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!)