Dear fellow travellers
Return to Wissembourg
It can be dangerous to search for fragments amid the stony wasteland of memory. I tried it this week. Friends counselled caution. "No, don't go back to Wissembourg," they said, suggesting that the town might have changed beyond recognition. But return I did. A chance to clutch a few roots, explore how much Wissembourg (or I) might have altered since I was last in the place.
Time had invested Wissembourg with a hefty symbolism - perhaps too big a burden for the small town to bear. I was just a teenager, young but not innocent, keen to travel. So I cycled, and the border from Germany to France was the first that I crossed by bike. And Wissembourg was the very first place in France that I ever encountered - unconventionally entering the country by the back door.
I remembered that first visit to Wissembourg as a deluge of clichés - berets, pétanque and baguettes conspired to shape my perception of Wissembourg as the quintessential French town. Such is the impressionability of youth that I surely did not notice that a fair number of the locals spoke a dialect of German and that choucroute is just sauerkraut under another name. I was looking for difference, palpable evidence that I had cycled over an international frontier.
My inaugural French expedition was brief - just a couple of days in Wissembourg, then back to Germany. Although I have criss-crossed France endlessly in the years since, I never felt any special imperative to return to Wissembourg. Until this week. I walked over the border from Germany, wondering what shadows might rise to meet me as I wandered Wissembourg's streets. But ghosts there were none. Instead I found a rich landscape of memory: old men still playing pétanque by the town wall, that impressive red hôtel de ville flying the French tricolore and the twin towers of the parish church: one Romanesque and one Gothic. There was the smell of fresh coffee in cafés with fading lithographs on their walls, a couple of women enjoying a small glass of red wine at breakfast time and children splashing in the fountains.
The River Lauter bubbles happily through the town, nature is taking possession again of ancient ramparts where once the French kept watch for invaders and now this border town is a favoured destination for day trippers from Germany. But for me Wissembourg was the very embodiment of Gallic life, a fine introduction to a country that seemed deliciously foreign.
There was no rattling of bones, no difficult tussles with the past, in Wissembourg this week. I sensed merely the quiet sincerity of a small town that seems to know how to live well. And I found, just as I dared to hope, that Wissembourg is every bit as appealing as I felt it to be on that first visit so many years ago.
(editor, hidden europe)