The two men stood outside Hoop Doet Leven’s wheelhouse. The older man had a full, gray beard and a grin. The other man had twinkly eyes and a broad smile. Sandra had chatted with him earlier in the afternoon, when he took a break from attacking his pasture with a weed wacker and she snared him as her latest language victim. He’d told her how he loved the music of the country. She asked about his favorite musician and he’d replied in a French so dense and rapid that Sandra lacked even a clue. Now, hours later, he’d return with an ally. And a piece of paper, which he ceremoniously handed to Sandra. In large capital letters he’d written:
CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL
The two men broke into song. “Roll-eeng, roll-eeng, roll-eeng on a reeva.”
How apropos. We’re back on the rivers and canals and France, once more, is being, well, is being France. Our third summer and it doesn’t get old. Actually, it is old but that is part of the charm. That and, of course, encounters with men serenading us with Proud Mary,
This summer we’re heading north and east to the part of France that over the years has sometimes been France and sometimes been Germany, depending on who won the most recent war. It remains a mix of the two, perhaps hedging its bets as to who will come out on top in the next war. We’ve gone north on the River Saone, through fields and pastures, then onto the Canal des Vosges, through the most heavily forested – meaning the most lacking in grocery stores – part of France. We spent some time in the city of Epinal, where our plans to spend our first winter were stifled by a shortage of water in the canal leading to the city. And we spent a few days at Nancy, where on our original arrival in France we’d been X-rayed, eye charted, interviewed and found acceptable to be recipients of our treasured cartes de sejour allowing us to remain in France for longer than a standard three-month tourist visa. Now we’re heading east toward Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament, and Alsace, on the German border.
Alsace is where Hansel and Gretal would live if they spoke French. It is just a few hours drive from Bourgogne (also known as Burgundy), or a month by barge, moving at the lightning pace of an 80-year-old with a walker. Alsace was part of France until France came up on the short end of the Franco Prussian War in 1870. After that Alsace was part of Germany. The French language was verboten. Fortunately for the Alsatians, their Alsatian language is awfully similar to German, far more so than it is to French. Here’s a comparison from Wikipedia.
These days street signs in Alsace are in both French and Alsatian, which could be viewed as a technique for preserving the language or, more likely, is just politeness to the hordes of German tourists, who have no trouble reading Alsatian.
Metered parking, except for Monday market days, in French and Alsatian (which makes the German tourists happy)
Just as the Alsatians were forgetting their French, Alsace was conveyed back to France as part of German reparations after Germany lost the First World War in 1918. French once again became the official language, German was forgotten. Alsatian continued as a middle ground. Then in 1940 the Germans marched back in. German replaced French and, on top of that 130,000 Alsatian men were declared German citizens and compelled to fight in the German army, against France. That came to an end in 1945, at the close of the Second World War. Since then, Alsace has once again been French. But most Alsatian towns remain so Walt Disney cutesy Germanic you expect the storks nesting on church rooftops to break out in a chorus of Its a Small World After All.
Storks are thought to bring good luck, and bundled babies. Their thousand-pound nests perch on rooftops of churches and public buildings.
All that back and forth between Germany to the east and France to the west would be debilitating if not for one unifying factor that merged Alsace with both neighbors. What, you may ask, could ameliorate the angst of living in a shuttlecock of a region, an area viewed as the Monopoly board of the French and German military? The answer, the veritable savior of Alsace is:
Or, more specifically, choucroute, a word that in and of itself coalesces the two warring nations. “Chou” is “cabbage” in French. “Croute” is “cabbage” in German. Choucroute. Cabbage-cabbage. A staple food with a double name, sort of like New York, New York. Taking it a step farther it becomes the dish most Alsatian of all Alsatian dishes, choucroute garni. A pile of sauerkraut topped with a pile of cholesterol, sausages, a potpouri of pork, frankfurters, bacon. Choucroute garni is the official food-to-eat in Alsace.
Choucroute garni, single serving size. A meal that stays with you. For a few days.
We stopped at Taverne Katz (not to be confused with Katz’s Deli, a New York City landmark famous for its World War II slogan “send a salami to your boy in the army”) in Saverne. It bills itself as a Winstub, a traditional wine bar. Housed in a building built in 1605 by Henri Katz himself, the restaurant is a monument to sauerkraut. We had to try its choucroute garni. Here is a summary of a three-hour engagement (with just a tad of poetic license exercised.) It begins with the pronunciation. You carefully order “shoo-kroot,” which is how it seems it ought to sound. The waitress, who has served enough sauerkraut to fill a stadium, has no idea what you want for lunch. You try again, slower. Probably louder. Move your facial muscles around at random, as most French words require. Eventually, you humble yourself and point to the menu. “Ah, shoo-kroot” the waitress says, smiling. “Garni?” she asks. “Garnished” you think. Why not? This is France. The appearance of the food is as vital as the flavor. Sure, garnish it, you agree, expecting a sprig of something green with your little dish of world famous sauerkraut.
But no, no, no. The garni is far from anything green. The “garni” had, only hours before, been joyously squealing. Not a sprig of parsley. The better part (if there is a better part) of a hog. Forty-five minutes later the performance began.
Kettledrums thrum. A bear of a man, a backward forehead sloping Neanderthal of a man (actually, the real city of Neandertal, near where the first evidence of the early humans was found, is about 300 kilometers, 185 miles, north of Saverne), wearing lederhosen and knee socks struggles to your table pushing a wooden wheelbarrow heaped to overflowing with sauerkraut. On either side stand two well endowed maids in drindle dresses, long blonde braids down their backs, with pitchforks over their shoulders. They break out in simultaneous song as they heap load upon load of choucroute on the stoneware tub hulking on the table in front of you. As this ensemble retreats, a piercing squeal emanates from the kitchen, followed shortly by another man with a canvas sack, which he upends on the mound of sauerkraut. Out falls various lengths of the pig’s intestines, neatly tied into tubes stuffed with the most vital organs the animal possessed, interspersed with black links stuffed with porcine blood.
A few potatoes are dropped on top of this heap, like maraschino cherries on an ice cream sundae. The waitress hands you a fork. Enjoy, she says with a smile, depositing a pitcher of sweet Gerwertzraminer wine on the table.
Choucroute is more than a meal. It is an institution in Alsace. Every good housewife is required to have a stone jar filled with fermenting cabbage in her cellar to get her family through the winter. Which emphasizes one interesting aspect of such a choucroute orgy. The simple geographical fact of relocating the choucroute from the stone jug to the wheelbarrow to your bowl and, eventually, to your stomach is a matter of no concern to the gazillions of bacteria happily doing their fermentation thing with the humble cabbage. Lets just say that long, long, long after your stomach has taken on the role of a cistern of sauerkraut, the fermentation process is still bubbling away, spurred on by the warmth of your body and contained by the confines of your slowly inflating digestive tract.
Don’t plan on running a marathon for a few days.
Taverne Katz in Saverne, Alsace, France . . .
and Katz’s Deli in New York City, only the size of the portions is similar.
Obviously, France continues to fascinate us, in ways large and small. Recently, we’ve noticed how French signage has its own quirks. With little subtlety. Paris in particular but most of France in general has long had a problem with merde, specifically the canine variety. Dog owners are better now at picking up what their dogs deposit (and we did see one dog owner today gracefully scraping his doggie doo, and then tossing it all in the canal, an anti-environmental action of which we would be more critical if our boat toilets did not, in fact, do the same thing.) At home, signs suggest to dog owners that they “Curb Your Dog,” without getting any more specific than that. The French get right to the point, with signs like this one:
No words needed with this sign, France’s answer to the problem with merde.
Similarly, handicap parking spaces in the States are labeled with a pictogram of a wheelchair and sometimes include chapter and verse of the municipal ordinance that subjects able drivers who park in disabled spaces to substantial monetary penalties. On this issue, too, France gets right to the point.
“You take my place, also take my handicap”
France has a limited number of street names that get used over and again in villages and cities. Pretty much every French general from the past two wars has a street in pretty much every town, especially a rue, avenue, boulevard and place Charles de Gaulle. Most likely all four. And a handful of CDG schools. There will always be a Rue de la Liberation, of course. And a rue de la Republique. Older names are more generically descriptive. We’ve learned that rue des Tanneurs, the tanners’ street, will be adjacent to the water needed to tan hides. There’ll be a rue des Charpentiers, where the carpenters worked. And, of course, at least one rue du Moulin, where the mill was located. And, with few exceptions, if you look hard enough you’ll find a narrow, dark, winding way between inward leaning buildings with a name rue (or, more likely, ruelle, an alley) des Juifs
Probably not a lot of automobile traffic on this Alley of the Jews.
So, the adventure continues. We’ve survived several major challenges, such as our visit to a Mercedes truck dealership in a small town in Lorraine to purchase a 220 amp hour battery for our bow thruster, a small propeller at the front of the barge to help in steering, when pride allows its use. They’d never sold a battery to Americans before and the parts manager was a bit taken aback when we mentioned that France was about the size of Texas. He’d wanted to know how long it would take to drive from New York to the Grand Canyon, the two places he most wanted to see in America. He should have see us trying to carry the 70 kilogram – 154 pound – battery to the boat.
We have a couple more weeks in Alsace then we’ve rented a car to drive to a small cabin at the foot of Mt. Blanc, in Chamonix, to spend a week at an altitude no barge has ever reached.
And OK, we’ll try to be better about doing more frequent blog entries.
But the Alsatian wine is so good.