I’m a language assistant in Alsace, France, aka the capital of European Christmas markets, which is great because I LOVE Christmas. Throughout December I enjoyed travelling to different towns to wander round their market stalls with my friends, browsing what they had to offer: from jewellery to craft beer, from children’s toys to hand-made clothes — it was a Christmas-lover’s dream.
Perhaps the best part of all was having an excuse to gorge myself on local street food in the name of Christmas, such as tarte flambée (like a pizza but with cream cheese instead of tomato sauce), spaetzle (a cross between pasta and dumplings) and vin chaud (‘mulled wine’ in English: wine heated with orange, and spices like cinnamon). These tiny chalets filled dozens of towns for five weeks, but are now sadly gone or empty.
There was, however, one particularly memorable December evening, and not exactly because of the Christmas markets.
Due to the terror attacks in the past few years, France is on a high terror alert, and especially at the crowded Christmas markets. So when there was a ‘suspicious car’ parked on the road outside my apartment, with its engine running and its headlights on, but no owner in sight, the authorities took action.
My two flatmates and I had just finished eating dinner when we heard someone knocking on all the doors in the apartment. I joked, 'The police have finally come to get you, Alberto!' So when we opened the door to find it really was a policeman, I was flabbergasted.
He explained the situation, and told us to stay away from any rooms and windows next to the street, in case a bomb went off. 'We might have to evacuate,' he explained.
We gathered our coats and phones; my flatmate filled a bottle of water, just in case.
A few minutes later, the policeman returned and took us to another apartment in the same building, which was further away from the street. We waited, chatting to the other people who had also been moved, and the thing was, there wasn’t really an atmosphere of fear. It was bewildering, and surprising, and surreal, but also quite exciting — like an adventure. Except for the worried Spanish family who couldn’t find their father … but my Spanish flatmate did his best to reassure them.
Then the policeman returned and said, 'We’re going to leave the building and walk to the next road, one person at a time, 20 seconds apart. So the next person must wait 20 seconds before leaving.'
It felt like a military operation, and indeed we passed soldiers, armed with guns, on our way out. We moved to a nearby church to wait. The Spanish family found their father. We warmed ourselves from the cold. Twenty minutes later, another policeman came and said it was safe: we could go back. Apparently the man whose car it was had returned, confused, to find the street evacuated and the army surrounding his vehicle.
And everything went back to normal. The Christmas markets went on. We were lucky that it was a false alarm. But I can’t help but feel glad, knowing that the potential ‘terrorists’ hadn’t really scared us. We had come together, comforted those who needed comforting, and laughed it off. And that seems to me the best, the strongest, the most human response we could have had.
Have you ever had a similar experience?