Strasbourg | A Good Man of Snow

Strasbourg is quilted with snow. We were supposed to go hiking in the mountains yesterday, and we got up early to dress ourselves in layer upon layer of old ski gear. When we got to the train station, however, we found our train cancelled due to some trees having collapsed onto the tracks.

I was secretly thrilled at this news, as my snow boots—kindly donated by Jeanne’s dad—had already rubbed my ankles to raw blisters after the one kilometre walk to the station. I hadn’t made a fuss at the time, as I hadn’t wanted to seem like a fanny. Not wanting to seem like a fanny has given me a lot of grief over the years, from soaring backwards down an Indian motorway on the back of a motorcycle, to watching a man take a dump in the bathroom of a Berlin flat party.

In this case, had the trains been running, not wanting to seem a fanny would have found me embarked on a four-hour alpine trek through knee-high snow, my shrieks and groans of pain ricocheting off the mountainside and bringing down a succession of increasingly severe avalanches.

After getting our refund from the lady in the train station ticket booth, Jeanne and I mooched back through the town centre, seeking out areas we guessed would be picturesque in the snow. The neighbourhood of Petite France was, as always, stunning and quaint and whimsical. We headed over to the usually charming Grand Rue next, yet found it disappointingly slushy and oddly pungent.

Grand Rue is one long, slim, pedestrianised street that takes you from the train station to the cathedral (more or less). Along its cobbles, during happier, less diseased times, you will find a hundred bars and restaurants and cafes, each with seats outside, each with striped awnings and flickering candles, hanging clouds of cigar smoke, and waiters in black ties ferrying trays of wine. The first time I saw it, back in December 2018, my eyes popped from my skull.

“This is very pretty,” I said to Jeanne, as I picked them up off the floor and dusted them off before prodding them back in.

It always makes me chuckle that Grand Rue, which sounds so very lovely to English ears, translates literally as ‘Big Street’. In English we have separate words for something of uncommonly large size and something of impressive character: ‘big’ and ‘grand’. In French they just have ‘grand’. In the French imagination, Manhattan is home to the somewhat less imposing ‘Big Central Station’, and the Grand Old Duke of York is reduced to a lanky pensioner.

We followed the river home, eventually, and found Rue de Bitche a warzone. We live in a primarily Jewish area close to a giant synagogue, and the streets as we approached our apartment building were filled with children in puffer jackets and kippahs pelting one another with snowballs. The air was thick with the drifting powder left by criss-crossing shells, and cheers and yelps rang out as shots exploded against unsuspecting foreheads.

I felt it would be unmanly to cower and scrabble for cover behind nearby vehicles, and so I did what every adult in the vicinity was doing: walked at a steady pace through the chaos, my head held high, avoiding eye contact lest one of the children decide that the blonde-haired man mincing painfully down the street in the too-small snow boots would make a good target. I wasn’t sure what my plan was should I take an uninvited snowball to the nose: would I retaliate with a soft little snowball of my own? Would I laugh, amiably, while spitting out the gravel and ice in my teeth? Or would I see red, tearing off my woolly hat and slinging it into the gutter, bellowing ‘ENOUGH’ and silencing the street? You really don’t know how you’ll react in these situations until it happens.

Fortunately nobody wanged snow in my mush, so I never had to find out.

After a coffee back at the apartment, Jeanne and I headed out once more into the white, this time bound for Parc de l’Orangerie. I often go to the park for walks; it’s very stately and calm, and a lovely place to be alone with the plants. With its gentle lake and elegant, broad pathways lit by old-fashioned streetlamps, it reminds me of a Monet painting.

I’d expected another battlefield, but we found the park curiously tranquil. We realised, soon after, that the earlier skirmish we had navigated was during lunch hour, and presently all of Strasbourg’s children were back in school—which meant we had vast fields of untrodden snow to ourselves, up to half a foot deep in some places. We found a good spot, took a couple of beers from Jeanne’s backpack and planted them in the snow to chill, and got to work building our snowman.

Snowball in French is ‘boule de neige’, or ‘ball of snow’ literally. Snowman in French is ‘bonhomme de neige’,  which literally translates to ‘good man of snow’, for some reason. I asked Jeanne why snowmen had to be good, but she had no satisfactory explanation.

For the first time in perhaps ten years, I began rolling a snowball. It was hard work; the snow had fallen overnight, and although it was deep, it had already melted to the point where it didn’t easily roll up. After shoving my pathetic melon-sized snow torso around the field for a hundred metres, I found it had increased in mass by perhaps eight grams. Instead, we were forced to simply whap clumps of snow onto the icy spheres, massaging them constantly to maintain a firm core. It was hard work, and I found myself sweating cobs within the first twenty minutes.

An hour passed, during which I painstakingly grew my ball, periodically rolling it around the field despite it not making a jot of difference, so I could at least imagine I was the cute, mitted kid out of The Snowman. Humming Aled Jones to myself, I finally finished the first ball, and plonked it in the centre of the field. To keep it steady, I piled extra snow around the bottom, turning it into a sort of dense snow-pyramid.

After a beer break, Jeanne rolled the head while I worked on the torso. I had less patience this time, and badly misjudged the proportions. After the graft it took for the leg ball, the torso ball was rushed, and around a third of the size. Consequently our bonhomme de neige morphed very quickly into a bonfemme de neige, one that uncannily resembled Queen Victoria.

The head, when it was finally added, was similarly misjudged; correct in height, but horrifyingly gaunt, as though our poor snowperson had been finally released from a prisoner of war camp following a harsh winter. Seeking to compensate for her macabre features, I added a couple of old conker shells for eyes, twigs for arms, and a short, fat stick for a nose. As I finishing touch, I took the pink cap of Jeanne’s beer bottle and pressed into position for a pouty little mouth.

“There,” I said, standing back, hands on hips.

“No way,” said Jeanne.

“Eh?”

“It’s disgusting.”

“Eh?!”

“The mouth makes it look like a sex doll.”

I frowned, and removed the bottle cap. She had a point.

It was at this point that we noticed we were being filmed. Jeanne saw them first, nudging me and pointing to the treeline, twenty metres away.

“Just ignore them, I don’t want to talk to them, it’s too embarrassing,” she murmured.

“Talk to who? What?”

But it was too late: a film crew bore down upon us, bidding us hello, swooping their camera up into our faces, panning around our Victorian-era snow-prostitute, zooming in on my trembling hands as I tried, unsuccessfully, to add a more wholesome twig-mouth. Jeanne gave them a brief interview, and then they were off, hurrying across the snow to film a happy screaming family hurling snowballs at one another beneath a pretty tree.

“What just happened?” I asked Jeanne.

“They said to tune into France Deux at eight this evening.”

Well, we forgot entirely to do that, however Jeanne’s parents called us at a quarter past. We’d been shown on the national news—watched by millions across the nation each evening—and both my sloppy snowman building and Jeanne’s interview had made the cut. We each watched the clip ten times over, feeling oddly accomplished.

“Well,” said Jeanne, “I think we made the most famous snowman in the country today.”

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