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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

9 things that make Alsace different to the rest of France

It's definitely part of France, but its complicated and frequently bloody history gives Alsace a very different character to the rest of the country, as journalist and former Strasbourg resident Martin Greenacre explains.

9 things that make Alsace different to the rest of France
Photo: Patrick Herzog/AFP

“It must be cold?” “Is there anything to do there?” “Isn’t that in Germany?” Mention Alsace to anybody from another part of France, and you will frequently provoke a mixture of fear and intrigue. The historical region was part of Germany from 1871 until the end of the First World War in 1918, and as a result of that history, has taken elements from both French and German culture.

It may have officially become part of the Grand Est region in 2016, along with Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne, but things are still done differently in Alsace.

If you are considering visiting or moving to eastern France, here is what you should expect.

1 The pastries

Pain au chocolat, chocolatine, or in the case of eastern France, petit pain au chocolat… Whatever you choose to call it, this pastry is a staple of diets all across France. But if you pop to the bakery for some breakfast during a trip to Strasbourg, you may notice one difference. As if this treat wasn’t indulgent enough already, Alsatian bakers like to add a layer of icing sugar on top of their petits pains au chocolat.

READ ALSO Pain au chocolat v chocolatine

Magali Poulaillon, who runs the Poulaillon chain of bakeries, gave one possible explanation when speaking to Pokaa: “Since Alsace is close to Germany, bakers have been able to take inspiration from the other side of the Rhine, because the Germans use a lot of icing on their pastries.”

Whatever the origins, this is one innovation we can get behind.

2 Pretzels

This is another snack which is definitely inspired by France’s neighbours to the east. You can find the hard, mini pretzels (bretzels in French) in supermarkets all across France. However, the large, soft pretzels common in Germany and the United States can be difficult to come by.

Except, that is, in Alsace, where you can walk into any bakery and order a bretzel. In fact, the heart-shaped pretzel is so popular it inspired the official logo used for Alsatian products.

You can even visit the pretzel museum in the village of Gundershoffen, north of Strasbourg, if that’s your kind of thing.

The pretzel-style logo of the of the Collectivite Europeenne d’Alsace (European Community of Alsace) in Colmar. Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP

3 The language

The region’s strong local identity and German influences are never more evident than in the Alsatian dialect.

A 2012 study found that 600,000 people were able to speak Alsatian, most of whom were over the age of 60. While it is becoming increasingly rare among younger generations, you may still hear peaking speaking the local dialect in restaurants, or at football matches at the Stade de La Meinau.

You will also have to grapple with the language barrier when trying to pronounce the names of streets and villages.

The great thing about place names in Alsace is that even native French speakers who are not from the region struggle with them, so you’re less likely to feel like a foreigner.

Street signs can seem intimidating at first, but many place names follow the same set of rules. For example the ‘h’ is not pronounced when it follows an ‘s’, so the final syllable in Lingolsheim is similar to the first syllable in the English name Simon. With a bit of practice, you’ll be giving people directions to Niederschaeffolsheim in no time!

Strasbourg styles itself the Christmas capital of France. Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP

4 Christmas

Eastern France is most famous for its Christmas markets, which usually begin in late November and run until the end of the year.

Strasbourg and Colmar are popular choices for their hundreds of stalls, selling everything from tree decorations and artisanal teas, to hot wine and local delicacies like the tarte flambée. You also have the choice of markets in many quaint, smaller villages like Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, and there is even a “Navette de Noël” bus which will take you from village to village, beginning in Colmar. These markets were largely absent or scaled-down over Christmas 2020 due to the health restrictions, but will hopefully be back in 2021.

If that wasn’t enough to get you in the Christmas spirit, when it snows, the pointed roofs and colourful, timber-framed façades are redolent of gingerbread houses. There is perhaps no better place in France to spend the festive period (although stuffing your body full of fondue in the Alps does come a close second).

5 Education

In another nod to Alsace’s geography, children will often start German classes in primary school, meaning many students learn German before they learn English.

But languages aren’t the only subjects which are taught differently in this part of France. The 19th-century Concordat of Alsace-Moselle also provides an exception when it comes to religion. Unlike in the rest of the country, children in public schools in Alsace-Moselle receive classes in religious education, taught by members of four recognised faiths: Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed branches of Christianity, as well as Judaism.

6 Holidays

There’s another crucial part of that Concordat concerns public holidays and people living in Alsace and neighbouring Lorraine get 13 public holidays a year, compared to just 11 in the rest of France.

Good Friday and St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day on December 26th) are both holidays in Alsace and Lorraine. They had been days off when the territory was under German rule and when it returned to France in 1918 the locals weren’t exactly thrilled at the idea of losing two days off and simply refused to give them up…perhaps demonstrating a French side to their natures which hadn’t been lost during all those the years of German rule.  

READ ALSO The French holiday calendar 2021 

The sun rises over the Kirchberg vineyards in Barr, Alsace. Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP

7 The wine

Ask your average visitor what they know about French wine, and they will probably talk about Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or Champagne. But did you know that Alsace is also a great wine-producing region?

It is most famous for its whites, such as Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, and the vineyards provide a beautiful backdrop to local villages making the “Route des Vins d’Alsace” the perfect way to discover the region.

Alsatian wines also come in distinctive bottles, called “flûtes d’Alsace”, which are tall and thin. For another authentic touch, the wine can be served in traditional glasses which have long, green stems, and make the perfect souvenir.

8 The Currency

Local pride is a big thing here: a large majority of locals want Alsace to regain its regional status. Regional identity is so strong that the Bas-Rhin, the départment which covers the northern half of Alsace, even has its own currency, the Stück. One stück is worth one euro, and is accepted by 220 different companies and professionals across the Bas-Rhin, including in Strasbourg, with the aim of promoting local, ethical consumption.

9 The mentality

Like their neighbours in Lorraine, Alsatians have a reputation for being “cold” and “uncommunicative”.

It is undeniable that in terms of mentality as well as geography, north-eastern France is closer to Germany than to the Mediterranean. That being said, all you need to do to win over the locals is invite them for a choucroute and a good beer, and you’ll be best friends in no time. S’gilt! (that’s cheers in Alsace dialect).

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CULTURE

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?

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