Saturday, November 29, 2008

Merci and Mercies

French word merci and the English word mercy seem to be something like fraternal twins separated at birth. They are both the progeny of the Latin word merces, which my dictionary tells me means "price paid for something, wages, reward." The meaning of our mercy in modern English is thanks to those innovators, the first followers of Christ:

"The early Christians of Rome used the word in a slightly different way. For them it meant the spiritual reward one receives for doing a kindness in response to an unkindness. The word came into early French as mercit or merci with much the same meaning as was later passed on to our Modern English word mercy." (Merriam-Webster)

If only the ancient Romans had known how common - and drained of its meaning - this word would become in modern French. Millions of people in Paris exchange it numerous times a day for a polite je vous en prie (you're welcome) without thinking about it too much. Someone hands us sandwich, and we say merci. Someone holds the door for us and we say merci. But I doubt if your average modern would say it if he were tortured for praying to the God he does. In fact, at first glance, it doesn't make any sense. But those early faithful had such a firm grasp on their own spiritual pardon before God, it compelled them to extend that pardon to others regardless of the way they were treated.

"What are you thankful for?" As we went around the dinner table, the responses were sincere and heartfelt - community, friends in a foreign land, food, family, etc. The Lord loves all thankful hearts. But I'm wondering how my little tribute would stand up next to a response from the Apostle Paul, Stephen and all those guys. They rejoiced that they were worthy to suffer for His name's sake. I rejoice that I've had a year fairly free of suffering. Hm. If my eyes shift even a little from physical benefits to the spiritual over the next year, I will be really thankful.

The word Thanksgiving (pronounced tanks-geeving-eh) is less of a linguistic mystery, having been borrowed quite recently into French vocabulary. They tried to float the idea of le jour de l'action de grace (lit., the day of the action of thanks) for a while. Alas, the French are too much in love with English these days for that sort of thing, and they preferred to swallow the real thing whole, with all of the zeal of a 10-year-old attacking his pumpkin pie. There is even a store named Thanksgiving, where you can buy jellied cranberry sauce for 5 euro a can. I hear you can also order a whole turkey in advance, but we weren't quite organized enough to plan ahead this year.

Which left me cruising around the city for most of Wendesday afternoon from butcher to grocery store to butcher, looking for a bird. No, madame, it is much too early. The farmers haven't even given them to us yet. (It's a Christmas dish here.) Finally, at the eighth stop or so, I was elated to see one handsome specimen in a shop window, the last one. She was magnficent, complete with long black tail feathers and head hanging down, as if she knew her fate. 15 minutes later, she was trussed and prepared, and with profuse merci's to the kind staff, I happily carried her away like an oversized football under my arm. Score! It was probably one of the best turkeys I've ever had. I don't know if you're like me, but I love how almost all elements of a Thanksgiving meal (sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce, olives and pickles, etc.) can mingle on my plate and still taste amazing. Any other meal, and this is not okay with me. Must have something to do with gravy.

Yes, this was about as authentic a Thanksgiving as you can create when in a foreign land, far from loved ones. We were with dear friends and collegues, re-created the foods we love. We even piped in live football via the Internet and let Bing Crosby sing in the background. The two English and one Aussie who joined made us a bakers' dozen, and were fascinated and delighted by the whole spectacle. We even thought about doing a re-enactment of the "first" Thanksgiving in 1621, but everyone was too full to move. After recounting the details we knew, the story morphed into something of a fractured fairy tale, where Squanto was trying to save Pochahontas while the lone vegetarian was trying to rescue the turkey from certain doom. It was hilarious.

All in all, a terrific evening. As Ray (our friend and landlord) mentioned, it's a sign of a good party when people aren't worried about running out the door to catch the last metro or train home. Gee, I hope they got home ok.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our loved ones everywhere!

Monday, November 17, 2008

What happened next

Montpellier. We arrive early in the morning. Most of the city is still fast asleep. The street cleaners are washing the smooth, cream-colored stretches of marble of the centre-ville, and a lone cafe worker alternates between pulling espresso shots for the recent train arrivals and unstacking the towers of wicker chairs that by noontime will serve as perches for the large flocks of people that settle down on the Place de la Comedie. It is hard to believe that all of those cafe tables will be occupied in a few hours, but it's true. Sort of a daily miracle. It is not sunny like in the photograph at right.

For now, the mood is so still, it's almost sad. I don't know that we arrived expecting official fanfare and city celebration on our behalf. But there is something slightly disappointing about arriving too early for holidays in France. The shops are still closed, their security screens pulled down like a blanket over the sleepy eyes of an ornery teenager who insists on sleeping in.

But there's also something exciting about this quiet. It's a void that still waits to be spoken into. It's kind of like the early, dark hours on Christmas morning, when my brother and I used to sit around the Christmas tree and enjoy the quiet anticipation of gifts and smiles and coffee and Christmas breakfast.

I digress. But we had a lot to think and talk about while we waited for the Tourist Office (and everything else) to open at ten o'clock. Our hotel room was not ready yet, either - but the kind lady did allow us to leave our luggage in the storage room, and before we left to explore, we caught a glimpse and a whiff of the breakfast being served. We were not particularly hungry, having already succumbed to the heady smell of baked pain au chocolat. There is a sandwich shop near the train station with a little pastry oven turning tasty morsels that would tempt me on my way to class when I was here eight years ago. The aroma still makes me weak.

Feeling light and free, we try not to notice the grey skies, and poke our way through the ups and downs of the cobblestones in the oldest part of town. The narrow passageways are rather unoccupied at the moment, but crawling with history. The Faculty of Medicine is one of the oldest universities in Europe (est. 1180), is where Nostradamus and Rabelais studied. We circled around a tower reaching straight up out of nowhere in a calm square. The Tour des Pins, one of the two surviving towers from the original city wall. - we learn later that there used to be twenty-five. History is hard on things. For Nostradamus, the future was hard on things. Apparently, he climbed these very steps, and declared that the destruction of the city would occur when the two imposing pine trees nearby died. When they did, in fact, die shortly thereafter, the city quickly replanted pines, which are still there to this day. I guess it worked, because Montpellier exists, but my, has it changed!

We also let our eyes run over the impressive Couvent des Ursulines, the 14-century Cathedrale de St-Pierre, and the Aqueduct of St.-Clement, and finally settled down next to a courtyard for some delicious Italian food. (Notice in the photo a shop that is called "Lud 'M" - we couldn't stop laughing at the ressemblance to Lud and Em, our brother and sister-in-law!) With full stomachs, our bodies suddenly started groaning under the punishment of night trains and early mornings. We somehow wrapped both sets of long limbs around one green park bench near the Esplanade and took a snooze.

"C'est une petite chambre que j'aime bien". (It's a little room that I like so very much.) This was what the owner of the B&B said when I had made the reservation the week before. You know when hotel proprietors speak of their rooms with such tenderness, that it's probably going to turn out okay. It was in fact a jewel of a place, full of charm, decent prices, and extremely clean. We decided that this bed was much more comfortable than a park bench.

The crowning experiences of this trip were the gastronomic ones. The first evening, we found an amazing little French place called "Le Boeuf Agile". Small operation, lots of love. They wove us an evening of wild mushrooms, frog legs, grilled fish freshly-caught that morning, a delicate white wine from the nearby Cevennes, and two desserts to finish off the ordeal. The price? 32 euros. Gasp. This was half the price of Paris. It was going to be an excellent weekend.

Still hungry for the sun they always talk about in the Sud, we sought our fortunes in the nearby fishing town of Sete. Bingo! It was still a cool November day, but delightfully warm in the faithful sunshine. We strolled along the little canals that crisscross the city, vaguely reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice. Around lunchtime, we bellied up to a portside restaurant and didn't leave until a couple of hours later. A boat of mussels, prawns, oysters, and whelks (escargot of the sea) pulled into our table, along with a bottle of chill vin rose. These flavours, the salty air, and the sun will remain indelibly fixed on my memory.

Which is a good thing, since I absentmindedly left our camera on the beach a few hours later. Crazy with the sight of the sea, I had decided to go for a gasp-inducing dip in the water which was a perfect turquoise blue. As were my lips when I emerged ten minutes later grinning from ear to ear to rejoin my husband, who had stood on the rock and laughed at me the whole time. Why didn't we think to take a picture? Might've remember the camera. Oh well, like I said. Good memories (almost) make up for it.

Later, we climbed to the top of the city and saw lights to the left and an eerie ocean spread out to the right, where the moonlight would glint from time to time. Captivating. So much so that we lose track of the time, and miss the train. How to get back to Montpellier? Tired, hungry, cold, we reviewed the options over and over. My Goretex jacket wasn't quite sexy enough to stop a motorist, so hitchhiking wasn't really going to work.

One taxi ride later. Gee, appreciating beauty can get rather expensive.

The remainder of our days were devoted to exploring Montpellier a bit more, and Avignon on the way back to Paris. Yes, we walked across the bridge of Avignon, where "they're all dancing, they're all dancing," though bridge dancers are harder to come by in the chilly winter months. Thankfully, so are tourists, so we had many of the sites to explore uncrowded.

I love the South. But there's something about coming back to Paris that is always so inviting. A place I know. A home of sorts.

N.B. The photos I owe to Google Image search and our previous quick stop in this city last summer. It just seemed like a forlorn post without some color.

Friday, November 07, 2008


Lately, we have sustained a nervous desire to get out of Paris. Why, you may ask? Are we so blasé so as to think that this city is passé and cliché? Have we grown so accustomed to just sitting on the same old café chair, so as to be unable to move it, even when we want to? Has the dreaded ennui finally set in? OMG, Paris is SO last year.

Well, perhaps it's not quite that bad. It is true that we are prone forget how delicious our daily baguette really is. My eyes sweep up and down an extraordinary medieval street or two on my way to work, and I am preoccupied with planning a trip to Spain, Italy, or even Iceland. It seems that before we take this wonderful place for granted, it is time to explore beyond the peripheral enclosure that has thoroughly defined our lives for some time.

The first opportunity to break free came last weekend, in the form of two trips - Karl went south, and Abbey went north. No, we are not so anxious to cover all the necessary ground before we leave this continent that we felt it was best to split up the party. Rather, my fabulous husband had a gig in the Pyrenees, and my weekend plans had already formed around a retreat on the Sea. So, we kissed good bye on the sidewalk in Paris (a cliché that I do in fact appreciate) and promised lots of pictures upon our returning.

Bernieres-sur-Mer is a tiny village on the Northern coast of France in Normandy. Yes, these were the beaches where the Allies landed on June 6th - the memorials to every country involved in this heroic act dot the misty coastline for many kilometers. We were nearest to the remembrance of the Canadian soldiers. I strolled the coastline with two very good friends of mine, when I suddenly realized that they were both German and I was American. I kept this to myself, but silently thanked God for bringing peace and that in Him, we were reconciled. Indeed, all of our time as a group over the weekend could be best described as "family time" - three delicious meals shared everyday, going for long walks, praying for one another, playing together, holding each other's babies, telling stories. And all the time, the backdrop of the very-present sea, with the smell of salt and sand everywhere.

Karl's train took him to a different place entirely, the town of Lourdes. This used to be a quiet little market town at the foot of the mountains, until several superstar saints and also the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared, and transformed the place into a colorful place of pilgrimage. Despite the exciting visitors of yore, apparently the gospel choir that Karl was playing with was the main draw last weekend. In fact, they were such a big hit that Karl's boss was given a statue of Mary filled with holy water as a thank you gift. Very sweet, though I'm not sure what I would do with that. At any rate, the occasion was made all the more special as dear friends of ours maneuvered the French country roads all the way from Bayonne to Lourdes to enjoy the show. (Many thanks to Beatrice for the photos, since Karl forgot his camera!)

So, did these adventures satisfy our wanderlust? Well, not completely.

The fact remained that because of Armistice Day this year, I can faire le pont ("make the bridge" from one day off to the next), and thereby have five days off in a row. It was my firm conviction that this should not go unexploited. After much fitfully trolling of travel websites all week long, and realizing to our chagrin that derniere minute (last-minute) still means three days in advance in France, we finally stumbled upon a solution. A couple of tickets that will carry us South for a few days, and a couple more to carry us back North. And yes, this time we will both be in the same train!