Monday, June 20, 2005


Wissembourg is the Alsace of Alsace: an off to the side place that does not completely fit in with the rest. In the northeasternmost corner to the région, Wissembourg diverted from the development of Alsace in a few important ways. It preserved an older dialect Frankish dialect rather than the Alemmanic dialect, and it was unaffected by the explosion of literature that surrounded the invention of printing. It is also the only Alsatian town that can truly be called a a Resedinzstaft – a court city for the nobility, having housed the exiled king of Poland. The town is supposed to be beautiful, surrounded by wonderful countryside for hiking and beautiful ramparts.

Other than visiting for its history and nature, Wissembourg is also the perfect place to meet Uli, a friend whom I met when I was at Umass-Amherst and when he was on a study program from Germany. Perhaps because of me and a few others, Uli decided that he wanted a doctorate in history as well – we claimed another soul! Uli even pursued the history of Alsace, looking into the difficult question of why political organizations still resemble the German associational pattern rather than the French – he gave up on that, and moved on to “cultural translation”.

It was another dreary, cloudy, cool day (the cloudy skies will come to an end – as I write this, the heat and sun are almost ungodly – I hope there won’t be a repeat of the summer of 2003). Wissembourg the town did not live up to its reputation. It’s attractive and quaint, and I would not stop anyone who wanted to see an Alsatian town from visiting. However, it did not excite me. The houses were not spectacular; the much-publicized ramparts were little more than a wall surrounded by a hiking path; and there was little to do in town. Furthermore, it was overrun by Germans – clearly the language of Wissembourg, on the weekends, is neither French nor Frankisch.

One high point was the mural in the church. I think it was of St. Christopher, and it reached from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. According to Uli, the legend says that those who saw the saint were automatically forgiven of their sins. So many people wanted to be blessed, however, that the builders made the mural high enough that it could be seen from the back of the church. (I wish I could have photographed it, but the Church was too dark, even for a flash).

Regardless, the town was an interesting enough venue for K and I to catch up with Uli. Of course, Uli and I talked about our (lack of) progress on our dissertations (I have him beat in pages, but that may be because I am long-winded).

Eventually we hiked outside of town. The countryside lived up to the advertising. The town sits below a number of hills that France shares with Germany. We hiked up on a path that cut through some small farms. We talked about numerous things, although we left academia far behind.

Two amusing things happened. First, we ate lunch at some anonymous cafe/restaurant in the middle of town. We ordered a bottle of wine, but we did not specify what we wanted nor did we ask for a wine list. That was a mistake. We talked so much and had so much fun that we ignored the practicalities of living. In fact, I barely took notice that the waitress had poured a glass of the Riesling for me to try. The wine was good, not great: probably it was great 5 years ago. We talked, drank, ate our Flammkuchen that tasted more like flat pizza. Then I looked over at the bottle of wine: 1979. I feared how much they would ask us to pay for it. Uli looked at it, and he was afraid. K looked at it, but she took it in stride. I was mortified. When the waitress came back, I asked her how much the bottle would cost. She had to research the matter, and when she came back she switched from speaking French to German. I was not prepared to hear German, and I thought she said siebzig. 70 Euros! Less than the worst, but still bad. I stewed for the rest of lunch, not enjoying one bite of my food (as if I could). I thought about how I would chew her out after I paid the bill – what would be the mot juste? I offered to do the gentlemanly thing: I would pay for the wine. Finally I asked, “How could they spring a 70 Euro bottle of wine on us?” Uli looked puzzled. He thought she said siebzehn – 17 Euros. But he confided that he may have heard what he wanted to hear. It was equally possible that I was unprepared for her “country German”. Suddenly, he was worried and I had hope. The bill proved Uli right and me wrong, which was the better of the two possibilities.

The other thing had to do with cheese. Uli promised to bring back French cheese to a colleague of his in Germany. Uli, unlike his friend, fears French cheese: soft, runny, smelly. (You must understand that Uli is in many ways more German than other Germans.) He wanted none for himself. At the market we both bought the same type of Munster that was infused with Gewurtztraminer. Soon after our purchases, we had to catch trains in different directions. On the train on the way back to Strasbourg, K said that she could smell the cheese. Indeed, the odor of the cheese escaped through the plastic. Later, as we ate at a café, K said that she could smell it still, and more strongly! When we got back, I through it in the fridge. However, the odor took over the fridge. The next night we tried the cheese – it was wonderful, but it was difficult to be in the same room with it. Now, I can only guess how Uli reacted to the odor. Given his extreme, über-German orderliness, I can guess that he was horrified.

By the way, if I ever want to set up a French rival blog to Nuno, I am well armed with pictures.
That wine story is one for the ages!

Considering the age and the price, maybe they were just trying to get rid of it!

Yeah, a lovely story. Next time you are there I recommend that you go across the border to Maxemilliansau and the German restaurant Gockelburg.

I seem to remember that Wissemburg actually straddles the border because if you are driving up from Soufflenheim you are in Germany before you get to the end of the town. Whenever I was there it was also swarming with Germans. My favourite area of Alsace is the 'north of Haguenau forest' area. Thanks for sharing your memories.
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