Sometime during my early high school years, or perhaps even a bit earlier, my mother began collecting models for a Christmas Village collection. I believe at the time my general attitude was disinterest at best, if not outright mockery. I love my mother deeply, but this seemed like a very silly hobby to me. I remember doing my best to feign excitement over the purchase of a pair of figurines ice skating and a new lamppost (in fact, this last piece reminded me of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, so I wasn’t completely faking my appreciation). Of course, I conveniently missed any comparisons this might have had to my collection of Warhammer figures (I am embarrassed and completely tickled to admit it), and my long evenings spent painting miniature knights and elves in order to do battle with my dorky friends. Since that time, the Christmas Village has grown at varying rates, and every year my mother dutifully and happily displays it on the mantle above our fireplace. Against my will, it became something of fixture in my experience of the holidays.
Then a few years ago I moved to Strasbourg in the east of France with hardly even a glance at a tourist guide, never guessing what I would find, and knowing little more than the fact that I would be just a few kilometers from the French border with Germany. Within minutes of arriving, I was struck by an uncanny experience—dragging my overstuffed suitcases behind me, I found myself walking through a life-sized version of my mother’s Christmas Village. Now granted, her models were more Dickensian than Alsatian, but even so, all around me I saw timber-framed houses with narrow windows and steep gables covered in terra cotta tiles and with open galleries on the upper floors that looked out on the cobblestone road. All I could think of was Christmastime and Christmas carols and good tidings to all. I had a sudden urge for eggnog and stop-motion reindeer. Even in September it was cheery, and all that was missing was the snow.
While one of the highest concentrations of timber-framed houses in Europe happens to be in Alsace, not all of Strasbourg looks like this. The neighborhood where I found myself gawking in surprise at a sudden reminder of home is called La Petite France, and it is remarkable for its density of traditional Alsatian architecture in a city also known for its unusual mixture of art nouveau, German Imperial, and early modernist facades. As a result, in recent times La Petite France has become one of the most heavily frequented tourist areas in Strasbourg, known for its unrivaled quaintness. The city as a whole is, as it were, also known as the “Capital of Christmas,” and the annual Christkindelsmärik (Alsatian for “Christmas Market”) draws an extra million tourists in December, many of whom delight in the opportunity to walk through La Petite France for the very same reason that I was gob-smacked upon arrival—so as to experience a living, breathing Christmas Village in full scale, complete with a steaming cup of glühwein, a tarte flambée baguette, and a bowl full of tangy choucroute (sauerkraut).
The history of the neighborhood is, however, more colorful than any Christmas display, and many thousand times more sordid. One of the first facts a newcomer learns here is about the origins of its name. Apparently it was inspired by a hospice built in the fifteenth century to house soldiers with syphilis, known at the time as the “French disease,” (and it should be noted that to Alsatians in the fifteenth century—and to some degree even now—“French” was foreign). In fact, La Petite France was anything but a desirable neighborhood for most of the medieval and early modern era, and not only due to the high risk of contagion. Besides its ward of sick soldiers, it was also home to the tanneries and slaughterhouses of the city, and the network of picturesque canals which add to today’s touristic appeal were at one time foul-smelling conduits full of all the byproducts and runoff these twin industries had to offer. Likewise, the much admired buildings of La Petite France take their distinct character in part from their original functions. Many of the old buildings still feature wide, sloping openings in their roofs, which may appear to be simply another kind of window, but which were designed for hanging animal skins and sheets of leather out to dry. If we could sum up what La Petite France was like in the past, it would probably be best expressed with a vile odor.
And yet today the neighborhood is idealized, despite its origins, and despite the fact that the lives led there were probably difficult, short, and in frequent contact with death, even into the modern era. It’s a funny trick of modern nostalgia, not just that we wish for a golden age that never was, but that we can look on the very structures of our difficult history, the physical remnants of our past, and turn them into a magical fairyland empty of any pain. I mean to say, if we can Disney-fy a neighborhood named after the victims of sexually transmitted diseases, surely there isn’t much that we can’t transform into fantasy. It’s just like my mother’s Christmas Village, where, against all expectations, we are able to use the adjective “Dickensian” to mean something other than what is related to poverty and squalor.
Which is not to say that my mother or anyone else who visits La Petite France is a fool for feeling some magic in the air. It truly is beautiful, and I personally enjoy walking down the narrow alleyways late on a cold winter’s night, preferably with a cup of glühwein. But it is worth questioning what leads to the preservation and admiration for the buildings (specifically, though among other things) once relegated to the unfortunate or, at best, the working class. (Strictly speaking, the artisans of late medieval Strasbourg were well-off compared to peasants working the local spelt fields, but of course the majority of the people in the tanneries at the time would have been laborers rather than skilled craftsmen.)
Of course, we might guess that it comes from that affluent search for authenticity that leads so many people to idealize the less fortunate and adapt what they perceive as being “real” and “true” postures (think of the moneyed youth of the American South who spend vast sums to portray themselves as Good Ol’ Boys, or the countless waves of fashion that claim some kind of so-called “peasant” or “indigenous” inspiration). And yet this phenomenon doesn’t seem to have to do with some perceived authenticity, in particular since there’s no attempt to hide a certain degree of splendor.
Though it is naturally quite different, I am reminded of Verandah Place in Brooklyn, a block known as the former home of novelist Tom Wolfe and considered one of the most desirable residential streets in New York, the buildings of which are all former livery stables and servants’ quarters. I often used to make a point of walking down that block on my way home from work, partly out of fascination and partly out of envy, and it was difficult not to sense the wealth of the current inhabitants. Luxury cars would appear from the occasional garage, and designer strollers would roll out the front doors of the homes. This wasn’t the aristocracy playing at being working class; this was just straight up wealth. As a lowly public school teacher, I always felt myself to be trespassing where once only servants used to tread.
La Petite France is not quite as oriented toward wealth and luxury, though. The restaurants are (mostly) traditional rather than chic, with kitsch as much the selling point as the food. And the people who come to gaze at the cobbled streets and pitched roofs are from all classes, or at least all who are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy a bit of tourism. Sure, the collective goal of the residents and resident merchants might be described as to profit from the historical architecture, but nothing about it smacks of people getting filthy rich (there are other neighborhoods in Strasbourg for that). Mostly, it just seems to be an old quarter particularly good at making people forget where they are and where they come from. In fact, in that sense it doesn’t much resemble the products of Disney imagineers. Rather, it seems like what Hayao Miyazaki might have dreamt up if he had been born European. As in Spirited Away, we arrive in La Petite France to help ourselves to the food, to forget our pasts, and fail to recognize we’re surrounded by spirits.