I had never heard of Strasbourg, a city in the Alsace province of France, when we pulled into our Airbnb after a full day’s drive. My initial impressions were not overly positive. Our house was just a few blocks away from a scruffy banlieue and, although our location was near a tram stop, we also shared it with a grocery store parking lot full of pot-smoking teens. But I didn’t care. We were only in Strasbourg because it was close to a few other places, like Heidelberg and the Black Forest, that we wanted to visit. I had no high expectations. If the city was a bit run-down, I didn't care. We’d just be sleeping there and leaving each morning.
After settling into the house, Dani and I decided to take the tram into town to find some food and explore. We were in France after all! A bit of late-evening exploration seemed a prerequisite and French food and wine called our names seductively.
As we waited for the tram our initial fears were confirmed. The tram stop in the evening reminded me of the old Dartmouth Bus Terminal in Nova Scotia where I spent so many hours during university. A rag-tag group of people joined us on the trip into Strasbourg's city center. As we proceeded farther into town, our prospects brightened. Since Danielle and I had no idea where we were going, we planned to hop off when we saw something worth seeing. We pulled into a stop located on a bridge with a church in the distance…so we jumped off.
As we wandered beside the Rhine and into the main square, I kept shaking my head to make sure what I was seeing was all real. The most majestic cathedral I’d ever seen greeted me with a bellowing pipe-organ concert that I could feel deep in my belly from several blocks away. Buskers sang and played violins and guitars along the side-streets, providing a constant background of music. Traditional half-timbered homes housed cafes and restaurants that beckoned us to eat EVERYTHING on the menu. Strasbourg was like a heaven!
To heighten the excitement level of Strasbourg, we were there for the semi-final between France and Germany. As we watched the game, when France scored their first goal, it felt like the world exploded in fireworks and car-horns. The banlieue behind our Airbnb was filled with maniacal screams of joy. A revving motorcycle sped back and forth between the streets in celebration. Patrick and I then made the obvious decision to go for a walk.
I suppose we looked very German. In addition to being the only Caucasians in sight, we wore our beards proudly, carried German beer in our hand and couldn’t easily respond to jeers in rapid fire French. After a few minutes of wandering around, everyone had settled into half time and the excitement had hushed. Other than being offered hash by the dude on the motorbike and finishing our beers, the remainder of our walk was uneventful.
We returned a couple times over the next few days and Strasbourg just kept getting better. We explored Petit-France, the old tannery district with heritage homes, and marvelled at the picture-perfect cobblestone streets and canals. Each timbered house came complete with colourful flower pots which added splashes of vibrant colour to contrast against the pale plaster of the homes. We took a train tour through the city (largely so Ryder could take a nap) and ate croissants at multiple cafes. The most enjoyable part of Strasbourg was just wandering aimlessly through the streets. There was an interesting store, statue or sight on every corner. I could easily have spent a week wandering through Strasbourg and still been happy!
If I end up in Western Europe at some point in the future, I’ll be making a beeline straight for Alsace!
On this tram, I witnessed one of the most admirable defense against racism I’ve ever seen in my life. A drunk middle-aged man plopped himself next to two young men of North African descent. He proceeded to lambast and criticize them in rapid-fire French for all of the problems facing France, blaming. At first the poor guys actually tried to respond and engage with him, but it soon became obvious that it was useless and the sat silently enduring the abuse for a minute or two. All of a sudden, a hero arrived. An elderly man strode angrily up to the slurring agitator and loudly scolded him for being a lousy drunk, accused him of racism and said emphatically (in French of course), “the problem isn’t with people like them, it’s with people like you!” The bigoted aggressor slunk off, obviously shamed, at the next stop. The two North Africans beamed. It was heartening to see that for every idiot, there's someone willing to stand up and fight for what is right.