International Identities: Alsace and Baden-Württemberg

When I was a kid, I loved my mother’s historical atlas. She would sit with me on the couch and I would hold the book and flip through the maps, as told me stories of how the maps changed, over time. Moreover, she would tell me how these changes shaped the people who live in the areas the maps represented today.  My mother was a comparative literature major. She studied Irish theatre and French medieval literature. Somewhere in her studies, she got to the point where she has most of western history memorized.

In the German state of Baden-Württemberg, Freiburg is on the German side of the Rhine river, which begins in Switzerland, travels along the French and German boarder and ends in the North Sea. Alsace is on the French side of the Rhine and Basil sits where the French, German, and Swiss boarders meet. Right now, I am in Basel, seeing off my mom, who visited me last week. She tells me that Freiburg seems more “livable” (read has more modern conveniences mixed into the medieval city) than Strasbourg. I agree. She tells me that the man who checked her into her hotel/ apartment said that most of the city is newer, because it was bombed during World War II. This German city was not, however, bombed by the allies, but by the Germans, who mistook it for France.


Local History


What here is “German” and what here is “French” is a long contested issue. The earliest agrarian culture was the Linear Pottery Culture, then in Switzerland, France and Southern Germany there was the Rössen culture and eventually the proto-celtic Bell Beaker Culture, either by invasion or cultural change. Next came early Celtic Halstatt culture and the Gauls/ Celts. Rome later invaded the region and created the state Germania Superior, which included the former independent Duchy of Burgundy, Alsace-Loraine, and Baden-Württemberg.

At this time a group of nomadic tribes, collectively known as the Germanic Peoples, immigrated into the Roman empire (possibly from Scandinavia). These tribes included the Visigoths and the Franks. The  Alemanni, a Visagoth tribe, began in Baden-Württemberg, but through their battles with Rome, moved into Alsace. While the Alemanni were battling the Romans, the Franks began to settle along the Rhine and had their own battles with Rome. Both tribes successfully drove out the Romans and established their own empires. Under Clovis I, the Franks took over the Alemanni empire, which became a Duchy of Francia. The Frankish King Charlemagne, then expanded the entire kingdom, creating the Holy Roman Empire.


My French Doctor calls this the architecture "German Style"
My French Doctor calls this architecture “German Style”

As the Holy Roman Empire expands, dissolves, and reforms parts of the region pass to various kingdoms. Charlemangne’s dynasty ruled all of old Francia, until 987, when Hugh Capet, the Duke of France and the count of Paris was crowned the first “King of the Franks”.  Alsace was periodically controlled by France and other former Holy Roman Empire states during the Dutch War. After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, German states united under Prussia and the region of Alsace was annexed by Otto Von Bismark. Unlike other German states, which were ruled locally, Alsace was ruled directly by the Kiser. The German empire was established after the Franco-Prussian War, uniting all of the Germanic states, except Austria. At the end of WWI Alsance-Loraine briefly declared independence, but it was soon claimed by French troops. From 1940-1944 Alsace was occupied by Nazi troops. Alsace still maintains local laws, which differ from those in the rest of France and many people in Strasbourg still speak Alsatian, a German dialect.

History and Culture

A few weeks after I moved to Freiburg, I returned to Strasboug to finalize all of the paperwork with my old apartment.  It was May 1st, labor day, in most of Europe and unbeknownst to me, the trams were not running. As I waled from the train station to my apartment on the other side of town (about 45 minutes) I was struck by how much everything “felt” like Freiburg. Perhaps I didn’t notice, when I made the move, because so much of my life was new, and therefore unfamiliar.  

Flammkuchen/ Tarte Flambee
Flammkuchen/ Tarte Flambee

Freiburg and Strasbourg both have the same local specialty Flammenckuchen/ Tarte Flambee: a thin pizza dough, with Crème fraîche, onions, and bacon. While Frieburg lacks Strasbourg’s signature tudor buildings, seen in Petite France, much of the other architecture is similar. Strasbourg has it’s river, while Freiburg has streams running through the center of the city. My friend who went to university here says, they “were originally built for the peoples cattle to drink. now the saying goes that if you step into one accidentally you will have to marry someone from Freiburg”.

As I walk through the streets, there are small ways I know I’m in France. The most obvious is the language people speak. Strasbourg also walks more slowly  than Freiburg. My college friends from the East Cost thought we walked slowly in California, but they walk more slowly in Strasbourg, and even more slowly in Atlanta. From only a small sampling of different parts of the world I believe that walking speed is something unique to each area and everywhere that is not where your used to will either seem too slow or too fast.




“So where are you from?” a woman in the lab I joined this month asks.

“Uhhhh….well I’m a student at the University of Strasbourg, but I am a visiting student here in Freiburg. We don’t have classes right now. I did my Undergrad in California and I had a postbac in Atlanta, so… At this point I think I’m from wherever it is that I’m paying rent. Right now that’s Freiburg”.

by Jorge Cham of phd comics
by Jorge Cham of phd comics

This is what I would call my “international” mode. It’s my hippie free flowing, let it be, everything is culturally constructed, and I just am what I am mode.  I have a different mode, a more practical mode, which I refer to as my “ex pat” mode. This is the mode I’m in when I take a “devil may care” attitude toward French paperwork or wonder why everyone has to go to lunch at the exact same time, so no one can actually get errands done durning lunch time! Philosophically I agree more with my “International” mode. Going back to the history of Alsace and Germany, Nationality is difficult to define anyway. I grew up thinking I was part Native American, I even went to a camp for the Native American kids and learned how to burn sage, sending the smoke in each of the four directions, honoring each in turn. A genetic test proved that I’m not actually Native American. I still burn sage.

When I first got to France I went to a English/ French language exchange and I remember one of the French students (of English) telling me how exotic I was, after he asked met where my family “really” came from and I told him: Sweden, more than anywhere else, then Ireland, then Scottland, then there’s some British, Norwegian, Polish, and whatever the genetic test meant when they said “Persian” (Iranian?), and other less clear western Europeany stuff.

In January, one of my Professors described how he moved to the United States and knew instantly that he wasn’t supposed to end up there. Even out of “ex pat” mode I think Europe isn’t for me forever, just for now. I don’t know where I want to end up forever and at 26 that seems like an awfully long time. Right now I most strongly identify with the words of a song the church I attend in Atlanta used to sing “the Universe is the Ocean I travel and the Earth is my blue boat home“*.


*Seriously, if it wasn’t such a sweet sounding sound, I’d suggest it as the JMN drinking song we keep saying we’ll have one day. In France, all the engineering schools have drinking songs.


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