Three days after a truck barreled into a crowded Christmas Market in Berlin, Chris and I boarded a bus en route to Strasbourg, France – the self-proclaimed Capital of Christmas – to visit its own famous Marché de Noël.
We weren’t seeking out trouble. Nor were we necessarily going out of our way to make a statement against the evils in this world. We simply had made plans to spend a few days before Christmas enjoying the old, Germanic, yuletide tradition – plans that we had no desire to cancel.
The decision to go to Strasbourg as planned was not, of course, made without some deliberation. As we watched the horrific reports and testimonies flood in on Monday evening, all of the heartbreak and hopelessness I had felt following the Nice attacks earlier this year came flooding back into my soul. But, this time, woven into my sadness for the victims and their families was the nagging fear that a tragedy like this could happen to Chris and me. The Christmas Market in Strasbourg is one of the oldest and largest Christmas Markets in all of Europe, drawing nearly 2 million visitors every year. Are we being terribly irresponsible for associating ourselves with such an obvious target? It’s happened once already this season… couldn’t an attack like this happen again?
We didn’t have the answers, but we reassured ourselves after doing some research that Strasbourg would be amplifying its already heavy security measures in the aftermath of the attack and that, for better or for worse, we would probably be safer now than we would have been before. So, we went.
Both Chris and I had been to Strasbourg before on separate, albeit brief visits to admire the Rhineland timber-framed buildings and medieval churches that make Strasbourg so captivating. But, neither of us had visited the city during its annual Christmas festivities. The city of Strasbourg is located near the border with Germany in eastern France, a 6-hour trek from Paris by bus, and because of its close proximity and historical ties to the adjacent nation, the city is steeped in a conglomerate, Franco-German culture. Many German traditions – including that of the Christkindelsmärik (Market of the Infant Jesus) – have been adopted and adapted over centuries, connecting the Christmas Market in Strasbourg more closely to its German cousins than perhaps many of the other markets across Europe.
We were encouraged by many of our friends in Paris to check it out. “The markets in Paris are fun,” they told us, “but they don’t hold a candle to the Marché de Noël in Strasbourg.”
For this year’s Marché de Noël, some 300 wooden vender booths were scattered in the squares throughout the Grande Île, the island that is the historic city center. Beginning our tour of the island, Chris and I were left breathless around every corner… our friends in Paris were certainly right! We were hard pressed to find a shop window that wasn’t decked in red and green or a square that didn’t contain at least one Christmas tree. Each of the narrow, cobblestone streets seemed to outshine the last with its decorating skill, its illumination artistry, its ability to capture the magic.
In the daylight, we strolled through the forest of evergreen garland and festive baubles and stars. When the sun disappeared, the streets came alive in a shimmering dreamland of light.
While we were busy gazing at the illuminations and breathing deep the Christmas cheer, it was impossible not to acknowledge the heavy security within the Grande Île – people enlisted to worry endlessly about our safety so that we could enjoy the festivities. Event security, Strasbourg police, and French armed forces milled the streets in packs, assault rifles in hand. Obviously, their presence did not blend seamlessly into the Christmastown backdrop. But, after experiencing similar security efforts in Paris over the past months, they only made me feel more at ease, not uncomfortable.
To aid in security efforts, the island and, therefore, the Christmas Market was only accessible from the mainland by 16 high-security bridges. At each of these checkpoints, police checked bags and monitored each and every vehicle that entered the island. A few of the bridges were closed completely and others contained a parked truck to barricade the bridge against any heavy vehicles gone rogue.
Despite this added security and the walking guns and even the underlying threat of terrorism, we couldn’t help but notice just how cheerful and bustling the city felt. I have no idea if the turnout was less than in previous weeks, but it refreshed my heart to see the streets and squares still teaming with tourists like ourselves who decided not to cancel their travel plans.
We weaved through the booths, seduced by the scents of sausages and spicy hot wine and sugary pastries. Craftsmen sold their handmade ornaments and wooden nativities to last minute Christmas shoppers, while boxes of cookies and candies and artisanal truffles tempted us around every turn. It was absolutely heavenly.
You probably know already that Strasbourg did not experience any acts of terrorism while we were visiting, nor, thankfully, at any point this Christmas season. We made it safely back to Paris on Christmas Eve, our tummies full of sauerkraut and mulled wine, our hearts light and cheerful and so, so glad that we decided to keep our travel plans despite everything. Now, I can’t help but to think about my initial reaction to terror – my thought that, perhaps, I was putting myself at risk – and the reactions of others that I’ve seen floating around the internet in recent days. I could write a stand-alone post about this (and I probably will at some point!), but I wanted to briefly share my thoughts with you now in light of recent events.
It is easy for us to watch yet another tragedy unfold and think that our risk of being killed by terrorism is higher than it is, that the dark, hopeless world portrayed by 24 hour news is the complete picture, and that it is no longer worth sacrificing our time, money, and security to travel. As I already admitted to you, I too struggled against the helplessness and fearfulness in my own soul following the Berlin attack. But, I can assure you that our journey to Strasbourg – and our time spent in Paris, for that matter – has only strengthened my personal resolve to not give in to fear.
To briefly address the other side of the coin, there are certain places, like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, for example, where the risks of being harmed by terrorist plots or political unrest are much higher. Perhaps I am “unadventurous,” but out of concern for my own safety and, probably more so, in reverence to the incomprehensible suffering the people in these nations are enduring even as I write this, I cannot even fathom vacationing in any of these countries right now.
But, to look out over the expanse of the world and condemn it all as dangerous and “not what it used to be” and void of anything worthwhile to our growth as individuals and global citizens is, dare I say, uninformed. It might even be detrimental, because it is when we succumb to our knee-jerk, media-induced fears, when we decide that the world outside of the familiar is nothing but evil, when we stop traveling, that terror wins.