Friday, October 31, 2008

Beat of a different, not very bright drummer

Happy Hallowe'en!

In honour of the day, and in order to write about something other than hiking, I bring you an installment of View of the Marching Fishes Irregular Digressions into Alsation Folklore Hour.

Our story happened many centuries ago, during the terrible years of the Swedish War.* During the Swedish invasion of Alsace, a regiment of soldiers was stationed in the village of Obersteinbach. The regimental drummer was a romantic young man, who was quartered in the home of a local farmer. The farmer, as farmers in these stories are wont, had a lovely young daughter.

Our percussive friend fell in love with the comely young lass and – happy day! – she with he. However, being as how he had his regimental drumming duties to attend to, and she her family, they were never able to be alone, to do whatever it is that young couples in love did in the days before they invented sex.**

Our young drummer found himself walking off his frustrations, stalking the village and the surrounding fields. At the stroke of midnight, he found himself near in a place called “Teufeltisch” – or the Devil’s Table. Evidently not realizing he was in a cautionary folktale, he cried out: “My body and my soul for just a kiss of this woman.”***

To no one’s surprise but the drummer’s, a sardonic laugh came out of the darkness from the direction of the Devil’s Table. A tall man stepped out of the gloom. Frightened, the drummer asked what he wanted.

“You called me. I am at your service.”****

The drummer, perhaps catching on that he might be in a bit over his head, wisely said nothing. But for naught, for our Mephistolian friend said “Ah – I understand all. You want a woman. Good, take these drumsticks.**** If you play your instrument with these, she will have no choice but to march to your beat. All I need is for you to sign this paper.”

I need not recount what happened next – Army life having afforded our dim hero no opportunity to learn that sulfurous strangers seeking sanguinary signatures are generally bad news, he proferred his finger, signed in blood, and found himself the proud owner of a brand new pair of drumsticks.

Dazed, he returned to the farmers house. Tentatively, he hit his drum once, then twice. The farmer’s daughter appeared at the door.****** As the boy continued to play, she drew nearer, and he began to walk away. She followed, drawn forward even as her family tried to hold her back.

The couple disappeared into the forest. The following night, screams, demonic laughter and wild drumming filled the darkness. Neither of the doomed lovers was ever seen again, but on certain nights, a faint drumming may still be heard in the forests around the village, and will be until the end of days.********

(In case anyone is wondering, when I was drumming, I preferred Vic Firth 5B’s and I couldn’t even get my bandmates to follow my beat, let alone our largely imaginary groupies).

* I am not making this war up. The Swedes were right nasty back before they discovered nationalized medical care and Volvos.

** 1993

*** Though presumably he cried this out in Swedish.

**** Technically, no one called him, but hey – how good would you expect the Devil’s Swedish comprehension to be?

***** Which are, no word of a lie, “baguettes” in my little book of Satanic Tales. Unless they actually played drums with bread back then.

****** I suspect that, given that it was probably 1 AM, and Obersteinbach is tiny even today, everbody in the village appeared at their door at this point.

******* I’ve totally lost count of how many asterixes I’m supposed to have by now. The story was taken from “Les Legendes du Diable en Alsace” by Gérard Leser. The translation is obviously mine.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cunegonde's revenge

Chateau St Ulrich; Cunegonde lies in wait

I swear to God, I will eventually write about something other than hiking here soon. Right after this one.

When Amynah and I first arrived here in France, some of our earliest social events were visits to the countryside. Julie (another post-doc in Amynah’s lab) and her boyfriend Sebastien, a couple recently arrived from Bordeaux via England, took us out to visit some of the prettier villages on the Wine Route that winds its way through the Vosges near here. Shortly thereafter Dom, another colleague of Amynah’s, invited us to join his family and their friends on a hike near Saverne, an experience I was able to spin into my first story for the Globe and Mail.

These experiences meant a lot for us: not only because we were being made to feel welcomed in our new country, but also because we were able to familiarize ourselves with the local geography. Once the deluge of visitors we have hosted over the last two years began, we were confident in our ability to show people around Alsace, a confidence that has gone a long way to making us feel at home here.

Some of the local geogrphy

What proved to be the biggest boost for us, proved to be my former French teacher, Danielle. Danielle is one of those people that makes friends the way other people breathe. Together, she and her husband David are one of those couples who have an innate ability to spread the wealth of friendship around: if you meet a friend of Danielle and David’s, chances are very good that you will have made a new friend in the process.

Danielle would occasionally organize outings into the countryside (usually in the Black Forest, across the border) for her pupils from Amynah’s institute. All were foreigners like Amynah and I, and came from all over the world. Though those outings, Amynah and I have made some of our best friends in France, (including the famous Sami the Finn).

Sadly, Danielle and David have since moved to England. However, since Amynah and I have, thanks to Sami the Finn, our many guests, and Amynah’s lab-mates, traveled extensively through the Vosges, we felt we had the wherewithal to duplicate Danielle’s magic, and organize a hike of our own.

Ribeauvillé. This is as close as I would get

I picked the three castles hike near Ribeauvillé, which is about 80km south of Strasbourg. I had done variations on this hike a few times before. The first time, I took the wrong path and wandered aimlessly over the mountain, failing to find any of the three castles. The second time, I found St Ulrich and Girsberg, but was thwarted in my attempt to ascend to Haute Ribeaupierre by an “access interdit” sign at the beginning of the trail. The third time, we ran out of time to tackle the third castle. All of which has led me to conclude that the trail is cursed. Events would bear out my theory.

I look healthy, don't I?

I invited a number of people from my French class, and the beginner’s class – they, in turn, invited their friends. We ended up with 14 people – Germans, Spaniards, Romanians, Argentinians, French, Chinese and Australian, all depending on my questionable trail-guiding skills.

We set off a little later than planned – the time change was this weekend, and one of the drivers thought the clocks needed to move an hour ahead – but still made it to Ribeavillé by about 11 AM.

Qi is not supposed to be up there

It was very busy on the trail to the first castle, and the trail was very steep. I had woken up that morning feeling extremely stiff and poorly rested for some reason, and as I struggled up the trail, I began to break out into a cold-sweat as well. By the time we made it to Chateau St Ulrich, I also began to develop a cast-iron headache.

I should point out that St Ulrich is quite possibly haunted: it was famously used to imprison Cunegonde of Hungerstein, a noblewoman who had decided to end her marriage through the unorthodox but not-yet-legal means of murdering him. Prison life not agreeing with her, she seduced her guard, who helped her escape. She was never seen again – especially not by the guard, who was executed for his complicity shortly thereafter. Other possible specters in residence include the scion of the Ribeaupierre family, whose construction of a monastery nearby was unlikely to outweigh, in St Peter’s book, looting the Holy Land of holy artifacts during the Crusades, or possibly even the poor souls from the colony of lepers isolated here in the 17th century.

In any case, one of those candidates obviously had it in for me, because by the time we stopped for lunch, I was full-blown sick – unable to ingest more than half a sandwichm - meaning I missed out on Amynah’s cake, Qi’s cookies, and the strange Argentinian “matas” tea that Carolina and Danilo had brought.

I'm not sure not drinking this was such a loss

Cunegonde and her ghostly cohort may have had it in for me, but I had numbers on my side this time. Nothing was going to stop us from reaching our final destination: Chateau de Haute Ribeaupierre, the giant castle atop the mountain that I had missed on my three previous attempts.

It was, of course, barred by a thin wire fence and a sign warning us that entry was forbidden, due to the danger of falling medieval masonry. Carolina, having no particular use for anyone telling her what not to do, especially some vandalized French sign, simply climbed up a ruined wall next to the gate and hopped over. Soon, the barbarians were swarming the walls of Ribeaupierre, and it fell to our onslaught. Amusingly, another group arrived at the castle as we were doing this. One of them looked at me an said – “I’m a guide.” I stopped, thinking that we were going to get ratted out to the French-ruined-castle-police. “Are you a guide?” she asked me. “Sort of” I replied. She then turned and told her charges that it must be ok to enter.

Barbarians at the Gate

The third castle conquered, we set back down the hill to where we’d parked the cars. I was feeling increasingly worse, but everyone else was chattering, making new friends, and enjoying the near-perfect Autumn weather. On our arrival at the cars, it was decided that a celebratory coffee was in order, and so we paraded into the village. Or rather, they did: I was too sick at this point, and elected to stay in Carlos’ and Merixtell’s car for a nap. Matters were even worse on the drive home: we had to make an emergency stop in the parking lot of the Ribeauvillé casino, so that I could inspect the ground behind the bordering hedges.

However, everyone else had a great time. Perhaps I should just skip the next one of these things I organize.

NB: All the photos, except the one in which she appears, were taken by my friend Qi

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rock walk

Misty mountains

Boy, my blog production really has slowed down of late, hasn’t? Well, this marks my 200th post. Significantly, it also marks my third wedding anniversary*. Coincidence? I think think so.

In any case, I’ve been more than a little swamped in the last few days. Sadly, this has not been of the traveling-Europe-having-zany-adventures kind of swamped, but more of the why-is-it-all-my-freelance-clients-give-me-assignments-at-the-same-time-it-must-be-a-conspiracy kind of swamped. So why am I writing here about this, instead of, say, nuclear physics? Because I love you, that’s why.**

I did manage to escape my office and increasingly wonky laptop long enough to take a hike this past Sunday. Now that Sami the Finn has returned to the land of Frozen Monosyllabic Angst-sters in the North, Amynah and I find ourselves hiking with, unexpectedly, Amynah’s boss Brigitte***, and her husband Alain.

Amynah and Brigitte, on one of the less perilous sections

They chose a hike in the southern Vosges that translates roughly as “The Trail of the Rocks.” Having seen photos of the trail on-line, I had assumed that this name referred to the views it affords hikers of the bare granite cliffs that loom over the Munster valley.

I was wrong.

Turns out that when the French call a trail “The Trail of Rocks” they really mean that the trail is made up of rocks. Lots of them, all sharp, and crazed angles and covered in wet, slippery leaves.

Alain explained that the trail was built in 1915. With my razor sharp grasp of history, I asked if the folks in the neighbourhood didn’t have more pressing things to do at the time than hacking trails out of cliffsides.

See that cliff? We had to climb that.

“Ah, it was made by contrabandieres” explained Alain – men running illicit merchandise back and forth over the border between what was then the Kaiser’s Germany and wartime France. Given how much trouble I was having navigating the steep, rough ups and downs of the trail, I had to give those smugglers of yore, traversing this route while burdened with backpacks of blackmarket cheese or what-have-you, a tip of my hat. Or would have, had my hands not been otherwise occupied holding on for dear life.

Smugglers made this? I guess they have a more industrious breed of criminal around here

*The leather anniversary, apparently. You do not want to contemplate my underpants right now, trust me.

** In that needy, craving approval, writer-reader way.

***Who, amusingly, complained all day that she was fatiguée from a dinner that had gone until 1AM the previous night. I'd have called her on it, had only I known the French word for hangover.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

In the Court of the Pumpkin King

Gaspard greets the guests

Well, as hinted at in last week’s post, Amynah and I hosted a pumpkin carving party chez nous this past weekend. It was a little early for Hallowe’en, but perfect timing to celebrate the temporary return of our friends Danielle and David. The latter showed his gratitude by rushing home after the soirée in order to scoop me on his own blog. His take on things is well worth a read.

Our goal, in hosting a pumpkin party, was to allow guests to engage in an activity that, by it’s goopy nature, tends to break down people’s reserve. Hallowe’en being an almost entirely North American phenomenon, it also allowed me to show that we burger-munching lumberjacks do have cultural traditions as well, inexplicable as they may be.

We ended up with nearly forty guests. About half were from Amynah’s lab, many of the rest were former French or English students of Danielle’s from Amynah’s institute. A theology professor, on sabbatical in Strasbourg from McGill showed up with his wife and daughter were the only other Canadians - but every other inhabited continent had a representative, almost none of whom had ever been encouraged to play with their food in this way.

The massacre begins

I had spent much of the week fretting about local pumpkin quality. Strangely, French people seem to believe that the primary purpose of pumpkins is to be eaten, rather than turned into a ghoulish effigy. Most pumpkin-like objects are therefore unsuited for carving, being too small or too fleshy for the purpose.

So when people showed up with miniature squash that might serve as earrings on one of Howard Dill’s monster gourds I was convinced that we were going to have to make an emergency run to reinforce the battalion of 17 pumpkins we’d already recruited to sacrifice themselves in our cause.

Natasha wants in on the fun. Sebastien begs her to reconsider

I needn’t have worried. While I hovered anxiously over the operating table we assembled in our living room, pumpkin novice after pumpkin novice turned out Jaques de Lumières worthy of any discerning collector from even the least promising of vegetables.

The artist and her masterpiece

The ridiculousness of my worry became clear fairly early on, as I was attempting to instruct a friend on the finer points of carving a lid. I asked the theologian’s daughter if she’d done this before, to which she replied “Yeah. Twelve times.” “How old are you?” I asked. “Nine,” she replied. Given that I had only carved my sixth-ever pumpkin earlier that afternoon, I left her to supervise everyone else’s efforts, in order that I could do my part to lessen the load of food causing our sturdy dining room table to sag in the middle.

By the end of the evening, our friends and colleagues had produced some twenty grinning, shrieking, cringing, laughing, grimacing visages. We assembled the fruits of our labours on the back verandah, where they formed a flickering, gruesome choir. Many more photos here