Monday, February 25, 2008

The Devil's Rock, non-Elvis edition

Yes, I'm wearing a t-shirt.

Went hiking yesterday with our friend Sami the Finn. As usually, we let him set the itinerary, and thus ended up hitting a 10 km trail that would loop past both La Roche du diable and the grotto of St Leon.

Now I hardly want to upset my Canadian readers, but I feel it worth mentioning that not only did we start our hike under a clear blue sky, but the temperatures were twenty degrees. Above zero. In February. Compared to say, Halifax (minus 5 as I write this), or Montreal (minus 7).

His Satanic Majesty obviously has a good eye for a view

As with every pebble, puddle and plant in Alsace, the Devil’s Rock has a legend attached to it. A giant sandstone pillar jutting out from the side of a Vosges hill, the rock is separated from the mountain by an extremely deep crevasse. Within that gap live three virgins, according to the story, who occasionally throw themselves off the rock into the Sarre valley below, which echoes with their cries of joy. At night, they return to the rocky home, to weep over a treasure secreted therein,

It was somewhat discomfiting then, when we reached the rock, to see puffs of smoke emanating from the unseen depths below, as if the girls were taking a break from their skydiving to cook up some lunch over some Mesostophelian campfire.

Near Nonnenberg, population circa 50

As is our wont when hiking with Sami the Finn, we ended up compounding our late start with a dilatory pace, (not helped by Sami the Finn's propensity for photographing tree stumps) and thus had to race the sunset in order to escape the hills before darkness descended.

We hiked through two hilltop hamlets, and managed to accidently find the what Sami the Finn's guidebook described as a Chapelle detruit which, when he said this, I initially thought was a church for fish.** Turns out it was a memorial for Pope St Leon IX, who hailed from these parts.

What? More walls? Whaddya want next? A roof?

Afterwards, we found the Grotto of St Leon, the largest such formation in the Vosges. The waters of the springs there, Sami the Finn informed us, were reputed to be beneficial for couples seeking to have children. Despite having brought my binoculars for just such an occasion, I am disappointed to report that we saw no randy French couples in the area seeking to benefit from these fertilizing properties.

* "Détruit" meaning destroyed, "Des truites" meaning "the trout." Given what we'd had for lunch, the latter might not have been very welcoming.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

She moves in mysterious ways

Back when my parents came to visit, I took them up to the Convent of St Odile, patroness of the Alsace region. Among her many attributes, Odile is reputed to be the go-to gal for those suffering eye maladies.

In fact, there is a spring just below the convent, flowing from the mountainside at a spot that Odile struck with her staff. The faithful come here to wash their eyes with this miraculous water, in the hopes of staving astigmatisms, glaucoma and floaters.*

My Mom has been extremely nearsighted since birth, and has worn Coke-bottle lenses all her life. When we were there, I jokingly suggested she give the spring a try. She refused, but my Dad, never passing up an opportunity to annoy her, got his fingers wet and flicked some at her.

Three months later, and my Mom will soon, for the first time in her life, have nearly 20/20 vision, thanks to laser-eye surgery and fortuitous openings in the surgical waiting list. Coincidence? Mom thinks so, but my Dad seemed somewhat disturbed when I informed him that he was obviously an agent of God’s Will.

* First time I visited, I filled my water bottle with it. My stomach has never looked better.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

This what every day is like here

Ah, Flight of the Conchords: it's like they can read the contents of my soul.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Hard Day's Night, Part Two: Night

(...we join our heroes, back home in Strasbourg after a long Sunday of cycling through rural Germany).

After a not-nearly-restful-enough two hour nap, we were roused just before midnight by the electronic yelping of our alarm clock.

“Do we have to go?” asked Amynah, drowsily.

“Well, we should,” I replied, unenthusiastically.

“We could just call and cancel,” she suggested.

“Maybe we could have a bite to eat, then see how we feel,” I replied.

Tearing ourselves from the soft, warm embrace of our bed, we wolfed down some food. At 12:15 AM we looked at each other: were we really going to do this, even as every fibre of our being begged for rest? Not believing what I was seeing, I watched my hand – oh, treacherous hand! – grab my coat. We were on our way.

Twenty minutes later, we were at the Gare central where we met the rest of the dazed dozen assembled by my French teacher Danielle. Our destination: Basel, which was celebrating its famous Fasnacht.

Like Venice’s Carnivale or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Fasnacht is a giant masquerade, with parades, music and street food. Unlike those cities, Basel’s Fasnacht starts at 4 AM, and roughly a week late, neither of which is very Swiss. There are a few different stories as to why this is; theories include a hangover from not changing to the Gregorian calendar, or a meeting that ran long.

Do I look fat in this?

We picked a spot near Basel’s cathedral, eating some of the flour soup and onion tart from a vendor that is traditional for the event.

Just before four o’clock, every light in the city went out, and the massive crowds were thrown into near total blackness. Within a few minutes, the city night was pierced by the sound of hundreds, then thousands. of fifes and drums. Elaborately costumed musicians began marching in tight formation through the narrow medieval streets, illuminated only by handmade lamps mounted on their heads.

It's hard to fully capture how eerie this is - you could feel the whole city burst into life, with the faint rattle of distant drums mingling with fusillades erupting from closer quarters.

To better appreciate the event, Danielle told us to dive in; once a group of marchers passed us, we fell in behind them. There was no set route, so one masked platoon would cross paths with another, or two would need to squeeze past each other in a narrow alley, while onlookers pressed themselves against the walls.

It sounds chaotic, and it was. But, surprisingly, it did not feel quite as joyful as one would expect. More than once, as my ears were battered by three different percussion ensembles keeping their respective flocks of tin-voiced harpies in check, demonic faces menacing from every corner, I felt a sense of unease, even dread. It was rather like we were following the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and wherever he was taking us was not going to be pleasant.

As the sky began to lighten, the cacophony lessened somewhat, as marchers dropped out and headed to the impromptu restaurants in people’s cellars serving sweet, crispy pastries and, presumably, coffee (though we were at that hour where a beer might have been appropriate). Amynah and I ducked out early, along with a couple of PhD students from her lab that were actually intending to get an early start on the day. Sunrise found us in Strasbourg, insensate, ears ringing even in our dreams.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A hard day's night, Part One: Day

Any story that starts with me looking this cocky is not going to end well

I realize that for you, my loyal reader(s), this humble blog is but an occasional stopping point in the course of your day – to skim by, smile at my foibles, perhaps leaving a comment, and then moving on to Gawker or the New York Times or something, or more likely wonder if I've forgotten it exists, given that I've not updated in two weeks.

But I haven't forgotten. For this blog dominates my every waking moment.* My days are consumed by conceiving new, and increasingly outrageous ways of humiliating myself for your amusement. Apparently I have the soul of a clown. As opposed to, say, a French chicken, whose thighs are probably much more tender than the molten bars of iron currently occupying my trousers my own (God, that was a terrible metaphor. What was I thinking?).

So the blog-silence of the last ten days is, I hope, well worth it. For this past Sunday, I threw myself into not one, but two over-the-top Euro adventures.

Extensive focus-group testing indicates that “Mark performing pointless feats of endurance” is a popular theme for Viewers of the Marching Fish™. With this in mind, Amynah and I awoke Sunday morning at 7:30 and fuelled up on pancakes. Then, donning clothing appropriate to the sub-zero temperatures outside, we mounted our bicycles. Our destination? The thermal spas of Baden-Baden, located an unknown number of kilometers away in Germany.**

Where the Cubists go to pray

While it was colder than our previous long-haul bike trip, the sun was out and the skies were blue. I’d lost my map of the Bas-Rhine bike trails, and we had none for the Schwartzwald, and so we simply followed the rural roads. Fortunately, traffic was light.

We began to notice, at this point that all the other cyclists on the road were going the other way

Trouble reared it’s head fairly early, however. My rear tire was, we quickly discovered, semi-deflated, and, it being Europe, nothing was open, so that I was unable to acquire some air.

Worse, Mother Nature, seeing my plight, endeavoured to help by supplying some air of her own. Baden Baden is northeast of Strasbourg. The wind, on the other hand, was in a great hurry to get to Nice, far to the southwest. I’m sure experienced bikers will scoff, but there were points when, despite the audible screaming from my thighs, I was going barely faster than a brisk walk, even as the gale ripped the little remaining moisture from my body from my eye sockets.

I think the giddiness had well and truly taken over by the time we reached... oh wait, it actually is called Moos.

The one map we did have had indicated that there was a route between Varnhalt and Baden Baden that would take us safely through the edges of the Black Forest without having to face any of its miniature mountains. This, of course, was a lie.

What's the German word for escalator?

The nascent cycling enthusiast in me is ashamed to admit it, but we ended up walking our bikes some two kilometers, straight up hill (the following downhill two kilometer section at 40 km/h downhill almost made the torture worth it).

When Amynah and I walked into the Caracalla Spa, she in a workout coat and I in my twenty year old, second-hand prison guard jacket, we were ripe enough that all the beautiful people parted before us like the Red Sea. However, once we were in the healing waters of the pool, all our troubles – and muscle cramps – melted away.

After two hours of bliss, we caught a train back to Strasbourg, collapsing into bed at 9 PM. But we were not to rest long…

(To be continued)

It apparently dominates certain readers’ sleeping moments as well. I won’t name names.

** 65 km, it turned out.

Monday, February 04, 2008