During my mid-semseter break, I decided not to stay in Tours, but to make the most of my week off by visiting the family of a friend in Alsace. This was fantastic, not only because I found myself submerged in French, but also because it gave me the opportunity to spend some time discovering a very different region.
Alsace is an interesting region of France as it has a unique history that has led to a distinct identity. Although France has not always existed as a nation, the early kingdoms of France did not include Alsace within it’s borders. Alsace has often been considered as a “no-mans land” between France, Germany and at some periods in history, Switzerland. In times of peace, this has been a useful trait as it allowed Alsace to offer unique taxes that encouraged import and export between the two countries. In times of war, however, this meant that Alsace was considered open territory, and suffered many invasions.
In the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, the control of Alsace shifted multiple times between the France and Germany. This has had lasting impacts on the concept of identity: children being forced to speak French in school, after their parents were forced to learn German… Being classed as undeniably ‘French’ by the Germans and undeniably ‘German’ by the French… During WWII, having brothers fighting on opposite sides…
The impact of the terrors of WWII, along with the difficult history proceeding it, is still raw here. During our short stay, Priska, my friend’s aunt, talked to us about the painful history of Alsace and the loss of the Alsatian language (classed as a variation of Low Alemannic German) as people try to forget the links to the horrors of WWII which have often come to be associated with Germany, especially for the older generations who struggle to let go of their bitterness. She tells me that whilst her husband can speak fluent Alsatian, whereas she can only follow a conversation, and jokes are often over her head. As for their (adult) children, they neither hear nor speak Alsatian, and her grand children are barely exposed to it at all. Nevertheless, the language remains an important symbol of the region’s autonomy, and is still present in the naming of street signs, in the production of local plays and concerts, and among the older generations.
During the holiday, we watched a television series called Les Deux Mathildes or ‘The Two Matildas’, which follows an Alsatian family through the difficulties of the past two centuries. As much as it was only a representation, the series was very moving to watch, especially knowing that everyone in the room, aside from me, was a product of this complex past.
I also picked a book off the shelf to read in the evenings before dinner, which happened to be written by a local historian. It detailed the history of Alsace from the pre-Roman times right through to the modern age. Even so, reading the facts did little to help me truly understand their consequences on the lives of the people of Alsace, and it was through watching and listening that I learnt the most. I feel very privileged to have had this glimpse into these people’s lives and to have heard them talk about their history, a history so different from my own.