Saturday, 10 December 2011

City of Reflections

Strasbourg is a city full of water-surfaces, as if many rivers undulate and flow through it although it's really only one, divided up, and with canal-like tributaries coming off the main river, the Ill. So it is also a city of bridges, and of reflections. And at this time of year it is a city of Christmas markets. They are crammed into the main squares, and some of the streets are decorated with small santas, polar bears, windows festooned with glitter and wreaths and gingerbread houses, with leafless trees painted white to look frost covered, with loops and twirls and bunches of lights. Scene after scene of theatrical gaudiness and glitter, fairy tale worlds that have edged into the usual streets of the everyday world, with their commercial signs and their colourful frontages designed to catch people's attention.

But Strasbourg already has fairy tale buildings, striped with wooden beams of different colours, walls leaning away from perpendicular, sagging or sloping, with latticed windows or small windows you can hardly see through, or coloured glass windows

with dim and blurred shadows passing behind them.

It also has an immense cathedral. But it is not like the cathedrals of Chartres or Rouen, which have a much more solid and planted appearance, like stone equivalents of massive oak trees or yews. This one is more like a silver birch or poplar, with its slender spire rising like a pointed spindle, around which the world must surely turn and spin, while there are all kinds of lesser revolutions in shaped and decorated stone curling inwards or outwards like scenes from different times depicted in the faux naïve style of the days before perspective was inserted into images and we were obliged to look at paintings in sequential fashion. And take time to read it. Take time to enter the story and carry the story back with us into our daily life and conversations so they rubbed against the rules and mores of our days, or shaped them maybe, underlined them, justified them, gave them a bulwark of credentials. Haven't the structures of our lives always been bolstered by the grand stories, etched in their dilemmas, their theatricals, their challenges and their light? Their long journeys, their years of tribulation, their struggle from oppression into freedom, their angelic guidances, their prophecies of what would come?

The ancient wood fronted buildings are skewed by time and lean against each other and look out over the river, where willows branches drift down to the water, still with green and yellow twisted ropes of leaves. Smells of burnt chestnuts, smells of cinnamon and spice. A pianist plays gentle music à la Keith Jarrett, near inaudible until you're very close. I stand a few metres away and listen, and the sound of all the voices, the crowds of people speaking French, German, Italian, all disappear and there is just this whispering music like the sound of water running and splashing over stony paths and falling into pools and you have to come close up to hear what it is saying.

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