Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Alsatian Satiation

Strasbourg was drizzly and surprisingly chilly (relative to Paris) when we stepped off of our two and a half hour high speed train Saturday morning. Fortunately, nothing warms you better than a cup of mulled wine, which was two euros a glass and available about every ten feet from a different vendor. For those unable to stomach alcohol before noon, the wintery smell of cloves and cinnamon and the sight of lamp posts and store windows draped in tinsel and greenery provided ample distraction from the cold, as did the tangible electricity in the crowd: Christmas! Christmas!

Like the other happy hoards of tourists making the pilgrimage from the gare to the town center, we were there (courtesy of extra NYU budget money and a very good suggestion from yours truly) to take in the magic of the famous Christmas markets. We spent our first two hours in town on a leisurely tour lead by a native Strasbourgian. He gave us the history of this Germanic/French, Protestant/Catholic split-identity city using words from both languages as well as a little bit of the native "Alsatian," a dialect somewhere between the two. Strasboug's cobbled streets (still off-limits to cars) radiate outwards from a central Gothic cathedral, constructed of pink local sandstone. Its houses are mostly made from a picturesque black and white timber frame design, especially in the old town district of "petite-France" (so named not because it's a microcosm or anything attractive like that, but rather because it was historically the quartier of prostitution, "the french profession," and its byproduct, syphilis--the "French disease").

After the tour we warmed up with a brasserie lunch of sauerkraut, in-house micro brews and a local flat-bread creation (with a german name I can't remember) before hitting the Christmas markets. I was a little disappointed by the wares at the markets, which were fairly generic, but I was thrilled by the food. By the time we caught our train back to Paris that night I was stuffed with deliciousness. Free samples of cheeses, Christmas cookies, teas and chocolates abounded, and the famous "pain d'epices" (gingerbread, but literally bread, not a cookie), roasted chestnuts, hot chocolate and spiced cider were seasonal treats I couldn't turn down.

My interactions with the locals echoed my earlier weekend in the nearby Lorraine--everyone was warm, friendly, and way more welcoming/approachable than Parisians. In spite of hoards of tourists, Americans speaking French were still a commodity, and it was cool to be appreciated instead of snubbed. I also continue to be amazed at the geographical/cultural diversity in France--you can go two hours in any direction and feel like you're in a different country. Seriously. In a space smaller than the state of Texas, you have grassy wine country, snowy alps, tropical Mediterranean coastline, the rainy Rhine valley, and the somber, England-esque coasts of Brittany. The more I travel, the more I realize there's left for me to see--all the more reason for me to try and stick around next year.

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