Monday, November 27, 2006

A Real Sunday

After a week which included a busy practice schedule for Karl, a generous helping of job stress for Abbey, and six days straight of rain and grey sky, we were ripe and ready for a true Sabbath.

First we slept in. Magnificent.

Upon rolling out of bed, we discovered that we were in dire need of a real down-home kind of breakfast. Maybe it was something about the sunlight streaming through the windows for the first time in ages. Perhaps we were missing the legendary Lewis home Sunday pancakes (Abbey's parents, for those of you who don't know). But being that my kin were several thousand miles away and still fast asleep, our only recourse was our trusty Paris guidebook. Thus:

This little joint was a step into the very best of Americana. Now, I should probably clarify something: we are in France to enjoy France. In fact, we are often depressed when we have to run an errand in the nearby mall, the main complaint being: "I don't feel like I'm in France anymore." Still, with all the best cheeses and wine in the world at our fingertips, a stack o' flapjacks is a stack o' flapjacks. When the craving hits, nothing else will do.

We couldn't have short-ordered a better solution to refresh our diner souls. The servers were sunshiny, casual, and unabashedly English-speaking. Bits of bluegrass music, Motown, and riffs of Bob Dylan's harmonica came wafting by with the smell of maple syrup and hot griddles. Best of all, BOTTOMLESS CUPS OF COFFEE. You must understand: this is NOT NORMAL protocol in France. You get your cute little espresso for 2E and that's it.
Not a bad experience, just different. But it's terribly disappointing to try to wrap your fingers around a dolly teacup when what you want is a nice, thick MUG.

Yeah, baby. So, powered by approximately 8 mugs of coffee a piece and I-don't-even-wanna- know-how-many carbohydrates, we walked home in the sunshine in our winter garb of T-shirts and jeans. Then, it was a scramble to make it to the weekly market for les provisions, practice some tunes for Sunday evening worship service, and tidy up the house a bit. It was a good thing too, because after church, we invited the whole Bible study crew over to our place for supper. First guests, officially! I can't believe it's taken this long to have people over, but we have a lot of generous friends that always seem to beat us to the punch.

After everyone trickled out, we were sitting on the couch and trying to convince ourselves that it was bedtime. It was at this formative moment that Karl mischievously suggested something about "that Hammond organ player" playing at Caveau de la Huchette, and soon we were on the metro, rumbling our way towards the jazz show. The lady at the helm was Rhoda Scott. What a delivery! She and her drummer had the whole place hopping, directing an orchestra of bobbing heads and clappers, hooters, hollerers and knee-slappers. We hung about the entrance, because it gave us a clear view of her barefoot feet working the pedals, her well-worn hands working the keys, and her obvious amusement with the whole affair. Have you ever seen a blind person exude a no-holds-barred, devil-may-care kind of smile when they are engaged in their favourite activity? I think of Andrea Boccelli, the opera singer. Or Stevie Wonder. The remarkable thing about Rhoda Scott is that even though she is a seeing person, she has the same candid joy. And it's positively infectious.

Gosh, I hope that's what I look like when I teach.

In the end, we missed our second train and hiked home, tumbling into bed in the wee hours. After chatting online with folks back home, of course. I mean, what would a Sunday be without family?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

From faces to names

You're never going to believe it, but that shifting multitude of faces and feet that roll past us like rivers every time we get on the metro, those are real people. I guess I've had my suspicions all along. I think of the scarved woman who sits apart, hand cupped for any falling change at the exit on my last stop of the day. She's pretty singular. Or the little voice piping up in exasperated French over the rumble of the train and murmur of cell phone conversations: "Maman, mais, NON!" It's hard to miss the fact that there's a real little boy in the midst of all that anonymity. Or the fairly frequent occurrence of a couple in a passionate embrace on the platform, like an oblivious island. Yet, too often, we let our eyes glaze over in boredom or self-centeredness. And we miss a hundred encounters with potential kindred spirits.

We are thankful that some opportunities have not passed us by. I'll give you an example. In the beginning, we told ourselves that there were (hypothetically) "lots of" musicians in Paris for Karl to meet. In everyday life, however, it isn't as easy to track down individuals that are ready to invest time and energy. Still, as of this week, there are about three or so such persons who have faces, names...even instruments. They come to our apartment to practice. Sometimes they stay for tea or dinner. Real, live people, with aspirations and appetites. I like that.

Again, there was the supposition that my colleagues from work would be probably be somewhat easy to get along with on a daily basis. But who could have guessed that they would become such fast friends? Not only that, but that we would be able to recreate a homey, scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner together, complete with turkey, cranberries, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and wild rice.* Of course, it is not a very French thing to do with your weekend. But because we have been such glad recipients of other cultures since we touched down here, we were thrilled to share a distinctively American holiday with people from several other countries (see John, the happy Australian at left). There was truly a spirit of thankfulness afoot, as we shared stories and pie, and recipes and pie, and American history with more pie...

Ouf. Yeah. Still kinda stuffed.

Finally, there are our dear friends from church. It's been three weeks since we accepted Thomas and Conni's invitation to their place for pasta, but it feels like we've known this circle of friends for months, maybe years. Just days after meeting them, we received an email with contact info which read: you are so new in this city that you have to have some contacts that can help you if you need or if it's only to be not the whole time alone. It almost moved me to tears, it was so practical and loving. The best part is that we can worship alongside these dear ones, praying and studying our Bibles together. My wise mother reminded me that I shouldn't be so surprised, as we had prayed to happen upon such a group of like-minded people. But so many new friends! Whether they be fellow musicians, fellow scholars and teachers, or fellow Christians - we are rich.

Add to this, our loved ones at home whom we miss dearly. It was you who first taught us friendship, so we would be able to recognize the real thing in the wider world. For this we are most thankful.

"But since we were torn away from you...for a short time, in person not in heart, we [endeavor] the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face." (I Thess. 2:17)

A la prochaine! (Till next time!)

* Thanks, Pam! You're the best! : )

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Natural Habitats

Even if you travel to a new and mesmerizing place, it seems as if you will eventually gather around something of your natural habitat. Even if it isn't the easiest thing to come by.

Exhibit A. This is Karl. He is happy. This could be attributed to several things. First, he has finally got his keyboards set up in a pleasing, feng shui-ish fashion. Not only that, he's got some talent lined up as well. Between the two vocalists (count 'em two) beating down our door tomorrow to practice, and his rendezvous with some musicians from the church we've been frequenting, he oughta have his hands full. Of a lot of white and black keys. And that's the way he likes it.

Exhibit B. I love to teach. But, truth be told, I actually prefer to be on the learning end of the equation. I know that some people avoid classroom settings like the plague, only attending if they absolutely must. I'm a bit odd in the sense that I went looking for lectures this week. I happily attended a couple of talks on the medieval troubadou
rs by a distinguished English professor with whom I've been carrying on an email correspondence for some months. The classroom time itself proved to be utterly refreshing (seriously, like a fish in water...) not to mention the tea we enjoyed together afterwards. This honorable man has had a long and glorious career, but is precisely at the point when generous-spirited academics are ready to pass on the torch. Both ideas and resources flowed effortlessly between us. I thank God that I was in the right place at the right time to receive it.

Finally, Exhibit C. The forest on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Specifically, La Foret de Fontainebleau, about 40 minutes out of Paris by train. Being Minnesotans, we've been hankering after some woodlands since we moved to cosmopolitan Paris. We had heard rumours about 50,000-some acres of largely protected forest, a former hunting ground of many a French monarch. This area is perhaps known to some of you because of its famous chateau, holiday hideaway of kings throughout France's history. However, we chose to while away our daylight hours hiking around in the sunshine, rather than staring dumbfounded at Napoleon's former tapestries and dining sets. This turned out to be a wise decision, as the most spectacular surprise awaited us. The autumn colors were just reaching their full bloom.
After 'splorin' around to our heart's content (till it was dark, more or less), we wended our cold and weary selves to a pizza place in the center of Fontainebleau and mowed down on delicious, hot Italian food. Needless to say, the train ride home was a bit of a warm, sleepy blur. But thanks to Paris' efficient transport system (oh why can't they apply this level of ingenuity to their governmental paperwork....?), we were soon horizontal and cozy in our beds back in the 13th arrondissement of dear Paris.

Monday, November 13, 2006

City on a hill

Paris has been called the "city of light". There are several good reasons for this. Often at nighttime, the Eiffel Tower sends out purplish-white beams of light sweeping across the cityscape like a lighthouse, a beacon to all lost tourists straining for a glimpse of that familiar shape. Those same searchlights touch countless strings of lampposts. Garish spotlights from boat tours cruising up and down the Seine. Entire constellations of illumined apartments. Small yellow squares of friendly cafe windows. Tiny, glowing dots of orange on the end of a million and one cigarettes. Lights that move, sway, bounce, sparkle, and just stay put. What's more, if it rains, the effect of every one of these lights is multiplied by at least two, reflected in the wet cobblestones.

But supposing one such stormy evening, you duck into one of the thousands of narrow rues that zigzag over the map of Paris. Suddenly, everything is as black as ink and you must strain your eyes to avoid turning your ankle. Here, the light is very light. And the dark... is very, very dark.

You probably know where I'm going with this.

In a city gleaming with history, architecture and art, music and literature, there is the corresponding reality that many who live here do not think of the God who created all such beauty and truth. It makes me think of Paul, who took great pains to remind the philosophers in Athens of the proofs of the living God right under their noses: "as your own poets have said..." That is, the light of the truth is as plain as the lit facade of the Notre-Dame after dark. It's just that these monumental truths go largely ignored by anyone but gaping tourists.

O, to remain a gaping tourist.

And be willing to be gaped at. For, if we truly belong to Jesus Christ, we are the "light of the world," and "a city set on a hill" that cannot be hidden. Karl and I experienced this quite literally on Sunday evening, when we gathered with a group of young couples on the a 5th floor of an apartment building on the south edge of town. Nearing the end of the weekend, the neighborhood was quiet and dark --rather gloomy. In brilliant contrast, within the warm walls of this home, there was a group of individuals burning with excitement to talk about their varying passions in life and common love for God. Eyes snapped and comments sparkled; words and thoughts were challenged and refined (in several languages at once), and love was shown in the simple kindness of a casual spaghetti dinner.

It's good to have found such a well-lit hilltop.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What I wanna be when I grow up

This week, I walked one group of students through a well-wrought essay by Paul Auster of the New Yorker. "Why write?" was the alluring title. He recounts a monumental disappointment in his very young years regarding an unrealized autograph from the great Willie Mays. The Say Hey kid just stood there, waiting. The problem? Nobody had a pencil. "Sorry, kid. Ain't got no pencil, can't give no autograph." Heartbroken, the poor little guy sobbed the whole way home. From that day on, he made a habit carrying a pencil at all times. He explains:

"if nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there's a pencil in your pocket,

there's a good chance that one day you'll feel tempted to use it.
As I like to tell my children, that's how I became a writer."

Well, after clarifying quite a bit of vocabulary regarding that mysterious American diversion known as baseball, my students seemed as altogether charmed by the story as I had been (cue to teacher to keep digging - heads and hearts are wide open). What about you, I said, "why _____?" Why teach? Why cook? Why study logarithms? Why play football? And so they have been duly charged with the task of filling in the blank with one driving passion, and speak about it in front of the class in two weeks. I cannot wait to see what they come up with.

But I have asked them, somewhat unfairly, to do what I find impossible. That is, I cannot seem to narrow my purposes down to one glorious endeavor. I suppose this is not uncommon. Whereas I count my blessings in this area (several hundred, at last calculation), it can feel a bit haphazard at times. Something like a pinwheel rocket - plenty of creative sparks flying about, but not a whole lot of forward movement.

Then I was online today. (Hmm. Maybe this has something to do with the lack of direction...) Anyway, AOL news is not widely known for dispensing epiphanies about life. Today, however, was a happy exception:

Who's Waldo?

It is a story about centenarian Waldo McBurney, 104 and still a happy member of America's work force. Why? In his own words: "I'm not a strong believer in retirement. I don't think retirement is in the Bible. Maybe it's there, but I haven't found it." He has been married to his wife of 44 years, who he jokingly says was supposed to take care of him and bury him. (You do the math.) Oh, and then there are the marathons. He started running them...well...about when Vernice was supposed to be burying him. His secret? He says: "The Bible says God will supply all your needs," he said. "I feel like the next life is secure."

So that's what I wanna be when I grow up. A centenarian. I'm not interested in any morbid, demoralizing fountains of youth...just give me the days allotted to me, whatever their number. And forget narrowing it down to one passion. I'm gonna need all of 'em over the next...oh...seventy years or so. Lord willin', that is, and the creek don't rise.

So "why grow old?"

Because the next life is secure. And as far as Waldo and I are concerned, there's no such thing as retirement.