It’s warm in Strasbourg, the last days of real summer. Around the cathedral square and along the canals of the old city an influx of visitors are consuming. Wine, cheese, culture. More cheese. The flow around the cathedral is relentless, bus tours stop over for headphone commentary reconnaissances. Leather Road Warriors, bikers on their way from or to Milan or Paris, devil may care alpine crossings, pull over, turn off their machines and take a beer while they, at least look at, the amazing cathedral facade. Like a steep, sheer, giant Hindu carving, a supra-elaborate series of narratives.
The facade is stories, media. At 10 in the evening there is a crappy Queen-Concert light show; one might expect Brian May to pop up at the Quasimodo level and windmill arm a power chord. But, even so, the nooks and crannies are fill of tales.
I’m staying in the old town, right on the square. For some reason, perhaps it is the daily stampede around these streets, its easy to get a room. It may be different next week, when the politicians are back with their caravanserai of lobbyists and webmeisters and ‘friends’. Who knows? I was here very recently with Portia: we ate the fine food, and made wine-tasting trips to Colmar, not so far away down the Alsace road. We hung in the French Quarter, relaxed on the roof-top cafe at the Modern Art Museum, the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg, played backgammon all over town, and generally had one of those adult – kids with their dad – kind of holidays.
This time it was the same, but different. I know to visit the cathedral early; to avoid the presentation about the Strasbourg astronomical clock in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, I know to miss the tour-party dinner places; to not worry about exploring the arena around the EU. Tom was old town – my mantra – so I stay there, and wander there. Last time we got lost often in Strasbourg and I wasn’t sure why. I wanted to know.
My thesis now is that we hadn’t grasped the scale of the old town; by which I don’t mean the considerable size, or the constant closeness to a canal, but to what – I am forced to call in a Rory Stewart echo – the Spaces in Between. Leaving the cathedral square north, south, east and west reveals almost different countries: if you are looking carefully. Different countries, that is, of experience.
It is in Strasbourg that I begin to appreciate the fine detail of distance, not just in the grand architectural lines of the cathedral, the ringing effect of the canals; the spectre of “otherness” somewhere close on the big boulevards that lead to the EU buildings, but in something else. The detail of social distance. In the same way that Basel and Barney helped me to, in a small way, take the Kunsthaus out of the art I consumed, so here I began to try and imagine the grand, but small, town Tom visited. He loved the clock, obviously: the cathedral was a tourist attraction long before his visit. I’ll write about the clock and “time” separately, later, for now just in passing.
The social distance then, and in fact now, between the cathedral square, and the next, and the French quarter – not really five minutes away, is important. Cities as villages, and globalised in their way, then and now. The cathedral I must escape, because it dominates, an Eiffel of its time – the tallest spires in the “world”, until Cologne cathedral’s grand scheme was completed, finally, in the nineteenth century.
Inside, first, and the famous astrological clock. Impossible, in my era of GPS’d IPAD to imagine the impact of a machine that combines world times with a figurine march-past of symbols, overlooked by death. It is very different, this “northern” worldview.
So many media, then. The arrivals, and city gates; the central square and the imposing, competitive, spires. Bells, the higher the longer they echo; the sun overhead. High above Heidelberg in a few days time, walking my “philosopheweg” for the third time, following not Tom, but Goethe, Schelling, and maybe even Hanah Arendt’s footsteps, I listen to the cathedral bells echoing down the Rhine valley, travelling as far – well, as far as “safety.”
I try and imagine Strasbourg cathedral’s media reach. When there was no new town; no court of Human Rights; and no hinterland.
Today every cafe and bar is full, noisy with transience. From the cafes to the north of the cathedral to the Irish pubs near the University, to the Django-jazz bars of the French quarter.
I am at the Beer Academy, on the edges of the “French” part of town. We are, I should remind us, “in” France, though this is, as the history museum so brilliantly and practically demonstrates (models of the armour from 1600 to wear, pull-out drawers with posters, explanations of “Argentina” – the Romans’ name for Strasbourg, it being the tax collecting centre) a city with a complex paternity. I’m in the beer academy because it is slightly off kilter from the Django bars, and it is opposite a tattoo parlour, and I am – since Chur, and particularly since the revelations of both Barney and the “tortured” art of Basel, somewhat obsessed with both the “mark” and with “pain”.
I sit and write for hours in the Moleskine, a new one, dutifully found in what appears to be a religious bookshop (I didn’t ask). It’s quite late now, still writing, Go outside for a ciggy. when I return the table in front of me, we’re in small pew style seating, is amused. I start writing again. The relation of here to Basel, the French thing. the Jewish tradition. The hermeneutics of the amazing cathedral. I am in Alsace, that’s the thing; betwixt in the real sense.
“Il cherche,” says one of the boozed guys in front of me.
“Il cherche, tourjours,” says another, surlier guy. Boozed up aussi. Boy Laughing, a la Anglais.
I think about this for a moment, and don’t like my moment. “Yes indeed,” I say, my first words to the table in front of me. “I do cherche tourjours. It makes life interesting.”
There is an uneasy silence. Boozy Guys move into a more aggressive mode. We are, as usual, saved by a woman, the woman at their table. She translates, I explain about Tom, the walk, etc.
“”Keep searching,” I say as I leave for, almost, home. I’m not sure if the message got through.
So it is 3am in the morning and I am acting as a kind of marriage guidance counsellor to a young, handsome, Strasbourg couple, if we accept the slight detour from the Truffaut original, lets call the girl Jules and the boy Jim. I know…
They look the perfect couple, young, talking happily, together at 3am without seeming like a late night conjunction, fluent. We’re outside, they approach. “We have a question for you,” the boy says, let’s call him Jim.
“Can a man and a woman have a friendship, be friends, without sex? Without them at least wanting to have sex with each other?”
Ah. The much discussed Crystal-Ryan Doctoral Thesis from 1989. When, er, Harry faire la connaissance de Sally. Hope that is vaguely right.
Well of course, I say. I ask about this late night dive, who’s here, why it has the kinds of people it does…the usual, all bars of this kind have their rationale. Jules smiles broadly at my reply; Jim is not so happy. I think we understand the – universal – situation. I explain why I am here, my walk, the search for whatever it is, “Europe” I suppose. The old Europe I knew and this new hybrid. I tell Jules et Jim about “Il cherche tourjours.” I’m rather pleased with it, an epithet suitable to sit alongside my own current tombstone request: Quick Wit, Slow Fuck (but in Latin, of course, so as no sensibilities could possibly be upset). Jules laughs; Jim says: I think I can explain what they were really saying.
The young man is saying you are a homo-sesschual (there is a long phlegmy, squelchy emphasis on the middle syllable that somehow reminds me of the name, Aschenbach, and thus ashtrays, in Death in Venice – I tell neither Jules nor Jim). I see, how interesting. Later I explain Beat’s idea about finding the uber bar and watching the world go by, I explain that I’ve been doing that in Strasbourg.
Like where? says Jim. I quote Beat, Paris. I suggest the Marais, where people watching is fabulous.
“Famously homo-sesschual,” says Jim. I’m getting bored now.
We walk back to the cathedral square without Jules, she’s gone home (naturally). I hear the stories about the breakdown, the Proustian moments in the bar we’ve been in, where Jim cried because his last affair failed, and Jules saw, thus emasculating Jim. The switch from his academic career to being a baker; then back. Jim looks at the illuminated facade of the cathedral. I could tell stories about this for days, he says.
I’m not keen to listen now. In the spaces in between I’ve heard plenty of Strasbourg stories tonight.