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Sketches of France: Colmar

From out of nowhere the beer appeared on the table in front of me. Only the blur of a retracting hand flashed by my left shoulder. The pale, bubbling liquid was topped by a high white foam and filled a larger than expected pilsner glass. A few beads of sweat formed on the outside of the glass but there wasn’t much moisture in the air to condense on it. Warm spots of dappled sun danced on my face through the lightly blowing leaves overhead. Gianna made waving gestures with her hands and flashed big silent smiles toward a baby looking over her mother’s shoulder. After each of Gigi’s engagements the baby would laugh and jerk her arms excitedly, sending her sippy cup tumbling to the ground. Each time the cup fell Bobby would jump off his tall chair at the end of the table and gently place the cup back in her hands.

The beer-garden-style tables that stretched far into the square were nearly fully occupied, and I was thankful we procured one of our own. Two large retractable awnings overhead diffused the direct sunlight into a soft bathing glow. There was a low but lively murmur generated by sunglass-clad patrons who sipped from the giant beer glasses and delicate green-stemmed wine glasses that resembled translucent plants. Not a glass of red wine was to be found. There appeared to be an even mix of locals and tourists, representing all ages and all rode the same convivial wave. Contributing to the auditory ambience the sounds of a gently-babbling brook emanated from the recessed river below the cutout cobblestone street beside our table. The protective iron railings that lined it supported baskets of overflowing white, purple and pink vining petunias. Splashes of both time-weathered earth tones and bright pastels could be seen throughout the irregular square. Surrounding us in the distance was a wall of monolithic medieval, timber-framed buildings. While sharing a common species, each was as individualistic as the faces on the patio. Their magnificent facades were lovingly adorned with intricate murals, curly signage, swelling flower boxes and elaborate custom decorations that dressed the buildings up as if beautified with jewelry or costume. As a whole, it was hard to distinguish France from Germany here. Like a great fresh-water river meeting a salt water sea in the estuary that is Colmar.

Could this really be my impression of Colmar? I was getting whiplash from the roller coaster of emotions since leaving Burgundy, and I hoped to get off soon. The environment shared almost nothing with the serene places we’d already been, but for some reason it was more than agreeable to me. Basking in the charm of the warming setting I went so far as to wonder if I was in the midst of discovering another European happy place. I had acquired a handful over the years, the top ones in Prague; The cafe patio on Petrin hill with sweeping views of the tinker-toy city and river below; Sitting on a wall in front of Prague castle, above the vertical climbing gardens and red-tile roofs of Mala Strana. Was Colmar about to be written into the annals of such distinguished company?

Colmar is not your average medieval village. It was the capital of a long-autonomous, small-scale Hanseatic-like trading network specializing in the distribution of wine. This meant it was able to evolve and thrive on its own divergent path. Instead of rule from a king, a council of merchants managed the city. Instead of royal palaces and defensive walls and castles, grand merchants’ homes pepper the center and remind passersby that this wealth was earned not summoned. Instead of civic buildings and a town hall on planned squares, a magnificent Customs House sits at the center of town. Instead of being reserved for nobility this building was made to welcome those who wished to do business. Large rounded doorways grace the ground floor making room for horse drawn wagons to enter with trade goods, and a grand staircase leads to a meeting room where leading merchants of the participating municipalities would gather and negotiate trade relations. Palm trees and vibrant roof tiles adorn the building and attest to its great wealth and golden age. To me it was about as unusual a complex as I’ve seen. May I be forgiven if I inaccurately state it’s of more exotic construction, taking inspiration from faraway lands.

After an unreasonably long time, the hand returned. But I didn’t care because I was comfortable resting on the bench, so long as my glass remained filled. This time, however, the hand brought with it a waiter and lovely plates of wondrous and foreign food. Before me sat a tarte flambee. Often called Alsatian pizza it actually shares little resemblance beyond appearance. The sour flavor of cream was its foundation and it was topped with fresh Alsatian cheese and local seasonal ingredients. With a heavy clunk, a plate fell in front of Amanada. An Alsatian staple. A caveman-sized-hunk of ham, the Alsatian cream on the side that tasted of artichokes, a wedge of gooey cheese and roasted potatoes. The kids had the children’s menu. Alsatian sausages, very similar to hot dogs, spaetzle, German egg noodles, and roasted potatoes. Following the food came a refill for me. For the first time beer felt as appropriate a drink as wine, and it was quite good. The Alsatian options of pression, or draft beer, are usually a house blonde graced with the present town’s name and one or two darker varieties.

After a long dinner we were all ready to get up and move. The children burst into the square like terrorizing barbarians. We were able to tame them with the bait of an ice cream shop. One-by-one they emerged, each with a cone in hand. Too focused on the brightly colored ice cream and not on his feet, Bobby missed the step and the cone smashed into his nose. Recoiling, his hand thrust down, flinging the scoop of ice cream from the cone into a splattered melting pile on the cobblestones in front of him. We all gave an instinctual burst of laughter. With ice cream on his nose and trauma on his face he stared down at the ice cream at his feet. For a moment I braced for the tears but to my surprise he instead joined in the laughter, gave a shrug and proceeded to focus on the second scoop remaining on the cone as if nothing happened.

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