6 JAN 2017

Polished wood counter, cushioned bar stools, warm lamp light, and a chill atmosphere are all what set the mood at l’Agora on Rue des Tonneliers in Strasbourg’s city-center. That is, until I step through to the rear of the ground floor to a small room, pay my 5€, and walk down a flight of stairs. The basement must have once been a wine cellar at some point with its picturesque arched, brick walls and concrete floor. Now, however, you descend into the foggy haze of a smoke machine. The blue and green lights deflecting, reflecting, swirling, and strobing. The music loud and the bass, oh the bass, vibrating the room as well as my ribcage.

People can be seen in the ever so brief-but-frequent flashes of the strobe lights twisting this way and that. Hands in the air, because they clearly don’t care, and loving every moment. The blessing of this basement disco is the amount of space you have to move around in. There is no pushing or pulling or being squished into a wall to make room for more people. I am no dancer, though, so I situate myself at the tables with everyone’s coats and Corona-equivalents, Desperados beer. As well, I am no drinker, but the jus de pamplemousse suits me just fine. Add a quick red-bull, and I am good to go all night.

I do not deny that I miss the fun of an occasional party, but seeing all of this sober may be far more entertaining. I wonder if I ever danced like that. Is that dancing? I cannot be sure. Regardless, the energy, the bliss, is palpable. The joy of being able to let loose after a long few days of sitting in orientation lectures and standing in lines for registration is infectious. Even sitting at a table, drumming out the beat, I am having the time of my life.

I had planned on calling it a night when we all decided to switch up the venue and head back across the river. Bravely back out into the cold night we go. Cold indeed, the heat of Agora was no competition for the -9ºC weather. That is nearly 15ºF. We walk hurriedly to stand in line at Café des Anges. This building felt near to burst with bass and bodies, and that is viewing it from the outside. Shuffling our feet every so often until our time for entry had come, we are packed into the small anteroom that keeps out the cold from the heat inside. Once the front door was closed, the second door opened, and we were awash in a flood of music, lights, and the sea of people. Where Agora had room, des Anges had people. Let the pushing, pulling, and wall squishing begin. I had not been to a club like this since that one time in Montego Bay (or was it three or four times while in Montego Bay?).

The time, 3 AM, stares at me from the light of my phone. The tram starts at 4 AM, and the bus at 5 AM. I am planning my route back to the château. I can leave in about half an hour to catch the tram, then ride to Robertsau Église. It is about a 30-minute walk from there. I let Clarissia know that I am about to head out, because this particular near-30-year-old partier (me) is partied out. I must have been out of my mind thinking that the heat of des Anges would stick with me for a while after I left. No, the heat is gone as soon as I pass through the anteroom. Back out into the freezing weather, I go. Navigating my way via Google Maps (thank goodness for international roaming data), I find the tram stop. Sixteen minutes in -9ºC feels like a lifetime. At last, like a godsend, the light in the dark is the tram pulling into the station. About 45 minutes later, I am in bed and thankful for such an incredible evening/morning. I am pretty sure the red horizon in the distance is the sun trying to rise.


“Tree of God”

5 JAN 2017

At the Pont Royal (Royal Bridge), I took a photo of Église Réformée Saint-Paul. St. Paul’s was built in the middle 1890s as a Gothic Revival building for Lutheran members of the Imperial German garrison that were stationed there. You see, the Franco-Prussian War saw Strasbourg become Straßburg after the area had been annexed by the newly established German Empire. The entire Alsace area has a fascinating history concerning that depending upon the year you are looking at, the region may have been French or German.

We continued down Quai des Pêcheurs, crossed over la Rivière L’ill (the Ill River) by way of the Pont St. Guillaum, down Rue Saint-Etienne, left on Rue des Frères, left on Place de la Cathédrale, et voilà! There stands the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It can be seen from Germany’s Black Forest across the Rhine and has been described by the famous German writer and statesman, and guest of the château in which we now reside, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.” Goethe’s comment could not be more apt in that the church was once the world’s tallest building for 227 years. A monolith that stands as a testament to the ingenuity of man in worship of his God. The tower stands 142 meters (466 feet) tall.

These holy, man-made caverns of detailed craftsmanship echo with the hushed whispers of visitors. Dark corners belie the warm glow of altars, candlelight, and paintings on the wall. The weight of history fills the air. Bishop Werner von Habsburg set in place the first stone of this grand monument 1,002 years ago in 1015. Knowing that this building has stood in this place for over a millennium certainly inspires you to imagine all of that which must have passed around it and within. Empires have been born, fought, and died all around its walls. And all that while, the sun rose each morning and shined its light through the stained glass windows.

This was just a brief visit today. I will surely be back soon to explore it further.

A Sense of History… and of Purpose

4 JAN 2017

First, let us discuss breakfast. From 7 AM to until 10 AM a buffet breakfast is served. There are croissants, pain au chocolat, baked bread of the whole grain and white varieties, mixed sliced meats, assorted cheeses, jams, jellies, cereal, yogurt, orange juice, apple juice, multivitamin (?) juice, milk, coffee, espresso, cappuccino, and I am sure that I have forgotten at least a half dozen other things. And this is made available to us and the other guests of the château each morning. All they ask is that we do not arrive wearing pajamas; we must be respectable, of course. I, myself, indulged in quite a large and hearty breakfast.

Around noon, we went grocery shopping at the local Simply Market. Grocery shopping, and shopping in general, in France is a little different in that you must bring your own bags or purchase reusable bags at the store. This is something I would very much like to see happen stateside. I only had one bag myself, so I decided to only purchase a few things: Peanut butter, strawberry preserves, whole grain bread, hazelnut milk (No judging. I have to eat and drink much more consciously these days), and some bananas. I know, I know. “PB & Js, really?” Yes, because they are delicious and efficient, and they remind me of home. Besides, I am on a tight budget.

I realize I could talk entirely about the food, but that, shockingly, was not the most amazing thing that we experienced today. Our group walks the 15 minutes from the château to Bus 15 Lamproie stop. It is snowing again, but by the afternoon, the sun will have cleared away most of what sticks. We are each getting used to the cold, or not, in our own way. We transfer to the tram, and a couple stops later, we arrived at Parlement Européen.

The 28 member-nation flags of the European Union fly at full mast as we are shuffled through a security check and into the Salle (French for “room”) Margaret Thatcher. Eva, our information guide, and her colleague shared with us a brief presentation on how the European Parliament and other European institutions work and how they work together. It is a complicated, but still very fascinating, process. It is democracy at the multi-national level. Indeed, there are three European Union capitals: Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg. With any luck, I will see all three.

Strasbourg is the Seat of the European Parliament, one of the two legislative bodies and the only directly elected body of the European Union. They hold their plenary meetings here once of month in the hemicycle housed within the Louise Weiss building. Weiss was quite the fascinating native of Alsace. The main entrance is where members of parliament and distinguished guests arrive through the Espace (also French for room or area) Mariana Pineda (another historical heroine). They are guided by a red carpet to the Stairs of Honor. These are a particularly interesting pair of spiral staircases that form a double helix in tribute to Leonardo da Vinci. I was especially moved by the stairs, yes the stairs, because there are two other similar examples of the double helix staircases in Europe. One is at the Vatican, and the other is at Château de Chambord which I was fortunate enough to visit this past summer. I had no idea before today that those types of stairs existed elsewhere, and now I know I have already visited two of three. The stairs in the Louise Weiss building lead to the hemicycle.

The hemicycle, along with the rest of the facility, was designed by Parisian architecture firm Architecture-Studio. It is a giant sphere of curved wood panels on the exterior that can be seen from both within and without the building. The interior seats the 751 parliament members, plus an additional 112 seats for ministers and aides, and in the circular mezzanine above there are seats for 650 guests and journalists. It is a cavernous chamber in which some of the most extraordinary people have been and debates held. Guests such as Pope Francis, Ban Ki-moon, and many other distinguished leaders have visited. Laureates of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought like Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji Bashar, who both escaped Daesh, and Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot by the Taliban, have presented their protest against their attackers in this very room, this room in which our group now stands.

The sense that you get of what happens in places like this is the very reason why travel, I believe, is such a necessary activity. Here, in this building, in this room, democratically elected representatives and leaders discuss, debate, and vote on a variety of topics concerning the constituents, a population of over 500 million people, of 28 sovereign nations.

Once you have felt this “sense” it is hard to let go of finding it again and again and again. For me, personally, it is what drives me forward. One day, I hope to be a part of something that leaves a similar sense in the world.


Château de Pourtalès through the trees

3 JAN 2017

There is a bumpy part of the freeway that jolts me awake in time to see the French countryside pass by through the bus window. It is about 3 PM, Strasbourg time, and we’re almost there. I met some of the other program students earlier at the airport meeting point, or treffpunkt. There are three of us from GSU, five from West Virginia U., and two from Wisconsin. There are other students in the program, but I have yet to meet them. Christina from CEPA greets us and takes us to the bus.

Pulling off of the freeway onto a forested road, we make our way to Pourtalès (pronounced Poor-ta-less). What snow is left seems to be melting. We pass through a wrought iron gate down a one-lane road and find ourselves seeing the château in person. It is grander than in the photos, I think because now it is much more real. Here is where I will stay for the next few months. Here is where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Franz Liszt, among many others, have stayed.

My roommate, Fernando, and I get an opportunity to check out our room and get settled in. There are two double beds, two closets, one simple desk, and, yes, a balcony overlooking the courtyard. And, it would seem, it is the only room like it. Fernando and I must have won some unknown drawing for best room possible. The floor creaks something fierce, though. I am thankful that there are no rooms beneath us, just the breakfast hall. A breakfast buffet is served between 7 AM and 10 AM; more to report on that tomorrow.

On the tour of the grounds, we are shown the classroom, the kitchen, the computer room, and the library. Those are where we, the students, will spend most of our time. There are hotel guests in another part of the château. With them, we will share the breakfast hall, Salon Rouge, and the park (the château has its own park). Each of these places will be described in much more detail in upcoming entries. They each deserve more time than I could have given them today.

Typically, we will have to fend for ourselves for lunch and dinner, but tonight being our first and welcoming night, we are treated to dinner in the restaurant located at the château grounds entryway by that wrought iron gate. A small grilled chicken salad with sweet balsamic vinaigrette to start, or as it is called in France, l’entrée (appetizer). Then le plat principal (entree), steak frites: medium-rare beef served with pepper sauce and fries. For dessert, le dessert (go figure), crème brûlée. It was just what we all needed after a long day. We were able to relax and get to know one another a bit better. We joked, we laughed, and we discussed the finer points of American T.V.

Now, back in my room, all is quiet except for the chirping crickets and cicadas just outside. The two pigeons who have taken up residence on the balcony beams coo occasionally into the night.


2 JAN 2017

“DRINK DRINK DRINK….. YEEAAHH!” is a very effective alarm at 5 AM. Just a few doors down from my room, I believe the party has only just begun. Thankfully, my room seems to be full of fellow day-people. It is really amusing when they, the night-people, try to whisper as they walk past the less active rooms. It is that really noisy, drunken, they-probably-don’t-understand-you-anyway type of whispering.

There is no going back to bed now, so I head downstairs. Mitt, born and raised in Frankfurt and studying film sound design, was the host behind the counter this morning. He is doing inventory on the beer. Apparently, my morning-alarm friends had had 22 Becks, but a sign among the glasses behind the bar reads “Buy 5 shots, get 1 free!” and I am of the assumption that had something to do with it as well.

As Mitt and I discuss school in the states and Australia, the windows steam up from the heat of bread in the oven. There are three ladies all working to prepare the room for breakfast which includes a variety of breads, a choice between pork or chicken sausage, cereal, yogurt, orange juice, tea, cheese, and coffee. I could not have asked for anything more.

After breakfast, Mitt gave me directions to old town Frankfurt. It is a 15-minute walk from the hostel. The crows caw as I pass Hauptbahnhof down Münchener Straße. What I recognize as Bavarian architecture, from time spent in Helen, Georgia, begins to appear on buildings all around me. I follow the sound of church bells ringing in their towers to an old city center, Römerberg. Here sits the Römer, Frankfurt’s city hall for the past 600 years. Before that, it was a merchant family’s home. Across the square is Old St. Nicholas Church. At the heart, Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen, the Fountain of Justice. Justitia, with sword in hand, has weighed the scales since 1543. Except in all that particular time, she bore no blindfold and does not today.

Most of the square was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid during World War II, but was restored and rebuilt. It is a nearly indescribable sense of wonder that I get walking through these age-old towns. I cannot imagine the culture and history that must have passed here. I truly wish I could share it with everyone I know. I would stay here and commune with history’s atmosphere, but time beckons me away.

It is snowing on the Main (pronounced Meh-n as I’m told). I cross over Eiserner Steg, a bridge built in 1868, destroyed by the Wehrmacht in WWII, rebuilt shortly thereafter. Parisian style love locks weave through the railing. Graffiti graces the concrete here and there, the phrase “Stadt für alle” in blue.

I stroll along Sachsenhäuser Ufer to the next bridge east, Alte Brüke. This bridge connects to the small Portikus Island and Commons House. I quickly find my way back to Römerberg Square and promptly search out the only open café, Einstein Kaffee.

Now I sit here hoping the sun will come out, but instead I think the clouds will only go from gray to white. It is about 10 AM, and I will stroll around old town once more to take some photos then head back to Frankfurt Hostel.

A guest of the hostel suggested that I try to find a place to eat in Sachsenhausen, a small area in Frankfurt just south of the Main. Apfelwein Wagner had good reviews online and was located in Sachsenhausen. A 20-minute walk from Kaiserstraße I find the alleyway that leads to the restaurant door, and I’m sat at a table with three women drinking apple wine, a local favorite. I forgot that sitting alongside complete strangers is a thing in Germany.  It can be a little awkward at first, but then you quickly get used to it.

The server brings me the English menu,  because everything about me screams American I suppose, but I am thankful for not having to Google Translate every item.  I’m surprised to find “Apple wine without alcohol” on the menu. That seems interesting, so why not. I start with that and the Hungarian goulash soup, which tastes like really good, well seasoned beef stew. Next I try their schnitzel, Frankfurt style. It, as far as I can tell, is not unlike country-fried steak served with a bowl of the green sauce. The sauce was certainly refreshing. The celery and cilantro in it hit like a bag of herbs punching you in the face. Fun times. The no-alcohol apple wine wasn’t bad at all.

I mulled over the apple strudel on the menu, but decided that Apfelwein Wagner had fattened me enough for one day. A brisk walk back to Frankfurt Hostel, some water to rehydrate, and soon I am in a food-induced nap that takes me all the way to dinner.

My last night in Frankfurt will be spent resting well before the Strasbourg bus arrives tomorrow. I wish I had had more time and knowledge of the places I went to today, but that is the case for everywhere I go. Even in Georgia. There are so many stories, so much history, and an overwhelming sense of life in it all.

Let us see what tomorrow brings.

Shrugging at Hauptbahnhof

1 JAN 2017

I can glimpse a pale, pink light on the horizon, the first dawn of 2017. It begins to illuminate the clouds below which appear as dark, windswept tundra. As morning advances, the tundra gives way to thin wisps of overcast, the waters of the English Channel below.

I am on my way to Frankfurt. For two days will I stay there and wait for the Strasbourg bus to arrive. From where I sit, in seat 42G, I can see windmills peak through thick, low snow clouds. The sun shines bright in all directions until we descend through opaque weather covering western Germany. I assume the pilot must rely on the air traffic controllers and their radars to search out the runway. I can appreciate the effort it takes to land a Boeing 767 in these conditions.

The airport is large, but signs are posted in German, French, and English. Next thing I know, I am on the number 61 bus to Sudbahnhof. There, I take the train to Hauptbahnhof and then walk to the hostel. According to Google Maps (thanks technology) I can take almost any S train to Hauptbahnhof.  Naturally, I board the first train that arrives, the S3. It would have taken me right to where I needed to go if only I had boarded the train going in the opposite direction.

I am three stops in the wrong direction before I realize this and exit the train. One half hour until the next S3 comes. My gaff made for a pleasant detour. A quiet stop. Snow and ice blanket trees that line the railway in either direction. Resting helped the soreness of having sat for the past 7+ hours.

Back on the proper S3, I make sure to follow my location in Google Maps, just to be sure this time. Sixteen minutes later, I am where I should have been an hour ago. No worries, I still cannot check in until 2 PM. More standing-by time, joy. Thank goodness for the luggage storage room the hostel provides at least.

The lounge/reception area is homely, befitting of a hostel. About 15 or so other guests and the host are present. Arabic, English, French, and German can all be heard. The window by the table offers a nice view of the street below. Two hours slip by in post-flight mediation, or stupor more like.

Neununddreißig euros later, I have a bottom bunk for the next two nights on the top floor of Frankfurt Hostel. At last I can rest truly for a bit, and I do.

I wake up a few hours later and head down to the third floor reception lounge for the advertised free dinner, penne pasta in light tomato sauce and herbs. It was surprisingly simple and equally delicious. It all being free helped, of course. I am told breakfast is also free. This place keeps getting better by the minute.

A little more time passes and I decide to step outside. Atlas shrugs at me from the Hauptbahnhof arch bearing his weight. It is snowing on Kaiserstraße, and I stand here below the street lamps acclimating to the cold.

Coffee, schwartz, is just the thing I needed for a short walk around the block. Just on the other side of the building, a doorman entreats me to see his dancers. “Hallo, gentlemen. Care to look? I can let you look for free, and the first beer is on me.” I politely, repeatedly decline. As I escape his eagerness, I spy a kind old couple in the next entry way further down the sidewalk. And as I smile and nod in greeting, “Come and join us won’t you, sir?” the lady asks. They, too, offered free looks and beer.

The next corner is much less promiscuous with its Asia Land convenience store and adjacent camera shop. I arrive full circle at the halal falafel stand where I stumbled through my high school German to order coffee. Again, I stand on Kaiserstraße to appreciate the Hauptbahnhof’s architecture. It has been quite the day, and now I am ready to call it a night.