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?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Attica! Attica! Attica!

One of Strasbourg’s many attractions is the bewildering number of theatres they have here. There are four on the island alone and a megaplex twenty minutes away. The joy of this is that there is almost always something playing, either a new release or something older in one of the two repertory cinemas (two! Montreal, with ten times the population only had two that I was aware of).

Anyway, the other night Amynah and I went out to see Dog Day Afternoon, a classic from 1975 with Al Pacino. It was based on a true story of a New York bank robbery that went wrong, turning into a hostage situation.

What struck me, (and I’m sure I’m not the only person to make this observation) was the near total lack of music. Were this movie made today, every scene would have music cues telling the audience when to be tense, when to be uplifted, when to be amused.

Here, the suspense was kept up only by the actors and the audience’s understanding of the inevitable: you know they can’t get away with it, you know they know they can’t get away with it. The actors are sweaty, stumbling over their words, never say anything tough or witty sounding or Hollywood. Jangling, overloud telephones, long shots of chattering helicopters, blaring sirens and megaphones – those are the only sound cues, and it works.

* Amynah’s observation as we left the theatre: “People don’t really rob banks anymore, do they? Where are the Bonnie and Clydes today? It shows a lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the criminal class.”

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Flaming Knees

She-who-does-not-want-to-be-on-my-blog on the Rhine, on a previous bike trip

Were I to be murdered today and my body stripped of all identification, the police would be able to learn the following things from my corpse: given the sunburn on the back of my hands and on top of my knees, I was probably biking. Moreover, I was biking mostly in a northerly and easterly direction, given the burns on the backs of my legs (indicating directionality, much like moss on a tree trunk). Also, that I was wearing aviator-style sunglasses, my shorts went precisely to "here," my socks precisely to "there" and I evidently dropped a blob of sunscreen on the centre of my right knee, leaving that joint with an appearance not unlike a pink-frosted doughnut with a creamy centre.

All of this is the result of a 60-odd kilometer bike ride Amynah and I took with Sami the Finn. It was only supposed to be 45 km, according to the guidebook* I purchased, but we took a fifteen kilometer detour in order to have fresh baked “tarte aux quetches” (it’s like a plum) cooked by one of Amynah’s lab-mates, who was looking after her parents house in a tiny little farm village in the middle of nowhere. It was pretty good, but not 15 km of good.

Given that I had taken a 30 km bike ride the day before into Germany (past a facility that had been, at various times, a sanatorium for epileptics, to a hospital for epileptics, a death camp for epileptics and now a research centre for epilepsy). In any case, Given that it has been raining for about a month straight, we’d not been biking much for the last while, so a 90 km weekend in the blazing sun was not, perhaps, the best advised decision I’ve ever made.

Sami the Finn is up for another, more ambitious ride this coming weekend. Amynah and I might be washing each others hair.

* Even eliminating my poor French as a factor, this has to be one of the worst guidebooks I’ve ever seen. The “map” consisted of a hand-drawn loop with town names scattered on it: no landmarks, distances or sense of scale. The accompanying “directions” consisted of gems such as “cross the village and take the small road that leads to the woods.” Cross the village in which direction? Small road compared to what? How do we know it leads to the forest unless we go to the end? Does this street have a name? (“Petit rue de fôret” would be too much to ask for, I guess).

Thursday, August 02, 2007

I never have to leave my apartment for anything

I love the smell of ephedrine in the morning!

Cathedral light shows, oom-pah band concerts, every no-talent busker in the Rhine region - they all eventually pass by my door. Including the "Tour d'Alsace" which kicked off from in front of the Cathedral this afternoon. I've no idea where they were going, but they sure were in a hurry.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Deja vu

Where Donna Summer goes to pray

Amynah and I have now been here for a year, meaning that we’re now experiencing things for the second time. For instance, each year the city sponsors a light show on the Cathedral, synchronized with classical music. It lasts about fifteen minutes and happens three times a night, every night, for the whole summer. Last year’s was all-Mozart, in honour of the 300th (I am not going to check that for accuracy) anniversary of his visit to this city.* Last year, before we had a lot of books or friends, it stood in as our t.v., playing plotless re-runs at top volume every night. This year it’s a mix of twangy modern stuff and bits of Beethoven’s Ninth.

They also have a nightly light show on the river – last year there were laser fountains and vomiting gargoyles. I regret not taking pictures, because this year there are strobe lights and bad French poetry. When my cousin Stephen was visiting we wandered the length of the island, looking for something even marginally entertaining, only to be accosted by a city volunteer who asked us what we thought. Being Canadian, I told her I thought it was great, and that we don’t have things like this in North America, when really I should have told her that I’ve had more entertainment with a flashlight and shadow puppets.

Before the crowds. View from our window

This weekend was the Braderie, which I understand is a French tradition. Effectively, it is a giant yard sale for retailers desperate to get rid of their summer stock, not to mention itinerant merchants hawking cheap sunglasses and skanky lingerie.** It makes the St Laurent street sale in Montreal look like a kid's lemonade stand. In any case, good deals are possible, if you can get to them. The entire island turned into a giant outdoor mall, and people from all over Alsace and the nearby bits of Germany packed into the streets, wandering like stunned cattle while being hectored by mega-phone wielding mop salesmen.

I ended up getting myself some new shoes, which I purchased and continue to love despite the fact they pinch my toes and will make to me walk like C3PO.

Your feet want to be my feet, admit it

* He stayed in a building down our street known today as La Mauresse or, in English “The Black Lady” named after one of the owner's more exotic servants in the 1500s. Strasbourg wasn't exactly the most cosmopolitan place back then: "Hey, you guys remember that black lady who used to work in the house where that Austrian fiddle player stayed? She sure was black, weren't she? Let's name the place after her!"

** Nothing against skanky lingerie, but who the heck buys from a sidewalk vendor in front of hundreds of bargain-hunting French grannies?