Thursday, November 18, 2010

Across the Channel to France....Thoughts about home

I must confess that I left Grasmere with some feelings of regret.  I loved it there.  It lived up to my every expectation despite the rain which soaked us during our walk on Wednesday and kept us pretty much indoors on Thursday and Friday.  Still, this did not detract from the beauty and allure of the Lake District for me.   The rain only enhanced the coziness of our little cottage - Poet’s Corner. 

Sitting in the cottage - The bottle to my right contains homemade Slo Gin
made by the owners of the cottage.  I tried a little; it was pretty good

Because of the rain, I had more time to read Wordsworth’s prose and poetry.  I already had a deep affection for his writing.  Our time in Grasmere heightened my appreciation of him as both a poet and a philosopher.  In the “Preface” to The Lyrical Ballads he writes, “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that Poetry is the most philosophical of all writing:  it is so:  its object is truth, not individual and local, but general and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives strength and divinity to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal.  Poetry is the image of man and nature….” (Wordsworth, William The Major Works including The Prelude – Oxford:  Oxford World Classics - Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 605).  It seems to me that in our contemporary world which has so flagrantly degraded nature; in which rich and deep poetry is too often diminished in favor of simplistic, often alienating prose; an age in which truths of any kind are suspect, Wordsworth’s words invite careful reflection and consideration.   I am sympathetic to his thinking, in part, because I believe that the primary language of faith and religion is poetic language and that our truths are largely poetic truths.

I never did get in a final walk which was especially disappointing to me, but I am thankful for the ones I had which were utterly spectacular!   We left Grasmere early on Saturday morning, October 30.  Our rental agreement required us to be out by 9 AM and we had to be in Liverpool by 11:30 to catch a train for London. We were doing this in order to catch a Eurostar train for Paris at 3:45 which meant we were on a tight schedule.  The drive to Liverpool was lovely and we saw countryside marked by the fullness of Autumn’s colors.  I had a much easier time getting back to Liverpool than I did getting out of Liverpool.  At the car rental agency the agent checked in our car and then kindly drove us to the Central Liverpool Train Station (Enterprise in Ireland and the UK was outstanding and cost effective!).   Susan picked up a couple of things in the train station for us for lunch, and then we boarded the train for the four hour ride to London.   

It was raining in London when we arrived, so we grabbed a cab which took us to St. Pancras Station where we boarded a Eurostar Train which would take us through the Chunnel to Paris in just over two hours – less time than if we had flown!  One of the special treats of our journey has been the opportunity to take trains to many of our destinations.   We have seen beautiful countryside while being comfortable; even able to get up and take a stretch break.   The airline industry has taken all the fun out of flying.  Give me a train anytime!  (I should probably note that I have a genetic predisposition to trains.  For most of his career my dad was a railroad attorney and this bred in me an early love of trains).

We arrived in Paris at the Gare d’Nord sometime after 7 PM.   We grabbed a cab which took us to our hotel which was in St. Cyr, about half a mile from the Arc d’Triomphe.  We were meeting Susan’s sister Diane at the hotel.  Diane was joining us for the French leg of our trip.  We were to be in Paris for three days and then on to Britanny for three days after which we would return to Paris and prepare for our flight home.

Diane was in the lobby of the hotel waiting for us when we arrived.  The last time we had seen her was on September 18 when we were in New York for the marriage of her youngest son Matthew.  The day after that wedding, we were on a plane to Tel Aviv!  It was great to see her familiar face and, though a week in France was still before us, Susan and I began to turn our eyes toward home.  We both felt that this sabbatical time has not been quick nor slow, but relaxed.  It moved at a wonderful pace for us. 

We dropped our bags in our room and, following the recommendation of the hotel concierge, went to restaurant a short distance from the hotel where we had a lovely dinner.  We had lots of stories to share with Diane and she with us so we caught up with each other and also planned what we were going to do for the next few days.

Interior of the American Cathedral - photo from their website at
The next morning, Sunday, Susan and I walked to the American Cathedral in Paris which was about a mile from the hotel.   The American Cathedral is part of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe (See  The Convocation is part of the Episcopal Church and our General Convention. They have a bishop who is a member of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops. There are Episcopal Churches in Florence, Rome, Geneva, Waterloo in Belgium, Munich, Frankfurt and Wiesbaden.  We attended the 8:00 A.M. service.  It was comforting to worship using the familiar American Book of Common Prayer, although it did sound a little strange as the celebrant was a visiting priest from Australia!  She began her sermon by invoking images of “home” and developed the theme “looking for home” relating this to the story of Zacchaeus.  Needless to say, this theme struck a particularly right chord for Susan and me as we informed her at the end of the service. 

With Diane and Nicholas overlooking the River Sienne
After church, we walked back along the Champs d’Elysees and L’Avenue de Grande- Armee to our hotel to pick up Diane who had slept in (we were already on European time, she had to adjust!).   We went to breakfast and afterwards were met at our hotel by Nicholas Bourhis, who is Susan and Diane’s second cousin (I think!) and who lives in Paris.   Nicholas’s grandfather was Susan’s grandmother’s brother.   Nicholas is a wonderful young man, in his 30s, who is an auditor for a large accounting firm in Paris.  His English is excellent, the result not only of years of studying English in school, but also a result of his job taking him to England on a regular basis.   I had worked on my French in the weeks before we left for Paris, and it was passable, but Nicholas’s English is much better than my French.   Still, I could make myself understood, which came in handy later in the week when we were out of Paris! 

Nicholas served as our guide and asked us what we wanted to do.   First on our list was St. Chapelle.  I had studied this famous church in art history in college, but did not get to see it on my previous visit to Paris.  I didn’t want to miss it this time so it was onto the Metro and away we went. 

Inside St. Chapelle with a view of the billboard!
St. Chapelle was built by Louis IX to house relics of the passion – the crown of thorns and a piece of the true cross (or so it was thought!)  The building is not large, but the soaring gothic arches and the dominance of the enormous stained glass windows which make it seem a church of light mark it as one of the supreme masterpieces of the 13th century.  It is stunning, though sadly, the windows of the apse are being renovated.  Scaffolding and a huge billboard had been erected in the front of the church with a picture of what it normally looks like.   Not only did this disappoint us as we visited, it affected the quality of the pictures we could take.

At the National Opera - They had switched from the Tango

After our visit to St. Chapelle, Nicholas took us the National Opera Building which is another architectural masterpiece.  It was fun to just stand around that building which despite its formality had the feeling of a street fair.  At the top of the steps, there is a promenade and about 20 couples were dancing the Tango!  They were in all kinds of dress, and apparently anyone who wanted to could join in! We didn’t and just had fun watching. 

La Madeleine - Photo from websit

For lunch we had crepes at a local creperie (delicious!).  We walked around a little and then Nicholas took us to “La Madeleine” or the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.  While we had passed this church a number of times on our previous visit, we never stopped to go inside.  It is an amazing, extremely large, structure built following the neoclassical impulses of the time in the style of a Greek Temple like the Parthenon.  Napoleon was instrumental in deciding the final design (he wanted a “temple” dedicated to the army) and several purposes for the building were considered before it was finally resolved that it should be a church. It was consecrated as such in 1842.  

Following La Madeleine it was back to the hotel.  Nicholas had to leave us.  We rested awhile then went out for dinner…French bistros, French food…C’est magnifique!

On Monday we were on our own.  Initially we had wanted to visit Versailles.  None of us had been to Versailles before, but November 1st, All Saints Day, is a national holiday in France (though the religious dimension is honored by very few) and Versailles was closed.   We decided to visit the Louvre, which was open.

Susan and Diane with I.M Pei's pyramid entrance to the Louvre in the background
Our previous visit to France had been in the summer at the height of tourist season.  Then the Louvre had been packed and it took us a long time even to get in.   When we did get in, the museum was mobbed.   This time we went right in without any wait.  There was a crowd, but it was not enormous.   We spent a few hours, mostly looking at paintings.  I had especially wanted to see French paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries – the work of David and Delacroix.   It is quite something to see a huge masterpiece like David’s Coronation of Napoleon in person.  Of course, a visit to the Louvre really requires several days, not several hours, still, it was wonderful to be there. 

Incredible shot by Susan taken at the Tullerie Gardens
After our visit to the Louvre we walked through the Tullerie Gardens.  It was a beautiful fall day and the leaves on the maple trees were bright yellow.  Susan got some incredible photos of a woman feeding birds near the water basin.

A vendor was selling fresh spun “Barbe a Papa” (cotton candy!).  one of my favorite treats.  I thought of the last time I had cotton candy, when Tom Vuicich made it for me on September 5th, at the Kick-off, the day before we left on this sabbatical!   

The next day we left for Brittany and picked up the Celtic trail while also having some very special family time.  More about this in the next installment.  

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