Monday, August 11, 2008

Farewell, Sami the Finn

Yeah, I'm talking about pottery again. But it's manly pottery, with pictures of hockey sticks and muscle cars on them. Those only look like flowers: they're actually crudely drawn explosions.

Every once in a while, through no particular effort on our own part, we end up having more unusually “Euro” weekends here than even living in Europe would seem to indicate as the norm. This weekend, our last before our grand return to Our Home and Native Land for the rest of the month, was such an occasion.

Saturday, we went through our normal routine of hitting the local farmer’s market. Amynah’s flower guy was so distraught at her impending departure that he doubled the size of her bouquet, free of charge. A hopeful sign for our afternoon’s planned excursion.

At 1PM we met Sami the Finn and a new addition to Amynah’s institute, Belinda the Aussie (surely there’s a better nickname available than that?). Sami the Finn recently accepted a position in Kuopio, Finland. He’s leaving when Amynah and I are in Canada, and so this was our farewell trip with him. Belinda, on the other hand, had only been in Strasbourg for 10 days, and this was her first excursion outside of the city.

Our destination for the day was Soufflenheim, the pottery capital of Alsace. At one point in the 19th century, there were more than 50 pottery workshops in this tiny village, employing roughly 600 people. Today, there are considerably fewer, but the place is famous for the quality of its ceramics.

Over the course of the afternoon, Amynah and I picked up a few pieces, mainly to complete a set of mugs we already owned. Belinda, in need of dishes, also picked up a pair of mugs.

Sami the Finn, on the other hand, is nothing if not extreme. Pottery is apparently no exception. Having spent the last three years in a furnished apartment, to which he never felt the need to add any of his own possessions, he had built up a mighty thirst to own his own dishes. He waited until the end of the afternoon to make his move, after the rest of us were pretty much pottered out.

He dropped roughly 200 Euros in the last store, walking out with an enormous box filled to the brim with plates, bowls, vases, mugs, cups, platters. At some point, the potter himself, sensing a wonderful thing was happening of the store came out, and seeing the small mountain of merchandise piled in front of his cashier, insisted she throw in some free items for the Golden Finn. Sami graciously accepted, and then went out to bring his car around to load it up with his glazed loot.

The merchant, still feeling he had not expressed enough gratitude for Sami the Finn’s largesse, then handed Amynah, who had been helping Sami with his choices, a complimentary bowl. Effectively, she got a freebie for being in the vicinity of a major purchase. Nice work!

On our way back, we drove through the village of Drusenheim. As we passed through the main street, we saw a crowd gathered around a parking lot of colourful, superannuated tractors. We stopped to take pictures as the owners filed into the restaurant on the other side of the street.

It turned out the group was from Germany. I found one that spoke English, and asked him what was going on – an exhibition? Tractor races? Competitive tilling?

“It is a hobby. They are from 1960,” he said, adding, by way of explaining his Teutonic impatience with the discussion, “And now we drink.”

Sunday, we hopped on our bikes, and made our way to Amynah’s institute. Before we got very far, I stopped to ask a couple deciphering a map if they needed directions. It transpired that they were from Mainz, Germany, biking to Basel. I explained I had some experience with this route, and since we it followed the same path we use to get to Amynah’s lab we invited them to follow us. They were pathologists, it turns out, and the man seemed quite pleased to have the guidance. The woman, on the other hand, seemed convinced we were trying to lead them astray, if not kidnap them entirely. Nonetheless, they invited us to visit them if we’re ever in Mainz. As soon as I figure out where it is, I’ll take them up on it.

Anyway, moving on to the main event: Duck! Specifically, barbecued duck, courtest Audrey and Greg, whose hospitality is always a treat, at least when they’re not trying to kill us. We were joined by an Argentinian couple, one half of which is also in Amynah’s lab.

The idea of barbecueing a duck seems pretty French to me, (served with a nice light rosé in the courtyard of our host’s home, located in a small farming village 15 kilometers outside of Strasbourg. Life’s hard). I didn’t manage to take any pictures of the meal, being to concerned with consuming as much of the food on offer as I could.

As an digestif, Greg pulled out a selection of Eau de vie from his kitchen. Technically, he didn’t want me to post this, for reasons of the murky provenance of the hooch, but I doubt the French authorities read this blog, and I’m willing to go to jail to protect my sources on this.

Some of Greg's stash. The green bottle is plum schnapps from 1985. One of the clear bottles contains hooch made from holly.

Effectively, it is against the law to make any more than 10 liters of the stuff without a license. However, it is impossible to buy an alembic that makes any less than fifty liters. This Catch-22 doesn’t discomfit many East of the Vosges, because schnapps-making is a sacred custom that Alsatians believe to be above any liquor control laws those fools in Paris might concoct.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Little Petey's House of Holy Horrors

Cheery looking fellow, isn't he?

So, I was going to the stuffed animal store that specializes in Wild Boars* the other day in order to pick up a gift for my niece for my imminent return home. On my way there, I wandered by the St Pierre le Jeune church. For the first time since I’ve lived here, the doors were open, so I wandered inside.

Mural of the Nations of Europe Marching Towards the Cross. FYI: "Germannia" on her steed was in the lead, poor old Lithuania straggling behind on foot.

I’m sorry I didn’t discover this church earlier – parts of it date from the 4th century, most of the rest from 1250 or thereabouts.** Unlike either of the other major historically important churches in Strasbourg, this one has both a surviving cloister and many Medieval murals surviving inside. For a brief period in the 17th century, it was used by both Protestants and Catholic congregations, who were encouraged to mind their manners through the device of a temporary partition.

The cloister of the former chapter house. One day, when I have a back yard, I'm doing it up like this. Don't tell Amynah.

Anyway, the highlight for me was the secret chamber (well, not so secret as hard to find) with the crypt, a chamber roughly 1500 years old. There’s a small recess in the wall that still contains some poor souls bones. I’m sure he didn’t expect, as he lay on his deathbed, that his mortal remains to be on display for the edification of ghouls like me several centuries later.

Ye Olde Bone Room. That's a vase in the head area of the body-shaped cavity in the floor, and an old stone coffin to the right.

* These people are very serious about their stuffed animals. I went in and asked for a Wild Boar, and the clerk, detecting my lack of facility in French asked (in French) “are you sure you don’t mean a Warthog?” and then producing fuzzy exemplars of both animals so that I could make my choice. They had a remarkable number of species represented with as much anatomical accuracy as the material and intended audience would allow. It was like being in pillowy zoo.

** As you might have surmised from the church's name, there is an even older St Peter's in Strasbourg than this.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

View of the Spitting Mule?

St Thomas, Strasbourg's other Cathedral, as seen from Place des Moulins, in front of our building. The big red building in front of it is an elementary school.

I don't think I ever bothered explaining the name of this blog. It's taken from my (former) street's name: Vieux marché aux poissons, which I jokingly mangled into View of the marching fishes. It was apt - from vantage of the fifth floor, the masses of garishly clad tourists that would make their way up my street resembled nothing less than tropical fish, nibbling on colourful shoals of postcard racks and souvenirs.

The Spitting Mule, as seen from the smaller of our two patios

Now that I am no longer resident on Old Fishmarket Street, I feel I need to rename the blog title. Our new place is on "Place des moulins," with the Spitz Muhl canal directly behind us (I believe that translates to "hospital mill" from Alsatian, but I'll have to let those readers more familiar with Germannic languages than I to confirm my interpretation). I'm inclined to keep the name the same, not that I think I've exactly built brand recognition with it or anything, but if anyone has better suggestions I'm open to them.

The larger of our two patios.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

I'm going to miss this so much

A friend of mine who went to the Congo with her husband at roughly the same time that Amynah and I moved to France, summed up the experience with a turn of phrase I've been using ever since: "It's us against the world."

When we first came here, it was very much like that: my language problems meant that I was even more isolated that working alone in a fifth floor apartment would seem to suggest: going to the bakery was terrifying. I couldn't make small talk with the cashiers, people on the tram, my neighbours.

Over time, however, I began to build up a community: the Postal people know me as Monsieur La Canada, the Bakery people know me as Monsieur le pain cereale, tranché, the local café knows me as Monsieur can't quite pronounce kougelhopf after all this time, I have a barber with whom I can make reasonable conversation, my mail delivery woman says hello when she sees me on the street. It's superficial, but I've made myself little connections here that mean a lot when I've no other social contact in the run of a day.

Tomorrow we move. The new apartment is far superior: larger, two t.v.'s, several rooms, two balconies and cleaning lady that visits once a week. However, even though it's only a five minute walk away, I feel like I'm uprooting myself entirely again.

And giving up the best view in town while I'm at it.