A long drive from Le Puy-en-Velay put us in Colmar just after the sun set. Colmar is located in France’s Alsace region. Not far away, about ten miles as a crow flies, is the Rhine River and the border with Germany. In just six days our long trip would finish, as we’d depart from Frankfurt Germany’s large international airport to head across the Atlantic on our way back home.
On the border between France and Germany, the Alsace-Lorraine has been at the front line of many wars. Over the centuries the Huns and the Franks then later the French and the Germans have fought for control of the region. Alsace-Lorraine’s cultural roots are muddled. French is the current spoken language yet the rustic buildings fit well into the style of the nearby German Black Forest. The food, perhaps unfortunately, tastes like a fusion of German and French.
At the unconscious level the Alsace feels German. At least it does to the language centers of our brains. Walking into shops, German came first to our tongues. It is ironic, as we know far fewer German words than we know French. Besides, for the last several weeks, we’d practiced committing crimes against the French language. French should have come first. Yet somehow German seemed instinctively natural in this wedge of France.
Our language confusion makes us wonder. What triggers our subconscious to choose a particular foreign language to attempt? Would we instinctively try our few words of Spanish, French, Italian, and German if we walked around the country pavilions at the World Showcase at Disney’s EPCOT? Or are more compelling cultural surroundings required?
No matter what country it feels like, Colmar and the Alsatian wine country villages are fairy-tale attractive. Medieval street plans spotted with burbling fountains and lined with half-timbered houses bring visitors to a different time and place. Though it is worth a visit just to see the beautiful villages and the historic town centers, there’s one thing more that will keep us coming back. The Alsace is a great place to taste wine. Not only is it easy, the tasting rooms are conveniently located near the easily accessible village centers along the Route des Vins d’Alsace, but the wines are also superb.
There is something about the Alsace that confuses us. Why is the food so Germanic? Living on the border between two countries, one with a great food culture and another that regards all things vegetable with deep suspicion, I’d expect the food to be skewed more towards the French-style. Wouldn’t it be natural to adopt the best from both countries?
This brings us to our last excellent meal in France at L’Atelier du Peintre, a Michelin one-star establishment:
“And for you?”
The waiter had turned and asked Becky what she would like for dinner.
“Could I start with a salade verte?” Becky responded.
A simple green salad or salade verte was not on the menu. Nevertheless, throughout France we had found that even when it was not offered we could usually get a basic green salad if we asked.
“Let me check with the kitchen,” the waiter replied.
A moment later he returned.
“It is not possible.”
The kitchen did not have the makings for a green salad.
Becky continued, “Can I get some sort of vegetable?”
The waiter assured Becky that “vegetables” were possible and would be included with her meal. He then continued on take the rest of the table’s orders.
Later, when the food emerged from the kitchen, Becky’s plate indeed had vegetables, at least technically. Two small peeled potatoes were carefully arranged on her plate. There was nothing green or brightly colored to distract the eye from the perfectly seared protein. Her serving had the color palate of German food and the flavors of a French meal. Indeed, the food was distinctly French except that the ingredients were, unfortunately, those preferred in Germany.
And so it is in the Alsace. In this corner of Europe cultures overlap. Your eyes tell you that you are in Germany, your ears tell you that you are in France, and your mouth is just confused. Somehow it all works together. Somehow it is all for the best.
Colmar is the birthplace of the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. In 2004, 100 years after Bartholdi’s death, a replica statue was installed in the middle of a traffic circle. I imagine that somewhere inside Colmar’s replica Statue of (Traffic) Liberty there must be a plaque similar to the one inside New York’s Statue of Liberty with this written:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your muffled Peugeots yearning to run free,
The wrecked refuse of your teeming road.
Send these, the worn out, traffic-chocks to me,
I lift my lamp beside the highway curve!”