Friday, February 27, 2009

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

This tram station is lying to you

Each of the stations for Strasbourg’s hyper-modern tram system have one of these giant cylinders: they keep people apprised of expected arrival times, service disruptions, and contain a automated kiosk at which you can purchase your tickets.

On the top third or so of each is a white sign that explains the station’s name. The one at Longstrosse/Grand Rue (Alsatian and French for “Long Road”) in downtown explains that the stations name comes not from the street, as you would expect, but rather honours Berthe Langstross, a circus performer renowned for her ability to eat the inedible: she ate an entire bicycle over the course of two days, and an entire tram car over the course of five days. She died, says the sign, after a long and filling career while attempting to eat a “Big Bertha” artillery piece.

All of the tram stops have fanciful explanations like this. I find it charming, that in a city as overstuffed with history as Strasbourg, that they still feel the need to manufacture more.

*Speaking of local history, I highly recommend my friend David’s
most recent post on the subject of his uncle-in-law’s experience in the Second World War. It’s stories like that that make you understand why the city might prefer to make up absurdist circus performers than dwell on less pleasant tales.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

They're like the Beatles, but hard rock

The Prussian Empire only occupied Strasbourg for less than fifty years, but in that time they left plenty of overweening architecture for me to make fun of (there’s some good stuff too, but I’ll get to that later).

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Four Men Bridge.

Imaginatively named for the presence of sculptures of (count ‘em!) four men on its corners, the Black Forest Bridge was built in 1906. And while other public works from the era erred on the side of modesty, the Four Men Bridge aims for impact. Its statuary is designed to celebrate Prussian industry, with the chiseled physiques of the quartet bent to various labours valued by the Kaiser: fishing, digging, hauling, and flexing shirtlessly.

Today the bridge is called Pont John F. Kennedy, presumably due to its proximity to the American Consulate here. I suppose that back-handed honour wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to him.

P.S. - My last post was terribly depressing, considering that all I really wanted to do was publicly thank Qi for an awesome dinner. I apologize: I blame the stubborn persistence of February.

Today the sun is shining, the temperature is forecast to hit double digits by the end of the week, and Amynah spotted a bush of some sort that appeared to be sprouting flowers. As these buds are the only items of natural colour visible in the entire city, I plan to return to said bush with a sacrificial offering, and worship it. It’s located on a fairly busy street corner, so I expect my new shrubbery-based religion will have thousands of adherents by the end of the day, or at least until tulip season.

Monday, February 23, 2009

That reminds me of a story...

Saturday, Amynah and I were invited by our friend Qi to celebrate the Chinese New Year with an enormous dinner at Qi's apartment. We are, of course, already several weeks into the Year of the Ox, but Qi had been so occupied with various other celebrations organized by the local Chinese associations to which she belongs that she couldn’t organize her own party before now.

The feast was amazing – though operating with only a microwave and three hotplates, Qi somehow managed to prepare a dinner with two different kinds of fish, at least two different kinds of chicken, noodles, lamb, vegetables and shrimp. There were 8 people in total, everyone ate until they were stuffed, and yet there were still mounds of excellent food left over.

Anyway, at some point in the evening, after I had been reminded of and therefore shared at length some anecdote or another from my vast store of such things, Qi paused and looked at me, and said “Ah Mark, you always have a funny story.”

While my natural paranoia is making me question whether I’m one of those conversation-hogging party-boors, I am choosing instead to take it as a compliment. All of which is a long-winded way of bringing myself around to today’s blog post. You all might have noticed that I’ve considerably increased my rate of posting here, at least this month. Part of that is due to my natural procrastinatory ways, part of it is boredom, part is a genuine desire to keep in touch with people, but I’m also trying to keep the writing muscles limber.

However, coming up with topics three times a week is pretty tough – I’m not really interested turning this into a current events blog and I can’t go on poorly-conceived hikes every week. I’m planning on posting more about local attractions in the weeks to come, but am unsure how much people are really interested in local nicknames for obscure landmarks. I’ve already sunk so low as to mail myself a postcard for your edification. How much worse can I get?

Much worse, it turns out, as I resort to what Qi accurately identified as my favourite phrase: “that reminds me of a story.” This morning, I was walking back from dropping Amynah off at her tram stop, when I was cornered by a rather aggressive panhandler, who claimed that he had to make it to a job interview in a distant suburb, and needed money for a bus. I offered him a transit ticket. Stymied, he replied he needed money for a petit pain, for which he wanted a Euro. A small bread costs 55 centimes at my local baker, so I gave him that, resentful for having given into what was obviously a con.

I contrast this to one time when I was accosted for money in Halifax. It was late at night, and I was returning from a movie with my friend Natalie. We passed a shabbily dressed guy on Quinpool Road, who asked if we could “spare some change for a poor Cape Bretoner.” Being a proud Caper herself, Nat gave him a Loonie, and we continued on to Nat’s place, where I dropped her off. As I made my way back to my apartment, I passed the same panhandler again, who once more asked me for money.

I apologized, and said I had none, but then he recognized me: “Oh, you already gave me money!” (I hadn’t – I didn’t have a cent on me).

Then he asked me my name, which I told him: “Oh, that’s a good Biblical name, a good Biblical name. You’re a good man. Here, let me give you some money.”

A panhandler trying to give me money? I looked at my clothes: ripped jeans, a stained government surplus prison-guard coat, ratty sneakers. Maybe it was time to upgrade the wardrobe.

In any case, I refused his cash, but I ended up talking to the man, crouching in the bushes behind the Canadian Tire store while he drank a mixture of Lysol and Coke (he offered to share, but I turned him down: I don’t really enjoy Coke). Turns out he had been married once, and lived in Toronto, before his drinking got away from him. He’d been on the streets for seven years, and still missed his wife fiercely.

All of this was sad enough, but the worst was yet to come: he told me that his grown son, who I would guess couldn’t have been much older than thirty, was apparently living on the streets too, sleeping and begging somewhere near the Halifax Commons. Father and son would cross paths once in a while, but otherwise each was living rough, in the same city, each alone. I never saw him again, but I still think of that man once in a while. I hope things got better for him.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Foxy boxing

Yes, I know my handwriting is a crime against the epistolary arts

Well, the great postbox mystery of 2009 is semi-solved – I had put the card in the mailbox Monday night, and by Wednesday, it had returned to me, bearing the cancellation mark of La Poste. Of course, I still have no idea why the French postal system operates a Royal Mail box in Strasbourg. I’m considering putting another postcard in there with a pen attached, and a post-it bearing asking whatever postal employee whose job it is to empty this box to explain it to me. Or would that be crazy?

As long as I’m writing this, I might as well explain where the postcard itself came from. Last week, one of the PhD students in Amynah’s lab successfully defended his dissertation, thus becoming “Dr X” (for real – his first name is Xavier. If either of my names started with X, I’d get a PhD, recruit some henchmen, buy some lasers, and insist on being called called “Dr X.”) As is the custom, there was a celebratory dinner afterwards, at a restaurant called “Au Renard Prechant.” Roughly half the restaurant is in an old chapel.

The restaurant: you can see the old chapel windows on the right side. Image from over here.

I arrived late, as I was coming from an English tutorial (in which I was the tutor, not the tutee), and ended up sitting at the end of the table with Alain, Amynah’s boss’s husband, and Celia, a colleague of Amynah’s. I ordered some kind of fish stuffed with cabbage - it was excellent.

Now, “Renard Prechant” translates as “The preaching fox.” Strasbourg’s proselytizing predator evidently had quite an impact on the people of the city – in addition to the restaurant, there are two streets named after it. Curious, I asked Alain if he knew where the name came from. He didn’t, and flagged the owner over to our table: “My friend here is a Canadian, and a species of journalist. He wants to know how the restaurant got its name,” he asked, in French.

Thrilled to be speaking to “a species of journalist,” the restaurateur bustled off, returning with a postcard (the very one pictured above!), and a photocopied newspaper article. In the 19th century, according to the card, the street which passes by the restaurant was a canal that connected the Ill river to the Rhine. The building was occupied by a certain Mr Fuchs (which means Fox), who made his living by fishing from the water than ran by his home. This means was insufficient for him to feed his family however, and so he decided to “liberate” some ducks that were the property of his neighbour.

He was caught and sentenced for the theft. In what the postcard described “revenge,” the entire story was immortalized by a friend of his, who painted a fresco in the adjoining chapel of a fox preaching to a congregation of ducks.

Ahh, but that story is just for the children, said our host, who had by now returned with complimentary shots of schnapps for Alain, myself, and Celia, who wasn’t really interested in the conversation but happy to reap the reward of sitting next to someone as cool as myself. He unfolded the newspaper clipping, which described a recent art exhibition in Strasbourg.

That same fresco was described therin, but the origin story was considerably different. According to it, in the Middle Ages, Geiler de Kaysersberg* (a traveling, preaching superstar of the age) used to deliver sermons in this very chapel/restaurant, which, at the time, was attached to a convent. Geiler evidently possessed sharp, animalistic features that earned him the nickname "the fox": thus, the preaching fox.

* Geiler will return to these pages, once I start posting the good stuff from my city-tour. Yeah – a promise to talk more about a Medieval priest – that’s my idea of a teaser.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Her Majesty's Secret Postal Service

A lonely outpost of Empire

Near our old apartment next to Place Gutenberg is a bizarre relic of unknown provenance: a bright red metal postbox from Great Britain, complete with Queen Elizabeth's monogram stamped on the lower part. Adding to the mystery, there is a notice of what appear to be active postal pick-up times written in French.

Now, Strasbourg's vocation as the soi disant Capital of Europe mean there are an awful lot of Brits here, but I think even the Royal Mail would find it hard to justify daily pick-up a thousand kilometers away from British soil. I can't even begin to imagine who I might ask to explain the box's presence here, but my curiosity would not let the matter rest.

And so, armed with a postcard I was given at a local restaurant (there's a story there too) and a local stamp, I ventured forth to answer at least part of this enigma.

I think I look ridiculous in this photo, but Amynah thinks it's hilarious, and so, amusing her being more important to me than my dignity, I post it here for you.

If the postal pick-up times on the box are to be believed, I should receive a postcard from myself by the end of the week. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Well, if this writing for free on the internet thing doesn't work out...

I don’t often link to my professional writing here on View of the Marching Fishes, though whether that is from modesty or shame I cannot say. However, a lot of the work I do is un-credited ghost writing or press materials, and I do tire of the blank looks I get when I tell people I’m a freelance writer – not quite a journalist, not quite a communications person.

In any case, a few recent articles I did for my former employer are now online, giving me the opportunity to point to an example of how I spend my days. Better yet, one is in French, so those few local readers I have can enjoy my brilliant prose in their own language. Not to mention, if these nutcases are going to pay me, it’s the least I can do to send some eyeballs their way.

The first was printed in Headway, McGill’s research magazine of which I once had charge. It has improved greatly since those dark days, a state of affairs for which I am happy to take full credit, as I helped convince the current editor to take over.

The second article is actually just the first article en Français in McGill’s alumni magazine, whose editor evidently feels my prose could only improve in translation.

On the topic of alumni magazines, St Francis Xavier University’s magazine reprinted the piece I wrote for the Globe and Mail on my father and grandfather a while back: you have to download the whole magazine as a PDF to get to my article (it's not a huge file).

(I’m also usually in the CNRS International magazine linked on the right there, but half the time my articles are on particle physics, so I’ve no idea if they’re intelligible. That my editor there keeps assigning me pieces on this topic is either a mark of confidence, or a sign that, unlike me, all her other writers have the sense to stick to those areas they actually understand. Other than that, it’s a great general science publication).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

War Gate: not just a good name for a bad movie

The sign translates roughly as "Do not feed the invasive animals" on which someone has scrawled, "Humans are the invasive animals." I had no idea water rats were literate, let alone able to reach that high.

Our friend Victor arrives tomorrow for a brief visit, and I also need to prepare for an interview in which I will be asking a theoretical physicist how he determined the mass of a proton. It involves gluons and quarks, and I'm terrified.

So, only a quick post, on the "Strasbourg's hidden wonders" theme.

I kept waiting for the aliens to pop out, but none did. Presumably, they were awaiting contact from the dominant Earthling species, namely, a water rat.

This is in the "Kriegstor" park - "The War Gate" - left over from the enormous, fortified ditch the Prussians built around Strasbourg prior to the First World War. Despite the name, and gun emplacements, it makes for a nice stroll in the daytime. It is filled with the gardens of local greenthumbs, who, in warmer weather, will use their allotted plot as a proxy backyard, hosting barbecues and playing badminton with the neighbours.

During the night, from what I understand, it's the place to go if you're looking for the kind of pharmaceuticals your doctor won't prescribe. But you didn't hear that from me.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Legion Etranger and entranger indeed

From time to time the French Foreign Legion will set up a recruitment booth in front of the local shopping mall where Amynah and I do our grocery shopping. I’ve never popped in, but I was always curious: everything I knew about the Foreign Legion came from Snoopy cartoons.

Now that Amynah and I are entering into the home stretch of our time here in France, we’ve been looking for gainful employment back home (hint, hint, for anyone who wants to employ a writer or a neuroscientist. Or a dishwasher and a neuroscientist – I’m not fussy). As such, I looked a little more closely into the Foreign Legion. I wasn’t seriously thinking of enlisting (not least because they require a minimum of three-years of service) but I thought they might make for an interesting article.

And boy, was I not disappointed. Not only does the Foreign Legion still exist, it still operates more-or-less along the same lines as when it was founded – a way for young men in trouble to start their lives afresh. It is only open to foreigners: if you are French, you have to apply under another nationality (Canada and Switzerland are popular cover nations). You are not allowed to apply under you own name: the Legion gives you a new one when you sign up (thus foiling my half-formed plans to sign up as “Marc Renaud”).

At the end of your three years, not only will recruits have a new name, several murderous new skills, and proficiency in a presumably very salty French, but they will also have earned French citizenship: “If only we’d thought of that when we moved here,” said Amynah, to my horror. She was less keen on the idea when I told her that I would also have to deny our marriage.

The Legion has a long and distinguished battle history, and still attracts recruits from around the world, through their fairly slick website. It is possible to purchase books on the Foreign Legion there, as well as replicas of their famous kepi.

But, this being France, their offerings are considerably classier than that: alongside Legion branded t-shirts and ball caps, one can also buy their own wine and, my personal favourite, an official Foreign Legion Asparagus Serving Plate. Times have changed: you would never have seen Sergeant Snoupi allowing his troops such luxuries.

Monday, February 09, 2009

If you're related to me, you're probably not reading this.

Some time ago, I added the Google Analytics program to this blog. I figured that there was no reason why Google should know everything about who reads this thing, and not me.

It’s been illuminating, to say the least. Roughly half my meager traffic is comprised of repeat readers, but there are a surprising number who stumble upon this dusty corner of the Internet via search terms.

This is a cheap n’ easy way to generate blog posts, but my lord, the ways people find this blog are sometimes hilarious.

By far, the most popular search words that deposit people here are “naked germans” “naked sauna” and similar variants, which presumably bring people to this post. I also learned that those hippie naturalists are not nearly so peaceful as they appear, given the number of people looking for “nude marching” and variants. The Revolution is Upon Us! No Longer Will We Need Suffer the Tyranny of Foundation Garments!

Some people are apparently looking for me directly – these include people who searched for my name (with other identifiers), the blog’s name (including someone who specifically wanted to know what “View of the marching fishes” had to say about “naked Germans”), and one perspicacious individual that was looking for a “nude man exposed in glasses.” Outta luck, big guy! *Mark hurriedly removes glasses, too.*

Other oddities include someone who came by to tell me “I feel like a Guinness” (I would suggest looking for one somewhere other than the internet) and a plaintive cry of “leave me alone in French.” Say it, sister.

What is truly surprising is where my traffic is coming from – or rather, where it isn’t coming from. I’ve had (presumably unclothed-Teuton-seeking) hits the furthest corners of the world. They tend not to return. I also apparently have semi-regular readers in towns where, to the best of my knowledge, I know no one. So you know, you mysterious folks, I’m grateful for your patronage. About half my traffic is direct, and a third through search engines. Only five were referrals via facebook, making me wonder why I bother to post my notes there.

My largest readership (and large is a relative term) is from Canada, obviously, in particular Montreal and Toronto. I’m also big here in Strasbourg, although I suspect a large portion of my hits are from my own post-edit-post-edit style of work. These aren’t surprises. A surprise is that I’ve not one reader from my original hometown, despite the fact that I’ve 6 close family members there, most of whom should have seen my Facebook notices of new posts. Abandoned! By my own flesh and blood!

Friday, February 06, 2009

But they're fearsome poodles

My occasional tour of Strasbourg’s lesser sights continues…

This is the “Pont de Fonderie,” built in 1881. It is also called the Lion’s Bridge, for the animals standing guard on the four corners.

According to one of my guidebooks, when the bridge was completed, locals dubbed it “Poodle’s Bridge,” in order to mock the less-than-overwhelming size of the titular felines. As a result, I’ve always felt a certain sympathy for the bridge’s designer, who was surely struggling to bring the project in under budget. The poodles lions are not, after all, structurally important. It must sting, as an architect, to have your efforts denigrated in this way, or compared to an amphibian, (as in Halifax’s Green Toad) or a pickle (London’s Gherkin, which is actually one of the more flattering comparisons Londoners could have drawn).

On the other hand, the architect might have chosen his diminutive decorations on purpose: the bridge leads directly to the then-new Justice Courts, built by the Prussian occupiers of Strasbourg after the 1871 war to enforce the Kaiser’s law. I like to think our bridge builder was making a subversive statement.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Blades of Gory

This past weekend, Amynah and I organized a small skating party at the local ice-rink. I managed not to fall, despite not having been on skates in over fours years, and not having been particularly skilled at the activity to begin with.

People seemed to enjoy themselves, even those novices who came from climes in which ice is something that belongs in your drink, not under your feet.

Skating, while not exactly alien to locals (they do boast a professional hockey team here, after all) is a decidedly minority pursuit. The line-ups to get in were tremendous, not because there were so many people, but because there’s only one skating facility in town, and almost everyone needed to rent their skates. As I came here from a neighbourhood in Montreal in which I had a choice of three outdoor rinks within a ten-minute walk, and in which skate ownership was more common than bicycle ownership, this was a shock.

More surprising was the reactions Amynah got from her colleagues when she invited them to join. While the younger members of her lab were happy to give it a shot, many of the older members were aghast: “Last time I went skating, three of my friends had to go to the hospital!” “You have to wear really thick skiing gloves – otherwise, if you fall, you could have your fingers cut off by a skate blade!” (This from a girl who climbs cliffsides for fun).

With these alarming stories in my head, I went into the “Iceberg” (as the rink is called) with a certain sense of forboding. How chaotic are the rinks that people are losing digits? Were paramedics on site? It turned out to not be so bad. While there were many bruises to go around, and at least one strained tendon sustained when one of our over-enthusiastic Argentinian friends took a tumble, the most danger I faced was the risk of soap in my eye from the fake “snow” falling from the section of the rink with the dance music (well, that and the six-year-old girl with whom I collided. Don't worry: I'm ok).

Monday, February 02, 2009

Greatest. Statue. Ever.

Madame Josephine Peur-Soleil de Grand Chapeau. The hat was so the dog could get some shade as well

Yesterday, Amynah and I decided to pop our heads into the three-part museum located in the Palais Rohan. We’d somehow managed to avoid it during the two years we’ve been living here, but as the first Sunday of every month is free, and I was getting a little cabin-feverish, we took the plunge. And I am glad we did, for we saw what must rank as the greatest masterwork of art ever created.

Nope, the masterpiece was not this ceramic boar's head serving-dish complete with detailed, glistening viscera. Yes, that's a bit of its spine there in the center. Bonne appetit!

At first, the museum seemed unlikely to blow my mind as thoroughly as it did. There were the usual assortment of broken pottery and spear tips in the archeological section, and while the Arts Decoratif section held some interesting (and freaky) items, there were entire rooms of Virgins and Crucifixes that didn’t strike me as being notable improvements on the theme.

Is it just me, or is Mary rolling her eyes at the crying and the weeping and the wah-wah-wah?

It was in the Beaux Arts section where I had my encounter with genius. There was a table of small sculptures on a table, unremarkable except that they were almost all of animals, usually in the process of eating one another. Set in amongst these was the jewel of the museum’s collection.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Rodeo Gorilla.”

Yes, this is a sculpture of a Great Ape riding an angry bull. It is, without a doubt, the greatest work of art ever created by the hand of man. Better even than Van Gogh's "Dragon on a Motorcycle."