THE ALSACE LORRAINE, FRANCE – MAY 2012
Saturday May 25th – Turckheim
After quite a bit of faffing about we eventually left school on Friday afternoon. Luckily for us, our school finishes at 14.20 so we were on the autobahn and heading Northwest in sweltering heat by 15.00.
I was in the back seat of a hired car with Karen, a woman I did not know at all and Charlotte, a woman I knew only vaguely. Both American. Last minute, I was taking the place of my good friend Angie who dropped out due to illness and who was insisting that I go.
”It’ll do ya good Sarah” she rasped in her strident Aussie tones. “You need to be doin’ things like this, gettin’ yerself a’t and aba’t. It’s what international teachers do.”
“But I can’t possibly justify spending money on myself like this” I retorted,
“Not with two kids, a grandchild and a soon to be ex-husband who’s still draining most of my resources.”
“Darlin’, one day you’re goin’ to wake up and re-al-ise that life has passed you by. Yes you can treat yourself to this weekend and you must. It’s a holiday weekend fur heavun’s sake. Everyone’s allowed a holiday now and then, even you. Your children are adults now and you have to start letting your husband go and moving forward with your life.”
“Yes but nothing. It’s time you started finding out who Sarah is and what Sarah wants. Now Go!” And with that endorsement ringing in my ears, come Friday 25th May I nestled into the back seat of our little VW and started eating the snacks that Charlotte had so generously provided.
“Here, I got more nuts.” She threw a bag into the back. “And I got a bottle of prosecco. Want some?”
“Ah – Great! Ah – yes please!” I replied, unused to such reckless behaviour in the back seat of a car. I sipped my way cautiously down the plastic cup then was slightly surprised to find myself drinking another! “So tell me about Strasbourg.” I ventured, warming up.
“Why do you wanna know about Strasbourg?” asked Karen from the driving seat.
“That’s where we’re going isn’t it?”
“Hell no!” Charlotte took over. “We’re going to Colmar. Well a tiny little place near Colmar. Probably won’t find it. How d’ya fancy a night in the car? But hey Sarah – I can tell you about Strasbourg if you really wanna know about Strasbourg?”
“No, no, no, no, no! please tell me about this tiny little place near Colmar that we probably won’t find because it’s so small. And remind me precisely why I’m travelling with you two while we’re at it!”
Thus our conversation began and did not finish until the end of this 6 hour journey (should have taken 4…) I heard all about the Route de Vin in the Alsace region; of the storks that make the towns there, their home; of the beautiful buildings and castles that we would see and the regional dishes that we would eat. We cracked jokes; we stopped for diesel and pizza slices; we got lost; I eventually took over the navigation from Charlotte using Karen’s mobile phone (a first for me) and somehow we found our way to Turckheim and the cutest of cute hotels.
Oh the joy of waking up somewhere new when you’ve arrived in the dark…..
This is a lovely little room. We’re up at the top. There’s a gable to my left. Charlotte is in a single to my right, Karen straight ahead to my left. They’re both still asleep. The window’s open – there are geranium boxes immediately outside on our balcony. French geranium boxes – you know the kind? Where the red and deep pink blooms press themselves against ivy shaped leaves and cascade together, tumbling from their containers bursting with such joy and vitality you cannot help smiling when you look at them. I can hear the gentle sound of voices chattering at a nearby restaurant. Glasses chinking, crockery clinking. Kitchen sounds. Muffled conversations. It reminds me of Kanalstrasse near the Isartor, my second German home where I lived with Victoria. I used to hear the soothing conversations of my neighbours from the surrounding balconies. Then, as now, I had no idea what they were talking about, there were so many languages intertwining, but the overall effect was deeply calming.
My double bed has a green and brown duvet cover. The wood in the room is dark. It’s very French. There’s flowery wallpaper on the walls and old fashioned lamps. It’s roomy without being soulless. Cosy without being small. The bathroom has lots of storage space (good for 3 girls) a bidet and an old shower. It’s heaven.
After a magnificent breakfast of cheese, salami, yoghurt/muesli, hot chocolate and croissants we drove to Ribeauvillé. A beautiful little town, we walked up and down the medieval streets glimpsing, up side alleys, the ancient walls that surround it. It has a funky gate (the Porte des Bouchers) which used to be part of the walls and in addition to being well known for its viticulture (wine making to you and me) it lists spa resort and host of fine festivals among its tourist attractions. But we were there for the vibe and we lapped it up.
I am not a big shopper and certainly not used to buying outfits for myself but, encouraged by Charlotte who is an expert in this art form, I bought a kaleidoscopic top, full of pinks, turquoises, bright blues and a bit of black (“You have to get that Sarah – it is totally you”). I bought Danny (my Grandson) a gorgeous hand knitted cardigan (I fear I will never be the kind of Grandma who knits cardigans), some earrings for Beth and spent the rest of the morning mooching about the exquisite market there with a whacking great grin on my face. There was a huge fortress above the town and I really wanted to walk up and check it out. But this would have been quite an undertaking.
I had a momentary pang as I realized that if I were not with Charlotte and Karen I would probably have given it a go. But this pang turned into a brilliant moment of enlightenment as I realized that, in my lifetime, I had only been on holiday by myself once before (and that was in February of this year) so how would I know what I would or would not do on my own? I’d never really had the opportunity to find out, having spent most of my adult life in a relationship with one man, nurturing and creating a family and a home.
“It’s Cremant d’Alsace time”
And with Charlotte’s statement of fact, I came out of my reverie, happy to leave possible jaunts to castles till another time (well, I had the rest of my life!) entirely content for now, to hang out with the girls. We headed for a lovely little restaurant, overlooking the square and lunched – green salad with egg and tomato. Pinot Blanc. So simple. So cool. Only the French know how to make green salads like this….
Then we set off for Colmar. It was very hot by now. I’d done a bit of reading and in the car, I started to explain to Charlotte and Karen that the reason it was so hot was because this region was a ‘microculture’: uniquely placed, as it was, at the foot of the Vosges mountains this was why it hardly ever rained and why storks were attracted to the area. Not to mention the wine. Something to do with hot air circulating and rising.
“Sure I can smell hot air rising. Smells like bullshit!” muttered the increasingly interesting Charlotte. “Get back to your little micro culture honey and check out the restaurant section. We need somewhere good to eat tonight”
And with that we arrived at Colmar. Last night, driving around the outskirts of this fair town in circles several times drove us insane. But today….? We found our way into the beautiful Aldstadt with ease and I instantly fell in love with it. What a beautiful, gorgeous little town Colmar is. Known as the ‘capital of Alsation wine’ it has awesome architecture reflecting both French and German styles. But it’s the waterways that are its biggest feature. On the Lauch river (a tributary of the Ill) it is connected to the Rhine in the east by a canal and an intricate network of smaller canals create obvious parallels with Bruges rather than Venice. Colmar has a rich and fascinating history (I first came across it under the headings ‘Protestant Reformation’ and ‘Thirty Years War’ back in A’Level history days) and it hosts a significant Music festival every year. I would love to go to that one day…
It was not long before we were on a barge exploring the back streets. Peaceful and gentle, the sound of the water was soothing on this hot day, and the sights of gardens, balconies and buildings just stunning. And all for 5 euro! After this we had ice cream, then a leisurely saunter to the perimeter of the Aldstadt and to the French version of M and S. Karen and Charlotte had things to buy! I sat outside on a bench, quite happily, and read.
That evening, back in Turckheim, we had dinner in the square. Charlotte and I had 2 Cremant d’Alsace whilst Karen went for a run. When she got back, we moved on to the Pinot Blanc. I ate 6 escargots, quiche with Munster cheese and a salad.
And our conversation took on more depth and detail as we gradually revealed more and more about ourselves to each other. Charlotte’s husband is a special agent. Seriously, he will retire in 4 months and he has handled under cover and security operations for just about every bigwig politician in the states. He’s worked for George Bush Senior, Regan, Clinton and more. Tonight’s story was about Hilary Clinton. During the Bosnian war, Jack (Charlotte’s husband) handled her security. In her presidential campaign she said she had dodged bullets. Not so apparently! She was being given flowers by children! Charlotte has followed Jack to various embassies all over the world for nearly two decades and waited in or near them patiently, sometimes with a job, sometimes without, whilst he went off to ‘take the bullet’.
A gifted special needs teacher, working at our school was Charlotte’s first international teaching post. Having fallen in love with Rome and Europe some years ago and not being a big fan of the States, Charlotte was living and working in Munich for herself and apparently, Jack was very proud of her and supported her 100%. Karen, an experienced international school Maths teacher had taught and travelled all over the world before she came to Munich. She described in great detail working in Hong Kong where she had been particularly happy (unlike me, quite a lot of my colleagues find Germany quite a difficult place to live). Karen is a former lawyer with wit and intelligence to prove it.
As this warm balmy evening became night, we could hear the night watchman calling from somewhere in the town. And as we finished talking, we watched, lost in our own thoughts as the storks flew in and settled on their nests and we drank in the peace and the quiet. Heavenly.
Slept like a log.
Sunday May 26th
Just had another fabulous day. God it feels good. What did I do before I had days like this? Seriously, what has been going on in my life? Guilt? of course, it’s been there, in the background, occasionally creeping up centre stage. Guilt, worry, anxiety, fear. Pain. Sadness. Such terrible sadness. Negative things. Negative emotions that will become destructive unless I do something about them. I still get those thoughts – that I should not be doing this, having fun, enjoying myself: that my Mother would not approve, that I have let everyone down, that I have not done the right thing for everyone….
But I think I am beginning to recognize these spectres when they appear and increasingly I am more able to push them towards the wings. There’s an instinct growing within me that knows that to get to the point where the ghosts of the past no longer haunt me, I must learn how to stand on my own two feet: I must explore and discover how to be happy and strong as a single, adult woman. And part of that exploration is to allow myself the luxury of having a fabulous day with my girlfriends.
We set off in the car to Riquewihr, the place that’s highlighted in all the tourist books. Lonely planet says of this region ’stiflingly beautiful village…..’ It was beautiful but also the most touristy place on our trip to date. I bought a cake tin with the classic Alsace figures on it (for all those cakes I am not baking these days!) and we combined to buy 6 bottles of Rosé after a wine tasting. I also bought a ceramic pot mat (v.cute) for Stacey, who’s looking after the dogs and some Cremant d’Alsace for Angie. Really enjoyed buying presents. Haven’t done that for years. I feel like I’m on holiday. I can’t believe how happy I am.
The pottery here is to die for. Heavy and chunky, in deep reds and blues with the most intricate heart and flower patterns on them. In one of the shops I asked, in French, about how to get to the hills. The Vosges hills that I’d read such a lot about. The shopkeeper recommended we went to Kaysersberg and some of ‘the less known villages on the way’. In this way, we discovered Kientzheim, surely a real gem.
Full of medieval chapels, fortresses and bits of castles, it was quiet and uncluttered with an eye catching drainage system!! As we walked around, we passed rather a posh looking restaurant with white table cloths, table decorations and beautiful glasses, glinting in the mid-day sun. We were tempted. But round the next corner we hit on a small restaurant in a tiny square. The bright orange table cloths and ‘take us as we are’ ambience called out to us so here we sat, in yet more sunshine for a good 2-3 hours.
This was a serious French lunch. Unintentionally, this ‘bite to eat’ turned into three courses. Clearly this place knew what it was doing.
I started with a green salad again (I can’t get enough of them) followed by rabbit terrine with puy lentil salad and then a rhubarb tart which had meringue on the top. Karen had foie gras and Charlotte another onion tart.
Our aperitif was Crème d’Alsace with Peach cassis and this was amazing. Today we had Pinot Grigio to accompany. Then, oh so casually we moved on to Kaysersberg which did not disappoint (although I had almost reached pretty village saturation point by now).
Finally, making full use of the car we headed into the hills of the Vosges. They were staggeringly beautiful. Lush green forests, undulating valleys and hills (I can’t really call them mountains – not now I live in Bavaria!!) and beautiful flowers, my favourite cow parsley there among them. We drove back via Trois Epis (a slightly disappointing town with lots of old people and ambulances) but the drive down from the hills was cool.
In front of us the enormous Plain d’Alsace stretched out like some mighty moonscape, the Black forest just visible in the very far distance. Suddenly, so many history lessons fell into place (I always was a visual/kinaesthetic learner!)
Plus a few more things I have learnt since living in Germany. It struck me visually, as never before that physical borders, or the lack of them, have everything to do with national identity. Here, looking at land, land that can so easily be crossed on horseback, on foot, in tanks is a far more vulnerable protector than sea. Everything about this beautiful region speaks of two nations – France and Germany.
This same area of land was first annexed by the newly formed German Empire in 1871 as a result of the Franco-Prussian War and incorporated into the Alsace-Lorraine province. Then after WW1 and the 1919 Treaty of Versailles hey presto! It went back to France! In 1940 Nazi Germany invaded and took it back again only to lose it to French control after the battle of the ‘Colmar Pocket’ in 1945.
Looking out at this mighty vista the meaning of the European Union struck me visually and viscerally as never before. And of course, my own country’s understanding of it (or should I say lack of….)
Back in Turckheim we went to the restaurant we had had a drink at on our first night, then we seriously tucked in: Asparagus and jambon pour moi, followed by poulet et spätzle accompanied by the local plonk. Nice cappuccino at the end. Conversation this evening became more intimate.
I discovered that Charlotte, like me had epilepsy but, unlike me still had seizures intermittently. We shared how the impact of having epilepsy affected our pregnancies, and the enormity of making the decision to get pregnant in the first place. Incredibly, and movingly, Charlotte revealed how she had lost her daughter aged two, partly, she felt as a result of her own condition. And this beautiful, generous woman, allowed me to share how I had sailed through both pregnancies and now had two phenomenal adult children to show for it.
Karen, a single woman in her 40s, then revealed that she was about to adopt a little boy – from Morrocco. I nearly choked on my bubbles. I could hardly believe I was sat here in this most beautiful of places listening to these fascinating, inspiring women, the like of which I had never met before in my life. Karen explained that, as a single woman she was limited in her choice of countries – only Morocco and Ethiopia would allow such adoptions. She had already done the paper work, had broken contract at school and would be leaving Germany for good in 6 weeks time. She would then go to Marrakech, pick up the 6 month old baby (same age as Danny) and head back to her parents in the states for a year. Then, she would try and get a job in Asia where nannies, maids and cooks are easy to come by and raise her child. She seemed to have it all sussed! Now, she just needed someone to take over her flat in Lohhof and her phone contract in Unterschleissheim. Did I know anyone? (But we’ll save the answer to that question till another day…..)
Monday May 27th
Our final day was the trip back. We drove through the Black Forest, stopped off briefly near Freiburg then without difficulty, on to Munich.
Not long after I got back, I heard the writer Jeanette Winterton give a lecture. Of the many interesting things that she said she referred to the WB Yeats poem, ‘An end to remorse’ and how it had helped her in her own healing. And she quoted:
“I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.”
(From ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ by WB Yeats)
Is it possible that I have actually begun to move forward?
This trip was such a genuine delight. I can hardly believe that I had any doubts before I went on it. What was I doing? to go away with two women I hardly knew on a trip I had no hand in planning, completely spontaneously??!! Just taking a few personal risks, changing my perspectives, opening my mind and stepping a little further out of my comfort zone has had a phenomenal effect on me – I would never have considered such an idea even a year ago. (Thank you God for this blessing. Please make me worthy of whatever it is you want me to do.)