Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An Inconvenient Birth

These days, my vivid and unruly imagination refuses to stay fixed on the book I ought to be reading, and instead floats away upon odours of pine, clementines freshly-peeled, and warm gingerbread. I dutifully station myself next to a pile of student work to mark, while sugar plums with full dance cards refuse to stop waltzing in my head. All I want to do is bake cookies, drag a tree home, go on top-secret missions for gifts, and gaze at the two kilometers of sparkling trees that flank the Champs-Elysees.

Every year, alongside the giddy joys that make up the month of December, I find myself wondering, with melancholy, whether Christmas will somehow pass me by. As if the event were a train with a tight schedule to keep.* Lately, I have been bemoaning (to any unfortunate soul who is around to listen) that December 25th is approaching altogether too quickly, and I don't have time to enjoy the journey. Poor me. I must be the only one in the whole, wide world with this problem.

Everyone knows that for all the manifold inconveniences of the Christmas season - uncomfortable reunions with estranged family, traveling long distances for short visits, long lines, the unavailability of accommodations, bad weather, crabby people – we only have ourselves to blame. It is the product of our dogged commercialization, the thirty-two days of rapid-fire retail from Black Friday to Christmas Day. It is what we get for reducing the most significant event of all human history down to a fruitcake-eating clown-act.

If only we could go back to The First Noel, when all was peaceful, unrushed, and perfectly planned…

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Perfectly planned. Hmm. At first glance, this is hardly the model family for NFP. Both parents seem caught off-guard, especially the father - which we all know is a serious breach in relationship communication. In our day and age, they would have needed months of counseling. What’s more, Mary would hardly have had the time to dog-ear her copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” and (gasp!) the nursery would not have been ready, because the curtains would have been on backorder at IKEA. By our society’s standards, a very irresponsible way of building a family. At least it was "in the fulness of time."

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Shame. The closest I let myself get to this word during this cheery time is being overly preoccupied that the holiday goodies I bring to the party will be found worthy of eager consumption. (Yes, I do worry about that.) But this poignant little verse brings home the real meaning of that uncomfortable word. Regardless of the joyous truth that we are privy to now as readers, a premarital trust had been broken. Mary looked awfully culpable. But Jesus’ earthly father, being just, loved mercy. (Am I that merciful?)

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

When I used to listen to my dad or my uncle read the account of Jesus’ birth from Luke on Christmas Eve, my mind usually flitted over the historical details above. The first part always sounded like blah, blah, blah, until words like “angels” and “glory” popped up, and (curiously enough) “swaddling clothes”. (I’m not sure why I got hooked on that one, except that it’s so much fun to say out loud. ) At any rate, it never occurred to me how the news of this official decree must have made Mary and Joseph’s hearts sink. The expectant mother was almost to full-term and they would be completing a 90-mile trip one-way, with very little chance of finding a bed when they got there. We might have counseled the young couple to stick around Galilee for an unhurried childbirth, with the help of surrounding family. Much “wiser”. Despite the difficulties, they chose to obey God-appointed authorities and rushed off to Bethlehem.

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.

Though I always loved this passage about the shepherds, I somehow edited out that part about “fear”. This is another word we tend to avoid at this merry time , unless we’re talking about little Johnny who freaked out when his mom made him sit on a stranger’s lap in the mall, just so she could have a cute picture for the family Christmas card. But if we’re honest, most of us are acutely afraid of a good many things, and this doesn’t change just because we overhear Jingle Bells playing in the grocery store.

This is beginning to look rather bleak. Why won’t Christmas save us out of our troubles? Perhaps somewhere in the myriad of inconveniences, in the puzzlement of heart-breaking misunderstandings, and even in the face of shame and fear, we can still hear the angels:

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy…
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!

Yes, it’s still my favorite part.


* Credit: The Polar Express. If you have never seen this, go rent it. Now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Little Update

Here's a little update on our lives here from the good folks at the BBC:

Strikes in France

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Ah. Settling into my sunlit apartment, freshly-brewed cup of coffee steaming next to me, and a thick slice of grainy, chewy bread smothered in blue cheese so fine it tastes like candy. It is Sunday, a fine morning to finally update the blog. I think I'll...

My eyes fall on uncorrected homework and unfinished lesson plans. Dishes. Paperwork. Errands. Books to read before the semester's up. Things come in piles these days.

All that to say, I'll be taking about a three week hiatus from lifelong fling. Recreational writing is taking a back burner for a season. But don't worry - things will still be simmering. See you at the beginning of December.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stop and smell the pipe smoke.

The strangest things can happen sometimes, if you are willing to let them.

In the space of time that it takes to see the dentist, or see a movie, or to see a friend for a cup of coffee, I was in fact doing none of these things yesterday. The air was bright and cool in-between the buildings, and my feet irresponsibly led me from one side of the narrow street to the other, dipping into blues and greys. I had to dodge a few people, but mainly my eyes were busy scanning and recording every angle and dip and hue, every golden wall that struck it rich in the late sun. After a while it became arduous to remember it all, so I tried to capture my found pleasures with a cheap pen and scrap paper. No luck. Note to self: buy a camera or art supplies. Or both.

Sometimes, within a such a space of time - separate somehow from the before and after - the heightened senses can pick up on something extraordinary that would, on any other day, slip through the ordinary cracks in the sidewalk. Tastes, sounds - especially smells.

Pipe smoke, for instance. It wasn't quite a week ago, when I found myself walking beside a portly gentleman with an impressive wonder of carved wood gracefully dipping in front of his equally-impressive wonder of a chin. I had to shake off my little fancy to follow him. That day - every minute pressed and squeezed for optimal performance - did not allow me to follow the delicious odour which trailed behind him in thin wisps.

Yesterday, however.

Yesterday, I had afforded myself the luxury of no particular aim for a couple of hours, and with all my senses acutely reminding me of this achingly beautiful world I live in, there and then I formed the conviction that I would like very much to visit a certain museum in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, I was not sure of its location. It was precisely at this opportune moment of reflexion that I caught a whiff of it again.

Ceci was unmistakably une pipe.

I think if I hadn't been brought around, partaking of a repeated pleasure, the first pipe probably would have faded, been forgotten. But here it was again, in living colour, and enriching all the world around me with wonderment. The two experiences stood towering in my memory, like solid pillars of cloud. I simply had to follow. Parallel to my singular delight at this second chance, another fanciful thought flitted through my mind. Would these delicious threads pull me to my desired destination? In a moment, it seemed inevitable.

Now, please understand that I did not want to alarm this poor gentleman (who was not portly, by the way, nor did he have a chin that is worth writing about, but was a rather ordinary-looking person), but I do not believe that he suspected my odd proceedings, for he continued to whistle and puff through his sunny walk as blissfully unaware as any stalker could hope for.

With a start, I came to my senses - the sensible ones, that is. Following complete strangers around, and in broad daylight? I scolded myself for indulging in such irrational behaviour, and took my gaze off of the back of my poor Pied Piper's head. Several brisk steps later, I had brushed past and was heading, with businesslike resolve, for the Musee Cognacq-Jay before it closed. The spell was broken.

Exactly fifteen slow minutes later (I checked my watch), I stood fuming at the maze of dead ends, narrow passageways, and badly-positioned tourism signs that make up the 4th arrondissement. The wind had changed, and my sails hung limp. Dragging my feet, I turned an unfamiliar corner- only to pick up the scent of a familiar ghost. There he was, strolling in front of me as always, whistling and smoking by turns. He ducked left into a new street. What did I have to lose? Around the bend, he was squinting at a small stone plaque, pipe in hand. I approached - nonchalantly, of course- and read with great surprise the name of my long hoped-for harbor. The very doorstep. Though he could not say the same.

"Excusez- moi, est-ce que vous connaissez ou se trouve le Musee Picasso? Je ne suis pas de Paris."

I was half-surprised that this phantom - angel?- had removed its mouthpiece and was somehow addressing me directly in a very warm, human voice. It was certainly French - though "not from Paris," by its own cheerful admission. Did I know where to find the Picasso museum. Could I point it out to him. Flustered and shy from the sheer irony of it all, I finally offered the use of the map in my bag. * A few brief, cordial exchanges later, the smoldering herald was on its way, leaving a whisper of fragrant thanks behind.

Merci, indeed.

* Yes, I did know that I had a map. But what would I write about if I always relied on that?

Friday, October 05, 2007

A wing and a prayer

One of our main philosophies in our life together is that we're called on to take a ride on a wing and a prayer from time to time. This is the principle of lifelong fling: operating on spontaneity and a heavy dose of the grace of God, and letting the potent combination take us where it will.

So, rewind the tape about a week and half.

-Ab, did you see that JF has a few train tickets that he can't use?
-Yeah, I thought about it....we probably have flexible enough schedules.
-I wonder how many tickets there are...
-I think it's just for one person.
-And another set of tickets would be too pricey. I guess...
-I really want to use those tickets.
-You yourself? (understood: without me?!)
-Well, yeah.

But...but...what? How can you argue with a husband who clearly loves adventure, happens upon windfall means for a trip, and all but promises to bring back wine from Bordeaux? After struggling a while with the fact that fate had not sent me an invitation to the same party, I finally waved the white flag of surrender, and Karl was the proud owner of train tickets from Paris-Nice, Nice-Bordeaux, and Bordeaux-Paris.

He initially conceived of this trip as streamlined bike camping on a road bike: stuffing his panniers with bivouac, cheese, and bread, while visions of toe clips danced in his head. As the departure date approached, however, frantic searches for a decent ride turned up little fruit. The good 'ol townie - clunky racks, lights, and heavy pedals & all - would have to do. At least for this time around. One borrowed Thermarest, a cheap tarp and set of tent stakes, some layers of clothing, and a first aid kit rounded out the supplies, and the man was ready for his 5-day escapade.

Excerpts from a wife's text message archive...

Day 1

Woo-hoo! Both the bike and I made it on the train. Pretty smooth. Thanks for the food. Aix-en-Provence looks pretty cool. This energy drink I bought is nasty. Word.

Anyway, pretty wet today. Bike works ok. Bag on rack not super graceful. Nice coffee shop guy gave directions to camping near Antibes. He said the way to Italy wasn't that good. Not sure I believe him on that point. Regardless I'll go up into the hills and a little bit further east. Cool picture I took of the moon rising over a storm behind the city. Word.

Day 2

Yeah, it's sunny in Beaulieu-sur-mer. It wasn't in Nice until about 19h, but really cool there. I camped closer to Monaco between a huge cliff, a sandwich shop, and the water. Now maybe Italy and camp in the same place, or back to Nice and camp on the west side - where the guy said to in the first place. Time for sunscreen either way.

Day 3

Yup...rolling through Nimes and I'm sure it's fun but hard to say why that'd be true by the looks of it. Not as graceful for the bike storage but okay and normally they charge 10 E and just have space for 6. Shower and wash pants would be good soon. No formal tourist activities just biking, grocery store, camp, rinse, and repeat. The Cote d'Azur is road-bikers heaven, I must say. Sometimes the wind is pretty firm but the coast turns and then it's tailwind. Bought an International Herald Tribune and gazpacho. Makes for an interesting mood. Tranquille.

Day 4

Nah...No Italia. I made it to Monaco though. It's like Aruba with more Bentley dealers and fewer hotels and casinos but not that crazy or big. Smaller towns usually seem more fun but unless I had a gig I wouldn't come back. Can't complain about the Cote d'Azur though. Just saw an awesome seagull fight. Will try to find some music in Nice. Word.

Ah are the sleepiest French town I have ever seen. Found an ok-for-this-bike piste (trail) that leaves Bordeaux to the SE and goes pretty much east. Cool old stuff to see or so says the tourist office map. This morning I went to the market and got some food. There was this guy with an idea I thought was great: sell half and full liter quantities of higher quality box wine in bottled water bottles. So I got a demi of merlot and a reserve for 2.40. Yes. More than a full bottle of wine, already in plastic for safe bike transport. Did you have a cool weekend? Saturday in Bordeaux was ok but live music is banned after midnight, so I missed it. Oh well. Sweet dreams. Word.

Day 5

Well, I'm down to 70 centimes, but I've got my bases covered with food and such. Dodged a few rain showers finding bridges and shacks at the right time. We'll have to come back here because there are a lot of good bike paths through wine country and its not hilly. See you tomorrow.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What we finally did

When we landed at Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, we were greeted by a gathering of friendly faces and flowers. Our names were lovingly scrawled - yet again - onto the traditional von Gohren family Welcome Home sign. A guarantee that you've really been somewhere.

Welcome Home.

Do you know what it is like to relax within the borders of your homeland, after having to justify your existence to a foreign government for a while? Try to remember what it's like being chased by someone on the playground, bursting your lungs to avoid the reach of their fingers, and the relief that flooded your heightened adrenaline when you reached "base". Now, France is not even especially hostile towards Americans. We did play cat-and-mouse a bit with the administrative details (see my posts from about a year ago) , but imagine what it's like for an Algerian here. Or an American in Indonesia. Or a Jew in Palestine. Or a Mexican in Minnesota.

Regardless of whether foreign governments have extended a robust welcome to us over the past year, we have seen it manifestly abundant in another sector - indeed, where one might hope to see it - the Christian church. As foreigners and aliens, we've always been given a little space under the tent - be it in Paris, Morocco, Bayonne, or Minneapolis. Wherever we've wandered, God has provided for us through His people who, largely, seem to be putting their Bibles into practice:

"Beloved, it is a loyal thing you do when you render any service to the brethren, especially to strangers who have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey as befits God's service." (3 John 1:5-6)

Our Minnesota stay began with what is indubitably one of the sweetest outpourings of Christian service in the world...Sunday Pancakes at the Lewises. There is something eternal (I'm convinced) about the combination of ten of thousands of tasty carbohydrates covered in real maple syrup, gallons of high-test coffee, and high-spirited discussion on life, the universe, and everything. All accompanied by the constant plop-plop of more pancakes on the platter from Mom's spatula and Ethan's nervous fussing over the perfect background music.

Actually, looking back at our photos, I'm realizing that our visit largely consisted of gatherings around tables, especially ones on the right and the one below. We enjoyed immensely weaving meals together in large kitchens with these things called a dishwashers that clean up after you. Imagine that! And having gone a year without so much as touching a briquette (we cannot have barbecues within Paris proper), Karl joyously took up his Dad's flipper, turning out marvelous salmon and burgers by turns. I'm glad to see he hasn't lost his touch. Here, we had a chance to catch up with his sis and our two nieces, and get them hooked on our favorite German card game, Ligretto. Boy, do those girls learn fast!

Other memorable meals included: a superb, jovial dinner at our friends' David and Steph's house with about a dozen of our dearest friends, carrying off the catering project of the century for a Spanish wine-tasting fundraiser, and grazing over nibbles and stories on my grandparents' front porch in Ulen.


Ulen is a place where family ties are so strong, that even the thinnest and most brittle of strands will draw you back after years of absence. A four-hour drive northwest from the Cities through soybean and corn fields will take you past the "Lena's Lefse, Inc." building, the liquor store with the Viking ship, and into town. You pull over, walk down the quiet streets, and the one pickup that toddles by eyes you carefully - who is that, anyway? If he asked, you could tell him. You could take him to the graveyard, and show him how a third of the people buried there are "cousins" of one sort or another. (Heck, you're probably related to the guy in the pickup.) My great-great-great-great-great grandpapa founded this place in 1886, and we never forgot it. We never forget anything - we write up our histories in a big, blue book. They may only have one gas station, but they've got a newly-renovated town museum, and the guestbook says they just got a couple of visitors from Paris, France.

It is a really cool museum.

You know, it's one thing to wander around the Musee Carnavalet, seeing historical objects and paintings from the French Revolution era. Fascinating, but no real personal connection. It's quite another to walk through a museum with your grandma (that's my Nana at right) , and have her point out the Civil War portrait of your great-great-great-great grandfather as a young soldier in the Union army, or his wife's lefse-making stick on the other side of the room. We spent over two hours in this remarkably rich repository. I could've stayed hours longer, soaking in all the history.

Across town, my great-grandma Blenda had been anticipating us for weeks. She still makes the best oatmeal cookies ever. As talented at storytelling as she is, as she wanted to hear all about our adventures in places like Morocco and France, so we swapped tales. And almost as good as history is the present - finding out who's having babies, bandying about ideas for the next wedding, talking about our strange life abroad, trading recipes. All of this fueled by the constant flow of coffee from the pot. When we left (a little too late in the evening, as usual) for the long haul back to Minneapolis, that caffeine came in handy.

I like how my great-grandma always insists on saying "bye, bye" instead of "good-bye", since "there's nothing good about it". Apparently, these were my sentiments exactly, as I burst into tears in the middle of the terminal last Sunday, waiting for our plane to return to Europe. After a good cry on Karl's shoulder, he asked me: "are you sure you want to go through with this?" I answered with a sniffle in the positive. He left and came back with a large hot chocolate from Caribou. Wise man.

7 hours of jetlag, that I can get over. Leaving home? I don't think we ever really get over that.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

What we did....Part II

So, what do you get when you combine a couple of adventuresome friends, luscious homegrown fruits and vegetables, fresh baguettes and ripe cheese, a few bottles of carefully chosen wine, rollicking music, a rolling mountain range and deep draughts of countryside air?

You get Bardos.

Bardos is a place where people still live in houses with names, not numbers. You can mount a bicycle for a serpentine ride through the valley and get passed by more tractors than SUVs. Gardens give up an awful lot more goodness than one would expect this side of Eden, what with the sunshine seeping into every tomato and basil leaf stretched joyously to the sky. It makes for a short walk to the “produce aisle”. But do plan ahead if you’re going to need something else like cheese, eggs, coffee or meat – it’s a fair drive down the road to get into town.

Who are those friendly people, anyway?

Meet Paul and Beatrice Dick, our gracious hosts and guides to the magical French Basque countryside. These two know a good spot of land when they see one - and love to show it off. We were treated to a string of delightful lessons. Among other things, Paul taught us that every bottle of wine has a story behind it, and that a mountain of fresh basil leaves will make exactly two trays full of pesto. Beatrice proved that four salads can make a perfect picnic, especially if you are eating them at the Place des Quatre Salades. She also convinced us that coffee is the only respectable way to terminate a meal, and hot is the only right way to drink it!

At night, we watch as the Pyrenées fade and the moon rises large, sometimes orange. At some point during the gradual eventide, bats begin – quite suddenly - to frantically dive and swoop for their supper, snapping us out of our own afterdinner, soporific trance. Shadows dance all around, and as long as we grab a sweater and cafes, we’re good for at least another forty-five minutes on the patio. Life stories, future plans, and all that stretch in-between called the present. What a present.

And then there was Marciac.

Back along these country roads which border rows upon rows of field corn, somewhere in the midst of all that quiet, faithful industry - lies the tiny town of Marciac. Largely uneventful for fifty weeks out of the year, it awakens every July with the world at its well-swept doorstep. Thanks to Wynton Marsalis’ direction, this 30-year music festival has developed into a full-fledged mecca for jazz. We were fortunate enough to join the throng for one day, which included several afternoon sets by up-and-coming artists, and an evening show by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Wynton himself (see the blurry...I mean, impressionistic photo at left). This jazz giant modestly sidestepped the stoplight not a few times to showcase a young gentleman with unique form of percussion – his happy, tap-dancin’ feet. We stumbled to the van about 2 am, spread out our sleeping bags sous la belle étoile, and slept until the sun awoke us to head back home – but not without stopping for a croissant and café on the way back.

Other excursions included a visit to the historical site of a battle in 778 when Roland was thoroughly sent packing by the native Basques. Local pride in the Basque heritage is hard to miss, with both official road signs and angrily-sprayed graffiti displaying the strange-looking language from nowhere and everywhere. Great-great-great....grandchildren of those victorious warriors gather to dance at the Fete de Bayonne, and patiently teach the ancient steps to the one million visitors who gather in red and white to meet, drink, and be merry. We wandered and wove through the two-colored sea, trying not to lose our companions, all being similarly bedecked in festival array.

Too soon, it was time to stuff our party hats into the suitcase, and board the train yet again, bound for dear old Paris. To be continued...

(Merci mille fois, Paul et Beatrice!)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"What I did with my summer vacation" Part I

Rather than living in one place, we chose to spend two months sans domicile fixe, wandering around by plane, train, auto, donkey, bike, surfboard, and foot to see what a little planning, some serendipity, and God's good sovereignty could come up with. It's a curious feeling, being without a permanent address. "Home" becomes a fluid concept, meaning anything from a tent in a campground, to a guest room in a bustling city, to a friend's couch in Paris, to family in Minnesota. The actual space becomes less relevant, while what is truly lasting and fixed into clearer focus; that is, relationships built with people along the way. It is chiefly thanks to friends who graciously opened their homes to us that we were able to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch so much new territory. And for that we are so grateful.

Our adventures began in Messanges, France, with two of our very best friends from Germany, Thomas and Conni. We joined them for several days and braved some unseasonably chilly and rainy weather to surf and camp along a very lovely portion of the Côte Atlantique. Thank goodness for wetsuits. Despite the conditions, Karl fell irreperably in love with the sport, I'm afraid, and I foresee many future vacations where I will be doing a lot of barefoot beach running while my husband scrambles to catch waves and suck in seawater. Doesn't sound so bad. Before we were too tempted to completely quit our careers and become professional beach bums, we found ourselves shaking the sand out of our shoes and boarding a plane to North Africa.

The first time around, Marrakech meant boarding a hot dusty train and riding it north towards our friends Thibault and Samia. Thibault is a drummer that Karl works with in Paris, and a terrific friend as well. He and Samia recently wed, and they were happy to show us around her hometown of Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Like many cities in this ever-changing country, it has a split personality. One half is the medina, or old town, where many of the butchers, bakers, fruit and veg sellers, rug makers, jewelers, and craftsmen of all sorts set up shop. The other half is the sleek and modern nouvelle ville, where self-important businessmen strut around with newspapers under their arm, people buy baguettes in French-style boulangeries, and girls decide to flaunt their newly-found freedom in (usually-forbidden) miniskirts and the highest of heels.

We couldn't visit nearby Casablanca without setting the piano player in front of a piano, and so the obvious venue was Rick's café, a classy joint that is meant to reflect the film. The piano player who warmed up the keys was named Issam (as in, "play it again, Issam..."), and he and the drummer were able to switch with Karl and Thibault for a few tunes throughout the evening. What an experience. And if I'm allowed to say so, my husband was smokin' hot.

Next, thanks to a recommendation from a new friend named Omar, we were encouraged to board a train to Meknes and stay with his aunt and uncle. We were greeted by mint tea, delicate Moroccan pastries, and the news that we could be escorted that evening by our hosts, Touria and Melek, to a traditional wedding, if we didn't mind. Would we like to come? The answer was an emphatic oui, which swept us up in a a whirlwind of activity of primping, donning kaftans, and departing (in two different cars, so as to keep men separate from women) for a showcase of Moroccan hospitality at its most spectacular. The whole experience lasts from about 9 in the evening until 6 or 7 in the morning. It includes about 7 costume changes for the bride, along with a goodly amount of pomp and paegantry to show them off. 'Round midnight, we were treated to a feast of many courses that featured, among other extravagances, an entire sheep for each table of six. And as if one orchestra wasn't enough, their were two music groups present; setting the ambience, and setting our feet and bellies to dancing at regular intervals. Unforgettably fun.

Full of memories and bleary-eyed, we board the train the next morning for Fes. An incomparable place. Enterning the medina by way of the imposing Bab Bejeloud (below), you find yourself in another world. No one winding street is the same, just as no fingerprint is the same; they are traces that witness to the city's total richness, the sum of its experiences as a space. We let ourselves get pushed around, haggled, and wheedled for a while, like a couple of pinballs in a neverending maze of a machine. Bumped and rolled between street boys who beg to be your guide for a few cents. Most of these little ones with big eyes grow into the taller ones who patrol like sharks, watching carefully for someone's open purse. I remember the dear Andalousian man with clear eyes and bad teeth. He should work for UNESCO, what with his sincere little speeches in very good English about the equality of man. "Would you like some tea?" Every store we hesitate in front of, they offer mint tea, mint tea, mint tea. The centerpiece of Moroccan generousity becomes a bargaining chip to get you to buy a drum, a kaftan, spices... After about three hours of sensory overload, we somehow extract oursevles from a Berber gentleman's workshop with many thank yous, and race for the hotel for a moment of repose and Coca on the terrasse. Subsequent days teach us how to ride this wave of commerce and colorful experience without getting sucked under too many times.

Finally, Marrakech. Though this city has become disappointingly touristy for many people, we were still fascinated by the nightly gatherings of food and entertainment at the center place, Jemaa al Fna, and gobbled down soup, tea, tajines, and spectacles galore. There are too many beautiful things to recount. Daily, we were struck by God's creative hand at work in the faces and souls of these generous-spirited people.
(To be continued...)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

"You'd think it was a shipwreck!"

Our usually calm apartment has been something like the opening scene of one of my favorite children's books, The Winter Bear. As three children are prepare to leave the house for a walk, they throw out demands right and left...along with some clothing items.

"Where's my boot?"
"Where's my sweater?"
"I don't need a hat."
"Oh yes, you do!"
What a to-do.
You'd think it was a shipwreck.

After their bout of packing frenzy, Karl and Abbey are off to various exotic lands. Our travels may or may not include trooping in the occasional cybercafe, but we're signing off from regular blogging for a spell. We'll return in a month or so from Southwest France, Morocco, and maybe a few other places...with plenty of stories to tell.

By the way, "various exotic lands" includes our home turf of Minnesota, where we'll be staying from August 18-September 9, so drop us a note if you'd like to hang out. We're about ready to spend some muggy Minnesota nights, days at the lake, tasty barbecues, and Twins games with our dear ones. To all of our friends that go way back, and family that are our best friends....a bientot!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Having time

For the past couple of days, I have been relishing a little tome from 1573 in the Rare Books division of my beloved library. It is about the size of a PDA, but infinitely more charming and fascinating. My technology-enamoured friends will probably challenge me on that point, probably listing in the merits of the lastest Blackberry that they are able to "communicate" easily with others. So say I of the book. Does it not present an occasion for conversation between author and reader? This is not a particularly novel idea, I know, but one that has recently been reinforced for me recently in a decidely comical way.

For have you ever had the distinct experience of a book catching you in the act of doing or thinking something very specific? It can be disconcerting to have your mind read
by a book, while all the while you thought the reverse was happening. Especially when that book is over four hundred years old. Several days ago, I leafed through the delicate pages of The 21 Epistles of Ovid, "newly" translated into French and scribbled in my notebook nearby - all of the poem titles, illustrations, and page numbers. So as to go back later and investigate in more detail. I was feeling oh-so productive but also time-conscious, since the library was soon to be closing. Suddenly, my eyes fell upon the following verses from the editor Charles Fontaine, addressed to his "dear readers":

Maint bon esprit en ce voyant se fache
De perdre temps, & souvent se contente

Du titltre seul qui a l'oeil presente.

Many a good mind, in seeing this [book] is exasperated

With passing time, and often contents himself

With only the title that presents itself to the eye.

It's hard enough to translate the verses, much less the feeling of being caught bloody-handed by a complete stranger s
everal centuries old. The fact of the matter is, human nature hasn't changed much since the 16th. Impatient skimmers will always be. Now, some situations call for riffling rather than depth, of course. But Fontaine's admonition is timeless nonetheless, and brought me up short. Laughing ruefully at myself for falling into such a typical trap, I continued on, making an effort to savor rather than rush.

There is a fairy tale that is flitting through my mind in bits and pieces...something about a damsel wanting to s
kip through the boring parts of her life. In reponse to her plea, she is given a spool of golden thread by her fairy godmother, who warns her not to pull the thread unless absolutely necessary. You can see where this is going. Of course she gets impatient, and pulls it almost immediately. Just a little bit, and her life advances to when she is a happy young married woman. What joy! But the novelty soon wears off, and she pulls it again, but harder. She has many beautiful children. When they start to squawk and irritate her, she grabs for her golden thread yet again. Soon, she is old, gray, and regretful that she ever laid hands on the spool, for her life will soon be over and she has little or no meaning attached to those years.

I've been thinking about my own life, and wondering what my spool of golden thread is. We are only given a finite number of hours in our life, and yet I am often tempted to lay hold of an activity just to kill time. The Internet provides me with the majority of tugs on the thread. Youtube, facebook, google image search, you name it. I a
lso fall back on crosswords, snacking purely out of boredom, and TV. It is true that we all need down time, but meaningful activity can be found in the realms of both leisure and labor. My (very human) problem is that even when I am engaged in these, I find my attentions wandering, "exasperated with passing time." Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote:

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Tumid apathy with no concentration

Uh, can anyone say "myspace"? Oh, that I could find that "still point in the turning world", that place of contentment more often! But this world is not friendly to those who wish to stand still. While waiting for a friend yesterday, for example, I was obliged to try to remain stationary on a busy Parisian sidewalk for about five minutes. Impossible. The result was a barrage of dirty looks and jostlings. No one will be still, nor let another be still. The excuse?

We don't "have time".

Friday, June 22, 2007

O, (Long) Happy Day

June 21. The longest day of the year. Someone in the course of your yesterday must have noticed this interesting little factoid, I'm sure, and briefly remarked on the marvelous length of a summer day. Perhaps, if you are from the upper Midwest, you even exchanged a little "yep" or two, just to seal the deal. Karl (from Minnesota) and Todd (from Ohio) are perfectly positioned - at a ninety-degree angle - for this sort of conversation.

"Yep. Sure stays light out for longer."
"Yep, sure does."

Well, Parisians do commemorate June 21st, but not in understated conversation about the obvious. Instead, they fill every one of those elongated hours with the most obvious pastime: music. The Fete de la Musique has been celebrated in France for the past 25 years, giving anyone with an iota of musical aspiration a chance to set up sound gear in the open air and play for Paris at large. And I do mean anyone. As we rode our bikes into the center of town to meet up with friends, we passed through layer after varied layer of sound. As soon as the metal band (rather stubbornly) faded away, we would be within earshot of a New Orleans-style brass band, which overlapped with the accordionist, who mingled rather comically with the drum jam further down the street. And so on. All night long...right down to the colorful Caribbean band fronted by the reincarnation of Carmen Miranda, who finally put down her maracas at 2:30 am, I think.

We spent a large share of the evening hanging around Genesis, which is the cultural center that belongs to our church. To everyone's surprise (including his wife's), Karl chose to sit back and enjoyed the show for the night, rather than jump in and participate. The woman playing the keys in the photo is Lorelei, who rocked the night away with her husband Ron on bass and a bunch of our other pals. It was most excellent, especially the strong dose of gospel that finished the set. Yep. We had people dancin' in the street, all amongst the roar of mopeds and police sirens that are inevitable on wilder nights in Paris. (Oh wait...that's every night.)

Well, as we took the party further afield, it became clear that the carnevalesque spirit was a bit more potent than usual. The guy at right who was practicing his parlor tricks for a delighted crowd, and (eventually) a group of disgruntled firefighters that made him put his toys away. This was at the youthful Place St.-Michel, which was littered with concert fliers and broken bottles, much to my chagrin when I had to bike home.

Yes, eventually even the best of parties lose their momentum, and there is a turning point when the majority of the crowd realizes how late it is, how much they have to go to the bathroom, how ill they feel, how hungry they are, etc. By about 2 pm, Paris was showing signs of feeling rather upset and betrayed by her pleasures, which we took as an indication to head home.

All of which makes me yearn for that happy day that will be the longest of all. That party will not end in police searches, swollen-eyed damsels, shifting shadows, and streets of broken glass. It will begin with the return of our King, who will come and make all things new. Even the bedraggled streets of Paris. Even those disheveled partygoers who have put their trust in Him. Even me.