Friday, July 30, 2010

Get Thee Up Into A High Mountain

Early this morning, before the rain finally bore down, I ran - no, swam through the soupy, pre-storm haze. Gazing out over the flat, green patch of water that we call Lake of the Isles, I took in the hot breath of clover and the dream-like landscape, tired and yellowed, the heavens like brass. A Minnesota August, if there ever was one. My mind drifted through the blur to a higher, clearer, brighter place, and longed for those deep draughts of air from a couple of weeks ago.

Ever since my arrival in hilly Montreal, one particular promontory had been staring me down. Mont Royal. Maybe the name sounds familiar? Well somewhere along the line, after an intervocalic do-si-do, the name probably morphed into Montréal, though this is apparently a mere hypothesis according to some. Whatever the case may be, I was bent on conquering the summit in my running shoes. When we finally got an afternoon off at the conference, I made a bee-line for the hotel, suited up in my workout duds, and off I went for adventure.

When I began, the sky was covered and I even had to shake a few droplets of rain off of my glasses during the first stretch of my jaunt, but this only added to the refreshment. I felt as free as a kid running off to the park after school gets out. (Actually, this is more or less what was happening.) I skipped through funky neighborhoods I hadn't seen yet, past the imposing McGill University, and up, up, up!

The dirt trails in Parc Mont-Royal honeycomb the steep hillsides, with one wide, serpentine gravel paths heading up most of the way. The grade wasn't too steep...till I got to the stairs, that is. These continued for about 8-10 flights. Yeah baby. When I arrived on the plateau above, I was not disappointed, however. That's why I love to toil my way to get higher up - it's always harder and always worth it. Downtown Montreal popped up in the foreground, while the St. Lawrence stretched out lazily through the panorama, strung with suspension bridges along the way.

I also tooled around near the top for a while, which had a whole other set of trails to offer. Adorning one peak was a significant symbol of Montreal, the steel-beamed LED-illuminated Mount Royal cross, perched 764 feet above sea level. (Yes, I know it's not a REAL mountain, but I'm a Minnesota girl - any elevation is a thrill.) It's sort of like a hybrid of the Eiffel Tower and a church steeple. Strapped to the bars was a canvas sign with the motto: "La Croix sans clotûre" - "The Open Cross", which invites inquiry. What could that mean? Certainly, if you're going to build a monument to the Christan faith on a windy hilltop, it's intelligent to let the air through. But what about the cross we preach and live it just as breezy?

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I am in love.

Think of a place with the hills and downright cool of Seattle, but everyone speaks French. Even the Starbucks (see right) is obliged to make a sign that says "Café Starbucks Coffee." Sheesh, they aren't even that picky in France.

Yes, they are as crazy as I am about the French language. They speak it with - not with a twang exactly, more like a singsong....twing. I love it -when I can understand it, that is. There was that very eager gentleman with bead earrings and a walking staff was volunteering directions to the Vieux-Port, and I got about a third of what he said.

Think of a place that somehow thought it would be a good idea to make fresh french fries, add cheese curds and additional meats and toppings, all drenched in rich gravy. The infamous poutine. Imagine me thinking that was a good idea for an early supper after inadvertently skipping both breakfast and lunch. Yes, tummyache. But nothing a long walk and short nap in the park couldn't fix.

Think of a place where music and dance never stops. I stumbled upon Nuits d'Afrique /African Nights near the hotel where my conference had a wine reception for the participants. Sitting in the green grass and gazing in wonder at the lively spectacle onstage, I was promptly stung by a bee. When a woman sitting nearby noticed, she offered a compress and we started to chat. She was busy corralling her two darling children and cheering for her husband, the guitar player. This festival has been going on for ten days, all day long, she explains. Plus, this is one festival of many during the summer. People of all ages, shapes, and colors, moving to the beat in the late afternoon sun. By the end of our conversation, this woman was inviting me to her house for coffee later this week and offered me her card. So friendly.

Think of a place that keeps reminding you of Europe one minute and Brooklyn the next, winding cobblestone streets on one side of town and neat, orderly lines of well-kept rowhouses on the other. I am staying in an old, pleasantly grubby hostel in one of the rowhouses (with more very friendly people). Mont Royal looms behind my head and keeps enticing me to a trail run or two. I will have to fit that in, somewhere between all of the conference session...there's still so much to explore!

O, Canada.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The "Arrivée"

You may remember from my last post that we had bought rail passes for the immediate network of regional trains. The original motivation behind these was to roll out of town a ways and glimpse part of the Tour de France. It has been a longtime dream of Karl's to see this event in person, and somehow in past years we were always out of the country when it came time for the fierce and fearless road racers to make their way across the mountains, plains, and villages of la belle France. Here was our big chance!

Sandwiches and fruit nestled into our backpack for later, we boarded the train to Montargis, east of Paris. When we jumped down on the platform about an hour later from the air-conditioned train car, it was sweltering. The blinking green cross above the pharmacie registered 37.5 + C (99.5 F), reminding us to hydrate and stay out of the sun. We managed to down gallons of water but shade was harder to come by. What I wouldn't have given for a hat. Even at 3:30 in the afternoon, the merciless rays stood at high-noon attention. Undaunted, we kept pouring water down our throats (and backs and feet and heads) and secured a spot right along the barrier about 500 metres from the "arrivée". In French, they use the word "arrival", not "finish line". Remember that for later.

We expected some sort of excitement to be afoot. Karl had this idea that they throw cookies at the crowd, for example. O...K. But nothing could have prepared us for the chaos and merriment that ensued. Think hometown parade, but bumped up a few hundred thousand euros in budget. Haribo trucks full of smiling girls throwing bags of candy, a giant chicken car that wove and wobbled and threw out Mont-St.-Michel cookies (ah-HA!), and best of all, almost every sponsor had some kind of hat to throw to the crowd: gingham boat hats, fold-up safari hats, bike caps with the red-polka-dots (like the jersey), and umbrella hats. We scrambled after the showers of giveaways like little kids again, danced around to the booming music with umbrellas on our heads (yes, all we'd had to drink was water, honest!) Once the parade was over, we chatted with a nice French man who wanted to talk about New York, cyclotourism, grandkids, and bridge.

A lull. More swooning in the heat, this time with proper headgear. And then, it came. The pitch rose, hands beating on everything they could find as the peloton swarmed around the corner and into the straightaway to the end. One blur, one being. In advance, I had dutifully memorized the jersey numbers of the top three American riders, and Tyler and Lance were somewhere in the heart of that beast but there was no way I'd catch them solo. Just thirty seconds, a blast of wind and color. Karl's hat blew straight back off his head, it was so powerful. We caught a few snippets of riders on our camera phones, but mostly were stunned by the sheer velocity. Then it was done, and the crowd took over the barriers, tearing them down and we triumphantly walked the last 500 meters together, shoulder to shoulder with the Norwegians, French, Spanish, Dutch - you name it, they were all there. Someone had won the stage, but it didn't seem to matter much to anyone but the Norwegians. We elbowed our way through mass of bodies to try to see the awarding of the jerseys, but all we got were glimpses on huge screens and garbled messages from a loudspeaker. Fair enough, the real show was over.

We've continued to follow the race since, from a distance. I read an article today from the AP: "Shouldn't Lance Armstrong just quit?" The reporter expresses a little bit of admiration to the cycling veteran's commitment to finish a race he won't win, but I found the overall tone of the article to be bothersome. The general message was he should have quit while he was ahead...he is a has-been, 13 is one two many Tours. Now, there has been nothing exceptionally graceful about his fits and starts, bumps and bruises this time, but what about the sheer honor of arriving at each finish line, 12 of 20 crossed as of tonight? What about the love of the sport? Even if his strength is waning compared to his early years, what is shameful about facing the grueling mountain passes for one last time? Maybe this is the amateur in me talking, but isn't it incredible to finish this extraordinary race, period?

Inspired, the day after the Tour, we took bikes out to a town called Mantes-la-Jolie, hoping to ride all the way to Giverny. While it was a lovely trip, a couple hours of wrong turns and hot sun, punctuated by a nasty fall on my part left us much like Lance in stage 8, hands on hips and shaking our heads. No sag wagons for us, but we wouldn't make it to our destination in time and were woefully unprepared for the trip. After exploring Mantes-"the-Pretty" a bit, that day's "stage" was over. Man, I hate not finishing. But you couldn't beat the scenery.

In life we have seasons when we run glorious and strong and others that are sadder, strewn with hardship. In our human pride, we hope that the world's videocameras will turn away when we falter and trip and look stupid, but fortunately for me I have a God who doesn't look away embarrassed. More than that, He picks me up, dusts me off, and reminds me that it's the "arrivée" that counts. I just love the words of the Apostle Paul:

" I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12-14).

Monday, July 12, 2010

La Vie en Rose

"37 euros."


"37 euros a person, for a week."

"Really? That's so cheap. We could go...wait, where's the map?"

About a week ago, Karl made the discovery that a fairly modest amount could buy us an unlimited Zone 1-6 pass on our metro cards. A score of sleepy, charming countryside towns rest on the edges of the Paris suburbs just waiting to be explored, but usually cost a little over 20 euros round-trip, so we plan carefully. This way though, we could have free rein both in and outside of Paris for an entire week. Sweet.

When we hopped on the first sleek train headed east, a nervous feeling hit my stomach, like I was getting away with something that I shouldn't. You see, there are complex sets of rules that twist around all matters of French life, and this seems to have conditioned us over the years to believe that we're guilty until proven innocent. (A friend of mine studying law once explained to me that this is indeed the governing feeling in judicial matters here.) So, we waited for the next shoe to drop...but it never came! Now on to the enjoyment.

Provins. Rosy medieval city laid with gnarled cobblestones, flower petals strewn everywhere like confetti welcoming us through these ancient gates. We spent the sweltering early afternoon deep in the 10 kilometers of cool underground tunnels that honeycomb the upper town. No one really knows why they were originally built - there's a science fiction plot waiting to be written. Apparently, Umbero Eco features Provins in part of Foucault's Pendulum:

"Have you ever been to Provins? A magic place: you can feel it even today. Go there. A Magic place, still redolent of secrets. In the eleventh century it was the seat of the Compte de Champagne, a free zone, where the central government couldn’t come snooping. The Templars were at home there; even today a street is named after them. There were churches, palaces, a castle overlooking the whole plain. And a lot of money, merchants doing business, fairs, confusion, where it was easy to pass unnoticed. But most important, something that has been there since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels – real catacombs – extends beneath the hill." (Foucault’s Pendulum, p 125.)

Our trusty guide pointed out suggestive clues along the way. The passages are most certainly linked to the mercantile history of Provins, since it was one of four influential Champagne towns overrun by traders hawking their wares in the 13th and 14th centuries. All this hustle and bustle was under the strict control of the Counts of Champagne who kept order in the region until the King of France took over in the 14th. Those counts ran a pretty tight ship. The formidable dungeon at the top of the hill probably had something to do with it.

Two kilometers of strong ramparts remain on one side of the town, built eight hundred years ago to keep the Parisian riffraff out. Since we had come peaceably, they let us in and gave us a perch atop the city walls. We watched the sun go down over the nearby wheat fields and chewed on thick slices of country bread spread with paté, duck rillettes, Brie from nearby Meaux, all washed down with a local beer. Yes, la vie en rose. And speaking of roses, there's another story. Count Thibaut IV, both a poet and a warrior, supposedly brought back a rosebush from the Crusades and planted it in Provins, and they have since spread like wildfire over the area. Rose soaps, rose candy, even crystallized rose petals you can drop in your champagne.

As the sun waned, we ran for one of the last trains out of the city and plopped ourselves down in our seats with 30 seconds to spare. A teenager nearby remarked: "Vous avez bien de la chance." ("You guys sure are lucky.") It's true, we are so blessed. And so grateful.