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Strasbourg: Comédie Absurde 

Last night was not what I would call a great evening.  There was something bad, awkward, or uncomfortable about nearly every part of it.  But it was one of the most interesting nights I’ve ever had, one well worth writing about. 

Myriam and Ralf were kind enough to drive us right into Strasbourg and drop us off directly in front of the hotel, so no time was wasted in trying to find the place.  I had to check in using German because the front desk girl couldn’t speak any English but her German was okay.  We got to our room, a nice private little room with two twin beds and a bathroom that looked like a bathroom from an airplane, and put our stuff down.  I didn’t take my jacket when we left because it was a relatively hot day. 

We proceeded to walk into the heart of the city to the area around the cathedral, where we stopped at a little café to order a salad for Krissi and a half a bottle of wine which we split between the two of us.  The waitress was absolutely terrible so the service was slow, but we did a lot of people-watching as we sat there, noticing just how ugly everyone was.  Strasbourg, it seemed, was just an incredibly ugly city.  Every now and then a decent-looking woman would pass by but they were few and far between.  I actually liked this because I felt that here was a place where I might be one of the more attractive ones.  Indeed as I looked at every decent-looking woman passing by, they all returned my glance, perhaps because they noticed a fellow non-ugly person or perhaps simply because they felt my gaze upon them. 

At any rate, once I’d hunted our waitress down so she could bring us the bill, we left exactly €0 for a tip and walked into the cathedral to check it out.  It was impressive of course, but having just been to the Köln Dom recently it paled in comparison. 

We then walked down to the river to take one of the boat tours that my Ichenheim family had recommended, and we bought a ticket for the next boat which left in twenty minutes.  I used the time to find a public bathroom and found much to my surprise that it was free of charge.  That was the only thing about Strasbourg the entire night that I actually found to be better than German cities, where you always have to pay for public restrooms. 

The boat ride happened exactly at sunset, so it had the potential to be a really lovely experience.  Unfortunately, we had the bad luck of boarding the same boat as a group of about 20 young women celebrating a bachelorette party, and they were about as loud, drunk, and obnoxious as they could possibly be.  To make matters worse our boat was enclosed in glass so their shouts and chants echoed all around.  We also had the rotten luck of being seated directly in front of the most obnoxiously loud girl in the whole group.  Everyone else on the boat, just trying to have a nice relaxing little trip down the river and listen to the historical tid-bits on the audio tour, were also clearly pissed at the girls, all of them shooting evil glances to the back from time to time but it didn’t phase these girls at all, who just kept cheering and chanting and occasionally breaking into song.  Towards the beginning of the trip a woman who works for the boat tour walked up to them and said something in French, presumably asking them to be respectful of the other passengers and to keep it down, but then she said something else as she walked away and they all cheered, so I assume she gave them some of kind of “wink wink”.  At any rate, what would have been a really nice little boat ride was just an hour of frustration, and anything I might have learned about Stasbourg’s history from the audio-tour was completely forgotten as I either couldn’t hear it or couldn’t focus on it. 

When we got off the boat I was very chilly so we decided to go back to the hotel before we began our night of drinking.  We were quite far away, but we didn’t want to bother trying to figure out the public transportation system (everything was only in French, of course) so we walked.  It took about 30 minutes to get back and by the time we reached the hotel I had already warmed up just from walking, but I got my jacket anyway and then we went to the front desk to ask the guy if he could recommend any bars or music clubs.  He spoke a little English which was nice, but he couldn’t really help us at all with any recommendations.  The club we’d looked up online was apparently really far from everything else, and he just told us that all the bars and clubs were in the center of town, which we already knew.  He couldn’t even tell us the name of any club, as he said he used to know but he hasn’t lived in Strasbourg for awhile and he just got back to the city recently.  So that wasn’t very helpful to us at all, but we had to give him credit for being friendly and honest. 

We walked all the way back to the centre of town where we stopped for a kebab because I was hungry, but since Krissi had eaten a big salad earlier she just had a little snack of “Freedom Fries”.  It was about 8:30 when we finished and we finally went to our first bar of the night, ordering the obligatory shot of Jäger and a beer.  I decided to play a game called “Who’s the hottest bartender of the night?” because the bartender at the place was this lovely slender little lady, though her face could have been slightly better.  We didn’t spend much time in that place before leaving in search of another one.  By the way, everything in Strasbourg was extremely expensive.  Most places were charging €5.50 for a single glass of beer, an absolutely ridiculous price. 

We wandered around for awhile looking for a decent place before finally settling on a cocktail bar where we took a shot of vodka (they didn’t have any Jäger) and drank another beer while watching the bartender prepare all kinds of crazy mixed drinks and having an extensive conversation about how many mixed drinks there must be in the world, me thinking only a few thousand but Krissi insisting there were definitely over a million as there are so many different combinations of everything and people were inventing new drinks every day. 

It took awhile to get the check from that place but we were finally able to pay and get out of there, then we noticed it was 11:30 and both of us were still sober so we had to pick up the pace.  I was hoping to come across an Irish Pub where the bartenders would hopefully speak English and be able to recommend a good music club or something, but we didn’t spot one.  We did, however, come to an internet café, so we went inside and did some quick research, marking the locations of a few Irish Pubs and a few music clubs on our map.  We went off to the nearest dot, a music club, just to see if it would be worth coming to later, but we couldn’t find the street.  Navigation was a huge bitch the whole time we were there because there were so many tiny little streets that weren’t even on the map, and some streets that were on the map but weren’t marked with signs so we didn’t know which they were.  So we ended up missing the club and coming instead to the first Irish bar we’d marked. 

We went inside and found they had no Jäger there either, so we just ordered a beer and each took a turn going to the bathroom.  The atmosphere there really sucked for an Irish place, and the bartenders certainly didn’t speak English.  They were playing really crappy music like the Backstreet Boys and the song “Dancing Queen” so I suggested we just drink our beer as fast as possible and move along.  Krissi was thinking the exact same thing, so we just pounded our Kilkennys and took off. 

The next Irish pub was right around the corner but it was closed down, so we just moved on to the next dot, another dance club, only this one looked like it had a dress code so we moved along again, crossing the river to the southern side of the centre of town to the last Irish pub on the map, a place called Molly Malone’s.  The bartender there won the award for best-looking bartender of the night, and she also got major points for speaking English and telling us about our options for music clubs in the area, even marking the locations on our map. 

While we were finishing our beer a French guy sat down next to us and I noticed him looking in our direction, so I said hello and he responded with a bonjour.  What followed was a particularly strange encounter in which he attempted to communicate with us by speaking French very slowly (as though that would help) and using a few scattered words of English or German that he happened to know.  He busted out a notebook and showed us a bunch of poems that he’d written, and I think he was saying that he was going to write a poem about Krissi.  He was telling her that she was beautiful and that I was lucky to have such a “treasure” and stuff, and I didn’t bother explaining that we weren’t together.  Krissi politely took out her camera and took a picture of me and him, then he took the camera and got a picture of us together, puckering his lips because he wanted to get a picture of us kissing, which we obviously didn’t do. I got his name before we left—Jacques—and we got out of there before it could get any weirder.  So Molly Malone’s was probably the best bar of the night but we couldn’t really just enjoy it because the guy wouldn’t leave us alone. 

We said goodbye to Jacques the poet and left, walking down the road to the nearest club that the bartender had marked on our map.  When we found the place, we went up to the bouncer and asked if we could go in.  He said “no English speakers” which I thought was quite bizarre but it didn’t really surprise me.  “Deutsch?” I said and he responded in some German (a dialect I don’t quite understand) and let us inside.  I’m still not sure if he’d been joking or not when he said “no English speakers” but he’d seemed completely serious.  So after that bit of weirdness we went in, got ourselves some expensive beer and started dancing.  It seemed like a decent enough place for a music club (I hate all dance clubs so it’s not like I’m very picky) I was doing all right not getting bothered by all the sexy girls around (apparently that’s where all the attractive people had been hiding) and after a few songs I went to go use the bathroom. 

As I was leaving the bathroom a guy came up to me and started up a conversation.  I said I didn’t speak any French and then he started talking to me in English, asking me friendly questions like where I was from and what I did for a living and whatnot.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that he was hitting on me, but I didn’t shoot him down or anything and only pretended not to understand that he was gay.  For some reason I’m not quite sure of I bought him a beer, as well as one for me and one for Krissi, and when we got the beer I pointed to her, dancing there in the back and let him know I had to go back to her and bring her the beer.  I was a bit worried that he wasn’t going to let me go so easily, as he was now getting really close to me and touching me and whatnot, but he did let me go without a fuss, although not without giving me a big wet kiss on the forehead first. 

I proceeded to the back of the room where Krissi was and danced some more right next to a group of extremely hot chicks who didn’t so much as glance at me, and soon enough Krissi was saying we should go and I was quite happy to leave.  As we stumbled out on the street I just bursted out laughing at the absurdity of it all, drunk enough to open up in front of her and lament at the fact that if I wasn’t gay, as if I were I’d clearly be having so much fucking sex all the fucking time, but I’m just not and I can’t make myself (whatever any of those “homosexuality is a choice” people might want to say about it).  Apparently I’m very attractive to gay men, but women, particularly the good-looking ones, could not be less interested.  I felt God laughing his ass off at me and so all I could do was join him. 

We stumbled on back to the centre of town in search of one last place, and came to another bar/dance club which was a bit smaller and seemingly friendlier.  We got one last über-expensive beer (now each having somehow burned through €90 throughout the day) and sat at the bar until some French guys came up to us and asked Krissi to dance with them.  She obliged and started dancing with these guys, who at least had the decency to say hello to me although they didn’t ask us if we were together or anything.  I noticed an older guy sitting next to me who seemed to know those guys and he was looking at them as though disgusted by their pathetic behavior.  I made eye contact with him a couple of times and communicated my feelings of “what the fuck” subconsciously because, seriously, you just go up to a girl who’s sitting with a guy and ask her to dance?  Absolutely no assumption that we were together?  It’s not like we were together and it’s not like I gave a shit if she danced with them but seriously, have a little common courtesy. 

But as I said, they at least had the decency to try and talk to me although there wasn’t much we could say to each other, what with their complete lack of English or German-speaking ability, but they invited me to dance as well and I reluctantly got up and started dancing again for a minute until the most bizarre event of the night (yeah, it actually gets weirder) happened. 

I don’t remember exactly what led up to it because I was indeed quite shit-faced at that point but I was talking to one of the French guys in that group as he sat at the bar, and I felt like having a smoke so I took out two cigarettes and showed him one, offering for him to come smoke with me if he wanted. He responded not by accepting my offer nor turning me down, but by standing up and punching me in the face, right on my left jaw. 

That sobered me up immediately, as my only reaction was a big “WTF!?”  His friends immediately went up to him and held him down and started trying to talk him down, and I just kept repeated in German (because it’s more likely for these people to understand German than English)  “What was that?  What was that?  Why did he do that?”  But the guys only spoke French so of course I got no answer.  When Krissi found out what happened she said it was time to go, and that was certainly the right call.  We went outside, the French guys following, and although I kept asking why their friend had punched me and what I’d done, I never got an answer.  That will remain a mystery forever. 

In hindsight I can think of only three possibilities.  One is that when I held up the cigarette it might have looked like to him, if he was drunk enough, like I was giving him the finger.  Another is that offering someone a cigarette might, in French culture, be akin to hitting on them and he wanted to defend his status as a non-homosexual by attempting to beat me up for being gay (which would have been extremely ironic given what I’d just gone through at the last place).  Finally, he might just have been legitimately bat-shit insane and he just goes around hitting people out of some kind of uncontrollable impulse.  Krissi thought that it had been pre-meditated, that he’d been trying to knock me out so he and his friends could take her away and rape her, because they’d been hitting on her hard the whole time she was there.  But that didn’t make any sense to me because it was in the middle of a crowded bar and besides, it was the weakest blow I’ve ever been dealt.  There was no way he was going to knock me out with a blow like that.  Seriously, I barely felt it.  A slap in the face would have hurt more.  And that guy was a lanky little Frenchman anyway.  I could have easily kicked the crap out of him if I’d decided to respond (assuming his friends didn’t back him up) but I was just too stunned by the unexpectedness of it that retaliation was the farthest thing from my mind.  It didn’t even occur to me until much later that it would have been well within my rights to hit him back. 

Anyway, as we were walking away the old French guy, the one I’d been exchanging glances with earlier, offered to give us a ride back to the hotel.  Because I’d somehow felt I’d bonded with him I was ready to trust him, but Krissi had better judgment and insisted that we walk back.  I thanked the guy for his offer but explained (all in German, which I’m not sure he even understood anyway) that it would just be safer for us to walk.  He totally seemed like a trustworthy dude but you just never know. 

So we walked a good 30 minutes all the way back to the hotel, having a really difficult time finding the street (which was called, comically enough, “Rue du Bitche”) and I had to keep busting out the map at each intersection and forcing my eyes to focus on the tiny little print, which was no easy task, just to re-evaluate our location over and over.  But at last we found the place and made it back to our room, where Krissi promptly passed out and I followed shortly afterwards, somehow managing to brush my teeth and apparently—as I discovered in the morning—trim my fingernails by biting them off. 

We were woken up by the maid in the morning at 11:10, who informed us that check-out was at 11:00 so we said we’d leave right away, then we checked out and went back outside where I called my family in Ichenheim to arrange for them to pick us up at the nearest German train-station in the town of Kehl.  That meant we had to go to the Strasbourg train station and figure out how to buy a ticket, which was no easy process in a goddamned French train station as even the people who worked at the information desk barely spoke a word of English. But I’ll spare the details and just say that we did make it back, and I felt so damned glad when we crossed the Rhine and passed back into Germany, finally somewhere where I not only spoke their language but where most of the people actually bother to learn mine. 

So that was the night in Strasbourg.  Not a “good” night by any stretch of the imagination, but between Jacques the poet, getting hit on by one French guy and getting punched in the face by another, it was certainly one of the most interesting I’ve ever had while traveling.  And in the long run, it’s always those nights that stand out in your memory, so I suppose in a weird way it was one of the best nights of my life.