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.


Brad Pye said...

Dude that was a really cool post - I've come across similar things in my travel and I love little stories like that. Well done.


Victor Chisholm said...

Now that you know it actually is French mail, I suppose you could walk to the other end of the square and ask at the Post Office... but that wouldn't be nearly as fun as assembling an interactive game to brighten a French postal employee's day now would it?