Friday, June 29, 2007


Admit it: you're danged tired of hearing about our fantastic travels.

If Doug McKelway doesn't look like the spawn of satan in this picture, I don't know who does. My mom sent this to me--I think it was from the DC Examiner. I couldn't figure out if it was this photo or the article on the reverse that she wanted me to look at, and finally decided the photo was the more compelling of the two. The crease running from his eye was added at a later date, and although it does add to his creepiness, it isn't a hideously disfiguring scar (or a retro monocle) as it appears. Mostly the photo frightens me because the man has no pupils. The scan doesn't really do justice to his icy-blue, soulless peepers, but c'est la vie.

The real question is how in the heck can his co-anchor be so placid? Fox News needs to investigate.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Where was I? Oh yes, the bretzel. Buttery, knot-shaped, remarkably similar to the American "pretzel", but more Alsatian-y. Most bakeries seemed to carry them, so we took advantage multiple times on the trip with varying amounts of success.

Monday, the Pentecost, we went to Strasbourg, which houses a number of the European government buildings. Every so often, the whole Parliament moves from Brussels 4 hours to the southeast, an incredible waste of time, energy, and money. Almost everyone objects to this process, aside from possibly the French. We carefully scheduled our trip to France so as to miss this migration, because traffic expands, prices shoot skyward, and Strasbourg generally becomes much more uptight.

We had only two things to tick off our list: the cathedral and the Petite-France, which is the name of the historic district. Having seen pink sandstone churches and Alsatian charm over the past several days, I can confidently say that there's no real reason to go there. But it was another gloomy day and we wanted plenty of ducking in options, and cities are good for that.

After parking and getting to the touristy area of town, we found a lunch spot and got out of the drizzle. It was unremarkable restaurant aside from the fact that they brewed their own beer. Jack got a tarte flambee. Thus fortified, Jack was hell-bent on getting a rain jacket, having forgotten his at home and never having liked it in the first place, although it served him well on past trips. Remarkably, the first store we went in was a camping store having a sale, and he managed to find a jacket that was reasonably-priced and nice-looking (as much as rain jackets can be). The brand name was "fusalp", and there was a small tag on the exterior with rubbery raised letters. By the end of the day the border and three of the letters fell off, and only "usa" remained. Coincidence???

The church was quite nice, though, and it contained a lot of fancy stuff, such as this elaborately-carved base of the pulpit. They had this amazing clock in the cathedral that knows the date, time, position of the sun and moon in real time, which week on the ecclesiastical calendar it was, when the next Easter will be, and much, much more. Besides this, there's all kinds of moving figures. We got to see some of them wheel around and death strike a hammer to a drum-shaped bell to mark the hour. But don't set your watch by it; for some reason it's 15 minutes slow. I believe there is some kind of technical explanation for this discrepancy, but probably what really happened some young priest was trying to set it for daylight savings time and saner heads prevailed upon him to stop, and they've never adjusted it back for fear of breaking the thing. Naturally they had the friar excommunicated for his offense.

Vauban, that genius of military engineering whose handiwork we encountered in Luxembourg, decided that what Strasbourg really needed in order to be protected was the ability to quickly shut off the Ill River's flow through the city thereby flooding the surrounding lowlands to, presumably, drown attackers. How could this have possibly worked? At any rate, because of this there were a number of interesting bridges built over the four channels that the river flowed through to enter town, and buildings on the thin strips of land between them. And there was a quaint old town area. We had hoped to go to the Alsatian Museum to look at some traditional items and get out of the weather, but much to our surprise there was a line out the door. Apparently we weren't the only ones who had the idea of checking out a sleepy museum on a rainy day.

We stepped into a tiny tea shop to enjoy a warm-up. The place had no more than a dozen seats on two floors, so we were lucky to get a spot. We took our time sipping our tea: mine a Russian caravan, and Jack's gunpowder.

Eventually it was time to head back to Wissembourg. When we arrived around dinnertime, we found that most restaurants were closed for the holiday, and those that were open were full. The one place I had wanted to check out was shuttered, so it was looking like we were going to stuck eating gyros at the carnival. On the way there I saw a place that looked friendly and generally unoccupied, so we stopped in. It ended up being a bad choice, and everyone else in the world (the three happy beer drinkers excepted) seemed to know not to go there. My tarte flambee crust came out of a cellophane packet. We should have just called it off right then, but we bravely held on. Eventually we got out of there, full but not satisfied, and grumbled our way over to the big finale of the festival: the son et lumiere.

It began to rain. We hung around with all the other chumps under soggy skies and damp umbrellas for the thing to start. The organizers seemed to be waiting for a break in the weather to begin, so we were tortured with almost an entire album of Phil Collins live. It did let up a bit at one point, so they called in the choir, who were to perform on a stage set up over a branch of the Lauter. Naturally it began coming down again as they got ready, and I thought for sure someone was going to get electrocuted.

And then...the son! The lumiere! There was music flowing from the speakers all around us as lights danced on the buildings and fireworks lit the sky. I didn't even think you could do fireworks in the rain--why on earth do they put it off in the US on account of weather? Perhaps because during the summer it's frequently accompanied by lightning. But no matter...My mood was rapidly improving, although I did manage to fire off a sarcastic comment to Jack instructing him to take some pictures of fireworks. He always does this, and they always turn out terribly. But he dutifully complied, and he got some lovely shots.

And so the Wissembourg portion of our journey came to a close with a bang, if I may be permitted to use the cliche.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sunday we spent mostly driving around the Vosges mountains in the rain. The Vosges are similar to the Appalachians, in that they are tree-covered and relatively short when compared to the Rockies and Alps and so forth. I think the highest altitude we attained was something like 800 meters.

Before we set out on the Michelin-suggested driving tour, we went to look for the spot where the Gutlouthof used to stand. Driving south for about 2 km, we saw nothing but knee-high corn. Not even a slight depression in the earth that would indicate settling of the soil over time in the spot where a building with a basement once stood. The only features of the area that suggested a different use were a short tree-lined patch of paving off the main road where a smaller road or driveway might have once been, and a small underpass that went under the train tracks, totally unnecessary today because a nearby road goes over the rails.

Once we got on our driving tour we quickly discovered that Michelin, while having fine maps, is not so good at directions. The guidebook will say something like "turn right after you enter town", not specifying the street name, the closest address, whether it's the first turn or the third. I think they're deliberately vague to get you out of your car to ask directions and talk to the local populace, but when you're antisocial you don't do those sorts of things unless you're totally lost beyond redemption. And we always knew where we were, just not how to get where we were going.

Our first stop was a short hike off the road to a spot overlooking Wissembourg. Brimming with confidence as usual, I failed to note which path we were supposed to take when we left the car. So we wound up and up, and it began to sprinkle on us. Then it began to rain. Then pour. We took shelter under a patch of scrubby pines planted in rows. We kept deciding that the tree a few feet away would be an improvement over the current one, but then it turned out to be the same. We kept moving, looking for that illusory dry spot. Eventually the rain let up a bit, and we headed back down, damp and chilled.

Once in the car we cranked up the heat and lit out for our next destination. We missed our turn due to the aforementioned ambiguousness, then I tried to get us back on track at the next town without turning around, and then all the roads looked too narrow to possibly be the way forward. We went from Wingen to Petit Wingen to Wingen and finally back to Petit Wingen. Every town had a helpful map if you bothered to park and look at it, which we eventually did, and the road we were supposed to go on was one of the ones that looked like it would just dead-end in someone's driveway. Eventually we got to where we were going, but ended up skipping a chunk of the tour and one of the stops we were hoping to see: a ruined castle. The place we ended up at turned out not to be a town, but a restaurant/hotel complex on a mountaintop.

As we were cranky and hungry by this point, we decided to stop for lunch. We parked and discovered that the castle we were trying to get to was visible in the distance, seemingly miles away. The restaurant was homey and family-oriented. The waitress warned me against the lasagna, noting that it took a long time to cook, so I ordered what turned out to be an extremely bland pasta with vegetables dish. Jack got trout in cream sauce, one of the Alsatian seasonal specialties, which was heavenly. We ordered a light and refreshing bottle of local hard cider to accompany it.

I was suffering a bit of despondency after lunch, but we decided to brave the intermittent rain squalls to hike in the general direction of the Chateau Fleckenstein ruins. Our path was littered with interpretive displays about how charcoal was made back in the day. The area was actually closer than it appeared, and we got to the base of the promontory on which the ruins were built, paid our admission and were given free rein to clamber about on the site. It was a bit cheesy, as they had added a number of things for the kids, such as spooky sounds and lights in a staircase carved through the rock that was referred to as the "troglodyte passage", but interesting nonetheless. Someday I hope to receive an in-depth explanation of why in the heck people built these huge fortresses high up on rock outcroppings, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Sure, they would be extremely difficult to capture, but what would you be protecting other than the small band of people living inside the walls? You could keep an eye out for troops approaching from any direction, but who would you notify? As far as the eye could see were trees and more trees. Standing on top of the ruins you could see the hotel/restaurant where we ate in one direction and an RV camp in another, but no towns, farms, or other signs of life in the rolling foothills.

After we had gotten our fill of the chateau, we returned to the car. We walked back by a muddy, rutted road that steeply climbed the hillside, and as we walked up it we realized this is the way we would have driven had we followed the directions correctly. No thank you.

Since we were finally going the right way, we continued on with the driving tour. We saw more Alsatian charm, vestiges of the Maginot Line (a dismal failure of French military defenses in WWII), and plenty of roadside memorials to war dead, since heavy fighting occurred in the area a number of times.

We detoured from the tour to visit Keffenach and Drachenbronn, the two towns where the Flicks came from before arriving in Altenstadt. Keffenach was a sleepy town with two churches and absolutely no commerce, and one small boy with enough bravery to taunt the strangers. Since there's no conceivable reason for tourists to stop there, I can only imagine that we were being watched by more than one set of eyes behind curtains.

Drachenbronn, where Jack's earliest-identified ancestor was from, was also home to a legend about a dragon coming down from the mountains and drinking water from the town fountain. We parked and walked from one edge of town to the other, greeted the local populace out for their early evening constitutionals, and talked to a politician from a nearby town who was running in the regional elections and putting up signs. He was a pretty young guy and sported a Donegal beard, so we decided we would vote for him. We visited the graveyard, bordered on one side by curious goats.

We returned to Wissembourg for our evening's repast, and the festival was in full swing. An all-accordion band was entertaining people in the square. After dumping our belongings we were lured back down to the plaza by the smell of grilling meats. We picked ourselves up a large sausage sandwich and a beer to share. Funny thing is, when your French pronunciation is bad, they switch over to German. If you're not French, then naturally you're German, right? So Jack ordered his sausage, and the guy said "mit?" meaning "with". Moutarde, what else? After we sat down to eat, we saw people walking around with these delicious-looking biscuity things with a side of apple sauce. Dampfnudel: some kind of biscuit dough that is shallow-fried in butter to arrive at a browned and crisp crust on both sides. They were 2 for €3, but for some reason the lady gave us 3. We must've looked emaciated to her pleasantly plump self. It came with a side of "compote" made of cooked apples. A satisfying meal indeed.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The next day, Saturday, we went out to explore Jack's heritage in the next town over, Altenstadt, about a mile away from our hotel via the main road. Fortunately for us, we didn't have any of the problems associated with the journey of Dr. Flick.

As we walked down the road, which had a variety of establishments not typically associated with Alsatian charm, such as gas stations, warehouses, and large grocery stores, our eyes were relieved to light upon a stork sitting on the top of a chimney. For some reason, they have storks here. It's kind of cool, as they build giant nests up on top of precarious spots (admittedly, some with platforms that have been added to attract them), and the ma and pa take turns staying with the young-uns and venturing out for food. You can always see at least one parent in the nest, carefully tending to a batch of hatchlings.

But I digress: Altenstadt. There's not much to it, just a tiny main street with an elementary school, post office, mini grocery store and a restaurant, and many residences in the traditional style, some looking worse for wear. It seems like it hasn't changed too much since the Flicks left for America in 1830. The church that Jack's ancestors got married, St. Ulrich, seemed to be the community center as well (a woman was putting up signs for a cake sale on the gates while we were there). We entered to empty pews and the sounds of the organ rolling around us. The practicing organist seemed to be unperturbed by two people scrutinizing everything and taking a lot of pictures.

In the year of Our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty Eight, the tenth day of the month of November, the banns having been proclaimed as is customary in my church, three times, three proximate Sundays having passed and in succession, and no impediments having been found, I the undersigned pastor in Altenstadt, in my church, at ten o'clock in the forenoon interrogated Joseph Flick, twenty-seven years old, son of Joseph Flick, a citizen of Drachenbroon, and the deceased Elizabeth Keller, therefore married, on account of residing in my parish and on account of having been born in the parish of Keffenach from where transmissorial documents have been furnished me and which are in my possession, and Anna Mary Huber, about twenty years old, daughter of Peter Huber Citizen of Altenstadt and Tenant of the community farm (Gutlouten) and of the deceased Magdalen Metzler, heretofore married in my parish: with their mutual consent given and assured on the word of those present...the bride having declared she does not know how to write, makes a sign, after this I have blessed them in accordance with the custom of Holy Mother Church.

--Translated from Latin, St. Ulrich Church records

We didn't find any Flicks in the graveyard, perhaps on account of the soft sandstone used had caused all traces of writing on some of the older markers to be worn away, perhaps because names weren't of a standard spelling back then (there were some names that were close to Flick), or perhaps everyone moved on before passing. Joseph worked at the community farm outside of town called Gutlouthof ("good leper house," we are told, the former site of a hospital) in some respect (perhaps as a maker of textiles), where he lived with his wife Anna. He had a son, Peter George, a stonecutter, who immigrated to the US along with his brother, wife and children. The stone baptismal font in the church dated from 1755, and perhaps this is where Peter had his head dipped on a dismal February day in 1789. We picked out a respectable-looking house where we decided Peter may have plied his trade before he set sail.

We hung around for a bit, daring anyone to come up and ask us why we were loitering so we could press them for information, but no one did. The organist escaped while we were behind the church looking at the graves. We walked down the remainder of the main street out of town. And just like that, we were in Germany. A whole other country! We continued walking a handful of paces and were in Neuhof, a cluster of maybe 3 houses. We crested a small rise covered with vineyards on either side, and took in the view. On our way back down into France, Jack noticed that one of the houses had a sign up for schnapps. With a load of gumption, he went up and rang their doorbell. A large, sweaty man in a white t-shirt and suspenders answered the door, and Jack somehow communicated what he wanted, and the guy indicated we needed to go around the house to the other side. So we did. There were no schnapps in evidence. No one was around. As we were getting ready to give up, a garage door opened, and the same man appeared behind it.

There was a tiny table set up surrounded by crates of liquor. He gestured for us to sit, and began speaking to us in German. Mere steps from the border, and he spoke absolutely no French. I think the only thing we managed to get across was that we were from "USA". We tasted a few of the various flavors such as cherry and plum, and they in no way resembled schnapps I'd had before--these were hard liquor (50% alcohol!) with a little fruity aroma to them, but otherwise no sweetness. This made me a bit nervous--what if we were buying some kind of product adulterated with methanol from an amateur distiller that's going to make us blind? [Turns out this is what legitimate schnapps taste like--the ones available in the US are fake. At any rate, we haven't gone blind yet.] After a couple of minutes, the wife came down. She left again and returned with a young man who spoke some English. Jack told him how he was researching his heritage in Altenstadt, and he dutifully transmitted the information, but they were merely polite rather than interested in sharing any stories. We had settled on a 4-pack of small bottles of different flavors, given that we didn't have the capacity to carry a ton of stuff with us on foot, and yet they urged more samples on us. Having not eaten lunch yet, we had to beg off lest we no longer be able to walk.

We went back into town and stopped in at the only restaurant. It was much too fancy for us, full of people celebrating special days, but it was the only game in town. A local Riesling, nicely chilled on such a warm day, went well with Jack's chicken in mushroom sauce with a side of buttery spaetzel, and my duck breast with potato gratin. The most astonishing thing about the place was the bathroom, which was done up in late-80s or early-90s decor, with lots of chunky colors and sponge-painted walls. A huge contrast to the muted interior of the rest of the place.

As we lingered over coffees and sweets, Jack asked our waitress about the community farm Gutlouthof. Had she heard of it? Yes! She had an uncle who worked there. It was damaged beyond repair in "the war" and then razed. No traces of it remained. It had been about 2 km south of town on the main road, she said. This corresponded well with the information we had from another source about the location. So that was something.

We walked around town a bit more, saw two girls washing a pony in the street like it was a car, and then headed back in the direction of Wissembourg via a bike path that followed the Lauter into town. We went back to our hotel room to digest our food and experiences, and listened while a band played on the traffic island on the street below. When they completed their set, they hopped on the mini-train to take their tunes to the rest of the town.

After our rest we went out exploring again. We visited the interior of the church, which featured a giant painting of a saint on one wall. Having checked that off the list, we re-entered the main square to find traditional dancing occurring. Now, everyone knows that Alsatian traditional costumes feature enormous red or black hair bows for the women. These women were wearing long scarves that covered their heads, so clearly they weren't Alsatian. They were...Romanian? Or Romany? The pamphlet for the Pentecost Fest indicated that it was one or the other, but it was difficult to translate the word accurately from the French. But anyway, it was a lively group of men and women yipping, whistling, and trilling, dancing in a semi-circle. As we watched, it began to rain, and the troupe crowded into our hotel and into a second-floor overflow room with a bar. The rain didn't stop them from carrying on the festivities--a peek in the door later on revealed that they had gotten a number of tourists to join in the dancing.

When the weather cleared up a bit, we went to find our evening meal. We ended up at a lively place that appeared to be mostly locals, as it was somewhat off the tourist track (although that's hard to do in such a small town) and filled with non-charming things such as creepy dolls. We availed ourselves of the tarte flambees, served unceremoniously on a board. The wafer-thin crispy crust was topped with layers of cream, onions and ham bits. Delicious. Frankly, I wish I was eating one right now.

When we eventually wandered back to the hotel, the traditional dancers were still going strong. We mentally wished them godspeed and went to bed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I got to Weissenburg at about 12 o'clock. I inquired where I could get a conveyance to Alstadt from the man who apparently was a porter. He told me that Alstadt was far away and that I would have to take a train. He said it was not called Alstadt now, but Rabistadt. He took me to a man in uniform, who apparently confirmed what had been told me, and I was informed that I could get a train in about an hour. I visited Weissenburg and came back in one hour. I took the train for a place called Sels where I went to get the stage for Alstadt. In the car I got into conversation with a gentleman and told him where I was going. He was from Weissenburg and well acquainted there. He informed me that Alstadt was ten minutes walk from Weissenburg and that I would have to return to Weissenburg. I got out and waited for a train to Weissenburg. It was nearly six o'clock when I got back and it was quite dark. I got a train hand to accompany me with his lantern and visited Fr. Harding Fischer, pastor of Alstadt...I did not get home until after ten o'clock and as I had had no dinner and had tramped about in the mud a great deal I was very tired and hungry.

--Lawrence Flick, November 25, 1902

(excerpted from the book "Beloved Crusader: Lawrence F. Flick, Physician," by Ella M. E. Flick, 1944)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ah, France. Country of wine, cheese and mystery.

We rented a car to travel to Alsace in May, home of one branch of Jack's ancestors and various white wines. Having personally never learned to drive a manual, Jack had to take this on himself with me navigating. Not exactly a fair division of labor, but navigating is not as easy as you might think, since the route numbers are rarely shown on street signs and you have to guess which upcoming cities they will refer to at each roundabout. Really keeps you on your toes.

So we made our way out of the city using a wonderfully detailed hand-drawn map from one of Jack's coworkers. And then we started flying on the 411. It seems that they only tell you the speed limits (a) when it changes or (b) when you enter a new country, so we were just trying to keep pace with the slower lot of cars. It still seems pretty fast, though, when the speedometer says 120.

After getting the hang of the big road I attempted to take us on some of the smaller byways that paralleled the highway so we could take in some local color. Every single turn was wrong. Every single one. I kept reviewing the map, taking in landmarks such as towns and railroad tracks, and thinking I knew where we were, and then, surprise! We'd end up somewhere else. We drove through the lovely beer town of Ciney, though, so it made it sort of worth it. The second time through the main part of town wasn't nearly as nice, however. A little too reminiscent of "National Lampoon's European Vacation": "Look, Jack, the church from the Ciney label!" So we followed the signs back to the motorway and stuck with that as long as we could.

Everyone told us to buy gas in Luxembourg because it was cheap there, so we did. Keep in mind that we were driving a VW Polo, about the equivalent of a Golf, not a Hummer. The tank was a little less than half full at that point, and it cost us...€33! [That's approximately $44 for those of you watching at home.] These Europeans have no clue what cheap gas is.

When we breezed past the French border, I was able to switch to the higher-quality map I had of the region (shout out to Michelin!), which made getting to Wissembourg an uneventful affair once we left the main road. Our French teacher told us that in France you either had toll roads or speed traps, so they get money out of you one way or another (at least I think that's what she was saying). At one point on the highway we saw two cops pointing a radar gun at traffic while sitting placidly on an overpass.

We cruised into Wissembourg on late Friday afternoon on the first day of their Pentecost festival. We didn't get into our first choice hotel, but it turns out that the place we reserved was right across the street and, unlike the original place, had an unobscured view of the main square in town, perfect for viewing the festivities.

Wissembourg is a small town surrounded by major fortifications in the terms of ramparts, a moat on the north side, and a river to the south. It is adjacent to the German border, and, while tiny, still bigger than most of the towns in the vicinity. The ousted king of Poland, Stanislas, whose daughter would later become the queen of France, spent some time there. Alsace changed hands several times, yielding a distinctive Germanic dialect and a heavy, pork-based cuisine.

We wandered around the streets for a while taking in the Alsatian charm of the half-timbered houses painted in a variety of soothing colors. The River Lauter branches off in several directions as it reaches the town, giving it the appearance of a mini, non-navigable Venice, and offering plenty of pretty views. We stopped for a beer in the shadow of the Maison du Sel, constructed in the 15th century and sporting such a wavy roofline that it's amazing the whole thing hasn't collapsed in on itself. It was there that we first saw a chef, cooking outdoors, slather a flat bread with what appeared to be a creamy white cheese, top it with onions and ham (of course), and pop it in a wood-fired oven for a few minutes. We had discovered the pizza of the region: flammenkuchen or tarte flambee. But it wasn't yet dinner time, so we wandered around some more.

Our ramble took us past the Catholic church in town, featuring sandstone construction in a soft pink. We marveled at the astounding variety of graffiti etched in the walls, dating from the 1700s onwards. Then we were ready to eat. Having earlier perused the menu at our hotel and finding it satisfactory, we decided to eat there. We grabbed a sidewalk table and enjoyed the oncoming coolness of evening. I got the in-season specialty meal of white asparagus. The first course, creamy asparagus soup, was heavenly. Then, a giant plateful of asparagus with three sauces. All the sauces were okay, but not very interesting. I was pretty content just eating the spears plain. Although I would have guessed it would be a vegetarian option, it came with a side of cured meats. Jack had the choucroute garnie, one of the few Alsatian dishes to gain a reputation outside of the area: sauerkraut with assorted meats. There were a few sausages, a few pieces of pork, and a giant heap of sauerkraut. All good. We washed it all down with a local beer (in addition to wine, Alsace makes much of the French beer).

As night fell, the town seemed to become overrun with teens. They were all heading towards the fair, a feast of glowing lights, cheap toys and bored carnies. We checked out the scene, but after a long day of driving and other excitement, it was time to hit the hay. The fact that our only window opened up onto the square didn't always make for ideal sleeping conditions, but the location made up for it in other ways.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Investigating the entire spectrum so you don't have to:

I forgot to mention that when my parents were here and they went to the grocery store, they brought back a 1-liter bottle of Delhaize brown table beer. We tried it one evening before going out to eat somewhere, and the "beer" bore more resemblance to Diet Coke than to other beers I had tasted: artificially colored and sweetened (I forget with what, perhaps sorbitol), fakey-feeling carbonation, and a wimpy 1.5% alcohol. It's amazing to me that in a country like Belgium such a product could get away with that type of trickery.