There’s a courtyard view from my hotel room; not looking towards the cathedral but away to another space I’ve not been. Leaving by the front entrance is a confrontational experience, fighting the many who sit in the cafes and restaurants, those fleeing the cathedral, the lost, the hawkers with head-umbrellas: they cluster. And eat cheese. Buy hats.
But here from my window is an almost empty courtyard below. In fact, as I GPS, it’s in between the cathedral square and the street I’ve temporarily named rue de Aldolfo Domingez, as his fashion is sold there, Hermes is just up that street. It is in fact the Rue de Veil L’hopital.
I wind to the courtyard, and find a brasserie. The customers are different, local, tied up with reading the local paper, or a book, gossiping about something. We are twenty metres from the storming of the Cathedral and we could be in another country. It is a Friday; school’s out by lunchtime and there are lots of kids smooching canal side, hanging outside the school gates. But here is contentment, of the local kind.
It is a very different mood in term time; I assume this only increases when the undergraduates, Erasmuses (more on them later), and politicians return for duty. At each turn away the alleys and streets and boulevards – but mostly the alleys – bring a new and more variegated community. The longer I travel the easier, perhaps, to sense difference. We are certainly, if temporarily, back in France. Though Strasbourg is “particularly” French, in the same way that Rennes and Cassis are particular. There is a sense of hermetic openness. Roman once, of course. Alsace now, more than most.
It seems, thus, ironic, that next week the Strasbourg parliament will debate, with vigour, the position of the French government in relation to its “Roma”. The newspapers here – and all over the world – are full of the story. The sniff of exile, of the Rhine trail, of Guttenberg, who worked here, is all about. What is absent is the sense of the political; the people who make Human Rights Law. Who fight governments over Roma deportations. “They all live in the big apartments around the Orangerie,” Jim – or Jules – said last night. “You don’t see them.” And it is true that the old part of town, which can seem many things, never feels like Brussels sur mer; or Westminster. Because it is Friday, perhaps, the shops and every cafe and bar hum from midday, at the centre, at the periphery, along the canals and tucked away in courtyards. Hum with locality. Not tourism.
There is a lot of middle aged snogging – tongues and all. This seems quite strange to an Englander. Especially at my hideaway local brasserie where a couple not so much younger than me, let’s say maximum ten years, are nipple-tweaking and tongue-wrestling over a couple of espressos. This doesn’t happen in the Columbus Circle Starbucks. My protestant puritanism, had I got any, would be shaken.
Later I ask the actresses about this. Binoche 1 says: “If you have it, you flaunt it, it’s common here.” What I’m – distantly – getting closer to is a sense of the smallness that cities once possessed, not exactly the smallness of Tom’s Strasbourg, but the idea of the feet – metres – that change the social construction of “place”. Interesting as I think back to those amazing north Italian towns, the Cremonas and Mantuas of the first trip, that I didn’t think in this way: I thought about towns as entities, with commonalities. Now I begin to think about multiple entities with overlapping communities. This may be wrong; but no wronger, I suspect than the the lazy Baslers are different from Zurich people discussions of a few nights ago. I eat well for lunch, cordon bleu veal: tomorrow and the next day are country walking towards Baden Baden, and I don’t know what to expect. France to Germany too…
At the roof top cafe of the modern art gallery I am feeling a little underwhelmed, though the nineteenth century landscapes I’ve seen, betwixt a bunch of sculptural installations that revealed not much, make sense. In fact I’ve found my entire art aesthetic, other than Barney, growing old and non-Italianate, northern in fact. There is plenty of torture and pain in the cathedral museum. It does increasingly make sense.
The wide shopping boulevards, pedestrian normally, do have a transcendent blandness, but where do they not? It is the average cafes and bars you judge, by attempting a kind of process that absents first rich tourists, then other tourists, bikers-by, then…well, whoever else doesn’t seem appropriate. I’m trying a kind of unrecognizing. I think about Jim last night, his returning to the scenes of a broken love affair, trying to ignite a new one. As though, what? As though it is geography that creates the right environment. I think too of Barney’s show, the “lines of restraint” he feels are embeddied and embodied in us all.
I met a black kid last night somewhere between Il Cherche Tourjours and Jules et Jim’s Most Horrible Date. He had the most fantastic English accent, somewhere between a BBC newscaster and, say, the mottled mockney of Tony Balir. He looks like a young Hendrix and rides a mountain bike. He’s started speaking because he heard me, and he “loves speaking English.”
Where did you live in England? I ask, expecting a narrative of embassies and fee-paying schools and bitter nights on the training field. Instead: “I was just talking to English people, online, voice-chat, when I was gaming. Such a cool accent. No, not World of Warcraft, but Counterstrike.” He’s a musician too, but “it’s really hard to be a professional musician these days.” Later it becomes clear he’s studying at the most prestigious place – well I think it was Environmental science and how to save the world, or something similar. He looks like he might.
It’s mid afternoon, I’ve trekked my culture, and realised that the first leg, three years ago, in which I covered everything each city or town had created, was a Tom Trip in my pursuit of the constructed, which took me over kilometres of urban spaces but often left me exhausted for the “walks” and so these were often “augmented” by – no cars – transport, was a very different affair. Now I’ve walked as much as Tom, for two weeks, and he, despite his five week break in Venice (come on, he must have been a spy), was really pounding it out and doing his churchgoing – and in the intellectual centres, having the conversations. We’ve lost a little of curiosity stamina, I think.
This morning my hotel front-desk Penelope has written me an Odyssean list of cafes and bars that locals use. BTW only in France could the monthly glossy travel magazine be named Odysse. So I’ve checked out a coffee shop, and the old Irish bar, but it was blazer-heavy even if only metaphorically. I’m double-expresso-ing at the Bar Exile, on Rue de L’Air and I’m thinking, not nodal like the behemoths of Petty France, or the Cafe Broglie; the machines of the Cathedral square. Yet it is local.
Later still, but early enough, Jeannette et les Cycleux. I almost missed it. This is a cafe right opposite Le Cloche au Fromage where we’ve eaten cheese in spectacular lunches, I mean spectacular. This is a city of cycles and limos, I write. Because fifteen feet from Le Cloche, Jeanette’s is another canton – with everything that this means. Unless you miss it, and its meaning. Which is easy to do. Here pearls and neck-tatts, crown-jewel fingers and harem pants all sit happily. I am beginning to see in other ways, perhaps.
I’m talking to one of chefs, who has just finished for the day. She’s telling me about the local products she’s sourced for the charcuterie, and about the Alsace bio-tech valley, from here to Basel is like a biological Silicon valley. She’s helping to shape ideas about Alsace in relation to France, and German; suggesting the traditions and the laws are different from both. Her boyfriend, who will appear soon, is metis, mixed raced. A man, a DJ, from the Caribbean, French father, Caribbean mother. He wants to talk string and big bang and a new unifying theory called “E8” – I still haven’t looked it up. “The spirit is different when it is white fathers, black mothers; rather than the other way around…” Mahta says, the tiny differences that mean a lot.
In Germany it will be easier to meet people Mahta says, “image is not so important.” She’s stopped going skiing – it is far too dangerous, I’d rather walk the mountains. And Florian just didn’t get the snow ski climb thing.
I’ve learnt in Chur that, of course the English invented all that alpine adventure stuff in the nineteenth century, but that’s another story. Although one that tells an interesting story about us – English – and our confused relationship to the Alps; to Germany too. Not so long ago it was a favoured tourist destination.
Mahta’s father, a Swiss, loves the ritual of the ski.
Rosalind sits down and asks about media jobs in London. I am trying to work out why. In fact her story is the story of travel and love. She was in New York a while back, on her own. There was a boy in a (famous) book shop, the (ah ha) section. She saw; two days later they kissed; two more no need for the Harry/Sally Thesis…and then she must come home, on Thursday. That day Eyjafjallajökull went up in Iceland. Thus: two more weeks in Brooklyn….Now they are moving to London…
Rosalind tells the story of the cafe’s name. In Alsace in the 1960s when boys didn’t have cars, they had motorbikes, then as now, there was always The Girl. To try and impress her they would buff and customise their machines, so that in the coffee bar, the cafe, The Girl would notice. They would be The One. Except for one thing: The Girl is in love with Elvis Presley, and wants to move to America. (There was, I feel, a similar mythos around Julie Christie’s character in Billy Liar. And didn’t she end up on the train to London…)
Thus, the iconography of the rooms inside, bikes half embedded in the walls, photo images of French girls in cowboy shirts. It’s very fine. “And that,” I ask Rosalind, “is the story of Alsace girls in the 1960s?”
“No, that’s the story of France now.”
Mahta asks me to remember that the Swiss are famous for mercenary armies; the Swiss guard at the Vatican…but I can’t now remember why. Also the toleration that allowed for Dominicans, and Jews to settle. (I note that I must check my history here; though later walking through the newer town closer to the EU buildings on a Friday night, I see a lot of Jewish families on their way to a sabbath service, or a Shabbas dinner).
Mahta and Florian are laid-back; bereft of the anxiety that can surround some here, those that critique the il cherche tourjours mentality. Those that get over-Proustian and weepy in old bars. There’s a conversation going on behind me in English, though none of participants are English, it ranges over albums, tracks, computer games, festivals, arenas, DVDs.
When I was a teenager, travelling europe, the lingua-franca was the cod conversation about liking Pink Floyd; twenty five years later in Eastern Europe this had evolved to Radiohead. I wondered if I was in the midst of one of this meme’s new pan-European moments. But when their dates, The Binoches, arrive I suspect I’ve stumbled onto a Jean Luc Godard casting, circa 1962. The roll-up cigarettes, the leather, the conversations about Moliere, Marivaux; learning about the word beuark. The hard years in the conservatoire, making it or not as an actress; the curiously interlinked world of the three French film production companies that get grants from the French government. Beart’s botox – she now looks like a duck (there are other allegations, but the English laws of libel, even online)…. The Cigogne, the Bird of Alsace, “if you don’t see one flying just go to the tourist shops and ask to see a plate. The drink of the evening: rose pamplemousse. A local speciality.
A Strasbourg girl with a perfect English accent, who’s dating the bass player of a local band – more Hives than Strokes, very Arktik Munkee – that just toured the Baltics, and also did a gig in the Hawley Arms in London, maybe. but certainly after a Chinese punk act that all wore dresses, starts talking to me about translation. She looks like a young Wuthering Heights Kate Bush. “But I don’t av the ears,” she says.I mean perfect Nrf lundon. Where were you born?
The accent is amazing.
I met an old Etonian on my Erasmus year in Berlin. His family had the whole thing, the “cottage” next to the main house, the chapel, the Porsche in the drive but no money, the strict no-tears rule when the dog died. They hated me, obviously. ‘He’ asked to delete me from his Facebook friends recently, because “he didn’t like reading French in his news feed.” The Binoches are rehearsing for a play, Sunday. Fables, Marivaux…will be fun. Binoche 1 played a punk on TV; Binoche 2 has done a film and dates a harpist, Binoche 3 is going to Brussels to study Arts Administration.
And then the casting is over. The lights are killed. The cathedral is still there. And in about six hours I have to walk into Germany, to Lichtenau – which is currently foxing the GMApp on the IPAD.
I’ll get there. I’m just not sure how to edit tonight’s movie to make it look like Band a Part.