It’s been awhile since I’ve last written, and I wouldn’t have you thinking that I’ve been idle here in Germany since returning after Christmas. Quite the opposite – I’ve actually been quite busy, traveling about, and have hardly found time to keep up with my journal let alone my blog posts. Not only have I been traveling but working as well when I find the time. This includes lesson planning, or how a teacher spends most of their time (nuts to anyone that says teachers don’t work). Occasionally I’ll be asked to do really rough jobs, like going skating with a delightful Year 7 class for two hours. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.
It’s not all desk work and Unterricht in the life of an assistant though. As an example, two weekends in January I’ve spent off in France. Though I’ve lived in Trier now for a total of 14 months (my, how time flies), I’d only gone to France once, and that only for the Remembrance Day service back in November to Vimy Ridge. If you consider how close Trier is to the French border (well, would be, were that pesky Luxemburg not in the way), you might think I’m a bit embarrassed by the fact. Truthfully though I’m not, but having been on so many trips eastward deeper into Germany, I have found myself thinking more and more about heading west to Frankreich.
My first outing to France was only a day trip with one of the Referendaren or student teachers from my school to Metz, conveniently only an hour away by car. Metz is one of the larger centres of Lorraine, a region of frequently contested ownership between France and German, old allies that they are. Folk say that Metz still retains many German influences, but I didn’t exactly see that. Perhaps this had more to do with it being Sunday, where of course everything having to be closed, so I didn’t quite get a “true” image of the city.
We spent most of the afternoon strolling around, huddled up in our scarves and gloves and hats to fight off the chilly wind that seemed to follow us through the small winding streets. The entire city seems to be made out of yellow sandstone and as such rather reminded me of Lancaster in England, where I had visited my old assistant chum Jack back in the spring. During our walk we tried to find a French bakery, thinking baguettes would make the perfect souvenir to take back to roommates, but we were let down. No, not a baguette nor a tarte nor pate, thank you very much.
Despite this disappointment I won’t deny Metz’s beauty. The common building material – the sandstone – gave the city a coherency you’d struggle to find anywhere in North America. I can’t help noticing how different this is to our cities back home, which seem to lack any centralized underlying style. In comparison with Metz, our cities look adolescent, undeveloped, as if we’re still struggling to find a sense of self, our attention superficially caught up in the newest thing.
And it’s not just the beautiful churches that give this impression, though there are some doozies in Metz. The cathedral especially is quite something, but then, cathedrals often are. Like Trier’s the one in Metz lacks much of the interior busy-ness seen elsewhere, creating a sober contrast to the gothic exterior.
No, as we wandered the city I noticed the smaller details – the latches, the doors, the grates – all of which reminded me of Venice. It all seemed so Mediterranean, despite being on the same latitude as Ladysmith or Vancouver.
Newer structures blended in where-ever possible. On the other side of the Moselle we stumbled upon a tall tower, its spire rising high up into the sky. We had thought it would be the spire of a massive church, but really only the tower remained, the rest having been long-ago destroyed. A school or an old folks home stood where pews must have 60 years previous.
“I wonder what happened to the rest of it?” my Rerefendar friend asked, surveying the scene. I turned to look at him, raising my eyebrows. Only minutes before we had been discussing the destruction of buildings during the war, and their rebuilding and restoration post 1945. “Oh,” he went on, sheepishly, “right.”
“It might have been the Americans,” I offered. I don’t know enough of the area’s history to say for sure, but I guess it’s best to give credit where credit is due. As you walk around these cities you find yourself thinking of these things, or at least I do.
The Templar Church was a definite highlight of Metz, dating from the middle ages, which has survived through the ages and still stands nestled in amongst the newer city citadel.
A week later Beth and I found ourselves in Strasbourg, southward from Metz in Alsace, or Alsaß as our German friends might call it. After a packed train to Saarbrücken we had the second train nearly to ourselves, at least until we crossed the border and made our first stop, where the conductor got on. When he asked for our tickets I handed him my travel itinerary by mistake, printed off an hour earlier from a Deutsche Bahn machine. I hadn’t noticed what I’d done, but I remember thinking he took a particularly long time looking it over before shrugging, stamping it, and handing it back. I don’t have the most confidence in the French rail system after this trip, ganz ehrlich. Our driver seemed to keep missing gear changes coming out of Saarbrücken, causing the train to lurch and roll in an alarming manner. Do trains have gears? I don’t know. Either way, it was worrying.
We arrived safely enough however in Strasbourg, and after settling in at the hotel went out and about for an evening stroll around the city, doing our best not to slip on the prodigious amount of ice. We watched a drunk man stumble around, lurching nearer and nearer to a canal with his hood up, blind to the world. “Oh God, I hope he doesn’t fall in.” Would we be called into action to rescue him, to be heroes? The water looked dreadfully cold. Luckily for us though he bumped into the railing, no doubt put there for the purpose of preventing drunks from falling in, and he slid off along the streetcar tracks in the direction of an oncoming car.
As this had quite tried our nerves, we turned in to dine at a hübsch little crêperie on the canal. Our waiter surprised me, obligingly offering to see if he could in fact make the crêpe I wanted, though he thought they were long out of the ingredients. I’d had bad experiences with French-speaking waiters before (Brussels, I’m looking at you). I suppose this guy though appreciated our use of French. I say “our”, but really it was Beth translating, bless her.
Ah, the French language. I spent a long seven years attempting to learn French at school. By comparison, I came to Germany with only three and a half years of university German. I gave up French after Grade 11, having found I wasn’t exactly the best at it. Given my pride as a Canadian (a shock to many of you, I bet) and my relatively positive experience learning German, you can understand my frustration at being unable to navigate my way around Luxemburg or Belgium in French. Indeed, after hearing I’m Canadian most Germans ask me if I’ve seen How I Met Your Mother, then ask if I can speak French. Oh, how those two questions hurt my Canadian pride.
Still, after a weekend bumbling around in Strasbourg I feel I was back at a nodding acquaintance with the language, about where I was in Grade 10. While not being much, I still feel re-assured that, perhaps in the future there’s hope for me in learning the language yet. I mean, I don’t expect I’ll ever quite master numbers in French: I’m rubbish enough at math in English, so don’t expect amazing feats of mental arithmetic from me whenever I want to ask about the price of something, or an address, or a train number. I can manage well enough with “ninety seven” or “siebenundneunzig“, but “quatrevingtdixsept” (four times twenty plus seventeen)? You must be joking.
I also don’t get French’s pronunciation. Any attempt I make seems doomed to failure. Besides English, you don’t often come across a language more wasteful when it comes to stuffing words with letters that you have absolutely no intention of pronouncing. Mark Twain did much to slander the German language and spread fears about its word length, but at least there you have a blueprint of how the word will sound, knowing exactly how each letter will be spoken out – and you can be sure each letter will have its say, a vocabulary democracy. Unlike Richard Hammond, Top Gear host, I don’t baulk at Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, or Twain’s Unabhängigkeitserklärung – they couldn’t be clearer. In French meanwhile I struggle, asking not for “un petit peu du lait” as I intended, but rather for “un petit peut poulet.”
All in all however Strasbourg impressed me. I don’t know if I would go back, but it does have a certain flair, coming from its German influences as well as its cute though lopsided cathedral. What’s more, and perhaps best said in Strasbourg’s favour? I find myself reconsidering my relationship with France, and the French language.