Being an English language assistant gives you insight into a new culture. Laura Leichtfried, a language assistant in Alsace, France, tells us about the region.
Alsace is a region in north-eastern France that borders Switzerland and Germany. In fact, it is so close to Germany that you can travel by tram from the regional capital Strasbourg, to Kehl, the nearest German city, in just 15 minutes. Although Alsace is part of France, its borders have not always been clear. The region has been passed between French and German control several times since 1681, when Strasbourg was conquered by French forces.
As a result, Alsatian culture is a unique mix of French and German influences. Here are a few things you might not know about the region.
1. Alsace is not Germany, but not quite France either
The relationship between Alsace and the rest of France remains complex to this day. In 2011, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made an awkward slip when he commented on being in Germany, when he was actually in the Alsatian town of Truchtersheim.
Even though Alsace is part of France, it is sometimes perceived as a cultural exception, in part due to its long periods spent under German influence. In 1871, Alsace was annexed to the new German Empire following its victory in the Franco-Prussian War. The occupation lasted until 1918 when, after Germany's defeat in the First World War, the region was ceded to France under the Treaty of Versailles. The region was then occupied once by Germany during the Second World War. During this time, people from Alsace were made German citizens by decree from the Nazi government. A complex history to say the least.
2. Almost half of the regional population speaks Alsatian
Alsatian is a Germanic dialect spoken in Alsace. Even though the French government forbade the use of Germanic languages in schools in 1945, the dialect saw something of a revival in the 1970s when a number of independent movements fought against the state's crackdown on regional languages.
In 1985, Alsatian was recognised as one of the country’s regional languages and, in 1999, the national statistical agency counted 548,000 adult speakers in France, making it the second most-spoken regional language in the country after Occitan, which is spoken in southern France and Monaco.
I knew very little about Alsatian before arriving in Strasbourg. The first time I came across it was on my first few walks around the city, when I noticed that most roads had two names – one in French and the other in Alsatian. This duality is also present in the names of certain tram stops, such as Langstross/Grand Rue, where the French translation follows the Alsatian, which is arguably more recognisable.
Although I have been told by almost every French person I’ve met in Strasbourg that it is only the older generations who speak Alsatian fluently, many Alsatian words have made their way into young people’s everyday vocabulary. For example, I first learned the word 's’gilt', which means 'cheers', at a wine-tasting in the village of Obernai, and have since heard it used by both young and older people in bars in Strasbourg.
3. Alsatian is influenced by French and German, and isn't just spoken in Alsace
Alsatian plays with German and French words and can sometimes be a combination of the two. You can say 'ça geht's?' to your friends when you see them, which is a direct mixture of 'ça va?' in French and 'wie geht's?' in German, to mean 'how are you?'. I also learnt that if someone drinks a few too many blanches (wheat beers), they might quickly develop a 'beer buche', or beer belly to you and me.
A fun fact is that Alsatian is still spoken by some Amish people in the state of Indiana in the US, who emigrated from the region in the 1830s.
4. Alsatian cuisine is neither completely French nor German
To me, the best part of any new culture is the food, and Alsatian cuisine is one of my favourites. It is notoriously heavy, as it features potatoes and spaetzle, a Germanic mini-pasta, as its main carbohydrate, often served with meat, cheese and cream.
Perhaps the most famous dish of the region is choucroute – sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage, eaten with a selection of pork-based meats, such as knacks (a sausage typical of the region), smoked pork, salt pork and back bacon. Another popular dish is tarte flambée, also called flammekueche, which is composed of dough, similar to that of a pizza, rolled out very thin and topped with crème fraiche, sliced onions and lardons (cubes of fatty pork). Tarte flambée can also come as a dessert, with toppings like banana and Nutella or apple, cinnamon and Calvados (apple brandy).
Although many traditional Alsatian dishes contain pork, I have made many vegetarian friends in Strasbourg and they manage relatively well to find food that suits them. For vegetarians, there is always the option of cheese (Alsatians are partial to a good Munster, a very strong but tasty cheese with an odour that will take over your fridge) with potatoes in a gratin form or with spaetzle.
For those with a sweeter tooth, at Christmas time you can find many different types of bredele (traditional Alsatian biscuits) in a variety of flavours and shapes such as cinnamon stars, almond swirls and, my personal favourite, vanilla biscuits with a jam centre. You should also look out for the many different flavours of pain d'épices, or gingerbread.
Another Christmas tradition takes place on 6 December, St Nicholas's Day. Alsatian children eat a manala, which is a brioche (enriched sweet bread) in the shape of a little man. If you have been good, you receive a manala. Dare to be bad, and you may end up with a lump of coal.
Alsace is the only region in France to celebrate 26 December as a public holiday, a tradition inherited from their time as part of Germany.
5. Alsace is deeply attached to its cultural traditions
You cannot miss the famous emblem of Alsace: the stork, or 'cigogne', which is native to the region and is thought to be a symbol of fertility, as well as bringing good luck. The bird itself can occasionally be glimpsed flying around, or in the small zoo in the Orangerie park in Strasbourg. You are, however, most likely to see it in the form of tourist memorabilia – from stork key rings to stork hats, handmade artisan pottery with storks painted on them or stork-shaped soft toys. I am even the proud owner of a stork hat.
Strasbourg is very proud of its pottery. Each piece is hand-painted with beautiful flowers, timber houses or people in traditional Alsatian dress. The pottery is made to withstand extremely high temperatures in the oven. You can buy cake tins for making kougelhopf (a traditional, dense cake with a hole in the middle) and casserole dishes, in which to cook typical Alsatian dishes like baeckoeffe, a substantial casserole made with a mix of sliced potatoes, onions, mutton, beef and pork.
6. Alsatian wines are some of the best in France
The regional wine of Alsace is almost always white, due to the cooler climate. My personal favourite is Crémant d’Alsace, an Alsatian sparkling wine, which is just as good, if not better, than champagne (although it cannot strictly be called champagne as it isn’t produced in the Champagne region of France). Other famous types of Alsatian wine include Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. A dinner party is never complete without a dessert wine such as Gewürztraminer to finish off the meal. S’gilt!
Laura took part in the English Language Assistants programme. Every year, around 2,500 language assistants from the UK support the teaching of English around the world.