In a corner of eastern France, there exists a unique culture that has evolved from two very different sources. I spend time with a local and friend who explains how the area developed its unique identity. Traveling with him, I see through his eyes how the region has retained its identity despite centuries of invasion, subjugation and an ever-changing world around it.
Jean-Claude Werner, the kind old man with the French first name and the German surname, looks out over the Vosges Mountains. The Black Forrest is in the distance. He can see into Germany. Squinting in the morning sun, he points eastward toward France’s old enemy.
“See how close we are? That’s how we developed our identity. One culture bled into the other over time.” Then he grins. “And we had plenty of time.”
The older gentleman exudes a certain poise; a polite geniality. It’s what one might describe as an “old-world” charm. He loves this Alsace, his home since birth. His bright eyes, easy smile and youthful energy belie a long life and some difficult experiences. It occurs to me that it parallels the traumatic past of his picturesque home, the French province of Alsace.
Jumping into his minivan, Jean-Claude shifts into drive and putters back down the hill and onto the main road. As he motors back toward his home near the town of Colmar, he passes by the lush, rolling vineyards which grow the grapes of France’s legendary Alsatian wine.
Aficionados from around the world come here to sample the local product. Sylvaner, Riesling, Muscat and Cremant d’Alsace are all celebrated wines of the region. Between tastings visitors cruise around the Route du Vin, the ninety mile loop lacing the region’s towns and vineyards together, admiring the picturesque villages nestled in the green hills.
Few of the visitors, however, take the time to speak to men like Jean-Claude and learn about the Alsatian community’s fascinating and complex history. If they did, they would be privileged to hear a story that is complicated, sometimes heartbreaking, but ultimately inspiring.
A few moments later, we stop at one such village, a tiny hamlet called Riquewihr. “I think this will help you understand what I’m talking about when I say ‘cultural hybrid,’” he says, hopping out of the minivan. “Come with me.”
We enter the quaint village, which appears to be straight out of a storybook. My host points to the rows of medieval houses along a crooked street. They provide a vivid reflection of how the essence of French and German culture was merged in Alsace. “See the half-timbering?” asks Jean-Claude. “That’s German. They used that building style in the Middle Ages.”
But there was something about the houses that didn’t quite fit. “Look at the window shutters,” he said. “They’re French. The influences of both cultures are reflected in the way people build. The mix of German half timber and French accents express how intertwined these cultures are in Alsace.”
He points to the little metal plates affixed to the timbers of the houses on the corner of the street. They bear the street names—in two languages. “The region changed hands so many times in the past millennium that the people decided it was safer to put up signs in both languages, rather than switch them constantly,” he says.
Approaching a small shop, he points to the old iron-wrought sign hanging above the door. It features German (Old Style script) and French language, as does almost every other merchant’s sign in the village. “Like the street signs,” he said. “The people never knew when the alternative would be needed on short notice.”
Ducking into the shop, he nearly bangs his head on the low wooden beams that still hold up the ancient ceiling. He greets the merchant with a hearty “allo,” and they chat for a moment. She is a short, stout woman in middle age. She has blonde hair and blue eyes. “This is Marie,” he tells me. “Marie Vogel. You see, even our names are hybridized.”