Friday, 10 April 2009

Strasbourg: a taste of gentility

It’s great to be back in Strasbourg for the Easter Break.

We’re guests of our good friends Mark and Amynah. Mark recently described the extraordinary pastry and chocolate shops Christian as ‘our favourite café’ :

This is like describing Manchester United as ‘a football team from North Western England’, champagne as ‘bubbly French wine’ or George W. Bush as ‘not as astute a statesman as one might have wished’. Each statement is strictly accurate but it leaves out so much through understatement that it loses the essence of what it’s describing, a telling illustration of the truth not being the same as the whole truth.

My friend and colleague Gary Ferguson always speaks lovingly of his own visit to Christian, referring specifically to the twenty types of hot chocolate on the menu (there are actually about eight, but hey, Gary’s a salesman, making up in overstatement for what Mark loses in understatement). Partly to make a sort of displaced atonement for Mark’s faint praise and partly to honour Gary’s fond memories of the place, I made a pilgrimage there on the first day of my visit to Strasbourg. I savoured a Papuan hot chocolate in the glorious surroundings of the place, with its violent décor of burgundy and puce, a colour scheme that goes out through the other end of hideous to its own strange charm.

Christian: elegance by way of an assault
on the sense of sight
While there, I texted Gary to tell him I was about to enjoy my hot chocolate. He texted back that he was working on a customer proposal. Though I replied to tell him how deeply envious I was, his final text suggested he wasn’t convinced of my sincerity.

Christian is in the centre of Strasbourg, in the rue Mercière which enjoys one of the best views of the city, straight onto the west front of the Cathedral with its lace-like tracery. The whole place is gentility itself: as I walked into the place I saw two middle age ladies sipping their chocolate with a priest, a scene straight out of a Balzac novel.

The Cathedral from the rue Mercière as seen by Mark

That was a sharp contrast to our entrance into the city that morning, across the bridge from Germany. The customs post had been burned out, and so had the information office, the pharmacy attached to it and the Ibis hotel a little further on. When I’ve seen scenes of rioting, it’s always been on TV, while the incident is actually happening. This was the first time I’d seen the aftermath. The NATO leaders have gone, as have the protesters. But the local people are still trying to clear up the mess. I imagine too that some are wondering when and whether they’re going get their jobs back. Since I don’t suppose the NATO leaders were influenced by the damage the protests caused, if they even know about it, that’s probably the only lasting impact it’ll have.

Meanwhile, congratulations to the French police. They caused a lot of inconvenience to friends of ours going about their legitimate business in the city centre but were unable to prevent buildings being torched at the border. Our good friend Félicie, for instance, had to get an escort to her office, through the lines of police protecting the city centre from dangerous individuals such as her.

Of course, she is a lawyer, so potentially capable of doing far more damage than just a few Molotov cocktails, but I don’t think their reasoning was that smart.

Anyway, the whole mess hardly bears thinking about. It must be time for another visit to Christian, to reinforce my comforting belief in the essential gentility of life.

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