When I stroll around Strasbourg, I almost wonder if the airplane that brought me here wasn’t some strange time machine that transported me to a mixed world of the Middle Ages and 2012. The downtown and the historic district (“Petite France”) is quaint and cute with tiny brick-paved streets, little shops and shuttered windows lined with colorful flowerpots. A river circles through the city, their edges lined with boats-turned-bars, weeping willows and stone walkways. At the same time, Strasbourg has a convenient tram and a shopping district packed with stores such as Nespresso, Apple, Louis Vuitton, and a Galeries Lafayette (an enormous luxury department store like the one in Paris). These features bring me back to the present day when I get lost in thoughts of armor-clad knights and their brave steeds clip-clopping their way through the narrow brick streets as their women wave handkerchiefs and toss flowers from their shuttered windows.
I spent much of my first week walking and remembering the fairy tales I read as a child, hardly believing that I live in such a place. One day, I sat on a bench in the Place Gutenberg, a lively tourist trap just in front of the enormous cathedral that looms over the downtown area. An elderly gentleman took the other end of the bench as I continued to watch the crowds of German tourists huddled over their maps and contemplating which adorable restaurant in the square was alluring enough for a good Alsacien lunch (perhaps the one with the violin-accordion duo stereotypically serenading the lunchgoers?).
“Pardon?” The man next to me had muttered something, apparently to me although his eyes remained fixed on the flashing lights of the carousel on the other end of the square.
“It’s good weather today; we’re lucky,” he repeated in French and I agreed, adding that I was tired of the rain. As expected, he noted my accent and asked if I was German.
“Oh no, American,” I replied. The next few questions were typical of people I meet here: “What are you doing in France? What do you think of the elections in the USA?” followed by attempts at speaking English. This particular man is a history teacher and launches into an hour-long explanation about his theory of how all life began in South America, asking me what’s it’s like there and shocked when I say I’ve never visited. We return to politics and he explains that he didn’t vote in the recent elections because all French politicians are the same anyway (I guess politics are similar everywhere). Then he continues to interview me in broken English and just before his questions get too personal, I gracefully escape to meet up with a friend who’s just arrived at the cathedral, thanking him for the history lesson and complimenting his English.