Thursday, January 25, 2007

Little Works of Grace

Well, we finally managed to tear ourselves away from dear old Paris for a few days. It all started with Karl's treasure-trove discovery of free train tickets to Brussels and Amsterdam. Free, for real? Yep. Some guy had to cancel his fabulous European trip, and didn't want to go through the headache of scalping an entire stack of non-refundable tickets. So he gave them away, first-come, first-serve-style. And we were the grateful recipients of a couple of them. God is so good. And some guy in Maine deserves some decent Belgian chocolate.

So, what's Brussels all about? For your average tourist who is just blowin' through, mainly beer, chocolate, mussels and fries. Also, their main monument, which is a statue of a little boy relieving himself in a fountain, named (to the delight of all backpacking frat boys) the Manneken Pis. Seriously, everybody makes just a little too much of this, even going so far as to dress the ugly little thing up in different costumes every week. (Really, if you don't have an Eiffel Tower or a Coliseum, just say so. We'll understand.)

Still, just around the corner from this awkward moment, we stumbled upon booksellers housed in beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, lovely artisan chocolate shops, twisty streets, antique shops, and waffle trucks. This last item was especially appreciated when we first arrived, as the cold of winter had finally descended on Northern Europe at large. These little yellow vans putter around town, happily handing you gauffres (french for warm, sticky goodness) for 1,50 E. Once coated with sugar inside and out, we wove our way through the streets to the beautiful central square (Grote Markt), where we toured the Brewer's Guild. It was okay as far as self-guided tours go, but the beer they served afterwards was (sorry to say!) underwhelming. As far as both museums and beer went, the best was yet to come.

Namely, the Museum of Musical Instruments. Thank goodness we are so nerdy about the musical arts, or we might not have embarked on this fascinating venture. It was really a state-of-the-art setup, with wireless headphones, so if you stood in front of a cornemuse, a portative organ, or a theremin, it would switch automatically to a track playing music on that particular object. We were like two kids in a candy store, running one exhibit to the other. It was tasty.

Speaking of taste, let's return to the topic of Belgian food and drink. Now, even those of you who are not beer fans might just find yourselves converted in this country. In fact, they are so into proselytizing, they put their religious people to work in this department. And they're quite happy about the job security, as you can see below. This is a place where fine ales take on the qualities of fine wines, a place where you might find yourself holding a frothy goblet and saying silly things like "I really can taste the bitter orange peel and star anise against the backdrop of the hops." This is wine country for beer-drinkers, and we lived it up. In addition, the various selections were welcome thirst-quenchers next to the piles of steamed mussels and crispy fries that we mowed down on later that evening.

The next morning, we hopped the train again and continue on to discover our newly-beloved, the city of Amsterdam. Strange, lucid, planned, buffeted by cold winds, yet welcoming and warm. We explored first on foot, until we wised up and rented bikes, which of course, is the only way to go. They have bike lanes that go everywhere, and even special traffic lights just for the two-wheelers.

Our most hilarious experience probably was getting kicked out of a coffee-shop for not smoking pot. Yup. There are some places where you've got to order something off the menu of the fragrant and flagrant variety - and I don't mean tea. The attendant was quite polite about it, but firmly informed us that this was indeed the case. He invited us to make our way across the alleyway to a bar if we just wanted a coffee. (This was even funnier in retrospect, since we had gotten ejected from a bar in Brussels for not ordering a drink right away. We just wanted to listen to the music, then order something later. Nope, no dice. So, how to be rebellious in Europe these days? Well, don't drink and don't smoke for starters.)

But wasn't I just singing the praises of the welcoming residents? Yes, indeed. While we were pedaling, wide-eyed tourists by day (taking in the Anne Frank museum, windmills, and such), by night, we tried to find places where locals seemed to be hanging out. The first night led us to a cosy spot where we shared more belgian beer and some pretty deep conversation with two Amsterdamers. The second night dropped us into the clutches of a fabulous trio playing at the one jazz club in town, headlined by a piano player whose style was incredibly reflective of one of Karl's heroes, Ahmad Jamal. This older Dutch gentleman is a true maestro, and we have visions of carting him over to Minneapolis to play the Dakota one happy day. (And we didn't get asked to leave simply because we didn't hail the bartender for an Amstel the instant we darkened the door. Amazing!)

Our final morning in Amsterdam is worth going into. We still had our bikes, and a couple more hours to kill before heading home to Paris. So, Karl proposed a windmill-sighting. (What else does one do in Holland?) So, we steamed along and across canals to the east side of town, and found this lovely contraption, which now houses a brewery. There was a little red restaurant, where we parked our little red bikes. So very gezellig. As are so many Dutch things. We took a coffee to warm up, and as we were sitting there, we suddenly realized that delightful little puffs of white were floating down in the half-sunshine. We totally flipped out. This was the first snowfall these winter-starved Minnesota kids have seen since moving across the Atlantic. It was a magical moment, and so simple. Just a brief bit of time when these miniature miracles (like little works of grace) became millions of signs, accumulating in minuscule to the glorious conclusion that our dear Lord loves us.

Just when we think we can't take any more beauty, He surprises us with His grace. Just when we think we can't take any more pain, He's likely to do the same. This entire trip was a gift from Him who holds all things, from start to finish. And what can you say in the face of that, but...

ank u.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Bonne continuation!"

This encouraging French phrase literally means (as one might guess) "good continuation". Which doesn't mean a whole lot in English. It's something like "keep up the good work," but with a slightly more admiring tone. Absolutely a balm to a tired soul. Another unbelievably cheering thing to hear on a difficult day is "bon courage". Now, there seems to be a slight difference between the two. If you are propping up your fellow neighbor with a "courage," this is usually reserved for especially trying situations. Such as, we had plenty of practice shouting it up the climbing wall last Sunday, while we took turns clutching footholds barely wide enough for an ant to have a tea party on. Those two words are enough to get you up to the next (equally tiny) handhold. "Bonne continuation" is also meant to give you a boost, but it tends to appear in less dramatic, possibly mundane affairs.

It doesn't seem to me that we have the habit of saying these sorts of phrases in English very often, but they seem to be everyday fodder in this country. For example, you start to chat with the bouquiniste (bookseller) selling his wares along the Seine, and pretty soon you find yourself launching into your life story because these guys are just so darn curious about how a young American finds their way to a career in Renaissance French Literature. Forty-five minutes later, they're clapping you on the back with a hearty "bonne continuation!" Suddenly, you feel quite certain that you could defend a doctoral thesis any day, even if the committee was made up of a host of dragons.

Or you're running in the park, and another jogger pulls up alongside and starts to chat. They pepper you with questions, until they discover that you're American and want to know why you're in France. After your run (which you've prolonged, because of the complex and fascinating conversation you found yourself in about America's foreign policy), you part ways, your new running partner exhorting you with a good-natured "bonne continuation!" You could run a marathon on that sort of encouragement. (Hmm. There's an thought.)

Then there's always the sheer tenacity and hard work it takes to carve out a musical life in a new city. So, you go to a music store to ferret out helpful resources, in paper or people form. Soon, you are comparing notes with another musician on places to gig out, a conversation which could easily be capped off with a cool, laid-back: "euh...bonne continuation." Practice the next day rolls around, and there's a new spring in your step.

It's the kind of thing that we're ready to hear at this point. We've been here for three months, and things are settling into a sort of routine. Paris is forever spontaneous and dear, but our lives here are not meant to just be an extended vacation. (Believe it or not.) We are discovering that our days here are meant to be shaped around purpose. Many of these remain to be defined, but we take comfort in the truth that "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10).

It's the kind of thing that I am always needing to hear. (So insightful of my fellow Parisians to notice.) I don't know about you, but I'm the sort of person that gets really wound up about something new, but I tend to peter out on the follow-through part. Like, I'll do a regimen of sit-ups religiously for exactly four weeks, and then somehow completely forget about them. Ok, maybe sit-ups are forgettable. But it's still frustrating. Imagine what a "bonne continuation" from time to time would do for my abdominal muscles!

Not to mention my spiritual muscles. In fact, one could argue that this is why regular and robust meetings between fellow Christians must take place. So, whether you are in need of a heavy dose of courage or simply a renewed fervor to keep going strong in your lives, we offer you all a most wholehearted:

Bon courage et bonne continuation!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Will it Go Round in Circles

If "it" is an Abbey, it probably will. Most of you will already be familiar with my infamous penchant for getting lost. I maintain that this is because I rely heavily on the sun and stars for orientation, neither of which are often at our disposal in the dead of winter. (Okay, okay - I can hear you all snorting and snickering. ) But take last Saturday. All stoked and suited up for a 6-mile training run in a park just east of Paris, I opened the curtains to...

flat, grey sky.

"Don't worry. Everything will be okay. I studied the names of the pathways. Most of them..." With this shaky understanding, I hopped on the metro in my flashy running shorts - a surefire way to draw disconcerted looks from fellow Parisians- and found my way to the southeastern edge of the city, Bois de Vincennes. First of all, it felt SO GOOD to be back on the trails. (Some of you don't know this, but I injured my left knee and had to take a couple months off to rest and strengthen it. The break made me realize how obsessive...I passionate I am about this sport.)

Back to the path. And what a path! Vincennes is something like a monstrous conglomeration of the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, The State Fairgrounds, several nature parks, Como Zoo, and why don't you throw in Canterbury Park and a velodrome while you're at it. In retrospect, the majority of the park is fairly calm and woodsy, but I really had to wonder during the first stretch, during which I cruised past a circus with a beautiful Great Dane as big as Cerberus, a guy peeing behind a truck (not so unusual, that one), a boisterous family yelling at each other, a police station with shady-looking characters hanging about, and a hippodrome, complete with plasma screens to watch as I plodded by. Strange goings-on, but since I kept seeing other runners, I decided to follow through with my plan.

Until it came to the turnaround point. I knew the name of the correct path, but where was that sucker? After numerous map consultations and squintings at the characterless sky, I circled the same lake several times and landed myself in a Cambodian garden. At this inconvenient moment, I found myself completely tapped - thirsty, hungry, and pretty sore. While I tried to figure out another route home (perhaps one they had decided to mark), I busied myself with imagining the large bowl of hot couscous I would eat for lunch if I ever made it out alive.

Then suddenly, the sun came out. Oh, joy! With renewed vigor, I re-oriented myself, tightened up my laces, and within a half-hour or so, I was trotting into the park entrance. O, what a little sunlight can do!

Karl says it's because I'm heliotropic. Or solar-powered, come to think of it. Of course, the sun can have a hugely damaging effect on things as well. Oil paintings and antique furniture, for example. So, museums are generally short on windows, and I am totally outta luck. Guaranteed to wander.

Last week, Karl tracked down a fascinating (and free!) museum that emphasizes the history of Paris, so we meandered over to the Marais, the oldest part of Paris, to check it out. The Musee Carnavalet, which bills itself as the "most Parisian of the museums in the the capital city", is chock full of treasures spanning from prehistoric times (pots and boats and things found in excavations), to Gallo-Roman remains, to medieval woodcarvings, to oil paintings of movers and shakers from the Renaissance, a dizzying amount of furniture from the various Louis' eras, and trinkets and documents from the French Revolution. Everything is there (except, perhaps, the original guillotine. That would be gross.) In addition, the famous Mme. de Sevigne lived here for quite a while. It's like walking through a timeline, if you do it from start to finish. Which, of course, we didn't do. Per usual, I got distracted by the 16th century, and didn't find my spouse until about an hour and a half later (but not before re-living the belle epoque, like three times. Once was plenty, I can assure you). Still, we both had a terrific time, and compared notes to get the "whole" story.

In general, I've just resigned myself to the fact that I will spend a lot of my life going in circles of various kinds, and the One who directs my path is going to make sense of it. And come to think of it, some of the greatest adventures begin in the middle of wandering journeys. Joshua and the children of Israel, The Apostle Paul, Ulysses, Lancelot, the end, they all arrived home, safe and sound. Eventually.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Lazy, hazy, crazy days of...winter?!

The last few months of 2006 for us were filled with everyday wonder, heart-breaking complexities, innumerable and memorable new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and an assurance underneath it all that there is a God who gives us the very best for each day, be it aventure or m├ęsaventure. This conviction does not come...let's say naturally. However, little by little, we are learning to return to this truth when things do not go our way. This is our "lifelong fling", throwing caution to the winds and waves that obey Him alone. "How we've proved him 'o'er and o'er!" And when we do, we are met with the undeniable truth that His goodness extends way beyond what we can ask or imagine....or write.

Still, I think I'll keep tryin'.

The stretch between Christmas and New Years' is something of a lazy blur. We vaguely remember cold winds, interspersed with warm houses, which were filled with happy people, good dinners, and music made and enjoyed. Also, somewhat recall getting caught in a few rainfalls, slipping around on a crowded ice skating rink, chilly gothic churches with achingly-beautiful music, a few late nights catching the metro, and sleeping a little more than usual. In short, our days have been unmarked by routine as the grey sky itself. Yes, apparently, even the sun went away on holiday for a while. I must say, this is a welcome respite after the whirlwind exhaustion of new job, new bands, new city, new country, new church, new pretty-much-everything. Perhaps we were too preoccupied with either pressing task or pressing pleasure to stop and take a deep breath.

In....out. Ah.

Okay. I'm all set. Now what's next?

As for the man of the house, he's about to take his keyboard a-giggin' for the first few times. I should mention that he did bring his instrument to the New Years' fete at our friends' house, which was a huge hit, of course. We all sang till we were blue in the face and the seconds ticked down to 2007. Really, you haven't lived until you're stuffed full of raclette and champagne, trying to sing Broadway tunes and count down the year at the top of your lungs, at the same time.

But I digress. At the end of January, Karl will be participating extensively in an open jam hosted by our church in a former music club with a 13th-century basement stage. Then, he's got at least two gigs in February and March with some jazz cats. In addition he's been wrapping his brain around a promising project with a vocalist, which will also result in gigs quite soon. It's a difficult thing to uproot yourself musically (especially from your hometown) and get to know a whole new scene, but he seems to be grafting himself in with the cool, laid-back ease that I appreciate so much in my husband.

The calming effect that he has (on me in particular) will be most welcome when I return to the working world in another week or so. The January session kicks off with a whole battery of oral exams, guaranteed to leave us all exhausted. Then, a whole a new teaching schedule to get in accustomed to, which will (thankfully) be easier, since I'll be teaching about half the amount of time than I did last semester. Which means that I will be trekking a bit more often the faintly-worn path to the library that I beat only few times last semester. And speaking of paths, I'll also be logging training miles in preparation for the April marathon, Lord willing.

Happy New Year, everyone! In 2007, "o, for grace to trust Him more!"