Vacances Part 3: Lucerne

So my parents and I set off in a rental car for a continental road trip. The car they requested was not available, so we ended up driving a flashy black BMW that looked like something Bruce Wayne would drive (we actually encountered some Japanese tourists taking pictures of the car while we were in Lucerne). Our first stop was Lucerne, Switzerland. At the border crossing into Switzerland I was disappointed to find that they do not stamp your passport, despite the fact that Switzerland is not a member of the European Union. We even asked at the customs station building: “Stempeln, bitter?” , but alack, we were left stampless. The reason that we went to Lucerne was to see the Lion of Lucerne, a monument carved by some ancestor of my dad and myself. The monument was created to honor the Swiss Guard soldiers who died defending the French Royal Family during the Revolution.  The soldiers were known for their loyalty and they proved it when they kept their positions against the mob outside the Tuileries Palace even after the King had ordered them to stand down. The monument consists of a wounded lion carved into the side of a cliff, overlooking a serene pond and garden. The lion, who has been stabbed in the back, represents the Swiss soldiers. Shorty after we arrived we overheard an English-speaking tour guide tell an amusing anecdote about the construction of the monument. Apparently the city of Lucerne had promised to pay for the construction of the monument. When construction went on too long, they reneged on the deal and refused to cough up the funds.  Dedicated to the project, Lukas Ahorn (my ancestor!) continued carving without pay, but, angered by the flakiness of the city officials, he made the outline of the cave that the lion rests in resemble a pig. This sly jab serves as a reminder as to who was really responsible for the execution of the project. Some alpenhorn players showed up, in their traditional garb. I had never heard or seen alpenhorn in real life before, and the effect of the sound echoing off the cliff was really cool. I got a Swiss Army knife (Victoria Knox- The Explorer) at one of the gift shops before we hit the road.

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The Lion of Lucerne                                                            Mom looking at the monument

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I’m related to him!                                                                                          Lion’s face. So sorrowful.

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Alpenhorn players!                                                                                       Design on the horn

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The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff — for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.
Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion — and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.”

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880


Vacances Part 2

Arriving in Strasbourg was a bit of a relief. I love the fact that a French-speaking country can feel homey to me now. The main reason that I chose to come to Strasbourg was for a student conference that I was invited to through Haverford’s study-abroad office. It was for political science students studying abroad and European students studying political science. I arrived a few hours before I could check into my hostel, and I had my heavy bag with me so I plopped down on the banks of the Ill and read some of the reference materials that the conference people had sent me. Finally check-in time rolled around and I went and dropped my bags off at the hostel. Faced with a few more empty hours before the conference officially commenced, I grabbed my complimentary city map and set off to explore a bit. I found a market with clothing and food, cobble-stoned streets lined with great shopping opportunities, and the cathedral. Victor Hugo called Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg “a gigantic and delicate marvel”.  I totally see what he was saying there.  The first thing that strikes you about it is how massive it is. The square surrounding it isn’t exactly huge, so you are right up next to it when you first glance at it, and you have to look almost straight up to see the top of the spire.  When I first entered the square, I heard a woman singing and automatically assumed it was a nun since the song sounded like it was in Latin and vaguely church-y. Much to my surprise, it was a man singing that I saw when I rounded the corner of the huge church. He was a street performer accompanying himself on guitar, and singing alternating sections in bass and falsetto soprano. It was kind of eerie, but also very beautiful. Here’s a video I found of him:

Falsetto voice in front of Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg

Inside the cathedral has an enormous astronomical clock that looks like a giant cuckoo-clock. It rings every day at noon but I was never able to go see it in action. Still, very cool. I’m not exactly sure what an astronomical clock actually does, but a quick Wikipedia search has informed me that it is able to keep track of equinoxes and other astronomical events, as well as calculate the date of Easter. Right next to eh clock is what is called the Pillar of Angels. It’s basically one of the pillars connected to the high arches holding the ceiling up. This pillar is unique because it has angels carved into it, depicting the Last Judgment.  The architect of the cathedral had a sense of humor about the riskiness of having such an elaborate piece as the main support: he carved a jealous and skeptical rival architect leaning on a nearby railing, checking out his accomplishment.  Strasbourg isn’t exactly hopping, but it’s got a lot of great history and an interesting mix of French and German-ness.  I had initially wanted to study abroad there instead of Paris, but I am glad that I went with Paris in the end. Strasbourg is pretty small- I was only there for a long weekend and I saw most of the city. Probably the most fun thing was a boat tour. Strasbourg has a lot of canals, and there was a boat tour, kind of like a mini Bateaux Mouches (the Parisian tour boats). Not all of the canals are at the same level, so twice we had to go through a canal lock.  A canal lock works by entering an enclosed space between the two sections of canal, and either pumping water into the space or letting water out until it is even with the water level on the opposite side. Then the wall on the side lowers and you glide out. Sort of like an escalator for boats. I don’t think I explained that very well so here’s a diagram:

During the tour I learned a few gruesomely amusing stories about Strasbourg. For example, one of the bridges was where the townspeople would torture cheating wives and prostitutes, while the lady folk would sit and do needlework while they watched.  An architect of one of the churches was beaten because the spire on the church was shaped unusually. Twenty people were killed when a church on the banks of the river burned down, but only because a fat monk ended up getting stuck in the only way out due to his thick girth, blocking the exit. And these are just a few highlights from colorful commentary provided by my audioguide who was actually quite difficult to understand sometimes (although it was in English) because of his thick Irish accent (#studyabroadproblems). Strasbourg is important because it is where the EU Parliament buildings are. I was excited to tour them, since I’m a big nerd and my tour of the UN building in New York is still one of my favorite tourist experiences ever, so I was looking forward to repeating something like that. Unfortunately they don’t offer tours. Sad face. Anyway, they were very beautiful to look at, all glass and in interesting shapes. Strasbourg was chosen for the honor of hosting the Parliament because it represents a place with a blend of old and rich cultures, therefore a truly “European” city. At the conference we discussed the benefits and drawbacks of the Europeanization movement for European governments and citizens. For those who aren’t familiar, Europeanization refers to the shift toward a continent-wide government and sense of identity over a nationally-based government and sense of identity. In other words, is the European Union, which provides economic opportunities and a sense of unity among different European countries a good thing, or are countries losing their sovereignty and uniqueness? This is probably the main sociopolitical issue that Europeans face today, and one that Americans don’t really know much about. It was exciting that I got to discuss these issues with Europeans, in Strasbourg. Tuesday morning my parents rolled in and picked me up, to start the next part of my vacation adventure. Stay tuned!

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The Ill River                                                                                                                                                The cathedral

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Looking up at the cathedral                                                                           The street performer

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Even cathedrals get dusty                                                                   The astronomical clock                     Pillar of Angels

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My restaurant!

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We were looking for a centre that could both be convenient for all European nations and come to symbolize European unity. Strasbourg was a natural choice. This great city had been witness to such breed of human stupidity that attempted to settle its affairs through war, cruelty, and sheer destruction.”

-Ernest Bevin, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs