Strasbourg Thoughts/Pensées à Strasbourg

Today the news announced a fourth fatality from the Strasbourg shooting on Tuesday at the Marché de Noël. The victim, an Italian national in Strasbourg to cover the European Parliament, was well-known in media circles, freelancing content also for various radio stations. 

I spent a year in Strasbourg as a graduate student at l’USHS (Strasbourg II), l’Université des Sciences Humaines, in 1995-1996. I lived in a student residence east of the town center, close to the River Rhine and just north of Musau, on a side street called Quai du Bruckhof. The residence was the Cité Universitaire Alfred Weiss. I was almost the only American who lived there. The CUA Weiss, in its social shorthand, was an Erasmus hive of European citizens and laconic Brits, a handful of younger French students who hadn’t managed to get in anywhere better (for example, on the Esplanade, or in Gallia, much fancier hubs of student life), and a large number of Muslim students, French nationals and otherwise, from Algeria, Sénégal, Tunisia, and more.

The year in Strasbourg was difficult for many reasons. I was young, and working off my naïveté. I had been lucky enough to have been fairly well traveled at that point, and to have experienced some success at localizing myself in northwestern Spain in 1993, but my immature brain was more given to well-rewarded impulse and perceived injury abroad. My French was not great, but quickly improved. My classes were difficult, and the source of no end of affronts to my previous healthy academic ego. The harsh water in CUA Weiss had given my complexion the mien of a Welsh coal miner. Perhaps most delicately of all, it was my first time to live in a community so diverse and divided. My time the summer before in Washington D.C. had given me nothing to compare; Americans were by and large accepting, especially in that metropolis. Spain had nothing on France in those years in terms of diversity.

Strasbourg, as the seat of the European Parliament, was a center for European elite, the MEPs and their support staff, and the small economy that revolved around them. The French population that was not affiliated with the European Parliament were bourgeois and confortable, pursuing their careers and family lives well-wrapped and well-fed, in my mind still bearing the invisible scars from the years of conflict and confusion between 1870 and 1944. There was a significant university population, and the prestige of the university throughout Europe ensured that student enrollments both domestic and international were quite high. Finally, a significant portion of the population were blue-collar workers and disenfrachised immigrants, drawn to the thrumming economy but experiencing little success in finding or creating a niche for themselves. Largely due to the geographic location of CUA Weiss, I became familiar with each of these groups because we had to take the city bus into campus (the #7 or the #30) from the far eastern part of town. 

Again, my personal contact with Muslims in Europe at that point had been very limited. In Spain in 1993, one lone student from Morocco had once invited me, along with a handful of Germans, to his apartment, which was covered in maroon patterned rugs and full of light. He made us all Moroccan tea with plenty of sugar as we calmly conversed in Spanish. I remember at the time as a teenager feeling out of my element and in the presence of an Other about whom I had heard so much in the news in the US, but whom I had never met personally. (I also still have a picture of myself in front of publicity for a Young Communist convention in Salamanca that same year, so amused was I after all my years in Oklahoma that such an event would be viewed as as pedestrian in nature as a Moose Lodge potluck.)

The Muslims in Strasbourg in CUA Weiss were by and large an affable crowd. One in particular, a young man from Sénégal named Lamine had taken me under his wing. He lived on my floor and must have been at least six and a half feet tall, with a wide smile full of bright teeth and an easy manner. In my first month in the résidence, I had yet to make a healthy measure of new friends, and Lamine took great concern for my well-being, routinely inviting me to eat dinner of chicken and rice with him, followed by tea. Lamine was a consistent, if limited, cook, and I remember I had none of the trepidation in his company that I had felt, if fleetingly, in the apartment of the Moroccan a couple years before. Lamine was my entrée to friendships with many of the Africans and Afro-Français in CUA Weiss that year. But I noted with interest how the Maghreb students kept to themselves, and the Sub-Saharan African students seemed to not mind. I had a fair number of Muslim and international classmates in my courses in l’USHS. We shared a common university culture. 

However, riding the city buses was another type of education entirely. Never before had my privilege and skin color been cast into such high relief for me socially. It was my first experience with being lumped into a group based on my outward appearance in a way that played out so uncomfortably almost every day on the bus. It went like this: I would get on the bus, either alone or with another international student, and find a seat. The bus would go one or two stops. The Africans in the back would begin shouting things like, “Il y a des racistes dans le bus!” (There are racists on the bus), probably because a. we were white and b. we looked alarmed/uncomfortable being shouted at on the bus, in a language we understood, and with which they meant to insult us. I would try to ignore them until the bus pulled into the stop on the Esplanade and I would get off to go to class. I never knew what to do with the hard knot in my stomach after these bus rides. There was no debrief, and I had no better coping strategy. I had to ride the bus each day, and the same people would be on the bus with me, and would shout these tings at me, and I would cower and say nothing. 

There was significant social unrest in Strasbourg that year. The French were even more guarded than usual, the immigrants were angry, the European Parliament professionals felt little concern as the city was not really their home; they simply came and went like a political tide with the legislative sessions. The Strasbourg bus drivers had become such a target of violence when driving through the poorer immigrant neighborhoods that bulletproof plexiglass was installed around their drivers’ seats. I vaguely remember an incident in the Musau when a gun was pulled on a bus driver, or a driver was maybe even shot. There might have been a pipe bomb. A bus might have been turned over and burned out. 

This was a daily feature of my life in Strasbourg. I had very little private space, between CUA Weiss, the public transportation, and the university realm, and I had to relearn my social code – I kept my eyes down, I read a book in public, I did not engage with strangers, I did not smile at people. It was exhausting. I had made by that time one good French friend whom I trusted. She said the social unrest was uncomfortable for French people too, but perhaps because I stood out as a foreigner also I was an easier target for public harassment. One night Séverine invited me to dinner at her apartment with a collection of other international people. We began to talk about how it felt to live in Strasbourg, and Canadian man in his thirties said, “I have never felt so aggressed in my life as I have living in Strasbourg.” A light went off in my mind, for the sentiment as much as the useful verb. I felt aggressed.

I also understood the history, and how the immigrants had come to live in Strasbourg and in France, and their anger at the barriers they experienced to both belonging and economic success. But I could not deny that my privilege and my ability to simply depart Strasbourg at the end of my exchange year was not an option for the young Maghreb men.

As an interesting cultural counterpoint, Strasbourg is also home to a significant Orthodox Jewish community that has been in place for centuries, if reduced in size in the twentieth century. Their réstaurant universitaire, Stift, was acknowledged to be the best in town, and we went as a group to dine there a handful of times, family-style with silver platters and spoons, the food delicious. The library was full of them, in talit and kippeh, eyeing female students with nervous apprehension. Once when I was there studying, a ginger boy with a ton of nervous energy trained a side eye on me until he saw that my scarf had accidentally dropped to the the floor. “Mademoiselle, vous avez laissé tomber votre … truc,” (Miss, you have let your … thing drop) he said, offering it back to me with shaking hands.  

I am sure that in Strasbourg I came into contact with social groups that never came into touch with each other. And as a Anglo, non-native francophone, things were said to me in public that would not have dared been said to French nationals. I gained a unique perspective on the fracture in that society and its fault lines, both then and now. The stress of living in Strasbourg characterized my memories of the city, and I felt little fondness for it. In fact I have not been back since I saw the spire of the cathedral from the back window of the bus as we rolled out and away in June of 1996. So when the news came out on Tuesday of the shooting, I was unsurprised, neither at the event itself nor at the reactions of the locals (“We know it would happen here; it was just a question of when.”) 

The murderer, Cherif Chekatt, had been a child in Strasbourg the same years I was there. He perhaps saw the same news I did about the buses, the Musau, the drivers, the pipe bombs, the burned-out bus. He had been known to law enforcement since he was 13. It is heartbreaking that the seeds of events are planted deeply in the years before, and they grow inexorably toward their conclusion.

Strasbourg’s Christmas market. I went here at least 15 times in 1995.

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