Category Archives: train travel

a rambling tale of strasbourg and a bear named Otto

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Christmas Markets + hot wine; promise me those two things in one location and I’m there.  In this case, that location was Strasbourg in mid-December.

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Right before Christmas, we jumped on the fast train and rocketed down to soak up the local color and drink our fair share of vin chaud in Strasbourg.  With a name like Strasbourg, doesn’t it seem like the city should be located in Germany, rather than France?  I think so, but although I was born with a directional and geographical disability, I found out that I have the ability to become more adept at geography when it benefits me.

When I think of the term “Christmas Market” the image of little old ladies knitting mittens is the first thing that pops into my head.  The second thing that pops into my head is realization that those hand knitted mittens, although often cute, never, EVER, keep your hands warm.

Getting off the train in Strasbourg, I was surprised not to be assaulted by mittens, but rather I was greeted by every type of Christmas trinket available.  Sadly, nearly none of it was handmade and virtually nothing was even made in France.  From the original product perspective, I would say the markets were a bit of a bust, unless your sole purpose was to expand your collection of mini figurines to surround your model train setup.  But once I determined that there were few goods I really wanted to buy, I changed my focus to determine which market stall had the best vin chaud (hot wine).  Hot wine tastes much better than it sounds, since it has spices in it to make it taste delicious.  Since each stand seemed to have their own recipe, I had to try them all.  In the end, there was no clear winner – it was all good.

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While we were there, we also found out that the Tomi Ungerer museum was located in the city.  What?  You don’t know who Tomi Ungerer is?  Have you ever read The Three Robbers?  It’s one of few children’s books which includes a blunderbuss, a pepper-blower and a huge red axe.  It is also a book that will most assuredly scare the shit out of your small children (especially if read in a deep voice in a dark room).

This is a magazine with an article about Tomi Ungerer that I bought while in Strasbourg (notice on the cover under Ungerer’s name his quote is “it is necessary to traumatize children” – maybe I like him so much because we share the same parenting philosophy):

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Tomi Ungerer has been one of my favorite authors and illustrators for nearly my entire life, starting with the original version of “Flat Stanley” (written by Jeff Brown and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer).  Seriously, who doesn’t dream of becoming flat and getting mailed to California?  I still dream of doing that.  Or maybe I will mail myself back to France once I finally leave…..

This year in school, Owen’s class read Ungerer’s classic “Otto” which is about a stuffed bear that was owned by a Jewish boy during WWII.  I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that it is not an easy read.  Don’t let the fact that the main character is a stuffed bear fool you; Ungerer is nothing if not a realist.

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In any case, once we found out that the Tomi Ungerer Museum was located close to our hotel, it was on the top of our (read: my) list of things to do.  I was so excited to go to this museum that we ended up arriving a bit early for the daily opening and I found myself nearly climbing up the giant metal gates and screaming like a groupie.  Once inside, we found a treasure trove of antique toys (Ungerer’s personal collection), as well the original illustrations to most of his books.

As we entered the top floor of the museum, Owen spotted the original stuffed Otto across the room and he ran toward him.  In French museums, it is extremely normal to ignore all rules.  In our two years here, I have witnessed untold numbers of people taking pictures of things in museums, even when they are literally surrounded by giant signs forbidding photography.  When Owen asked if I would take a picture of him with Otto, I did a cursory glance around the room to see if there were any signs forbidding photos and not seeing any, I took out my camera and snapped a picture.  As soon as the security guard, who was chatting around the corner, heard the shutter click, she rounded the corner and gave me a severe reprimand for taking a photo where they were not allowed.

In the past I would have been horrified for getting busted, but I’ve perfected my “c’est comme ça” look and I flashed her a shrug.  Even Owen wasn’t phased by her.  He tends to be the (only) rule follower in our family, however he whispered to me as we walked out of the museum, “I don’t care that we got busted.  At least we got a picture of the REAL Otto.”

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In celebration of our illegal Otto picture, I suggested we go drink some vin chaud (with chocolat chaud for the kids).

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