One Weird Trick for Understanding French Culture

I like France.  I like France very, very much.  More epic vacation blogging to prove that point is coming soon — meanwhile I hope you are enjoying Erin Arlinghaus’s reports from Chamonix.  But there are few related bits of French culture that are astonishing to Americans, or should be.   An interview with Gabrielle Deydier helped pull all those threads together for me, and will hopefully help other Americans appreciate a strong difference between American and French culture.

Gabrielle Deydier is fat.

That’s radical, because being fat is not something French people do very much.

I know this, because one of things I’ve been meaning to mention here in my collection of vacation blog posts is that if you are a plus-sized person, you need to plan ahead when traveling in France. For example, of our various accomodations during our trip, most of the bathrooms were very spacious — larger than a typical American bathroom.  One, though, in a perfectly reputable non-chain hotel, was tiny like you’d find in the smallest of travel trailers.  A bathroom so small you’d be wishing for that giant powder room they had in coach on your flight across the Atlantic.  It’s just assumed that the people coming to the hotel are thin people.

This worked out well for us, because my rail-thin children could go shopping and buy clothes that fit them, which we don’t get to do in the US very much.  But not everybody comes in extra-extra-slim, so if you are planning a trip to France and space needs are a concern, that’s something you want to find out before you make reservations.  Seriously: Ask for measurements in the room you are booking.  (If you’re tall: Ask them to measure the length of the bed, if it isn’t given in the room description.  Inquire about ceiling height in the shower as well.  And remember, every room is different in a non-chain French hotel or B&B.)

So back to Ms. Deydier.  Her book is called You’re Not Born Fat, and it chronicles the shocking amount of open prejudice and insult she has received as a fat person trying to live and make a living in France.  She literally lost her job as a teaching assistant after a month of harassment about her weight — harassment that came from the teacher she worked with, who openly mocked and criticized her in front of the students.   She writes about the lengths the French will go to in order to be thin, including a huge and sometimes-deadly bariatric-surgery industry.  As she writes for Le Parisien, the rate of suicide among those who undergo surgery is double that of those who do not.

If you wish to understand this mania, spend in a little time in the mind of America in the 1950’s.

Keeping Up Appearances

A good friend of mine from high school in France (who later struggled with anorexia in college) came to visit me in the US.  We toured around a bit, and of everywhere she visited, my grandparents’ home was where she felt most at ease.  She described them as being “like the French.”  My grandparents are not French.  But my grandparents were model 1950’s Americans.  They lived by the etiquette book.  Every bit of bourgeois conventionality youngsters rebelled against in the late 1960’s my grandparents embodied in every fiber of their being.

The French, you see, put a very high value on appearances.

Consider adultery, for example.  It is widely accepted as a part of life, so much so that there is even a specific time of day devoted to it.  But discretion in the rule.     The hacking of Ashley Madison was a disaster, because it broke of the rule of don’t-ask-don’t-tell.  Lifelong marriage is highly valued, but “fidelity” is about maintaining the family home and unity in public life, not about who sleeps with whom.  Your wife’s children are your children, and it’s illegal to get a paternity test showing otherwise without a court order.

Thus, in turn, comes the law making it illegal to show a video featuring happy children with Down Syndrome. Abortion is the ultimate tool for keeping up appearances.  And this brings us back to the 1950’s.  While Americans never embraced adultery the way the French do (but did still tolerate it for the sake of the marriage), Americans have a long history of institutionalizing disabled children:

Between 1946 and 1967, the number of people with disabilities that were housed in public institutions in America increased from almost 117 000 to over 193 000, a population increase that was almost double that of the general post-war “baby boom”.  As time went on, those admitted were becoming younger and their disabilities more pronounced. In regards to Down syndrome in particular, there were many cases where fathers and doctors conspired to have a baby institutionalized and then told the mother that the baby had died.

Now, of course, we just abort them.  The French do as we do, but with the French twist of not permitting any reproachful reminders that there were better choices.  Smoothing things over is the highest goal.

On ne naît pas grosse par [DEYDIER, Gabrielle]

Cover art courtesy of Amazon.fr.  FYI a good source for French-language books if you wish to order online for shipment to the US is Decitre.Fr.  They don’t have this particular book in stock in paper right now, though.

Should You Go Watch Next Year’s Tour de France?

In conversation related to the epic vacation, a friend shared that her husband has been wanting for years to go watch the Tour de France.  If you’d like to go next year, about the time this year’s Tour winds up (check) is when you want to begin thinking and planning.  My tentative answer to the question of whether you the adequately-funded Tour de France fan ought to make the pilgrimage is: But of course!

What follows are my reasons and suggestions based on my (very) limited time spent Tour-watching this month, and my large amounts of time spent driving around rural France.  If you’re planning to take the plunge, you’ll of course want to consult some experienced Tour-followers for Tour-specific advice and tips.

 

#1 Reason to go: It is so much fun.

This is my view of the Départ from Vittel this year:

We drove through the middle of nowhere for about an hour (all of it perfectly scenic French countryside), hit a roadblock, got directions from the friendly gendarme manning the road block, and circuited around to get to the ample parking in the town of Vittel.   More friendly gendarmes* gave us directions to the starting line about a ten-minute walk from our parking lot, where we arrived in time to get a spot on the fence, get our cameras ready, and watch the tour take off.

Everyone along the sidelines was happy and excited to be there.   It was a fun and pleasant activity even for we who do not obsessively follow competitive cycling (I know!).

Afterwards we collected up trinkets from the vendors who’d set up booths inside the fenced-off area, then got the girls’ eyes checked:

Not joking!  One of the follow-the-Tour activities was a mobile optometry station called Bus de la Vue.  Anyone can get their vision screened, though adults need to understand French because they use a machine that asks you questions you need to be able to answer.

You would get to meet a lot of interesting people if you followed the entire Tour.

Realistic Tour Expectations

In terms of seeing the Tour itself, a beginner navigator should plan for each stage to either:

  • See the start;
  • Pick a station along the route to watch the athletes pass; or
  • See the finish.

Depending on your location you might be able to see two of those.  Two factors, though, should temper your expectations.  The first is that driving in rural France is a slow and circuitous process.  The second is that roads will be closed — even roads that all your research indicated were supposed to be open.

What I wouldn’t be afraid of is that every single stage of the Tour be overcrowded and impossibly expensive to visit.  What you do need to plan to do is rent a car (surprisingly affordable) and move from hotel to hotel throughout your tour.   You can’t realistically plan to save money by booking a rental apartment, since you’ll be moving from day to day.  Your budget-level hotel cost if you search diligently and reserve super-early is about $100/night.

Tip: A “bed and breakfast” is called a chambre d’hôte, and in rural areas might be easier to find than a regular hotel.  (Remember Google Translate makes it possible for you to do all your reservations in the same combination of broken French and dubious English that will be your lingua franca during your trip  — you can reserve off French-language websites, you aren’t limited to only staying with people who have English-language reservation systems.)

You could instead rent an RV and do a camping road trip, an option I haven’t priced but which seems to be popular.  Know that in an RV you should plan to park at the edge of town and walk in — don’t expect to be able to park or even drive within built-up areas.  Transit in urban areas is good, however, so you can make that work.

Staying Married When Only One of You is a Sports Fan

Imagining for a moment that you have both the funds and the vacation time to follow some or all of the Tour, the thorny question is: If my spouse and I attend together, what will this do to our marriage?

Here are some options for allowing the non-sports fan to enjoy some Tour-ing but get overwhelmed by too much cycling:

  • Drop your spouse off at the day’s chosen spectating location, then use the car to go see area sights.
  • Identify sights at the start, finish, or along the route of the day’s stage, so you can both be in the “same” place but not doing the same thing.
  • Make friends with other loyal spectators, and send your spouse to chase the Tour with them for a day (or more, depending on how good of friends of they are).
  • Pair up with another couple traveling to the race, rent two cars, and give one to the sports fans and one to the tourists.
  • Drop the non-sports-spouse off at a train station to catch a train to a city of interest (for the day, overnight, or whatever suits).
  • Sign up for bus tours of scenery (wine tasting buses, for example) in the region where the sports-spouse is following the Tour.

And of course if your spouse is a sports fan but doesn’t have to see every single stage of the race, you could always choose a combination of Tour-watching days and normal-tourist days.

What is not realistic is thinking that you will somehow both watch the race and do other tourist activities on the same day.  In theory that might be possible some of the time in a limited fashion.  The difficulty is that the race takes up the middle of the day, which is when museums and shops and other attractions are open.  Unlike Americans who keep everything open all the time, the French keep strictly reasonable hours.  Also, if you are based in the start or finish-line town, everything in that town may well be closed so all the residents can go watch the race and/or staff the essential venues.

That said, if the non-sports spouse’s dream vacation consists of moving from hotel to hotel, wandering the village-du-jour  and seeing whatever happens to be on hand, and then eating a nice dinner together at the end of the day, you’re covered.  As ways to make your sports-fan spouse happy, that’s a pretty good gig.

*Security is good throughout France.  My experience is that local and national police (wearing blue uniforms) were generally ready to be helpful unless they were clearly occupied with some kind of serious situation.  In contrast, the camouflage-clad teams of four soldiers roving around carrying we-mean-business-rifles do not want to talk to you, and they do not want you to take their picture.  You can pretty much read the threat level at any given location by who is doing what for security.  The French government is serious about keeping the nation safe for occupancy.

 

Location Notes – Traveling with Kids in France

After a busy week in metro-Paris with excellent WiFi but limited free time, we returned to connectivity-purgatory in Strasbourg.  I started this post while I waited for the laundry to dry, because the local laundromat had way better internet access than our hotel did, but apparently we don’t generate enough dirty laundry to support my blogging habit.  I’m now home and finishing up these comments, and then over the next few weeks I’ll do some more photo-blogging of the epic vacation.

Meanwhile, here are some quick notes on the types of places we’ve stayed, and what’s been good for kids, and how the logistics all worked out:

Location #1 – Rental house in a large village outside of Colmar.  The house was beautiful but fragile.  That was fine for our older kids, but with little ones look for something durable.  There was a courtyard, but it contained a fish pond and a barn with farm machinery — lovely spot for grown-ups, not great very young people.  The village was quiet and equipped with basics like a bakery and a playground, so for older kids who could roam at will, it was super.

Being out in the countryside was ideal for visiting around the region, because we didn’t have to fight in-town traffic getting in and out.  If your goal is to see sights outside of a metro area, I think looking for a village location is the way to go.

Location #2 – Apartment in downtown Chamonix.  I had no idea how much I would love Chamonix and the surrounding area!  In addition to being stunningly beautiful (because: Alps), the people, mostly tourists and expats, are the most content visitors I’ve seen anywhere.  Our little apartment was perfect for us, because it let us be right in the middle of everything, but again it would have been rough with small children.   If you need space for your kids to run around, get a house at the edge of town or in one of the many villages up and down the valley.  However, parking in Chamonix is tight, so if you mostly want to be in the town itself, stay in town.

Note that the underground parking garage that came with our apartment, typical, is not suited to anything larger than a modest sedan.  If you are traveling with a larger vehicle, discuss the parking situation with your landlord or hotel-owner before you make reservations.

Location #3 – Bed and breakfast at the edge of the suburban train lines outside of Paris.  I have mixed opinions about my decision to not stay in the city when visiting the city.  What I loved: The restful, friendly, calm, beautiful location in the countryside.  Our hosts had games for kids to play in the small-but-beautiful garden, there was room to stretch out, and overall I think for our kids it was the better choice.  However, I did not anticipate how hard it would be to get the kids up and out in the morning to catch a train, we ran into various logistical challenges, and commuting does reduce the amount of time you have in the city.  On the other hand, passing through the burbs and being on a commuter line is a cultural education in itself, and one I’m glad we had.

It was definitely less stressful for me to never have to drive in Paris, and to be able to pick my preferred train station along the RER line.  I’d say that an apartment in the city would work better if either:

  • Your kids are calm and quiet and do well hanging out in a small indoor space together.
  • You have enough adults to take the crazy youngsters out as-needed.

Look for a place near a playground and bakery if you’re going to stay in town with kids.

A couple notes about Paris:

1. I’d forgotten how BIG the city is.  Getting from sight to sight, or realizing you need to go find lunch, or a toilet, takes a ton of time.  If visiting many sights is your big priority, stay in town and allow a lot of time in town.

2. The big museums were absolutely packed with people  Security lines were long, so coming and going was not an option.  The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay were both well worth the hassle (for us), but we skipped lower-priority attractions because a person can only stand in so many lines.  Lesser known sites were not a problem at all.

Location #4 – Hotel in downtown Strasbourg.  We booked the “family” room at a small hotel (not a chain) near the train station.  It had two twins pushed together to make a king-sized bed on the floor, and then a set of bunk beds.  This is a bit of a cultural difference, I think: American hotels will overlook the part where your family crams itself into a single hotel room with a pile of sleeping bags for the kids; European hotels expect you to match the official sleeping capacity, but they offer extra beds so you can do that.

Strasbourg was the right sized city for us.  I could set the boy (age 17) free to wander at will without concerns about him getting lost — if you hit a canal, you’re leaving downtown, very simple system.  The downtown area is mostly pedestrian-only, and contains all the tourist things (stores, restaurants, markets, museums, old beautiful buildings) within a walkable distance.

Our location near the train station was handy for departure day, because I could turn in the car the evening before, and then we could just walk our mountain of luggage down the block.  It was, however, not a quiet location at night.  Given that the A/C system is called “Open Your Windows and Turn on a Fan,” let’s just say that we know an awful lot about what happens at night in a bustling European metropolis.

The big downside to a hotel, though, is that there is zero cooking to be done.  Unlike American hotels, where a coffee maker is standard in every room and a mini-fridge is very easy to come by, there is nothing, whatsoever, in terms of provision for eating in your room.  Breakfast is simple enough to put together (see “French bakery”), but lunch and dinner got expensive, even with trying to favor places that weren’t that expensive.

It was, however, much simpler to check out of the hotel on departure day than to clean and vacate an apartment.

If I had to do it again, I’d get an apartment for most of the Strasbourg leg (or whereever), and just book a hotel room next to the train station or airport for departure day.

City vs. Countryside Touring

I was confirmed in my decision to separate the countryside and city legs of the Alsace trip, because yes, driving in a European city, even a small one, is not fun.  It’s complicated and time-intensive and depends on a knowledge of the city that you as a visitor just aren’t going to possess.  If you want to get out into the rural areas, though, you do need a vehicle.  If you’re doing something like staying in Paris and you just want to make a one day trip to Versailles, no problem — transit is set up to accommodate that.  But otherwise, know that you need a car out of the city, do not want a car in the city, and you don’t just hop in the car and zip off.

There are, however, a load of options for renting vehicles.   So if you booked an in-city vacation and find yourself getting restless, ask around for ideas on how to escape for a bit.

Two children walking down a tree-lined alley in a Paris park.

 

Castles in Alsace, Part 3

Do not trust me if I say to you, “I know there’s a castle around here somewhere . . .”

Unless you want to be taken for a ride.

A long ride up a windy mountain road, and then back again by a different way, with a stop for photos in a picturesque village because it isn’t fair that the children get to take all the photos out their windows while I keep my eyes on the road, so humor me we are going to stop and park so the mother can get out and take pictures . . .

Eventually we did end up in Katzenthal (also picturesque), home of the Château de Wineck.  FYI, Wikipedia seems confused about this castle, in both French and English.  The place we visited, as you’ll see, is the one I’ve linked to — hit the Google translate button and scroll down for some history.

I’m not sure whether I would have marched myself up the hill or not, but a tired child dug her heels in at yet another evening-after-a-long-day castle hike, so the two of us walked the other siblings as far as the trail at the edge of the village, then ambled back towards our car.  We were halfway across the village when the two hiking children raced back and intercepted us excitedly: “There’s a road!  We can drive up!”

Foolishly, I believed them.

We loaded up and headed towards where I’d left them.  The “road” begins with a teeny-tiny alley between two buildings, ample for pedestrians and more than sufficient for those narrow tractors that the farmers drive through the vinyards, but not the sort of place Americans drive automobiles.  Warnings from the rental contract flashed in my head.

Conveniently, I have rented a French car.  It knows the way French drivers behave, and so it has sensors that beep ruthlessly at you if you get anywhere even vaguely French-like in your parking habits.  I really wanted to see this castle.  Possibly an addiction is forming.  So I sucked in my gut (as if that would help) and thought French thoughts, and threaded the needle.

No furious beeping.  No scratches for the rental car guy to charge to my credit card.  Apparently it is a road.

Except that the “road” never turned back into a full-sized road.   As we wound our way up, I grew increasingly suspicious that I was on a private road belonging to the vinyard owner.  Also: I wanted to see that castle, and anyway there was no place to turn around.  So up we drove, and sure enough there was a wide spot for parking right at the castle, and that, too, was probably meant for castle custodians and not for us, but the place was empty because it was late, so if we were supposed to get in trouble the villagers were slacking off on that job.

***

The remains of Wineck are small – here’s the keep and tower.  You can go inside on the occasional opening hours, but we declined to trespass (we’re like that — our ambiguous vehicle situation not withstanding).

Castle Wineck Keep

Here’s a detail from one of the walls at the base of the structure:

Castle Wineck - Wall detail

And here’s a wall cross-section:
Castle Wineck - Wall Cross-section

There are some slight but distinct differences, you’ll note, between this wall cross-section and the cross-section of wall from the Eguisheim castles in Part 2 of this series.  If you are just joining us on the castle tour, Part 1 is here.  The last thing I  have planned for the  (Alsatian) castle series is a look at the furnishings in Haut Koenigsbourg, coming next.

The Epic Vacation Archives:

Alsatian Castles Part 1
Alsatian Castles Part 2
World War 2
Alsace Scenery

 

Castles in Alsace, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

The next place we went after Ribeauvillé was the Ecomuseé  d’Alsace, outside of Mulhouse.  (Say it: Moo-Lose, as in, “the first cow to moo loses the game.”  Resist the natural urge to prounce it “Mull-House.” You are not mulling the house wine, you are playing the quiet game with cows.  Also recall: Google Translate is your friend.)

There are no castles at the museum, but there is a strong house – une maison forte – built on site from salvaged 15th century components rescued from Mulhouse.

Medieval "Strong House" reconstructed at the Ecomusee d'Alsace

The tower is not a perfect reconstruction.  The curators took the remains of the original building parts and gave their best rendering of what it might have been used for, and what would be most interesting or educational for museum-goers.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm’s reconstruction of Haut Koenigsbourg, it’s an interpretation, not a replica.  It’s useful for thinking about how fortifications were made for various purposes.

After a full day at the museum (topic for another post or two), we drove north towards our home village and of course we spied castles on the western horizon.  There was no other choice but to hop off the autoroute and pick a departmental road that pointed in the general direction and try our luck.  After several missteps we succeeded in the following the promisingly named Route des Cinqs Châteaux to the parking lot for Les Trois-Châteaux du Haut-Eguisheim.

There are two trails out of the parking lot, one of which will take you in five or ten minutes to the three castle ruins above the town of Eguisheim.  The other trail will take you all kinds of places far, far, away.  It was only obvious in retrospect which trail we should have tried first.  Eventually, however, we reached our goal.

As you come up the trail from the parking lot, the first castle is this rectangular tower.  We’re viewing it in this photo from the north, standing in the ruins of the second castle, but you actually arrive on the site from the west.  (These photos are from about 6:30 in the evening, beginning of July, so the sun is informative for directions.)

Rectangular tower of the first of the three castles of Eguisheim

To the right of all those low walls of Castle #2 in the foreground are two towers.  Below you can see the remains of the northern of those two towers.  Both are closed (for safety reasons) but trespassers with decent climbing skills do go up to recreate. (Not us, thanks for asking.  All these easily-accessible high places along the edge of the Vosges are popular with local teenagers.)

One of the towers of the second of the three Eguisheim castles

You can see in the above photo a bit of broken wall between the sites of Castles #2 and #3.  Here’s the cross-section of that wall:

Cross-section of a wall between Castles 2 & 3 at Eguisheim

In case you tend to wonder, like I do, how the insides of walls are built.  And finally, here are the foundations of Castle #3:

Foundation of the third ruined castle at Eguisheim

The three castles are right up on top of each other.  It’s more like a castle complex.  Or one of those castle-subdivisions where the neighbors all complain about how they have no side yard and you can see into each other’s kitchens.   It’s enough, though, to make you wonder about the other two châteaux implied by the road name.  There was plenty of daylight, so we decided to keep driving up the mountain.

The parking lots at Château du Hohlandsbourg were all packed at 7pm, which at the time we resigned ourselves to hiking up from the farthest of the parking lots seemed like no big deal.  What do we know about castle popularity?

So we haul ourselves ten minutes straight uphill, which after already having walked around all day took a lot of castle-hunger, and were rewarded by this massive impenetrable edifice:

Entrance - Chateau Hohlandsbourg

Wait.  Except that we’re looking at a wide open door, right?

What you don’t see is the hired security guy whose job is to inform us that under no circumstances can he let us inside, because it is now 7:15, and the castle closes at 7:00, and there’s a big government meeting going on inside.  Ah.  So that’s why all the parking lots are full.

We resigned ourselves to staring out at the view of Colmar in dazed dejection at our fifteen minutes of misfortune, and took photos for a bit, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave.

View from Chateau Hohlandsbourg

The security guy was, however, fine with us walking around the exterior of the building.  After enough landscapes and selfies and group portraits and eavesdropping on the sorrows of other rejected hikers, we were feeling energetic again.  We scrambled up an informal trail and started our tour of the walls.

For the most part, Holandsbourg looks like long stretches of blank wall, which make for horrible photos, and a few of these on the corners:

Corner of Old Holandsbourg

You can, however, look in through the arrow slits down at ground level, which from some angles gives you a view of the governmental party-tents, and into other holes you see things like this:

View into Hohlandsbourg castle

Honestly I think we had more fun scrambling around the perimeter of the castle than we would have had if we’d been let inside.  We never would have circumnavigated the place if it hadn’t been our only choice.

Jen looking into the Forbidden Castle (Hohlandsbourg)

Me, looking into an arrow slit of the Forbidden Castle.  There is glass behind this particular slit, hence my reflection, but you can see into the meeting space that’s been created within.  Two more castles still to come in this series.  And for those who are wondering, all the photos in these posts are mine, all rights reserved.  See the copyright notice in the sidebar.

 

Castles in Alsace, Part 1

After Haut Koenigsbourg, we transitioned to compulsively hiking up to any ruined castle we saw from the road.*

Castles tend to be built in sets, it turns out.  The first group of ruins we visited were the three castles above the town of Ribeauvillé.  You park at the base of the mountain and walk up through the woods, and though the trails are well-marked, if you aren’t sure which trail you are supposed to be following, that can create a nagivational difficulty.  But we eventually got to all three.

Giersberg is the lowest, smallest, and you can’t go into it.  But it’s pretty satisfying if you’re not from around these parts.  (Tip: For any of these links that take you to French-language sites, Google Translate does pretty well. Just hit the magic button in Chrome and you’re set.)

Giersberg castle as seen from St. Ulric castle

Giersberg seen from the trail.

St. Ulric is next to Giersberg, and you can go inside and climb all over the place.  We did that.

St Ulric castle seen from Giersberg

Here are details from above and below of that room full of windows.  You can see where timbers were supported to make a floor.

Hall, from above, St Ulrich

Hall, from below, St Ulrich
This is a view looking up to the main tower from within the castle.

 

 

Tower, Haut Ribeaupierre

Here’s looking down from the tower into the valley.
Tower view St Ulrich

And here is looking down from the tower into the other parts of the castle.
Interior Birdseye St Ulrich

Here are wall details.  You can see there are multiple construction techniques going on over the years.

Wall detail St Ulrich  Wall detail #2 St Ulrich

 

After that we took the wrong trail towards Haut-Ribeaupierre, but quickly figured out that going down the mountain was not going to gain us any elevation, and turned around and picked the correct trail the second time.

Haut Ribeaupierre main non-entry

Canon hole? Haut Ribeaupierre

Wall detail with contrast, Haut Ribeaupierre

Goth arch side entry Haut Ribeaupierre

Haut Ribeau Pierre round tower.

After that it was late and we were pretty happy to descend and go home.  Here’s a view of our car from about 2/3rds of the way up the mountain:

View of Ribeauville from St. Ulrich

Yes, I walked all that!  I know!   Part 2 of the Alsatian castle tour coming in the next post.

 

*Tourism tip: An advantage of visiting Alsace during June or July is that you have until nine or so to be off the mountain each evening, which means you can head off on a hike anytime you see something interesting as you’re driving home from your main event activity that closed down at some civilized hour.   FYI this practice can interfere with dinner.

 

What It Takes Not to Be a Nazi

Fourth of July a fellow on a bicycle saw me photographing the parish war memorial in Sigolsheim.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him the US, and he proceeded to thank me for coming.  Periodically throughout the conversation he thanked me again, and before leaving he repeated merci about seven times.  There was a reason for that, which I’ll get to.

A typical way of inscribing a war memorial in France is to write Mort Pour La France, but in Alsace that’s not usually the case, for the obvious reason.  A Nos Morts is the common alternative that glosses over the whole question of whom you died for, and gets to the point: You died.  Here’s the memorial outside the parish church in Uffholtz, A Ses Enfants Victime de Guerre:

Uffhotz War Memorial

Here’s Sigolsheim, in two parts.  You’ll notice WWII was disproportionately bloodier than WWI for Sigolsheim, including a significant number of civilian deaths:

Sigholsheim War Memorial 1

Sigolsheim War Memorial 2

That’s because the Nazis dug in and held hard, and a giant set of battles were held in the village itself, which you can read about in extensive detail here.  When German empires decide to assert themselves, annexing Alsace is the default method.  (And why not throw in Lorraine while you’re at it?)   This is the reason that headquartering European postwar peace initiatives in Strasbourg is so symbolically important.

Persuading the Third Reich to retreat from Alsace was bloody-difficult, and American soldiers played a major part in that work, which is half the reason the fellow on the bicycle was so profuse in his thanks for my coming to visit and taking an interest in the local history.

Here’s the village of Kayserberg’s thank-you plaque:

Kaysersberg Allies LIberation Memorial

The American flag flies above Sigolsheim at this war memorial:

US War Memorial Sigolsheim

Everything in red on this map of the the Allies’ Alsatian offensive is American forces:

Map of the Allied Offensive to Retake Alsace

American soldiers aren’t buried at the Sigolsheim memorial (there are American war cemeteries elsewhere).  There is a cemetery, though, for the French forces killed in battle in the immediate vicinity:

French war cemetery Sigolsheim

You’ll notice in the picture above that most of the graves are crosses, and a few are not.  Here’s a detail of the rounded-rectangle gravestone in the bottom right:
Detail of Jewish headstone

It would obviously not be kosher (pun intended) to use a cross to mark the grave of a Jewish soldier.   It is not only American and native-born French soldiers, however, who were instrumental in liberating Alsace.   The Zouave soldiers buried at the Sigolsheim war cemetery have grave markers like this:

Detail of Muslim headstone

In other words, if you’re grateful France is free, don’t just thank an American — thank a Muslim.  Ah, but how much did those Muslim soldiers contribute?  About like this:

As the video shows, the cemetery is built on a hill in a half-circle, and the graves are laid out in four equal sections.  The two flanking sections are Muslim graves, and the center two sections are mixed Christian and Jewish graves.  History is complicated.

Whether the fellow on the bicycle would have thanked me so profusely if I were a North African tourist I couldn’t say.  I’m not one.  What we do get mistaken for in Alsace is German tourists.  We look the part and come by it honestly, if distantly.  German tourists come up and ask us directions, in German, which doesn’t get them very far.  Locals either attempt to speak German with us or else apologize that they have no German (neither do we — how about French?).

So here are a couple of my cute German kids walking towards the gate out of the KL-Natzweiler Concentration Camp, up near the village of Struthof in the Vosges mountains:

Walking towards the gate - KL-Natzweiler (Struthof) concentration camp

People who didn’t walk out might have died here in the cell block:

Cell block, Natzweiler-Struthof

At which point they would have been incinerated in this crematorium:
Crematorium Natzweiler - Struthof

When we talk about concentration camps and the evil of the Nazi regime, the usual thing is to tell kids, “If you were Jewish . . .”

Struthof, as KL-Natzweiler is often called locally, is different, in that it was chiefly used not for eugenic purposes but for those who resisted the Nazi regime.  Thus more to the point for our nice German boy in the photo above: Let’s talk about the draft.

His great-grandfathers were all about his age (17) at the start of World War II.  They had the luxury of being second- or third- or more-generation Americans, and they all volunteered and served in the War for the US.  It was not a difficult decision.  They were the age your brother is now, I told the girls.

Had he been seventeen and American, the boy would have signed up too, I’m fairly certain.  But what if he had been seventeen and German — which, after a week of being mistaken for a German tourist (or an Alsatian local), is not at all a stretch of the imagination?  He would have had to decide between going into the Nazi army, or going to Struthof.

Which is why a guy on a bicycle, about my age, resident of a nearby village, passing by on July 4th evening outside the war memorial in Sigolsheim couldn’t stop thanking me for being an American who came to Alsace.  He saw I was interested in history, and started suggesting sites.  “Do you know there’s a US war memorial up on the hill?” he said.

Yes.  Just came from there, actually.

“And have you seen the three castles down by Eguisheim?”

Yes.  And the other one, and some other ones . . .

“Let’s see, so maybe you should go to –”

“Well actually,” I tell him, “we only have a few more days here.  We’re going to try to go to Mont Sainte Odile and to–” I try to remember the name —  “Struthof–?”

He stops.  “Oh.  Struthof.  That’s hard.”

I know.

But you can’t really appreciate the significance of the war unless you know the whole story.

“The concentration camp,” he says.  “Struthof.”

“Yes.”

“My grandfather was there.”

White flowers with red centers.detail of white blossom with magenta-red center.

Flowers at the Sigolsheim war memorial, in bloom on July 4th.

Alsace Being Picturesque



Alsace is addictive because you can go just about anywhere and find village scenery like this:

 

Or this:

 

If the buildings themselves lack panache, the locals add flowers and art until it meets spec. Here’s a house that’s a bit on the vivid side, even for Alsace, but you begin to get the point:

 

A little more sedate:

 

When you want to communicate the one most important thing:

 

Here’s the protestant church in Munster (the place where the cheese comes from), from the late 19th century. Front facade:

 

Side view:

 

Neither of these photos does justice to how captivating the exterior of this building is.  (Unfortunately, the inside is so depressing I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it, out of embarrassment for the perfectly nice people who inhabit the place.)

This is the (Catholic) church in Uffholtz, early 20th century:

 

None of the Catholic churches I’ve seen are depressing inside.  Often eclectic, never mortifying.  That’s pretty good, for Catholics.

Hey, look, have a castle:

 

These things are all over the place, in the hills along the length of the region.  We eventually got to where we’d hiked up to enough of them that we were able to drive by a new one without stopping.

 

Food photo: Alsatian specialties on offer at the astonishingly good and not-that-expensive-for-what-you-get La Mercerie in Obernai. If you don’t like meat and potatoes, this might not be the region for you.

 

Lifestyle pic: View from our living room window in Sigolsheim.  The entire village was rebuilt after WWII (more on that in another post), though the church you see here was not flattened (unlike everything else), so the basic structure is medieval-or-so.

 

I’m making one exception to the No Museum Photos rule for this post to give you a roof detail:

 

The photo (above) is from Haut Koenisgbourg castle, where it’s possible to get this close to a typical roof.  You can see below the colored tile in the building in the background of this combination traditional-contemporary village church in . . . gosh I forget, some village we drove through a bunch:

 

The traditional village structure of the landscape is aggressively preserved throughout the region, which is overwhelmingly agricultural.  On the valley floor are wheat, corn, and other field crops, and the slopes are for vinyards or hops.  The mountains are mostly forested.  Cows are around here and there in the valley and in the mountains.

Here are cows in a pasture near Le Grand Ballon, the highest point in the Vosges.  Turn up your volume to appreciate the cowbells, which are the point of the recording.  The other sound you hear is the wind:

Here’s a panorama of Sigolsheim, a village outside of Colmar, which gives you the model for what the entire region looks like.

 

And a detail on the village.  Like I said, best place in the world.

 

Though now I kinda wouldn’t mind moving to Chamonix, either.

Learning to Appreciate the Big Things in Life

So the reason I vanished from the internet like I’d been kidnapped in broad daylight is that I had to quick plan a massive trip to Europe.  (I know!)  A different day, I will write more about the how-to’s of pulling off that feat; for now just know that yes, it consumed my every free minute from the moment the opportunity opened up until the transport, lodging, and insurance were firmly established.

You understand, because you, too, have something you want to do that, if you were suddenly given the chance, you’d drop everything and make it happen.  I want to talk about what it takes to make that thing happen for you.

The One Big Thing

I think “bucket lists” are nonsense.  Life isn’t like that.  My list of priorities looks like this:

  1. God.
  2. My vocation as a wife and mother.
  3. Everything else.

#1 and #2 are inseparably intertwined — doing one means doing the other, always.  #3 is composed of all the other things that might be important, but that when push comes to shove you can pout all you want, I’m not available to do that thing you think I should be doing, if it interferes with #1 and #2.

Still, there’s a pile of good stuff behind door #3, including a long list of, “It would sure be nice if . . .” items.  It would sure be nice to have a bigger, prettier house.  It would sure be nice to visit New England.  It would sure be nice to take the kids to Mount Vernon (God-willing, that’s next summer).  The One Big Thing also sits behind door #3, but in a different corner of the Everything Else room.

We have a friend whose One Big Thing was to invest in a large, well-appointed home for his eventual wife and children.  It was so important to him that he started saving up for that house while he was still in college.   It’s not that he would have felt like he’d failed in life, or “missed out,” or that his happiness depended on having that house.  It was just important enough to him that he was willing to sacrifice a lot of other good things in order to make it happen if he could.  (And he did.)

You have some things like that.  Things that maybe are achievable or maybe they aren’t, but if you do get the chance, you’d be willing to set aside a lot of other good stuff in order to make your One Big Thing happen.

The Things We Set Aside

So I’ve been thinking about taking my kids on this trip since I was sixteen years old.

(Yes, that’s right: I wasn’t dating anybody, I hadn’t yet met the man I’d eventually marry, it would be another decade before the first child was even born.  I was sixteen years old and walking along a misty tree-lined alley leading up to a historic French chateau, and I knew that one day I wanted to share that moment’s experience with my future children.)

Everybody has a different financial picture, so this isn’t a talk about how if you just do what I do you can have your big thing.  But I want to make it clear that there’s a long list of good, worthwhile things we’re forgoing to make the One Big Thing happen.  On that list:

  • All superfluous purchases.  I was going to bring home flowers for Valentine’s day, but I need that $2.99 to be in the bank this summer.
  • A laptop that works.  My trusty Surface Pro has given it up, and thus one of the reasons I don’t write as much lately is that I don’t have a computer I can take to another room when the family’s all home, and I do have to jockey for time on the shared machines.  So basically I’ve made the decision that something I really love, writing, is just not going to happen as much as I’d like, for a while.
  • A new-used car.  Our minivan has 170,000 miles on it.  The doors either don’t lock or don’t open or sometimes both.  The paint job is Green and Black Cheetah because we’ve filled in with primer where the original finish is rusting out.  There is no interior carpet anymore, just bare metal with strategically-placed rubber mats.  We’d been planning to upgrade to something conceived this millennium, but my mechanical engineer tells me we can get that baby to 200K, no problem.  So that’s what we’ll be doing.
  • Living room furniture.  When we updated the circa-1985 paint in the living room and hallways this Christmas, we donated our couch and recliner, from the same era and in the same general condition, to other worthy recipients.  What’s there instead?  Lawn chairs.  Really nice ones, yes: They’re the ones we got from Lowe’s on clearance and had previously been using to kit the screen porch.  They just got promoted to a full-time, permanent gig as Chief Living Room Furniture.
  • More house space.  Eventually that minivan is going to need to be replaced.  Good thing we just painted, because this family of six is going to be squeezed into the three-bedroom ranch for a long time to come.

I mention that last one not because it’s a big deal (I know larger families living in smaller houses), but because to a lot of people, a spacious home is their One Big Thing.

You just have to know yourself and know what trade-offs fit the kind of person you are.  No matter how rich you are, you can’t have everything you’re able to want.  We all have to prioritize, and give up some good things in order to have other good things that are more important to us.

Seizing the Day

I’m not omnipotent nor omniscient, and neither are you.  There’s no telling what will happen between now and the end of June.  Perhaps our plans all come to naught.  One of the ways you know you’ve hit your One Big Thing is because you can honestly say to yourself: Even if this doesn’t work out, I have to try it, because I will always regret not having taken my chance when it came.

[Tip: If you are making a significant financial investment in anything, get that investment insured.  You can insure a house, a car, a boat, a musical instrument, and yes, even a trip.]

In our case, what happened is that we were thinking about taking a much more reasonable, but still-ambitious, stateside family trip.  That was another thing we’ve always wanted to do and here we were: The kids were at the ideal age, my health was finally decent again, there was a slot when we could take the time off and make it happen.

So we talked about a variety of other, much more sane choices.  Then one day I came to my senses.  I told my husband: I would rather not go anywhere this summer, and save up for as long as it takes to make my One Big Thing happen.

And he briefly set aside all reason and scruples and determined that he really, really loves me, and that maybe we should talk about this.  I pointed out that I’ve been talking about doing this trip since as long as he’s known me, and also there has not been a single time in the past decade when I was physically able to make it happen.  Our son graduates high school next year.  If I wanted to do it, now was literally the only time.

So I did it.  Trip is booked.

File:1138357639 3c5c483074 o Haut Koenigsbourg CC by Fr Antunes.jpg

This is where we’re going.  Photo by Fr_Antunes (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. And no I won’t be live-blogging it, because: I don’t have a working laptop.  That’s fine.  My One Big Thing wasn’t “taking the internet on this trip,” it was, “taking my kids on this trip.”  I don’t recall ever giving birth to a computer, thanks.