Free Parking for improvisation in multiple environments.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Scènes Européenes: Bullet Holes

Travel is back on the mind again. I've recently found a file of writing (letters to friends, odd essays and emails) from the time I was living in France five years ago, and thought it would be interesting to post some of them here. For each piece, I'll choose a piece of music that either reflects the theme of the writing, or relates to a particular time or place of significance during my time travelling.

The author of these passages was a little younger than he is now, and you can detect a few wishful stereotypes in some of the descriptions of Europe and its inhabitants! But I hope that his wide-eyed enthusiasm for foreign places is still apparent. If this project seems self-indulgent and uninteresting, I apologise in advance. Please come back again when I'm finished.

Bullet Holes
February 2001

There are bullet holes in the church down the road from my apartment. While the damage seems innocuous to the casual glance, my curiosity moved me to ask a friend who is a native of this small Alsatian town, and, Beh ouais, the inch-wide craters were indeed caused during fighting in late 1944.

Before I arrived here, Alsace for me was synonymous with War. In school history lessons back in New Zealand, Alsace and Lorraine were names to be conjugated alongside such terms as Versailles, Lebensraum and reparations. Somewhere I had also picked up a few ideas about Riesling, half-timbered houses and choucroute. But I still expected evidence of occupation, resistance and collaboration to be writ large across the Alsatian landscape, a clear message for posterity.

Alsace is a region whose history has been shaped in the fulcrum of fires from outside. Squeezed between the Rhine and the undulating bulk of the Vosges, Alsace is conveniently stretched like a ragged band-aid over the centre of Western Europe- a strip 80 kilometres wide between the rival ambitions of Germany and France.

Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, this French territory was ceded to Germany. The protracted massacre of the First World War resulted in the return of French sovereignty, before Alsace was reoccupied by Hitler, and integrated into the Third Reich. Alsace has often been no more than a geopolitical symbol strident political ideologies of Paris and Berlin.

The evidence of war is certainly there, but when I set out in search of Alsace’s past, it did not reveal itself easily.

Understandably, Alsatians seem to want to put their violent heritage behind them. For instance, there is no institution devoted to displaying relics of wartime Alsace. In other parts of France, perhaps in regions less directly involved in the fighting, there are thoughful and generally honest war museums (inevitably dubbed Musées de la Résistance), of which those in Grenoble and Besançon are both worth visits.

The evidence of violence, suppression and deportation is instead spread thinly across the province. There are war memorials which, while ubiquitous, make only a modest claim for your attention. In bookshops and libraries I have flicked through diaries, memoires and history books which recount the experience of war from the point of ordinary Alsatians. Near Saverne, the remains of Le Struthof concentration camp are reminders of the only Nazi death camp built on French soil. Dirty plaques on railway stations remind the commuters rushing through the rain of the embarkation points for uncounted thousands who never returned.

It is perhaps the people themselves, both young and old, who best emblemise the passage of Alsace from battlefield to industrial powerhouse at the crossing point of a united Europe.

Elsassich, the collection of Germanic dialects still spoken in the region by many people over thirty is part of a culture which has survived three wars and the hostile linguistic policies of both French and German governments. Under German administrations, Elsassisch was replaced by standard Hochdeutsch in schools. Even after the "liberation" of 1945, the Gaullist ideology which demanded a unified and undivisable République Francaise, discouraged local dialects and patois in favour of French, leading to the decline of Elsassisch as the language of daily transaction.

But Alsatians are nothing if not silently stubborn. One of my Alsatian colleagues, born in the early 1960’s, didn’t learn French until he started school. His language at home, his language of birth is Elsassisch.

But does the story of war and invasion survive among the young in Alsace today? Talking to the teenagers in the school where I work, it seems that the war is as remote for them as it was for me at school in New Zealand, where we learned about the Holocaust in between lunchtime and Physics. Like young people everywhere, these kids are too worried about their approaching Bac exams and their new boyfriends to dwell long on the experience of their grandparents.

Today, Alsace’s fortunes have changed. In 1999, the new European Parliament was opened in Strasbourg. The very existence frontalière which once absorbed so much rage, pain and loss, is today the primary economic asset of the Alsatians. Alsace has one of the lowest unemployment rates in France. Large numbers of Alsatians work across the border in Germany and Switzerland. The Peugot factory in Mulhouse churns out the new 206 for a global clientèle. The brutality of war has been well and truly conquered by the banality of the free market.

But nobody has bothered to cover up the bulletholes. On the hill above my town there is another reminder of the past. The Monument de la Résistance, a large Cross of Lorraine, illuminated at night, stands vigil over the well-kept houses and tidy gardens below. From its position on the flanks of the Vosges, it faces eastward to Germany, which is just 40 kilometres distant across the plain to the Rhine, with the wooded expanse of the Black Forest beyond. While the echos of guns have faded underneath the chorus of a new European harmony, I get the impression that, deep down the ghosts remain. While Alsatian kids drink beer and make out in its shadow, the Cross of Lorraine on the hill says «never again». But Europe is a funny place. You never know what might happen next.

Beaux Arts Trio - Schumann Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor Op.63 (3rd Movement)
From Schumann: Complete Piano Trios: Philips 456 323 [Buy]


  • At 11:56 PM, Blogger Nick said…

    That was really cool to read...considering my similar situation. Great writing.

    Would love to share "Europe Experiences"...maybe someday:D

  • At 6:59 AM, Blogger etnobofin said…

    Glad you enjoyed it Nick. I was interested personally to read this stuff again because I had forgotten I'd written it and hadn't read any of it for four or five years. So a bit like reading an email that you'd sent to yourself 5 years earlier...

  • At 8:54 AM, Blogger rentstrike said…

    This is lovely and thoughtful and not at all self-indulgent. Please do continue to think about such things and share your reflections with us.


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