A writer cannot be true to himself unless he has in his mind this sense of urgency, the will of a conquistador to discover and explore the beauty of faraway lands and their inhabitants—their history, their daily struggle, their joy, their pain and their hope for the future. There are times a writer must embark upon a literary adventurism to sharpen his pen and give his writing the deeper, truer meaning of life while sharing his experiences in the pursuit of lost time—lessons he learns about the bold and unshrinking desires of those who wrestle daily to reach the height of their golden mean.
Last October, I was one of those adventurous writers stranded in La Gare de l’Est near downtown Paris after an eight-hour flight from Chicago. Destination: Alsace-Lorraine. With me in this dauntless journey was my wife, Maryse, who never misses opportunities such as this one. Arriving from Charles de Gaulle International Airport, we missed the train to Strasbourg, historic city and Alsatian capital where we were specifically headed. The train had just left, we were told. It was eleven am. Maryse and I looked at the Arrivals and Departures board, realizing the next train to Strasbourg was not going to leave until four-fifteen in the afternoon.
Among the rail hubs of Paris, La Gare de l’Est is one of the busiest. It was cold and hectic, and travelers from across Europe, going east, thronged there. Facing almost five hours in this seemingly untenable atmosphere, we decided to call a friend who lives in the city to come to the rescue. Within minutes, he was at the main entrance. We hurried, got in his car and went straight to Monte Carlo, a small buffet restaurant near L’ Arc de Triomphe, a place I knew too well, for its out-of-the-norm atmosphere, one of the few venues near downtown Paris where an American can enjoy comfort foods not too different from the ones back home.
Then, we spent the next few hours discovering Paris in autumn. It was the first time I was there when the October mid-passage turns the city gray, when pedestrians quicken their steps to get to destinations, and when the leaves turn yellow before they wither and die. From L’ Arc de Triomphe, we drove down the Champs-Élysées, which was filled with tourists and shoppers on both sides of this famous boulevard. Noticeable that afternoon was the ever-growing presence of China’s nouveaux riches, squandering their money lavishly in some of the most exclusive department stores in upscale downtown Paris amid romantic wanderers promenading down the esplanade around La Place de la Concorde.
After a couple of hours roaming through the city, it was time to return to the train station, for missing that second train would be a major delay to our adventure. Understandably, our friend hurried and dropped us off La Gare de l’Est. We arrived thirty minutes before departure, but it did not feel annoying because reaching Strasbourg was our prime destination. We glanced at the board, and discovered our train had already arrived and stationed at platform number five. We hugged our friend goodbye and walked toward the platform.
Passengers were already boarding when we reached the train. We got in and took our seats. My wife instantly fell asleep as she always does in every trip. This time, she was truly tired. I too was exhausted, but nodding off in important journeys is not part of my character. The train left exactly on schedule, just as a sudden, late afternoon sunray moved in, piercing the prevalent gray of the fall season in Paris.
Soon, the city was behind us, and before us lay the French countryside crafted by verdant forests and lush, green valleys. Small villages dotted their beds, which would make a perfect picture postcard. I sat close to the window, pen and paper in hand, to jot down my observations as the train rolled through the scenic landscape.
It was six-thirty in the evening when the train pulled into Strasbourg’s Central Train Station. At last, we made it to our destination. After few mishaps, we were guided to a taxi stand where we found a cab. We headed straight to our hotel, which was located a few miles away. Exhausted, we took a much-needed shower, went to bed and fell asleep. We woke up early the next morning, went down to the gym for our morning exercise and ate our petit déjeuner (breakfast). In trips like this, we would go up to our room after breakfast, get dressed and hit the streets. We could not, however. It was Sunday, and it was freezing and gray. Practically, it was not suitable for an autumnal promenade.
We then decided to go back to our hotel room, trying to recover lost sleep due to the time difference (six hours) between Europe and the Americas. I did not wake up until early afternoon while my wife was still snoring. Feeling refreshed, I stepped out on the hotel balcony to get a first glimpse at Strasbourg, foggy and dormant. There were few pedestrians in the relatively deserted streets below. I took some souvenir snapshots and strolled back inside. By then, Maryse was up and dressed. We were hungry. We had to find a restaurant in a city we barely knew. At the concierge, a friendly wall-eyed lady gave us a map of the historic city. She took her time to mark the direction we should go to find a hot meal. To assuage our anxiety, she walked two blocks with us and finally pinpointed the location where the foods were.
Hand in hand, Maryse and I strolled in the crisp air of autumn evening. Maryse looked chic, molded inside of a velvet dress with a Persian foulard wrapped around her neck. Strasbourg’s old town medieval and Gothic outlook and its half-timbered 17th century apartment buildings that lined up its amazing streets and grand boulevards shed an indescribable view, especially when brightened by night lights. As a writer, I always harbor a special feel for the fall and winter seasons. I consider them fascinating retreats, when the night feels cozy and warm and the inspiration flows like a river spring from a luxuriant meadow.
A few tourists and locals passed us as we sauntered along. It was a subdued universe within which an exciting guise hid, still waiting to be uncovered. The closer we got to the restaurant, the more people we encountered in the street. Soon, it became quite crowded. In our heart, an ascending joy, a sudden surge of energy crept in. We soon realized we had become part of something distinctively Strasburgish or Strasbourgeois as the locals would say. Fall is in the air! At the restaurant, everyone was inside. It was too cold to sit on the sidewalk, and that suited me perfectly well, for nothing is more stimulating than savoring the ambiance of a warm atmosphere, watching people chatting, sipping their hot tea while contemplating through the window the beauty and uniqueness of an Alsatian city with all its late-ripening of the fall beauty.
The next morning, we began our exploration around nine am. It was Monday, and the city was fully alive. As in every French city, streets were swelled with shoppers, professionals on their way to work, newsstands, bazaars, bistros and cafés. For sure, Strasbourg is not Paris in size and in scope, but I had the impression Paris has been miniaturized into Strasbourg. Our first destination was the European Quarter. We departed from Hotel D. Strasbourg—our hotel-stay—on Rue du Fossé des Treize and headed north. Maryse suggested that we take the Tram, the city’s transit system, but we feared getting lost in a new city. Consequently, we decided to hail a cab. The taxi driver quickly noticed we were not from Alsace. He then offered to give us a souvenir tour on the way to our destination. After riding through some narrow streets, we emerged upon a network of boulevards, impeccably designed to showcase the impressive grandeur of European architecture. Finally, we reached Avenue de la Marseillaise which intersects Quai du Maire Dietrich, an avenue that leads to where the European institutions are. It took us a half hour to get there. In normal time, the ride could have been fifteen minutes, but the driver wanted to play the role of a generous tour guide, Alsatian style.
The first thing we noticed at the entrance of the quarter was the European’s blue flag hooked on top of its pole, tossing in the wind. This explains why Strasbourg has long been dubbed as the European capital. This is here the Council of Europe (CE) and the European Parliament are headquartered. The CE was created in 1949. Today it consists of forty-seven countries and it oversees a series of international institutions. La Cour européenne des droits de l’Homme (The European Court of Human Rights), Le Centre européen de la jeunesse (The Center of European Youth), La Pharmacopée (The Pharmacopeia) are all part of the Council of Europe.
Twenty-eight countries are members of the European Parliament. While Luxembourg is EP’s administrative site, Strasbourg’s Palais de l’Europe (European Palace) and Brussel’s headquarters serve as the two sites where parliamentarians convene.
Maryse and I ambled along, taking souvenir photos and chatting with the locals, employees and visitors like us. Mere feet away from the parliament’s entrance, we encountered a political protest organized the Kurdish immigrants to raise awareness about the deteriorating health of Turkey’s Kurdish nationalist leader Abdullah Ӧcalan, also the founder of the Kurdish’s Workers’ Party, known as PKK. Since 1999, Ӧcalan has been in prison on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara in Eastern Turkey after he was kidnapped in Nairobi, Kenya by Turkish Intelligence Services while on his way to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I spent a few minutes, speaking to some of the activists, who were expressing their anger over European indifference to their cause.
Maryse and I then left for downtown Strasbourg. This time, we took the Tram and got off near Galeries Lafayette, exclusive department store famously known for its distinct display of haute couture clothing. This was to please Maryse who nourishes an odd compulsive crave for shopping in high-end stores, where trend-setting fashions for women are plentiful. While she was inside satisfying her craving, I was outside, contemplating a myriad of gleeful shoppers crisscrossing each other, bags in hands, perambulating along the narrow streets of this upscale district. From there, we went to Maison Gallimard, prestigious bookstore whose publishing house has produced great literary oeuvres such as Jacques Stéphen Alexis’ Compère Général Soleil.
Unable to find a title that pleased me, we left and spent the rest of the day visiting historic landmarks, including the Cathedral neighborhood, La Petite France neighborhood where many of the shopkeepers were second or third generations immigrants, noticeable North-Africans.
On the road to Luxembourg
The next morning, we headed for Luxembourg. We left early, 7:30 am, because we needed to be there during the morning commute so that we could get a true feel of Luxembourg City. As the train accelerated and soon left Strasbourg, the atmosphere turned misty, but the mist did very little to camouflage the rich farm fields and picturesque valleys edging the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. Farther up, the peak of Grand Ballon and its blue ridge were evident in the distance. As the train rolled on, an intricacy of what seemed to be untouched villages and small towns were a thrill to observe on both sides of the trail. All these shed lights on the uniqueness of Northeast France and of Alsace in particular. Suddenly, the train pulled into Metz-Ville, a city sprawled along the banks of the Moselle and Seille rivers. The city looked noticeable for its Gothic and Romanesque outlook. Metz-Ville, however, is also the site of some important historic landmarks, such as the Musée de la Cour d’Or and the Centre Pompidou-Metz.
New passengers boarded the train, and from then on, there was a stop at every small town to take on more passengers. We were not far from Luxembourg, and I then realized these were people who commute there daily to work because at a stop in Thionville, the last town before crossing the border into Luxembourg, a tall man with bushy eyebrows came to sit right in front of me. He seemed worried, and I asked him why he was so preoccupied. He said he did not want to be late for work, and that he had missed the earlier train. Later, in Luxembourg, Maryse and I met a respectable German woman who told us many people we saw in the city don’t live there, for Luxembourg is one of the most expensive cities in that part of Europe to live in. So, many people would rather live in nearby towns and suburbs in Germany, Belgium and France.
We reached the city of Luxembourg at 9:45 am. From the Central Train Station, Maryse and I headed down the main street that leads to the historic district, meeting and speaking to the locals along the way. There are three main languages in Luxembourg: French, Luxembougish, and German. French is written on every sign and used as the official language, as though it seems. Luxembougish is a dialect originated from one of the Germanic dialects but not officially recognized as such. This has been mutually agreed by both German and Luxembourgish linguists. The language, however, is not spoken only in Luxembourg. It is estimated close to 400, 000 people speak it worldwide. It is also spoken in Lorraine, France, the Arelerland region of Belgium and the German side of the Vosges, specifically in the Eifel and Hunsrück regions.
The linguistic pluralism of that part of Europe is indicative of its ethnic diversity and the quest for greater autonomy from their respective central or federal governments. In Alsace, for instance, there is a renewed interest in reviving Alsatian, a language that is arguably accepted as Alemannic German. Several Alsatian writers, including Jean-Marie Stoerkel, have had their work translated into Alsatian as part of the effort to promote the region’s marvelous realism when it comes to its history and literature. Learning Alsatian is now part of the curriculum at school. In today’s Alsace, Alsatian is mostly spoken in the villages, according to the native of Strasbourg to whom I spoke. In the city, everyone speaks French, unless addressed in one of the regional languages.
At a shoe store in Luxembourg, I met a young lady named Adriana, who was fluent in all three languages, but used French as her preferred means of communication. She told me she could also speak Portuguese because her parents were from Cape Verde, and she loves dancing Kizomba, the Portuguese version of Zouk—a popular music from the French Antilles. She was very polite as she spoke to us. She even gave us a feel of how Luxembourgish sounds, telling us everyone, like her, who was born in Luxembourg knows the language. She gave Maryse and me a copy of the city map.
After leaving the shoe store, we headed north toward the Notre Dame Cathedral, behind of which Le Palais de Luxembourg stood majestically erect. In the same area, we visited the Parliament and the City Hall. To the west of it lay a stunning esplanade swamped with tourists from all over the world. Fancy shops, boutiques and sidewalk cafés were abundant. The other side of town is as just impressive. Le jardin de Luxembourg (The Luxembourg Garden) is an admirable accomplishment. It is visible across the cathedral and along the ramparts that lead to Chemin de la Corniche promenade.
Luxembourg is without question the most sophisticated city in Western Europe and one of the most beautiful places of Europe. Against the backdrop of its medieval façade, a modern and exotic metropolis blooms.
Luxembourg is also called the Cultural Capital of Europe. The city is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. A series of remarkable museums can be found there, including the National Museum of History and Art, Luxembourg City History Museum, Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art etc. The city also houses some of Europe’s striking concert halls, such as the Théâtre des Capucins and the Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg. It was a day full of exploring, chatting, enjoying new delicacies from the area’s wonderful gastronomy.
Off to Germany we went
After a long day in Luxembourg, we lacked the energy to get up early, especially as it takes but a minute to be in Germany from Strasbourg. In fact, the German city of Kehl is like an extended part of Strasbourg. These two cities are at the forefront in the fight for the protection of the environment. They are separated by a bridge over the Rhine River. It was 10:30 am when we made it to La Gare Centrale de Strasbourg (the Central Train Station.) Maryse and I were excited, for we had never been to Germany. We left Strasbourg at about 10:45. Just minutes later, we were in Kehl. We did not disembark from the train because we were going to Offenburg, about 40 miles north.
From Kehl, the train rolled, passing through a series of German villages anchored in low foothills. The Black Forest, similar to the Vosges on France’s side, seemed blue-black in the distance. It is where the Kinzig River springs and flows down to join the great Rhine River around Kehl. It appeared that corn is heavily farmed here. Dry cornfields could be seen all the way to the town of Oppenweiler, a few kilometers south of Offenburg, a city that sits at the mouth of the Kinzig River valley. We made it to the Offenburg train station around 11:30 am. We quickly headed toward downtown, where the action would be taking place as is the case with all the European cities we visited. What we found was a ghost town in observance to the Day-of-the-Dead. It was November 1. No shops were open, except for some cafés that were only serving pastries. Maryse and I spent about an hour talking to the locals and left. We wanted to go to Baden-Baden, the next city to the north, but we decided to return to Strasbourg, which was also shut down.
So, we spent the rest of the day enjoying French movies and talking on the phone with our children back home. The next day, we were back to Offenburg. This time, the city was fully alive. Beautiful department stores, shops, restaurants and boutiques all had their doors wide open. I nearly lost Maryse in a mix of local German citizens, African and Arab immigrants and tourists. In one of our observations, we realized that the Germans were extremely friendly. They have such a great sense of hospitality, always eager to help and to make sure a visitor walks away satisfied. To me, at the heart of this striking form of accommodation lies a collective guilt stemmed from gross injustices Germany inflicted upon Europe, for having triggered two world wars and for committing atrocities of unimaginable proportions.
There is another aspect of the story that one rarely mentions. It is the story of millions of German soldiers and officers who were not necessarily fascists but were simply executing orders coming from the chain of command. They paid a heavy price for it, too. Southwest Germany, including Alsace, was the place the Nazi made their final stand. It was bitterly contested. Understandably, this region was the last to be liberated by the allied forces. In the end, the province of Alsace was completely destroyed, and more than a million German prisoners served as the backbone for the rebuilding of Alsace.
There is also the story of millions of communists, social democrats, Christian democrats who lost their lives for opposing the Nazi regime. They were all Germans, too. In his graphic novel Crime de Guerre en Alsace (War Crime in Alsace), Jean-Marie Stoerkel meticulously describes the horror of war during the Nazi occupied Alsace and the sacrifices made by the Alsatian Resistance and the overall French resistance movement. In fact, at the end of the war in 1945, Offenburg was occupied by France. It was returned to Germany only after the creation of the Federal German Republic in 1949. All these may have created in the German’s collective mind an unspoken consensus grounded in the belief of making peace, not waging war.
Soon, Maryse found what she was looking for, buying luxury items at a very “democratic” price. From fancy footwear for the children to fashionable winter outfits, she bought them. “Germany is way better than the Parisian suburbs!” she gleefully exclaimed. I was the butler, I had to carry the purchases. By noon, we went to Laufsteg, a cozy diner in the center of town where one can find a cuisine not too different from what we are accustomed to. We spent some time talking to the locals about the region’s history, their pride, their hope for the future. Germany was the country in which I thought I was going to have a hard time communicating the way I wanted. I was wrong. Like the other places Maryse and I visited, many people could speak English, and even use it as a strong second language. In the streets, one would not hear the sound of English, but once addressed, someone was ready to speak. Not surprisingly, we ended up taking several trips to Germany, enjoying the warm welcome and the opportunity to spend rationally.
Why choose Alsace as our main destination?
To me, Alsace offered the ideal place for a writer in search of improving his understanding about some of the important places of Europe—places that were the scenes of some of the major historical events that ultimately reshaped the map of modern Europe. Throughout history, Alsace has always been the land of the revolutionaries, bitterly fought over between competing forces. La Marseillaise, the song that went on to become France’s national anthem, was composed in Strasbourg.
In ancient times, Alsace was part of the Roman Empire. When the empire collapsed, Alsace fell under the control of Germanic Alemanni, and the Alemannic dialect formed the basis of a series of German dialects spoken along the Upper Rhine, including Alsatian, Swiss, Swabian and Alemannian. These are the same dialects still being spoken today. Alsace became part of the Frankish Realm when the Franks defeated the Alemanni in the Battle of Tolbiac. The Oaths of Strasbourg of 842 consolidated Frankish rule, which was dissolved a year later at the Treaty of Verdun of 843.
Modern history of Alsace was dominated by a bitter struggle between German nationalism and France’s historical claim. France wanted to maintain the integrity of its territory. Because of its Alemannic dialect, the Germans had always considered all territories on both sides of the Rhine River as their own, but the border of France reached all the way to the west bank of the Rhine, and Napoleon solidified that border after the French army occupied Germany in 1789. That occupation led to a resurgence of German nationalism whose aim was to unify all German speaking populations under one nation-state, including Alsace-Lorraine.
When the Germans were victorious in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the newly created German empire seized control of Alsace and used it as a strategic buffer against future French invasions. Thus, Alsace remained under German rule until the end of World War I when Germany was defeated. In the chaos that followed, Marxist councils in Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse (the three main cities of Alsace) were created. They proceeded to fill the vacuum left by the German authorities in November of 1918. The councils remained until the French army arrived and regained control of Alsace. The Treaty of Versailles in November of 1919 officially recognized Alsace as French territory.
Alsace remained under French control until the spring of 1940 when Nazi Germany defeated the French army and occupied France. German control once again ended in the wake of the Allies’ victory over the Nazis, precisely on November 24, 1944.
Though linguistically Germanic, a majority of Alsatians never considered themselves Germans and pledged their allegiance solely to France. During the war, more than 100,000 Alsatian young men were forced to serve in the German army. Fearing their disloyalty, the Nazis sent them all to fight on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union.
Alsatian loyalty swelled to a romantic nationalism immediately after the Nazis invaded the region in 1940. Communist miners in Mulhouse took the lead of the Alsatian resistance. One of its leaders was Georges Wodli, also a member of the France Communist Party (FCP), was arrested by the French collaborationist police and turned over to the Gestapo. Tortured by the Nazis, he died in Strasbourg in April of 1943. In June of the same year, other leaders such as Marcel Stoesel and Édouard Schwartz were beheaded in Stuttgart, in Southwest Germany. These events fueled the resistance, which soon spread throughout Alsace and included all levels of society. Traditional politicians, industry owners, Christian democrats and the royalists from l’ Action française all constituted what historians called the Seventh Column of Alsace.
Truly, the popular resistance against the Nazis was not ideological. It was patriotic. However, many Alsatian intellectuals—Marxists or otherwise—could not forget the political backstabbing orchestrated by famous French writer André Malraux, who headed the legendary Alsace-Lorraine brigade and who in March of 1945 disbanded the brigade and soon made a secret deal with Charles de Gaulle who wanted at all costs to prevent the communists from taking control of the organized resistance movement.
Today, Alsace constitutes an important region of France with large urban areas concentrated mostly in Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse. Strasbourg itself has a large immigrant population originated mainly from North Africa. Maryse and I met some students on the campus of the University of Strasbourg, and they were proud to say they were Alsatians of Moroccan descent. We also met many people from other parts of Europe, including Southern Germany, who have made Strasbourg their homes.
At the end of our stay in this fascinating area of the country, deep in my heart I fell a bittersweet chagrin. I took comfort in the fact that I was not disappointed, and more importantly, Maryse has fallen in love with the beauty of the land and its rich history.
Caron, Vicki (2005). “Alsace”. In Levy, Richard S. Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution. 1. pp. 13–16.
Chilvers, Ian. Entry for AM in The Oxford Dictionary of Art (Oxford, 2004). Accessed on 6/28/11 at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Andre_Malraux.aspx#4
Hérubel, Jean-Pierre “André Malraux and the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs: A Bibliographic Essay” pages 556-575 from Libraries & Culture, Vol. 35, No. 4 Fall 2000 pages 556-557
Moorehead, Caroline. 2011. A Train in Winter. Pages 21-22.
“Recommendations for Honours and Awards (Army)—Malraux, Andre” (fee usually required to view full pdf of original recommendation). DocumentsOnline. The National Archives. Retrieved 23 September 2009.
Stéphane Courtois, Mark Kramer. Livre noir du Communisme: crimes, terreur, répression. Harvard University Press, 1999. p.323. ISBN 0-674-07608-7
Stoerkel, Jean-Marie (2017) Crime de Guerre en Alsace. Éditions du Bastberg p. 64-89
Note: Special thanks to my good friend Tienne Frankel for helping Maryse and me to rediscover Paris in autumn. I appreciate and thank also the wonderful people we met in Alsace, in Germany, and Luxembourg who took time out of their busy schedule to talk to us.
Note: Dr. Ardain Isma is a scholar, essayist and novelist. He heads the Center for Strategic and Multicultural Studies. He is the Chief Editor of CSMS Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . In case you are interested in reading Ardain’s latest books, you can click this link: Books
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