Thursday, July 30, 2009

Au revoir.

Amynah's institute

Today is my final full day in Strasbourg. Tomorrow morning, Amynah and I will rise early, have an early breakfast at Christian, and then be driven to the airport to catch out flight to Paris, Rekjavik, and points beyond.

This is therefore my final post as Strasmark – well, at least my final post in which the Strasmark name makes any sense. “View of the marching fishes” never made any sense outside of my head. I intend to keep blogging – I’m sure Los Angeles will have plenty to offer in terms of stories, even if it isn’t quite as picturesque. Failing that, I’m sure the 9,000 km drive to get there will yield a tale or two, assuming I’ve not descending into gibbering madness by the end of it.

In the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time blogging about Strasbourg’s history and tourism highlights. Sometimes I've written about the people we’ve encountered here, but I think overall I’ve left the impression that our only social contact is with those who we have commercial dealings, and supplemented by friends we temporarily import from Canada.

When we first arrived in Strasbourg three years ago, we had almost no idea what we getting into. It was an adventure, and we romanticized what life would be life here; our expectations were unreasonably high. I didn’t really think I’d spend my days penning op-eds on the proceedings of the European Parliament while sipping a café au lait in a riverside terrace while sporting a beret, but… well, I kind of did.

Of course it didn’t work out that way.

The very first phone call I made in France, while in search of an apartment, ended with the woman on the other end telling me “to call back when I could speak French” and hanging up on me. I quickly realized that I was going to need far, far more language facility that I had on reserve to survive in this country.

Worse, I had expected that I’d be able to return to freelancing easily. Of course, after years of working in an office, I had become accustomed to having colleagues with whom I could take coffee breaks, bounce ideas off of, and occasionally socialize with. All of that was gone, and because we knew no one else in the city, I had no replacement.

The first six months – and beyond – were miserable. Going to the store to perform even the simplest errands required a 15-minute pep talk: what if I had to ask where the green peppers were? What if someone asked me the time? Slowly, I retreated within myself, avoiding the outdoors and dreading social contact. Amynah would come home in the evening, and I would talk her ear off non-stop about… well, who knows what the heck I had to talk about. Complaining about the accordionists, probably. But I had to talk to someone or lose my mind. She was foolish enough to marry me, so she had to put up with my blatherings.

I tried taking French lessons that the University of Strasbourg offered to foreign students and their spouses, but my fellow students were unapproachable, and the teacher not terribly pleasant or flexible: due to an early Hallowe’en-themed article I wrote that I mentioned in class, she was convinced that I was some sort of occultist. No amount of explanation could change her mind.

Just because I hang around graveyards taking pictures of haunted towers doesn't make me an occultist

In my more despairing moments, I felt like I had been sentenced to solitary confinement: the three years stretched out in front of me like a desert. I couldn’t wait until it was over: I hated France, I hated the incomprehensible French, and I loathed their needlessly opaque language that served as an impenetrable barrier between me and happiness.

Of course, things were better than they seemed. Even during those first few months, there were plenty of people that reached out to us. Amynah started in the lab at the same time as another post-doc who came to Strasbourg from Bordeaux via England. With Julie and her boyfriend Sebastien, we made our first forays into the countryside, and were introduced to French customs such as mushroom hunting, viewing duck as dinner, rather than pond decorations, and cheering on Les bleus “football” team at the Stade de Meinau.

Julie and Sebastien, on our first visit to Mont St Odile. Natasha was just a glimmer in their eye at this point

It was Sebastien who introduced me to his coworker Caner, the first of my language-exchange partners. The language exchanges proved to be fairly ineffective: Caner and I got on too well to bother correcting each other's language faults, and thus spent most of our “exchanges” speaking in whatever tongue was most effective for shooting the breeze.

There were others in Amynah’s labs who also made the effort to make us feel welcome – Audrey, one of the technicians, would always make a point of speaking to me, despite my near-total lack of French. Others invited us to dinners, movies, hiking and picnics, afternoons in her boss’s pool, voyages to pottery country, evenings of video-kareoke. But these were always “Amynah’s friends” – I was always welcome, but never quite au courant with the lab gossip and science talk.

It wasn’t until I signed up at the French course actually offered in Amynah’s lab that things truly opened up for me. The teacher, Danielle, was unbelievably welcoming. The day I met her was the day of her last class that semester: she accepted me as a student, and immediately invited Amynah and I to a housewarming party at her new flat across the Rhine.

Some of our friends here, from left: Guy who's name I don't remember, Qi, Sami, Chihiro, Hiroyasu, Amynah, Soraya, Mirna

It was through Danielle and her class that we tapped into another social network here in Strasbourg. Most of her students – some learning French, some learning English - were in the same boat as us, foreigners finding their feet in France. They came from the U.S., Argentina India, China, Japan, Spain, Finland, Syria, Lebanon and Hungary. Danielle, and her husband David adopted us all as their polyglot children: their house was a frequent meeting point for dinners, concerts in the park, and a launch pad for expeditions to the Germany’s Black Forest.

Danielle and David were great friends in their own right, but of course without them we never would have enjoyed Qi’s Chinese New Year’s dinners, or started my language exchanges with Mirna and Lama (both of whom, I am happy to say, are now considering post-docs in Canada).

Two of the sweetest people I know: Lama and Qi, queens of the mountain.

It was also through Danielle and David that had the opportunity to meet Sami the Finn with whom we enjoyed many disastrous outings into the countryside. And, without Sami, we would not have become friends with Belinda the Australian – not that Belinda was ever in need of anyone’s help in terms of making friends and settling in.

Once Danielle and David moved to England, we tried to fill their considerable shoes by welcoming newcomers like Belinda the way they had welcomed us, and so I made some ill-fated efforts to organize outings of internationals from Amynah’s institute into the surrounding countryside.

Finally, also through Danielle and David, Amynah and I have become good friends with Félicie and Yann, who have been so kind to us I can’t help but think there’s something wrong with them – surely we’re not so much fun that anyone would want to invite us on their weekend in Provence? My regular lunches with Félicie were a highlight of my week over this past year, and their relaxed good humour in all things - cleaning our apartment, last minute New Year's Dinners - made them a joy to hang out with.

Throughout it all, our friends and family kept coming for visits from Canada (and England, Germany, Ireland and the Congo). Because of them, I was motivated to get out into the country and explore - and as a side-effect, rarely felt homesick. Their patience with my grueling and didactic tour was appreciated: for a long time, knowing the city’s history was the only way that felt even somewhat at home here, and I appreciated the many opportunities I was given to show off my knowledge.

But as we prepare to leave, we’ve been shown an incredible amount of generosity from our friends here: dinners, gifts, even the occasional heartfelt note expressing sadness that we will be leaving. Almost everyone we know has offered to help with the considerable logistical difficulties involved in our move.

I’ve come a long way from the miserable, depressed hermit I was three years ago. Amynah’s lab, and For Amynah and I, the three years we have spent in Strasbourg have been the best time of our lives. There will always be a corner of our souls that will always be given over to this place, but it isn’t because of the bike trails and history.

The people we have met here are some of the best people we have ever known. I only regret that we did not spend more time with them all. I will miss them terribly.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Petit France: You feelin' lonely, sailor?

Tomorrow will be my last full day in Strasbourg. Our flight for Rekjavik leaves Friday morning – we arrive in Halifax on Monday.

So, the tour’s over for now. There was an awful lot that I wanted to blog about before leaving – why the Marechal de Saxe is buried in Strasbourg even though he had no connection to the city, the location of the most ghoulish playground I’ve ever seen, the reason why there are three churches named after St Peter within a mile of each other in Strasbourg, the reason why the Cathedral bell rings every night at 10:05 – but I simply don’t have the time.

So, as my final Strasbourg city tour post actually from the city (though I make no promises that it will be the last ever), I give you Petit France.

Petit France is a neighbourhood of historic Strasbourg, and is the second-most visited attraction here after the Cathedral. It’s chock-a-block with the half-timbered architecture that characterizes the villages of the countryside, most dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Their flower-laden profiles reflect in the waters of the many canals that run through the area.

The canals actually are the reason why the houses are still here, rather than being torn down in favour of the stone buildings that dominate the old town. These canals powered the mills and leatherworks that comprised the industry of old Strasbourg. However, these industries were distinctly smelly, and staffed by lower-class folk. The neighbourhood thus was avoided by the better class of people, who clustered together at the other end of the island, while Petit France was left to moulder: the landlords renting to the working class residents couldn't be bothered improve their properties. They were therefore saved from the wrecking ball.

So why the name? Petit France was so-called long before the French took possession of the city. It was, in fact, the German soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire that gave the neighbourhood its name. There was a hospital in the area, specifically there to treat those soldiers that had contracted syphilis - “The French Disease” – from the neighbourhood’s professional ladies.

And thus, Strasbourg’s most photographed neighbourhood is a former slum named after a venereal disease.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's not exactly Tim Horton's, I know.

The Christian salon, with the dessert shrine in the middle

When Amynah and I actually lived on View of Marching Fishes the closest patisserie was a place called Christian. We were assured that it was one of the best places in town to pick up a croissant and we quickly discovered that its petit pain au chocolat were the lightest, most satisfyingly chocolatly pastries we had ever had, ever.

After a month or two we realized that there was a corridor leading through a courtyard behind the pastry counter. It leads to a hidden courtyard, off of which is a spiral staircase leading to the upper floors.

We bring almost all of our visitors here, as the Christian tearoom is everything you would imagine a European salon to be – if it were the 18th century. The walls are covered with a deep purple velvet, set off by the similarly-hued chairs and tables, both of which are covered in supple leather.

The café has an excellent lunch menu, but Amynah and I prefer to go for breakfast, so that Amynah can take enjoy one of the twelve varieties of hot chocolate on the menu, and I can snarf down the dejeuner complet: two eggs, four slices of toast with homemade jam, a small kougelhopf, washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and a cappuccino.

The staff at Christian are professional and efficient, which is why we were disappointed, about a year ago, to encounter a new hire. While obviously trying hard, and very friendly, the new waitress was not familiar with the menu, had trouble remembering Amynah’s order, and made one of the worst cappuccinos I’d ever had in the place.

I was inclined to let it go, but Amynah is not one to suffer inconvenience easily. Much to her annoyance, it seemed that every time we went to Christian in the following months, we ended up with the same waitress. She adopted us as "her" customers, and made a point of stopping to chat, which only seemed to irritate Amynah more.

However, the novice proved to be a quick learner. Over time, her cappuccinos improved and she mastered the menu. Now she makes the best coffee in the joint and, amazingly, won over Amynah as well. She became "our" waitress, and now we’re disappointed when she’s not on shift when we arrive.

In any case, after each of the several ultrasounds we’ve enjoyed so far in France, we’ve popped by here. After the first, though I’d promised Amynah I’d keep word of our pregnancy secret until we’d cleared various other tests, I was too excited by my introduction to Mademoiselle Reynolds to keep my happiness contained, and thus ended up telling our waitress the good news: she therefore knew before either of my siblings, and most of my friends.

*While our regular was by far the most outgoing of Christian’s staff, we’d evidently made an impression on the rest as well: when we mentioned to one of the more long-serving staff that we were leaving France, she said “It will be a little strange not having you here.” Perhaps we enjoyed their pastries a little too often?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Storks bring babies. At least, that's what I'm telling ours.

The White Stork is a symbol of Alsace: the tourist shops here abound with stuffed versions, and four stone ones even made it onto the Cathedral. Though nearly extinct in the '70s, a major conservation effort has succeeded in rehabilitating the population, and now can be seen throughout the countryside, stalking farmer’s fields for food. They are considered to be good luck, and so it is fairly common to see round platforms built on top of houses and churches in the local villages to encourage them to build their nests atop ones home.

There are many legends and folk beliefs attached to the bird, not least that their association with fertility. As in North America, young children are often told by squeamish parents attempting to avoid the biological nitty-gritty that Ciconia ciconia was to blame for the sudden arrival of their baby brother or sister.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: we’re expecting a visit from the stork ourselves. Many (possibly all) of my readers have already been told through other means, but Amynah is pregnant, and expected to deliver on December 13. We had a major ultrasound today, which revealed that our child has the correct number and placement of limbs, digits, and eyes and appears to be in fine fettle overall. It also revealed that it will be a girl.

We’re obviously very happy about this, even while being a little stressed by the idea of moving to the far side of a distant continent just prior to the birth, but life is never predictable.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rohan Palace: Queen takes Bishop, Pawns take Queen

We’re getting into the final week here, so I’m back to trying to cram in the last few history posts before we leave.

When Louis XIV took over Strasbourg in 1681, he did so via negotiation, thus sparing everyone the inconvenience of a siege. The deal the Sun King and the city fathers struck allowed the residents to practice whatever faith they liked, but not in Notre Dame, which was returned to the Catholics. The city was allowed to continue to run its affairs as it pleased, via a city government made up of the representatives elected by the various guilds but the titular “head of state” – the Bishop – would be appointed by the king, and serve as his representative.

The first Bishop-Prince to fill this role was Armand-Gaston-Maximilien de Rohan-Soubise, reputedly the “natural” son of King Louis. Of course, as the representative of the King of France, he required a residence of appropriate elegance and splendor, and so the Palais Rohan was built.

It’s a Parisian-style palace, and the first major French-style building in the city. What I find remarkable about it is that, although it was built for a man who was at least nominally a church official, there was almost no concession to overt religiosity on the building. Other than depictions of Faith and Hope (or Hope and Charity? Whoever they are, neither is Chastity, as we will see) over the entrance, there’s nary an angel, crucifix or saint to be seen.

The last Bishop-Prince of Strasbourg was Louis Rene Édouard Rohan, a man in possession of the dangerous combination of ambition and stupidity. He took on the job in 1779, but he didn’t have much interest in being Bishop of a barbaric little outpost on the far edge of the Empire. He was much more interested in politics, and – much to his detriment – gossip. As Ambassador to Vienna he had alienated the Austrian royal family by streading scandalous rumours about the conduct of the Austrian Princess. Sadly for Rohan, he would later have to play host to that Princess as when she spent her first night in France as wife of Louis XVI – the room where Marie Antoinette slept is still preserved in the palace museum today.

Making an enemy of the Queen of France wasn’t a good career move at the time, and so Rohan set about trying to win a place in her esteem. To do this, he contacted his former mistress, Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois, who went by the name Comptesse de Lamotte, who was close to Marie Antoinette. The Comptesse delivered letters from the desperate Cardinal to the Queen, who – judging by her correspondence – was inclined to forgive the Cardinal.

Incredibly, the letters were such that the poor deluded Cardinal came to believe the Queen was in love with him, an impression not lessened by the Comptesse inviting him to Paris so as to arrange a meeting with “The Queen” – in fact a prostitute doing what must have been a heck of an impression – and the Cardinal, in which the Cardinal "gave her a rose." I've no idea if that's supposed to be a euphemism.

The Comptesse suggested that the Cardinal could clear up any doubts by doing the Queen a favour. When her wedding to Louis XVI had been announced, a syndicate of jewelers had tried to convince the king to buy as a wedding gift a fabulous and elaborate diamond necklace that had been commissioned for the previous king’s mistress, though never delivered on account of his death. Such was the workmanship that only the King would be able to afford it.

However, Marie Antoinette refused, on the grounds that it was far too expensive, and the money would be better spent equipping the Royal Navy. However, according to the Comptesse, the avaricious Marie-Antoinette secretly coveted the necklace, but was worried how the public would react to such an excessive purchase. And so the Cardinal – who was already lending the Comptesse huge sums of cash – arranged to pay 2,000,000 livres for the necklace on credit, on the understanding that the Marie Antoinette would pay him back. He then delivered the item to the Queen’s valet – actually the faux-Comptesse’s husband.

When the jewelers came looking for their payment, the whole fraud came out in the open. Cardinal Rohan was put on trial in 1785, as were the Lamottes and the prostitute. The Comptesse Lamotte was found guilty and sentenced to a whipping, branding, and imprisonment. The first two were never carried out, and she escaped from prison within a year.

The Cardinal was found to be innocent, which, along with Lamotte’s suspiciously easy escape, convinced the French public that their foreign Queen had engineered the whole episode to acquire the necklace, and embarrass her long-time enemy. Her already weak popularity plummeted, and the resentment against her and her husband’s rule would break out into the French Revolution four years later.

We all know how that ended for Marie-Antoinette. Rohan anti-Marie credentials stood him well in the early years of the Revolution, but he eventurall left for Germany, where he used his fortune to help priests fleeing the Terror. After her escape, the “Comptesse” moved to London, where she wrote her memoirs, blaming everything that had happened on the Queen's scheming. As for the necklace – supposedly it was broken up and sold.

As incredible as all of this sounds, I’m not making any of it up.

Friday, July 24, 2009

There's something about Marie

Restaurants in Strasbourg, from the outside, have a certain mysterious quality that make them seem really appealing. You walk by and inside you seem happy people, eating their meals, enjoying their wine, and just looking like they’re having the time of their lives.

When we first moved to Strasbourg, there was one particular restaurant in town that seemed particularly attractive: the golden tinted windows made it look warm and pleasant, and the fact that it was on the corner of two picturesquely narrow streets, behind the 18th century city hall, only added to the appeal.

We first visited “La Petit Mairie” (a pun on it’s proximity to the City Hall and the owner’s name) with one of the first of our many guests. It was clearly a genuine neighbourhood restaurant – a rare Winstub without Alsatian kitsch littering the walls to please the tourists. We were seated and ordered our food (mainly Alsatian food, with rotating daily specials of Continental cuisine). The food was very good, but what struck us in particular was the host. Marie greeted everyone who came in after us with a two-cheek kiss, made small talk with them, would stop by their tables repeatedly to chat, and – in some cases – was able to bring their order without them even looking at the menu.

“I feel like everyone here is a member of a club – and I want in,” I said to Amynah. She nodded agreement.

And so our project began: we brought almost every guest we had to Marie’s restaurant. Soon, she began to recognize us, and so we earned the two-cheek kiss greeting. Within a few visits, she would remember that I would always order a tarte flambée to share with our guests, that Amynah really likes their fish specials, and how Amynah likes her steak.

Our plan worked: we were in. And what a payoff we’d have.


A couple of weeks ago, I popped by to take photos of the place for a magazine article I was writing. Amynah was with me, and Marie spotted us out on the street. Knowing that we were leaving, she assumed we were taking souvenir photos (which was my other motivation). She came out, and insisted that we come by to dine chez elle one last time.

Last night, we took her up on her invitation. And it was perfect. We were received like royalty: For Amynah’s benefit, Marie made us a tarte flambée with a section of mushrooms, instead of lardons, which arrived with a beer for me and fruit juice for Amynah. This was followed by salmon for Amynah, and the specialty of the house - Jarret en miel (hunk of pig in a honey sauce) – for me, along with a generous glass of Reisling.

As we dined, Marie repeatedly stopped by our table, asking about our plans for California, talking about her plans to add an outdoor terrace to the restaurant and her upcoming vacation. All around, I could see the other customers wondering why we were getting so much attention.

Finally, Amynah was presented with a Dame Blanche with an extra scoop of chocolate sauce for dessert, and a digestif for me.

Bellies straining after two hours of such excess, we were done, and reluctantly prepared to leave. I asked Marie for the bill: “Non,” she said, firmly. “It is my gift to you. But please, send me a card from wherever you end up.”

It was like the realization of a dream I didn’t even know I'd had.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Cranky Baker

More-or-less across the street from our apartment is a bakery, renowned for having the Strasbourg's best kougelhopfs (an Alsatian pastry I wrote about here). It's our go-to place for bread.

This is not the Cranky Baker, who is on vacation. I don't have an affectionate nickname for this girl. She's very nice though.

We are usually served by a woman we dubbed "the cranky baker." It wasn't very nice of us, as she was always very polite. However, for at least for the first 6 months we went there, she never once cracked a smile. She would rush through our order with a grim efficiency that I interpreted as saying that she did not like her job, did not like bakeries, and did not feel inclined to like us or any of her other customers.

We should not have judged so quickly.

Gentle soul that I am, I was usually inclined to buy my bread and exit the store as quickly as I could, as seemed to be the lady's clear preference. Amynah, being made of sterner stuff, is not a force to be intimidated by mere hostility. She therefore resolved to crack this woman's reserve. She began her attack with little steps: a "comment ça va?" here and there, a remark on the weather, a little compliment on how much she likes the "petit pains."

The war was over before it began. Remarkably quickly, the Cranky Baker warmed up to us - it was as if she'd only been waiting for someone to give her a reason to chat. She'd greet us as we came in, or note if we were earlier or later than usual. And soon, even, she began to smile – and a wonderful, transformative smile it was, setting her face alight.

In any case, a couple of weeks I went in to get a loaf of fresh bread to defile for my peanut-butter and banana sandwiches. While there, I mentioned that we had bought a kougelhopf mould, and asked if it were possible to get their recipe so we could continue to enjoy their specialty in California. The cranky baker immediately went to the shop window and returned with an entire book of recipes for me, pointing out the page where their recipe was: "It's usually 8 Euros, but please, take it as a gift."

Obviously, we can’t call her the Cranky Baker anymore. But the Friendly Baker just doesn't have the same ring.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Walnuts in the Brumath forest: I have no idea why these were there. I can't be held accountable for every darn thing that appears on this blog.

As I will soon be moving to a city where the car is king, I have been plotting for some time my farewell bike ride in Alsace. The weather here has been unreliable of late – each day for the past few weeks we’ve been blessed with a rolling sequence of five minute-bursts of pretty much every weather the universe has to offer – rain, lightning, hail, dust storms, tornados, plagues of locusts, windstorms and meteor showers. Oh yeah, and a weekly glimpse of sun, if the sadistic pagan gods who hold sway over our skies are feeling benevolent.

Yesterday, however, was clear, and forecast to remain so for the whole day. So, ignoring the slightly overstuffed feeling from the previous night’s Argentian empanada extravaganza, I hopped on my bike and set off, bright and early (well, after spending an hour to fail to find my maps and bike tools, and choking down my breakfast. I actually hit the road at 11:30).

My goal was to bike along the Rhine-Marne canal that connects Strasbourg to the town of Saverne, 55 kilomters away. Once there, I was going to hang a left, push my way past a hill or two in the Vosges, and connect to the old railway line that used to connect Saverne and Molshiem. Once there, I’d turn left again, and follow the Rainbows and Ponies Trail* back to Strasbourg. Total distance covered was supposed to be roughly 100 km.

It didn’t work out that way.

I’d ridden the Rainbows and Ponies several times recently, so I decided to take the Marne-Rhine canal. At first, it was glorious. I’d packed water and a decent lunch, and as it was a weekday, there was almost no one else on the path.

Even better, for a long stretch the canal passed through the Brumath forest, thus keeping me nice and cool (incidentally, I stopped for lunch at a platform that looked over he canal, part of the trail network through the forest. There I learned that Brumath was the Roman capital of the Alsatian region, under the nom de empire Brocamagus. I also learned that the Marne-Rhine Canal used to carry over 1,000,000 tonnes of shipping each year. Now it’s 60,000, not counting pleasure boats). And they used to have a bridge - it went all the way to the other side of the water! For real!

Pleasure boat on the canal, tragically unaware that there used to be a bridge on this very spot.

Sadly, the forest couldn’t last forever. By the time I passed through it, it was after 2 o’clock. I emerged into a fiery cauldron: the forecast high had been 29 degrees, Amynah tells me she thinks it hit 34, but I can say with some confidence that it was at least 7,000 degrees (12,000 Fahrenheit).

Though I didn't really perceive the heat on my bike, strange things started happening to me. Even though the wind had been against me all day, I'd managed to keep up a decent clip. As it dropped in force, I should have found it easier to keep my pace, but in fact my speed inexplicably dropped as well, and my legs were constantly on the verge of cramping. Nonetheless, I pushed on.

I made it to Saverne at around 3:00, and made a beeline for the grocery store, where I bought some more water. I then popped into the tourist office to pick up some maps. However, no matter which way I held them, I could not make any sense of the squiggles they contained. Plus, I was starting to feel nauseous.

The Rohan Palace in Saverne. According to sign outside, they wanted my blood. At this point, all I had was a sachet of reddish dust to offer

Disregarding my sudden cartographic aphasia, I pushed on. The section between Saverne and the dedicated bike trail went through several tiny villages. The bike route isn’t very well mapped, so riders have to know which village comes next on their itinerary, in order to follow the route.

As I pushed up the first hill leading out of Saverne, I knew I was heading to Otterswiller. But what came after that? I stopped, and pulled out the map. “Gottenhouse” – ok. I hopped on the bike, my head pounding, and pedaled fifty meters. Wait a minute… what was I looking for again? It started with a “G” – Geroldseck? I stopped, and pulled out the map: “Gottenhouse” – got it. Gottenhouse… Gottenhouse… pedal… damn it’s hot… I hope this is the biggest hill. Where’s the turn off to… what’s the name of the village again? I stopped, pulled out the map again: “Gottenhouse.” Right. I’ll grab some water while I’m stopped…. Ahhh, that’s good. Should have bought another bottle. Put it away, and off we go to… wait… where am I going? “Goldilocks?” All right… check the map…

I did eventually make it through Otterswiller, and then Gottenhouse. But on the first hill out of Gottenhouse, it hit me: I was going to be sick. Not immediately, but I was only able to go 8 km/h up a hill I’d normally be doing at twice that speed. Not to mention, if I was going to have to check the map every minute to remind myself where I was heading, something was probably not quite right.

Black and White and Red all over: me, as I turned back. I don't know how well you can tell in this photo, but I'm horribly sunburned

So, I did one of the few sensible things I’ve ever done on one of these bike rides – I turned back to Saverne, which was now 5 kilometers behind me. I rolled into the train station, bought a ticket to Strasbourg, and staked the spot on the platform on which I intended to expire. While I'm obviously disappointed that I didn't fulfill my ambition, I believe I did manage to accomplish some good: I think I heard a mother waiting on the platform tell her children who were gawking at my radioactive carcass: “That’s why you should always where sunscreen. You don’t want to grow up to look like that man, do you?”

* Strangely, someone recently landed on this blog using "Rainbows and Ponies Trail Alsace" as a search term. Word's getting out!

Monday, July 20, 2009

To market, to market

Every Saturday, Amynah and I head over to the farmer’s market in the shadow of the 18th century palace built for Strasbourg’s Bishop-Prince (a story I hope I’ll have time to tell before I leave).

The market is fairly small, as these things go. There’s about two-dozen stands, most of which are staffed by the very farmers that grew the merchandise on display. Everything for sale is grown or made locally, and so we tend to eat whatever is in season: if strawberries aren't in season, no one here is importing them from Chile. And once they're out, they're out: my apple juice vendors have no storeroom in back from which to get more bottles. When they run out, there won't be more until September, when the next crop comes in.

It was in this market where we first realized that we had become, if not native Strasbourgeoise, at least a regular part of the city. The merchants here became so accustomed to our weekly visits, that they would notice, and comment, if we came in earlier or later than usual - we were as much a part of their routine as they were of ours. It made us really feel at home.

Over the course of three years, we’ve developed our favourites, though our preferences aren’t always rational. For instance, I always buy my home-made apple juice from The Apple Juice Ladies who run the smallest stall in the market, spurning the guy who sells nearly identical juice from a much larger stall behind them. Why? Because the guy behind them once had the temerity to address us in English, having assumed I was a tourist. We were so offended we never patronised his stand again. By contrast, The Apple Juice Ladies know I’m a local, and so always ask me to “please think to return the bottles” on my next visit, so they can re-use them. When I told them this Saturday was going to me my next-to-last visit, they gave me a complimentary pomme.

Not everyone is so friendly: Amynah has always bought most of her vegetables from “The Potato Guy.” He’s not one for social pleasantries: while other merchants were at least recognizing us after six months, The Potato Guy didn’t start acknowledging us as regulars until late last year – even that concession is but a subtle flicker in his eye, as he never says anything beyond the bare minimum required for any given transaction. Though damn, he knows his potatoes: Amynah always takes care to tell him what she’s planning on cooking when asking for her tubers, so that he can select a batch of the appropriate firmness.

Amynah’s first stop at the market is always the “Egg Lady.” The Egg Lady sells plenty of berries as well, and Amynah will always buy one basket of berries from her, and another sized basket from a different merchant, in order to get the total amount she wants. This is one of the friendliest merchants in the market, and Amynah likes her enough that she actually made Christmas cookies to give to her in December. On the other hand, although the Egg Lady also sells flowers, we never buy her blossoms because….

…we always go to the Flower Guys (the younger of whom is on vacation, and thus not in the photo). We don’t actually know the relationship between the Flower Guys. They look kind of the same, so I think they’re brothers, but Amynah thought they were just business partners.

At least one of them is married, so they’re not the other kind of partner. Not that there was any doubt about their inclinations anyway: the Flower Guys are serious ladies men, or at least they are with Amynah. They always greet her with an unusually enthusiastic two-cheek kiss (bidding me to look the other way – jokingly, I think) and dismissing me with a quick handsake. Amynah only ever buys a bouquet worth less than 5 Euros from them, but they always throw in several extra blooms, sans charge.

After I took this photo, Flower Guy insisted on giving us his address, so that we could send him postcards from California.

And now, a word from our sponsors

Amynah and I have only eleven more days here in Strasbourg, which is deeply sad, but also incredibly stressful. As some/most of you already know, we’re coming back to Canada (via Iceland) in August. Over August, I will drive from Halifax to Los Angeles via Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. That’s about 9,000 kilometers.

Stress number one: We need health insurance for that month. None of the three countries involved will cover us. As far a Canada’s concerned, we might as well be French. As far as the French are concerned, we might as well have lived in Canada – although the nice lady at the local social insurance office told me that I could be reimbursed for our drugs for a month. Considering that my fancy prescription headache pills cost me 28 cents a pack here, that’s probably worth the paperwork.

With some difficulty, I managed to find us coverage that will tide us over in Canada and the U.S. until Amynah’s work insurance kicks in, but it’s limited. I’ll just have to drive 50 km/h the whole way, just to be safe.

Stress number 2: The documents we need for our visas have only just been processed by Amynah's new employer. We were supposed to go to the U.S. embassy in Paris to finish up our application, but now it’s too late, so we will have to somehow arrange an appointment on the fly at one of the American consulates while we’re on the road in Canada. Good times!

Otherwise, we’re going through a similar process to what we had to do when we left: throwing stuff out, deciding what clothes we will be wearing for all of August and shipping the rest, attempting to sell that which we cannot ship. Purging is good for the soul, sure, but I would rather like to have things that I plan to keep at some point in my life.

Finally, we’re disengaging from France itself: bidding adieu and settling our bills with the tax folk, our bank, the local “prefecture” and the utility companies.

That’s not even to start on the people to whom we’re saying goodbye: many of our evenings of late have been occupied by farewell dinners with our friends and colleagues, and there will be many more to come. So far, so much like Montreal – except when we left Montreal, we vaguely expected to move back.

Unlike in Montreal, we’ve been having to say surprisingly moving goodbyes to other people around the city: “our” waitress at “our” café, the merchants at the farmer’s market, and our local baker among them. I’m going to write about some of these people over the next week, if only because I sense that while I’ve been enjoying the past four weeks of unbroken history lecturing, my blog statistics tell me you’re all a little less keen.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It'll cure what ails ya: the Cave de Hospices de Strasbourg

The day I learned that Strasbourg’s Civic Hospital employed its own sommelier, I knew I had to visit. It was just so quintessentially French - where else but here would a medical institution employ a full-time wine expert?

Strasbourg’s main hospital was founded in 1395, and now occupies a campus with dozens of buildings that date from the Middle Ages to the most recent, completed in 2007. The oldest complete structure dates from 1537, and serves as the hospital pharmacy, which should silence Canadians accustomed to complaining about how outdated our medical infrastructure is. I used to joke, as I led visitors onto the hospital’s huge campus by the Porte d’Hopital, that the hospital has built up considerable facility in its historic strengths – being in possession of a state of the art eucrasia scanner. I also understand their bloodletting department is second to none.

It is in the oldest part of the hospital where my wine-expert question would be answered. The building that used to be the main hospital dates from the 1700s – the original was destroyed in a fire. But the basement underneath is the 14th century original. It’s accessible from an outdoor staircase, which leads into a store that sells wines from all over France, including several varieties branded with the hospital’s own label (example of their cremant in the photo above, and yes, I scattered rose-petals around it for this picture).

OK, so there’s a wine-store in the hospital. Strange. But it gets stranger. The Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg came into existence at around the same time as the hospital itself. The fourteenth century was not entirely a cash economy, and so peasants and farmers would pay the doctors that ran the place in whatever in goods they had, thus leaving the hospital richly stocked in the local specialties of pig, wheat and wine. In addition, as the hospital was run by the church, eventually it came into possession of a lot of land in Alsace, including several vineyards. Visitors who go to the back of the store can push through what appears to be a storage area. But past the old boxes, and you come into this:

The hospital cellar, fortunately, proved to be ideal for aging wine – it is always 17-18 degrees Celsius, no matter the temperature outside. They don’t make their own these days – the barrels in the cave are aging wines from Alsatian vintners chosen by a select committee of local oenophiles, which meets once a year.

It wasn’t uncommon for hospitals of this vintage in France to own their own cellar, but Strasbourg is the only still-functioning hospital in the country – and probably the world – where the wine is aged in the hospital itself, rather than off-site. This accounts for the site’s obscurity – as a public facility, they aren’t allowed to advertise their wares.

The hospital can claim another superlative: the oldest wine in France, which is also the oldest barrel-aged wine in the world. It dates from 1472, and has been opened only three times: the first in 1574, when the city was rescued from barbarian assault by the city of Zurich. The next was in the 1700s, to lay the cornerstone of the replacement of the original building over the cave, which had burned down. The tap would remain closed for another 200 years, until 1944, when a celebratory glass was poured for General LeClerc after the liberation of the city from the Nazis.

The 1472 wine is second from the left. It had been in the big central barrel until the Swiss got at it.

If you happen to be accompanied by a charming Canadian, who also happens to be a friend-of-a-friend of Christophe, one of the Cave’s employees, you may be in for a special treat. If Christophe is not too occupied, he can sometimes be convinced to open the gate and remove the plug atop the barrel that contains the wine, which visitors can then smell. After 500 years the wine is barely potable – the oak barrel and centuries of evaporation have left the wine extremely acidic and strong smelling. In 2001, the French State did a chemical analysis of it (yes, there is a government office responsible fro such things), comparing it to a modern Riesling. The old stuff didn’t hold up well. My last guest thought it smelled like rum.

The Cave has a small display in the back of dedicated to the winemaker’s craft: an old press shares space with giant, ornately-carved barrels. The largest of these was designed to hold 26,000 liters of wine. Which is a good start.

But it behind this area where we return to the building’s original function: on the other side of the wall was a hidden room, accessible only through a concealed gap in the wall. This was the hospital’s dissection chamber.

In the Middle Ages it was taboo to dissect human bodies: Catholic belief held that the elect would be raised bodily on Judgement Day, so it was a crime to desecrate a corpse. But the doctors needed to learn, and teach their apprentices. And so, the formed a secret society: by bribing Strasbourg’s assorted executioners, torturers and prison wardens, they assured themselves of a supply of bodies that would not be buried in consecrated ground (and presumably gaining considerable expertise in the pathology of drowning in the process). Under cover of darkness, they would smuggle their specimens into the hospital, and then into the dissection chamber, where they would conduct their experiments in the damp, torch-lit gloom. After the Reformation the rules governing these practices were relaxed, and an above ground anatomy theatre was added to the hospital: its rounded shape and large windows give it the appearance of a chapel (as seen in the previous post’s photo. A skull and femur excavated from this area are on display next to a murky bottle of the 1472 wine.

But wait! There’s more! The world’s oldest wine and a secret society of grave-robbers is not all the Super Secret Location has to offer. Indeed, there is a Secret Location within the Super Secret Location!

The very first time I visited this place with my friend Jon, I paused to try to decipher one of the explanatory signs littering the place. My French was awful at the time, so I only got as far as “Le souterrain medieval” which seemed a little obvious, given that I was already in a basement dating from the 1300s. A grizzled old guy stacking boxes spotted me, and said, “Go on in!” and flipped a light switch next to me.

Suddenly visible in the shadows in front of me was a doorway. I hadn’t realized, but in fact I had been standing at the entrance to an underground tunnel. As I mentioned in the previous post, the city walls ran by the hospital. For those frequent occasions when the city was besieged, they needed a way to get men and material in and out of the city without the enemy spotting them. So they made themselves an escape hatch, burrowing under the wall from the hospital basement.

Today it doesn’t go anywhere – it’s sealed off after forty meters, so I’ve no idea where it reached the surface. I don’t know how much use the Medieval Strasbourgeois got out of it, but it did come in handy in 1944 when the city was being bombed by Allied forces: apparently, lacking proper bomb shelters, doctors moved their patients here, using it as a dimly lit, dripping, mold-ridden operating theatre.

And here, as a reward for sticking with me this long, I present to you a video of me in full tour-fascist mode, showing my friends Tim and Joçelyn the tunnel, extracting a promise from them to keep it a secret from our mutual friends. Mock away!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ye Olde Teaser Poste

Prelude: This tower – the “Porte de Hôpital” - is the last remaining tower-gates of Strasbourg’s medieval city walls. It one of the last vestiges of the city wall that looped south of the historic Grand Ile. It is, as you would expect, next to the city’s sprawling hospital campus. That building next it that looks like a chapel? Totally not a chapel, dude.

Dear Readers,

Since October 2006, I have refrained from blogging much about the city’s more notable sights, as I did not want to ruin the surprise and delight of Strasbourg’s many interesting facets for that segment of my readership that was planning on visiting me. As far as I can tell from my blog statisitics, that amounts to exactly two people, but better safe than sorry, says I. I only started blogging about the city recently as there was no reasonable way I could get everything in between our last guest departing and our departure day (16 days away now).

In any case, the very last of our guests left last night (see ya, Mark!). In all, we had 54 visitors come to Strasbourg (not counting repeats, which brings it to 59 by my count) to see us in the 37 months we’ve been here. Roughly 50 of those stayed with us. I gave my city tour, or variations thereof, at least 28 times (not including several partial tours).

Much of what is on my tour is no surprise, even to the least-informed of visitors: everyone is at least dimly aware that Strasbourg has a beautiful cathedral, and minimal web-surfing will introduce people to the Petit France district (which I haven’t written about yet).

But there’s no point in visiting a city where you know a local if they aren’t able to show you something special, obscure, and off the beaten track. I have such a place on my tour, and it is a doozy. I call it the Super Secret Location.

I made each of my 54 guests a solemn promise: they were not to tell anyone - anyone - about the Super Secret Location once they left Strasbourg, and to discuss it only with other initiates. I have only hinted at its existence here on the View of the Marching Fishes. I am proud to say that I have introduced this place to native Alsatians that have lived in Strasbourg for most of their lives. They were amazed that they had not known of its existence, and entranced at the place itself. I wanted my future visitors, and now you – my beloved and allergic-to-the-comment-box readership – to share in that delight.

In my next post, I am going to describe the Super Secret Location. It’s a major step for me – with it, and Notre Dame out of the way, my favourite city sites will have been dispensed with, blog-wise (though trust me - I'm not done with this town yet). I’ve been saving this one for a long time, so it’s a little sad to finally post it – another sign that my time in Strasbourg is relentlessly pushing ever-closer to its end.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Le jour de gloire est arrivé (updated)

Place Broglie, Opera House at the far end. If you squint, you can just make out the tri-colour banners decorating it

Today's the Fête Nationale here in France, and so, a thematic post for you.

Strasbourg was, like so many European cities, originally founded by the Romans. What is today Place Broglie was just on the outskirts of the Roman settlement. In the Middle Ages, when Strasbourg was a Free City of the Holy Roman Empire, it was a tournament grounds, where men insecure in their medieval masculinity could bash the living crap out of each other with swords and maces for the public’s enjoyment.*

When the French took over, they used the available real-estate to build themselves somewhere to house the fonctionaires they sent east from Paris to run their new possessions. Therefore, the prefect’s mansion, the officer’s mess, and the new City Hall all sprung up around Place Broglie, which was now anchored by an Opera House for the French aristocrats’ entertainment.

Today, Place Broglie’s more a place to pass through on your way to other parts of the city than the center of urban life it once was. But in 1792, it became the apex of the spirit of the French Revolution.

Not because Strasbourg was particularly hard hit by revolutionary fervour. Though the Hotel de Ville was sacked by a mob only five days after the Bastille was stormed in Paris, and the Republican governor of Alsace imposed some 30 death sentences during his tenure, Strasbourg’s not a revolutionary sort of place. That the entire population was forced to donate their overcoats to the Republican Army by Louis de St-Just, a.k.a. “The Angel of Death” probably did much to cool their ardor.

It turns out you can fight city hall

However, it was Strasbourg’s position as a border city that led to its unique role in the history of the French Revolution. France was at war with most of the monarchies of Europe, not least the German states to the immediate East. An army engineer, by the name of Rouget de Lisle, was asked by Frédéric de Dietrich, Strasbourg’s then-mayor, to compose a song to rally the troops: “The Marching Song of the Rhine” was composed that night, and performed for the first time on Place Broglie the next day.

It was an instant hit, being adopted, most famously, by the Marseillaise sanscoulottes that marched on Paris. Through that association, the song became known as “La Marseillaise” and is now, of course, the French national anthem.

Statue commemorating the composition of the Hymn Nationale: Allons enfants de la patrie!

Of course, Rouget de Lisle was not too impressed by the Revolution, and was drummed out of the army and into prison, on suspicion of Royalist sympathies. Frédéric de Dietrich, who commissioned the song, fared even worse. Despite his talent spotting, he ran afoul of Robespierre and his fellow Terror-crats in Paris. He was induced by grace of the guillotine to bid au revoir to his head the following year.

Next: I have no idea! Any requests?

Incidentally, I just read up on the lyrics to the French national anthem: the chorus is roughly - "Form your battalions! Their dirty blood will water our fields!" Which is a whole heck of a lot more active than Canada's "We'll stand on guard for thee," which would have been followed by the line "Though we can't imagine against who" if the composer hadn't run out of notes.

* My friend David left a interesting comment on this post that deserves publication here: Curiously, the tournaments that you mention in connection with Place Broglie, were a great way for younger (and therefore ultimately disinherited) sons of noble families to make a living without actually working (which would have been to be 'de-classed'): a victor kept his defeated adversary's horse and armour. Tournaments were held in different market towns and cities around the kingdom and the arrival of these travelling horsemen, or knights errant (the reality had nothing to do with rescuing damsels in distress or killing dragons), heralded a bad time for local farmers or shopkeepers: these guys drank far too much and liked to get boisterous in their amusements. In fact, they were such pests that in England, where the middle class established itself as a powerful force much earlier than in France, the French King (Henry II at the time) banned jousting. So instead the English sprigs of the nobility would have to travel to France for their jousts, since France kept the nobles far more securely in power for far longer, allowing them to trample joyfully over everyone else - no small contributing factor to the excesses of the revolution.

Jumping off a pont

Though I am far from completely comfortable in French, there are many words and phrases that I’ve picked up here that have infiltrated my English, as they are simply better, or more evocative than their English equivalents. Today, as I was out this morning taking photos for tomorrow’s post, another occurred to me.

Even though it was 9:00 AM on a Monday morning, the city was absolutely dead. This is because of a delightful French tradition called “le pont.” Tomorrow, of course, is La fête nationale, a.k.a. the Bastille Day holiday. As it is on a Tuesday, many French take Monday as a “bridge” (pont) between the weekend, thus creating a four week holiday.

The practice isn’t unheard of elsewhere, but France is the first place I encountered that has a special word for it (though I’m told Spaniards use the word “aqueduct” – with its multiple arches - for when one takes, say, a Wednesday, has a holiday on Thursday, then the last span of Friday vaulting one to the weekend.

The “pont” is not just for slackers, either. I’ve a friend who works for a company that makes laser-fabricated yo-yos here in Strasbourg (don’t ask). He is required to take the pont, even though it isn’t an official holiday.

I haven't abandoned the tour! The photo above isn't intended as a insult to the French: it's tucked into a high alcove on a building on Rue de l'Epine. Apparently, young maidens desiring a husband would rub it for luck. I like how they even painted the reeds of a little marsh behind it, to make it feel at home.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Notre Dame: You lookin' at me buddy?

As a general rule, the interior structure of NDS is not nearly so elaborately carved as the exterior. The Pillar of Angels is a major exception. It was carved in 1230 and is a masterwork of carving.

Unlike the depiction of Judgment Day outside, here there are no Elect and there are no Damned. Matthew, John, Luke and my buddy Mark stand on the bottom rung, faces serious but sympathetic. Above them a quartet of Angels, sounding the trumpet, above which are another three Angels. Sitting above this is the Star of the Show, JC himself, his throne positioned in such a way as to allow him a good view of the congregation in the cathedral’s nave.

The artist who carved this pillar knew that he had created something special. But it was not the custom, in the 13th century, for artists to sign their work. Nor would that be strictly appropriate in a church,

Nonetheless, he was proud. And so, on the balustrade that runs on the gallery behind the pillar, he carved a figure of a man leaning on the railing, gazing in wonder at his creation.

Now, I have a confession. For everyone I’ve taken on a tour of the Cathedral, I always point to this carving, claiming that the artist carved himself, admiring his own work. To tell you the truth, I don’t really know that for sure. But I want to believe it.

Last year, I went to an exhibition of Matthias Gunewald paintings in the German city of Karlsruhe. Grunewald was a regional painter of the Middle Ages, and his subjects were primarily religious, as was pretty much all art prior to the Renaissance. But the men and women –whether Saints, Angels or Allegorical characters – had a deep-rooted personality. They weren’t the bland-faced, interchangeable and characterless non-entities that populated much of the paintings of his contemporaries: they looked like real people.

That was because – I was surprised to discover – they were real people. There were a number of sketches from Grunewald’s papers, preliminary to his paintings, that were clearly still-lifes of living models. Meaning that the Christ in Grunewald’s depiction of the Passion may well have born the face of the local baker.

This revelation really struck me: all of this seemingly repetitive, otherwordly Gothic religious art actually represented real people. Suddenly, the scenes of St Sebastian being shot through with arrows became not some semi-mythical tall tale, but a portrait of a magistrate’s son, or a young farmer, who thus achieved immortality denied perhaps even the local princes.

Much of the art that decorates that Cathedral is wholly the work of a sculptor’s imagination. But not all – some of the faces, the figures, came from real life, just as in Gunewald’s paintings. They were local merchants, workers, wives and daughters.

The face on the balcony is definitely one of these. He has a pronounced squint, probably from years of fine chiseling in gloomy workshops forcing stone into shapes that it does not want to take. He looks at the Pillar of Angels with an appropriate expression of pious wonder, but an unmistakable hint of pride. And who can blame him?

Though my photos for this post are truly terrible, I saved this as my last Notre Dame posting because of this little guy who, for me at least, represents all of the people who made this amazing structure possible. When this man carved his pillar, and his cheeky self-portrait, Notre Dame’s completion was still two centuries away. The vast majority of the artisans and brute labour that designed and built this wonder had no hope of seeing it completed in their lifetime, their children’s lifetime, or their grandchildren’s lifetimes. Almost all of them – even some of the most talented of the artists – are lost to history forever. The Cathedral’s size, age and beauty are of a scale that are designed to make the beholder ponder eternity, but this man remains in his corner, slyly murmuring: “Don’t forget me!”

Next! The Strasbourg tour continues, with a completely church-free week! I promise!

Notre Dame: Preachers, puppets, puppies

Pulpit in NDS, organ behind

The pulpit in NDS is an incredibly elaborate tangle of lace-like decorative carving. The curving, swooping lines are remarkably lively, and they create a miniature jungle inhabited by stone saints and prophets.

It was added to the Cathedral in the late 1400s/early 1500s, especially for Geiler de Kayserberg. Geiler was an extremely well-known and hard working preacher in his day, and is honoured in his adopted city in teasingly affectionate ways. It was the time of the Reformation, when much of Europe, sickened by the excesses of Papal indulgences and priestly corruption, turned to Luther and other Protestant faiths.

Protestantism caught on big in Alsace as well – more on that later – and Geiler was as vehement as anyone in condemning Rome. But he was a reformer, not a revolutionary: he only wanted to change the Church, not break it.

His sermons were extremely popular, and his scholarship widely known – he apparently was summoned several times to advise the Holy Roman Emperor on theological matters.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia sniffs that Geiler's sermons were apparently characterized by “yielding to the coarseness of his age” (translation: he acknowledged that people have sex). Despite this Earthiness, the preacher was a serious man, and had a high regard for his personal dignity.

He was therefore disinclined to take any lip from a marionette. It was Geiler who banned Rohraffe the Angry Puppet from speaking during the Mass, as it was offending to the solemnity of the service.

The people of Strasbourg forgave Geiler for the murder their wooden advocate, and they carved this magnificent pulpit in his honour. And while Geiler was against marionettes in the church, he had no such compulsion against dogs. In fact, he was always accompanied in NDS by his own hound, which would sleep at Geiler’s feet while his master preached.

Geiler's puppy napping through the ages

Incidentally, though I’ve never seen this myself, the pulpit was designed as a clock, in its own way. Apparently, at noon on the summer solstice (or maybe dawn, I’m not sure) the sun will shine through a special blue glass in the windows on the south side of the Cathedral. It is placed in such a way so as to bathe the crucifix on the pulpit’s railing in a heavenly glow.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Notre Dame: Get off the stage, you bum!

The Heckler is the noblest and bravest among us, however lowly and despised he may appear. He is shunned – booed at music festivals, mocked in comedy clubs, shushed during poetry readings. We shift away from him in concerts, putting as much physical space between us and him, as if afraid of contamination from his boorishness. But he is the Unfettered Id of us all: crying out against pompousness, tedium, unfunniness. As children, we recognize this – the Class Clown was the hero of the playground, the one who knew how to speak Truth against the Tyranny of the Teacher. As adults, no matter how we purse our lips with disapproval, our souls sing with his cry for emancipation: “Why should you have our attention, and not I?”

Notre Dame heard our cry, and she answered. And so, the voice of the congregation was given its fullest expression in the Cathedral’s magnificent organ.

I don’t mean the organ itself – though it is an impressive thing, its pipes stretching up to disappear into the gloom of the arched ceiling. The music is directed to heaven, but the organ case dripped down to the floor, reaching like a stalactites to the sweating, stinking singing congregants below.

On the lowest part of the pendament is a carving of Daniel and the Lion. Higher up, behind Daniel and on our left is a town Herald, his bugle almost at his lips. To the right of Daniel is a figure called Rohraffe, dressed as a town merchant from 1385, the year the figures were carved.

These are not lifeless carvings, but puppets, designed to move via a series of levers in the organ casing. And so, when the organ would play one of its rumbling low chords, Daniel would open the mouth of the lion, as if it were roaring. For a high, triumphal “hallelujah” the herald would appear to blow on his trumpet.

And Rohraffe? His job was the most important of all. For he was us: the heckler, the “Screaming Monkey.” If a sermon went on too long, or the puppeteer didn’t like what was being said, Rohraffe would hurl abuse at the pulpit, or even at the congregation itself. In the years prior to the Reformation, when the Church banned such tomfoolery, Rohraffe the Angry Puppet was at least as popular an attraction in Notre Dame as the prospect of eternal salvation.

Next! The man who killed Rohraffe!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Notre Dame: Elle t'accuse!

Notre Dame de Strasbourg is an active place of worship, but it is also something of a museum. In the north arm of the transept (behind the St Lawrence Door) there are a number of Medieval and early Renaissance altarpieces on display, most of which come from other churches in the region.

The largest item in this section of the church is the carving of the scene at Gethsemane, where Jesus asked his Dad to get out of his chores. He got his answer shortly thereafter, when the Romans arrived to arrest him.

The statue used to be in the cemetery near St Thomas’s Church, but was brought into NDS for protection from the elements (also, I suspect, because St Thomas went Lutheran). It’s huge, as you can see.

It shows Jesus praying to an Angel, while his Apostle-posse get some shuteye. From behind, the soldiers pour through a gate, led by Judas carrying a sack with the 30 pieces of silver he was paid to betray the Big Guy.

In addition to its scale, this sculpture is particularly powerful not for the principals, all of whom are rendered pretty much as you would expect. It’s for the people in the mob trailing behind Judas.

Jesus and his Apostles are all dressed in robes, as per usual. But the soldiers and citizens coming to arrest, flay and crucify him are dressed as Strasbourg citizens, carrying 15th century weapons, wearing the hats of the local merchants and burghers, and the helmets of the local militia.

It would be easy to dismiss this as historical illiteracy on the sculptor’s part, but the opposite is true – it’s a mark of artistic sophistication. The contrast with the clothing of Jesus is deliberate. Remember, the belief at the time was that we sin every day, pretty much by breathing. The artist’s goal was to drive this home, and grab the viewer by the lapels and shout at them: “You too would be part of this mob, you too would call for his arrest. You would betray him then, just as you continue to betray him every day with your sin.” (Grim, I know, but look, it can't all be puppies and Robo-Jesuses around here).

Facing this rather depressing spectacle is a 14th century Baptismal font. Nowadays, babies in the Catholic church are baptized with a few drops of water on the forehead. Back then, however, they were dunked in their entirety into baths like this one.

Of course, the Cathedral is chilly even in summer, and water sitting in a stone tub – even one as elaborate as this one – would soon be freezing. Any baby submerged in it would have had a heck of an unpleasant introduction to the world: “Well, you survived! Welcome to the club!”

Next! I don't want to give away what comes next!

I apologize for the poor quality of the images here. This is what I get for attempting this with a steam-powered camera.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Notre Dame, the Master of Glass, and the Disappearing Priest

Two years ago, I was showing visitors from Montreal around Notre Dame. As is my wont, I’d been talking non-stop for a couple of hours, and their eyes were starting to glaze over, so I figured I’d take a break and give them time to explore the interior at their own pace while I chatted with Amynah.

As we stood there, and old man came up to us.

“Can you guess how old I am?” he asked us in French.

“Errr, seventy?” hazarded Amynah, kindly.

His face lit up: “Eighty five! I’m eighty five!” he said.

“You look very young,” said Amynah.

“Yes, thank you. You know, I used to be the Maitre de vitrines here, after the war,” he said.

“Really? What was that?” asked Amynah.

Well, he explained, during the Second World War, the Germans occupied Alsace, and annexed the territory to the Reich. As a result, they saw the Cathedral of Notre Dame as their German cultural heritage and thus made sure to protect its treasures as best they could. So they removed all of the beautiful stained glass windows – most dating from the 12th and 13th centuries – and hid them in a salt mine on the other side of the Rhine.

This way, the irreplaceable glass was spared the Allied bombs that fell on the city in 1944. After the war, our new friend was in charge of returning each piece to its original place.

“See the Rosette?” he said, lifting a trembling arm to point to the enormous circular window on the western face. “I put each piece of that glass back in myself. They suspended my from a chair from the ceiling – more than 100 feet off the floor!”

I tried to imagine assembling a jigsaw puzzle of 800-year-old glass at those fatal heights. Best not to think about it.

“Do you see those yellow squares there?” continued our friend, pointing to the windows on the southern wall. There, I noticed that there were large patches of the original glass missing – they had been replaced with modern glass, clumsily painted over.

“Most people think those were broken. But they weren’t! We gave them to a Chapel in Paris, as a gift as they rebuilt it after the war. It’s near the Eiffel Tower.”

Prior to this discussion, all that I knew about the glass in the Cathedral was that it was old. I also had been tickled to learn that the glass on the northern face was strictly Old Testament scenes, as well as depictions of the various Holy Roman Emperors. On the south face was the New Testament – the reason being that it got more sun, and therefore enjoyed the Light of Jesus.

Our friend wasn’t done though: “A long time ago, it was possible to visit the crypt. I’ve been there! But it is closed now. There is a river that runs under this Cathedral – it’s true! But after the war, a young couple was married here. After the ceremony, the priest went into the crypt to store the documents. He was never seen again – he fell into the river, and was swept away, underground. So they sealed it off.”

This could well be true. The Church had been built on the former Roman Temple, which had apparently been built on a Pagan site that included a small pond. The church had been built right on top of it. Though I can’t imagine it made construction easy, I have from several good sources that it is true – and it’s led to some fascinating legends of subterranean creatures living under the crypt.

By now our friends were coming back, and our storyteller was getting visibly tired. Amynah and I began to make noises that we had to go, with an eye to ending the conversation.

“Ah yes,” our friend said, his eyes distracted. Then he brightened up: “Can you guess how old I am? Eighty-five!”

I’m not sure why this old man selected us, of all the people in the church that day, to share his stories. I think he realized his memory was going. As he walked through the Cathedral, enjoying the magnificence to which his contribution was so important, I think he heard me giving my tour to our friends. I like to think that he felt that he had found someone that would appreciate his story, and remember it, and share it with others.