Thursday, June 26, 2008

728 days and counting...

If we end up moving, it'll be around here somewhere

We’re coming up on an important anniversary on View of the Marching Fishes: two years to the day* since our arrival in France.

It’s an important anniversary, because under the terms under which Amynah lured me here, two years was supposed to be the outer limit of our stay here. However, it seems that her post-doc is subject to the same rule of moving deadlines as the PhD defense that kept me from proposing for three years or thereabouts. So, Strasbourg looks like it might well be my home for the foreseeable future.

Anniversaries make for good occasions for taking stock. I'm more inclined than usual to do so now, first because we're planning our first visit home in August, and we're considering moving out of the apartment that has been our first and only home in France.**

I’m not sure what to make of our time here: we’ve made some good friends, though only a minority of them are actually French. I’ve managed to do some interesting writing, but not as much as I’d have liked. We’ve been visited by nearly everyone we would have liked to have visited though, given that we’re here for another year, I’m a little saddened that there are no more visitors confirmed to which I can look forward.

We’ve certainly managed to do a lot of Euro-travelling: we’ve visited almost every major country in Western Europe except for Ireland. We’ve managed a few Eastern European countries, though I still want to visit more. And, in about a month and a half, we’ll be going to Canada as visitors for the first time in our lives. I’m looking forward to trying out those Montreal bagels about which I’ve heard so many good things.

I think the most surprising thing that’s happened to me since coming here is how I somehow feel at home here. Even with my crappy French, Strasbourg and Alsace have seeped into my sense of self just as Nova Scotia and Montreal did: I’m proud of my latest hometown, in a way that I never thought I could be two years ago, after being told “to call back when I can speak French” when searching for a place to live. My bookshelf is groaning under the weight of books of local history, local legends, local bike routes… I know more about Alsatian history and have seen more of the surrounding countryside than some people that have lived here their whole lives. Still, I’m not going to start speaking Alsatian anytime soon.

I am known and greeted by my post lady, the staff in the post office, my bank, the bakery, the local wine cellar, our favourite café (where I can even now say “Comme d’habitude” for my breakfast order) and a couple of the local restaurants. Amynah is well known enough that she has a whole slew of small-talk she needs to get through at our local farmer’s market before even the smallest purchase. We didn't have that good a track record in our previous home cities. Part of that is that for reasons of ethnicity and language we tend to stand out in a town as small as Strasbourg, part of it that we’ve become part of the fabric of local life.

There’s some good reasons for this: we celebrated our first wedding anniversary here, invented our own Christmas traditions, fought the French bureaucracy together, shared our tiny apartment with each other’s families, were comrades in arms in the Great Mouse War of 2008… it’s been what self-help books once would have called “a growing experience.” And it’s made this place a major part of our lives, no matter how much longer we stay here.

* The day in fact was the 29th of June, but no one reads this on a Sunday, and besides, something interesting might happen over the weekend that might be blog-worthy.

** I've mixed emotions about this: on the one hand, I'm attached to the view. On the other hand, some goddamned construction worker's been jackhammering merrily away out there for the last three days. I am being driven mad.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summertime, and the living's easy

What? This thing again?

A point-form summation of a near-perfect weekend:

- Friday afternoon, biking through the Illkirch forest, then into Germany and up the Rhine to Kehl.

- Being hailed, in Kehl, by a street-side flower seller desperate to unload the last of his merchandise so that he could catch the Turkey-Croat match in the Euro Cup. We walked away with five bouquets for 11 Euros.

- Watching a three-person German bar band do a Robbie Williams cover in the pre-match party by the giant outdoor screen. Star of the show: the bongo-playing Jessica Simpson look-alike, complete with cowboy boots and Stetson.

- The band was followed by a pair of 12-year old bellydancers, who took it well in stride with the beatnik-cowgirl tried to steal their moment in the sun by returning to the stage with a live boa constrictor draped over her shoulders. All class, that one.

- Saturday we hit the local farmer’s market, then hopped on our bikes to hit an even larger farmer’s market not far from the university.

- Spent the afternoon napping and reading Le Monde which came with a supplement from the New York Times. The latter came with an index explaining such mysteries of the English language like “to hit the wall.”

- In the evening, we wandered the town, taking in the sights and sounds of the Fêtes de musique, in which every village in France is turned into a stage for every semi-talented bar band that ever plugged in a Stratocaster. We saw bands that sounded like The Cure, The Talking Heads, Thomas Dolby, The Pointer Sisters, Steppenwolf, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols and Hole. We did not manage to hear anything that sounded like it had been recorded in this century* (or, for that matter, anything French) but the aural walk through my youth was refreshing nonetheless. Or at least it was, until about midnight, at which point I could have done with some sleep. It was not to be, as two of the main stages were set up in front of the Cathedral and on Place Gutenberg, thus ensuring that we got to hear U2 battling it out with Aretha Franklin all night long.

- Bleary eyed and ill-rested, we hopped on our bikes first thing Sunday morning, in order to rendez-vous with Amynah’s boss Brigitte and her husband for a hike. We ended up doing the same route as I had with Tasha and Travis a few weeks before, largely because Brigitte was tickled by the name my guidebook had breathlessly given it: “Witches and Bloody Sacrifices.” The hike was a delight (I will never tire of being able to picnic in the ruins of a 13th century castle) but the return home was even better. The temperatures reached 33 degrees Celsius yesterday, and so we were all quite happy to don our fancy Euro-Speedos (or their gender appropriate equivalents) and splash around in Brigitte’s pool for the remains of the afternoon. This was followed by a dinner of loup marin and rosé taken poolside.

* We did hear a cover of the White Strips' “Seven Nation Army,” but it sounded like something Bruce Springsteen would have done with the E-Street Band, complete with saxophone solo. This group also won the fun French-ism of the night award: “…I’m going to Wee-shee-taw.”

Monday, June 16, 2008


We had a downpour Thursday night, which led to the above celestial phenomenon. I snapped a photo or two, and thought nothing more of it. Until...

...Saturday, when my afternoon of lounging about the house reading Le Monde was interrupted by the thumping electro-beats of Strasbourg's Gay Pride Parade which was making its way down our street. I have to say, those guys must have some serious pull to arrange that kind of advertising. As to the parade itself: Not as elaborate or entertaining as the carnivale, far less obnoxious and much more fun than the unions

Friday, June 13, 2008

Am I compulsive?

Well perhaps a bit - for some reason, since I described [part] of one set of friends visit, I feel compelled to describe them all. But I'm lazy, it was a couple of weeks ago now, and frankly, as Travis pointed out in the comments of the previous post, not all of the visits were marked by disasters, leaving my blogging lacking in narrative heft.

Nonetheless, I feel I cannot move forward in my blogging life until I get this out of my system. Therefore, a photo-post (even worse, some of these are already up on Facebook, making this even more redundant).

It looks vaguely like I am holding miniature people in my hand here. I WILL CRUSH THEM!

With nine visitors, I spent much of the latter part of May like this: blathering about Strasbourg (points to anyone who's taken my tour who can guess what I'm blathering about in this photo. Hint: look at the decorative elements on the building on the left, or the pattern on the road that my hand's blocking. Closest answer gets a Twinkie!*)

We spent a few days on/near the Mediterranean coast with friends. The weather was not cooperative, meaning that with the exception of some French people walking around in winter coats, we had the beach to ourselves.

We swapped Tim and Joç for Tasha and Travis, and so I subjected them to same bike ride. It went much better, and we made it as far as Obernai, after a detour to a lookout spot from which we could see nothing, at a convent we were not allowed to visit, though orchards and vinyards from which we could not pick the fruit. En route, we met a pony that was doing its darndest to pretend we weren't there.

The next day we went on a hike north of here, picking our way over trees and branches downed in the most intense lightning storm I've ever seen. Our ultimate destination was the Chateau of Wasenburg, pictured above, that had once been besieged by the Archbishop of Strasbourg. Oh, the good old days! On the way we passed several pagan sites which were, depending on which plaque you believed, either used for bloody sacrifices, judicial executions, or baby-making. The castle incidentally, had also been visited by Goethe (Travis, on Goethe: "Is he really any good, or did they just need someone to be their Shakespeare? Did the Germans just say, 'Hey, we need a writer - Goethe, you'll do. And while you're at it, go visit a lot of places. We'll put up plaques: we love visiting plaques!")

I don't have any pictures from our subsequent visitors, as we never strayed out of the city, but I did learn that if people get googly-eyed over one baby, they lose their freakin' minds over twins. Also, Carol didn't stay long enough.

* No it won't.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Chain of fools


I have some three weeks of visitor-related adventure to catch up on. Of course, given that my visitors make up roughly 3/4 of my reading public, it’s an exercise in redundancy. However, I promised a least one disastrous bike trip, and damned if I am not a man of my word.
Tim and Joc had expressed some interest in seeing a bit of the local countryside by bike. We therefore rented a bike for Tim, and saddled Joc with Amynah’s antique mauve monstrosity.*

I elected to take them on the rainbows and ponies trail along the Bruche canal, the starting point of many epic and ill-starred journeys in the past.

The condemned Our intrepid adventurers ate a hearty breakfast before hitting the trail. We made pretty decent time, considering that neither Tim nor Joç had been on a bicycle with any regularity in years. The weather was just about perfect, with a light breeze and sunshine rustling the leaves.

We had a lunch of sandwiches and hot tea. As we were about to head to Molsheim, I noticed the sign for the Dompeter – the oldest church in all of Alsace, originally founded in the 6th century (rebuilt several times). It was only a short detour, and so we proceeded to bump our way down a farm road towards the village of Avolsheim.

The trail** to the church turned off the road about a kilometer in, and it was here that disaster struck: the chain*** on Amynah’s bike snapped, leaving Joç effectively with a two-wheeled skateboard.

As we were only about three or four kilometers from Molsheim, we decided to push on (well, we had no choice, did we?) I took over her ride, pushing myself along as if on a giant scooter, while Joç wobbled along on my bike. We made it to the Dompeter about ten minutes later.

Apparently, the rough part of Avolsheim

We rolled our bikes up to the church, leaning them just inside the cemetery gates. We strolled past an older Alsatian woman tending the flowers on one of the graves, and popped into the church, which still has some of the original carvings from the 8th century foundations. The Dompeter, for reasons lost to history, is about a kilometer outside of Avolsheim, the community it serves. It was only abandoned in the 1920s, when the people of Avolsheim finally decided to build a new church that wasn’t located in the middle of a cornfield.

As we walked back outside, the old lady accosted me.

“You shouldn’t leave you bikes here,” she said, in heavily Alsatian-accented French.
“Sorry! Why not?” I said, in heavily Canadian-English accented French.

“Thieves!” she said.

“Here? In a church?”

“You don’t understand?” she said, referring to my language comprehension.

Looking around at the expanse of empty farmland, the answer was no. Were there criminals lurking behind the tombstones, waiting for some naive tourist to leave their bike unattended here in the middle of nowhere? Surely there were more promising locations than this?

They are not kidding about this.

In any case, I thanked her for the warning, and we hit the road once more for Molsheim. As I pushed myself along on a chainless, mauve, woman’s bike, sweating in the 30 degree heat, I rather wish that someone had stolen it.

Tim’s solution of holding my hand and towing me along the path did nothing to add to my dignity, and only earned us the Mother Of All French Stink-Eyes from another cyclist.

By the time we reached Molsheim I had embraced the ridiculousness of the situation, and would push myself by foot, and then proceed to pedal at great speed to no effect as the bike’s momentum wore off, much like Wile E. Coyote going off a cliff.

I need hardly add that we caught the train home.

* Sleuthing revealed that Amynah’s bike’s colour disqualifies it from being more than 150 years old, but other than that it might well have shared the streets with Penny Farthings and Madamoiselles in hoop skirts.

** In the other direction, the trail led to the Chapel of St Armuth, a saint that does not actually exist. Even more absurd, the chapel is actually dedicated to Mary, built by a guy who lost his either his coat or his hammer who was then nearly hanged for murdering the mayor of a town he was not from. The explanation on the plaque was a little hazy.

*** Legend had it that this chain was forged by blacksmiths in the employ of Charlemagne himself. Their hands were amputated afterwards.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

I'm famous!

That's me on the far right, in the tan jacket and jeans. I'm blaming photo manipulation for the brobdingnagian dimensions of my left ear. Can't trust those journalists.

Yesterday, when assisting my last guests load themselves, their 800 pounds of luggage, and their twin 11-month old boys onto the train to Stuttgart, I noticed a man with a massive camera taking pictures of the goings on on the platform. His slovenly dress gave him away as a professional photographer.

Perhaps with this memory gestating in my subconscious, I decided to pick up the free local daily given out to users of Strasbourg's tram line this morning. And lo and behold, there I am, right on the front page, along with Dave. For those of you wondering, I'm wearing footwear appropriate for a 12-year-old because after three weeks of force marching visitors over the cobblestone streets of Strasbourg, my feet freakin' hurt.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Your Wednesday morning bummer

On those days she doesn’t take her bike, I walk Amynah to the tram station in the morning. Our route takes us through a park-like area, where some older homeless guys tend to congregate.

On our way to there this morning, we passed one I’ve noticed before, sitting on a bench, immobile, eyes closed, and his hand over his heart. I wasn’t sure that he was ok, and I know French people have a lousy record of looking out for strangers, so on my way back home I resolved to ask him if he needed help.

Practicing the French phrases for “do you need help?” in my head, I drew nearer to his station on the bench. As I drew near, I saw that his arm had moved, and his eyes seemed to be open. Propped up against bag of worldly possessions was an old picture frame, the glass cracked and the metal dented and worn; it was made for a drawing room table, not the ravages of life on the streets. He was gazing, prayerfully, at an old photograph,of a woman dressed for a party, hosted by friends presumably long forgotten, smiling back at him from happier times.

It broke my heart.

*I have much to catch up on, blogging-wise, but I had to get that out of my system.