Thursday, December 09, 2004

You gotta love the French!

Our old neighbors Tom and Sylvia have been in town this week. Yesterday, Sylvia and I took the train to Strasbourg to check out the Christmas market. Christmas markets aren't really my cup of tea (I think once you've seen one, you've seen them all), but I thought it would be nice to go to Strasbourg since I hadn't been there in four years.
We had an early start. We arrived at the Basel train station at about 7:00 a.m. so that we could buy our tickets for the 7:30 a.m. train. The Basel main train station is actually divided into the French and Swiss stations. So, if your journey is taking you to France, you simply walk through French border customs in the station, and then you are officially in France.
At 7:30, there was no sign of our train. We looked at the electronic board, and noticed that it was not posted. So, we just took the 7:58 a.m. train instead. This was my first dose of French for the day - no notice, no apology, no...nothing. The train just was not there, and we had to take the next one....c'est la vie!
After arriving in Strasbourg, we found our way to the information office at the train station. The sign outside the office actually read "General Information" in English alongside the French and German equivalents. I went to the desk and asked "Parlez vous Francais?" The response: "Non!" Then, I actually managed to blurt out Ou est la marché de Noel (not sure of the spelling), and the man's coworker rambled on in French and pointed down the main street. So, off we went...hopefully headed toward the Christmas market.
To our surprise we arrived at the market about fifteen minutes later. I won't bore you with the details, but the market definitely had a plethora of food, mulled wine, candles, ornaments, etc., etc. Sylvia and walked around for about an hour, and then we headed to this shop that has hand-painted, Russian wood carvings.
It was a nice shop. It seems that the specialty are these hand-painted carvings of Santa Claus. And, I must say, they are pretty least they held my attention for about five minutes. Sylvia, being on a first name basis with the store owner (apparently she has a whole army of Russian Santas at home) was picking up the various carvings, comparing them, looking at the prices, etc. I had noticed about eighty or so "Do Not Touch" signs posted about the store, but apparently Sylvia had immunity. I, on the other hand, quickly found out that I did not share in this immunity.
I saw this little three inch nesting Santa, and when my finger was a mere centimeter or so away from it, I heard the petite store owner (who had suddenly turned into the general of the Soviet Red Army) bark out: "DO NOT TOUCH!!!!" Hoping to avoid Gulag) I immediatly slinked to the other side of the store. Along the way, I passed Sylvia who pretty much had a Santa under each arm, one under her chin, and was using a fourth one to scratch her back while the store owner smiled and asked her how her husband and children were doing.
After leaving the store with a couple of Santas, Sylvia and I went to the only restaurant in France that does not serve French onion soup or French fries. We couldn't believe it. The waiter did not (probably, would not) speak English, but I understood his French well enough to know that he was saying they did not have onion soup. Sylvia, being a vegetarian, wanted a green salad and a plate of fries. We had seen that some of the main courses were served with fries. However, the waiter just would not bring us a side order of French fries. So, I ate my liver quenelles with potato salad, and Sylvia had a green salad with two slices of bread. The food was good, but onion soup and French fries really would have hit the spot. To make matters worse, when we were getting up to leave, we saw another waiter setting down a big platter of fries at another table.....sacre bleu!
After lunch, we took a taxi back to the train station. We saw a sign for departures and headed in the direction of the arrow. About a minute later, we saw a sign that said departures was in the direction we had just come from. So, we turned back thinking that we missed a sign or something. As it turns out, we hadn't. There were just two signs about fifty meters apart from each other saying that the departures area was in the opposite direction. I fully expect that Sylvia and I are going to be on an episode of French Candid Camera in the near future.
After ignoring the signs and just finding the departure platform on our own. We boarded our train for the return journey to Basel (or, Bâle as the French call it). It was fairly uneventful until the French border patrol officers suddenly showed up. Before I knew it, I had some kind of official credentials about three inches from my nose and a man with an armband asking me a question in French. I just said, "Passport?" He said I need to see your passport and luggage. I gave him my passport, Swiss residency card, and held up my shopping bag from the Christmas market. After convincing him that I live in Basel and was just returning from the Strasbourg Christmas market, he allowed me to avoid being thrown into a French prison. Sylvia seemed to get a little more of the third degree since she is a holder of an American passport as opposed to my Canadian passport. But, she too avoided the guillotine. We kind of chalked it up to them having a little fun hassling a couple of foreigners. That was, until we saw them doing everything but strip searching an elderly French man. This silver-haired, approximately sixty-five year old, professional-looking, French man had his briefcase AND WALLET searched. They actually searched behind the credit cards, under the money, etc. inside his wallet. They found nothing, thanked him for his time, and then moved on.
And what is the result of this day, you ask? The result is: I still love the French! There's something about them that appeals to me. I don't know what it is. They're just incredibly unique, and I never know what to expect.

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