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Arrival in Strasbourg

2-3 July 2001

I am writing from the comfort of our temporary quarters here at the Appart’Hôtel Victoria Garden waiting to speak with an agent who deals in furnished apartments, but will start at the beginning and hope not to leave out too many details.

Linda spent an incredible amount of time packing and cleaning the house for the renters—and not sleeping at night. I pitched in between cleaning the office and lab, locking things up that might decide to walk away over the year from my office and lab, backing up several computers, organizing disks and photos, and preparing instructions for the incoming tenants. Somehow we managed to get everything finished in time to drive to Mom and Dad’s house Sunday afternoon. We arrived three minutes after they did, returning from a fine trip around California that included Yosemite and a visit with the entire Moss family. The only known casualty of the ride with four of our carry-on bags on the roof of the car was the insert to a luggage tag that flapped around too vigorously on the 210 freeway. It is going to be a challenge getting all the bags, us, and Dad in the car tomorrow for the trip to the airport, and even more fun trying to schlep them from airport to train station to hotel. I guess we’ll manage somehow.

Leslie and David had us all over for a nice dinner at their house, despite arriving back from a trip to Italy and France themselves the day before. In an around a spirited game of volleyball with the boys, I tried to rectify a modest oversight of the last frenzied days: I was supposed to print copies of the passport pictures I had scanned so we would have them for updating our cartes de séjour. Dad and I had struggled for half an hour trying to get his color printer setup in Windows98 to no avail; probably he needs to update the driver, which appears to be happy up through 95. Chez Leslie, we tried again. How to get the file onto her computer? No zip drive, which seemed like a good idea, until we thought of using e-mail. I logged onto Yahoo and thought I had uploaded the file as an attachment, but when I fetched it on her machine the attachment was not there. I finally decided to post it to my website and access it there through her browser. Success! Ain’t technology wonderful? After dumping the picture into Word, it printed at the appropriate size and voilà: spare passport photos.

We got up at 4:30 Monday morning for the long trip, quickly dressed and brushed teeth, tied the carry-on bags to the roof, and set off via surface streets to LAX. Dad swears it is shorter by a mile, but... In any case, we arrived in good time and had just enough time to write out an infinite number of luggage tags while gradually shuffling the bags up to the counter. Thankfully, our pregnant-looking carry-on bags were still of sufficient caliber to be carried on, so we made our weight limit without problem and had a half hour to grab breakfast before it was time to board. For the Pittsburgh flight we sat five across and happily passed the time ignoring Brennan’s request for a headset to watch a movie he had already seen. Linda tried to doze, I read, and the boys played contentedly with their Game Boys. Although we were in the same plane for the next flight, everyone had to get off the plane and check in again in Pittsburgh. We had enough time to get some lunch (dinner?) in the airport before boarding again. This time we were in groups of 3 and 2, with some musical chairs going on during the night. We all slept some and I managed to finish my book on World War I, so I finally know how it came out. What a relief.

Kidding aside, I found Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August to be a much more interesting discussion of the period leading up to the start of hostilities and the first month of war than the more comprehensive book by Keegan. What I needed out of Keegan’s book was a better understanding of the flow of the war, the attempts by both sides to break out of the stalemate of the trenches, and the role America played in bringing an end to the conflict. What I got was a keen sense that America’s effort was more virtual than real.

From September, 1914 to 1917, Germany battled France and England on the western front to a terrible stalemate in which great efforts to break through enemy lines meant sacrificing an appalling number of soldiers to machine gun and artillery fire, with at most a gain of a few thousand yards of scarred and uninhabitable ground. Barbed wire barriers strung before the first line of trenches had to be cut before troops could invade enemy trenches, and it took a long time to figure out how to do this effectively. The barbed wire problem led the British to invent the tank, which required further improvement to be effective on the soggy and pitted ground of no man’s land. By the end of the war, the Germans’ failure to develop tanks became a significant factor in the Allied victory.

Perhaps more critical to both sides was the inability to communicate effectively between the different layers of command. Radio communication was not yet portable, and generals had to rely on runners, carrier pigeons, and telephone (when available). Given the distances and numbers of combatants involved, these means were wholly unequal to the task. It was equally impossible for generals to know what was going on at the front and to redirect infantry and artillery in response to the fluid situation. Attacks were therefore scripted down to the minute, a method that kept the brass busy but offered little hope for success and doomed tens of thousands to needless slaughter.

Customs at Charles de Gaulle was a scream: Linda remembered that we needed to get the passports stamped at the airport, which we managed to do despite my using the wrong word. Then we needed to pick up our bags and go through customs. Well, the bags came off neatly in a row, we hefted them on carts, and proceeded to the customs area to find that the door was open and nobody was tending the store. So, evidently, we had nothing to declare!

Now, how to get to la Gare de l’Est? Well, you can take the train to la Gare du Nord, which is only a block or two away, but then you have to get the luggage from one to the other. However, there is the number 350 bus, which goes straight to the right place. With only a minor snafu getting us in the right place for the bus, we discovered that Ryan needed to use the restroom. He and I set off through the maze of Charles de Gaulle, finally finding one. Despite our hustling back through the maze to the bus stop, we arrived a minute or so after the bus had left (ahead of schedule). So, we waited around for the next, striking up a brief conversation with a man from Gabon who was also headed to Strasbourg.

When the bus pulled up, we faced a daunting task of getting all 14 bags aboard. Divide and conquer: Linda stood in line to pay while the boys and I loaded bags through the back door. Somehow we managed in the end. It was a good thing that the train station was the last stop on the route. We set up a convoy and got all the bags into the station and piled against the wall. Linda foraged for drinks while I stood in a very slow-moving line for train tickets. We managed to get round-trip tickets in time to ooze the baggage to the 10:50 train. While Linda and the boys looked for seats, I wondered how the hell to get 500 pounds of black bags with red tags up the stairs and into the train before the imminent departure. Fortunately, the porter helped and all 14 bags made it aboard just before we pulled out. Because the train was fairly full, Ethan was parked at some remove from Linda, Brennan, and Ryan, but he was so tired that he didn’t seem worried about it. I joined him after I got the bags aboard and we settled in for the smooth ride on the train.

Ethan was so tired he slept much of the way. I felt sorry for his neck. We were sitting across, not next to one another, and his head kept sinking to one side and bobbing up. Just after noon a lunch cart struggled down the aisle and I bought what I thought might appeal to tired little American taste buds. He tried a French-style BLT, but after two bites decided since he hadn’t really been doing anything he wasn’t hungry, and went back to sleep. Meanwhile, Linda and the others were sitting with a young couple from Strasbourg who were describing the neighborhoods we should look in for housing and recommending we get a car for weekend trips in the area. Everyone has been so nice.

The last hurdle was getting from the Strasbourg rail platform to the hotel. There was no elevator down, so our little bucket brigade was slowed a bit getting down the stairs. But once down to street level, we wheeled outside and eventually over to the taxi stand. Suddenly, we became aware of the very great difference in gasoline prices here. All the cars are small, fuel-efficient models. A normal taxi would just hold the five of us without luggage. Two normal taxis weren’t sufficient. Fortunately, a driver called for larger ones and we piled everything into two of the “minivan wannabe” taxis for the 5-block drive to the Appart’Hôtel Victoria Garden where we had reserved 6 nights. As we waited to check in, we did another bag count and Brennan kept getting 13—which was unlucky. Sure enough, the bag we borrowed from Ran was missing, but not far away. It was still parked on the sidewalk outside. At least somebody was still thinking after 14 hours of flying, 4 hours to get to the train, another 4 hours on the train, and more than an hour to get from the train station to the hotel.

Ensconced in our modest but sufficient temporary quarters, we took quick showers and had naps for an hour of so. Then it was time to explore a bit and look for dinner. We headed towards the center of town and started to learn the ways of drivers, traffic lights, bicycles, and the pedestrian walk signs, which Ethan dubbed “green dudes.” Everything looked charming, clean, easy to navigate, and welcoming as we wandered past Les Halles and found ourselves eventually in Place Kléber. Here we took a picture at 7:40 pm showing that we were still far from nightfall at these northern latitudes. We looked for a place that would be easy on the boys, who have done great, and found a cafeteria-style establishment called Flunch on the square. They had roast chicken, Orangina, fruit salad, and French fries, which hit the spot. Linda decided to signal her arrival on French soil with coq au vin and I had some large, shrimp-like creatures with ratatouille.

Back in the hotel room we stripped down and collapsed into bed. The room faces the setting sun and was very warm. We didn’t yet realize that the windows could open completely, and were stuck with modest cracks at the top. So, we were plenty warm during the night. Still, everyone but Linda slept well; she was still beset with a horrible, barking cough.

Wednesday, 4 July

Next morning, we walked into town to look for a breakfast spot. We found a place near Homme de Fer and had a seat. The boys and I were hungry and we had croissants, pains au chocolat, tartines, orange juice and coffee, but Linda was feeling a bit sick to her stomach and didn’t have much. We decided to bring her back to the hotel before trying to do the shopping.

The receptionist suggested we walk down to Les Halles and shop at Galeries Gourmandes, a supermarket only three blocks away. It is in a big mall, much bigger than I guessed from the outside. There, too, we looked for a fan to help cool off the room. Unfortunately, the home furnishing place is in the process of being renovated and they were fresh out of fans. We looked around the whole mall, making sure to test the escalators, and then set about grocery shopping. What an impressive store! Of course there were wonderful breads and pastries. We bought two baguettes, one country loaf, some croissants and pains au chocolat. Then we admired the selection of fruits and vegetables, getting some nectarines, apples, and cherries. At the cheese counter, I felt like a total idiot, not knowing which ones to try not even what they were called. They had some kind for sampling on the counter, and Ryan and I liked it, so I took a healthy slice of that. I still don’t know what it was! We got some yogurt, two bottles of wine, a bottle of beer with a resealable top, toilet paper, and some sodas. With plenty of hands to carry all the bags, we had no problem returning with our treasures.

Linda was still under the weather, so the boys and I set out again to look for fans. We tried the Printemps department store, but they had only kitchen things (a bit like Crate & Barrel). They suggested Galeries Lafayette. We found three fans left at 50% off, so we bought two of them. By the end of the walk back, my hands were a bit tired of carrying the two bags but we got them home, set them up, and started feeling much better in the hotel room. Linda and I enjoyed a nap with the fans cooling us off, and the boys “napped” by playing their Game Boys. We are quite pleased with the investment we made in the Game Boys—they have gotten the boys through some long waits and long days.

We then decided to explore the town, wandering back down through Place Kléber to the Cathedral. We arrived just ahead of 7 pm, and poked our noses into the Cathedral to catch a glimpse of the interior before being ushered out at closing time. We bought a bunch of postcards at one of the many stands in front of the Cathedral and decided to write some while waiting for dinner. Besides the usual shots of the Cathedral, the European Parliament building, and sundry shots around town, there are invariably a few raunchy shots featuring luscious local maids wearing little if anything. Naturally, we had to get several of this kind for Dad and Opa, not to mention certain colleagues. Fortunately or otherwise, Linda wrote out a lovely message to Kristy accidentally using one of a naked woman surrounded by storks, which was supposed to go to her father. At the end of a long day, you can imagine how much hilarity that caused! She was not persuaded, however, that she could just write on one of the bare gams that it was an honest mistake and send it as is.

We thought that pizza would be safe for the kids so we settled into a restaurant just off Cathedral square. Ryan and Ethan were fading fast as we waited for the food to come, and we watched in amazement as Ryan fell (boom!) to sleep before our eyes. Surely it was less than 15 seconds between eyes open and unwakeable. I enjoyed my antipasta of tomatoes, cheese, and olive oil and my tortellini, and we had tons of pizza left over which Linda wrapped in a napkin and took home, American style. I carried Ryan part of the way home, and the jostling woke him up enough to cover half the distance under his own power. We went to bed hopeful that Linda would feel better in the morning and that we could turn to the task of finding an apartment.

Thursday, 5 July

We had an appointment at 11:00 to contact one of the real estate agents we had corresponded with by e-mail. We got ahold of her by 11:30 and she explained patiently that her services were more comprehensive, and that she didn’t normally have listings of furnished apartments. She would end up having to call a M. Xavier Gillig who specialized in furnished apartments, and we would pay double. She therefore kindly gave us his number and I called. He didn’t have anything as large as we were looking for: three bedrooms is called 4 pièces here and this is very large for the city. I said we were willing to consider 3 pièces if there were sufficient area. He mentioned one place that seemed like a poor fit, and we agreed to speak again later in the day.

After lunch we headed over to meet Pamela Mattox, a member of the Americans in Alsace organization whom we had corresponded with several times and who had sent us lots of useful information about Strasbourg. She has two kids, one Brennan’s age and another a bit younger than Ryan. We met a British friend, Sîan Brown who had just gotten a cast of her ankle, and had a refreshing glass of iced tea whilst the boys played a game of Chicago Monopoly with the Brown and Mattox kids. After finding as many leads on housing as we could, and discussing the car situation, we left for our 3:15 appointment with Lisa Hall-Schilling, a real estate agent we had contacted by e-mail.

Though apparently hungry for the business, she didn’t appear to have much for us to look at. She is an interesting character, an African American married to a German and living in Strasbourg while he works in Hamburg, returning to Strasbourg on weekends. Her leads on schools are slanted to her peculiar situation, which is to make sure that her son is educated in German. Fortunately, we had an appointment we had set up with another real estate agent to see an apartment in the Orangerie area at 4:30, so we took our leave and walked through the beautiful Orangerie park to get to rue Bautain. The place was sumptuous enough, although not necessarily in the bedroom department, but the rent was a bit out of our price range. The kitchen was very nicely furnished, but we would have to supply the rest of the furniture, which was a bit inconvenient given the rent. We declined this one and decided we could hold out no longer: we had to let the boys ride the tram. Despite sore feet that were definitely in need of ice cream, Ryan walked the 7 blocks to the tram station, and we rode into the center of town, where we had to make our daily stop at the Italian ice cart at Place Kléber. Each day, the boys get closer to being able to order their cones on their own. The woman working in the cart has gotten to recognize us and the boys’ efforts. Ryan threatens to say, « Je m’appelle chocolat, s’il vous playdough, » but so far we have avoided major faux pas.

Friday, 6 July

We received a call from Mom and Dad this morning and gave them a depressing update on the housing situation. Everyone seems to say that apartments of the size we want are not easy to come by, and especially not furnished. Still, there is nothing to do but contact as many people and agents as we can. Linda and I thought that we should get back in touch with M. Gillig about the apartment that we had initially thought might be too small, so I planned to call him around 11:00. Since Jean-Yves had time to meet me this morning, we arranged for him to pick me up at the hotel and take me out to the lab. He introduced another visitor and me to Valérie, who earned her Ph.D. in the group 2 years ago, and she discussed the research under way and showed us the laboratory. It looks very good. I will have to pick up some papers to study before we leave for our travels.

I was keen to visit the bank and order a book of checks, so Jean-Yves dropped me at the address I had for the branch office where my account was opened, which was along the main road back to Strasbourg. This turned out to be just a small branch office, and my banker was located at a main office a couple of kilometers back the other way on the same road. Fortunately, another customer needed to make the same trip and he offered to take me there. I was able to get a bank card (Carte Bleue) and meet my banker, from whom I ordered checks. He asked about putting Linda on the account, but then explained that he was leaving in half an hour on vacation for three weeks, so we could do it when he got back. Nonetheless, the checks should be ready at the end of next week. I sure hope so; I’m going to need them.

Linda and the boys had been shopping so we had nice ham sandwiches for lunch and a little rest before taking the bus to Place de Bordeaux to see the apartment. We have done quite well in getting places using the buses and trams, and amazingly on time despite not knowing the schedule. We showed up just moments before Céline arrived with the key. The building dates from the turn of the century and has a small elevator that stops between floors, so you can choose whether to walk up or down half a floor to arrive at your door. The apartment has wood floors, two large bedrooms, and large living room/dining room, a nicely supplied kitchen including dishwasher and clothes washer, a veranda, and even a small balcony overlooking the street. Brennan thought it was a bit on the old side, but Ethan thought it was nice and Linda and I decided to take it. There is a supermarket just across the street, and we are close to schools and parks. Plus, it is in the city not the suburbs, which is what we want.

Since Céline’s car would hold roughly half of us, Linda and Ryan stayed behind for the second load and the rest went ahead to start the paperwork back at M. Gillig’s office. When we walked in, I was surprised to see a new iBook on his desk—Hans had prepared me to expect that Apple would be nowhere to be found here in Europe. Au contraire! He was very happy to show off his AirPort hub and other networked Macs. I asked him where one shops for such things here, and he showed me on the map. Just the place to get a battery charger, too. We discussed our financial situation, which included the problem of not yet having transferred enough money to cover the security deposit, agency fee, and first months’ rent. Not a problem, came the reply. He took down my coordinates at the lab, including Jean-Yves’s telephone, and said that the landlady would be happy enough with that. We can work the money angle next week.

With the apartment problem solved, it was time to celebrate. We walked down to the Cathedral and looked around inside while it was still open. The boys started asking tough questions about Christian iconography that were out of our league, so we said we would have to take an official tour to learn all about the history of the Cathedral, but that it wasn’t the right time to do it. Instead, we sat at an outside café in Place de la Cathédrale for beers and sodas before dinner. Since postcards, including raunchy ones, are available all over the square, we couldn’t resist writing some more while sipping our drinks. Ryan and Ethan seem particularly fascinated with the pigeons that stroll around the square, and can’t resist chasing them. I’m not sure what the natives think of this behavior, but I don’t see their kids doing this much. Fortunately, nature has endowed these pigeons with enough sense not to let the boys get too close, so it remains a harmless diversion for a 6-year-old who gets a little tired at the end of these long days.

For dinner, we walked back to a Mediterranean place we had noticed a few days earlier and lucked out with the kids’ menu (so we thought). They had hamburgers, chicken fingers, and fries. Just the ticket. While we waited for the food to come, the boys played their electronic diversions and then were sent out to observe some street musicians up close and personal. When the food came, sadly the hamburger turned out not to be quite right, according to Ethan’s taste buds, and the chicken fingers turned out to be tiny drumsticks, which more or less did the job for the other boys. I had a lovely entré of raw salmon followed by a main course of lamb; Linda had something that now escapes me and then salmon. For dessert, the boys got a cup of chocolate mousse, which sounded good, so I ordered one myself. Miracle of miracles, this mousse was actually too sweet for Ethan. When my trough came, I was absolutely stunned. It was enough to send any normal person into diabetic shock. I tried hard and made it through about a third after ordering some coffee to help it go down. Amazingly, the waiter claimed that some people manage to finish it.

This page was last modified on Sun, Aug 19, 2001.