the previous one. The guide, Marco, was a particular hit with the many older ladies in our group, who were practically cooing over him.

Ye olde hockey arena: Senators vs Bruins tonight!

We ran across another ruin in the middle of town. To go by the prominence of the signs there, it was primarily built as a shelter for feral cats (all of which, we were assured, were spayed). It also might have been a temple complex, but that seemed to be of far less importance.

Temple to Bobbus Barkerius

Coming from a town where traffic is practically banned downtown, Rome’s traffic was quite a noisy shock. Half the population rides scooters, even while dressed for a five-star dinner. These tend to arrive in flocks, desperately trying to stay ahead of the four-wheeled traffic bearing down on them from behind. The buses, we discovered, have two speeds: barreling and hurtling. Cars do not stop at crosswalks, and waiting for a gap in traffic is a mugs game (they don’t call it the Eternal City for nothing). The accepted means of getting across seems to be: pick a saint, pray to it, close eyes, start walking. Amynah, being fearless, just gave drivers an “I dare you” look and strode into the chaos while Val, Andy and I scampered in her wake.

Piazza de la Scooter Sacra

Near the Forum (and also where we saw the Cardinal) there was some sort of street festival going on. It's hard to make out from the picture, but this is a faux church steeple, on which a full band is being carried, bouncing up and down in time to the dancer/porters below. When we left the party, they were playing a high energy Italian version of Petula Clark's "Downtown." When Amynah asked a spectator what it was for, he tried to convince her to stay and join the dancing.

In our wanderings, we also ran across a post-wedding photo shoot. This crowd of twenty was the bridal party. There's no shortage of lovely backdrops for wedding photos - puts my Holiday Inn pictures to shame. Mind you, our photographer never made our wedding party do this:

And, just because I took a lot of pictures of the thing, and this is the best of the lot, I give you St Peter's, again, over the Tiber. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Rome, preview

Roman sunset, Vatican in lower right

Just got back from Rome. Had a wonderful, if exhausting time. I’m a little torn on how to describe it – as previous commenters have noted, long, drawn out descriptions of my suffering seem to be the main draw here. And while there was plenty of that earlier in the week (subject of a later post) Rome was incredible.

The only anguish (other than in my feet) was mental, on the second day. We (Amynah, my sister and Andy, her fiancé) were trying to get into the Vatican museums. The lineup was incredibly long. As were approaching the end of it, a shady looking guy with a Russian accent approached us with an offer for a thirty Euro tour that would get us in two hours earlier than everyone else with an accredited guide.

Not wanting to stand around in the late-September heat we agreed, even if we were fairly sure we were being taken for suckers. We trooped to the office of “No Name Tours” (honestly the name) and picked up our radio devices through which we would hear our guide. We were then escorted to our guide, who had bribed a Korean guide to let us in ahead of his group. Our group was then brought in six at a time – which fooled no one, and led to someone behind us telling our guide off.

Ceiling in one wing of Vatican museum, which will have to do in lieu of the Sistine Chapel, which I wasn't allowed to photograph

Our guide also proceeded to get into an aguement inside the museum – while his radio was still broadcasting to his charges – with another guide. He then explained that he and the other guy have a history “but it’s ok, we’re friends, sort of.” Anyway, despite all of this, he was quite knowledgeable, and very entertaining, if not entirely intentionally. If you’re ever in Rome, I highly recommend them. Their office is in the back of a van in the dark alley by the Papal dumpster.


Monday, September 24, 2007


Photo courtesy my French teacher. I believe she took the photo in order to stick it to all of us who didn't go out picking with her this Sunday. Gotta love the French.

My younger sister and her fiancé are coming in to town tonight; we have many long bike rides and a trip to Rome planned with them, so posting will be light (not that anyone seems to care).

In any case, right now I need to get the apartment looking welcomingly slovenly (up from sty-like) for them, and then Amynah and I are going to enjoy a dinner of fresh mushrooms, (pictured here), as picked by my French teacher this very weekend. I will thus spare you the harrowing tale of how we spent this weekend helping people move to Lipsheim and the 77-km bike ride we took on the previous weekend because, frankly, I'm sure you people are sick of reading about my suffering.

Also, I leave you with thd video below, because it's hard not to smile after watching it. Further proof that l care about you, dear readers, even though you never call. Are you sleeping enough? Are you eating well? I worry....

Sunday, September 23, 2007

How best to comemmorate a mime?

How else, but a moment of silence?

When first I moved to Strasbourg, I comforted myself that my near-total lack of language competence would matter little, as I was convinced that the locals would all be as fluent as their native son, Marcel Marceau (née Marcel Mangel) in the inaudible arts. It proved not to be, as I learned to my sorrow on my first foray into town search of a telephone booth.

I've moved beyond that now, but nonetheless, in honour of the entertainer's death this weekend at age 84, I'm putting a blank CD on the stereo and cranking the volume.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Trying to Finnish me off

Abbey of Mulbach, where we started Sunday's hike. Had I known what I was in for, I might have popped in for word or two

I arbitrarily decided that this weekend was going to be my birthday weekend, and what a weekend it was. I don’t mean to brag, but it was one of those weekends that I vaguely fantasized about in those long, snow-fever months prior to moving here.

Saturday, Amynah and I walked to Kehl, Germany, about an hour away, in order to meet up with my French teacher and her husband. She’s Alsatian, he’s British. We were surprised to walk in to have a party in full swing, as they had also invited some Irish friends of theirs who work for the Council of Europe one of whom had, in turn, brought her Mum and sister. We sat around and drank a German rosé (very good, believe or not) and filling our gullets with a selection of homemade tartes (Amynah’s contribution was a tomato and olive concoction the recipe for which, if you like a good tarte, you should really get from her).

Afterwards we all wandered over to the Jardin de deux rives where the Strasbourg orchestra was holding a free concert. We sat off to the side of the stage, which threw off the acoustics, but it was enjoyable nonetheless, and not just because I found the conductor’s pronunciation of “Leonard Bernstein” hilarious (Vanessa Wagner of those Wagners, was the featured pianist. She was excellent).

Anyway, after the concert we returned to my teacher’s where the whisky soon made an appearance (I mentioned all the other guests were Irish, right?). We didn’t make it home until about 1 AM.

This was a bad move, as we had a date with destiny the next morning, destiny, in this case taking the form of that force of nature known as Sami the Finn.

Sami the Finn had suggested a hike in the Vosges, specifically the Grand Ballon, the highest peak in that not inconsiderable pack of hills. He had chosen a route that would start us pretty much at the bottom and, over the course of 22 km, take us one vertical kilometer and back (the peak is 1440 m, we started at about 350m).

At 700 m. Halfway there!

My camera ran out of batteries after I took about three pictures, so I never got a shot of the top. This is probably a good thing, as I was therefore unable to capture us at hour six, scavenging through the underbrush, desperate for nourishment, hands and faces stained a purplish hue as we shoved blackberries and blueberries into our slavering mouths.

Oh, the humanity.

We spotted these at roughly the same time my hunger had reached the point I caught myself saying to Sami "Yes, I know the red mushrooms are toxic. But how toxic, exactly?"

There are worse things than fresh air and gorging oneself on wild berries I suppose (like gorging oneself on fresh cheese and sausage in the restaurant 50 metres away from the site of our feeding frenzy, which also served those same berries in pie-form). Nonetheless, I am not ashamed to admit I wept like a baby this morning when I had to negotiate the four flights of stairs in my building after discovering my legs had been replaced overnight with those of an arthritic octogenarian.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Heidelberg, Basel, Springfield

Heidelberg, about which this post is not, really.

It's been a while since I've written about travelling around our neck of the woods. We were in Basel again this weekend, to see the Tinguely Museum, which showcases the Rube Goldberg like devices of artist Jean Tinguely. They were awesome, and as soon as I have a workshop, time, and some facilty with electronic motors I fully intend to make some mechanized art of my own, though I'd probably stop short of making a skull-bedecked automobile of death.

After having been properly cultured (and purchasing an honest-to-goodness Tinguely of our own, coutesy of his "drawing machine" and the aesthetic advice of two Swiss toddlers), we went to see the Simpson's Movie.

This, I am unashamed to admit, was the chief purpose of the visit for me, as it didn't play here in English and Basel is only 90 minutes away by train. Yes, I travelled to a completely different country in order to see a movie that was based on a television programme I barely watched. It was pretty good, but the funniest line came from the British kids sitting behind us who, at the end of the movie, asked "Who is Tom Hanks?" Also amusing: the movie, predictably enough for Switzerland, started right on time, and had a ten-minute intermission for a chocolate gathering break. Very civilized.

As to the title of the post: went to Heidelberg, Germany a couple of weeks ago. It's a nice university town. Our friend Dominique* took us and showed us around, as she'd studied there years before. It's nestled in a river valley, and guarded by an enormous castle which contains, for some reason I cannot determine, Germany's national pharmacy museum. It also had the largest wine-barrel in Germany which, as you can imagine, is a very large wine barrel indeed. Bigger even than a breadbox.

Heidelberg, with castle in the hills, taken from the "Philospher's Walk." At least, I think it was the Philosopher's Walk, therefore it was.

*The very generous and cultured Dominique is French Belgian, with all that this implies. We were at a dinner with her recently where she started to bash the Dutch national cuisine, saying"Those people will just eat anything!" with such vehement disdain as to cause me to re-evaluate my own tendency to consider this very quality as one of my more attractive traits as a dinner guest.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tram attack

Met with my friend Caner last night - we meet weekly for a language exchange. Ususally we just walk around the island for two hours chatting (mainly in French, so lord knows what he gets out of it) before he gets on the tram to go home.

Last night, as we were approaching Homme de fer ("Iron Man" - the main tram station on the island) Caner slowed down, looking ahead with great concetration. A couple of 20-somethings in track suits were shoving each other around on the station platform. Lacking any sense of what they were saying (the slang of wannabe-gangster French youth is utterly beyond my ken) I didn't think anything of it - it looked exactly like the kind of confrontation where Jerk A pushes Jerk B, Jerk B pushes back, and then Jerk A goes in for the kill just slowly enough to allow his friends to hold him back, insults are exchanged and the party breaks up.

Not this time. This time, Jerk A punched Jerk B in the face, hard enough that he went down hard and didn't get back up quickly enough to prevent Jerk A from kicking Jerk B at least twice while he was down, once in the side of his head. Jerk A and his friends then walked away, completely unmolested.

Caner and I were too far away to do anything - it was all over by the time I realized what was going on. No one on the platform intervened, save for a couple of the guys friends who eventually helped him up. Caner and I arrived at the station in time to hear him refuse to deal with the "flics" (police) or even an ambulance (which it really looked like he needed).

Anyway, I was quite upset by the whole thing. There's nothing like seeing a prone man get kicked in the face in full view of 50-odd immobile people to shake your faith in human decency.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Malgre nous

There's an interesting article in today's Globe and Mail about some Alsatian veterens fighting for recognition from the French government for their forced service in the German army during WWII.

In any case, I link to it because it's easier than explaining what I did this weekend.

Ok, to be more clear, I wrote it. Go read it and tell me how wonderful I am.

Edit: The web version of the Globe has a "readers comments" section. I would recommend you not read them - there's nothing like internet message boards to make you despair for the future of humanity.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yeah, Napoleonic disco zombies. So?

I’ve had one or two requests to explain the Napoleonic disco zombies I mentioned a couple of posts ago.

Now, I never in my life figured that my immense descriptive talents would be called on to further expand upon Napoleonic disco zombies – I mean, I thought this was as pithy and succinct a word-picture as one could draw. Not enough, apparently.

As I hinted at, there had been some sort of official public entertainment happening nightly outside our apartment every night last week. All of them seemed to be percussion based, (except for the hair-metal mushrooms, who eschewed instruments for pre-recorded tunes, the better to facilitate their mycological moshing) so we stopped paying attention to the ruckus fairly early on.

The Napoleonic disco zombies caught our attention, as they were doing their thing outside our apartment as we were on our way to catch a movie (which one? “Planet Terror” – also about zombies. Cue the Twilight Zone music).

Anyway, they were exactly what my carefully crafted name for them implies: a bunch of zombies, dressed up as Napoleonic soldiers, had Napoleon’s soldiers fought in shiny, sequined colours drawn from a neon rainbow.

How these Napoleonic disco zombies came to be is another question. My theory is that they are vaguely like locusts: they awake only once every thirty years, taking on the clothes and manner of whomever had the misfortune of encountering them last. Their prey at the time of their last feeding (in 1977) were an unwitting gang of historical-reenactors, celebrating the successful conclusion of their remembrance of the 172nd anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz. Disco-fuelled mayhem ensued.

Thirty years from now, I fully expect some bewildered blogger to be attempting to describe the emo zombies outside his window. And thus the circle of life continues.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Friday, August 17, 2007

Seen out the window this week...

Tonight: Accordion playing stiltwalkers and their piano-playing accomplices.

Tuesday: A troupe of Napoleonic disco-zombies playing drums.

It is beginning to dawn on me that perhaps there is some kind of festival happening hereabouts.

Must go. I hear didgeridoos.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hava Nagila

Since Amynah and I rarely, if ever, pick up the local paper and the web-news I have for Strasbourg is somewhat less than up-to-date, we are often bewildered as to what and why things are happening outside our window.

Case in point, last night as the sun went down, throbbing tribal drums began to echo in the distance. As the sound drew closer, I looked out my window to see a blast of fire on the street below. Fire-breathing jugglers do not, in themselves, rank high in the grand scheme of bewildering events chez nous, though I will admit I am confused as to who the guy pulling the cart was – the Gimp from Pulp Fiction? A local ne'er do well sentenced to public humiliation?

Crappy photo, but Gimp-man is in upper right. Public executions are illegal now, right?

An historical curiosity, in keeping with the Medieval feel of last night's show: due to the flame-broiled festival happening outside, the 10:05 PM bell on the cathedral did not ring. That bell, the last of the day, rings for about ten minutes, a long, slow, deep mournful tolling. I’ve been told that in the Middle Ages, it was the bell to tell the Jewish residents of Strasbourg that it was time for their curfew, and is supposedly rung these days only to memorialize their suffering.

I’m less certain it is actually so innocuous. For last night was the very first time the bell didn’t ring since we’ve been here. And what happened? A klezmer band set up outside our apartment and partied until almost midnight. Coincidence, or celebration?