My Trip to Alsace

In 2004, my wife, Bethany, and I were given the gift of a trip to Alsace, France, to visit my accordion teacher, Sylvain Piron, his wife, storyteller Catherine Piron-Paira, and their family. I wrote the following shortly after the trip. It appeared some time later in Wolf Moon Journal, a local Maine literary magazine. I present it here in full.
A misty morning in Alsace

Coming into Saverne, France, by train, Bethany and I spot Sylvain and Catherine standing on the platform.  Catherine’s already seen us and rushes over. Sylvain walks over, relaxed.
“Bonjour!”

“Oh! Bonjour!”

“Ça va?”

“Ça va, bien!”

And after fourteen hours of travel, that’s all the French my wife and I can muster. They kiss us on our cheeks, which is disconcerting for us. We hug them, which is disconcerting for them. We drive fifteen minutes to their village, Steinbourg, in a boxy Peugeot. The village is very compact, with its church, red roofs, twisty roads, and boulangeries.

“Hey!” I say to Bethany, “We’re in France!” It seems too wonderful. Alsace! In the front seat of the car are two of our dearest friends. I’m far too exhausted to express the joy I feel.

“Gary,” asks Sylvain, “Where are your accordions?”

Their house is in a lane of sandstone homes on the Rue du Maréchal Leclerc. One might easily miss the plain wooden door were it not for the ceramic plaque above, showing the number XXVI along with a stylized accordion.  Up the steep staircase, we find small rooms, but lots of them. The interior walls are a sort of pink that doesn’t occur in nature but does occur pretty frequently in French homes. The center of the house is the dining room, with a dark wooden table and any number of armless, wooden chairs -- a requirement at musicians’ gatherings. This is a room as much for music as for meals.

On the floor, sitting open in their cases are two Castagnari accordions, and a third, an older Salterelle. Their nameplates tell me they are world-class instruments built by two of the most highly esteemed shops in the world. I’ve not brought my accordions because there is no need. Coals to Newcastle and all that. My own coal -- a factory-made Hohner Corso--is markedly inferior.* A good box, but only good.

Sylvain (right) playing the Benny.
Me on the Salterelle.
Over the past months, Sylvain has described the two newer instruments, which came into his life about a year prior. The first Castagnari is a “Benny” (that’s the model name), a compact three row beauty. Two rows are in the usual French keys (G and C, or do and  sol) with a third row tuned to various sharps and flats. The second Castagnari is a “Tommy,” a two-row, also compact, that, because of its size and the sensitivity of its touch, is especially well loved. 

The Salterelle is the instrument Sylvain has played for years, a “Pastourelle III.” It’s the instrument on his first CD, Tranche de Temps (link to free download). It’s also in the usual French keys, do and sol, with a half row of five buttons giving sharps and flats.

I pick up the Salterelle.  This is the best instrument I’ve ever laid my hands on. Certainly it feels better than anything I’ve ever played. I start a waltz, “Sur la bord de la riviera." Sylvain takes up the Benny. My exhaustion, which had been deepened by a lasciviously rich meal and three glasses of bordeaux, disappears.
We play.

*My opinion of the Corso has changed considerably since then.  Though I still feel the hand-made boxes are superior in every way, I don't, if you will, feel that the Hohner is in any way inferior. In short, I feel an extraordinary affection for that accordion.


Part 2 - Come See Where We Are

"Daring, come see where we are!"
One thing you need to understand about Bethany and me is that we aren’t ambitious travelers. This is not because we’re indifferent to the charms of a place, but because we’re so easily charmed. The morning of our arrival in Alsace, Bethany woke me up at six, saying, “Darling, come see where we are!” Then she took me on a tour of the backyard, pointing out the unfamiliar flora, taking pictures of the primroses and azaleas. We were amazed.Vive la difference! Admittedly, Bethany does have the gardening bug, but it still goes to show, I think, that we know how to enjoy a place without putting forth a vast amount of “tourist” effort. Our days were most decidedly not packed, and that was just the way we liked it.

Bethany, Gary, Sylvain, Alban, et Romain, in Strasbourg
Over the week, we wandered no further than Strasbourg and spent most of our time in the area directly surrounding Saverne. We saw the Chateau de Haut-Barr in Saverne, the well-kept chapels, and the walking trails. 

Even the fabled French gastronomical experience we approached lackadaisically -- not without care, mind you, but without urgency. Catherine and Sylvain made every meal for us but one. The fair was simple and abundant, with many breads, cheeses, sausages, and wines. One morning we went to a shop, bought sausage, and mailed it to ourselves back home. Another morning Catherine’s father called and told us that we could see some fifteenth-century tapestries if we made it to a particular chapel before 11:00am.  We did, and were delighted both by the tapestries and the docent’s stories.

A tapestry from the 15th century showing hairy men
in the New World
Every day had a nap. These were essential. Siestas are evidence of the highest level of civilization, but they are especially necessary when you’re going to be staying up to all hours. After the sun went down, more wine would be poured, the cheese board brought out, and the accordions taken up. The days were undemanding joys, the nights mild, accordion-accompanied bacchanalia. If this wasn’t the good life, then the phrase had no meaning.


Part 3 - J'ai un Noveau Chapeau


Sylvain and Catherine threw a party for us on the third night of our trip. Not just a small gathering, but a grand fête held in the community center of Steinbourg. After the birthday parties of our youth, very few of us have the experience of having a party thrown in our honor. Not that this crowd really needed an excuse to party, but when we walked into the hall and saw the vast banner with the words Welcome to Gary and Bethanie stretching across the entire length of the stage, we were speechless. Would it be possible to feel more welcome?

“We’re in Alsace, about to play Alsatian music with Alsatian friends.” The happy mantra of an accordion-besotted simpleton. Sylvain seemed nervous, not knowing how many people would show up. Throwing parties is an anxious business on any continent. Folk dancers and musicians are notoriously tardy people. It was Tuesday, a workday. Sylvain wasn’t sure how well he had publicized the event amongst the music community. Yes, the meal was a potluck, but how much beer and wine should he buy?
A good amount, it seems. Throw a party, they will come. And they will bring wonderful food, and they will be prepared to dance and drink. They will also be thrilled to try out their English on you, and--in the age of Bush and the Iraq war--discuss politics and art. Many came from Sylvain and Catherine’s monthly dance group. They knew the tunes and dances in a way that few American crowds--even contra-dance aficionados--would have. After eating, a group of five or so musicians drifted to the far corner. Gilles, the guitarist, tuned up. Marie, Sylvain’s daughter, assembled her flute. The accordionists noodled. We don’t need to tune. 
An agglomeration of accordionists, with François and
Dani on fiddles
In came Charlie, an accordionist, still dressed for work. Then François, a lanky and excellent fiddler arrived. Cedric, a charismatic accordionist who’d learned from Sylvain, came and shook the hand of every musician in the room. This was the first time I’d participated in this particularly French gesture which, to me, says, “We’re in this together.” Danielle, another accordionist, was introduced to me as an English teacher. I had one of those moments in my mind and blurted our, “You’re kidding!” Not because I didn’t believe her, but because it occurred to me that an English teacher in Alsace is a very different thing from an English teacher in the States. Yes, I know it’s obvious, but the fact of that difference delighted me.
After two hours, the crowd achieved its number. Sixty to eighty people. Twenty musicians, ten of them accordionists. It made me wonder: if sheep come in herds, ravens in murders, and Mongols in hordes, what do accordionists come in? Are we merely a “band”? (We few, we happy few ...) What is our unit of agglomeration?
Even though I’d spent years learning tunes from Sylvain, I found I didn’t know half of what was being played. Of course, this means that I did know half of what was being played, and that fact was a comforting gem of amazement. Sylvain regularly turned to me, asking me to start a tune. It struck me that, even playing tunes that I’d known for years, my fingers were being guided by the musicians around me. Very subtle issues of tempo or touch--which I had struggled with back home--were settled merely by my being in a room with the accordionists who belonged to these tunes. French accordion music was not an obscure passion for them. It belonged to them, and they to it. They were at home, and standing next to them, I learned, musically how to get home.
An English country dance in France
Photo by Martine Lutz
At various points through the evening I found myself fixating on my wife. Bethany had been a bit anxious about dancing, not cowardly as I was, but nervous. The week had been filled with dance of the most charming sort. Catherine took Bethany under her wing, teaching Bethany to waltz and mazurka while Sylvain and I played. Catherine was an excellent teacher, intuitive and kind. Bethany was an excellent student, grateful and willing. The two of them were a delight to watch. Bethany shimmered as if she were the object of a love song. She looked beautiful, happy, and fluid. Through the Breton circle dances, the an dro and hanter dro and the English country dances, mazurkas, scottishes, and waltzes, I was proud of her in a very lusty way.



"J'ai un noveau chapeau ..."
Photo by Martine Lutz
Later in the evening I started a tune. “J’ai un noveau chapeau” was written by Sylvain, and it was well loved. As soon as they heard the first notes, the crowd flew into action. The size of the dance circle doubled, musicians, who had been milling about, ran over to get their instruments to get a a piece of the action. Sylvain walked over to the circle, beckoning us in. Charlie, Cedric, François, and I followed. The circle opened, and we stepped into the middle. It was an embrace, the dancers and the musicians. Sylvain sang the first line, “J’ai un noveau chapeau ...” and the entire room took up the song. Fifty people, it must have been, singing together, with Sylvain at the center. Catherine led the dance, but no one needed to be led, really. The very simple Breton rhythm, the simple steps, Sylvain’s funny lyric, his voice, his tune, his accordion. It wasn’t louder than the ten other accordions playing, but it was certainly more central.
I looked at Sylvain. I looked at Catherine, his fiancé. Cedric,his student. The dancers. Their friends. Their children. Bethany dancing! And myself -- was everyone happy?
Everyone.

 
Part 4 - At Home With Sylvain and Catherine

Clink-clink! Celebrating birthdays.
Conversation happens between the music. Wednesday night, the night after the dance, was the birthday of Romain (nine) and Gabriel (nineteen). We ate their favorite foods, sang to them, and gave presents. Afterwards, of course, we drank wine, ate cheese, and played music. At some point, a pause ensued. We began discussing the whole European situation (you know ... that). Sylvain, in his non-accordion life, works for the Council of Europe. The European Union constitution vote was coming up, making everyone tense. Most people I talked to were pro-Union, but anti-constitution. Maybe this was was an accordion-related bias. As a historian it was a fascinating moment to visit. More interesting, though, were the discussions of the Amish and cheese.


The Amish, if you are unaware, are a Christian sect based in Western Pennsylvania. If you've seen the Harrison Ford movie, Witness, you'll know that they reject many of the modern conveniences of our lives, feeling that God did not put us on the Earth in order to avoid work. Visiting their lands -- and there is a pretty lively tourist industry devoted to this -- is like stepping back into the nineteenth century, a time of no automobiles, no electric lights, and primitive medicine. society

At one point, Marie, who was twenty-five, realized that the Amish were raising their children like this, forcing them to live in this "cult" setting without the benefits of the larger, modern society.

Le gâteau
Honestly, I can't even remember how the Amish came into the conversation, but suddenly the table bristled. Neither Bethany nor I have very strong feelings about the Amish or their parenting practices. In a typically American way, neither of us want to live that virtuously, but we're glad somebody does. Marie, however, was incensed. The family began speaking French very quickly, and the aural subtitles they'd provided all evening abruptly stopped. Marie scowled and punctuated her rhetorical points with quick gestures. Sylvain spoke with authority, very slowly, asserting his rhythm to the conversation. The children watched, and Catherine tended to us, serving gâteau and tea.

When the fire died down, I sorted through the bits of conversation and gathered that Marie had objected, on principle, to lives being dominated by religion, but objected much more strenuously to children's lives being dominated by religion. When this domination led to the withdrawal of the child from the larger society, they saw an evil. This would be like a parent's telling their French child that he or she is no longer French. In France, the nation is the communion of saints, and exile from it is an unpardonable sin that the state should not allow. File this conversation under French/Americans:  Ways Different.

Then we discussed cheese.

Catherine and Sylvain
Sylvain is a man who likes his cheese. This is a commonplace. I know -- the French and their cheese -- but I had never seen la joie de fromage acted out in front of me. It only occurs to now how appalled he and Catherine must have been looking over the cheese section in our American supermarket, with it's paltry array of flavored brie. Their cheese board was a humble masterpiece, filled with products of local farms, strong smelling but delicate tasting. At their table, I understood for the first time just how exquisitely red wine and cheese complement each other.

Sylvain had traveled throughout Europe for his job and had tried a number of local cuisines. Many of the countries had passable cheeses, even admirable cheeses, but none equaled the cheeses we had on the board before us. Nobody cares as much about their cheese as the French, implied Sylvain. It's a type of dark, gustatory nationalism that we'd all recognize. In the States, for example, the comparison of New Jersey, New York, and Chicago pizza is not a conversation to be taken up lightly. So when Sylvain extolled the undeniable virtues of his cheese, it was not a sense of contention that led me to utter the following question.

"But what about the British," I asked, "they're very fond of their cheese." I knew this because I had seen Wallace and Gromit. "Wenslydale?" I said.

"The British?" He said with a provocative glint in his eye. "That's not cheese."






Part 5 - The Final Night


L'Auberge des 3 Frères
There is a fairy tale element to every vacation - just the exemption from work is a granted wish - but Alsace, accordions, wine, friends and dance has been especially fantastic. The transition from magic to mundane was long. The morning after the last great night. A five hour drive in a rented car, culminating with the particularly hideous Charles de Gaulle airport. The crankiness we felt. The trip back home through the wardrobe is always grayer than the trip out. The night before we’d said our tearful goodbyes to Sylvain, Catherine, and their children. We’d left the Auberge with the dancers still going.

The night before. The last night of our stay. The Salterelle has become very comfortable under my fingers. I play it almost exclusively, and am pleased that it seems happy with me. The tunes feel more natural, my playing more relaxed and commanding. The effortlessness of its touch has built up for me over the week, an accumulating ease. The effects of the wine, similarly, have accumulated over the week, and although I’m not complaining, I know that a monster of a hangover is somewhere in my future.



Food, dance, drink, family at the Auberge.
Sylvain arranged this gig for us at a Marmoutier eatery, L’Auberge des Trois Frères. According to Sylvain, it was a new concept for the area: a restaurant built in a converted barn, with long tables and rustic decorations hanging on the walls. The owner is worried about the success of the venture and is very happy to have us there. He shows his gratitude throughout the night by providing a wide range of drinking options.

Our party includes Sylvain, Catherine, the five kids, Bethany and myself, Catherine’s father, uncle, and aunt. François, the fiddler, soon joins us along with a student of his, Daniel. They rosin their bows and tune as we give the orders for the main course.


“What shall we play, Gary?” asks Sylvain.



What shall we play, Gary?
I begin Bourrée des Gars, one of the first three-beat bourrées I’d ever learned. Very simple and very major-key. Not a lot of mystery, but a lot of drive. Easy. I’m nervous and hedging my bets and smart to do so. The flop sweat comes in buckets. This happens to me in every performance. The first ten minutes are murder, but I’ve come to learn that the adrenaline surge passes quickly. The twitching dread is replaced by a lovely, arrogant fatalism. It’s a risk, I know, but it’s my idea of a good time.

And the crowd’s idea, too! They’re flying!


“The bourrée is a crazy dance,” said
Daniel Thonon. It’s as old as the Renaissance, and probably older, and was a form used by baroque composers in their dance suites. For centuries, then, the bourrée has been whipping otherwise respectable folks into a frenzy. Thus at the Auberge.

Sylvain and François.
The dancers are up and moving. Somewhere, amid the tables, serving staff, wooden pillars, musicians, and patrons, they find the space to do the facing, turning, and kicking required. After the bourrée we do a waltze, a fast one I wrote some years ago. Sylvain puts down his accordion and dances with Catherine. This is unimaginably charming and fills me with a warmth that won’t disappear until we get to Charles de Gaulle.

Many of the people there are friends of Sylvain and Catherine, but most are not. Sylvain sings a number of Alsatian songs. The crowd sings along affectionately and unselfconsciously. It was as if an American crowd were singing “Home on the Range,” and genuinely getting behind the sentiment of the song. It seems foreign to me, and desirable, though I’m probably romanticizing. I hear them expressing their home in the music. They are at home in the music, and they are inviting Bethany and me into their home. She dances. I play. Wine is placed before us, and then more exotic intoxicants. Is it absynth? Sylvain talks, between tunes, about how we’d come all the way from Maine in the United States to play Alsatian music. The Alsatians are very please, almost flattered.


We play for hours. The room gets happier and happier.

 

Everyone dances!
A short, fat guy gets up to dance. He is a caricature of joyous energy, something out of a Peter Mayle book - or the BBC adaptation of one. Yes, he’s drunk, but he dances through the night, asking one woman after another. They all agree. He asks Bethany. Bethany agrees. When he runs out of women to ask, he asks a bearded gentleman. They waltz until it’s time to do the spin. They can’t decide who will “be the girl!” Brilliant! I start a polka, Polka de l’Averyron, and immediately - within three notes - someone begins pounding the table in rhythm. Holy cow! They drive me on. Sylvain and François join in, and Daniel, and we circle the room. Everyone who is dancing dances. Bethany dances. The short, fat guy. The bearded gentleman. Catherine. Marie. A woman in a wheelchair shouts - I kid you not - “Vive l’Americain!”

This, two days after
the other great moment of my life, is one of the great moments of my life. 
 
  

4 comments:

  1. I think I want to move to Alcase! Nice photos - I wish they had sound...

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    Replies
    1. It is a lovely, vibrant region of France. I would love to be there right now.

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  2. A lovely piece of writing about - what must have been - a fabulous trip. Thank you.

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