Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Friday, May 18, 2007

War and Peace

In Switzerland, May apparently serves as a warm-up for summer. Humidity levels have been rising, local grocery chains have begun to offer bonus points for their shopper loyalty programs, and due to the heavy holiday schedule, people spend nearly as much time not working as working. The day before a holiday, many people get half-days at the office; and if a holiday falls on a Thursday, the Friday afterward is generally free as well. As a result, Swissy Pie has three 3- or 4-day weekends this month: Labor Day was on May 1; this week is Ascension (Ausfahrt if you're a Swiss German, Christi Himmelfahrt if you're a proper German); and Pentecost (Pfingsten) comes next week.

The problem with long weekends is that they make for horrid traffic conditions on the roads. Trucks are swarming off the autobahn, just as everyone is trying to get to whereever they're spending their mini-holiday. And for those of us who stay behind, we have to scurry to stock up on groceries because stores won't be open. Wednesday afternoon, it took us nearly an hour to get over to Germany to do our shopping for the weekend when it usually takes about ten minutes. Mostly it was bad traffic: the entire Alsace looked like it was being evacuated before a hurricane. But it didn't help that border control in all three countries seemed determined to check everyone both leaving and entering. We'd have gone over by bicycle, if it hadn't been for the lashing rainstorm that was intent on making everyone even more miserable.

Such annoyances are luckily only temporary. By the time the weekend started in earnest, on Thursday, heavy traffic was nothing but a bad memory. Unfortunately, the rain stuck around a little longer, so we weren't able to go off on any cycling trips until Friday.

Since I wanted to go back to France, Swissy Pie nosed around for a new spot there for us to explore. He came up with the Route des Crêtes, an old military road constructed during World War I which runs 80 km through the Vosges. Promising little traffic and beautiful scenery, it sounded quite appealing: I envisioned empty tarmac threading through the feet of the mountains. Rolling terrain, perhaps, but nothing terribly challenging. (I was feeling lazy.) In my mind, it was perfect.

So we set off, going first to the rather depressing city of Mulhouse, where we belatedly acquired a map of the region, and then to the cute little town of Cernay, where signposts for the Route des Crêtes began to appear. So far, so good.

But then, we hit Uffholz, and as is the wont whenever Swissy Pie is involved - whether he intends it or not is debatable - the road started tilting slowly, inevitably up. By the time we passed from the village to its Forêt Communale, we were climbing steadily, and sometimes, fairly steeply. At last we found a mud and gravel clearing that was supposed to be a parking lot, pulled out the bikes, and promptly started up the mountain. So much for the rolling terrain I'd been hoping for.

If my French were better (or if I'd looked up the words before we left), I'd have realized my mistake much sooner: crête means crest, as in a mountain peak. But then we might have missed out on a beautiful ride. And though the terrain wasn't easy, with slopes up to 12%, it was never impossible. Evergreens shaded the pavement; cliffs and curves hid the upcoming challenges. It wasn't until I was near the top that I could look out over the Rhine Valley and realize how far I'd climbed.

At the first crest, where Swissy Pie was waiting - as usual, he'd taken off and left me crawling in his wake - we ventured into the woods to look down on Mulhouse and the towns of Alsace.

That's where we found this guy sunning himself on a rock...

...and this unidentified ruin.

As we got back on our bikes, I was feeling quite pleased with myself. But then, we made a short little descent, rode along the ridge for a couple of kilometers, cranked our way to a somewhat higher pass - and found ourselves in the middle of a large parking lot. A road sign informed us that we'd arrived in Vieil Armand.

Dozens of tourists were climbing out of cars and buses to make their way to a low-slung building that was clearly a some sort of memorial. Since we were already there, we decided to see what the fuss was all about. We picked our way along the grass-lined walkway, clip-clopped across the red stone terrace in our awkward cycling shoes, and looked down.

On the other side of the hill, stretching down to the bottom of the slope, lay row upon row of stone crosses, the graves of the 30,000 soldiers who were killed in Vieil Armand during the First World War. 30,000 young men, who had died in the trenches just beyond the cemetery. 30,000 young men, who had come up by the very road we were now cycling on. A road that was built for the sole purpose of bringing them to the front, and keeping them there.

It's difficult to describe what I felt at that moment. Sadness, of course, that so many had lost their lives. Shock that so many had lost them in this single remote mountain. (While I knew that nearly 1.5 million French troops were killed during World War I, it was something else to be confronted with part of that evidence.) Some cognitive dissonance, that this peaceful, shady wood was not too long ago stripped bare and ripped apart by war. And guilt, too, that I'd forgotten how much bloodshed had taken place in the Alsace-Schwarzwald region. Though it's obvious in retrospect, this morning I hadn't really considered the implications of the
Route des Crêtes being military road. It was a bit strange to think that the only reason I could enjoy my ride today was because the 30,000 bodies lying beneath my feet had once needed to be fed.

I spent some time wandering among the graves, reading the names. Many were obviously French; others clearly had German ancestors, reflecting the region's split identity. There was even a Muslim man, whose headstone was quite unique. I wondered if he had fit in with his comrades while he was alive, because in death, he was clearly set apart. (Come to think of it, did the French French trust the French Germans?) But they all had one thing in common: MORT POUR LA FRANCE.

After that, it was difficult not to be reminded of the region's bloody history wherever we went: the German names that most of the towns bore (Altenbach, Guebwiller, Issenheim), the dual names of a few others (Vieil Armand/Hartmannswillerkopf), the concrete bunkers in the Petit Camargue and Forêt Dominale de la Hardt, the cone-shaped bomb craters off the cycling trails there, the separate cemeteries for French and German soldiers in Cernay. Even the horrid bunker-like apartment buildings from the 50s and 60s are a legacy of the wars (though other places, like Basel, inflicted the ugliness on themselves).

Only when Swissy Pie's shifter cable broke, partway up Le Grand Ballon d'Alsace, did my focus snap back to the present. He was stuck in big gears for the rest of the trip, and a great deal of mountainous terrain lay between us and our car. How he made it when I needed my easiest gears, I'll never know; how he recovered to go back to conquer Grand Ballon the next day is an even greater mystery.

But it's far more pleasant to wonder about that, than about the dead who lie in Vieil Armand.

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