Strasbourg, France. . . once upon a time

On the border of France and Germany, in the enchanting region of Alsace, sits the ancient town of Strasbourg. She’s the sort of beauty that can bring tears to your eyes– really.  The ancient cathedral that pops up like a startled giant as you turn the corner of a tight, wending alley;  the rustic half-timbered houses that are painted in cheery colors as a brace against the moody fog of winter mornings in Europe; the myriad small, exquisite restaurants nestled into the tiny crannies of the old town; and the thriving modern art that pulses of youth and energy.  This is the town of Strasbourg to me.  A fairytale town, both in and out of time– existing somehow as a real, brick and mortar (or wattle and daub) city, but also, so clearly, a space of literal enchantment where you are transported back to a different time, a different world, both fabulous and fierce.

And this is one of the reasons why the terror attack this past week, on the edge of the Strasbourg Christmas market, strikes hard with a poignancy and earthy tragedy.  It shouldn’t happen in such a beautiful place.  Senseless violence in a fairytale city.  It shouldn’t happen.

But it has happened before in this place and others of its ilk.  Because what is the stuff of fairytales, anyway?  Dire cruelty always runs through their marrow: just after the achingly beautiful characters capture our hearts, just before we convince ourselves that there is a happily ever after, we get to the bones of the story.  And, there at the core, we find violence, malevolence, jealousy.  Ugliness.

Strasbourg has known its share of ugliness over the centuries: famine, border wars, plague, the German occupation of  WWII.  There was even The Dancing Plague of 1518– in true fairytale fashion, a plague that was by equal measures farcical and grotesque.  (Honestly, look it up– it’s a bizarre episode that has  zombie-overtones and a  possible psychogenic explanation.)

What I can’t decide today, my heart aching for Strasbourg (and for all of us in a world marred by cruelty), is whether this fairytale cycle of ugliness and hope, of cruelty and resilience, lifts me up in a moment of sadness or deflates my sense that our better angels will ever truly win out.

All I know is, while hope doesn’t prevent the ugliness, the cut to the bone, it refuses to end the narrative there.

 

Advertisements

Saints and Devils, Fire and Snow

Today is Nicholastag (St. Nicholas Day)! I hope you’ve been good this year and woke up to find candies in your boot and not switches (or worse, Krampus at your door)!

Travels and Tomes: One Expat's Amblings and Ramblings

st nick kramp cookie cut jazzup

You need only scratch the surface of modern Europe to see the pulsing of its medieval veins.  This can be a little unnerving, but it’s also deeply gratifying in a way that’s hard to pin down.

Take Christmas traditions as an example.  In America, we embrace a jovial, generous Santa Claus (who, for all of his good character points, does seem to team up with Coca Cola, Hollywood, and the rest of the commercial establishment a little too often for comfort).  He surrounds himself with other agreeable characters– Rudolph and Frosty–and they have a jolly time.  Sure, adversity must be overcome, but their stories never really cross to the dark side.

Would you like a little saccharin with that sweet?

krampus st nick victorian postcard Looks like St. Nick brought his scary friend. (Krampus and St. Nick on a vintage postcard)

Not so in Germany and Austria.  Oh, they’ll serve you sweets at each turn this time of year, but you’re…

View original post 872 more words

Happy Halloween!


From  the Kirkyard at Greyfriar’s, Edinburgh.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door-
Only this, and nothing more.”  -EA Poe

Here’s hoping that only hungry trick or treaters come tapping at your chamber door this evening.

Happy Halloween, everyone!  Have fun and stay safe!

 

 

Sunday on Rose Street

Edinburgh, 2018

Rose Street, in Edinburgh’s New Town, is not particularly new.  New Town dates back to the reign of George III, which is an era many of you know for the American Revolution. In comparison to the Old Town of Edinburgh–a snarl of alleys and ginnels, a mess of hills and ridges– this New Town is bold and orderly in layout.

Layout of Edinburgh’s New Town

But orderly facades are always facades, and architectural symmetry always belies the messier lives there housed.  So consider New Town.  The main streets (Queen Street, George Street, and Princes Street) are wide and regal.  But tucked between are smaller streets– more like grand alleys– running through the blocks, like veins through flesh.  And here lies Rose Street.

Today, Rose Street is a pedestrian road peppered with bakeries, pubs, restaurants, and shops, but it still retains a “back alley” aura.  Not least because it has an outrageous number of pubs, and sometimes an outrageous number of people stumbling out of those pubs and weaving from wall to wall the length of the street.  All told, it’s reputation is generally respectable, if just a bit sodden, these days.  It’s cleaned up a bit from the red light reputation it had 60 years ago.  In fact, it’s home to many more-than-reputable restaurants — 1780 being one I can heartily vouch for.

I bring up Rose Street today, because I stumbled on the lead photo for this post the other day– a photo I took of some street art , part of a series on Rose Street.  It struck a chord, but I had no idea what the verses presented were all about.  Today, I sleuthed about the internet to find that they represent bits of a poem by Scotsman George Mackay Brown, who, as it happens, used to drink in a bar named Milne’s, sat on the corner of a street named Rose, running like a vein through the arm of New Town.

Bottoms Up, dear George!  Today I celebrate your poem, “Beachcomber,” and think about Edinburgh’s New Town, sat side by side with a very old town and perched on the edge of a cold North Sea, both harsh and beautiful.

Beachcomber

Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.

Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.

Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.

Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins.

George Mackay Brown

Untitled (Washington, DC … 2017)

December 30, 2017, Washington, DC

It might be more appropriate to call this “multi-titled,” rather than “untitled.”  In my mind, it’s a toss up between “On Thin Ice” and “The Beginning of the Thaw.”  Either title could describe both the photo and the general tenor of D.C. at the moment, but I’m not sure which is most appropriate this week.

Today the government is back up and moving and the weather has finally warmed, so things are looking up.  On the other hand, it’s still the dead of winter and, you know, mercurial D.C. politics are exhausting.  For now, I choose the non-committal and non-partisan “Untitled.”

Still, it’s a great photo.  If you’ve spent any time in D.C., you’ll recognize the spot.  I was standing at the foot of the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial (which is to my back) and looking onto the reflecting pool, with the Washington Monument and the Capitol in the distance.

I don’t recommend venturing out onto the reflecting pool, even after a deep freeze.  Even worse to do it in large numbers. Immediately after I snapped this photo, one knucklehead fell through the ice.  (Not to worry: the pool is shallow.  Still, the cold and humiliation must have stung badly.)  So there you go, the curse of thin ice.