Thursday, April 30, 2009

I am not making these savage hamsters up

Ladies and gentlemen, imagine, if you will, that you discovered that the park in your neighbourhood was home to unicorns, or talking, friendly dragons that roast hot-dogs for you on command, spiders that write messages in their webs and baby elephants that can fly with their giant ears.

That might begin to capture the extent of my delight one evening several weeks ago. I was dining with my friends Félicie and Yann for dinner at a local Brazilian restaurant. We were joined by a couple of former colleagues of Yann’s, one of whom works for the regional agricultural authority. I don’t remember through precisely what route the conversation took to get to his work, but I am eternally grateful that it did, for during that dinner, I learned about the existence of the most wonderful, fantastical creature that I could ever imagine.

Not far south of Strasbourg, the autoroute south splits in two. One highway continues pushes west, past Molsheim and into the Vosges mountains, on to St Dié and beyond. The other goes straight south, to Colmar, Mulhouse and on to Switzerland. Astoundingly, given this route’s importance, for two kilometers after the split it meanders through the countryside as a narrow, two-lane rural road before becoming a proper four-lane divided highway once more.

As I sat, entranced but disbelieving, Yann friend explained why this should be. He said the highway in this section could not be completed because the land in the immediate vicinity is home to one of the last populations of the endangered Grand Hamster Sauvage d’Alsace.

Giant. Wild. Hamsters. My jaw dropped.

It took my friends all night, and a subsequent Internet search, to convince me that they were not, in fact, pulling a fast one on the gullible Canadian. Giant Savage Hamsters exist, they are real, and I want, more than anything, to see one before I leave Strasbourg.

The Alsatian population is the only one in all of France, and comprising just 600 or so animals. Before 1993, when they were listed as a protected species, hamsters were hunted as a nuisance, to the brink of extinction. Most of the remaining hamsters cling on the edge of oblivon in the immediate vicinity of Strasbourg. However, local farmers have switched in recent years from the grains the rodents need to survive, instead growing maize and cabbage. The animals are still deeply threatened.

Those that are left are considerably larger than the ones you might remember from the one that lived in your Grade 2 classroom: full grown, they’re about 30 centimeters long, with distinctive white paws and brown and black fur.

There are organizations dedicated to protecting these rare and noble creatures. It is my intention, if at all possible, to contact them and see if I can, like Diane Fossey, observe these noble creatures in their natural habitat, before their magnificence is lost to us forever.

Image from

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

French fried

The whole point of the bike trip was to see cherry and apple blossoms. We were too late, except for a row of rapidly browning blooms just outside the village. But look: infant cherries!

One of the things I’ve discovered about learning and speaking a second language is that it is physically tiring to do for any length of time. It’s not just me – I tutor a couple of different people in English here: they consistently complain of exhaustion by the end of the lesson (cue joke about my personality having that effect on people).

This weekend, I organized a bike trip along the ever-famous rainbows and ponies trail with some friends of ours from Amynah’s institute. The initial group consisted of at least three native English speakers, one other who is more comfortable in English than French, and one French-preferring participant. By Sunday scheduling conflicts and illness had whittled this down to me and three French speakers.

I have gone through entire evenings when French was the only language spoken, and so, as we set out, was not at all thinking the language would be a problem. However, during dinner parties, one is not generally required to maintain a conversation for the entire evening – the dynamics of dinner conversation usually allow for some verbal down-time, as others tell a story, or launch into a debate to which others can be spectators.

On a bike trip with only four cyclists, this was not possible. We quickly broke up into two pairs – my friend Lama biking with a master’s student from her lab, while I led the way alongside their colleague.

Orchards near Westhoffen

As far as I could tell, neither of Lama’s friends spoke a word of English. I therefore spent four hours, pedaling 44 kilometers through the beautiful Alsatian countryside, conversing only in French. The mundane requirements of bicycle navigation robbed me of the ability to wave my hands about to facilitate communication, and so I had to actually concentrate on using the correct tenses that I usually indicate by pointing forward (future), pointing forward and waggling my hand (future conditional), or waving over my shoulder (past). The amount of concentration I had to put into translating my many, many witty anecdotes into French for a new audience meant I nearly rolled directly into the Bruche canal several times.

In any case, by the time we all made it to Molsheim, the French overload and incipient sunstroke had left me a wrung-out mess, sunburned, incoherent, and craving a nap. In contrast, my companions were all fresh as daisies, despite never having biked over 8 kilometers at a stretch before in their lives.

* Of course, the fact that French was also the second language for all three of my fellow cyclists rather undermines my language-is-tiring theory. But I cling to it nonetheless, for otherwise I’d be forced to admit that my relative distress might have something to do with me being roughly 8 years older than them.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Warning: History ranting.

This photo has nothing to do with this post. Though it does look like it's going to launch into a rant, perhaps like the one to follow

So I was reading the excellent Brian Busby on historical plaques in London, comparing their excellent and thorough programme to the more haphazard state of such things in Canada.

I realize that both of last two posts reference historic markers of one sort or another. Strasbourg has markers all over the place – most of the major sites have brown metal posts with a trilingual (though not always consistent) explanation of major buildings. Strasbourg has no shortage of statues honouring its favoured sons, from Kleber, as in my previous post, to Louis XIV, tucked up high and almost out of sight on the façade of the Cathedral.

Wandering through the city, it seems that roughly one house in ten has a plaque of one sort or the other. Very few seem to be official – some are solid stone markers noting the birthplace of one notable or another, others are weathered, barely legible copper disks of the “Washington slept here” variety (except Louis Pasteur, in this case). Some honour artists, or politicians, but there are one or two that I’ve seen that honour professors – and not even famous ones like Pasteur. I halfway suspect that some of these markers were put up by the people themselves (“Mark Reynolds, ecrivain Canadien à habité ici en 2008” seems particularly suspect).

We have considerably less history in Canada, of course, and generally aren’t interested in the meager amount we have. But we don’t even try.

Before I left Halifax, I recall a debate in the local schoolboard over a new elementary school’s name. One faction wanted to name the school over (if memory serves) a Second World War pilot. Another group, led by a school board trustee, wanted to stick with the current policy of naming the school after whatever street it was on, saying “No one knows who this person is anyway.”

Not all monuments are, strictly speaking, attractive

Ignoring the fact that this woman had evidently forgotten exactly what schools are supposed to do: teach. My first school was named after one of the early settlers of Cole Harbour Nova Scotia. I know who he is, and what his family did, and how they lived, because I was taught it. I remember it because the name had meaning for me. My friend Félicie recently told me of the pride she felt to attend a university named after Robert Schumann, a French statesman integral to the development of the European Union. Meanwhile, Canada’s three biggest universities are named after Toronto, British Columbia, and Montréal respectively.

Worse than the failure of imagination, is that it abdicates responsibility for our cultural environment to property developers. Most new schools are built in suburbs. Suburb street names are anodyne in the extreme: land developers are not in the history business, meaning children in my old neighbourhood went to schools with names resonant in meaninglessness, such as “Astral Drive Junior High” and “Auburn Drive High School” (a name mocked even by that connoisseur of bland, Jay Leno).

Here, meanwhile, schools and new streets are almost invariably named after someone or other: every French village has a General de Gaulle street, but most major cities has a President Wilson Boulevard. Strasbourg even has a new-ish street named for Sir Sanford Fleming*. Meaning, by current trends, French children have a better chance of going to a school named after a Canadian than Canadians do.

* Link not historically accurate, but very, very funny.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The strange afterlife of General Kleber (updated)

Place Kleber, in the center of the Grand Ile of historic Strasbourg, is where I like to start my city-tour when I have visitors. It’s an enormous (by Strasbourg standards) public square, recently renovated (for the second or third time this decade) to feature fountains and plenty of benches for people-watching. It’s where they put the city’s brobdingnagian Christmas tree each winter, and it also hosts concerts, markets and exhibitions throughout the year.

I’m not actually that fond of it as a public space, but I always bring people here, as it offers a nice starting point for the history of Strasbourg. Back in the town’s “free city” days, when it was only loosely associated with the Holy Roman Empire, the square was known as “Barfusserplatz,” (Bare foot place) for the inhabitants of the nearby monastery. When Louis XIV took over in the late 17th century, Strasbourg was instantly transformed from a merchant town at the crossroads of Europe, to a frontier city of France. Accordingly, a garrison was established in the city, and Barfusserplatz become Place des Armes.

The Bourbons only got to enjoy their eastern conquest for a century: in the unpleasantness unleashed on July 14th, 1789, Place des Armes became Place de la Revolution.

The Revolution eventually led to the location’s current, and most interesting name. Jean-Baptise Kleber was a local boy made good, having risen through the ranks of the revolutionary army to become one of its most distinguished generals, a position he retained after the ascent of Napoleon. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he brought Kleber along and, when that venture went horribly wrong, left the Alsatian holding the can, so to speak. Kleber never saw France again – he was assassinated in Cairo.

This is where his story becomes bizarre. I had the privilege of interviewing another French-Alsatian general a couple of years ago who had written a book on Kleber. He told me that Napoleon refused to allow Kleber’s body to return to France, fearful that it would become a shrine to the Republican ideals that he had fairly efficiently crushed. Kleber was therefore stuck in a rum barrel on an island in the Mediterranean, to await a day when he was more politically acceptable. This took 18 years.

Even then, the indignities were not over. A man of the General’s stature required a proper state funeral, and for that, only Strasbourg’s Cathedral would do. However, the General was inconveniently Protestant (or irreligious, I’m not sure on this point). His corpse was therefore converted to Catholicism, so that it might enjoy the blessings of Strasbourg’s archbishop before being interred in a local cemetery (minus his heart, which was given a place of honour in a chapel within the Invalides in Paris).

Even then Kleber's post-vivo adventures were not over, as he was then dug up and re-interred in 1838 in the square that now bears his name, under a statue immortalizing him and his more notable victories (on which a sphinx rests behind his feet like an obedient puppy).

The square retained its name throughout the period between 1870 and 1918 when Strasbourg was (re)claimed by the Germans, even as Kleber’s statue became a focal point for Alsatian nationalists resentful of the Kaiser’s “Prussian-izing” policies.

Very briefly – between November 18 and 22, 1918 – the space did honour to Karl Marx, by grace of the communist government that gained power here in the chaos at the end of the Great War. French troops quickly put and end to that nonsense.

In 1940, Kleber was on the move again – the Nazis moved his body to a local cemetery, tore down his statue, and named the square after Andreas Roos, an Alsatian nationalist executed by the French a few years earlier. Kleber’s name and highly mobile remains were returned to the square after the liberation of 1944.

And so it has remained ever since. However, the indignities suffered by poor Kleber were not over. Under Place Kleber is a fairly large parking garage – which had to be constructed around the general's grave. Thus it is possible, while parking one's Peugeot, to see a shiny brass plaque marking Kleber's final resting place on the cement walls now acting as his sarcophagus.

Post- script: By coincidence, before moving to Strasbourg, a number of my friends in Montreal made me mix-CDs of their favourite music. My friend Daniel made me one with a cover he’d created on which zombies were cavorting on an image he’d found of Strasbourg on the Internet: Place Kleber. I was thus calling Place Kleber “Zombieplatz” even before I knew anything about its dead occupant’s wanderings.

EDIT: A scholar of European history, Nathanael Robinson wrote (presumably more accurately than I) about Kleber's afterlife on his blogs here and here. I'm fairly certain I ran across his posts at some point before writing mine - reading closely enough that I apparently absorbed his title, although little of his superior research. Check them out).

EDIT AGAIN: Blogger's being a pain - his blogs posts are and

NB: Amynah’s Mom arrives for a visit today, followed by her two Aunts. They are using our place as a launch pad to visit other destinations in Europe, so I’m not expecting to be too occupied on their trip, but nonetheless I might not be able to keep up on the blogging for the next week or so.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A park to beat the band

Yesterday, Amynah and I decided to take advantage of the unexpectedly fine weather and make our way to l’Orangerie park, and “English stye” public gardens not far from the European institutions in Europe. It’s a beautiful place, but far enough of a walk from where we live that we don’t make it out as often as we would like.

As a result, I had missed, on my previous visits, an historical plaque explaining the origins of the manor house in the center of the park. Amynah and I both took a look at it at the same time, me labouring my way through the French, she zipping through an English explanation I didn’t notice.

“It was for the Empress Josephine,” said Amynah.

“What?” I looked at the French again – no mention of Josephine at all.

It turns out the plaque had two different, though related, explanations for the site (and perhaps even a third, but I didn’t attempt to decipher the German version).

In the terse English explanation, the park and manor house were built “in honour” of Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, the Empress Josephine. In the longer and distinctly more hard-eyed French version, the park and manor house were built “to gain favour with Napoleon.” In other words, less a tribute than a bribe.

After a quick jaunt around the park, we were lured back to the front of the building by the sound of drums. There was some sort of multi-cultural festival going on, and a troupe of musician/dancers from, I believe, Ghana were putting on a show (Amynah thinks they were actually from the considerably less-exotic suburb of Lingolsheim. But she’s an incorrigible cynic).

The drumming and dancing were very entertaining and athletic (look at the arms on those guys!) but they didn’t really work up a sweat until they attempted the almost impossible feat of getting French people to sing in public. The only other time Amynah and I went to a public concert here, the singer attempted the audience to join in for “Il est né” a catchy, easy-to-sing and French Christmas carol. They sat like stones. Here, one of the drummers tried to get a call-and-response chant going for a traditional African song. He didn’t stand a chance – despite heroic efforts, the best he could extract from the 100 or so onlookers was “mumbly mumbly mumbly ooooooh,” delivered with all the enthusiasm of someone asking for herpes medication in a crowded pharmacy. Finally, he gave up, and took out his frustrations about his maudits audience on his drum, to everyone’s relief.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Time's running out

The passerelle de deux rives - a foot bridge in the bi-national park on the banks of the Rhine river between Strasbourg and Kehl, in Germany

Amynah have been here almost three years. That's thirty-four months, 146 weeks, or more than 1000 days.

Soon after we arrived here, we were invited, along with several others from Amynah’s new lab, to a dinner at Amynah’s boss’s home. Brigitte and her husband Alain laid on a true Alsatian feast for us: an apertif of cremant (Alsatian champagne) heaping mounds of choucroute, Alsatian wines, bretzels, local cheeses and tarts with fruits picked from the fields and orchards near their village, with an digestif of eau de vie (schnapps) distilled in their neighbour’s barn.

The company was worldly and oh-so Euro-sophisticated, the conversation lively, the hospitality impeccable. Almost all the guests spoke at least two languages fluently – many spoke three or more. I felt welcomed, yet overwhelmed, intimidated, provincial, and completely out of my element.

Yesterday, Amynah and I invited Alain and Brigitte over for lunch. We served fresh trout and homemade rhubarb tart, the fundamentals of which were purchased at our local organic farmer’s market, where we are recognized to the point that the vendors notice our absence when we aren’t around.

Prior to this, I had taken Brigitte and Alain to the “super secret location” – the highlight of my Strasbourg tour, a place unmarked on the city maps, unseen by the tour groups, unadvertised in the city’s information offices. Brigitte and Alain, both native Alsatians, who’d lived in Strasbourg for decades, were almost entirely unaware of its existence before I introduced them to it.

We have thus come full circle in Strasbourg, and so, sadly, it is time to leave.

In a little over three months, Amynah and I will be quitting France. Many of you already know what our next destination is, and an more details will be posted here as they are known (hint: probably California). Before that, is our intention to drive coast to coast, visiting all the major centres in Canada where we know people in August. This way, we hope to remind you all what we look like while simultaneously encouraging you to visit us in our future home. So stay put.

In the interim, I will likely start posting even more of the “local history” type posts I’ve been doing here (including, eventually, the super-secret location), as a way of giving those people who’ve not visited us here a taste of what I love about this place. We are still hoping to squeeze in both some last-minute visitors, and some Euro-travels of our own. After that, we will be saying adieu to the many new friends we've made here, packing several kilograms of Alsatian pottery, and starting another new adventure, in another foreign land. I suspect I will find new ways to have my ever-popular biking misadventures there are well (though, given the car-obsessed reputation of the city to which we’re moving, I may be burned as a witch for attempting to bike there). With luck, I will continue to blog there for as long as it is interesting.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The walls have eyes

Girl on a turtle - fountain near Place Austerlitz. I think it's illustrating a Hans Christian Anderson story. I don't remember which, but I'd put a Euro or two on it being about a girl. And a turtle.

Looking at the Canadian news, I can't help but see headline's promising snow for the Atlantic provinces, low temperatures in the sub-zero range, and general unpleasantness - in mid April! In sympathy, I will therefore spare my snow-maddened Canadian readers any account of our day yesterday, which was spent nibbling on a selection of European cheeses, cold Japanese green teas, and apple tarts, shading ourselves from the robust sun (23 degrees!) on our balcony, nor will I torture you all with any description of the tarte flambée and microbrewery beer enjoyed on a sidewalk terrace shortly thereafter.

Awww... did I do that again? So sorry.

I will not speak of the magnolia and cherry blossoms perfuming the spring air, nor of the vase of fresh tulips now occupying pride of place on our dining room table. These things would be cruel - not to mention, I find it hard to type when I've suntan lotion greasing up my fingers.

Instead, I'll just post some pictures I took while wandering around my neighbourhood this morning. I tried to keep images of Strasbourg's exuberant vegetation to a minimum because hey, to do otherwise would be cruel, wouldn't it?

Graffiti in France trends towards pseudo-gang tags and political slogans. This is a nice exception, on Quai Finkwiller

Another clever graffiti, taking advantage of some gouges in a wall on Rue Dentelles

This is in the square directly in front of our apartment, one of three angels keeping an eye on the parking lot there

Friday, April 10, 2009

Here's a question: will she ever get out?

Our friends Danielle and David have returned to Strasbourg for the Easter weekend, and have honoured us by staying in our apartment – a pleasure not lessened in the least by the enormous variety of English cheeses they brought by way of rent.

Last night, they went out for dinner with other friends. Amynah and I decided to turn in before they returned. Amynah popped into our bathroom, as I was getting changed for bed. Suddenly, I heard a cry of distress, and a rattling from the hall. Somehow, Amynah had managed to lock herself in.

I was midway between my daytime and nighttime attire (which is to say that I was wearing no pants). However, my wife was trapped, and so I rushed out into the hall, grabbed a screwdriver, and started to do battle with the lock.

It was at this most dignified of moments, Amynah locked in the toilet, me kneeling in my gaunchies in the hall, that Danielle and David walked in the door.

This was embarrassing enough. Worse was the utter nonchalance with which they greeted the scene – an unflappable coolness that said that they had never believed our evenings were spent any other way.

Time for a bathroom break?

Speaking of bathrooms, the normal residents of our apartment have a street sign hanging in there, from a road near us, called “Rue de la Question.” Earlier yesterday, a friend of Danielle and David’s popped by and, on seeing it, explained where the name came from. I had thought that the street was named perhaps for the school there (a house of inquiry) or perhaps after the fact that it curled around like a question mark.

Not at all: apparently, the Inquisition (and yes, I did not expect this) used to have it’s local offices there. When one had an interview with the head Inquisitor (as depicted in the image above) it was called being put to the Question. Thus the street name, and our bathroom’s decoration.

And now I have a new euphemism to describe those moments when I need to visit the loo (assuming I ever succeed in getting Amynah out of there).

Monday, April 06, 2009

On the road to nowhere

These are not from this trip. If you look carefully, you can clearly see they are German cherry blossoms

Saturday, eager to escape the heavy hand of the French security apparatus* that was strangling all life out of the city, Amynah and I decided to go for a bike ride. The weather her having taken a decided turn for “springlike,” we elected to head west, towards the cherry and apple orchards near the village of Westhoffen, in the hopes of seeing them in bloom.

Sadly, it was not to be. We took the Rainbows and Ponies trail as far as Avolsheim, then turned north, but we were too early: the orchards we saw remained resolutely bare of flowers.

I am not one to take disappointment lightly: robbed of one goal, I made up a new one on the spot – to make it to Saverne, a good fifty kilometers away from Strasbourg. And so, a dubious Amynah pedaling gamely at my side, we pushed further north, through the foothills of the Vosges.

While I don’t like biking without a goal – if not orchards, than brute distance – Amynah does not like biking without a plan. We were expecting our friends Yann and Félicie for dinner that night, and had to be home in time to prepare the meal. Given that we’d not done this route before, and were not sure that NATO security would allow us to return to the city by train, we had to turn back, rather than risk turning up in Saverne and having to call our friends asking them to pick us up.

Open House in Wasselone

Rather than bike directly back home, we stopped in the town of Wasselone, where we decided to have a bite to eat, and perhaps catch a train if they were running. We rolled into centre ville and asked the first woman we saw where we could find the he train station.

She replied (in French) “Ah yes – it is just back up this street, past the police station, and on your right, just off the Rue du gare.” We thanked her, and began to turn our bikes in that direction, before she thought to add “But it doesn’t exist anymore. They’ve turned the station building into a house.”

We ended up biking the full distance back – 80 km in all – in time to make dinner and enjoy and excellent evening with out friends, though we were all a little giddy: Amynah and I from bike exhaustion, Félicie and Yann from having an anti-NATO riot break out in front of their apartment at 6:30 AM.

* While the security guys were only barely convinced to let Félicie go to her office on Friday, and wouldn’t let Yann have a beer in his favourite bar on Saturday, they didn’t see a problem with letting Amynah and I hang out next to the Canadian Prime Minister’s motorcade as it was getting ready to take him to Baden Baden for dinner (turns out he was in a hotel very near our place). We were within a hockey stick’s length from him and the Canadian defense minister as they drove by. I’m guessing the Gendarmes took one look at the species of leader they were escorting and decided that there was no way anyone could be bothered to have a go at them.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Potemkin Strasboug

Les flics staking out Place Kleber

So the 60 anniversary NATO (OTAN, in French) summit is being held here in Strasbourg (shared with Kehl across the river and Baden-Baden further down the Rhine). All the heads of state of all the NATO countries are here, including Obama, on his first continental European visit since his election.

What with France re-joining the military command of NATO, the fiscal crisis, the war in Afghanistan, and all the attention’s Obama’s been getting, the city has been going nuts. Depending on what news source you read, there are either 4500 or 9000 police deployed in the city, largely to ensure order in the face of the 40-50,000 protestors.

For the last week, roughly one person in ten on the streets of Strasbourg has been in uniform – they’ve brought in Gendarmes from all over France, meaning most of the police I’ve seen have been “patrolling” while stopping every few metres to orient themselves with tourist office maps, while helicopters clatter overhead.

They are particularly guarding the edges of the “red” and “orange” security zones. No one can enter the red zone without a “laisser passer.” I’m not sure what the restrictions on the orange zone are – I’m just on the outside of it where I am now - and I’m not inclined to try to find out. My friend Félicie, who needs to cross the orange zone to get to her office, had to sweet-talk two police officers in order to get to work: not being nearly as pretty as her, I suspect I’d have more difficulty getting in.

The protestors have not been idle in the interim. Their action yesterday was to lie on the tram tracks, thus terrorizing heads of state, who normally get around in limousines and jet-aircraft, by causing maximum inconvenience to the protestors’ natural allies: the poor, the environmentally conscious, and students.

In any case, the tediously predictable has already occurred: over 300 have been arrested, with surely many more to come.

I’m no huge fan of these kinds of protests. Too many, like the recent one for the G20 witnessed by Zurika in London, are incoherent at their best, violent at worst. That said, I am no less uncomfortable with the measures used to control them.

Loading 4,500 cops, armoured cars and reserve soldiers into a city of 250,000 is designed to intimidate the citizenry, not protect them. It is sending the message - before any protesters even arrive - that law-abiding people need to be afraid of dissent.

Emergency chemical decontamination unit on Place Gutenberg. Yeah, that's not supposed to be scary. Two days ago, there was a merry-go-round here.

The restriction put in place to enforce the red and orange zones have no basis in French law. Citizens living in the red zone have been told by police officers to remove anti-NATO flags from windows, so as to not offend visiting dignitaries. Heavily armoured police vehicles and riot police stake out protest sites before anyone even shows up.

This is not upholding the law – it is imposing order.

OK, you got what you came for. Now can I have my city back? (photo from

So why host a summit here anyway? As one cranky woman I overheard in our favourite take-out place pointed out, it would make much, much more sense if they hosted these events on a military base. However, as usual, Strasbourg was chosen as it is a “symbol” of post-war reconciliation, and can act as a pretty backdrop for the photo-ops, and a cliché the 6000 journalists can work into their stories. But how much of the city do the leaders see? Not very much at all: most Strasbourgeois are avoiding the city at all costs. Almost all of the businesses downtown are closed.

In fact, the waitress at our favourite café in the red zone (Christian, for those of my readers that have visited us) told us that the city authorities specifically asked them to stay open, just so that all the visitors wouldn’t think that Strasbourg was a ghost town. The differences between that and a Potemkin village are hard to see.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

In which I meet great-great-grandfather Bernard

The Strokestown Mansion

Back in Ireland – this is the last post on that country, and then I move on to Obama’s visit to Strasbourg, and France’s savage hamsters.

Our destination for St Patrick's Day (before that evening's festivities) was Strokestown, north of Roscommon. The out-of-the-way village was the seat of the Mahon family, whose head – Dennis Mahon – was one of the most infamous landlords during the years of the Irish Potato Famine; he was reviled for the thousands of evictions he ordered, and the shoddy “coffin ships” he chartered to take his former tenants to Canada. For these crimes, the story goes, he was assassinated by the members of an anti-British secret society in 1847. Because of his notoriety, the Irish government located the national Famine Museum on his former property. He also happened to have been my great-great-grandfather's landlord.

By the time Major Denis inherited the Strokestown estate property, years of mismanagement (by, among others, his lunatic uncle) had reduced the holdings to *only* 7,000 acres or so, which was deeply in debt. Remarkably, he had roughly 11,000 people - tenants and their families - living on his property.

Like everywhere else in Ireland, Mahon’s tenants were highly dependant on potatoes for their livelihood. In fact, on average, the Irish ate fourteen pounds of potatoes each every day. They had no choice – the country was so massively overpopulated that individual land plots were very small. The only food that was nutritious enough to support a family for a year that could be grown in such a compact space was the potato.

So, when the blight hit, famine was inevitable. In 1847 – the worst year – there were almost 100 percent crop failures across the land.

Anti-Irish propaganda

In Britain, where what meager relief efforts were organized, were done in a climate of ignorance and bigotry. The Irish, it was believed, were lazy, almost sub-human creatures, the blight their just desserts. Poster after poster in the museum showed images from British newspapers that depicted the Irish peasant as hideous, filthy, animal-like creatures, wallowing in muck with their pigs, living in bogs and squalor rather than try to better themselves. The British public were not inclined to exert themselves to help such creatures, who had probably brought this misery on their own heads. (Consistent with this attitude, Mahon’s Strokestown mansion was equipped with an underground tunnel that linked the stables to the servant’s wing of the main house, so that the Lord of the Manor need never have his eyes insulted by the sight of one of his Irish help. The kitchen came equipped with its own balustrade, from which the Lady of the House would drop the day’s menu to the floor below, so that she need never even speak, let alone share floor-space with, the bog hoppers in her employ).

The kitchen with balustrade above

For the anti-British secret societies – the Molly Maguires – of the day, Mahon was a symbol of heartless English exploitation. And so, one day in November 1847, as Mahon was returning from a meeting of the local Relief Committee, a man leapt out a ditch and shot him through the heart. Within minutes, the hillsides around Strokestown were alight with bonfires, celebrating the news.

Which brings me to Bernard Reynolds. He had been evicted months before Mahon was shot. But the killing ignited a propaganda war in the local press – according to the English Protestant press, he was an enlightened and kind landlord. For the Irish Catholics, he was the devil incarnate. The war of words raged in the papers, and in the pulpits.

One of the most powerful indictments against the dead Major was written by a local Bishop and published in a local newspaper. In heartrending detail he described the pain felt by those thrown from the only land they ever knew, to be bundled like so much cattle onto pestilent ships bound for a remote and frozen shore. To drive his point home, he published a list of every family that had been evicted from the Mahon lands, most of whom, he implied, had died in passage. It was duplicated as an enormous poster in the museum. And there, as the first name listing those evicted from the Cregga Township, was Bernard Reynolds – plus six.


I do not know where Bernard fits into this story. When Major Mahon was organizing his emigration scheme, he tried to encourage tenants of the “poorest and worst description” to leave, leaving more land in Ireland for “the better sort” of tenant. Many of those targeted for eviction were those who participated in the “rent strike” – a refusal to pay that actually predated the potato failure. Did Bernard refuse to capitulate even as his home was knocked down around him? Or was he, like many of his peers, forced by the Molly Maguires by threat of violence to participate in the strike? Or did he simply have no money?

I was surprised, at the end of my visit, to feel a certain fondness –or at least sympathy - for Bernard’s old nemesis. Major Dennis came to a poor end. His descendants didn’t fare much better – the final Mahon to live in Strokestown was reduced to closing off most of her mansion, living entirely in the drawing room amid tattered furniture, threadbare rugs, surrounded by cheap replicas of the artworks she had been forced to sell.

Bernard, meanwhile, did well in Canada. Miraculously, he and his entire family survived the cholera on the coffin ships. In Ontario, he eventually became a schoolteacher, and lived to see his children prosper in their new land. His grandson – my grandfather – managed to go on to university, an unimaginable achievement in mid-19th century Ireland. And one hundred and sixty two years later, his great-great-grandson would have the freedom to pop by his old haunts, on Ireland’s National Day of St Patrick’s, to see his name in his former landlord’s house.