Sunday, October 6, 2013

On to Germany

Roy picked me up at the train station and off we went to the wilds of some southern suburb of Grenoble, arriving just in time to meet my fellow traveling companions, get my instructions for sleeping, shower, breakfast and lunch arrangements, and crash into bed as the clock struck 11...

...and 12, and 1, and 2...I was sleeping on a pull-out couch in the living room, under an old-fashioned cuckoo clock.  Gads.  Actually I was not sleeping at all, but contemplating murder, risking relational rupture for ending the cuckoo's life, while it continued to call out every hour on the hour until a light went on about 3 am.  Roy's wife had arisen to set out breakfast and lunch fixings for us--redeeming her cuckoo by this saintly act above and beyond the call of any duty I could think of that sleepless night.  

So my 4:00 am alarm became superfluous.  I took my place in the shower line as the household slowly rose in the dark.  There were seven of us heading out for Willingen, Germany; the goal was a 5 am departure.  

We all stumbled around through showers, breakfast and lunch and suitcase packing, finding all our power cords, loading the van, and last minute trips to the bathroom.  Then, with final goodbyes to the godly wife and children left behind, we were off, in a characteristic light French rain.  And most of us promptly fell asleep.  We had twelve hours to go, barring unforeseen accidents, breakdowns, construction delays, traffic jams, or getting lost.       

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Rhone, the Mistral, & Roquefort

As my adventure in Ardeche was coming to a close, it tossed me one final travel freak out experience.  

The scenery was beyond lovely--along another route even more beautiful than the one I had seen on arriving.  This route ran parallel for a good distance along the Rhone, a river I had never seen, but which is legendary in France.  Birthplace of the mistral, the Rhone is notorious for harnessing a wind that can reach speeds of up to 90 kilometers/hour, and has inspired many a song and poem. 

Lost in the reverie of composing a mistral poem myself, and anticipating a final coffee with Catherine at the Grenoble train station, I suddenly snapped out of it.  The clock was ticking.  We were barely down the mountain, and had far more stops to make than time to make them, according to my calculations. 

I began timing the stops; at the rate we were going, I wouldn't arrive until at least 8:30 pm.  I was supposed to meet Catherine at 7 pm, and my GEM colleagues were picking me up at 8 pm for our ride into Germany the next morning...hmm....would I miss my rendez-
vous with Catherine?!

Was the bus driver inspired by the mistral, or the panicked look on my face?  I can't be sure, but as the Rhone came into full view, Grenoble tantalizingly on the other side, we began picking up speed.  Swerving around rotaries then at top speed (time-honored European trick designed to give you a workout while you sit for hours on end), the bus threw us from left to right as it zeroed in like a torpedo on the connecting bridge.  The tension of trying to hold my seat distracted me from the tension of possibly missing my friend.   

Next, stops were abandoned--first the random one or two, then whole dozens.  By 7 pm we were roaring into Grenoble, for an on-time arrival.  Amazing.  I released my white-knuckled fingers from the seat I had been gripping.    

I wish I could say I saw Catherine on the quai waving and smiling, but no.  It took another half hour for us to connect--and to call my GEM friends to ask for a delay in pick up!  (Sans problem!) 

Coffee was forthwith replaced by tapas, and Catherine and I had the luxury of sit-down wonderfulness  on the square behind the station--something we hadn't done in over a decade.   The cafe was all modern and cool, in complete contrast to what I had been seeing:

Which is actually pretty cool too.  Of course, any cafe in France is cool.  We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and then it was time to move on again.

But before we close this chapter on Ardeche, let me leave you with a final random factoid: Ardeche produces the prince of all cheeses, Roquefort!

Au revoir, L'Ardeche!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Place de La Paix

As you have surely guessed by now,  leaving was not easy.  Lunch was rushed (apostasy in France), so we could load the car and serpentine back down the mountain for another death-defying trajectory along the narrow two-lane, with Gilbert's missing sideview mirror.  Round and round the mountains we went, cars routinely passed us on curves, into oncoming trucks. 

We still had not figured out exactly which of the three Aubenas bus stops was the best bet to ensure tickets would be sold, buses would be running, and information would approximate reality.  In spite of Gilbert's misgivings, Place de La Paix was our best hope.  

He steeled himself for this most distasteful option, and I soon realized why.  We drilled our way into the labyrinthine city center, in the heat and traffic, foiled by one-way streets everywhere.  There was no parking anywhere near the ticket office, and it was probably 150 degrees.  That might be a tiny exaggeration, but the cigales were in complete cacophony, if that gives you any indication. 

While Josy harassed Gilbert with directions that would have broken laws in several countries, Gilbert sighed in exasperation that she had never learned how to drive, or she would know why he couldn't.  

"I grew up in this city!  I know this street takes us to Place de La Paix!" she shrieked as he drove by street after street she insisted he turn down. 

"You can't drive somewhere just because you can walk there!"  

Finally we worked our way to the small parking in front of the bus station, which was of course closed. 

Gilbert pulled over into the taxi lane to ponder next steps.  Josy hopped out with me to investigate matters at the cafe.  When we returned, a bus was pulling in, bound for Grenoble!  Could it be this easy?  We hurried over to ask if tickets were available on the bus--yes!  We couldn't buy or board for another hour; but we weren't going to budge.  For the next hour, we 'squatted' in the taxi lane, while Gilbert struck up a conversation with the bus driver.  

"He can talk to anyone," Josy fretted, sure that sunstroke was about to fell him any moment. "He shouldn't be out in this!"  I was having enough trouble in the shade of the car.

In another public transportation miracle, no taxis appeared in that entire hour.  We were able to sweat in peace, watch the little public dramas unfold around us in other waiting passengers, and wonder what Gilbert and the bus driver were talking about. 

But then the hour was up, my ticket purchased, my luggage loaded.  With hugs and bises we took our leave of one another, the doors closed, and off I went to Grenoble--3 hours away. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Provencal Spy

I'm not sure I remember dinner...but I do remember being jolted awake shortly after dawn to the sound of a weed whacker.  Gads.


I had a day and a half here, and that half day was about to be eaten up by din.

No more cigalle lullabies, tranquil mountain reveries, or mercy--only the relentless tree cutter, splintering wood and splitting our ears, for the next five hours.  Long enough to run into lunchtime.   

We then entered another film scenario as the Bouchers offered the tree cutter a drink, and he plopped down in a dangerously comfortable position in response--a ball of sweat with the air of a raconteur warming up for a command performance (with the famous Provencal twang I have only rarely heard).  The first story involved a recent mechanical breakdown with his Peugeot, for which an exorbitant repair price was quoted, to which he retorted, "What do you take me for, an American?" 

How long was this to go on?  Under other circumstances, I might have been as engrossed as Josy, sitting opposite him at the picnic table, apparently riveted to his not-so-riveting story.  But I had precious little time with the Bouchers, and a bus to catch...I glanced at the clock...was I to be foiled again by the French savoir vivre?! 

For one does not rush an important member of the fabric of life in a French countryside, especially at meal time.  Although I suspected Josy wanted him to move along so we could get back to our visit, our weed whacker had recently gleaned an important tidbit of information, which could be profitable for them all.  Parisians (who seemed as distasteful to him as Americans) had been seen scouting for Renaissance stones--the exact sort of stones he had been clearing off on their property.  They could fetch quite a handsome price.  If ever the Bouchers should decide to sell them, they must call him first.  Not the Parisians.

I smelled a rat, but Josy was now riveted, and Gilbert kept pouring.  "Careful what you say, my friend," he chuckled, while uncorking another local vintage.  "We're from Paris too remember!"

Soon Josy was satisfied that she had pumped our spy for any glimmer of truth that they had a small goldmine on their property, and this charming episode came to its conclusion.  She chased him off in a hospitable sort of way--the bum's rush, as we might say.  We had an hour to eat lunch and catch the bus.  Quelle horreur. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Funerals, Frescoes & Fizzy Water

I laid down briefly and just smiled up at the cobwebbed beams overhead, listening to the cigalles.  This was way too delicious to sleep through.  I got up, grabbed my sketchbook and charcoal, and headed for the veranda.  Too hot.  Under the trees in the driveway--better.  I sketched while the lizards ran up and down the walls, and under my feet, until I heard the car start, and the crunch of tires on gravel.  The Bouchers were ready to roll.

First stop: figure out my train ticket back to Grenoble.  We entered picturebook Thueyts (prounounced "too-ay") and ran promptly into a funeral procession.  You haven't lived until you've encountered a funeral in a small European town.  It will grind things to a halt quicker than a New York minute.  We parked outside of the town center, with Josy berating Gilbert for driving with a broken sideview mirror, and having to walk the distance in the heat.  Then off we went to the tourist office for information.

Mostly what we learned was about who died: a state trooper, who had swerved around a truck on a curve, and been killed instantly.  Not to be callous, but a state trooper funeral in a small European town is even more problematic to getting anything done.  God rest his soul.   This breaking local news prompted another hour of conversation in the car as we watched car after car taking enormous risk to get around truck after truck, on a two-lane serpentine bordered by stone walls.  Cliffs and gorges on either side, to be sure.  With each passing car, Josy reminded Gilbert to pull more to the right, and to get that mirror fixed!  I put my faith in "you're immortal till your work is done!"

We were on our way to Nyrac-les-Bains, at the foot of a volcano, famous for its thermal baths, dating back to the Romans in 121 AD.  And a little further up the road, to Meyras, Medieval city with two chateaux, dating back to the 12th C., and its trompe l'oeil frescoes recreating life in the ancient city.

If you have 7 minutes, you may want to enjoy this virtual tour of Meyras, to see more of the frescoes.

We continued our stroll over to the local watering hole, and I do mean that quite literally, with the variety of thermal waters to be drunk in these towns.  We chose this fizzy one, which we sipped to the tune of a drunken uproar behind us.  A crowd of dreadlocked, tattooed hooligans, totally incongruous in this idyllic spot, had obviously found something a little more stiff to drink.    

And then it was time to meander back to Balou...the sun descending, the heat broken, a cousin to visit, and then of course, dinner!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Way They Do Life Here

I couldn't see much on arriving, as it was now dark in Balou, but after a quick dinner, I didn't want to see much more than the backs of my eyelids, from a horizontal position.  There were three buildings on Balou--mine was the renovated garage on the highest part of the property, and Josy accompanied me up with a flashlight and tucked me in for the night.  "Breakfast at 9!" she called out as she descended in the dark.  I think I fell asleep before she got back to her cabin. 

I woke to the sound of the cigales--French cousins of the hot bugs I love to hear in my native New York.  I opened the window to see the mountain in the distance--Mount Moriah, Gilbert called it, where Abraham had sacrificed Isaac.  Um...think Gilbert had his theology and his geography a bit tangled...

Breakfast at 9...I showered, flicked a slug off the bathroom sink to brush my teeth, then grabbed my camera to head down.   The mountain air was brisk, although the forecast was hot and humid in the afternoon.  It was too cool to eat outside - I found the Bouchers hunkered down in their tiny kitchen, toasting bread in a pan.  An array of homemade jams lined the table, and the big breakfast bowl of tea sat on my plate. 

Two hours, one pot of tea and massive quantities of French bread later, we arose and wobbled over to the phone to see about train tickets.  No information was forthcoming, to no one's surprise, so we decided we'd stop in town at the station before some sightseeing.  But first--lunch!  Ah would only take an hour, Josy assured me, and shooed me out to take some pictures and keep Gilbert out of her hair.

The property was lovely, and Gilbert took me on the grand tour, practically naming every flower or fruit tree he had planted, pointing out the ruins of the chateau dating back to the Renaissance, pulling weeds, and plucking a few figs.  He was dismayed at how damaged the long curving driveway was from recent rains.  They'd have to get that smoothed out, and the landscaper in...he prattled on while I snapped photos and ooo'd and aaah'd over every little flash of beauty.  "Oh yes, that's a good one," he would comment as I'd lean over some flower.

And then we were back at the table...this time for a full-on pork chop meal, with mashed potatoes and veggies, cheese and crackers, bread, nuts and local wine.  A stunning rice/apricot cake filled any microspace left in our stomachs, after which we went into food shock and needed more than sightseeing...we needed a nap!   

Monday, September 2, 2013

With the Gorge's Smile

I never get tired of staring out a window at new landscapes.  This one was no different, but I was not prepared for the beauty of the region I was entering.   Distracted by the logistics of how to get to the region, I was not prepared for anything other than a good long nap, as I began my third day of travel, with all of 10 hours sleep under my belt.

But as we left the Drome, crossing the Rhone into Ardeche, I sat upright.  OMG...From the graffiti-stained ghettos of Grenoble, I was being transported into God's Country.  We were rounding a bend and the earth dropped away beneath us in a fabulous...gorge?  crater?  valley?  Too pastoral for the drama unfolding before us.  Rivers, waterfalls and cliffs beefed up the beauty, as we serpentined down,  up, around, in and out of rock bridges and medieval towns.  I felt a sudden urge to reach for a travel guide.

And then the destination marquee caught my attention...there were 3, count 'em 3, Aubenas destinations.  Oh brother...which one was mine?!  (Note to self: I must learn to ask about this in future travels!) 

I studied each name as the 3 scrolled around.  Place de la Paix was out--Gilbert had been clear about that.  Gare Routiere--a distinct possibility.  Gilbert has said to get off at the old gare (station).  I turned to the woman behind me and asked if she was from Aubenas--yes!  She consulted with her boyfriend and they decided that yes, I should get off at Gare Routiere.  Good.  Back to the scenery.

A few minutes later she tapped me on the shoulder and said, no, we think it's actually the SNCF Gare...oh boy.  Should I trust these two or lurch up and ask the bus driver?  We pulled in then to Gare Routiere, and I decided this couldn't be it--it was brand spanking new, too far out of town, and no one was around...except that one elderly couple...could that be...I craned my neck as we left and hoped that wasn't the Bouchers.

Next stop: SNCF Aubenas, and off I jumped, looking around quickly while the door opened for luggage.  I heard my name and turned to see Josy, waving wildly and crossing the street without looking--, her characteristic enthusiasm intact at 80 something.  We were soon hugging and talking at once, while Gilbert waved his cane and laughed from the cafe.  We joined him for a quick drink before the last leg of the journey: a slow crawl through Pont de la Beaume, Thueyts (I dare you to pronounce it) and Barnas, where we turned off to the right and navigated another kilometer or two of cliffhanging switchbacks, to the tall green gate that was our entrance into Balou. 

I repented for wondering what in the world could be out here in Barnas-par-Thueyts.  And the French have it all over us when it comes to the gated community thing.  The property was modest but steep, with three structures perched on its incline.  My quarters were in the first, closest one: a renovated garage.  We dropped my luggage off, and continued on down a small switchback to land at their cabin.  Dinner would be served shortly. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013


I had a couple of hours to wait for the next bus, which I spent in diligent homework over connections and station maps.  I first had to buy yet another ticket, de-code the transportation chaos: excursion buses hired by the train station--tickets sold at the train station not the bus station, connections dubious.  Scurrying back and forth to find all this out helped me locate the rest room and check that off the list.  Once I was planted safely on the appointed quai, and Catherine satisfied that I would indeed get off safely, we said our goodbyes.  In two more days, I would be making my return trip to Germany through here; perhaps we could get a cup of coffee together?!  

And then it was time to board, destination Valence.

"Which Valence?" the bus driver asked, as I handed him my ticket.

Um....."There are two Valences?"

"Valence TGV or Valence Ville?"


"Do I have time to go check at the ticket counter?"

"No, get in, we'll go to Valence Ville."

Throwing myself to the mercies of bus drivers who know more than I do, I boarded and promptly fell asleep.   Valence would be dealt with later--after a good cat nap to take another layer of jet lag off.  I drifted off as we passed the white Chartreuse mountains and woke in Valence an hour later.  

I schlepped into the train station to find my connection.  Next stop: Montelimar, where I would get a bus to Aubenas, where the Bouchers would pick me up at the 'old station.'  Not the new, Place de la Paix, the old station, Gilbert had been careful to underscore. With a half hour wait to go on track 5, I milled with the French and their dogs, wilting in the heat.

When the train pulled in, on time, the crowd surged forward, but I hung back.  The sign was right, the track was right, the hour was right.  But this train was definitely wrong!  Not the sleek French bullet train we were all expecting, but a lumbering giant from Moscow!  What?! 

To add to the confusion, French conductors descended, to fend off the frenzied and perplexed mob, shouting things I couldn't understand in the uproar, but didn't need to.  I knew we weren't going to Moscow!  

While we all tried to decode this bit of fun (I think this is when my sense of the absurd kicked in), behind us and the lumbering gray from Moscow the bullet train whooshed to a discreet halt, and doors opened.  

The mob--this time including me--surged backwards and scrambled for correct car and seat (the bullets are notoriously brief in their station stops).  And promptly two minutes later, we were whisked away deep into the French interior, the Massif Central, geologically the oldest part of France.  Goodbye Valence--both of you!!!     

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Getting to Balou

Next stop: chez les Bouchers, whose little country estate, named Balou, could be found (eventually) clinging to a mountaintop in Barnas par Thueyts.  But to get there, I would need nerves of steel, a good pair of sprinting shoes, and a patient bladder.  

You remember Eskia and the window washer, and the five-kid obstacle course Catherine and I navigated to the train station? That was only the beginning...

We arrived at the train station only to discover that all trains to the interior had been cancelled due to construction. Ah bon.  

I could get a bus to a train in the interior, and then a bus from the train to the more interior interior.  The line for bus tickets wove out the door, and I looked at the time: we had 6 min.  

Catherine shoved me in one direction, charged Rachelle with helping me with the luggage, and stormed off to buy tickets, calling over her shoulder, “Head for Track F!”    

On Track F, a shuttle train sat quietly, and empty. a transportation crisis, an empty means of transportation was never a good sign.  As the French would say, "One train can hide another."  

Was a shuttle train the same thing as a train, and therefore not running?  Or the provisional transportation for the real trains that weren't running?  I got in.  I got out.  I got back in.  There weren’t supposed to be any trains.  Did a shuttle count as a train?!  I had a few more seconds to crack the code.   

“What do you think, Rachelle?”  Although I wouldn't normally count on an 11-yr-old to bail me out, she was French, and well, any port in a storm.   She stared blankly at me and the shuttle, sweat pouring down her sweet little face, and shrugged.  

Just then Catherine sprinted up the stairwell, waving a ticket.  She looked at the train, or shuttle, and stopped dead.  

“Where’s the bus?”  

“I don’t know - you don’t think this is some kind of shuttle?”  

She studied the departure screen - “NO!  Get off!”  

I jumped, and as I did, we spotted a bus behind us, pulling out--headed for my destination.  Waving and shouting, we signaled the bus driver, along with others running with us, waving tickets.  He ignored us all, and a chorus of curses exploded as he picked up speed.  Moans and groans, wailing and gnashing of teeth...

Cell phones popped out all around, and I asked Catherine for hers--time to let the Bouchers know I had missed my train...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Eskia & the Window Washer

I hadn’t seen the family in three years, but it could have been yesterday.   We slept well into the morning, but someone woke in time to let in the window washer at 10 am, much to Eskia's dismay.  (Catherine's new home is a design dream--housekeeper's nightmare!--of cathedral ceilings, with glass windows and walls everywhere.)

I forced myself out of jet lag stupor into a house full of kids, barking dog and the window washer, Eskia remembering nothing of bonding with me the night before.  She treated me as equally intrusive as the window washer, and could not be begged, cajoled, scolded or banished from the house to stop barking.  I was fully awake in no time at all, while Clara worked Eskia into compliance over the next half hour.

But soon I was out on the terrace with the power coffee, the baguette, more fruit, and the chance to catch up more with Catherine, while various kids popped in and out with their questions.  Eskia mangled Catherine's latest knitting project, in lieu of me or the window washer, and that seemed to help her with anger management.  We were soon on speaking terms again.  Eli did an unintentional upside down flight off the hammock, and a neighbor chimed in with some toys for the boys.  We did manage to get a quiet hour when everyone seemed to have found their level with a jigsaw puzzle indoors, and Eskia asleep at our feet, waiting for crumbs to drop.  

We then roused ourselves to walk over to the bakery for more bread, while the kids started lunch at home--another welcome respite of calm and beauty in La Buisse, to savor the French countryside.  

We returned home to Rachelle concocting an elaborate cake, with more professionalism than I've ever masterted, although she is several decades my junior. 

"Yes, she is quite the baker!" Catherine affirmed.  "Too bad you will miss it."

Natan's birthday was tomorrow, but by tomorrow I would be several hours west in Ardeche.  

"Lunch isn't ready yet?  Pat, what time's your train?"   Um....we need to leave in an hour...Catherine whipped the troops into action, I ran for the gifts and to finish final packing, and we zoomed to the table together within 15 min.   

More language lessons, over saucisse (I hadn't yet gotten around to telling Catherine I've gone vegan), mashed potatoes and salad (thank God).  A few phone calls--Rachelle was arranging a pool party with a friend, who lived near the train station.  Catherine would drop her off after me.  Distribution of presents, dessert... it that late already?!  Where are the keys!?  Rachelle!  You're not packed yet!!!!  Clara, be ready when your friend gets here--any minute!'s the friend...with the mother...a few minutes of chit chat, introductions.  Where's Rachelle?!    

Well, you can finish the end of this tale...a French lunch that included 5 kids, one dog, and one international guest?  Yep, missed that train...bus...whatever....but that's tomorrow's story. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Thirty six hours after departure, I made it.  Catherine and clan were hovered around a vending machine as I arrived; Rachelle spotted me first, and started walking towards me, wordlessly, but with a big smile blooming with each step.  A few seconds later, one by one, everyone turned--all 5 kids, Catherine, and a new puppy whose acquaintance I had yet to make.  

Catherine was the very first friend I made in the North, where I moved one year after arriving in France and completing language school.  She adopted me on first contact, and drew me into her family, culture, and life.  I learned to love the North through Catherine’s eyes: the infamous stinky Maroilles cheese, the adorable windmill of Cassel, the winding cobblestone streets of Old Lille,  the monastery of Mont des Cats, and the cinnamon Dutch waffle cookies, to which I remain irrevocably addicted. 

I was there to meet the man who would become her husband, and for the birth of two of her children.  I introduced her and her female family members to the American bridal shower.  Eventually, I would stand as a witness for her marriage.  Eighteen years and five children later, Catherine remains one of my two French soul sisters, and maintains better communication with me than I do with her!  Our friendship has been deep and rich.    

All five children (and the recently acquired pooch Eskia) hugged me and began talking at once, in good French style.  And Eskia, who knew me not, jumped and licked in the contagious joyfulness.  

The car ride home included a quick English lesson, a query as to why I spoke French from one of the kids, and a car-sick Eskia requiring immediate attention from those nearest her.  We arrived at the family's new home in La Buisse, a nearby suburb of Grenoble, shortly after 10 pm.  I got a quick tour of the new home, a few apricots to tide me over to breakfast, and watched as the children fell asleep in mid-sentence one by one on the couch.  Catherine and I made it till midnight I think, when I collapsed into little Eli’s bed.  Catherine tucked him in  on a mattress on her bedroom floor, and then we knew no more.... 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

From Mannheim to Tunisia

The train for Mannheim arrived and I climbed aboard and shared a private compartment with a young Belgian psychology student.  

The conductor didn’t seem to mind either, as we spread our papers before him to be checked.  The sheer quantity no doubt clouded his judgment; he studied them in perplexity, punched them anyway, and left without a word.  The young student and I went to have a good conversation on the intersection of faith and psychology, until we arrived in Mannheim.   

And then things got next train arrived late, and only got later and later with each stop on the way into France.  In between jet-lag naps, I realized I would probably miss my final connection--at Lyon Part-Dieu.  

I steeled myself for my first argument in French in a long time--clearing my head of as much jetlaggedness as possible.  Then, signaling a conductor, I explained my situation: I needed to print out a ticket at the station; the connection was dangerously tight.  Could I board the next train with the paperwork I had?  

The conductor seemed to take it as a personal offront that I would suggest the already-announced lateness would actually happen, and that I should prepare for it.  How could one prepare when it was too soon to tell if we would make up the time or not?  He left, wounded; I reviewed my options.    

As the time for connecting drew nigh, I signaled him again, and dragged another conductor into the conversation for a second opinion.  Our discussion was brilliantly French: long, convoluted, passionate and inconclusive.  The only thing we agreed on was that I would not have enough time to stop and print out my ticket at the kiosk.  I could risk it, or opt to buy another ticket.  

Dang.  This would actually be my third purchase of this ticket, the first round being cancelled when my flight was, and now this...fortunately I had bought travel insurance.   I wondered how many reimbursements I was eligible for...

In any case, I bought the ticket, learned which track I needed to sprint for, and entered ‘the zone’--that cluster of passengers poised at the door with their pile of luggage.  Anyone who knows the Lyon Part-Dieu station knows connections are tight and merciless.  And we were in high vacation season.  As the train slowed, tension increased perceptibly, especially when one child bolted from his mother, lost a shoe, and began fighting with another child.  Agh...  

The doors opened, the crowd stampeded around the fighting children and errant shoe, and thundered out and away up and down escalators.  I thundered with the best of them, found my train with a nanosecond to spare, and crashed into a seat opposite a young Tunisian man, who eyed me in disgust.  I disarmed him with a smile and a greeting--mostly unheard of in French cities, and especially a Western foreigner woman with a young Muslim man.  

He winced in return and clutched his side.  “Are you okay?” I asked.  And for the next 20 min., he told me his life story, while I nodded sympathetically.  My jetlagged French was not quite up for this challenge, although I could throw in the random question, comment on American politics, and apologize for invading his space.  He smiled for the first time in our conversation - “No no, it was a pleasure.”  

I was sorry to see him go at the next stop, and watched him limp off; he turned suddenly then, smiled broadly, and waved an enthusiastic goodbye.  I smiled and waved back--grateful for human connection in an otherwise mind- and body-numbing bit of travel.  Banal on the surface perhaps, but rehumanizing on another level.  One wonders what might have occurred on deeper and invisible levels.  It is the season of Ramadan; I prayed for this young man the next day, and the next, and he does not easily pass into memory yet.  Maybe we will meet again someday.  Not likely, but...Inshallah.       

Saturday, August 10, 2013

To Begin at the Beginning...

It’s never a good day to travel when you begin with a cancelled flight and a dead bird on your doorstep.

After a few hours on the phone rearranging my life, off I flew, Atlanta to Philadelphia, an  airport filled with rocking chairs, on my way to Frankfurt, Germany and France.  The flight was uneventful, and the next morning, I was expelled into the the labyrinthine Frankfurt airport.

Next stop: find the train station.  Armed with web information that there were two train stations in the airport, and I needed to find the one downstairs, I set off, following the signs.   

I arrived at a confusing sort of dead end, and tried the kiosk to withdraw my tickets with the code; no luck.  I headed for the information counter, something I don’t trust in Europe, and waited 10 minutes to be told that I had no train reservation, that my confirmation code was meaningless, and there were no trains to Mannheim at the appointed hour.  That can't be right, I thought, and took another look around all the signs and asked one lady who looked German if she could help.  She was as confused as I was.  

Something I've come to depend on in travel adventures like these is that still, small Voice that says "Look over here" or "Ask this person."  Light came as I studied the signs and concluded I was in the regional train station, not the long distance one.  Even though I was downstairs.  

I got back on line, and asked where the long distance train station was, and was re-directed upstairs.  Go figure.  I passed on that tip to other dazed and confused Americans in the queue, who didn’t trust me enough to abandon the queue.  After all, it was an information booth; and "...but all the signs say...” 

The upstairs labyrinth was no easier to navigate, but after an hour of walking and checking in at 3 more information booths (never take no for an answer in Europe), I found it.  

Tickets finally firmly in hand, I had three more tasks to accomplish: find a working toilet, an ATM that would accept an American card, and a cafe for coffee!  

Two hours and several miles of airport walking later, missions accomplished, with an hour to kill before my train arrived.  I sat savoring the victories, the sights and sounds, people watching, waiting for my train, sipping cappucino.  It's always a good day of travel that begins (or ends?) in such a way... 

And I alone of my compatriots have escaped to tell this tale.  Maybe they’ll be along later.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Next on the agenda...

The itinerary:

  • Frankfurt
  • Grenoble
  • La Buisse
  • Barnas par Thueyts, Ardeche
  • Grenoble
  • Frankfurt

The agenda:

  • visit my very first language helpers, and usher in their 60th year of wedded bliss :)
  • visit one of my very best French friends 
  • attend GEM's annual conference, and reconnect with some very special people
  • ride on the TGV
  • read a French newspaper
  • eat amazing French food
  • speak French
  • rediscover my French personality
  • discover a new corner of Germany
  • eat European chocolate
  • drink European coffee
  • read poems
  • write poems
  • wonder. learn

The music:

  • Philip Glass, Pandora 
  • French Cafe, also Pandora

The mood:

  • nostalgic

Stay tuned...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Back to the Boatyard

There's always a bit of a letdown after a trip.  One returns to the mundane: bills to be paid, a car that might need a jump start, laundry and grocery shopping, and scads of backed-up emails.  How tempting to look at the jet plane flying overhead, and wish to be on it.  

On the other hand, I am always overwhelmingly grateful for the warm shower, the comfortable bed, the ability to regulate heat and eating to my liking, and safety.  Gifts not to be taken lightly.  There's no place like home.

There will always be another jet plane.  In the meantime... 

It's back to the Boatyard!  

My second chapbook, The Boatman's Daughter, begins advance sales on Monday, so my thoughts  return to proofreading, the promo tour and social media marketing.  

Thanks for following these adventures, and for your various comments on Facebook. I appreciate the time you take to stop by and read, and hope you'll join me in the Boatyard for some poetic adventures!  

See you there!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Heading Home...

Our time in England had come to a close...the glory of the gathering, and the frenzy of the passport issue resolved, unfortunately too late to preclude our early morning departure.  But our 90-minute drive to the Manchester airport was far more joyful, knowing we were facing only a few extra hours in the lounge, rather than interrogation at the immigration office.  

A leisurely breakfast at the airport cafe was our new first priority, and we relished the hot coffee and pastries while bubbling over with the joy of the passport find, the energizing company of the artists, and the prospect of heading home, or to the next stop.  Mission accomplished.  Exhausted but exuberant.

Soon we were shuffled through security, called to board, and settled into our seats--now just Jess and I.  Mat headed into Manchester to visit friends, and then further onto a conference in Denmark; the rest of the guys left for Germany for a tour (Bill Drake Band), following the release of Bill's new CD, Broken and Complete.  Separation anxiety...hard to say goodbye to brothers you've been through intensity with!

I thought I would be one of these passengers:

but the excitement of the past days kept me awake and writing all the way home, with only a movie and a short nap after lunch to interrupt (or feed) the creative surge I was feeling.  I returned as I often do: feeling beyond privileged to be part of this great adventure, with some of the coolest people in the world, seeing some of the sights of the world, hidden or famous, the subtle secrets of a culture or the more stereotypical ones.  The highs and lows, cold showers and short nights.  Broken by the needs in the world, complete in my satisfaction of working to do something about it.  

"The place God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."--Frederick Buechner   

Thursday, May 16, 2013


The cute little English village...check. 

Tiny, winding lanes to stroll through...check.

Surrounded by sheep-filled--or, better, lamb-filled pastures...check.

The castle with ruins...check.

The bridge over the lazy, winding river...check.

The swan...check. 


The pub with the fish and chips...check. 

Bill desired to take his leadership team out for the quintessential British country village experience. Having lived in England for many years, he knew what he was looking for.  And on our free Sunday evening, while the participants went to Birmingham, or a barbecue, or took a nap, we piled in a van.  Forty-five minutes later, after a drive through the loveliest of English countrysides, the sun streaming down on those lamb-filled pastures, we arrived in Bridgnorth.

Perched on the crest of a hill, Bridgnorth overlooked the winding river, complete with geese, swans and ducks, willows and bridges--positively Shakespearean.  We meandered till sunset, the strain of the past week melting in the charm of English gardens, and the fragrance of violets.  Near the old church, the ruins of an old castle tilted like the Tower of Pisa, and a sign attested to its purpose: to defend against the Danes.  

We followed old donkey paths around former ramparts, and took pictures of Hobbit-like doors and windows.  

Back on the main street, with its centuries-old town market, we found the quintessential pub.  After decoding the menu (what in the world are homemade faggots?!), we ordered our meals, complete with elderberry juice or red wine, and the banter of good friends, until it was time to head back.  

In case you missed the album on Facebook, with all the pix, here are a few teasers.  

And if you ever find yourself in the Black Country around Birmingham, check it out.  And I recommend the upstairs table in the window at La Brasserie :) 



Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Covenant of Salt

During our various field presentations and worship times, I was injecting a bit of salt.  A too-obvious symbol for a SALT conference?  Not if you dig into the less-than-obvious Covenant of Salt, mentioned only three times in the Old Testament.  And dug I cannot be obvious in a group of artists, without getting the artistic equivalent of a tomato thrown at you.  

The digging was especially appropriate after Erica had led us in a simulated archaeologic dig, with kits from Toys R Us!  As we chipped away for the 'gems' hidden in these plaster blocks (child safe no doubt), we were to consider the digging it took to find the gems hidden in each culture.  

And one of the gems I have found in Hebrew culture was the Covenant of Salt--a subject that has fascinated me for years, but for which I could find little in literature or on the internet. 

And so I created my own little bit of liturgy, asking the students to bring salt from their countries.  If any eye-rolling went on at that request, no one shared it.  The salt mostly came, and those that didn't bring any bought it in town and eventually brought in an offering.  

I read some of the gems of history and Scripture that I had found--about the depths and meanings of covenants, and the salt added to the sacrifices, salt water at the Passover Seder, and the move of salt away from the table and into rites of baptism, healing and exorcism.  Why that transition away from covenant meals?  I don't know, but if any of you do, please fill me in!  

The Arabs have expressions that retain the early covenant-making element that salt, um, brought to the table:  "There is salt between us" and "We have eaten salt together."  How appropriate as we spent 3 days together sharing hearts, plans, challenges and dreams--literally and figuratively, we ate salt together.

At our closing communion/commissioning time, the table of salt came over to join the communion table, and the salt was mixed in one big bowl--pink, gray, white--from which we scooped and filled a salt shaker for each one.  We prayed over one another, overfilled shakers and made a mess on the floor, sprinkled salt over one another, and finally sent each other off with salt shakers.  But not before the worship kicked in again, and we included the final element of the covenant of salt: healing.  Prayers for the healing of a number of our artists began, while the dancers and musicians lifted the roof off once again.       

Yes, the salt was flying...I've not scratched the surface of this deeply symbolic little grain, but plan to keep on digging, with my new salt shaker sitting on the counter encouraging me on.  

Monday, May 13, 2013


I seriously need to wrap up these less than one week, I need to get back to the Boatyard!  The advance sales period of my second chapbook, The Boatman's Daughter, is about to begin...I'm preparing my media blitz!

In the meantime, let me tell you about Halesowen, the village we were based in.  Small and not-so-small row houses, pretty little flowers springing up as the season was definitely warming up (astonishingly, we had no rain during our time in England!), and soft clouds.  A pedestrian shopping district, peppered with thrift shops and pubs.  And one mall.  To which we were drawn for its coffee bars and chocolate shop...  

Then there was the obligatory millennium-old church with its cemetery, across which an empty potato chip bag blew incongruously.  A downward path to our hosts' home took us past the White Friars building dating from 1300, just around the corner from the tattoo and piercing parlor.  Juxtaposition...  

And from our hosts' home to the training center, we took a stone staircase, went up a hill, across a parking lot, and took the dirt path through the chain link fence to get to the training center.  We passed a snooker club along the way, and the Queen's Pub.  A sign says Little Cornbow.  Have a glimpse:

Saturday, May 11, 2013

What Else Happened

If you’ve been following along, you would think I made a trip to England and back, only to lose my passport and find it again.  Ah, but there was more...this was a subplot in a story that wove together friendship, covenant, worship, pubs, encouragement, creativity...and (of course) coffee & chocolate! 

The main plot?  I think it was supposed to be about training, but became more about creating community, worshipping God.  

Most of what I’ve written about the passport adventure took place in the nanoseconds between meetings, or during meetings, or just before crashing into bed after the 18hr day.  So here‘ s a few snapshots of what happened in those long days.  Starting with worship:

There is no worship like that with a roomful of artists.  Try it some time!  The roof usually comes off, along with the shoes.  Musicians jump on various instruments, dancers break out in interpretive worship dance, and there is likely a visual artist up front working on something.  There may be a dramatic reading or presentation, spoken word, or poetry.  Our technical arts whiz, if he’s around, puts up the most stunning graphics to move us along through the songs, or a video to transition us from one phase to the next.  It is a multi-sensory, multi-media extravaganza, rich and textured.    

Our SALT worship times were no exception: over-the-top music--including violins, guitar, piano, recorder, all manner of percussion instruments (at one point, a box was passed around and everyone invited to select one).   

One morning, with community as our theme, we created trinity motifs with ink while listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor

The next, one of our leaders brought out children’s archeological kits, and set them up at various work stations, recreating the search for precious gems in our cultures.  Video prayer links played in the background, while we moved around prayer stations for each of the nations represented by our group.  We stood or moved from chairs to cushions, poring over prayer requests and info cards on each country.  

Our grand finale--after three days of listening to each other’s stories, challenges and victories, three days of hearts knitting together--followed a time of communion and commission, and was a veritable explosion.  Somewhere in those three days, community happened--a community of artists yearning for freedom of expression--and no one needed to ask permission anymore.  

No one needed to act like a politically correct Christian, whether charismatic or conservative.   Everyone could act like an artist.  The musicians rose, the dancers danced, and one brave visual artist went up front and painted.

At one point, someone threw a chain out in the middle of the room, imploring each one of us to leave any chains that still bound us behind, as the evening came to a close.  (Or tried to.)  A Scripture was read, and some came forward for prayer.  Others sat quietly and soaked it all in.  Some had only tears for offerings.  

When we ended two hours later (oddly enough, with a Christmas carol!), everyone stayed another hour, reluctant to leave.  I think I got a minimum of three hugs per person in the final farewells!  Our tanks were full.  

Isak Dinesen's words, from her short story, "Babette's Feast," come to mind: 

"Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!"  

To see the artists worshipping that night was to hear that cry, and want to answer it.