Sunday Bells

22 JAN 2017

A cloud of freezing air creeps in the dark, only to leave this late morning, taking with it all the colors of the Robertsau. I see it just beyond the trees through the library window. Now it cloaks the trees and has come for the flags at the front lawn. It seems to reach out to the very window I stand at before retreating back into the woods. White blankets lawn, trails, steps, walls, and roofs. This is not the snow of a pleasant winter, but the white ice of a deep cold. It grips at the earth, cracking the dry dirt. It clings to trees and branches.

The flags are the only thing that appear to retain their colors. Five flags hang heavy in the windless cold. There is one each for the European Union, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States. Hotel Reception is adjacent to the library, and I can hear English, French, and German all spoken within the short span of time that I stand here. There is a small thrill in being able to proffer or respond with a simple “bonjour,” “morgen,” or “good morning.” I was once very critical of myself for having taken German all those years ago in high school, but I cannot express enough gratitude for having done so now that it has finally come to serve me in some small way. I wish I had paid closer attention to Mr. McCormick; perhaps I would have remembered more than a few words and how to count.

As for my French, well, it certainly still needs all the help it can get. Madame Simpson and Dr. Ditmann provided me with the basics and some understanding. Dr. Mann and Dr. Wengier challenged me in Paris. I just hope that there is some small chance for me to one day become fluent. Communication is very important to me, and I wish to be able to convey myself in more than just one language, but more importantly, I would like to be able to listen in more than one language. I should learn more nouns and verb conjugations, indeed, plus de mots en général. The European Union maintains 26 official languages. I am ambitious, but not quite 26-language ambitious. I think, for me, I would like to be able to speak/listen/understand, read, and write in French, German, Spanish (castellano), Arabic (modern standard), Chinese (Mandarin), and Russian (maybe).

Studying abroad has taught me that knowing the language, the words and the grammar, is not the only thing needed in order to properly communicate. I have learned that customs and culture are huge parts of clear and concise understanding. Direct translations in either direction, English to French or French to English, will not have a lot of meaning when concerning idioms and other phrases. These things must be practiced, performed, and experienced to be understood. The short exchanges at the cafés are nice, and they do help, but more thorough and involved conversations are necessary for a more developed education on foreign language communication. Also, trying to stop thinking in English and begin thinking in the other language, French in this case, is proving most difficult. I am in my own mind way too often and too used to English that making room for French is like having a roommate for the first time in many, many years. For further comparison/analogy, I imagine that roommate would not be some stranger, but instead just the French version of myself. I feel the anxiety already.

However, it would be an interesting experience getting to know the French version or myself. My intended goal, really, is to one day be able to “pass” as a native speaker. That is the depth with which I wish to be able to comprehend a foreign language. Je peux rêver, non?

Morning has come and gone. Noon arrives with the sun fighting fiercely to break through the overcast. I am still at the château, waiting for the weather to warm, but I doubt it will warm much more than it is now. I cannot be sure which church bells I hear ringing, but I like to think they are those of Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, but most likely they are those of the much closer Robertsau église. Whichever bells toll, their spell in one of transportation. I am immediately reminded of my brief time at Mont St. Michel. I am not religious, spiritual, yes perhaps, but not religious. Even still, standing in the halls of that cathédrale when the bells begin to ring takes a body whole and shakes it to the core with chills and transformation. I can still hear the first chimes. I can hear the strike against metal turn into a tune.

Then, when more and more bells are added to the chorus, the striking seems to cease, and a single tune is sung as if biblical trumpets blast from heaven’s high altar. Head lifted, eyes closed, arms and hands open, ready to receive what gifts can be bestowed by this angel, Saint Michael of the mountain, I am pierced through by the booming of the horns. Time stops, and I am weightless. What is but a few moments feels like eternity, truly. This is awe.

I confess, I felt empowered. Is that the right word? I struggle to find one more appropriate or accurate, but yes, I think that was the sensation: empowered. Maybe “charged” is more direct. Charged, as if an empty vessel had been momentarily filled with power, light, life. Electric. Whatever the word, there was certainly some sort of reality felt in that magic place.

By now, the bells here have stopped ringing, and I am transported back into the château. The decision to venture out in the cold or remain by the warmth of the radiators is upon me.

A whirlwind of days

16 – 18 JAN 2017

The cool breeze that flows through the golden tallgrass greets me at the open kitchen window. It is not so cold as it has been for the past three days. With a hot drink in hand, I take it all in, the small prairie that conceals an old pond, the trail just on the other side of the field that travels into and out of the woods, the couple walking their dog by the old water tower. It is calm and quiet. Seeing the colors of the Robertsau in winter when not covered by snow certainly makes this whole place seem new once more. I can hardly wait for the colors of spring.

This quiet moment allows me to reflect on the past three days.

Monday, I took the FLE test, which is a French language equivalency placement exam. The ranks for French comprehension are A1, A2, B1, B2, and C1 so far as I know. I do not yet know my rank, but my confidence certainly took a hit from the difficulty of the exam. I am not very good with tests as it is, but this one was more than I had anticipated. Prior to taking the FLE, I had fully intended on taking a history course taught in French. After, however, I have switched all of my courses at Sciences Po to ones taught in English. I see now that I must continue to practice and study the French language much more before delving into fluency.

In Europe, English is widespread. I attempt to speak French everywhere I go and with all of the people I meet, but my limitations often force the conversation into an English one. I am thankful for this for the sake of clear communication, but it does make it more difficult to rely solely on the French language. I am not be too discouraged, though. I am still practicing my French everyday.

Tuesday morning, our group had our first class at the château. Madame Wassenberg will be teaching us about Europe in general and about European identity. During this first class, we each introduced ourselves, then discussed what we already knew about Europe. Charles de Gaulle spoke of a Europe that stretched “from the Atlantic to the Urals,” but now it would seem that Europe quite possibly stretches from Iceland to the Caucasus. And since the 1950s, a number of intergovernmental organizations have banded together, grown, and shrunk over the years in the ideal of unifying Europe. The European Union probably being the most prominent as it is quite unique. However, there is also the Council of Europe which touts a 48-state membership.

After class, I registered for classes at IEP (a.k.a. Sciences Po). I will be taking four classes there: The African-American struggle for civil rights in the U.S., which will be very interesting to learn about from an outside perspective; Understanding contemporary Africa, which will be interesting for the same reasons, but possibly more so because of France’s long history and extensive relationship with many nations of Africa; The politics of culture in divided societies, I am hoping this class can teach me a thing or two about diplomacy; and European policies toward old and new minorities, I am hoping this class can teach me a thing or two about democracy amid the changing times. So there it is. Four classes at Sciences Po and two at the château.

With the weight of six classes hovering over me, I get a bit hungry and find a nice Greek restaurant. There, I order döner, which is a pita bread taco of sorts filled with slow cooked, sliced chicken, lettuce, cabbage, onion, and carrots. It was incredible, especially for only 3€50. I added tzatziki sauce, and then I was complete. A quick trip to the Swiss herbalist for some turmeric and hibiscus, then it was back to the château.

The turmeric is good for soreness when stirred in some hot hibiscus tea, which is good for circulation. The taste is not too bad at all. Just the thing I need to drink while staring out of this large window. Moments ago, our second château class ended. This one is taught by Dr. Vahlas. Here, we will learn more of the specific (and confusing) details of the the E.U.’s inner workings. I am looking forward to the class presentations that each of us has to prepare. Indeed, I am looking forward to all of my classes.

Sunday Concert

​15 JAN 2017

The familiar mumble of voices takes on a French accent. The hush just before the show is the same: the sudden quiet, the heightened anticipation, the muffled cough, the slight shifting in cushioned seats. Violin, viola, and cellos in hand, the musicians make their way onto the stage amid our applause. The theatre is nice. The light wood paneling of the ceiling is curved, good for acoustics. The walls, in the same light wood, are all sharp lines and geometric shapes, good for aesthetics. The curtains are a deep red, the stage black. The musicians take there places at the four chairs and music stands. 

I sit in one seat among the 300 or so in the auditorium. I have been looking forward to this all week. The violinist begins, a soft, long note. Then enter the cellos, followed by the viola. A quartet of players is performing in Strasbourg, and for 6€, I get to witness. Bows on strings play for about half an hour. There is a brief intermission, and then the four, joined by a fifth, return to the stage and continue to play. Chamber music, while not as big or perhaps as bold as a full orchestra, is great to listen to.

I sit in an audience of mostly older individuals. I recall this being the case back home in Atlanta as well. I know my generation of Millennials often go to concerts, but they are missing out on the classics. Perhaps they would attend more performances if student discounts were as good as they are in Europe (Wink-wink Atlanta Symphony Orchestra).

NOTE: This post is quite shorter than previously planned or intended due to problems with the Wi-Fi and computers at the moment. Not having access to a working computer or link to the internet is a bit of a culture shock for this particular American.

Mélanie of Robertsau, a Matron of Alsace.

12 JAN 2017

Piano music echoes throughout the château salon. It is extravagant and complicated music, music written for two pianists. A room full of Strasbourg and Alsatian elite stand frozen with wine glasses in hand. Two twelve-year old boys sit side-by-side playing a four-hands piece masterfully. One is Ferdinand de Turckheim. The other is Franz Liszt. It is the early 1800s and Madame de Bussière is presenting the child prodigy pianist, Liszt, to her friends and the world.

It is in this same house that Franz Liszt performed that Mélanie de Bussière is born and raised. The land and the house are located in an area called the Robertsau. Farmland, the park and forest, and the house all share space in this region. The château has been a feature of the Robertsau for many years and changed many hands before coming into the property of the Bussière family.

Mélanie, 16 years old now, dons her finest dress as if putting on armor before a grand battle. Her childhood spent in the Robertsau, playing in the park and racing through the house with her brother, are soon to end. Today is an important day not just for her, but for all of Strasbourg. Leaving the château amid evening twilight on 19 July, 1852, Mélanie de Bussière and her family make way for the theatre. It is there that Napoleon III is holding a Grand Ball in celebration of the Paris-Strasbourg rail link. A booming and popping sound can be heard off in the distance. Rounding a corner, fireworks light up the sky. Napoleon III is here, bringing promises of stability and prosperity.

Mélanie the debutante, etiquette training well-remembered, garners looks of adoration. The military men certainly are not too shy to stare. The President-Prince himself, Napoleon III, seems impressed. One can assume this is where she may have first met Edmond. She was sure to have been pursued by many suitors.

Edmond, Comte de Pourtalès, and Mélanie de Bussière are a good match, and so are engaged in 1857. They decide to hold their wedding in the Robertsau that same year. The day is warm and bright as any good 30 July should be. Together, they move to Paris. Here, Edmond builds an Italian-Renaissance palace for their family, and straight away Mèlanie sends out invitations for spectacular soirées.  

Comtesse Mélanie de Pourtalès entertains the Parisian elite with all of the pomp and circumstance of Victorian-era France. Here, the Countess makes a reputation for being one of the finest hosts in all of Paris. The Empress Eugénie quickly befriends the new arrival. On Mondays, the Empress would gather her friends, Mélanie among them, and discuss the gossip of the town. On other days, Mélanie would stroll through the Tuileries armored in a big, ruffled dress complete with a matching hat for helmet and shielded with her parasol. She is soon to be well-suited for combat. The times are changing, and the Prussians are advancing.

Edmond and Mélanie move to the château. They sire three sons and two daughters. Altogether, they love their peaceful time in the Robertsau and entertaining guests. But it is during this time that Alsace would be threatened. Edmond and Mélanie take the children to visit relatives and friends in Berlin. At a fine dinner of German high society, the Prussian Minister of State, de Schleinitz, turns toward Mélanie:

 

“You and your beautiful family must stay here with us.”

To which Mélanie de Pourtalès, born and raised in Alsace, says, “I could never leave my home in the Alsace. I love my country too dearly.”

Surprised by her candor in this tense situation, de Schleinitz threatens, “Then it is we that shall visit you. Fair Countess, you are soon to be one of us! Within 18 months, Alsace will have become one of the most beautiful provinces in Germany, and we shall be fellow-countrymen.

 

The year is 1870, and the Alsace is now German. It would seem de Schleinitz held true to his promise. The frightened Pourtalès family flees to Switzerland. They are able to reestablish communication with friends abroad and soon travel to England and meet with the exiled Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. The Prince and Princess of Wales sent their consolations in the form of a gifted bracelet, inset with pearls, bearing the inscription, “The tears of Alsace.” From England, the Pourtalès family return to Paris.

Mélanie’s father, imprisoned at Rastadt until Strasbourg surrendered, refuses the German nationality among 200,000 other Alsatians and is forced into exile. He joins his daughter and her family in Paris. The château is left to the Grand Duke of Baden as spoils of war.

The Baron de Bussière, Mélanie’s father, passes away in 1887, Paris. Inheriting the château, the Pourtalès family decide to return to Alsace and Strasbourg and reclaim their rightful home. Despite it now being in Germany with all of the Alsace, Mélanie maintains the château as an example of French aristocracy. This is her private battle with the German occupation. Her strength and resolve to maintain the French styles prohibited at the time were at first contested by the Germans, but soon enough, they admit defeat. For them, it was worthwhile to have Strasbourg, and the Alsace, be a part of Germany, but Mélanie is allowed to keep the château an island of France after a fashion.

From her debut in court to her time as a rebel aristocrat, Mélanie armored herself in the finest clothes and went to battle with expertly prepared dinner parties at the Château de Pourtalès. The German’s left her to her own, and the French of occupied Alsace sought her home as refuge for days gone by. “Whether the freedom involved is that of a woman or that of a nation, the struggle is the same and the methods used can well stand comparison,” remarks one visitor.

The winter of 1913 has come now, and Mélanie prepares to leave for Paris. She is prescient in saying, “My heart is filled with gratitude to God who has blessed me with the good fortune to live one more year surrounded by the love of my children, my grandchildren, and of so many dear friends in the Alsace that I love so much. Farewell beloved region, farewell beloved home.” In May, 1914, the Countess Mélanie de Pourtalès of Alsace passes away in Paris.

 

Notes:

— Text in red are quotes excerpted from the booklet The Château de Pourtalès, published by Kaléidoscope d’Alsace. Most of the details are also collected from this book. 

— Text in blue are from the tale of Mélanie as told by Uli Leibrecht.

Ç’est lieu magique

11 JAN 2017

The buzzing sound lets me know that I have entered in the proper door code. I push open the exterior door to gain entry into the “smoking room.” This room’s primary purpose is to prevent the weather from invading the house, however, it exists now as a smoker’s retreat, not quite outside, but certainly not inside. The second door leads into an entryway complete with marble tiles, red-carpeted stone stairs, oil-on-canvas portraits, wood paneling, and a floor-to-ceiling mirror. The door to the left leads to the Grand-salon. It is currently closed for renovations. Work on an old château like this is ever ongoing.

The door to the right leads to the Salon Rouge. This room stretches from the front of the château to the back. The four floor-to-ceiling windows let in plenty of daylight. The three radiators warm the room. The fireplace, unused so far as I know, is constructed of red and white marble with a clock, stopped, embedded in the mantle. Above, the dark wood panel holds a bust of Countess Melanie de Pourtalès, much more on her later, and at the very top, engraved is the number MDCCCLXIV. To the right and the left, there are two wall sconces each bearing two faux-candle lamps. Just a bit further to the left is the penciled portrait of a young man. He tucks his left hand in his coat jacket, reminiscent of Napoleon, and he holds his cane in his right. Back over to the right of the fireplace hangs the portrait of a young woman. This is a copy; the original by Franz Xaver Winterhalter resides at none other than the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I see her in profile with her head turned slightly toward the painter or the onlooker in this case. Her white dress with blue ribbons and accents informs me of her wealth, status, and era. Her eyes inform me of her strength and resolve. This is Countess Melanie de Pourtalès (again, much more on her later, perhaps another entry altogether. She deserves as much at least).

I take note of the self-playing baby grand piano, powered by 3.5 inch floppy disks, and the comfortable seats and tables with room for at least 18, before heading on into the reception room. This is opposite the entryway. This is a small room where, had I had either, I can place my umbrella and cane. There is a table with pamphlets and brochures on tours and museums.

Further on into the house and just to the right, there is the library. No château would be complete without it’s own library. I really like this one. It is relatively small compared to what one may imagine. Two shelves are filled with books. At eye level on down there is an array of books, mostly in English, and telling of the various types of students that visit the château. There are books on hospitality and service, history and politics, art and literature. The higher shelves, the ones in which you will need to use the ladder to reach, support the ancestors of the internet, encyclopedias. Two dark wood tables are pushed together in the center of the room to form a square. Eight cushioned chairs bear a striped and paisley stitching in green. The fireplace is shuttered. The radiator is on.

Back out into Reception and Salon Rouge, then the entryway, I head up the stairs. A statue of two small children playing decorates the first landing. A few steps to the left, another landing, then a few more steps to the left sees me on the first floor. I am facing the front of the château for the sake of direction, and what I can see is the Destination Travel Agency office directly ahead, the Leibrecht’s apartment to the right. The Leibrechts are our hosts and Uli Leibrecht founded the program (CEPA) which has brought so many students to her home. On the left is the hallway to another office and the Friedrich Schiller classroom. One of the more curious artifacts in the hall is a chess set of Chinese inspiration. Dragons are carved into the wooden outline. The board is made up of the typical black squares, but instead of white squares, there are scenes from Chinese life. I am no expert, but I assume the images portray sometime in the 1800s, perhaps earlier. One set of chess pieces is a light green, missing one pawn and a knight it would seem. The other set is red and missing a pawn as well. The material reminds of the dentistry mold that my great-grandfather used to mold and carve little dogs out of.

The hallway doglegs (dogleg = deadends, then shifts a little to the side, then continues on straight) to the right. Where it stops in the middle, there are steps up to the second floor (U.S. third floor) rooms, and they go down to Reception. I continue along the hallway to the CEPA office, the Franz Liszt classroom, and a couple student bedrooms. Through a door at the end of this hall, there is another flight of stairs, down to the breakfast room and up to more student rooms. Continuing, I get to the hall with my room and a few other student rooms. Further on, this house is quite large, the hall ends in a lounge for students, a student kitchen, a computer lab, and the program coordinator apartments.

I step into my room and throw my backpack onto the bed. I set my Chromebook on the desk and get to writing. The Wi-Fi is a little spotty here, but I can usually find a nice place to sit and connect online. I sit out on the balcony when it is not too cold. The pigeons do not seem to mind.

The Château de Pourtalès is more than I could have imagined. I have been here now one week and not yet seen every room or explored every corner. To think that I am a guest of the same house which once invited Alexandra of Denmark, the Princess of Wales, and many other distinguished guests, really lets the history of this place become more of a reality in the present rather than some vague story of the long lost past. The house’s history, which is a journal entry sure to come, can be felt in this magic place.

Registration

10 JAN 2017

To say the least, the French system for class/course registration may be a bit… how do you say, complicated? Yes, that is the word. All last week, we spent time in school orientations for EM Strasbourg Business School. A portion of our group will be attending classes there, and so we all had the pleasure of sitting in on orientation. The auditorium classroom was near-full of international students like ourselves from all over the world. There were students from Russia, Canada, Korea, Peru, and more than I can currently recall. We all used English to communicate, though, despite it being a French university in France. This, I found interesting. So it would seem that English is truly a global language. According to Robert Lane Greene in 1843 Magazine by the Economist, French is the best language to learn.

Continuing on, the auditorium was near-full. We all sat and talked until the speakers were prepared to present. Over the two-hour talk, we learned that this was not going to be easy. EM students are students both of the University of Strasbourg and the EM school. Each school has its own online system which must be navigated. These two systems are not connected. On one, a student can see the list of classes and even add courses to their own schedule, but that does not mean you have registered for those classes. You must then take those course codes to the other system and there register during a predetermined date and time. Word to the wise, registration may or may not go through. There is an additional two-day period immediately following registration in which some students may be dropped from classes. It is the responsibility of the student to make sure they know if this happens to them or not.

Still with me? After the talk, we all went to get out student ID cards. This is where we learn about needing French social security insurance before that can happen. Fun times. After the next few days of orientations and registration, EM students are situated and off to classes. Now it is my turn. There are four of us staying at the château who are going to a different school within University of Strasbourg. We are attending the very special l’Institut d’Études Politiques, or more simply Sciences Po (pronounced SEE-ahnce PO).

This morning, our small group went and registered as official students of Sciences Po. It was relatively painless compared to what the EM students struggled through. This Friday, we all get to register for classes. By the 16th, I should have my student ID card, and my classes should begin shortly thereafter. To say the least, I am very excited about starting classes.

In the meantime, it is back to waiting. We hop back on the usual Bus 15 at the Marne stop to return to Pourtalès. More stomping through the snow,, more steps, more exercise I suppose. Maybe I really will lose some weight while I am here. That would be nice. For lunch, I have a PB+Nutella&J sandwich. I spend a little time reading and writing as well. By 6 PM, there is a French class. For the first hour and a half, we go through a beginner’s refresher in French. For the second hour and a half, we converse freely in French. It is nice to be speak a little confidently in French. It is satisfying to realize that I can understand most of what is said.

I typically do well in my classes, but language courses have proven most difficult for me. I did well in Beginning French 1001 and 1002, but then the Intermediate level and on started to really press my abilities. I struggle mostly with vocabulary and pronunciation. It turns out, I need to speak more and with more confidence. I need to let myself make mistakes and not be upset when I do. Huh, nice life advice even if not just for learning a new language.

Shopping in Germany, or at least trying to

9 JAN 2017

Trying to be a morning person in a room where the floors creak, and not quietly, can be difficult. Tiptoeing softly across the floor to get dressed and ready for breakfast only seems to prolong the creakiness, and jumping here and there is simply obnoxious. There is one spot by the bed where I am sure the wood flooring beneath the carpet dips a good two to three inches. At some point, I may place markers on the floor to indicate safe, quiet spots as if it were a trap in an Indiana Jones movie. Until then, it is always a surprise to find out where the floor does not creak.

The alarm on my phone sounds at 7 AM. I open my eyes and try to adjust to the darkness. There is a little light from outside illuminating the red curtains, but not much. It is still fairly overcast, so morning light comes at a premium. I grab the day’s outfit, laid out the night before so as to prevent fumbling around in the dark, and set off for breakfast. Afterward, our group meets in Salon Rouge to leave for the insurance office. As a student in France, it is necessary to have social security insurance, at a rate of 215€, unless you are over 28 (lucky me!).

The insurance office visit is a short one, and then we are back out into the snow and ice. The ice here, thankfully, isn’t like ice in Atlanta. It is much more like a very watery slush thanks to the street sweepers and salt. The sidewalks are covered in an inch or 2 of the soft, powdery snow that crunches with each step. Pedestrian footprints mark the sidewalk. Bike treads mark the bike lanes. The occasional small dog wearing a sweater jaunts along. We are back on the 15 Bus heading to Lamproie and the 15-minute walk to the château.

Today’s outing was a short one. I barely know what to do with my free time. I spend most of it catching up on journal entries, but luckily a few of the girls ask if I would like to grab groceries with them. We all decide to try shopping in Germany. Kehl is a small town just across the Rhine River. I am told that the shops there are all significantly cheaper than what we have available in Strasbourg. A quick search shows me that we should take the 15 Bus to the 2, then the 21, and we will be in Germany, easy. We hop on the 15, transfer to the 2, exit at Port du Rhin, and begin our search for the 21.

But now it is dark. We are in an area we are not familiar with and hungry. The 21 Bus stop is nowhere to be found, and without access to internet via data or Wi-Fi, we can consider ourselves lost. There is a tram stop that appears to cross the Rhine, but it is under construction, so no good there. We shuffle about the port area, which is clearly commercial. There are shipping containers, cranes, large barges, and the heavy stench of oil and engine grease. A few lamps keep us from total darkness, but an intuitive uneasiness sets about us and we decide it is a lost cause. The Simply Market by the château is thankfully a short two bus rides away.

Perhaps we will try for Kehl another day soon. In the meantime, the Simply Market is brightly lit with typical grocery store fluorescents. The produce section isn’t as full or diverse as those in the States, but I am pretty sure that is because most of the produce is somewhat local, and as it is winter, well, it is difficult to grow a lot in the snow. I manage to find some near-ripe, imported Peruvian bananas and grab throw those in my bag. In the refrigerator section, there is a variety of vacuum-sealed seafood options. I go for the salmon slices. I grab two loaves of whole-grain bread for 1€85 each. I splurge on some Nutella, because I could not hold out forever. I search out a few more items then head to the line. In France, you must bring your own bags, or purchase reusable ones at the store (I have a feeling I have said this before, but it bears repeating).

We check out and begin the healthy 20-or-so-minute walk home in the snowy dark. Germany will certainly have to wait until another day.

Monet, Mondrian, and Modern Art

8 JAN 2017

Having to pay just 7€ for entry into a museum is not so bad, even when under the assumption that it would be free. Typically, the first Sunday of every month here allows free entry into museums and historical sites, and we assumed, incorrectly, that this second Sunday would warrant the same since the first Sunday of the year was a holiday. A portion of our group decided to spend a little free time to check out the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain. Its glass, Mondrian-esque walls certainly make quite the appearance in the surrounding old town. We each look quite ridiculous, I am sure, waltzing through the avant garde and postmodernism trying to appear as if we understand any of what we see.

As it turns out, I am certain we explore the museum backwards. It seems to be constructed in such a way that the visitor can explore the modern works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then continues on a winding path through mid- to late-20th century works, and upstairs to late-late-20th century on into the 2000s. I think that I can appreciate the newness and the protest and the cerebralness of modern art, however, I am not a fan. Mondrian may have made straight lines and colored squares famous, but you will not see a print of his work hanging in my house. Picasso is world-renowned for his Cubism… cool. I may be critical, but there are some fine Impressionist works by Sisley and Monet, so my visit is not absolutely “wasted.” All-in-all, there are actually two pieces I really enjoy.

One is a stained glass window work by either OTT Frères Strassburg or QTT Frères Strassburg I guess by the imprint toward the bottom of the work. According the the information sign adjacent, the artist was anonymous, though. Vitrail Allégorie du Printemps, or Allegory of Spring, as it is called, is dated as being made in 1900. The detail is sharp, and the colors are bright. Now this is something I think I would not mind having in my house.

The second work I am a little ashamed to say that I do not recall the artist of, nor the date. Perhaps, on a free-admission day, I will return and gather the proper details. Seeing the works of the 21st century, with their single lines or dots on a single-colored backdrop remind of seemingly equally ridiculous works of a canvas covered in a single shade of gray or white. But behold, I turn a corner into a dimly lit room to witness this work of art, this beauty in an ugly world, this… wait, no. Here it is, the solid, single-shade-of-white, oil on canvas. I get that I do not get it. I understand that I have not researched it. I know that there is more to this than meets the eye.

But as I stand here, face-to-face with a museum piece prominently displayed, I am in awe of how this could have happened and curious as to know why it did. At what point does a person go, “Aha! I have it! Bring the white paint, that ever-so-bright-single-shade white paint. I will create my masterpiece here and now. Will I include some interesting textures? No! Will I make sure the paint strokes are all of a direction or pattern? No! Will it look like an expertly painted, flat wall? Yes!” To which the art collector replies, “This piece truly speaks to my heart: cold, desolate, a frozen tundra of… well, the absence of color. Yes, I will pay a small fortune for it.”

Am I being too harsh? I think not. I imagine Monet and Picasso faced similar criticisms for their new styles. I assume, maybe, that this work and its brethren will share similar spotlights. For what reason, though, I know not yet.

Daydreaming in Petite France

7 JAN 2017

It is easy to imagine the small ships and ferries navigating the canals of Petite France in Strasbourg. Here, the tanners, millers, and fishermen lived and worked. Set aside from the wealthier part of town because of the “evil” smell of the tanning process, Petite France grew up in the early 12th century. I can see the pitched, half-timbered roofs of the former tanneries. This architectural design would trap the smell, for the most part, and divert it from the surrounding area. As well as tradesmen, soldiers would man the four towers and the bridges connecting them over the Ill River.

The seemingly untouched image of these old homes and fortifications make it easy to shut my eyes and see and hear the sights and sounds of a medieval metropolis hard at work: the cathédrale bells ringing, the horse-drawn carriages creaking along, the farmer selling his fresh produce, the tradesman hawking his wares, and the Alsatian stork’s call sounding as if a drummer beating against a wooden drum.

Now, the pitched roofs are chic, oft-sought-after apartments; the streets are full of couples, families, and groups touring; the tannery smell gone; and the horse-drawn carriages replaced with bicycles and small sedans. I think I can most appreciate how, like in Paris, the medieval apartments are still lived in. They are not relegated to some historical society or museum, which is important indeed, but these, even being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are no ruins. They are teeming with life, thriving.

As if breaking away from a dream, I am pulled away to continue our tour of the Grande Île. We weave through the winding alleyways back toward Gutenberg Square and then a little further toward Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It has hardly set in that this gothic tower, this medieval town, is my new home for a few months. I am sure once classes begin, though, that that will all change. Soon, I will be rushing to the bus and the tram, racing down the street past centuries-old buildings to make sure that I am not late for class.

Hah, in fact, I am looking forward to it.