Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Notre Dame and the apocryphal puppy

The Cathedral is so enormous, and I have so many things to say about it, that I am having a little difficulty in determining exactly how best to begin describing the highlights. I’m going to start with the outside, with the St Lawrence Door, so named for its proximity to the St Lawrence Chapel inside the building.

Notre Dame de Strasbourg (NDS) is, like almost all Cathedrals, shaped like a cross (†). The St Lawrence entrance in at the left-most (north) tip of the short arm – the façade with the main entrances are at the bottom, western end.

The entrance has a fairly impressive curved gothic portico, sheltering a statue depicting the martyrdom of St Lawrence* over the actual door. On the right side are statues of various saints.

It is the statues on the left that always grab my attention. It depicts the Three Kings/Wise Men/Magi of the Nativity story (along with one of their servants) presenting their gifts to the Baby Jesus, held by his mother. The statues are late gothic – you can tell because the faces are not particularly lifelike and the folds of the clothes appear rigid, rather than flowing.

I like it nonetheless because of the way Jesus is depicted: normally painters and sculptors of the era have the infant appear very solemn, often holding his hand up to bless onlookers. However, this artist chose to show him grabbing at his Mom’s robes, just as an actual baby would.

Everyone knows the story of the Three Kings – Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar – guided by a star, arrived in the manger to present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Newborn King. Now, I’ve always thought that a baby boy – Son of God or no – might appreciate the gold for its shininess, but perfume and embalming fluid were probably of zero interest to him. On the other hand, what little boy wouldn't want his own puppy?

I’m not absolutely certain why the sculptor decided to give Balthazar a canine friend, but I have it on reasonably good authority that the sculptor screwed up, and little Fido was originally supposed to be a Royal Foot. Or maybe the guy just really liked dogs.

* Incidentally, St Lawrence was martyed by being tied to a grill and set afire. Miraculously, the fires did not burn his flesh and he is supposed to have said to his tormentors at one point "Ok boys, I'm done on this side, you can turn me over now." Thinking I was being funny, I would always solemnly intone for guests "And today he is the Patron Saint of barbecues." Turns out I was half right: he's the patron saint of chefs.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Notre Dame de Strasbourg: A love story

This picture was my very first view of the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Strasbourg, roughly three years ago almost to the day. I hadn’t been aware that we were so close to it, so when I turned the corner to suddenly see it looming over me, it quite literally took my breath away. I remember being so startled by its overwhelming size, that I yelped, and staggered back a couple of steps. It was amazing.

I cannot express how lucky – blessed, even – I was to be able, less than a week later, to be able to sign the lease on the View of the Marching Fishes apartment, a.k.a the apartment of delight. The moment I saw that our front window had probably the best view in the city of what is arguably the most stunningly beautiful cathedrals in Europe, I was hooked, the four flights of stairs between the street and our door notwithstanding.

Over the next two years in that apartment, I came to know the Cathedral better and better, and learned that it has a real personality and character of its own. It shaped my life in real ways. I would awake each morning at 7:00, when the morning carillon would sound, and would time my phone calls home to avoid the dominating tolling of the 10:05 night-curfew bell. Lacking furniture or entertainment, our first nights in Strasbourg were spent watching the light and music show that plays on the Cathedral façade each summer. Since the sidewalk in front of our place was a popular vantage point for tourists, I am certain the top of my head is immortalized in hundreds of Japanese photo-albums.

I was never bored watching it – in fact, I had my parents send me my binoculars that I left in Canada so that I could better explore the intricacies of the façade from my apartment. Depending on the season, and time of day, Notre Dame could gleam, basking in its night illumination, or glow like a burning ember at sunset. Or, it could loom forbiddingly under grey skies, or tease mysteriously through the frequent Rhine valley fogs. It was entrancing.

Over the years I realized that while the Cathedral may be intimidating for it scale and accomplishment, it is far, far more than the sum of its dimensions. It is covered from its heaven-seeking head to centuries-old toe with carvings. These are the expression of generations of sculptors’ dedication – ornamenting nooks and crannies to high and out of the way to be seen by the naked eye, they glorify God, express the wealth and piety of the city of Strasbourg, and the pride of the artist in his accomplishment.

The Cathedral of Strasbourg speaks, communicating both with its bells but also its ancient stained glass and its carvings. It is wrapped in riddles that were clear as day for the medieval burghers for whom they were carved, but are frustratingly elusive to a secular-minded 21st century man. I’ve made it my mission, these past years, attempting to interpret it: every time I look at this building, I see something new, and I am surprised.

The messages are religious, by and large, but not entirely. The Cathedral is universal in its purpose, but resolutely Alsatian in character. As such, like Alsatians themselves, while it may seem cold and forbidding at first, it rewards effort. As you learn more, more is revealed. It speaks of beauty, and moral lessons, for sure, but also wonderment for the mere sake of wonderment.

And it is funny. There are jokes hidden throughout the massive church, and inexplicable extravagances designed merely to entertain and amuse visitors. I know that may be hard for those who remember fidgeting as children through seemingly endless, dry services, but this church manages the trick of being awe-inspiring, amusing, enthralling, and beautiful – a combination of traits I found previously only in Amynah.

This week, I am going to attempt to take you on the tour of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Strasbourg as I know it. I only hope I can capture, and share, some of what I love about it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Behold, the mighty kougelhopf, king of muffins.

One of the few non-pork non-alcohol derived specialities of Alsatian cuisine, the kougelhopf is the Godzilla of pastries. They’re typically enormous (about the size of a six year old’s head, for the cannibals in my audience) and made of a light, fluffy bread, typically bearing raisins, topped with almonds, and sprinkled with baking sugar.

They’re shaped more-or-less like a giant muffin, only with a rounded bottom and a crater on the top. Why this should be, I don’t know. They do sell “savoury” versions, which drop the raisins and almonds in favour of “lardons” (pork-bits) and onions.

Our as-yet unused Kougelhopf mould

I was originally going to post a recipe, along with a photographic record of Amynah and I attempting to make one in our brand-new kougelhopf mould, but we have so far failed to secure a recipe: a few of our friends have promised to ask their parents or grandparents for theirs, but then get unaccountably evasive when we try to follow up, shaking their heads with haunted looks in their eyes. It’s a serious business, and you don’t just give them away to any old Canadian with a blogspot account. We’d ask our local baker - who has won competitions for her creations - but we’re frankly afraid that if she did tell us, she would then have to kill us.

Post script: I recently went to the “Alsatian Innovation Fair,” showcasing the breakthrough technologies developed by local companies. Among the flying cars and laser-fabricated yo-yos was perhaps the most earth-shaking innovation of all: it was a kougelhopf mould but – get this – for really small kougelhopfs. I could scarcely credit the audacity.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Saint Billy's

This is Saint Guillaume (Saint William's) a church, first erected in 1300. I've never been inside, but I can tell you that the vaguely cubist appearance isn't just a result of my poor photography. The façade does not run perpendicular to the sides - which, if you look closely, forces the belfry into some odd geometric contortions to fit the roof. Apparently, the parishioners were so cheesed off with the architect over its appearance that they beat him, and took back half his fee.

Also notable - the church used to be near one of the city's old guard towers called the "Fisher's Tower." The weathervane on top (which is cut off in this photo, so you'll just have to take my word for it) is in the shape of an anchor, as a tribute to the church's river-going clientele.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dam you Strasbourg!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Rainbows and Ponies trail - or at least the Bruche Canal that runs alongside it - was built in order to transport the stone needed for the new fortifications the French built around Alsace after the annexation under Louis XIV. Louis's military engineer - a brilliant man named Sebastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban.

Those of you from Halifax know that the Citadel, like most forts of its era, is built in a modified star shape, with angled buttresses and a very low profile. That way enemy cannon could not get a direct shot at the ramparts, while your own guns were given overlapping fields of fire. Vauban was the man who pioneered this technique.

There's a small Vauban fort in Strasbourg (now a park) but his more notable contribution to the city is the Barrage Vauban. Essentially, it is a dam. If the city were attacked, defenders could blow the bridges to the old city of the Grand Ile, and release a the pent up waters of the Ill river in a flood, thus stymying invaders.

Today the dam is footbridge (though it's been closed for almost a year for renovations). When it was open it served as the Grand Finale of my city tour, as it offers the best view of the city (the header photo of the blog was taken from the viewing platform).

Holy Cow!

Inside is a little surreal. The chambers that used to hold the dam's gates and mechanisms are now occupied by the various statuary from Strasbourg's public buildings that are important enough to protect, but not notable enough to belong in a museum. So they sit, unexplained and neglected, watching rollerbladers zip by, getting crapped on by the pigeons that now make the dam their home.

Sam the Eagle has gone to a better place

Monday, June 22, 2009

Das Internationale

The tour continues:

I always take people by this school, not because I have anything intelligent to say about it, but because it looks pretty, what with the fairy-tale castle architecture. It was built as a school for girls in the 1880s during the Prussian occupation of Alsace. Today it's an "international" school, where the children of diplomats, foreign businessmen, and kids with dual citizenships get educated. According a former pupil I know, I am not alone in finding the hyper-fashionable students that hang around outside intimidatingly sophisticated: it has a reputation for being, as the French put it, "Un peu snob."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

All hail Vosegus Jesus, giver of Rainbows and Ponies!

Lock keeper's cottage on the Bruche Canal

One of the things I like to do with guests with the time and stamina is to rent some bikes and take them on the Rainbows and Ponies trail. The trail, which I've written about several times before, follows the Bruche Canal, which connects the Brushe river to the Ill, which flows in and around Strasbourg. Now used mainly for agricultural irrigation, the canal was originally built to transport stone for the new fortifications the French built around Strasbourg after they annexed the city in the 17th century.


Near the village of Avolsheim, where the trail turns south to Molsheim and Obernai, is an old chapel called the Dompeter. The Dompeter is supposedly the oldest church in Alsace, with foundations dating from the sixth century. One of the things that came up on Rafaël’s tour that I wrote about yesterday was the persistence of Celtic names and folklore in Alsace.
I’ve visited plenty of times before, but now armed with Rafaël’s information, I was able to spot a number of Celtic designs in the nominally Christian edifice.

Pagan carving over the doorway. Note the stylized Celtic knot.

Celtic heads keeping on eye on the proceedings inside the church

Celts aren’t the only population haunting Alsace. Later, on the way to Obernai, I passed what I thought was a disused railbed. As you can see by the photo below, those crossing it need to be alert to the passage of the ghost trains that still use the route.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

There's no place like heim: everything you wanted to know about Alsatian farmhouses but were afraid to ask

Swiss-influenced homes in Buswiller

One of the most striking features of Alsatian architecture is what I call the “half-timbered house” – I don’t know what the proper terminology for this style is. I think it is better known in the English speaking world as “Tudor-style” but that seems awfully Anglo-centric, so I don’t use it.

In any case, these houses are by far the dominant style of home in the villages of Alsace, especially on the Rhine plain. They’re a little less common in Strasbourg (with the exception of the Petit France neighbourhood, which I’ll get to later) whose generally wealthier residents opted for stone buildings after the 1700s.

I never thought too much about them until this Saturday, when one of Amynah’s colleagues took Amynah, myself and our two guests on a tour of his home region of Kochersberg. K-berg is a sub-region of France (there are many hundreds of them) just to the northwest of Strasbourg.

We arrived in Rafaël’s home village of Offenheim, where we enjoyed a light lunch of goat cheese, bread, cherries, and apple juice behind his family’s farmhouse. The house had been erected in 1788, and had a keystone over the door with the date inscribed. The bit on the stone where the family name had been was chipped off. Rafaël explained that this might have been due to the offending presence of a crown in the decorations, which became a dangerous choice of ornament the following year.

After the lunch, and a quick tour of the inside of Rafael’s house (which I desperately regret not snapping photos of) we set off on the tour of Kochersberg.

The downside of a roadside location: this chapel was all that remains of a village wiped off the map in the thirty years war

I can’t do justice to the tour – Rafaël is a knowledgeable and passionate guide, speaking with equal ease on linguistic, political, and architectural history. He covered more than I could possibly relate here, leading us through an scrambled alphabet of Alsatian villages: Quatzenheim, Nordheim, Duntzenheim, Zutzendorf and Buswiller, among others.

Those names reflect the different cultures that have had an impact on Alsatian culture: the “heim” suffix is derived from “home” in German, while “willer” comes from the Roman “villa.” Other names, like the “Kocher” in “Kochersberg” comes from the old Celtic languages. The mix leads to some odd combinations: “Berg” apparently means hill in Alsatian, while “Kocher” means hill in Celtic, making Rafaël’s region “Hill hill.” Stranger still, there were very few hills in evidence worthy of the name.

Another interesting fact Rafaël passed on was that during the Reformation, Alsatians organized themselves into Protestant and Catholic villages. The region’s large Jewish population generally chose to live in the Protestant villages, where they lived unmolested by the Inquisition, free to construct half-timbered synagogues for themselves.

House being refurbished in Quatzenheim: straw and clay filling visible. Finished product in the background

The Protestant villages generally ended up being wealthier than their Catholic counterparts, by grace of the French Revolution. When the revolutionary government in Paris nationalized Catholic Church property, and then sold it to raise funds, the Church forbade its members to buy. Protestant farmers suffered from no such prohibition, and were therefore free to enlarge their holdings.

Now, to the buildings themselves: Alsatian homes in Rafaël’s region were constructed around a large courtyard, with a gate at one end. Rafaël’s home had a large stable running along one side, a hay barn along another, a third barn next to the house on the third side. Additionally, they had a small distillery for making shnapps (Eau de vie – “water of life” – in French) from the fruits grown on their property.

The homes themselves were large, and designed for a multi-generation family. In fact, Rafaël lives with his parents and grandparents, among furniture that has been in the family since before Louis XVI parted company with his head. The structures are designed for flexibility – the beams and the clay-straw mix are easy to disassemble and rearrange. That way when a marriage created a new family unit, they could be accommodated under the same roof.

To the untutored eye, once Alsatian house looks much like another. But they were not merely homes to their inhabitants – they were expressions of their hopes, their fears, their beliefs and their personal idiosyncrasies. The pattern of the beams expressed different folk beliefs: at an angle was an appeal fertility, curved crosses prevented fire, diamond shapes warded off the evil eye. Beams were decorated with faces, ogres, flowers, or simply strands of wheat. Other houses carved the names of the owners into the beams.

The holy of holies

At one point in the tour, we were joined by Rafaël’s friend Daniel, and another man whose name I didn't catch. All three were passionate conservationists – Daniel owned three Alsatian homes that he was restoring. At one point, we stopped outside of a home formerly owned by a University of Strasbourg professor, who had been president of the local conservation society. The three men stood outside it, struck silent with a reverent awe, like a Beatles fan at the Abbey Road crosswalk, or a climber seeing Everest for the first time. The man had installed traditional windows, old-style tiles, and locally-made doors. But the home was not just an exercise in creating an impersonal, frozen relic: in the central beam on the façade, he had carved his and his wife’s name, together with their wedding date.

Buswiller prospect

Our final stop was Buswiller, a tiny hamlet just north of Kochersberg (in an area whose name translated as “bush land,” according to Rafaël). This village, away from the tourist routes and far enough away from Strasbourg to deter property re-developers, is apparently the best-preserved village of typical Alsatian architecture. As an added bonus, there were some rare Swiss-influenced homes on display as well – one of which had been on the market for over a year, much to Daniel’s disbelief. I mean, who wouldn't want to live in Buswiller?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We'll meet in Strasbourg

Map of medieval Strasbourg, from the Archives De Strasbourg

I only have forty-five more days left in France. In the three years we have lived here, we have entertained fifty (50!) visitors, with more to come. I have given my full city tour almost thirty times, and another dozen partial ones. Almost none of it has ended up here on the View of the Marching Fishes, because I didn’t want to spoil the sights and stories for my readers who might eventually end up visiting.

The last of that small population of reader/guests has departed (Goodbye Julie ! Adieu, Randal) and now I will start clearing the decks, so to speak, so that you may all experience the Strasbourg tour, if only virtually. The benefits are that your feet will undoubtedly be better rested, but you’ll miss the comic value of my waving arms adding pathos to my garbled French as I try to communicate with the locals.

Predictably, the first picture I took in Strasbourg was of the Cathedral, during the annual summer light show. Fortunately, my photography's improved a great deal since then.

For those of you who have endured the real thing, I apologize for the repetition, but there will certainly be things that I post in the next month or so that will be new to you all. Also, I hope the photos and blathering bring back some fond memories of your stays here. So, feel free to comment as I work through my nostalgia and sadness that I have to leave this wonderful place.

I am pretty sure I have far, far, more than forty-five things to write about, so posting here should increase dramatically in the next month – possibly even multiple times a day, if I can manage it amongst our preparations to leave and my attempts to earn my living through paid writing. So, stop by often, wallow with me.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lazy post

Too busy to write a proper post - we saw off one pair of guests this morning, and will be receiving another pair in about 45 minutes. The ones just departed were a delight: I've given my city-tour many, many times now, and I must say that there are not many people capable of making my umpteenth repetition of my various anecdotes fresh to me, simply by taking such enjoyment in listening. Here's hoping the next crew are as energizing (not to mention forgiving: I have to lock them in the guest bedroom as soon as they arrive so that I may do a phone interview). Fun!

In any case, here's some clever graffiti - after all, if you're going to vandalize, you might as well show some creativity, says I. The one above is from a massive mural in Marseilles, the one below a modified parking meter in the market town of Arles. For the uninitiated, "pute" is not at all a compliment in French.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Last of Provence. Probably.

It's a crazy work/entertaining guest week, so I will quickly zip-up the Provence posts with these two photos of the Mediterranean village of Cassis. The photo above was taken from the terrace of a beach-side restaurant. The photo below is of the fishing "barcas" in the harbour - I didn't think to get a picture of the monster-yacht anchored just offshore.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Pope vs Antipope: Mecha-pope's revenge!

The Palace of the Pope's in Avignon

Back to Provence…

The big attraction for me in Provence was the city of Avignon. Back in the day (1300s) Avignon was Pope City, as the Papal States being constantly at war and therefore too dangerous for the Bishop of Rome and his considerable treasure.

In those days, being Pope was more than funny hats and Papal Bulls – it was funny hats, Papal Bulls, and sending your army to crush your enemies. The Palace of the Popes is therefore not a refined dome stuffed to rafters with priceless artistic treasures. Instead, it is an enormous fort, designed to assert Papal suzerienty over the surrounding region, and holding off any attacks from ambitious neighbours.

Due to the inexplicable politics of the 14th century, in later years Avignon became the seat of possibly the coolest job title in history. The Antipope was a French-sponsored answer to Urban VI, who had been elected Pope in Rome.

You might think this was a chapel. It's the dining hall (funny angle due to security guard telling me I couldn't take photos

Pope and Antipope both believed utterly in their legitimacy and therefore excommunicated anyone who followed the other. As people followed whatever Pope their King told them to, and their Kings followed whoever was convenient, there was no particular theological reason for the schism. So for nearly four decades, all of Western Christiandom couldn’t be certain that it wasn’t condemned to hell by virtue of backing the wrong pontifical horse.

You might think this was a chapel, but it was actually a basement room where they kept the Papal auditors

The castle itself was a little bare – the French Revolution and several anti-clerical uprising stripped the formidable palace of its tapestries and gold. That didn’t stop the audioguide from supplying seemingly endless detail to aid us in imagining what it used to look like. Also helpful were items in the gift shop, which sold bathing items modeled on the Pontiff’s former bedchamber tiles.

Yep: Pope Soap.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Cool music

Every year the Strasbourg Orchestra holds an outdoor concert in the Jardin de deux rives, a park that straddles the French and German side of the Rhine River as it passes near the city. The event is designed to attract interest in classical music for a broader audience, and as such is designed to be easily digestible - short, familiar music with a liberal sprinkling of movie themes.

The crowd was fairly large at the start of the performance, and the setting sun shone over happy families picnicking on the grass. All was pleasant when the opening strains Enio Morricone’s theme from “The Incorruptibles” kicked off the proceedings, but by the time we reached the Chopin piece, it became very clear that the wind, and the plunging temperatures were having a detrimental effect on both the audience’s attention, and the orchestra’s abilities. Frozen fingers can not a nimble arpeggio make.

Surprisingly, I found the conditions actually aided my enjoyment of the music. Reaching into that reserve of dumb-animal stoicism that I used to draw on in order to shovel driveways in –30 blizzards, I managed to find a place of zen. Once I could no longer feel my extremities, there was only me and the sublime voice of Amel Brahim-Djelloul , and later, the surreal virtuosity of François Thuillier’s tuba (the first time I’d heard a tuba solo outside of the A&W theme. My mind was blown).

Remarkably, while several hundred members of the audience were pushed by the increasingly high winds back to the relative comfort of their cars, the vast majority (even those not unselfconscious enough, to cuddle up with the nearest Irishman for warmth) hang around for the grande finale - the “Star Wars” theme, complete with desultory fireworks.

As the weak applause for that quickly faded (the audience was quite literally sitting on its hands, and for good reason), the maestro demanded another round of handclapping: “It’s not many orchestras that would be able to continue to play under these conditions,” he rather smugly pointed out. So true. But then, it isn’t too many audiences that would stick it out either. And we didn’t benefit from the sitting under the floodlights.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Attack of the Killer Toddler

Butterflies and lavender. This was in the hotel parking lot. That's attention to detail.

I’ve always found it strange that so much mental effort is put into finding a hotel whenever planning a vacation. Surely, if you’re going to be sightseeing all day, it hardly matters if your room is decorated with local handicrafts: by the time you get home, you’ll be too tired to appreciate them anyway.

So when Yann starting sending Amynah and I web-site addresses for our hotel options, I must confess I wasn’t terribly motivated to make a choice: the hotels all looked equally attractive, and we weren’t planning on spending much time in them anyway.

As it is, we ended up booking two rooms at the Mas di Lioun, a family-run bed and breakfast in Chateaurenard, not far from Avignon.

We pulled into the old farmhouse at 2 o’clock in the morning. Julie, the proprietor had stayed awake until then to show us to our rooms. Amynah and I ended up on the upper floor, which had its own large veranda.

So far, so good. Morning was even better, as Julie presented us with a feast of croissants, pain au chocolat, fresh baguettes, along with delicious homemade yoghurt, preserves and buckets of strong coffee. She asked us about our plans for the day, recommended places to go, and told flattering stories about how wonderfully nice Canadians were. All this in a while songbirds serenaded us from the cherry orchard behind the inn. If this sounds unbelievably idyllic, it was – though, on the negative side, I did find it difficult to swallow my fresh-squeezed orange juice though my repeated sighs of contentment.

After stuffing ourselves, we headed off to explore Provence, starting with the Arles market at Julie’s recommendation. After a long day in the countryside, we returned to the inn for a short break before heading back out for a late dinner.

We had a pcnic near here. It features in a famous book in French literture called...ummm... hey look over there! butterflies!

This time, Julie’s children, a boy and a girl, were up and about. As Amynah and Félicie retired to our respective rooms to “freshen up” (i.e. “nap”) the boy, a five-year-old I’ll call Ben – approached the car where Yann and I were chatting with Julie.

Not at all shy, Ben threw the ball to me. I caught it, and threw it back. He threw it harder, and I tossed it, gently, back in his direction. Then he whipped it as hard as he could at my chest, off of which it bounced into the garden.

“Ha ha! You missed it!” he said in French.

Grumbling, I agreed. I then tossed it his way again – gently, to make sure he caught it. It landed short.

“You’re really maladroit,” he observed. This was getting embarrassing.

Soon, Yann joined us, and a game of – something – broke out. Ben explained that he was guarding an anthill. Yann and I were supposed to chase him, or guard the other end of the orchard, I’m not sure which. I didn’t quite understand the rules, and asked for clarification: “I don’t speak French very well,” I explained. Ben just gave me a look, as if to say “That’s not my problem” and ran off with the ball.

Soon Ben’s little sister – I’ll call her Laura – joined in the fun. She was 3 and a half, but about the same size as her brother, and equally adorable. Given that it was about 30 degrees, she decided to take off her shirt, which she hung onto as if it were a matador’s cape, even while gripping the ball in her other hand.

At some point, she had possession, and I made a feint in her direction, at which point she hissed at me and whipped her t-shirt in the general direction of my eyes. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a fierce expression on a human so small. Discretion being the better part of valour, I kept my distance from her after that.

At this point, Julie and her husband David called Yann and I over for some refreshments under the shade of the trees. We sat and chatted for about an hour, before realizing that neither of us had seen our lady-friends for quite some time. We roused them, and made our way to Avignon for dinner.

On the road into town, Félicie asked Amynah if there was anything out of order in our room. Not really, replied Amynah, but the bed hadn’t been made. It turned out that it hadn’t in Félicie’s room either. Additionally, the teacups they had used the night before were unwashed, and on the nightstand exactly where they’d been left.

Provençal home in Arles

Amynah and Félicie were both of a mind to complain when we got back. Yann and I, on the other hand, were inclined to let it go: “We played with their kids!” “They gave me a free beer!” we said, as our better halves rolled their eyes, indicating that they felt we’d been bought off for a Heineken and a “Finding Nemo” beachball.

That wasn’t entirely true; I feel sympathy for Bed and Breakfast owners. I can imagine how it must feel to be a professional host: people in your house all the time, expecting breakfast, needing fresh sheets and towels, making small talk over breakfast when you just want to read le Monde in peace, always requiring the same directions to the same local sights, always showing up in hordes at the same time that you want to take your own vacation and thus making you a prisoner in your home summer after summer. Julie’s policy – and we later discovered a sign in our room indicating that it was indeed policy - of having guests take the same attitude that they were staying with friends seemed like a decent compromise, and they held up their half of the sociability-bargain that this implied.

Besides, quite frankly, I was terrified that if we complained they’d turn Laura and her Red T-Shirt of Doom loose on us. And I wasn’t risking that for anything.

In all seriousness, the inn was incredible, and Julie, David and their children were amazingly good hosts, and delightful people. I can’t recommend the place enough.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Our friends also have a great sense of humour. Obviously.

A country road in Provence, almost as picturesque as that near Krautergersheim

Road trips are all about discovery. Discovery of new things – cities, countrysides, new foods and landscapes. But also of people – not least the people with whom you’re stuck in a car with for days on end.

So it was on our recent visit to Provence. Amynah and I had been invited by our friends Félicie and Yann, who knew and loved the region, and offered to show us around. Three days rolling around one of the most beautiful and sunny regions of France in a convertible with knowledgeable guides? Who could say no?

But the truth is, we were worried. A road trip is one of those friendship-testing experiences: will you all want to see the same things? Will you fight over who controls the CD player? Will some of you want to sleep in, while others get up at six? We’d hung out with Yann and Félicie several times here in Strasbourg, and we knew we liked them, but this was a major step forward in our relationship.

As it turned out, we learned much about each other.

Yann, just before taking a dip in the Mediterranean with his perfectly proportional noggin

(1) We learned that I compare everything I see in France to Alsace: Baux-de-Provence was “almost as pretty as Kaysersberg” the wine in Cassis was “slightly better than in Alsace” and the Cathedral in Marseille, while impressive, was “nowhere near as beautiful as Notre Dame de Strasbourg.” Félicie pointed out that if I was “more Alsatian than the Alsatians.” She’s from Moselle, so I’m not sure that’s a compliment.

(2) Yann and Félicie quickly learned that Amynah expresses affection for her friends by insulting them. At roughly the same time, we learned that (3) Yann is evidently sensitive about the size of his giant head.

(4) Strangest of all, we learned that Félicie, on arrival in a new city, cannot bring herself to exit the car without going the Ceremonial and Most Solemn Ritual of the Changing of the Pants. Given that we were visiting roughly three different towns each day, this meant that Félicie went through a lot of pants, much to the surprise and delight of a pair of older gentlemen who happened to stroll by our car in Marseille.

Amynah struggles to bite her tongue. Félicie, having changed from her market pants into her picnic pants, is ready to eat

Overall, it was an amazing trip, made all the moreso by our frequently pantless, large-headed friends. More detailed posts will come in the days to come….