Monthly Archives: June 2009

Vaguely Literary Post-Travel Thoughts

We walked on and circled the island. The river was dark and
a bateau mouche went by, all bright with lights, going fast amid
quiet up and out of sight under the bridge. Down the river was
Notre Dame squatting against the night sky. We crossed to the
left bank of the Seine by the wooden foot-bridge from the Quai de
Bethune, and stopped on the bridge and looked down the river at
Notre Dame. Standing on the bridge the island looked dark, the
houses were high against the sky, and the trees were shadows.

“It’s pretty grand,” Bill said. “God, I love to get back.”

-Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Traveling is a funny thing. Those who do a lot of it know how addictive and essential it is, and how equally it pulls you with such force away from your mundane, everyday existence but then thrusts you back with sling-like vigor at the end. You always feel like you must “get away” from home when you venture out on some trip, but by the end it is “home” that beckons you, normalcy that grabs you, and a humdrum schedule that enlivens you with its familiar scent of mom’s cookies and newly washed sheets.

It is clichéd and yet obligatory to now quote T.S. Eliot, who wrote in Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

I hardly had any time to process or “arrive” at any sort of cognitive illumination over the last few days. I was too busy stressing out about flight delays, cancellations, jetlag, lack of food and spending an unexpected night in a Comfort Inn outside our nation’s capital. But as I finally sat on my five-hour flight from D.C. to L.A. this morning, I had some serious time to contemplate.

Naturally, I could think only of death. Babies were screaming, the turbulence was consistent and harrowing at times, and the old lady next to me could not stop drinking $6 mini bottles of Glenlivet scotch. I was reading The Courage to be Protestant by David Wells but really could only think about death—the inevitability of it, the unpredictability of it, how utterly unknown the experience of it is for anyone living. I thought of Shakespeare and that skull in Hamlet. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s poem about “The Bustle in the House / The Morning after Death.” I thought about Air France and Lost. Morbid, I know. But traveling for any period of time tends to shake off the dust of one’s perspective on life and forces you to consider the big questions.

One of the consistent lessons of travel in my life has been the question of control. The limits of control. I’m a big planner and when I travel I typically type up detailed itineraries, Darjeeling Limited style, with all the details and needed contact numbers, ticket confirmations, etc for each day. But as much as you can plan and prepare, things inevitably go awry and circumstances demand adaptability and flexible course correction. But it’s all part of the adventure. I think John Steinbeck hits the nail on the head in Travels with Charley, when he describes travel in this way:

A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckages on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

I think this is probably true for life in general. The minute we think we have it figured out, domesticated, understood or controlled is the minute we begin to lose our grip. I think it’s probably a better approach to just roll with the punches and understand that life happens with little regard to how we hope or expect it to. You will get sick when you least can afford to (as I did during the first few days of my stay in Oxford). You will randomly stumble upon famous people (as I did in Paris with the Obamas). You will have to sit in grounded planes for 3 hours and eat only airplane pretzels and water (as I did yesterday, in a dark dark moment of my recent history).

But all of it is good for you, in the long run. It humbles you—and heaven knows we can all use a little more humbling in our lives. To be confronted with life’s unpredictability and hugeness and incomprehensibility is simultaneously travel’s chief challenge and its raison d’être. And I know that these lessons can probably be learned without crossing an ocean; there are always more streamlined and less roundabout ways of doing anything. But life isn’t always about streamlining, and taking the long road home is sometimes the best way to go.

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Debussy, Debauchery and Dieu (A Weekend in Paris)

The weather was very temperamental in Paris today. It was beautiful, sunny and about 70 one minute, then dark clouds, cold winds and rain the next. I guess that’s June in Paris. It’s a study in contrasts.

My whole weekend in Paris has been that way. It’s been really beautiful and great one minute and really dark and ugly the next. Actually, this is an overstatement. It’s been mostly very good. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful museums, ate tons of good food (Macarons! Chocolates! Crepes!), and happened to be where the Obama family was on three separate occasions (Notre Dame Cathedral, a shop in the Latin Quarter where Michelle and the girls were, and on a bridge over the Seine when the Obama motorcade drove past).

Other highlights thus far have included wandering the streets aimlessly (Paris is great for finding undiscovered little non-touristy used bookshops and such), drinking buckets of café (espresso), and attending Mass Saturday night in the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and church this morning at Hillsong Paris—an evangelical church in Southeast Paris. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing quite like sharing communion with Christians in churches throughout the world and singing worship songs in other languages. If the only thing all my travels have left me with is a broader, fuller picture of the worldwide body of Christ, then it has all certainly been worth it.

But there have been low points on my trip—mainly here at the end, in Paris. Here’s the scene from last night: I’m staying at a hostel in Paris, and it’s a very lively, party-type hostel for twentysomething backpackers from all over the world. This is always a risky situation for people who tend to be the quieter, not-partier sort. But until last night, things were going well. I had made friends with some of my roommates: some Aussie university students from Melbourne, a Texan soldier on leave from Iraq, a guy from Berlin, a girl from Rome (originally Ethiopia). We played cards late into the night, etc. Good times. Well, last night things in our room got thoroughly debauched. I was asleep (or trying to sleep, in that “please just let me sleep through this” sort of way) when the partiers (i.e. pretty much everyone in the hostel but me) starting filtering in, around 4am, drunk and with random hook-ups in tow. There was a lot of scurrying around and bed swapping among these kids, and before long the bunk apparatus on which I was sleeping began to shake in a decidedly risqué, thrusting, rhythmic cadence. You guessed it: the bunk below me was doubling as an hourly-rate cheap motel. And then minutes later, more shaking and muffled moans from the bunk to my immediate right! It was happening all around me. I was surrounded by sex just feet from where I was huddled under my sheets, trying to sleep. I felt so very violated.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this at a hostel (there was another instance of bunk-shaking shenanigans with some drunk Serbians in London 3 years ago), but it was especially disturbing last night because these guys were people I’d gotten to know a little bit and I thought were a bit more principled than to pick up random people at bars on a Saturday night in Paris and have their way in a hostel room with them at 4am! While I was trying to mind my own sleeping business!

So that was one dark spot. The other one came this afternoon. I thought I would take a break from walking around the city (I’ve probably walked 10 miles a day at least) and take in a movie. After all, this is Paris. It’s probably the third most important city in movie history. So I bought a ticket in the Latin Quarter to see Lars von Trier’s new film, Antichrist, which will not be released in the U.S. until, well I don’t even know if it will be released. I guess I should have known from the title, but the film was utterly depraved and, in a word, evil. I walked out before it was over. For me, that’s saying something. I have been a fan of von Trier for a while (Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark… beautiful films), and I know that what he’s doing is simply being provocative and envelope-pushing, but there’s only so much of that that I can take. I couldn’t take this film. It depressed me, disturbed me, and left me wanting to go back in time to fifth grade, eating nachos at a high school football game with my Dad… back when things were simple and a lot more innocent.

But things got brighter quickly as I exited the theater, put on my iPod and found a place to get a dinner crepe. As I was walking around the Left Banke, taking more pictures and enjoying the fickle late-afternoon weather, I was thinking about darkness and light and how most everything has a little of both. A city as beautiful as Paris has both beauty and depravity at nearly every turn. In one corner of the city there are people worshipping God on a Sunday morning. In other corners there are students waking up hungover in some random guy’s hostel bed. On a bridge over the river Seine, a motorcade of dozens of cars and SUVs carries the President, First Lady, and their entourage. Under that same bridge there are homeless people sleeping on ragged, urine-scented blankets as wine tasting boat tours float by on the river.

The world is messy, complicated, beautiful, fallen. Paris is just a microcosm.

Being in this city, you can’t help but think. It’s a thinking city. This is the place where John Calvin went to school (le Sorbonne), where Descartes is buried, where so many philosophies and art movements and religious ideas were first thought up. And as this is the end of my trip, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I have had so many thoughts over the past few weeks, it’s almost unmanageable to process through them now. But I’ve been thinking—and today’s events got me thinking even more.

I’ve been thinking about the appearance of being Christian (and writing about this, for my book). What does this look like? How should we appear to be different? In a city like Paris where everything you do is seen (on the crowded Metro, in the jam-packed Louvre, in the all-too-public hostel room) this becomes a constant question.

I’ve also been thinking about death. I know: DOWNER! But in Paris I’ve seen a lot of graves. I’ve been reading about the Air France crash. Yesterday I made a little pilgrimage to the grave of composer Claude Debussy, buried in the Cimetiere de Passy. As I stood by his grave (listening to “Clair de Lune” on my iPod, of course!) I thought about all the life he lived and the passion that must have gone into his music and art. The joys and heartbreak; the toil, the stress, the reward of hearing the music performed by an orchestra. Did it matter at all now? To him, I mean? What would he think of me—some maudlin American tourist with backpack and map in tow—standing above his lifeless remains, listening to his music on some newfangled audio device?

I don’t know. All I know is that I left that cemetery, and I will leave Paris tomorrow and Europe Tuesday, with a newfound motivation to live a good, right, respectable life. I want to honor God with what I do and who I am, and I want to avoid being corrupted and stained and sidetracked by the things of the world. But I do want to continue drinking coffee and eating French desserts.

My Work Here is Done

It’s amazing what a week of focus, peace, quiet and no distractions can do for a writer. Being at the Kilns this past week has been that for me, and it’s paid off. I wrote two whole chapters in my book (I am now two chapters away from the end!), plus the preface. Being in C.S. Lewis’ house has been quite an inspiration, and I’m so blessed to have had the chance to come here.

The week here has been something of a blur (probably because I was plunged into writing so wholeheartedly), but it’s been full of great moments of spiritual rejuvenation and sensory delights. I’ll take you briefly through some of them:

-Eating Ben’s cookies in the Oxford covered market. Anyone who’s had these cookies knows what I’m talking about.
-Waking up whenever I wanted to for seven days straight, with my window open and songbirds singing right outside. Truly glorious.
-Spending time with the two people who are also living at the house right now—Donna and Tammy. So great to hear their stories and share mine with them, and to know that our paths crossed in this place at this time for a reason.
-British grocery stores. I forget how fun and clean and interesting they are. And MAN have they mastered the art of self-checkout technology!
-Watching collegiate rowing on the river in downtown Oxford while drinking Pimms and eating strawberries and clotted cream. Apparently this is what they do here in the summer, and it’s fantastically British.
-Meeting Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’ stepson, who popped in to the house a bit today.
-Having coffee in the morning, tea and crumpets in the afternoon, and some sort of wine at dinner. If this is how retirees live, I want to be old.
-Watching no television for a week. Good thing all my shows are done for the season.
-English cheddar cheese. Amazing. And combined with fresh herbs from the garden and organic eggs, it makes a mean omelet.
-Being part of the tour. As tour groups came through the house (usually 1 or 2 a day), I was often sitting at a desk somewhere writing. “Oh, this is one of our resident writers,” the tour guide would say when they came into my room. Among the tourists in these groups was Dr. Timothy George, renowned theologian and Dean of Beeson Divinity School.
-Hitting the hipster jackpot in the Hackney borough of London on Sunday. The church I visited (Grace Church Hackney) was a great place to worship and will be featured in my book.

All of these things have made this an incredibly memorable, enriching, useful week for me… one of those weeks that feels more productive and full than the average month of “regular life.” I’m so incredibly thankful that I am here, and when I leave tomorrow it will be bittersweet. But it’s off to the next exciting place—London (for 3 days). And then Paris for the final 3 days of my trip, before returning home to California next Tuesday. Until then—Further up and further in!