To Old Homes and Buildings

The house I am staying in right now is actually an older home divided up into several. The first floor is two little shops and there are three flats upstairs. Beth and Jonathan’s looks out onto a main road in town, or around town as it were. I don’t think it’s the High Street but it’s where the buses run so I could be wrong. They have two windows in the front, one in the living room/dining room area, and the second in their bedroom. They are single paned so street noise filters in with hardly a buffer. The top middle section is stained glass. Little squares of purple and green, perfect for Beth and her love of lavender. In the center is a flower with a rather large blue center. The sunlight shines in with mottled hues. Outside, just around the corner from the main street is a sign that explains why the floors are a bit uneven and why the wardrobe door randomly squeaks open. This house was built in 1741.

I am sleeping in a house that is older than my state. John Welsey might have seen this house when he traveled through Cantebury and preached at the church where Beth now works. I could be living in a museum, except that Jonathan is testing out his new hi-def tele by watching a few scenes from Lord of the Rings. Theodin shouting a viking chant to urge the Riders of Rohan onward to a day of glorious war isn’t exactly in line with 1741 lifestyles…

Today we went to the ruins of a church by the seaside. It was quite lovely walking along the shore of the North Sea, wading in almost up to our knees and giggling as we slipped in our flip flops through salty sand. And we found our way down to Reculver which is mostly gone, but the front towers remain. They’ve been kept up as a sign to ships. Far out in the distant waves was a great wind farm. The massive white pilars with their rotating turbines are anchored by huge cement pylons. The group of about 30 windmills supplies 100,000 homes in Kent with their electrical needs. It was amazing to be on a seashore, our hair blown wildly by the stiff breeze, feeling very much like I should be in a Jane Austen novel, wearing a white dress–and yet there were windmills floating in the Northern Sea beyond the old church.

And tomorrow I come home to more wide open spaces (but lacking a seaside). Mm. Let’s hope my smuggling goes smoothly and the recylced plane air isn’t too dry.

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I Can Drive a Stick. Again.

Dr. Davis taught some of us how to drive stick. Apparently, I’m a car athlete and I can be very proud to tell my brother that I’m practically an expert. We would get up to 40km and be in 3rd gear when Dr. Davis would say with sheer delight “We’re flying! Look at you! Stay on your side of the road when you shift! We’re flying now!” He told us that secretly, he builds up four years of the barrier between students and professors only to break down and teach us to drive an automatic and willingly admit that it’s his favorite thing to do. So, one year after I was originally taught, I now know how to drive a stick even better than the first time.

In other news, the south is hot. The sun is brilliant. I’m tanning somewhat. The wasps are incessant. I have curly hair. And the dishes are never ending. But by now, Sabrina, Becca, Susan and I have helped so much in the kitchen taht our names for dish duty routine have been torn up and let loose in the santa-anna-style wind. But there are such great rewards. Everyone is so thankful (Maggie [Mrs. Davis], April, Seth and Alex [the ‘grown up’ helpers]). And we get to have extra portions sometimes. I get free sorbet, and last night Sabrina and i enjoyed our shrimp crowded around the kitchen table with too much laughter, too much butter, and too much goodness all around.

Today I had to be the hero and pick up the kitten from next door as Matt and Brittany went running yelling about allergies. WHich is funny. I never liked cats. But this grey mangy excuse for a kitten has caught my heart. Maybe the way its chest was pounding furiously in terror when I took it home (three times!) has something to do with my compassion for the poor creature. But it certainly has to do with Anthony, Jonathan, Teresa, Jared, and a million other Indo people who love cats.

Yesterday was perhaps one of the best so far–in a miserably hot way. We went to Arles. First, we waited for Dr. Davis while sitting outside an Arena. The Arena is still functioning, they have bullfights this week. We sat on the steps, while people drove by taking postcard photos of us. And then we wandered inside with our single group ticket and barely ten minutes to walk the steps that are taller than the length of my calf. But this isn’t just an arena. This arena was built in the first century after Jesus Christ.

I walked on stones that are Two. Thousand. Years. Old.

I walked on stones that people sat on to watch lions and gladiators fight. I took pictures there and absorbed a view of the sand where people probably saw early Christians executed. Do you know what this means? There are great lives of saints that may have ended there. And I stood in it. I stood on something that might have been built while Paul was still scribbling out his letters to Thesaloniki.

Just down around the corner is a little catholic chapel. Beatiful, with thin Romanesque windows high in the walls that curve overhead into a ceiling style that would eventually give way to the gothic masterpieces like Notre Dame and Chartes. There were frescoes that have nearly vanished. There were pews, smoothed and worn thin by the faithul. Or the tourists. And behind a wrought iron gate there were dozens of golden boxes that reminded me of the gifts the magi brought to Jesus and his parents. But there was no incense, gold or myrh in these delicate cases. There were relics.

I saw a man’s skull in its own alcove. St. Antione of the Desert–in Egypt. He gathered hermits together for instruction, fellowship and prayer. He encouraged saints who were on their way to the arena–like the one I stood in–and exhorted them to hold fast, to be strong in the Lord. He was wise and gentle and kind. He lived to 106, he cast out demons and forever kept the faith. He is sitting or standing or dancing in heaven right now. And I saw his skull.

The dark interior of the church smelled like every Catholic chapel–mildew, crevices that absorb water from somewhere, wood, incense and old age. There were saints over the door to guide our entrance. There were sinners being dragged to hell, and Stephen being stoned to death while his soul escaped–through the mouth–to heaven. There were tombs, the names worn away by the feet of the saints who have walked over them for hundreds of years. And all this religiosity down the street and around the corner from an arena built by the Roman Ceasars who called themselves god and had a cult to worship them. All this just five minutes walk from a place where Christians likely died for the faith that the monumental church is dedicated to.

And some people don’t appreciate history…

Dancing, Smoking, Dukes and Saints

Okay, okay.

I danced last night. For probably three solid hours. It was great. Bastille Day is so much better than the Fourth of July. I’m sorry America. But the fireworks were so close, and the band was so loud and the parade was so small and quaint; everything was wonderful. It was the best fireworks show that I’ve seen. Of course, Laura and I pointed out that since Sarkozy said France is going bankrupt, this must be where the last of the French budget is: fireworks. But heck, they were worth it.

The dancing was good. Maggie (prof’s wife) wouldn’t hear of anyone not dancing. So we held our own purses or sent them home with someone else and we were crazy Americans who practically started the dance party in the Plaza. It was great too, a couple of our girls were grabbed by Frenchmen who wanted to tell their grandchildren a story about the time they danced with an American. And some of our girls dragged French boys over to our group. They then turned out to be creeps. Or just good teenagers. Instead of dancing, they stood and stared at us, and then pulled out some weed. Mm. I love the smell of weed mixed with body odour and cigarettes. But our young men put themselves in between us and the creepers and finally they wandered away.  And we danced until I thought my feet would fall off. Vive la France!

Today we went to Rouen and Giverny. Giverny is Monet’s home and garden. I saw a print of the painting that gave the title to the Impressionist Movement and it was gorgeous! Becca and I frolicked through a field we saw in another painting too. It might have been illegal and we might have jumped a little wire fence. But it was worth it. I felt free and happy dancing in that field of brown wheat and red flowers. If only I’d had a white dress like the women in the painting!

Rouen should have a post of its own. This is where Jeanne d’Arc was tried and burned. It’s also home to a beautiful cathedral (where she was put on trial) which has the tallest spire in France, which Monet painted several times at different hours of the day to catch different lightings. And there’s a massive clock.

The church is Gothic, and everything that you expect in an old world cathedral. Walking up to the door is intimidating. Saints stare down at you from their pedestals that cling precariously to the church’s walls. Inside, your eyes have to adjust to the light, dim and musty. But when the sunlight from outdoors fades, you are in an entirely different world. The ceilings are so far above, so perfectly curved, so intricately designed that you stand in a moment of dumb stupor. What can you do but stare? People are coming in behind you, pushing and waiting impatiently while their own eyes adjust and they suddenly come to to the same glorious realization that you have just discovered.

Becca said it’s humbling. I think this is what church is supposed to be like. I was so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to feel. There were dukes buried there, from the 11th century. I saw their sarcophagi and walked over their tombs in the floor of the apse. I saw Joan of Arc’s sword and I prayed where countless saints have before me.

I stood beside a stone sculpture that was from the 11th century and had been damaged (I believe during WW2). It was of St. Simeon and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple on his eighth day. You could hardly make out the faces, the stone is so worn away. But their robes were flowing and wide, and the stone was grey and ancient and I felt this weight lay on my shoulders. My chest tightened as I thought of my nephew, Isaac, who is not even a week old. So I took a deep breath. I reminded myself that the Pope and the Catholic church can be good, I dropped a Euro in the box and I light a candle. I light a candle and I prayed for Isaac. And I think, standing in that massive hall, with my heart pounding in my head, and the candles tingling around me, I think I felt the presence of God. I think I heard the saints whispering and the ancient Dukes smiling and St. Simeon in his alcove listening and praying for me.

But maybe it was the French laughing at the non-Catholic trying to light her candle. Maybe it was the dim accordian playing outside. Maybe it was the shuffling feet over ancient polished stone.

But I think it was the Spirit.