17 September 2007

Boot Scootin’ Mademoiselle

Oh, life is full of paradoxes, isn’t it? Just when I start to think, ‘I’m really in France!’, I find a tent-full of big belt buckles and fringe line-dancing to country western.


This weekend has been full of happenings. Saturday, the BCA group had an excursion into the Vosges mountains (think low Appalachia, not anything close to the Rockies). We visited Struthof, a WWII concentration camp—the only one built on French soil. It seems ridiculous to think of the atrocious human behavior displayed at this place, nestled into a hillside forest, overlooking some beautiful valley chateau and a vineyard on the next hill over. It was a perfectly clear, sunny day, and the green and flowers of the surrounding landscape made the camp look all the more barren. It reminded me of visiting the slave castles in Ghana: perfectly beautiful sites with perfectly horrible stories. Like standing on an old battlefield and thinking, ‘What a lovely field. Who could possibly have passed right by this view, or this brook, or this tree, and not stopped awhile and rested instead of going on to kill, torture, humiliate another human being?’ I just don’t understand.

There were things I saw at Struthof that I can’t describe, but I won’t forget. You ought to see for yourself.

We continued up the mountain to Mont Ste. Odile, a monastery covering the entire peak, seemingly growing straight from the rock. The Vosges mountains are known for their rose-colored rock, and nearly everything made from stone has this color. From Mont Ste. Odile, you can see the entire spread of the valley beneath you…and that’s pretty far. I knew we were taking a hike to the town of Barr, but I didn’t know we were taking a hike down to the all-the-way-down-in-the-valley town of Barr. It was…invigorating. The best part of the hike was when we left the pine forest with its beautiful vistas and moss-covered rocks, followed a flat road around a field, and turned a curve to find acres and acres of vineyards spreading out before us down to the town of Barr. It was about 5:00, and the sunlight fell perfectly on the rows of ripe grapes. That’s when I thought, ‘Ah, yes. This is the France in the pictures. Just let me pull out my bottle of Bordeaux and baguette, don a beret, and watch the sun set from this bench above the vineyards.’ It was too perfect.

Now, with this imagine in your mind, return to the tent-full of cowboys. This weekend were the Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Days), when almost everything is open and free to the public. After going to the Mennonite church here in town (which was very friendly, lively, multicultural, and intergenerational), I went to the Botanical Gardens, the Alsatian Museum, the museum holding the original stone carvings and other artwork of the Cathedral, the astronomical Observatory, and the Town Hall (think beautiful Romanesque architecture, fancy velvet chairs, and lots of chandeliers). Of them all, I recommend the Alsatian Museum, which is open this year after having been closed for twenty, and which describes the history and customs of the area, and which is housed in the quintessential Alsatian building: wood frame, red flowers, courtyard, everything. In the midst of all this visiting, I had a picnic lunch on a grassy spot at the river near La Petite France (the heart of town), and I chuckled at the tourists floating by in the big sight-seeing boats.

In the mid-afternoon, I headed down to the Jardin des Deux Rives on the Rhine River to the ‘Rheinfest,’ a common French-German effort to celebrate…well, I guess just to have a party. There were concerts, arts and crafts booths, games, a few carnival rides, lots of food stands, and athletic matches on both sides of the river. And, you guessed it, I walked right in on the country western concert, some French-speaking Texan singing about women, beer, horses and tractors. I think I giggled the whole time I was there, because it all seemed so very silly to me to serendipitously find this in the middle of Europe. We’re talking boots, hats, big belt buckles, Lee jeans, and a multi-age group of about fifty line-dancers. I was very amused, and said as much to the lady sitting next to me, who explained that she has friends all over Europe in this same line-dancing group. She seemed surprised that I was so surprised. When the concert finished, I went up to lead singer Tony Lewis, introduced myself as from the States, and asked incredulously, ‘So, when did country music come to France?’ About twenty years ago, he answered. Huh.

Then I crossed the river to the German side, got one of those carbonated apple juices, and listened to an Irish band called Paddy Goes to Hollyhead. They were very good, and though I couldn’t understand a bit of German the lead singer used to please the crowd, I laughed anyway and enjoyed the concert. I ended up sitting next to a French-speaking couple, and asked a few friendly questions about the band, then through the conversation found out that they sponsor French-German-English conversation tables in Kehl and Strasbourg. When I asked the man if the band was actually from (said in French) county Cork (said with an English accent), he did a double-take and said (in French), ‘Oh, I thought you were French, but the way you said that makes me think you’re Irish.’ I was quite proud to be mistaken in such a way, until, later in the conversation when I found out that he held up the English part of the conversation tables, I said (in French), ‘Oh, so you’re not French either.’ Then he broke into a strong British accent and said (in English), ‘No, I’m English!’ We continued with a couple sentences in English, then reverted to French, just to complete the linguistic back flip. At least it wasn’t a belly flop!

I’ll tell you if, someday, I’m every mistaken for French by an actual French person.


Ps. When a black hole becomes dense enough, it actually emits a note of sound: B flat, about 57 octaves below middle C.

Pps. There are only about 2000 Mennonites in all of France.

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