Wednesday, 29 April 2015

I. Paris-Strasbourg

So. I think I need to take a break from Thiébault, especially now that I'm using his Mémoires as a bedtime story for my little brother (leaving out the sexual and racist content, of course, as well as the boring details of military manoeuvres). Instead, let's turn to his friend Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt for a while... More specifically, since Gassicourt was very prolific, to his Voyage en Autriche, published in 1818 and chronicling his adventures throughout Europe in Spring 1809.

One of the most beautiful roads of France is the one leading to Strasbourg. One cannot fail to be surprised at the sight of the agricultural riches of the departments crossed by the Marne and the Meuse; from Meaux onwards, I did not see the simple dwellings or neglected fields that are common sights everywhere else. The pastures are admirable. The huge amount of manure collected by the farmers proves the generosity of this land, and ensures its fecundity; thus the people of Champagne and Lorraine are healthy and vigorous and rather well-dressed; but they do not have good races of horses, oxen and cows; the horses of Lorraine in particular often look like they are descended from the one of the Apocalypse, or from Don Quixote’s emaciated mount.
Until Saint-Dizier, the vines of Champagne all have very slender stocks, cut at six inches from the ground. From this city to Strasbourg, the vines’ appearance changes, the stocks are strong, rising in two V-shaped branches, or in one plant that snakes up to a height of about two feet. The shoots from the previous year fold in on themselves, and each vine looks like a hare trap. If M. Cadet Devaux [Gassicourt’s uncle, also a pharmacist] knows of this culture, spread all throughout Lorraine and Alsace, he can draw useful conclusions for his system of tree bowing.
From Epernay to Strasbourg, I was afflicted to see the many crosses recently planted out of superstition; every village, every vineyard, every field, every crossroads has a huge crucifix. Most of these small religious monuments are made of stone and carefully sculpted. Only one house-owner, in a suburb of Nancy, had replaced the Virgin put inside a niche in his door with a bust of Napoleon and this inscription: To Bonaparte, saviour of the Republic. Bonaparte and the Republic! This juxtaposition of words felt rather strange to me.
In the same city, good modern mottoes were inscribed upon the arc de triomphe that serves as the gate to Stanislas’ palace; but the old ones were not properly erased, so that one can distinctly make out the words Imperatori, liberty, pacifico principe, equality, victori; this gibberish recalls two very different times.
None of the prefects of the departments I crossed has enforced the decree on mendicancy. At each halt, at each climbing, one is tired by the constant buzzing of the many beggars, both able-bodied and disabled, who surround the carriages. The peristyles of churches are full of them. These wretches call the pettiest officer monseigneur or mon général; but the travellers really ought to be spared this nuisance, even if it means depriving the braves in uniform of a reliable source of flattery.
While the solid, elegant and picturesque architecture of most towns and villages of Champagne and Alsace are a nice sight, it is quite unpleasant to see that the people of these provinces still do not know how to properly cover their houses. Everywhere they use hollow tiles arranged in gutters, which is very heavy and inelegant. It seems that the wind often disrupts this arrangement; for the edges of these roofs are loaded with stones, at the risk of killing passer-bys, in order to keep them in position.
In Nancy, Lunéville, Phalsbourg and Saverne, the main streets are paved with rolled pebbles the size of a lemon. They use lime mortar for this paving, which is surprisingly solid and aesthetically pleasant, especially kind to light carriages, but very tiring for pedestrians.
There are many ponds in the forests of Lorraine. The main building material is a pink or red sand or gravel, and there are three different kinds of it. One of them is extremely fine and hard; it is used to make grindstones; the other is as tender as sandstone; the third one is schist-like and contains mica; it forms superposed layers, but retains much consistency. The three kinds served to build the Strasbourg cathedral, which is wonderfully well preserved.

It is quite pleasant to meet educated chatterboxes, when one manages to make them chatter on an interesting subject and with the possibility of leaving at any time. I experienced this with M. Lenoir, our host, whose greatest pleasure in life is to tell strangers everything about the town he inhabits.
“Strasbourg has forty-seven to forty-eight thousand inhabitants, not counting the garrison,” he told me. “We mostly trade tobacco, gold wares and liquors. We also have a fine armoury. Strasbourg was Argentora in Roman times, destroyed by Attila and rebuilt by Clovis’ sons on the road between France and Germania. I point this out, Monsieur, because the name Strasbourg, made up of Stratz and Burg, means a city on the great path; this is why other towns bear this name. There is a Strasbourg in Pomerania, one in Prussia and one in Carinthia. Our first bishop was St. Arbogaste, in Dagobert’s times. In 1529, the people embraced Luther’s reformation, appointed a senate and drove out the priests and nuns who behaved badly; but in 1550, Erasme de Limburg, Charles Quint’s protégé, came back to the cathedral and brought the Holy Mass back to us after making compromises with the Lutherans. Upon the Emperor’s death, this prelate took fear and retired to Lower Alsace. Until 1681, there was a rather violent war between the two churches; in the end, the bishop took his throne back and was only forced down by the French Revolution.
“In Notre-Dame, you will see the debris of the famous clock”, M. Lenoir added, “which formerly indicated hours, minutes, months, days, feasts, vigils, eclipses, moon phases, Zodiac cycles and many other things. All of this is now broken. Thomas Corneille says this masterpiece is Copernicus’ work, but he is wrong: the clock was made in 1575 and Copernicus died in 1545.”
Even though Strasbourg is near a large river and is crossed by a smaller one, the only water they drink here comes from the well; it is quite pure1.
In the civilian hospital, they keep hundred-year-old wine, and they have been preserving some wheat for the past hundred and thirty years, sometimes making bread out of it for curious visitors.
1The same phenomenon can be noted in Orleans and Cologne. Modern chemical knowledge has not yet uprooted the popular prejudice that the water of quick rivers is less healthy than that of wells and cisterns.

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