Monday, January 29, 2007

Bobbing for Babies

January has been pretty slow, thus far. Nonethless, the burdens placed upon me by you, my demanding readership (you take and you take, but you never give!) require that I keep this thing updated, near almost daily. Why aren't you writing more, say the voices in my head, relaying the messages you, my imaginary fans are thinking. Kind of scary that they can read your minds with such accuracy, no?

I just came from visiting Luc, the gentleman featured in the second photo from my first Globe piece for which the photo above was also taken though not used (that may be the most syntactically baroque sentence I've ever written. My apologies for the brain cramp). That wasn't yet another "me" plug - it was basically a reason to run the photo, which I like. I've done extensive focus-grouping on this blog, and they tell me they like photos. It's just a happy coincidence that I like to run photos that reflect glory back on me. Also, it's thematically related to "legends of Alsace," one of which I will longwindedly relate to you now. [EDIT: Photo has been changed. The headline of "Bobbing for Babies" combined with a graveyard photo was simply too morbid for me. Now we have Place Gutenberg's Merry-Go-Round, a much more child friendly image, wouldn't you say, were any of you saying anything?]

Right, on to Luc. Luc is a retired SNCF employee (National Iron Road Society ie the railway), with a capacious knowledge of and voracious appetite for local history. This would make him my soul brother, were it not for the minor impediment of the language barrier, which often enough leaves us looking longingly into each others eyes like a gangster and his moll across the plexiglas barrier in the visiting area of a prison, unable to communicate. It's tragic really. And before you ask - I'm totally the gangster.

Anyway, Luc was telling me yet another legend of the Cathedral, of which there are zillions, which I will relay to you, my beloved and indifferent correspondents, as you visit. I'll give this one away for free, conflicting as it does with several better myths I would rather give pride of place in my increasingly elaborate tour. It concerns the lake that I am assured lies under the church: apparently in years past, if one wanted to become pregnant, one went to a well within the cathedral and prayed for a baby. The old man who lived in a boat on the lake would hear your prayers, take his net and fish an infant out of the waters for you and then Bob's your uncle. Or your son, in this case. Or daughter, should you not be into the old school approach of "gender matching name" thing.

So, all you mothers and mothers to be reading this thing, as you remember and/or dread the horrors of pregnancy and labour, the take home lesson of that is that it pays to be Catholic. With the baby acquisition process that simple and painless, no wonder they had so many kids!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


We've had our first real snowfall here - probably 5 to 7 centimetres. It's actually stayed on the ground too. Gives my Canadian soul a feeling of peace.

I've also had one of my few moments of superiority since coming here - France may have better health care, food, art, history and a remarkably beautiful landscape, but throw a little of the white stuff at them and they collapse.

Our friend Sebastien (from Bordeaux) has been talking for months about getting snow tires for his car. Knowing they don't get a lot of snow here, I thought that was unneccessary - you really only need them for the big dumps in Canada, or on roads that don't get cleared.

Turns out Sebastien knew whereof he spoke - the roads are insane. Strasbourg appears to have but one plow, attached to the front of a garbage truck. Sightings of it are rare - I believe I saw a horde of paparazzi chasing it near Rue Austerlitz. Sidewalks are bereft of either salt or sand (odd, because they sand them like crazy in the summer for some reason I can't fathom). Every road and walking surface has been pounded into a lethal ice sheet. I will grant that people are taking it in stride - people are still cycling, even if the cars are a little more subject to Newton's Law than they used to be.

The highways are, according to the local paper, even worse. Apparently some sort of school holiday is starting this week, so the autoroutes were busier than normal. Inevitably, they turned into a giant parking lot, with accidents blocking the way at several points. One town even had to deliver emergency rations to motorists stranded in the congestion.

None of this is unheard of in Canada of course - I'm looking at you, Vancouver-ites - but in the non-weenie portions of the country it generally takes ten times as much snow for this level of disruption.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Visitors, windstorms and the tornados of Jupiter

This past week our apartment on Ye Old Fishmarket Street became the headquarters of an ex-Rwandan International Aid Effort reunion, as my friend Anna (centre) popped in on a visit from the Increasingly Democratic Republic of the Congo where she is working for the UN. Arriving with her were her Dutch friend Babet (right) from Maastrict and Daniel (left, obviously), another Canadian working in another part of the Congo who came via Paris. All three had met in Kigali a couple of years ago, and continue to be heavily involved in international development work. However, last week they were here: Don’t they look happy? You too can be that happy if you visit!

Never one to pass up an opportunity to boss people around and lecture, I gave them what quickly revealed itself to be a way-too-elaborate tour of Strasbourg – from the Euro-zone to Petit France - which, lacking as I am a car, had to be accomplished entirely on foot and took the better part of a day and a half. I won’t give away any details here (for that you’ll have to visit and take the tour yourselves) but suffice to say the massive windstorms we had in Northern Europe added considerably to the “Strasbourg’s ghost stories” portion of the tour.

The most memorable part for me (aside from being able to hang around with some very accomplished and fun people) was at the restaurant the day we left. Amynah and I took them to a Thai-Laotian place not far from our apartment. We’d been there once before and remembered the service as “pretty good.”

This time, when the waiter (an older Thai man) came to take our order he was immediately entranced by the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nature of our table. Now, I'm relying on my poor French comprehension here, but it seemed to me that after rubbing Daniel’s belly and telling him he was too thin, he started talking about how we were the “people of the future” and that they would be sending people like us to outer space.

In a bit of lateral thinking, he then started talking about how space was kind of dangerous, because they have big tornados on Mars. Amynah said that she thought it was actually Jupiter, at which point he agreed, and started doing a little twisty “tornado dance.”

That brought him back to the space mission, and he started talking about how much fun it would be to dance in the zero-gravity environment of our multi-racial, inter-stellar party ship. I was tempted to invite him along on the journey, but I’m afraid that it would be a non-smoking flight, thereby keeping him off whatever groovy herbs was on.

In any case, he was so pleased by us he actually chased us outside in the rain after we had paid our bill to shake each of our hands. Amynah and I have been doing “The Tornado Dance of Jupiter” at random intervals and collapsing into giggles ever since.

The food, by the way, was excellent, and the restaurant is now on the “can’t miss” sights of Strasbourg for future visitors.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Stealing an idea from bloggers more accomplished than I, I bring you the last ten eleven songs I listened to, as brought to you by my iTunes shuffle programme. I’ve cut out the boring selections, but otherwise it is as they came up. The photo, by the way, is of a glowing deciduous that inexplicably sprouted overnight in front of the statue of Gutenberg in November. I just thought having a photo would be nice.

In return for my efforts, I tag those bloggers who read this (you know who you are) and anyone who wants to leave a comment with, say, the last three songs they listened to, from any source, including department store muzak systems.

1) Under a Phrygian Sky Loreena McKennit : this was a birthday gift to Amynah from her lab. They figured that Loreena is Canadian, Amynah’s Canadian, ergo, Amynah will appreciate this. That Amynah could have got this herself in Canada was irrelevant. Personally, I would like to be able to say that I think Loreena’s a pretentious New Age dip, but I can’t, because she’s also a very good songwriter and apparently approached her albums with a level of history geekery that kind of appeals to me. Plus, I like pronouncing this song “Under the friggin’ sky.”

2) UFO Rosie – Weeping Tile: This was a minor alt-hit in the mid-nineties. Weeping Tile was Sarah Harmer’s band before she got boring. The song isn’t as good as I remember, but it does pretty successfully evoke “isolated Nevada trailer park paranoia.”

3) Stick Boy – Hanson Brothers: Hockey Rock! Who doesn’t identify with the stick boy? “I’m going to show ‘em that I came to play.” I think these guys might be the only band in the “Hoser Punk” section of your local record store.

4) Clampdown – The Clash: I have no idea what these guys are singing about in this song, but as with most of “London Calling” it makes we want to go blow something up. In a good way.

5) 38 years old – Tragically Hip : Lot of Canadians on this list, eh? Making sense of Gord Downie’s lyrics is always a mugs game – even if you understand what he’s saying, you never understand what he means. This is from back when he was still telling stories with his songs and the band was still rocking, instead of both sort of mushily meandering for four minutes and grinding to a halt.

6) Boten Anna – Bass Hunter : This was “acquired” in an attempt to familiarize myself with European music. It was a big hit in the Netherlands, apparently. It’s a dance tune of some sort. I’m sure the lyrics are moronic, but as they’re in Dutch I don’t care, and can merrily strike Euro-cool poses in my living room.

7) Mas y mas – Los Lobos : A Travis gift, this is old fashioned Tex-Mex (heavy on the Mex) guitar rock. Thanks to the movie, I’d always associated these guys with La Bamba type fifties pop – who knew they were guitar gods waiting to be unleashed?

8) World in my eyes – Depeche Mode: A friend of mine from high school had this tape in her car permanently, so I associate it with angst-y conversations on late night drives to abandoned beaches more than it being a Depeche Mode song would already imply. On the other hand, I’m fairly certain it is about sex, so that mitigates the gloom somewhat.

9) Devil Inside – INXS : A work colleague included “Mystify” by these guys on mix-CD she gave me, which reminded me that INXS could write a good tune, a fact that “Suicide Blonde” had obliterated from my mind with it’s utter craptitude.

10) Fatigante – Louis Attaque! : This is nostalgia appropriated from Amynah, who associates these guys (French folk-rockers) with nights dancing at Montreal's Le Dogue where, when the DJ would take a break from the Guns and Roses and put this on, the Anglos would stand around open-mouthed and the French would go nuts.

11) Somewhere over the rainbow – Eva Cassidy: This is a co-worker gift, and an example of a cover done right, in that Cassidy’s version brings a experience, though not world-weariness, to the song that changes it from an optimistic song for children into a hopeful song for adults.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Smells like Cologne

Back from Cologne – it was a pleasant enough trip, though a little too short and seat-of-the-pants for me to really say much about it (though I will endeavor to try!) Sebastien and I drove up FRiday to meet Amynah and Julie in Bonn, where they were finishing up a conference. We wandered around there and had a lovely dinner in a Croatian restaurant, thus continuing our trend of never eating German food in Germany. We drove to what I'm sure must be Europe's ugliest town which we using as our home base. Saturday, we headed into the Big Strudel. Cologne’s most famous attraction is its Cathedral. Not to sound like a big-ass church snob, but I wasn’t impressed. It is supposedly taller than Strasbourg’s and took four hundred years longer to build, but it just didn’t do it for me – it somehow managed to look squat, not to mention cold. The interior was relatively bare as well.

It did have a kick ass relic however – the final resting place of the Three Magi, whose remains were donated to the still-under-construction church by Frederick Barbarossa back when he was the Holy Roman Emperor.
All three Kings are lumped together in what I believe is the world’s largest reliquary, a giant gold box located towards the Nave of the cathedral, behind an iron railing. Sadly, it appears that closer access is verboten to the non-ordained, especially a motley group of Protestants and various breeds of heretics like us.
Anyway, the existence of this thing made me think: why is it that these poor guys, each of whom was a sovereign king in his day, get lumped in together like that. Everybody remembers the gifts they brought, no one remembers their names, and now they don’t even get individually distinguished reliquaries. Speaking of gifts, on Strasbourg’s Cathedral, Balthazar (one of the Kings, the others were Caspar and Melchior) is depicted as having a small dog. Why on earth would you give a young boy an embalming spice like myrrh, when you could have given him a puppy? Don’t you think the Son of God would like a puppy?

Afterwards we went to the Cologne archeological museum, directly across the square from the cathedral. It had a number of cool artifacts, including a Dionysian floor mosaic that was unearthed in 1941 during the excavation for an air-raid shelter (immediately making it the air raid shelter of choice for the city’s party-hearty set).
This was a delightful museum, except that it appeared to contain every single artifact ever recovered. I am fairly certain there is not a single centuries-old clay pot in all of Westphalia I have not seen. I believe the museum curators were hoping that people would blur on the details after a while: I am positive I saw three distinct displays marked “typical middle class kitchen implements” all containing pots identical to the displays marked “typical upper class kitchen implements” and “typical lower class kitchen implements” that would inevitably flank them.
Next day we hit a small town called “Zons” which was founded in 1378 primarily as a means for the local Archbishop to extort customs duty from Rhine river traffic. As it was one of the few areas in the heavily industrial Rhineland to not get the snot bombed out of it during the last major bit of Continental unpleasantness, it is still a well preserved fortress town.
The Rhine itself has silted up over the years, so that it is now a few hundred metres away from the old city gates. That doesn’t stop Zons from being proud of its honourable history.
Just outside of town is a wonder of modern art – the Schweinebrunnen or “Pig Fountain.” This commemorates the 1577 “Pig War” between Zons and the soldiers of the archbishop of Cologne (what with the cathedral in its third century of construction, he had nothing better to do than steal pigs?) The Zons-folk won, too late to rescue the hogs, these having presumably been dispatched to the mud-pit in the sky.

Just in case you can’t make out the details in the photo, that is indeed the proud Zons commander, being carried to victory atop the backs of a disciplined battalion of swine-troopers. I think he's overdoing it though - the "Washington crossing the Potomac" pose is a little (dare I say it?) hammy, don't you think?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Navel Gazing

With a feeling that can only be described as a mixture of pride and shame, I find that I have been tagged. Why pride? Because it means that someone - Julie specifically, cares enough to ask about my life here (or, in this case, five things about me based on my blog postings from the year).

But why shame? Well, because first of all, I should be attempting to be doing paid writing and I'm not. Second of all, because I've always found these self-identification quizzes, whether in Cosmo ("What kind of shallow are you?") or on the Internet ("What sort of geological formation are you") are a bit silly: I already know what sort of geological formation I am. I'm a Tippecanoe sequence. That somebody could reach an age where they can establish their own web-presence and not know which character in Star Wars they would be is frankly something I find quite disturbing. So, the shame comes both from going back on one of only three principles I had when starting this thing (the other two were "don't use it as a tool for procrastination" and "don't mention the wife's name: she didn't sign up to become the Internet star your sure-to-be-wildly-popular musings will make her.")

So, moving along, the five things. Julie has a bit of an advantage over me, in that she's been doing this for a while longer and therefore has a full year's worth of postings, and I only have three months. So much of this will have a Bollywood-esque "flashing back to the scene you just saw" quality to it.

1) I broke my arm. Technically, that was pre-blog, but I've mentioned it a couple of times here, so it counts. What I haven't mentioned in the blog that I'm pretty sure that I should be getting some sort of physical therapy, given I've lost a not inconsiderable amount of mobility. However, all of that was worth it for the chance to hear Amynah's Mom call me a stubborn ass for waiting two weeks to seek treatment.

2) Jon visited! So did Bio-Dave, but he was only here for a day. We went many places, including Basel , where I was blown away by the sight of twenty-thousand dollar watches and St Marie aux mines where we saw one deer, ate another and saw a bat which, much to its relief, looked considerably less appetizing.

3) Amynah turned a year older and we celebrated our first anniversary. Since my own birthday pre-dated the blog as well, I won't mention it here.

4)I was published twice in Toronto's National Newspaper which was pretty cool, except that I'm not sure whether to take their disturbingly light editing as an endorsement of my style or a sign that they weren't reading it closely enough to notice that I filled it with armpit and dog-poo jokes. In either case, the experience convinced me to revise my opinion on Perfume, the movie.

5) In addition to Grasse and Basel I've managed a lot of traveling in Alsace and the surrounding region, some of which gets written up here: places like Freiberg, Offenburg, Paris (pre-blog) Manchester, London and, as of tomorrow, Cologne. So, don't get excited if I don't post for a few days.

Now, I believe it is blogging etiquette to "tag" other people so they can fill out the quiz too. Problem is, I know no other bloggers except Julie, who tagged me in the first place, and that guy who juggled at my wedding who Julie already tagged. So, in desperation, I'm left with that nice lady who left a comment here the other day. It's either her or Paul Wells, and I doubt he reads this.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Things I like about being an ex-pat:

1) being able to visit Cologne for the weekend, and not think it's that big a deal

2) being able to call my Mom, and here her pass the phone to my Dad saying "He's going to Cologne for the weekend" in a tone of voice that reminds me that it is, in fact, kind of a big deal.

Things I don't like about being an ex-pat:

1) This isn't an "ex-pat" related thing per se, more a condition of my life at the moment, but I have a nasty headache and I won't be seeing Amynah until this weekend when I am (as mentioned above) going to be in Cologne.

2) Moving away from Cologne (my destination for the weekend), I am somewhat upset that our string of seeing major kung fu releases on their opening date, including House of Flying Daggers, Hero and (in a tonal shift) Kung Fu Hustle will be broken definitively with Curse of the Golden Flower. Though I'm sure it will play in one of Strasbourg's many theatres (far more than the population warrants) it will be subtitled in French, a nasty habit the locals had that I had to remind Amynah of when she recently suggested we see Apocalypto.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Naked Germans

All righty everyone, my long awaited Friedrichsbad epic. I warn you, it is long, but worth a read. It’s a sequel to my first post on Baden-Baden wherein I visited the Caracalla spa.

When Mark Twain visited Friedrichsbad in 1880 it was only about a decade old and a wonder of the time: “The new Friederichsbad is a very large and beautiful building, and in it one may have any sort of bath that has ever been invented, and with all the additions of herbs and drugs that his ailment may need or that the physician of the establishment may consider a useful thing to put into the water.” So effective were these herbs and medicaments that Twain claims to have left his rheumatism in Baden Baden, though he hated the town enough to have written “I would have preferred to leave something that was catching, but it was not in my power.”

One hundred and twenty years later, standing in line to buy our 29€ tickets (a 1000 percent mark-up from Twain’s day) I took heart from his experience, not the least that he didn’t leave anything catching. I was, after all, going to, if I may indulge in a literary metaphor, remove my bookjacket and set my two-volume softcover on the same shelf where Twain had rested his own sardonic cheek. As far as getting something catching, I wouldn’t mind picking up some of his talent, but thus far in Baden-Baden I can certainly do without his ill-will.

By the time Twain arrived to "take the waters" Baden-Baden had already been a spa town for centuries, the waters flowing from the Black Forest hills hot and rich in minerals reputed to cure what ails you. In the 19th century it was called the “summer capital of Europe” as the Continental aristocracy would flock to the town to soak away their aching polo injuries, gout, ennui and other maladies that afflicted the well born and idle of the Belle Epoch.

Over the years Baden-Baden had become a gambling mecca, as an aristocracy with nothing better to do with their unearned fortunes endeavoured to throw them away. Baden-Baden’s casino features a pure gold roulette table. The annual horse race is an “event” that still draws double-barrel-name-wielding members of the upper crust every summer. However, when gambling was temporarily outlawed by Kaiser Wilhelm I in the late 19th century, the spas had to do the economic heavy lifting for the region.

Friedrichsbad was the spa that was designed to keep the elites coming. We arrived on a Thursday, one of two days during the week when the sexes are (mostly) separated. Oddly, this was something of a relief for me – as the day for our visit here drew near, I discovered that I was getting unexpectedly nervous. I am not ashamed of nudity. In fact, I’ve always felt it was a crime against art to wear as much clothes as I do – like putting Michealangelo’s David under a shroud. But I was a little apprehensive as to what to do with my eyes – where does one look when around you is naked?

Amynah and I ascended the grand staircase and split up – Friedrichsbad’s in-house host of angels appeared in all their glory to escort Amynah through the golden doors of the Hefnerian-fantasy zone that is the women's section; I hived off to the sausage factory.

Along with a ticket that afforded me access to the baths, I had been given a plastic card. Given that the instructions on it were written in German I couldn’t guess what it was for – my locker? Some kind of souvenir? Free chips at the casino?

I entered the little change room. This was the moment – I knew that Friedrichsbad was a nude spa (a fact that Twain curiously omitted from his own account of the place) but my mind couldn’t believe it. I heard voices outside – I peeked out my door, but the men were leaving and therefore dressed.

“Guten tag! No sprechen zee deutch” I said, “Do I take off all my clothes?”

“Yep! Take them all off,” he replied in perfect American-accented English.

“No towel?”

“Nope,” he replied, adjusted his tie (perhaps he was a banker on his lunch break?) and stepped out.

Deshabillement, I wander into the next room, unsure what I will find. I was approached by an older gentleman dressed all in white, as were all the attendants I encountered – I think the theory being it’s somehow not as discomfiting to be naked in front of someone if they appear to be a medical professional. He pushed me under a shower, then handed me a giant sheet and indicated I should enter the room labeled “2.”

Friedrichsbad is not one of the namby-pamby “spas” where you can indulge in chocolate baths and hot-tub martinis. It is an old-school “wellness spa” and, as the German tourism authorities Teutonically assert, “Where it says wellness, there is wellness!” Unlike the gleaming Caracalla spa next door where patrons can flit from pool as if they were there to enjoy themselves, Friedrichsbad takes its health care roots very seriously. It is a “treatment,” not a party.

There are 13 rooms, each of which are to be visited in order and for the prescribed amount of time. Room 1 was the shower. Room 2 was an “Irish” spa that was simply a room heated to an extremely high temperature. That the Irish spa was the one with the hot air was an opportunity for a joke a more clothed man than I might have appreciated.

Towel held in a manner calculated to cover my luggage while not appearing to be deliberately doing so, I strode in to be confronted with the sight of a dozen naked sweaty men on deck chairs looking at me. Lacking any idea what I was supposed to do, I sauntered over to the nearest empty spot and – after discretely peeking at what everyone else had done – covering it with my towel. I then lay down.

Now, that last sentence – so short, to the point – may leave you the impression that this was an easy thing to do. Not at all. The chairs – and the Deutschweiners basting upon them – were in very close proximity, the youngish guy beside me warily examining me with half-open eyes as my made my preparations. This marked, to the best of my knowledge, the first time I had lain naked next to naked man.

I wasn’t sure what to do at this point – did some sort of Major-Domo march in and tell us when to go to the next room? I tried closing my eyes, but the idea of having my eyes closed while naked and surrounded by strangers ran against all of my instincts. I looked around and noted a clock and then (Gnade des Gottes!) a sign on the wall: room 2 was to get ten minutes of my time. I also took note of the details of the wall facing me – old style tiling, romantically decrepit looking, a greenish colour far removed from the ultra-sleek all-white modern baths sport. The colour probably provided an extra service of hiding whatever mold would brave the wrath of the attendants here.

As time went by, unwilling to look at the clock for ten minutes straight and unable to look anywhere else, I closed my eyes. Remarkably, I began to relax as the heat began to sink in. Men wandered in and out of the room and soon I was able to pay them no mind at all. Nude became normal.

The next room was only a hotter version of the first, in which I sat for ten minutes. Several of the other men there were evidently doing the spa in pairs. Not making any assumptions about their sexual preferences, I thought about this: would I be able to “hang out” (ha!) here with Tim or Jon? Perhaps, but I’m pretty sure we’d pick lounge chairs at opposite ends of the room.

After the second hot room I proceeded into what was evidently the massage room, where white-suited Teutons were scrubbing down prone customers, all of whom were covered in some sort of brown soap. I handed over my towel to one of the attendants. He barked something at me in German. I did the “No sprechen zee…” routine, at which point he booted me out.

Confused, I wandered around the shower room again, before steeling myself to attempt the massage room. The German barked at me again. This time I just grinned idiotically and he booted me out again, but this time through a different door that led to a sauna. As I left the massage room I caught, out of the corner of my eye, a row of plastic cards hanging on the wall, just like the one I had received at the front desk and left in my wallet. I surmised that one was supposed to redeem it in order to suffer the ministrations of Herr Massagemeister.

“Experience” or no, I wasn’t that anxious to be encased in unknown chemicals and then scoured to a shiny pink finish so I proceeded to the sauna. Taking my place with a dozen other men arrayed on the stepped benches like a horde of fleshy gargoyles I pondered the mysteries of life, like “I didn’t see anyone else carrying their cards. Where were they hiding them?” and “Geez, I didn’t know you could go bald there.”

There was no sign here indicating how long I was supposed to wait and so I gave it about ten minutes before wandering off, like a bewildered lamb after being released from the shearing barn.

The next room – I’d lost count as to which number it was supposed to be – held the first proper bath of the spa. It too was supposed to be a ten-minute experience but I figured I had time to make up after skipping the massage, so I lounged around for 15. The pool was pleasant – heated to about 30 degrees, about belly deep, it allowed for a small degree of privacy while still being able – should one desire – to socialize.

Up until this pool I had been feeling somewhat like the proverbial backwoods colonial. If the other men dangling about the place were the least bit uncomfortable with all the exposed piping in the spa they were hiding it well. Was I just a prude?

Not really. I quickly noted that now that there was room available the men sharing this bath were – unless they were there together – religiously observing the “Rule of the Urinal.” Each occupant was leaving his neighbour a generous bubble of personal space, though not so much as to appear neurotic. As men entered and left the pool, the space between bathers expanded or contracted accordingly, maintaining equilibrium with an almost mathematical precision.

Newly confident, I ventured forth again. Walking into the next room I noted a sign on the dividing wall in German, English and French: “No women beyond this point.” It didn’t really register what that meant until I walked to the next bath.

Since all of its occupants were submerged and I was not wearing my glasses it took me a second to realize that I had inadvertently entered the “unsegregated” portion of Friedrichsbad and the pool I was about to enter was full of naked women. When I was seventeen this no doubt would have been a vision of heaven, but now, in a saddening jolt of maturity, I realized it was just more stress. I was getting a little bored of memorizing the topography of my big toe.

I paused at the edge of the pool, ostensibly looking for a place to sit, but really trying to make out if I could in fact see anything and therefore have to spend the next ten minutes thinking hard about Queen Victoria (also a patron of these baths in her time). Thankfully, I could not.

It wasn’t until I sank into the shallow pool that I realized that I had been standing flagrante delicto in front of a pair of twenty-something British girls. And while I was intensely conscious of other people’s nudity, I had completely forgotten my own. And if I didn’t care, why would they?

Thusly resolved to pretend I was in a National Geographic special, I sat back and admired the view – of the bath. The small bath I was in was a sideshow to the “Grand Bath” a circular, stepped pool in the centre of the room, pictured above. The builders had aimed to capture the spirit of the ancient baths, with a columns lining the walls interspersed with Romanesque statues of the body beautiful (like me, these too appeared to be studiously examining the floor) all under a domed ceiling far above in the heavens.

Once Amynah caught up to me, we went into the larger pool, which was surprisingly cool. A couple of the men in the pool were taking advantage of its size to dive under the surface, their fundaments cresting the surface like breaching humpback whales. Amynah was appalled but I barely even noticed, as I was too distracted by my efforts to ignore the circa- “Dr No” Ursula Andress look-alike (with less of a costume budget) emerging from the patch of water directly next to me.

Thinking hard about Queen Victoria, I made my way back to the men’s section and the final bath, located back in the shower room. I looked at the sign “Bad 13 – 2 minutes.” Ok. Then I noticed that the pool’s temperature was only 18 degrees. That would explain why it was completely empty.

Risking the wrath of whoever enforces the strict protocols of Friedrichsbad I elected to skip this one and head to the rest area. Once more a white suited weiner-wrangler provided me with a towel and I retired to a rest area. Taking my cue from the inmates, I wrapped it around me toga style (why hide it now?) and grabbed a three-month-old Newsweek magazine and reclined on another deck chair.

I returned to the locker area, giving the attendant a wave and a waggle farewell. I got dressed and made my way out, departing just in time to here an American-accented voice query uncertainly: “So we take all of it off?”

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Castle extravaganza!

I really should write these things up as soon as I get back from them – I keep assuming nothing worthwhile is going to happen after a trip, and so end up getting blindsided by bike thiefs and New Year’s (I suppose New Year’s isn’t a surprise as it usually happens the same time every year, but still….

As my loyal readers may recall, when Jon came to visit here we attempted to hike up to the three castles outside of Ribeauvillé, which are known as Shorty, Spiky and Shambly to the locals. We failed, as the two of us, intrepid outdoorsmen that we are, managed to climb the wrong mountain. You’d think that given a choice between “climbing mountain with no castles on it” and “climbing mountain with castles on it” we would, as a couple of guys who wanted to see castles, would choose the latter, but we didn’t.

Anyway, Amynah, excited by my account of the castles we didn’t see, decided that we should rent a car and go visit them. So, we rented one of those cars that are the equivalent of those dogs leopard-print wearing women carry in their purses, although I would put my money on the dog were the two to collide. In France they’re used mainly for city driving. We took it on the highway.

It was overcast when we left and as we drove south to Ribeauvillé it became increasingly foggy. We made it to the village no problem and I parked behind the basketball courts of the Lycée at the foot of the mountain. As we were gearing up to hit the trail, a German woman came out of the woods (the hills are crawling with Germans here – French people think hiking requires a three course lunch and wine, which tends to slow them down. Germans are more goal focused, marching around the French countryside like it was their job). Although I was sure that I knew where we were going after the debacle with Jon, we asked her which way the castles were. She pointed us to the left into the vinyards. I turned smartly away from the trail to the right that led into the woods – “Of course!”

It was a nice day for a walk – the temperature was hovering around freezing, and as we made our way higher into the hills, the clouds began to clear. The mist had frozen on the upper levels of the hills, covering everything with glinting frost that shone in the winter sun. By the time we reached the first of the three castles that ring the summit, the clouds had flowed down the slopes to pool into the valley below – leaving us with silver hills and a rolling sea of white spread out under a blue sky for as far as the eye could see.

We climbed the tower of the first castle – St Ulrich – where, a sign told us, the famous criminal Cunégonde Giel de Gielsberg had been imprisoned. Cunégonde had, according to my own research, attempted to leave an unhappy marriage by hiring pair of goons to dispose of her husband. The newly single noblewoman got on well enough with her guard - Philippe de Bacharach, (no relation to Burt) – to spring her. She escaped – he was executed for his pains. Shortly after the castle – which had ceased being used as a military post some time before – became a leper colony, with 200 residents in the 16th century. They’re gone now, which made it much easier to enjoy our lunch on the castle tower.

Just across the way from St Ulrich was the Giesberg, a smaller castle that has fallen almost entirely into ruin. There wasn’t much to see there, but it did make for something pretty to look at from the tower of St Ulrich, and –returning the favour - provided a nice the view of the larger castle.

There was a third castle over the hill, but the trail to it was blocked. As this was my second attempt at seeing this thing we weren’t keen to turn back, so we decided to ignore the sign forbidding entry. This castle was over the hill, and the road we were on was going around it on a distinctly downward slope. We ran into a couple coming the other way, and asked them if we were on the right track. They said we could get to the last castle that way, but this road actually led to a monastery. After ascertaining that we were Canadian, they bid us adieu by “enjoy your stay in Alsace!” Thanks – it’s been a good six months so far.

After a wrong turn in the forest, during which my Duracell-glutton camera died trying to capture the enchanted forest we found the monastery. It’s a pilgrimage site, dating from the 12th century, and was founded after the scion of the Ribeaupierre family returned from the crusades. Over time it fell into disrepair, before being restored by the Germans when they occupied Alsace in 1870 (they were big on reasserting the Germanic heritage of the place). There’s an inn there and is still run by Capuchin Monks. The highlight is a carving of Mary holding the body of Christ after the crucifixion, cradling him like he was a baby. Very moving, and apparently plundered from the Holy Land.

We took the pilgrim’s trail back to Ribeauvillé and our car – a narrow defile along the mountainside with the road to St Marie-aux-Mines below. Once we made it back to the car we drove to Frieburg in Germany. We were pretty late in the day, so we didn’t see much, other than their cathedral, which is basically a smaller version of the Strasbourg Notre Dame, only they’ve painted their virtues and vices like skid row tarts, unlike the rather intimidating looking ones they have here.

The next day we headed to Baden-Baden, determined to see a bit of the town. Of course, by this point Amynah’s sick of churches and none of the museums sounded that interesting, so we headed for another castle. Of course, I’ve never driven in Baden-Baden before, but I’m confident that after getting mildly lost in the Blitz-fog the night before I can handle a spa town in daylight. And so, using a decision making process that would be familiar to Jon if he were reading this, I decided to go up the nearest mountain.

This would have made more sense if we knew the name of the castle and could therefore follow the signs. We didn’t, and so, rather than waste our time driving around randomly, I parked the car at a fairly arbitrarily selected side road, and we got off and wandered into the woods, relying on a sign that pointed to something called Ebersteinburg. This could have been the castle, a bar or a blood-drooling man-eating wildebeest for all we knew, but the sign assured us it was only 1.7 km away, so off we went.

Turned out it was a village near the crest of the hill. But once we reached that there was a sign for a nature park which, as with the Vosges the day before, was sumptuously bedecked in raiments faire. The nature park’s chief claim to fame is the giant rock formations that reminded Amynah and I of the Badlands of Alberta, only with more trees and hills, different rocks and less dinosaur fossils. You can see why we’d be nostalgic.

Somehow we managed to trod along through this for another two or three kilometers, me snapping photos of actual wild mistletoe and the frost encrusted holly until we came to a giant rock formation that was a little different from the others. This would be the Burg Hohenbaden, the building of which began in 1102, and at one point included 100 rooms. It’s still impressive today, and there’s a nice little hotel and restaurant next door. We poked around the various rooms – the castle apparently has Europe’s tallest wind harp (14 meters), though I don’t know how much that counts for when it’s broken. We climbed the tower for the view of Baden-Baden below, only to have the clouds roll in below, which though it created a lovely effect, tended to block the view. They disappeared as soon as we climbed back down.

After lunch (potato pancakes) we walked back to the car, only to discover that we had parked 5 minutes away from the castle and then walked a five kilometer loop to get to it (for my Haligonian readers, this makes as much sense as parking on the Dartmouth side of the MacKay Bridge and then walking around the Bedford Basin to get to Halifax).

No matter. All the walking had prepared us for the main business of the day: getting naked with Germans. On to Friedrichsbad!

New Years numbers

Count for Alsace: 89 cars burnt.
Lower Rhine: 43 burnt, 12 attempted.
Upper Rhine: 46 burnt
Strasbourg: 28 burnt
Extra police: 50
Arrests: 39
Underage arrests: 25
Under 16: 14
Youngest arrested: 8 and 10 years old
Number of days it took for Strasbourg's mayor to call for a repeal of France's young offender's law: 1

New Year's (or Saint Sylvestre) was nice. Julie and Sebastien's place is on the fifth floor, so we had an excellent view of the city's unofficial fireworks - the whole town went up, basically. They sell fireworks legally one day of the year, just before New Years. Everyone buys hundreds of Euros worth of the stuff, and at midnight they were coming from every corner of the city - it looked as if the place had just been liberated from the Germans or something. We then popped the Crémeux (Alsatian sparkling wine) and some carbonated apple juice that some of the guests had brought for Amynah, which I thought was touchingly thoughtful. We got home about the time 2007 hit Newfoundland.