A frequent theme in Zola’s naturalistic world is Paris Unknown—Paris seen from the eyes from a stranger through a tiny window on his first morning in the city, Paris filled with the cries of merchants selling herbs to kill disease and carrots to feed your horses, the Paris of promises (if you pronounce ‘promises’ in French this last description has a nice ring to it.) I couldn’t help but think of these marchands in the city of promises when visiting my old home, Strasbourg, for the marchés de Noël, the ultimate commercialization of the European marketplace. All the streets, shops and restaurants were exactly as I remembered them, and by weaving through a fog of memory I was able to navigate my way back to my favorite haunting grounds. The Weihnachtsmarkt (you’re welcome, German teacher) were exactly as I remembered them as well, colorful and jovial and warmed by the scent of mulling spices. The only big difference between the city of promises in which I lived two years ago and the city I saw this weekend was, well, that I had to be there on a weekend.
Strasbourg on a weekend during the marchés de noël is an absolute cauchemar. There are about 50 people packed to a booth (mind you, there are probably 500 booths in the city), and between booths tourists of all nationalities meander aimlessly, gazing up at the decorations with looks of awe underneath their cheap Christmas elf hats or, my favorite, their ‘Alsatian girl’ bonnets that completely undermine an important religious and cultural history. I had forgotten that while living in Strasbourg, we were warned never to journey through the center city on a weekend during the holiday season—if you had forgotten to get something during the week, you were better off without it. Luckily, I had been so busy at the time with French theses and oral exams that I didn’t have to think twice about ever leaving my desk area. After this past weekend, I understand the local mindset towards Strasbourg at Christmas, and have become the classic tourist who hates all the other tourists who have dared to venture into an area I have claimed with my own personal bubble. Zola’s characters quickly discover that Paris is expensive and grey and unforgiving, and I would now describe the Strasbourg marchés as being overly crowded and cheap, yet somehow still warmly-lit and attractive if you brave the risk of being trampled. I obviously still left Strasbourg with a loot of local teas and honey that reminded me of my sometime-home, and the great desire to move there once more. I will always love the city, even during the Christmas Markets, and perhaps even because of my initial naïve fondness for them.
For the tourists-to-be of you, I’ll give you a little recap of what a once-local does in Strasbourg for a weekend. Stop one, meet your lovely host Victoria who once studied in Bordeaux with you. Stop two, drink vin chaud immediately to deal with the impassable wall of people. Stop three, get your bearings and try to remember where things are located. Stop four, wander the markets a bit but get fed up with the crowds and decide to stop for some fuel at your favorite tartine shop, L’Épicerie. Fast-forward through all the sightseeing to dinner at Au Brasseur, the local brewery that serves all the traditional tartes flambées (an Alsacian cracker-crust pizza typically covered in local cheeses and bacon bits.) At some point, you should plan to spend two hours in the Alsacian Museum, an adorable maze of a traditional-style home that teaches all about the local history and culture. Another few hours can go to Petite France, the cute historical section/restaurant central. Be sure to drink some vin d’Alsace (Riesling and Gewürztraminer) over choucroute, but make your reservation for eight or nine PM in order to enjoy the leisurely dining experience (and, yes, please do make a reservation or starve.) There are lots of gardens and rivers to be walked, and though boat tours in most other cities are a rip-off, the one in Strasbourg gives you a quick and interesting historical vision of the area. The best thing to do in Strasbourg is wander, as the streets are windy and a new surprise hides behind every corner. And, as long as you are not a local, the Christmas markets are a pretty jovial experience that can, perhaps, offer happiness in a 30cl cup of vin chaud.
Other than the fact that my lens on the city of Strasbourg has matured a bit, I do not feel any older than I did two years ago. Thanks to hours of reading and analyzing complex French literature, my French was probably superior then to my current lazy version, and my interests are more or less the same. On Sunday, I visited with my host family and realized that I have indeed become an old bat who needs to get something done with her life because MY BABIES ARE ALL GROWN UP! No, precious 12- and 16-year-olds do not stay so forever (mind you, I didn’t realize I was only four years older than the oldest at the time; perhaps that’s one area where my maturity has grown.) Emilio is now at university studying law (oh my! that’s hard to do here with the ridiculous exams you have to pass as a senior in high school), and Pablo is as adorable as ever but now taller than me and in possession of an adult’s voice. Beware time, folks, because it steals things from you without you knowing—soon, you will forget all about Santa Claus and the wonders of the Strasbourg markets and your cute little host brothers who once dreamed of playing soccer for Boston College. I’m sure there’s a Zola tale out there somewhere on the subject: The maturity of Katy the Alsacian cat lady, or something like that.
The following are images from the 2011 markets, as it was too crowded this weekend to take many photos, and I was busy enjoying my time with adopted family.