Friday, 14 September 2012

Strange encounter in a little town in Alsace

It wasn't an easy drive back from England this time.  Last year we drove  from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Pietrasanta in Italy in one long day;  this year it took two.  The weather in northern Europe was at its most disruptive - we drove through cloudbursts and thunderstorms and in between it just rained.  Heavy traffic, spray......   very tiring to drive through.  So we stopped in Alsace, in the south-eastern corner of France between Germany and Switzerland, on the edge of the Vosges mountains - an area we haven't explored before.  It was spectacularly beautiful, if a little too manicured.  I like my history rough at the edges.  But the wine and the food were good, the hotel cheap, and the people friendly.  Wonderful vignettes of wooded hills with ruined castles perched on the top, faded in and out of the mist.  We must go back one day for a proper look.   This was Ribeauville, where we stayed.


We were both overtired.  We took the luggage out of the car and Neil put a suitcase down to lock the doors, then spotted a better parking slot.  He got into the car, forgot the suitcase and was beginning to reverse out, when a man began shouting to him in French and gesticulating through the window.  Suitcase saved from extinction!   Later, as we sat at a table outside one of the little bars in the old town, the man walked past with his wife.  We thanked him in pidgin French, all over again, and we had a short conversation before he said, 'Are you by any chance English?'  'Yes,' we replied, still in French.  'Then why aren't we speaking English?'  he asked laughing.   Clearly American.   We invited them both to have a drink with us (only fair since he saved my suitcase) and began to chat.  Their names were Art and Nori Mattson and they were on a motorcycling holiday, all the way from New York.  Then, when we began, cautiously, to probe what we all 'did', it transpired that he was also an author, writing books on maritime and local history.  His most recent book is about the wreck of the Mexico off the shores of Long Island - a scandalous shipwreck, where people stood on the shore and watched more than a hundred Irish immigrants (mostly women and children) freeze to death on the deck.  The crew had already abandoned ship in the only rescue boat. It was such an infamous story that Walt Whitman wrote a poem about it (Sleepers, Leaves of Grass) and several painters painted it.

The book is called Water and Ice and  Art is now working on a novel based on the story.   I'm always astounded by the courage and suffering of early migrants.  Many of my Irish family went to America and I often wonder how many of them actually made it.  They risked their lives for a better way of life, just as migrants from the African continent are doing now - arriving in sinking vessels, without any guarantee of a welcome, never mind a job or a roof over their heads.    I've downloaded Art's book and am looking forward to reading about the Wreck of the Mexico. But what amazing serendipity to bump into another author on a foreign street like that?

3 comments:

  1. A lovely serendipitous tale, Kathleen. I don't know if you ever listen to the wonderful Pogues, but they have a very poignant song called "Thousands are Sailing" about the Irish migrants sailing to America and the hardships they faced.

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  2. Yes Ben, I like the Pogues, but don't think I know that song. Will look it up. The wonders of the internet and ITunes!

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  3. That is a lovely coincidence!

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