Old Order Changeth in Alsace-Lorraine

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Daily Star/August 26, 1922

Strasbourg, France.-You have to watch your step in Alsace on the lan­guage question. When William E. Nash of the Chicago Daily News asked a chauffeur in Strasbourg if he spoke French and the chauffeur answered with a flawless Parisian accent, “But yes, Monsieur! And do you?” we all had the laugh on him.

“Don’t you know that Alsace and Lorraine are French provinces?” we asked Nash and a good many other things of that sort. “What did you expect him to speak? Japanese?” 

It was Nash’s turn to laugh when I asked a cabby in French how to get to the Place Kleber.
“Say, how do you expect me to know French?” he answered in Rhenish German. “What do you think I am? A professor?”

It is a strange fact that the chauffeurs of the taxis all speak French and the drivers of the horse-drawn cabs speak and understand nothing but German. It is the new against the old regime.

Strasbourg is a lovely old town with streets of houses that look so much like old German prints that you keep looking up at the chimneys for stork’s nests. Little rivers cut through it and there are picturesque quays where men sit fishing and women bend their backs to their laundering. It seems a very fine division of labor from the male standpoint but I think the women are revenged because I have never seen any of the men catch any fish and imagine it is the soapsuds that keep them from biting.

The great single spire of the cathedral is visible from nearly any part of the town and the cathedral itself is very fine. It is built of reddish stone and seems to get larger the longer you look at it. The best place to observe it from is the terrace of the cafe that faces it where you can lean back in a chair and sight it over the top of a tall beer. Strasbourg has the tallest and narrowest beers in the world. 

I asked the waitress at the cafe why the beers were so tall and narrow and she said they had always been that way. Then I asked a keen-faced young priest at the next table about it and he smiled into his own beer and said perhaps it was the influence of the tall spire of the cathedral.

To the left of the cathedral is the Kammerzell, built in 1472 according to the tablet, that looks like the inn in a Grimm fairy tale. It is six stories high and has a restaurant on every floor. We ate on the first floor in a low wood-paneled room that seemed to reek of flagons of ale, poniards stuck in the table and quarreling Brandenburgers and women with the sort of headdresses that go way out to a point like a long slanted-back dunce’s cap and have a veil draping down.

There was a roast chicken with tender green beans and a lettuce salad that came on after a fresh broiled brook trout from the Vosges and was followed by a fine sort of a cake and coffee. There was also a clear, dry Rhine wine in long, narrow bottles, much narrower than the beer glasses, and as tall as Indian clubs and obviously under the influence of the spire of the Strasbourg cathedral. Afterward there was a liqueur named quetch, a thimbleful made by distilling the big blue plums that grow in the orchards up in the hills. It tasted as plums look, but never taste.

We never bothered to find out what the restaurants on the six other floors were like.

At the grand hotel, called the Hotel de la Ville de Paris, where we were staying, there was a sentimental orchestra that sobbed out Faust and Puccim and worse half the night, swooning over the rests and generally making the night horrible, so we moved to a little old hotel with plastered walls that fronted on the square where the Lutheran church is. It was quiet there and we had a room twice as big as the grand hotel for about two-­thirds of the price. But we made the mistake of dining there one night, having been encouraged by some wonderful rolls with fresh butter, good coffee and plump huckleberries in the morning, and found the food mediocre.

They advertised peach ice on the dinner and brought us instead soggy apple fritters and when Mrs. Hadley l Hemingway spoke to the waiter, he answered us that there was no more peach ice to be had anywhere in the town, a statement that cost him half his tip when we saw some being served a few moments later at the next table. No, under the circumstances, even remembering the big room and the fine view on to the square and the excellent way our boots were done and the enormous big beds, it would be hardly the thing to recommend the hotel by name.

The cathedral has the largest and finest dramatic clock in the world. The twelve apostles come out at noon every clay and walk around and around, a large cock crows and flaps his wings and things come off in general. We didn’t see the spectacle. The Lutheran church, to put the cathedral in its place, has absolutely no clock at all.

As we left the town, at five o’clock in the morning, a couple of men were sitting on the damp stones at the side of one of the little rivers, fishing. They had probably gotten up early to get a start on the laundresses.

(Source: Dateline: Toronto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985)

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