These days Strasbourg is a big deal. The city is one of the few in the world which is not a state capital and yet hosts international organisations of the first order. Strasbourg is now home to the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament, making it the legislative capital of Europe. It was chosen as the European capital due to its proximity to Germany, acting as a symbol of reconciliation after World War II.
Strasbourg is encircled by a river, with cobbled bridges offering gentle access into the city centre, called The Grande Île, the first to be classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The little streets, narrowed further still by the number of verandas at street level, are flanked by black and white townhouses, like the Tutor houses back home. They lean over the street giving visitors a view of their neat wooden beams. As the Christmas festival was on, the city was alive with the sights and sounds of the festive season. With the aroma of mulled wine warming the winter air, we dodged through the throngs looking for somewhere to eat.
But Strasbourg hasn’t always been so grand and pleasant! In fact, Strasbourg could legitimately be called the ultimate ugly duckling city. During the Middle Ages, many French soldiers returned from a dirty war against Italy suffering from syphilis. Throughout Europe, syphilis was known as “The French disease”, except in France, where it was called “The Italian disease”. For those that don’t know, the symptoms of syphilis are nasty. As Jared Diamond describes it, “pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people’s faces.”
Before penicillin, there wasn’t a cure for the disease, so sufferers were cast out of cities like Paris, and their only recourse was to march to Strasbourg, where places like Hospice des Vérolés were specially built to treat them. The infected soldiers were mostly confined to the Petite France, perhaps the most beautiful part of Strasbourg now.
We walked through Petite France. With its canals and half-timbered houses with street-level winstubs (local taverns) on narrow alleyways, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like at one time. Poor, moaning, syphilitic zombies limping through the streets. The kickedly-klack of carriages on the cobblestones, barely audible over the constant running mills. This area also housed the tanners who, to make leather, required vast quantities of urine to clean the animal skins. The stench from Petite France was pungent for miles around, especially when you consider the canals were used as sewers. To put it mildly, this part of Strasbourg wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of Dante’s stages of hell.
Although the signs of this squalid past are now hidden, something visitors will not fail to notice is the ubiquity of storks here. Like how Kunming and Basel are obsessed with pandas and balisks respectively, the object of Strasbourg’s fascination is storks. The souvenirs, toys, keyrings, mugs, logos on businesses here are all stork-themed. Unfortunately for us, it was December, and we couldn’t see any actual storks because they’d all migrated to warmer climes, some as far as Africa. But we could see the huge, empty nests – some weighing up to 500 kilograms, the same as two adult grizzly bears – in trees, chimneys, rooftops and on statues.
So what’s the deal with storks?! I had to investigate. Storks have been part of Strasbourg and the Alsace region for centuries and they are thought of as symbols of faithfulness, fertility and good luck. The locals claim that if a stork is flying above your house, then a baby is on the way. Or if a baby has been born, a stork has flown to the underground lake where the souls of the dead have been reincarnated as babies. Another Alsatian folktale advises children who wants a baby sibling to put sugar cubes on the windowsill to attract a stork.
But, curiously, Strasbourg isn’t alone in associating storks with babies and fertility. In Egyptian mythology, for example, storks visit the watery swamps of Egypt each winter to tend to the souls of unborn children. In Norse mythology, the stork represents family values and commitment to one another. But storks aren’t all rainbows and lollipops. In Greek mythology, storks were associated with stealing babies because the goddess Hera turned her rival into a stork, and the stork-woman attempted to steal her son in vengeance. In Germany, a handicapped baby was said to have been dropped by the stork to punish a couple for past sins.
So the association between storks and babies and fertility is as ubiquitous as the nests you’ll see around the rooftops of Strasbourg. But why are storks associated with babies and fertility? One of the first films I ever remember watching was Dumbo. The first scene is of the storks delivering the animal babies to the parents. Very cute but also very misleading for a child.
Allegedly, it’s all to do with the Summer solstice and, in particular, Midsummer’s Eve, which takes place on June 24th. As Midsummer’s Eve was also a pagan holiday of marriage and fertility, many marriages, consummations and baby-making would take place during this time. Many babies, therefore, were born in March and April the next year, the same time that storks return to their nests after their winter migration, hence the impression that the storks delivered the babies.
In the 1970s, the number of nests in Strasbourg had considerably dwindled due to factors like, power lines, hunting and weather. In 1983, France started a program to repopulate the storks in Alsace, and it has been very successful and continues to do so. I just hope the storks appreciate the irony of the humans helping the storks to deliver their babies, a respite from centuries of it being the other way around.
So describing Strasbourg as an “ugly ducking city” isn’t quite correct. At the end of the fairy tale, the ugly ducking finds itself in a happy family of swans. Strasborug, however, finds itself making happy families of storks.
That night I couldn’t sleep because I was trying to figure out how to say the preceding paragraph, so I left Michael sleeping in the hostel and I ventured out onto the streets of Strasbourg alone. Travelling through Asia really makes you appreciate the beauty of European cities. Whilst Asian cities are not without their charm – they’re always colourful, vibrant and exciting – they’re rarely as elegant or splendid as their European equivalents. But maybe that’s just my Occidental perspective. Do eastern folk come to Europe and think the same thing, that our cities lack the beauty of theirs? There is, after all, a hotline for Japanese tourists to call when they need to deal with the disappointment of Paris. “Paris Syndrome” is also said to afflict a few of the million Chinese visitors to Paris every year.
I spent the night walking through the silent streets trying to absorb as much of the scenery as my memory would allow. I walked to the Gothic cathedral, reputed to be the highest medieval building in Europe. I couldn’t go in, of course, it was closed at this hour, but I knew what was inside. Strasbourg Cathedral is home a mechanical, astronomical clock, built in 1842. The clock depicts the different stages of life different ages of life, personified by a child, a teenager, an adult and an old man, who all parade past Death. I looked at my watch, it was just before 3am on the 100th day of The Rich Mike Hitchhike and a great sadness came over me.