A Little Scratch on New Year’s

I am waiting, drowsing. Not too much longer, just another two turns of the calendar’s pages.

The calendar is hanging opposite the tankless water-heater in the little closet off our tiny kitchen where we cook our incredibly healthy vegetable stir-fry dinners that I will soon be missing. It was made and gifted by my folks and has pictures from their trip to Europe last September. Pictures of places in Belgium that were eye-grabbing to me too when I first saw them, my big traveling backpack on, but now I wear a functional day-pack and don’t always notice them as I pass by in the fugue of the familiar.
I have accidentally and incorrectly given the impression that I do not like Belgium, that I don’t want to be here. I do, and I do. Belgium is still a great place, my vagabond feet don’t change the places they step. I am voraciously thankful for the shelter I have found here. The lessons and the growth. The smiles and sighs of contentment.
The deliciously maddening thing about sighs of contentment is that they’re a renewable resource… that needs renewing.
There is a new and delicious plate of food to go find. There is a new and gorgeous vista to go see. There are new and wonderful people to go meet. There are new and frustrating episodes to go through. There are new and important lessons to go learn.
There are urges, familiar and beloved, perhaps inimical. And maybe even dangerous? But Belgium is and will remain a haven of goodness.
We’ll see what happens to those urges in 2012. And to start the year, a little scratch of the traveling itch, courtesy of a Christmas gift hotel voucher from my folks. We found a place in Neiderbronn-les-bains, just across the border in France, that looked like a nice place to spend New Year’s Eve.
We packed basically toothbrushes and snacks, reaching a good ratio of healthy (homemade hummus and cherry tomatoes) and junky (peanut snack-things, Szechuanflavor), and stopped to get fresh bread on our way out Saturday morning.
This specific area of Belgiumhas it’s own New Year’s Eve tradition, where kids go door to door singing short songs and receiving little treats. It’s sort of a combination of Christmas caroling and Halloween.
With a 9 grain baguette in hand I got back to the car just in time to hear a handful of Flemish children, all bundled up, singing to a smiling old man:
Oud jaar, nieuw jaar
Twee koekjes is een paar
We wensen jullie
een gelukkig nieuwjaar
(“Old year, new year, two cookies is a pair, we wish you a happy new year.”)
Perfect. Geweldig.
It was only a 4 and ½ hour drive, and passed from Flanders, through relatively rustic Wallonia, into some snowy forests of Germany, then along winding Alsatian farm roads in France. I love Europe.
Unbeknownst to us, the GPS was set to avoid toll-roads, so we left a wide Teutonic freeway and drove the last hour through sleepy villages that can only plausibly be inhabited (in my mind) by Hansel, Gretel, and various other Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Worn brick walls built by hands that never left the village, long wooden beams bowing under the weight of centuries, street names in dialects particular to the village, and those winding streets that descended organically from whatever paths the horses felt like making.
Oh, and much to my giggling delight, one of those towns is called Bitsch (Bitche on the French side). I wish I’d taken a picture of the fork in the road that featured Bitche on one hand and some quaint-sounding village on the other…a metaphor for how we respond to the minor irritations of life. “Will you take the Bitche road, or the delightful little village path?”
Neiderbronn-les-bains is almost one of those sleepy towns, but is a little too enlivened by money, is now larger, and features a sizeable casino, yet remains ineffably picturesque. It holds to the regional integrity of prominently not featuring chain stores or modern blech like neon lights. There was of course a grocery store that is probably not full-fledged Mom-and-Pop, but it was small, packed to coziness, and locals were chatting away in the Alsatian blend of German and French. I would bet you dinner that they knew all about each other’s parents and children.
The hotel was the other exception to the no-chains rule, as it was a Mercure.
The first time I remember leaving the USwas when we went to Englandto visit my little British granny when I was circa 8 years old. We hopped over to Paris for the weekend (a trip that included my first experience of throwing up on a train…I have currently thrown up on trains in 4 countries, and although the following 3 were all the results of poorly timed food poisoning) and stayed in a Hotel Mercure.
Thus, I have reason to believe that the first words I ever learned in another language, taught to me by my responsible mother, were “où est l’hotel Mercure?” Followed shortly therafter by my brother’s and my improvisational “où est l’merde?” which earned us a stern look from the severe old Parisian woman stalking past us on the Champs-Élysées.
Neiderbronn-les-bains (named, I assume, after the thermal baths located there, which I think the Romans were fond of) saw a second childhood return on New Year’s Day, when we went for a walk on the train tracks. No, that wasn’t the childhood activity, remember, I mentioned my responsiblemother. Instead it was the practice of putting a penny on the rails for the train to run over. I assume I have several smeared slivers of ex-penny stashed somewhere in my parent’s house. This time the penny was knocked off almost immediately, so I have a slightly oblong and distorted 2 Eurocent as my new lucky coin.
The town is only a half hour away from Strasbourg, so after abusing my small amount of Continental currency we headed there to wander around. Strasbourgis a university town, one of the primary European Union capitals (European Parlaiment, Court, and Commission on Human Rights), where Gutenberg invented the printing press and Goethe fell in love, and takes quaint/epic old architecture to a new level.
It being New Year’s Day, all the Strasbourgians were abed or fled, leaving the streets empty of all but burned-out firecrackers and tour groups. Not the worst way to see a city, but a bit odd.
There were two eating establishments open, one of which had an entertainingly incomprehensible menu (it seemed to be entirely appetizers, drinks, and flams…without any explanation of what a flam is) so we ended up eating in an American-themed burger joint, with stacks of Prohibition-labelled crates under an American flag, Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon pop art on the walls, and a Bonny & Clyde special of the day.
I could tell we were still abroad though by the indigestible Euro techno assaulting my heart rate and the order-taker guy who looked like a distinctly French caricature of J. Edgar Hoover, don’t ask me how. The cook was French Eminem, and had been in a fist fight within the last week or so against someone bigger than him.
Monsieur Hoover was very likable, which made it confusing when our food continued to not show up for an impressively long time. People who ordered after us got their food and my patience was somewhat frayed by the nonstop nnn-tss-nnn-tss aural attack, and I found myself wondering if it was that infamous French stereotype of arrogance and passive disrespect for foreigners…but I don’t think it was. He said the tape on the order machine had run out, and (after we ate) followed us out the door to apologize again, which he didn’t have to do. So Monsieur Hoover d’Strasbourg is still mon amie.
We took the toll roads home, thereby avoiding Germanyin favor of Luxembourg, which ended just before I realized we were there. We gave a cheer to enter Belgium again, and listened with satisfaction as the Flemish radio stations came back in range.
Gelukkig nieuw jaar, everyone!