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.

-9ºC

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.