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l'essence

Over the last week I have nearly cried three times missing France. Three times.

If you think about it, that’s kinda pathetic. Miss something you experienced for 9 days? Miss the “vacation” experience—which is so different from every-day-life (even in a foreign country!). Cry over French bread? Sigh wistfully over 2 hour lunches where the waiters don’t bother you and the dry, brilliant sun casts long shadows under cypress and olive trees? Ah, yes, sigh.

We are learning to take our once-in-a-blue-moon memories and experiences and weave them back into our everyday lives. For one, we are learning to eat our meals slowly. Growing up in big families our meal-times were always something of a race. (“Let’s see who can make the meal which took an hour to cook go from plate to stomach in under 7 minutes?!?”) We are learning to put our forks down in-between bites, to take our plates outside, and to sometimes just gaze at each other while our food takes in the air.

I know the French would approve. Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie.

French books now intermingle with English ones on our bookshelves–particularly a gilded copy of Flaubert’s Salammbo purchased after wondering over Paris’ Latin Quarter, peering into every librairie we passed until we discovered a Dickin-ish mess of a store with a haphazard Professor-type who knew the history of each of the wondrous novels which towered from store floor to ceiling (intermingled with papers and a good deal of dust). We wanted something très vieux, très beau. He had no English to speak of, but we understood one another, and we did not leave till the old book, the beautiful book, was triumphantly in hand.

Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie.

Speaking of old things, we visited the Catacombs in Paris. Wifey (c’est moi) had saved up her “standing in line” points by skipping the touristy attractions such as the Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe—and she spent them all lavishly on seeing the Catacombs. The line wasn’t long–scarcely half a block–but it moved at a deathly crawl. Two and a half hours we waited, while making the acquaintance of a Christian Lebanese man named Rudolph. He was considering moving to the States and wanted to know about Social Security and which states were best for business. We spent our time doing everything from talking about marriage and Islam to sharing a Nutella crepe off of a street cart and playing a hand-game in which we relentlessly slapped each other.

Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie. 

Inside the Catacombs I had a moment which I am indescribably proud of. I have long had a rather persistent inclination to over-accommodate everyone around me. (It’s the wide-eyed, people-please-er part of me which makes strangers tell me their secrets.) After our two hour wait we whirled down what felt like eight stories down a narrow, spiral staircase into the earth. We walked along a narrow passage for a long time—till we reached the entrance to the underground ossuarie where 6 million people are buried. There are signs reminding you to be respectful, this is a place of the dead, ne touche pas, do not touch the bones. For there are bones! Walls and walls of stacked bones and skulls for passageway after passageway: we saw just an hour of a 200 mile matrix.

We had only just entered, our breaths caught in our chests in dreadful awe, when our respectful reverie was broken by raucous laughter some 10 yards behind us. A group of American teenagers had entered the catacombs.

As our skin crawled in embarrassment, we felt anguish for the visiting nationals—wondering if any (usually) quiet-spoken French person would find it worthwhile to take another annoying group of American Tourists in hand. Unlikely.

Then something happened that I simply couldn’t bear. They began to touch the bones. And then, horror of horrors, while laughing in a hysterical, jeering sort of way, one of the boys grabbed a large femur off of a burial mound and started waving it in the air, “LOOK! This used to be a DEAD person!”

I felt a hot surge of anger flood over me. Every ounce of older-sister indignation (or college RA authority) I’ve ever possessed came rushing to my aid. All at once I heard my own voice ringing out in decisive, cutting clarity, “GUUUYYS—!!! YOU NEED TO PUT THEM DOWN!”

I think if their own long-dead American grandparents had suddenly coming to life out of the bones to scold them they could not have been more shocked or chastened by hearing “ne touche pas” declared in their native tongue in the French House of the Dead.

The bone was returned, and they henceforth behaved themselves.You’re welcome, France. Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie.

We did our best never to self-identify as tourists of any kind. We always tried to speak as much French as possible (Bonjour, je voudrais deux billets, si vouz plaît). I did my best to dress as French as possible (no patterns or bright colors—a dead giveaway even in fashionable american women). We met nothing of the so-called French rudeness, not in Provence where we stayed nor even in Paris. But we saw enough rude tourists to warrant any reactionary behavior! I figure, in the end, that the French are like any people group—if somebody came up to you New York City (let alone rural Michigan) and asked you without so much as a how-do-you-do in a huffy, annoyed sort of voice where the National Park was… in Spanish, or German, or French, you would be annoyed too. We did our best to speak French—we smiled and bade pardon—and were met with as much eagerness to known and be known and communicate back as we offered. It was delightful.

Instead of rudeness we met the eager warm of our host in Aix-En Provence, where we had olive oil pressed from her garden, were urged with smiles and careful instructions into zip-lining on the property, and received a vineyard recommendation communicated in French-for-children (for we were like children with our small sentences and eager gestures).

Instead of haughtiness, we met one of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever met. Our Parisian host waited for us on the street to arrive, gave us wine and got up early every morning to bring us a French breakfast (croissants, baguettes, cafe). He shared his stories, and he shared his medicines in the middle of the night when we were at various times unwell! He spent hours giving recommendations and hand-writing directions and tracing routes on our map. He laughed with us at the funny pictures and stories we brought back every evening. He teased us, (the 1815 building had a small glass elevator… “Very small—but then—you are small people!”). We exchanged ideas. He was the consummate gentleman–a man who welcomed us into his home and heart as if we were not just staying a few days but had known each other all our lives.

Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie.

I found myself loving little things I noticed. The way everybody says hello to everyone. The way I saw such tenderness to children—I never heard a raised voice or an impatient tug (until once by an American mother in Paris). Every parent’s hand was holding their child’s, or stroking their arm or their head. Even the two-year-old who wailed almost the entire plain-ride there was lovingly rocked all six hours.

I had also expected, in some strange way, to find a more aggressively secular society. And I suppose France is as modern and agnostic as any modern nation these days. But I think I had expected that, whereas in America we were founded by Puritans and God-fearers who revolted “justly” and “lawfully,” (and now our cities are virtual alters to selfishness and sensuality)—France! (surely) who had built alters to the Goddess Liberty—would be even more devoted to her unrighteous causes.

It would be unfair to make any direct comparison based on 9 bare-eyed days. But I will say I was surprised. I was amazed and comforted at the unabashed presence of cathedrals, saints, crosses, and even the little Christian bookstore we wandered into and purchased Le Petit Prince (l’essential est invisible pour les yeux). The places we visited in Provence were as wholesome as idyllic villages in 1800s Austen novels. Even the quasi-nudity in the rocky coves of Cassis’ calanques took on an au-naturel wholesomeness I had not expected to find so unshocking. (Perhaps a culture that has never, in Gnosticism, accused the body God made Good of being evil, finds the body more natural than sexual when unclothed.)

We were also surprised to find Christ’s Body in France. In the little city of Aix-En Provence, known for its fountains, we found a Reformed Evangelical Church. On Sunday we worshiped with God’s people—and there I cried again. Cried to connect so deeply with worshiping Dutch and German and French believers that there gathered. Touched that the language of Divine Love translated so easily through word, look, and song. Moved that I could sing “A toi la gloire” and know, “Thine be the glory, O Lord forever and ever, Amen.”

L’essence de la vie.

I understood very little of the sermon, but I gathered it was on Acts 20, Paul’s heartfelt farewell to the church of Ephesus—whom he was leaving, never to see them again. I kept hearing the Pastor talk about the “situation difficile” the difficulty of Paul’s situation, the difficulty of ours.

The church is the same the world over. Somehow worshiping in France brought all the beauty and wonder of our trip into perspective. Perhaps, yes perhaps, one could live somewhere else in the world where it is better. Simpler? Safer? Older? Realer? Tastier? More lovely? And sometimes those chances come to us and I think it is okay to take them. But it will never be our aim in life to live easily, or our best lives now. God has put us where we are, just as he put Paul in Jerusalem and Rome, not to gorge ourselves on what this earth has to offer but to take these tastes of heaven (whether in God-made beauty, the family of believers, or at The Table) as sustenance during our journeys Home. Even the Christians in France are strangers in a foreign land. We “taste and see that the Lord is Good—happy are those who take refuge in Him.”

And so we return to our church, our jobs, and our little New England town. And we say, “this is ours”—ours to show Grace to, ours to show Christ to, ours to Love. For in these small things is the essential of life.

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