Strasbourg is a city of borders. Une ville on the edge. Today it is just west of the invisible marker between France and Germany. A train across the line takes minutes and foregoes ceremony. No sign signifies a new land; there is no accueil, no Bavarian babe hoisting foamy steins in a buxom welcome. Perhaps the only indication of change is the reversal of announcements, with French preceding German until that fateful cross into the neighboring nation. But before we make the eastward journey into the land of Bratwurst and Hefeweizen, let’s spend a night in a town straight from a storybook.
Off the plane and onto the tarmac, Jay and I land in France just as the afternoon begins to cede to the growing mauve on the eastern horizon. Off the beaten track for English-speaking travelers, the airport relies on French, German and pictograms to guide its new arrivals. We follow the white rectangles with wheels, hoping that they refer to ground transportation. After unassured points and “this way, no that way!” we descend upon a track.
I stare off to the east as Jay hurdles her pack to the pavement and begins rifling. She emerges with two sticks of spearmint and a fist pound. We blow little bubbles, letting them burst onto our cheeks as we stare off into the expanses of young wheat shoots, green and waving at the darkening clouds. Someday they will be ground into flour and kneaded into a long, pale snake of dough, slashed thrice and baked, but for now they await the imminent rainfall.
We board the first shuttle into the city and, soon enough, we exit the big blue bubble that is Strasbourg’s transportation center. A woman with long hair and glasses tentatively extends an arm skyward, another universal pictogram. Jay smiles and waves back at our host for the night. A graduate student at the local university, Claire could easily be a Soc. 1 T.A. at UCSB. As we enter the city on foot, she pushes a burnt orange bicycle with a plastic helmet neatly placed in the basket. We stroll in the last rays of evening sun and Claire points out the oldest section of town. Across the river Ill, the white stuccoed houses look like illustrations in a picture book. The color of heavy cream, the sprawling tudors host the characteristic wooden beams and ornaments that dapple the city’s walls. We wind through the ankle-snapping cobbled streets, passing a church and a series of dainty shops, being passed by zooming bicyclists unfazed by the bumpy terrain.
Claire comes to a halt before what can only be an artisanal wine and cheese shop. The main lights have already been snuffed out, but, strung along the edges of the window, little lights shine amidst bunches of fake grape leaves and illuminate the extravagant wares. Giant wheels of stinky cheese serve as a backdrop for a display of Burgundy bottles and a pyramid of potted foie gras. This is what I’ve been waiting for. Let us feast! No need for a glass, I’ll bathe in a pool of pinot. A quick jangle of keys and a click brings me back to reality.
“This,” Claire gestures to the sienna facade above the decadent shop. “My home. Come.” In what little light remains, we traipse up a narrow staircase with sloping steps and enter the apartment. Cramped and brimming with furniture, this is to be our home for the night. A knee-height table dominates the combined living room and kitchen. This is a place for eating, for coming together.
“Is that them? Hello?” a voice emerges from the tiny bedroom followed by a thin man with a scraggly beard. He hosts a brimming smile and eagerly shakes Jay’s hand, then mine. “I’m Jo, Claire’s boyfriend. She has to go to school soon, but we can make dinner while we wait for her to return,” he beams in noticeably proficient English. The couple urges us to sit on the blanketed futon, to untie our laces, to think of their home as ours.
Jay “met” the two on Couchsurfing, the Craigslist of temporary, free housing. With Claire off to attend her evening class, we pelted Jo with concerns. We have broken the first rule of entering a stranger’s home for free; we forgot to bring a token of gratitude. Jo brushes it off casually, “You being here, that is a gift enough.” We plead to at least let us prepare a meal for the three of us to share. He flips our urges and merely requests that we all cook together. My dreams of absolute fromage gluttony are dashed but I can’t deny the appeal of such a humble alternative.
Back into the streets we jump through a light drizzle from one market place to another, collecting pasta and produce. We also naively hunt for a bottle of Californian wine as a gift for Claire, which proves more difficult than we would expect. Of course, the aisles of vin are reserved for local blends with no need for Napa varietals. We stumble on a single bottle, cheap as dirt and add it to our heaping collection of groceries.
When we return to the tiny apartment, we address the question of what to make. Despite the stacks of books that nearly kiss the ceiling, Jo claps his hands together and brings them before his bearded chin. “I want to eat … Lots of chickpeas! All mixed into a red marinara sauce with whatever vegetables we can find.” We huddle around the massive table and start chopping. With only one knife, passed around from one hand to the next, we spend more time talking travel and life stories than mincing vegetables. Jo and Claire met in his home-town of Montreal, where Claire was studying abroad, he explains as he trims a leek. When her visa expired, Jo managed to obtain a spot at a school in Strasbourg and moved into her flat in the old town. No wonder he speaks such flawless English and French.
After amassing a mound of onions, squash, garlic and leeks, I toss the conglomeration into an oil splattered saucepan. With each toss of the pan, the simmering veggies hop and flip and my elbow nearly smashes into Jay, who is still seated at the coffee table. After a few minutes of sizzling, the sweet onions have almost melted to a glowing translucence and the cubicle of a kitchen wafts with the smells of cooking heaven. With an executive decision from Jo, an entire jar of red sauce is uncapped. “I think we should let it simmer for a bit to absorb all the extra flavors. How long do you think we should let it go for?” I inquire, adding the tomato sauce.
“Half an hour. One hour. Two hours!” Jo replies. “Food only gets better if you must wait for it!” I doubt it needs to go that long, my stomach contests with a snarl. With six hours since my last morsel, my hunger is developing into desperation but I suppress the urge to begin nibbling onions straight from the pot. “Let’s just see when it tastes delicious!” No one can complain with periodic spoonfuls of salty sweet sauce so we return to our posts, this time without any chopping. We turn our conversation to intellectual pursuits. From James Joyce to Jorge Luis Borges, Jay and I rattle off on the topics of our literary backgrounds. With the reference to the great short storiest and master of the labyrinth, Jo perks up.
“He is from my country!” he blurts out. Books and authors turn to politics and world leaders, Obama, the French government, American culture versus French. An hour passes without a glance to the clock. By the time we turn to Jo’s specialization, sociology, the lock jiggles and Claire returns.
“Still you haven’t eaten?” she asks. Reminded of our forgotten dinner, we boil some pasta and 15 minutes later, our plates are heaped with soft, succulent vegetables and fat, spiral noodles. For our first night in France, nothing about this meal says French cooking. Even without any local fare, I cannot deny the sheer pleasure of shoveling the inadvertently slow-cooked stuff. Jo was right. Slow food is good food.
Our bellies properly lined, we uncork the bottle of wine just as two other American acquaintances arrive. Despite the cool night air, we prop open the creaky windows to counteract our mingling body heat. With a second bottle of wine and onto second pours, the formerly soft and contemplative mood is quickly replaced by something more lively. When the last of the bordeaux drips into a final glass, Claire presents the final dessert: a bowl of fresh picked cherries and four bars of dark chocolate. Beginning to lift one of the cocoa packed delicacies, she scolds me and tells me not to look. The chocolate is from a selection from around the world and she wants us to guess. The first bite is subtly sweet, just as a 70% cocoa solids product should be. As I let the sliver melt on my tongue, I think of all the countries that I know produce cacao beans or process them. Belgium is an obvious choice, but this is no milky, smooth bite. With the slightest bit of grit, only evident after a prolonged taste, I am still stumped. I taste each subsequent chocolate with a cleanse of red wine in between, savoring their obvious differences. When I arrive at the last, its first touch on the tongue is like nothing I have tasted before. With an earthy characteristic as the cocoa butter dissolves, it evolves to a full mouth flavor with the slightest hint of citrus. Hailing from the Dominican Republic, this chocolate may perhaps be the catalyst for the ultimate mouth-gasm.
Stuffed full of the dream dinner of an Argentinian French-Canadian, wines from my home and my host’s home, and chocolates from around the globe, Strasbourg has yet to offer any “traditional” food. While I was hoping for a backpacking adventure that resembled three weeks of food tourism, I fall asleep humbled and satisfied.
With a quiet jolt, my eyelids leap open. At a no more than a hands distance away, Jay sniffles a bit in her sleep. With a few full-body shuffles, I roll over, trying not to wake my slumbering friend. On this side: journal and pencil, plastic cup of water half-full, four shattered bars of dark chocolate, a deep green bottle clearly empty in the grey morning light and a motley collection of wine glasses, tall, squat, ornamented and plain. The two farthest crystal vessels clink together and levitate. Where am I? Claire bends forward and peers through the burgundy stained wine glasses. “You sleep, how do I say?” she nudges a pair of olive frames up the bridge of her nose. “Well?” Grinning, I respond with a resounding yes. My stomach replies, too. I jump to my feet and help clear the leftovers from the evening’s revels.
Once cleared, Claire immediately replenishes. Four shallow bowls filled with fresh milk, a mason jar of sticky cherry preserves, Argentinian dulce de leche and a selection of French breads. Finally! For breakfast we have two traditional cuisines. Jay and I follow Claire’s lead, breaking off bits of baguette and dipping them into the creamy milk. The kettle whistles on the stove and Claire pours four mugs of steaming mate. We sip and nibble and slather sweet spreads on flaky croissants. I realize with each bite, I have no need for a traditional Alsatian meal, as traditional is an outdated expectation. The 18 hours spent in Strasbourg were not those of a traditional tourist either. Bumping elbows before a flaming stove and swapping tales of adventure, this is what traveling should be. In the vein of a global tradition, I set a new one for my own expectations. While I came for the food, it would not have been as sweet without the delicacy of its company.
This story originally appeared on page 18 of Thursday, October 2, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.