This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

- Maltbie D. Babcock

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mr. Bean goes to Provençe

Most of the trappings of my everyday life have fallen away, and I feel somehow lighter (despite my excessive luggage). For the first time since I can remember, it is as if I am nobody's wife, mother, daughter, or sister - I am simply "une personne." I think of my family, friends, and cats at home all the time, but they almost seem like part of another life altogether. Perhaps they feel the same way about me.

Wendy was ill on our last day in Paris, so I spent a perfect spring afternoon and evening wandering by myself through the Impressionist wing of the Musée d'Orsay, then the Jardin des Tuileries. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the artwork, gardens, fountains, statues, and topiaried trees, I felt so thankful to God for gifting mankind with the creative energy that comes from being made in His image. Everywhere you turn here, someone is making music or creating art right on the street. The French certainly seem to fully enjoy their cities, their food, and each other. In the parks, young couples sit in the grass and smile while their children giggle and chase each other around. Couples walk wrapped around each other, stopping frequently to smile into each other's eyes or share a lengthy kiss. In a restaurant, a young man enters and without embarrassment kisses his mother and grandmother on both cheeks before sitting down to join them. It's lovely to watch, coming from a culture where people tend to be far less demonstrative and affectionate. As I make my way back through the Metro stations to our hotel, I feel suddenly alone; but then, just as quickly, I remember that I am never alone because I am God's child. I take time to thank Him for taking the subway with me.

Now we are enjoying a different manifestation of French culture. Very early Sunday morning, we climbed aboard the TGV bound for Avignon. Once there, we stowed our baggage at the car rental agency and shuttled into town to tour the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon of song. After a sun-drenched lunch of salade niçoise in the town square, we headed back to pick up our car. Our first drive turned out to be a harrowing experience. What was presented as an easy, five-minute drive across a bridge to the village on the other side of the Rhone turned out to be an hour spent lurching around in circles trying to find access to said bridge. Traffic signs are difficult to follow and our little diesel car, although theoretically automatic, does not operate like its Canadian counterparts. Finally arriving in the historic centre of Villeneuve lès Avignon; we have our first experience with driving down incredibly narrow cobblestone streets. Only much later that night, as we relaxed in our room to update our journals, were we able to relax and laugh uproariously about our terrifying foray into driving in a foreign country. Personally I had felt like an extra in a Mr. Bean movie the whole time.

Our hotel and the surrounding neighbourhood are textbook Provençal, and I am enchanted. We were fortunate enough to arrive on an evening when a neighbourhood festival weekend was just winding down. Local vintners had tables set up along the closed street to showcase their products, and free samples were being proffered to all passersby. Children and young people in traditional Provençal costumes were dancing and singing in the town square. Every generation of families was represented and the whole town appeared to be in attendance. Later, a bonfire was lit in the centre of the square, and costumed dancers pulled in people from the crowd to dance around it. When the dancing stopped; a choir of young girls broke into what was obviously a traditional folk song and the crowd spontaneously joined in. A long table had been set up to one side; laden with small glasses of sweet red wine which everyone, including us, helped themselves to. What a charming welcome to life in a Provençal town.

Today has been spent leisurely poking our way around back streets and alleyways, getting lost and finding our way again. We have marvelled at ancient walls, beautiful hidden courtyards, ornate doorways surrounded by potted flowers, and vistas of tiled rooftops over crumbling walls. We have walked around the walls of a castle (just sitting there at the end of a residential street, if you please) and toured a monastery built in the 14th century. Now sitting in the private courtyard of our hotel, a lattice of grapevines overhead and a cat sleeping in a flower pot, I am sipping un café and nibbling pain chocolat. We have seen and experienced so much in these past five days, that at night when we talk over our day, we find ourselves saying, "Could that really have been just this morning?" It seems at once like we have just arrived, and have been here forever. Tomorrow the journey continues.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The City of Lights

Somebody pinch me. I am writing this while sitting with my back to the wall of l'Arc de Triomphe, with a view down the Champs Elysées on a breezy, sunny April morning. April in Paris. I cannot believe I'm here, and I struggle to drink in every sight, sound, and smell.

The comparitive nightmare of airports and airplanes ended yesterday around noon (or dawn, to my Canadian body). Already dizzy with fatigue (don't you envy people who CAN sleep on planes?), we begin our long shuttle ride to the hotel. First comes mile after mile of characterless office buildings and airport hotels - we could be anywhere in the world. Suddenly the view changes to broad, tree-lined avenues of exquisite stone buildings, all six stories or less, each window fronted with ornate iron grillwork. You turn a corner and realize you are looking at the top of the Eiffel Tower over a rooftop. You are in Paris, and it is achingly beautiful.

Our hotel is nothing more nor less than you would expect for the price, and the location is ideal. After taking individual trips up the impossibly small "lift" to our sixth floor room, we go out for a brief wander down Rue Cler where we grab a slice of pizza (well, I do) and some fruit for Wendy. Back to the room for a short nap (again, I can't sleep) before looking at a map to try and decide what we will see. I feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. I want to see EVERYTHING....we have two days.

We decide to hike down to the Eiffel Tower, which is within easy walking distance of our hotel. Impressive from a distance, the old girl is magnificent up close. We join the line for tickets to climb the stairs to the second level. Despite Wendy's fear of heights and my sore feet and poor fitness level, we eventually make it and are rewarded with an amazing view of the city. The walk down is considerably easier.

By now, our lovely day has turned to grey drizzle. We vainly look for cover, then surrender to being wet and make our way down to the Seine. After an hour's wait and some cold "frites" in a cafeteria, we climb aboard the Bateaux Parisien for the night cruise on the Seine. This may be the best money one could spend in Paris. As the boat pulls away from the dock, we are treated to the incredible sight of the Eiffel Tower completely lit up with thousands of white lights set to do a magical dance on the hour. We pass under amazing, elaborate, and ancient bridges, sail by palaces, museums, and churches standing out majestically against the blackened sky. We can hardly take it all in. What a perfect end to our first day in Paris.

Flash forward to the end of day two. We have climbed to the top of l'Arc de Triomphe for an incredible panoramic view of the whole city, wandered down the Champs Elysées (yes, I did sing Free Man in Paris out loud) to the Place de la Concorde. We searched out Le Grand Colbert and ate a decadent late lunch there. We stumbled upon the Palais Royal (which was amazing), walked along the banks of the Seine, bought watercolour paintings outside the Musée d'Orsay, took a bus to Montmartre, and visited Sacre Coeur. Back to our little hotel by a gritty and educational ride on the Métro (subway). We have seen immense beauty and creativity literally at every turn. It is difficult to take it all in. We could easily spend a month here. One day more.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Well, I guess I have to start somewhere...

Thirty-one years ago I, like so many at that time, loaded a backpack, got my first passport and a Eurail pass, and went off with a friend to hostel my way through Europe. That first five-week experience imprinted itself on me, and on some level I've been trying to get back ever since.

Years of busy child-rearing dulled the drumbeat in my subconscious for many years, but in the last decade the noise of it grew almost deafening at times. (Okay, so I'm being a little melodramatic.) My family will attest to the growing stacks of books about Tuscany, Parisian memorabilia, and endless movies with European backdrops being carted home. Since I couldn't imagine (short of winning a lottery) how I would ever get back there, I tried to content myself with armchair travel. Periodically I would wonder aloud to God why I would carry such a powerful longing for a place when it seemed impossible that I would ever get there. Now don't get me wrong - I am fully aware that in the grand scheme of things, I have been incredibly blessed. I have a wonderful family, a home, great friends, food on the table every day, and clean water to drink. But all that being said and acknowledged, still I yearned...

To make a long story a little less long, I have been the recipient of a modern-day miracle. I have been given an opportunity to travel to the lands I dream of, a friend to travel with, and the time and the means to do it. Tomorrow evening, after three months of planning, I step on a plane bound for Paris. Even as I form the words, it doesn't quite seem real. Six weeks in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, focusing on all of the places I've been dreaming of seeing, or of seeing again.

So I begin this blog as a travel journal - to try and record my experiences on the trip both so that I may remember, and so that I may share it with any who might be interested. My son Jesse tells me that a blog is just a diary that you write but, rather than keep it locked, invite others to read if they so desire. That being said, here we go...

Dear Diary:

I am excited, nervous, incredulous, thankful, and terrified. Apart from my travelling companion, Wendy, I will not be seeing anyone else who is part of my everyday life for six weeks. Goodbye, I love you all...please take good care of my cat.