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STRASBOURG, France—I’m sitting in a café right in front of the beautiful Cathédrale Notre-Dame. The red-sandstone cathedral boasts flying buttresses, intricate stained-glass windows, and a whopping 30-meter high astronomical clock tower. But first, as I finish the last bites of my Flammkuchen—a thin-bread pizza found in both Germany’s Baden-Wurttemberg and France’s Alsace—I have an important mission to accomplish: to ask for the check.
“Zahlen, bitte! I mean, l’addition bitte! No, no, I’m so sorry, l’addition, s’il vous plaît!”
The waitress looks at me incredulously, and promptly walks away. I cringe at myself. I can distinctly hear the German couple behind me chuckle. I am embarrassed.
My seven years of French have amounted to nothing more than a horrible, mixed-up language of French, German and English. There’s no excuse—I’m nowhere close to speaking German, my current language of study, fluently. As if to point out my ineptitude, the German couple asks for ice cream in perfectly accented French, with just the right amount of husk. As soon as the waitress realizes that the couple is from Germany—the guy’s Germany soccer jersey was peeping out of his jacket—she switches into German. The three of them speculate on the upcoming game between Germany and Ghana.
And that’s Strasbourg—a mix of German and French culture. Located a mere 16 minutes from the France-Germany border, Strasbourg has constantly switched back and forth between being a German state and a French one. Only since the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 has Strasbourg been stabilized as a French city. However, despite its official status, the city still betrays its dual-identity. Although the lingua franca is French, people converse in French, German, and occasionally even Alsatian—a local language with Germanic roots. (Fun fact: Alsace means “foreign domain” in Old High German: Ali-saz.) For locals, the two languages are like two separate accents of the same language. For me, it’s the difference between night and day. I sit there, mulling over both how easy it seems for Europeans to be bi- or tri-lingual, and how Strasbourg reveals the close-knitted history of European countries.
When the waitress comes back, I ask her in English if the restaurant takes credit cards.
Adela H. Kim’16, a Crimson arts editor, is a history of art and architecture concentrator in Lowell House.
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