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.
We try to be normal. We really do. But every straight line we draw canters just a little to the side–and so, in travel (as in everything else), our lives run a little diagonally.
This truth was on full display a few years ago in Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg:
The thing for Americans to do here, besides wander and take in the beauty, is to stage photos that resemble scenes from The Sound of Music. (The song, Do Re Mi was partly filmed here.) Ideally, these photos look a little like this:
This is the top gate at Mirabell. (Notice the fortress, Hohensalzburg, on the hill in the background–it’s really a fantastic shot of the gardens and the city behind.) We spent some time here. We took some photos here. But none looked like this.
What did they look like? Well, look to your right. This is my son, sleeping (while being serenaded by an accordion player) on those same steps at the Mirabell Gardens. Why is he sleeping, you ask? He’s tired from sightseeing, but especially from running through the gardens. Singing Do-Re-Mi? Oh no. No. This child was reinacting some “American Ninja in Salzburg” screenplay known only to him. My favorite scene from that movie, below. (Clearly the people around him are a little surprised and amused by the sight.)
I’ve been thinking about our quirky travels this past weekend while in Chicago with my daughter. In another year, she’ll be heading off to college. And my son, the masked ninja, begins high school in August. They’ve grown up fast, and our travel adventures with them are changing. I already miss the visits to “knight schools” and castles, the nativity plays we attended with dishtowels on their heads, and their absolute inability to stand still for photos.
Ein Konig und ein Hirte– a wise king and a shepherd at Ripon Cathedral some years ago (2008?)
Still, I imagine our “diagonal” travels will continue into the future. After all, they started before our children were born. In Turkey, we were just two people with little dog garnering stares as we drove by in an old Volvo wagon. On it’s own, that doesn’t sound so strange, but we stuck out like a sore thumb. In Turkey, it wasn’t unusual to count 7 people on a motorcycle and sidecar. So when we made our way through the streets– streets that might find two lanes stuffed with five “lanes,” including cars, giant trucks, mopeds, buses, and donkeys– our long wagon, carrying only two people and a tiny dog, was the thing outside of the norm. Why waste such a long vehicle on so few travelers? Why bother with a dog too small to herd sheep? And why crawl slowly through the melee of a Turkish traffic jam instead of throwing yourself into the mix full throttle while laying on the horn? Clearly, we were the nuts who didn’t understand the rules of the game.
When you travel, people always tell you to try to fit in– obey the customs, don’t be too awkward or too obvious. It’s safer and more respectful to conform to the norm as best you can.
They tell us to try to fit in, but who does that, honestly?
Sometimes you just have to embrace the diagonal. What else can you do?
Tonight marks Twelfth Night– the eve of Epiphany, the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It’s considered very bad form, and bad luck, to keep Christmas decorations up any longer than this.
This, I think, is a plot hatched by type A neatniks to push type B malingerers into a tidy-up already. Not a bad ploy; I get it. However, this time last year, I decided to keep my tree up another week or two, until my corner of Germany got some snow. When the snow finally made its appearance, I snuggled under a blanket with a book and some hot chocolate while the tree lights twinkled. No bad luck in that.
This year, I’m baffled by what to do. Family and friends to my north are expecting freezing weather and snow storms in two days. I feel like I should leave my tree up as a sign of solidarity– I can read by its twinkling lights, turn on a fan, and pretend that I’m looking out my window at a foot of snow. But I’ll be looking at this:
Good stuff, but not a winter wonderland.
Or I could be industrious and take it all down and give up on winter ever coming to Florida. (I’d be tidy and efficient, but kind of a quitter too. It’s a quandry.)
In the States, we don’t pay much attention to the “12 days” of Christmas. (Christmas day until Epiphany, January 6th.) It’s more of an Old World concept. But it lends more structure, and a greater sense of traditional festival, to the holiday than our modern sprawl (which is more like the 12 weeks of Christmas, starting before–or at, if we are very lucky– Halloween).
Twelfth Night offers a chance to wallow in Christmas traditions for one more night– to eat heartily (and include a King’s Cake on the table) and drink wassail. It’s also the night when you finally allow the yule log to die out– that log that you started burning on Christmas Day and kept going until now. The yule log is said to bring luck for the coming year, and, if you’ve kept a fire burning around the clock for the last 12 days and your house is still standing, then I’d say you’re pretty lucky! We didn’t do that at my house. We did, however, bake a yule log (a buche de Noel) and gobble up every crumb. Hopefully that imparts luck and not just extra pounds.
From our experiences in Germany, it’s obvious that Twelfth Night doesn’t just mark an ending of a season– it is also the beginning of the carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras. We’ve seen this in Bavaria and the Black Forest, where Christmas season seems to be dipped at both ends with a dollop of menace. On the front end of Christmas, Krampus came for bad children around December 6th (Nikolaustag), and now at the holiday’s closing bell, masked demons parade in the streets as the carnival season gets underway.
Two years ago, in January, we took a trip to the Black Forest. We spent the night in Triberg, and the snow was falling fast and starting to accumulate. We tucked the kids and dogs into the hotel in the early evening and told them we’d go find a restaurant in town and bring dinner back to them.
When we got down the hill and into town, we turned toward a restaurant we’d seen earlier in the day, and ran headlong into a merry band of demons parading the streets. But, you know, these things happen in the Black Forest. We laughed, but didn’t think much of it until the next day when we were talking to Oliver Zinapold in his Triberg woodworking and clock shop. We talked cuckoo clocks at great length, and even bought a lovely clock from him, and before we left we spotted a devil’s mask up on the wall. I asked about it.
“Oh, it’s a good thing you came today,” he said. “Tomorrow, I close up shop and go to Switzerland for a few days to be in the Carnival.” He showed us his hand carved mask, and pulled out a sketch book of other masks (and clock faces) he’d made. And suddenly the merry band of devils we’d seen in Triberg made perfect sense.
So, don’t mourn the passing of Christmas time at Twelfth Night . . . just realize that thirteenth night marks the beginning of another lively season. And more than a little mischief.
I’ll leave you with a short video of Oliver Zinapold’s workshop– Oli’s Schnitzstube. The video is in German, but if you are drinking your Twelfth Night wassail, I expect you’ll understand every word of it. And even if you don’t, it’s worth seeing the lovely clocks and (an added treat) one of his devil masks can be seen hanging on the wall at about 22 seconds into the video.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.
We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it. We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.
We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.
But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.
“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” ― Dickens, A Christmas Carol
When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–an uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted. It was the right sort of house for that: imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.
I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.
But then nothing happened.
Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.
Still, nothing happened.
After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened. What a rip off! I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!? Not a fair trade off if you ask me.
But ghosts are people too; they have their own agendas. I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life. It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life. What was Christmas like for them? Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver? Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage? Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?
And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area? Was the occupation oppressive or a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals . . . who must have been haunted already by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war.
And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II. What about those Christmas dinners? Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark? Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe? Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me. I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.
And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided, like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.
Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either. I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.
It’s better not to know, I tell myself.
Still, I want a ghost for Christmas. I can’t shake that feeling. It’s part of the old house package.
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” -William Faulkner
I had a ghost once, a few years ago.
I know, I know–just hear me out. This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances. The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening. For that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening (the story becomes infinitely more plausible at that point). And one more thing–the children aren’t around. If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.
I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts).
So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story in a few days. That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined. It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.
Meet me here then, if you dare, and I will tell you my story.
It’s not. It’s really, really not. It’s 76 sweaty degrees in Florida today. It’s gross. My only consolation is that the pelicans fishing in the bay this morning made a lovely sight.
Last year this time, I wrote a post called “All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost,” which I never got . . . at least not from my old German house. This year, all I want is some cold weather . . . which I’m not getting from Florida. So I’m packing up for a few days to fly off to cooler climes. I’ll post travel photos at some point, once I’m back.
Until then, I don’t want this space to fall fallow, so I am going to re-run my two part ghost story from last Christmas in the next few days. Don’t think of it as a cheap way to cheat as a blogger; think of it as airing a Christmas classic during the season. (Just humor me on this.)