My time in Strasbourg is not quite how I imagined life in France. Perhaps it’s because Strasbourg is not quite French. With omnipresent German architecture, street signs often supplemented with the Alsatian equivalent, and every restaurant advertising meals such as “Sürkrüt” and “Flàmmaküacha”, it is safe to say that the town of Strasbourg (a name derived from the german language) appears to owe more to its germanic heritage than to the Republic.
In brief, Alsace changed hands four times between the years 1870 and 1945, and despite the fifty-seven years that have occurred since, the effect is rather noticeable. Architecture ranges from grand white facades displaying French neo-classism to black and white timber-framed houses, typical of the Rheinland. When the sun shines you are more likely to need German rather than French to ask for directions and the food here lacks the expected delicatesse of french food, mainly consisting of fatty meat and carbohydrates.
In the past eight months, I have learnt that identity can be shaped not only by something as important as the language spoken, but also by something that seems to have little profound significance, such as what food appears on your menu or the aesthetics of your surroundings. Strong identities are created amongst communities that have distinct and recognisable commonalities, and in these, Alsace is certainly not lacking.
Moreover, Strasbourg is also the heart of Europe, home to many european institutions including the European Court of Human Rights, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. The city displays an obvious “double culture” due to its turbulent past, but a vaster multiculturalism is now present here in Alsace with the influx of students and workers from all over Europe. Strasbourg is truly a european city, demonstrating a strong european identity, which is perhaps because this unique region does not pertain completely to one sole nation. Alsace’s detachment from France seems to have allowed multiculturalism to thrive.
In the past 20 years Alsace has stretched its horizons far beyond its stereotypical French-German fusion. The city is a safe haven for people of all nationalities, from all different backgrounds and provides a place where all can feel “at home”. For me, that is the essence of european identity: being part of a community that isn’t dictated simply by your birthplace or origins, but is rather the formation of new communities based on shared values.
First appeared in ESN eXpress magazine no. 14, Summer 2012, which can be viewed here: http://www.esn.org/magazine