Studying abroad in Strasbourg, France

The Strasbourg Cathedral on its 1000th birthday.

What it’s like to live and go to school in one of the world’s most beautiful and culturally diverse cities

By DRAKE MACFARLANE

Strasbourg is a glorious smorgasbord of contradictions, idiosyncrasies and cultural anachronisms. This is due in part to it being in Alsace, the oft-fought over love child of France and Germany, but also because I’m convinced the people are crazy. No wonder I like it here.

To better understand the surreal cultural blend that is Strasbourg, France, I shall take you, dear reader, through a day-in-the-life of yours truly.

I wake up early each morning to the sound of a torrential downpour, the likes of which make native Portlanders like myself shudder in fear. After mustering my courage, I brave the outdoors and exit my apartment building in the old Jewish neighborhood in Northern Strasbourg. Surrounded by both imposing Prussian architecture and a sea of yarmulkes alike, I  grab my bike and survive the morning traffic. Strasbourg is called the bike capitol of Europe for a reason: its bike culture makes Portland look like Dallas. Helmet-less, scarf-wearing bicyclists weave in and out of vehicular traffic and onto their own, very special lanes and roads with reckless abandon.

On the way to school, I make my way past Place de la République, a gorgeous circular park a block away from my home, surrounded by the Palais du Rhin, the Bibliothèque Nationale de Strasbourg and the Théâtre National de Strasbourg — all of which are Prussian installations, now flying French colors, despite the rampant germanic imagery on their façades. Eventually, I tear past traffic and make my way to the simply massive University of Strasbourg campus. One of its major buildings, the Faculté de Droit, looks like something out of a Soviet architect’s wildest dreams, which stands in stark contrast from the older, Prussian buildings and newer, French abodes.

After hanging out at the Pangloss, the building where I take most of my classes, I might head out to lunch with my friends. Most of the time this boils down to getting “doner kebabs” at Restaurant Volkan. Now these ‘kebabs’ are not on a stick: instead, they are glorious sandwiches, created by a wonderful, mustachioed Turk with expertise. Mind you, our hangout isn’t the only one in town: in Strasbourg kebab places are like Starbucks.

Once classes are out, I go out with a few of my fellow friends and expats to Le Chariot, a bar so ‘hip’ and ‘bohemian’ that it seems straight out of Portland. I should also mention that the symbol of Le Chariot is a covered wagon, straight out of the Oregon Trail. Go figure. After having a few Alsatian beers, I decide to go get tarte flambées for dinner.

I might pass through Petite France district on the way. Contrary to what the name may imply, Petite France is full of cute little half-timber houses, all built the traditional Alsatian way, as my native roommate is always quick to point out. Once through this quarter, I cross the circular river and enter the downtown island proper. This island is an unholy mix of French, German, Alsatian, and what-have-you architecture. In addition, the traditional Christmas Market or Marché Noël has commenced, and thus the whole island looks like the North Pole exploded all over it. Full, log-cabin-like stalls fill the squares and passageways of the city, each hawking their own merry wares. The majority of these can be found in front of the iconic cathedral, the Notre Dame de Strasbourg. This old bird had its 1000th birthday this September and has competed with Notre Dame de Paris for hundreds of years. Maybe I’m biased, but I do prefer Strasbourg’s cathedral: it’s gothic, taller, and has a kick-ass asymmetrical tower.

Finally, after getting through waves of tourists and shoppers who clog the “Christmas Cheer” filled arteries of town, I finally find an open restaurant which serves the coveted tarte flambées. Now, a tarte flambée is basically a thin-crust pizza, traditionally with white sauce, onions, bits of bacon, cheese, and sauerkraut. But don’t you ever dare call it a pizza out loud, lest you find yourself thrown out of the restaurant and exiled from Strasbourg.

Once pleasingly full, I go home, stopping to wave at the legions of police officers and assault-rifle wielding soldiers along the way. Mind you, this benign, yet mildly militarized situation has been the case in my quarter since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The massive synagogue I live a block away from is guarded day and night. However, since the November 13th attacks, the hammer has come down. Protests or manifestations are forbidden, troop transports clog traffic and police patrol the streets. For good reason, to be sure. After all, Strasbourg is the home to the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, not to mention a slew of foreign consulates and the like. Add in the insane amount of people here for the holiday season and it’s a perfect security nightmare. Although, it is surreal seeing squads of well-armed men strolling about the Christmas Market.

Despite the anxiety in the air, the Strasbourgeois go about their days, just as I have had to. I end my day with my host ‘family’, a family which consists of a young Alsatian engineer named Julien, an Argentinian computer science Ph.D student named Esteban, and an utterly French microbiology Ph.D student named Pauline. For dinner, I have Argentinian-style schnitzel, accompanied by stereotypically French cheeses, as well as an Alsatian pinot gris. My day ends like the beginning: full of cultural mixing and particularities.

And there you have it, my Lewis & Clark friends. Come to Strasbourg sometime and you’ll find a place perhaps even weirder than Portland. You might even find yourself wanting to stay.

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