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.