Remembering Paris, A Year Later

3 a.m., November 14, 2015. A suburb of Paris.

A piercing sound jolts me awake. It’s dark, and too early for an alarm. What is that sound? Groping around in the dark with 3 a.m. cognitive capacity, I finally find Stephen’s wailing phone. “What the…”

A device locator alarm has been activated. Turning it off, I find our phones flooded with notifications of every kind: voicemails, messages, emails. All of them ask if we are okay, if we are alive. This is unexpected. If we are okay? A knot begins to form in my stomach. I open the BBC news homepage, and there the horrible truth of what had happened comes hurtling at me. The darkness is overwhelming. “Can you turn on the light?”

A light comes on, and my eyes ache. I explain to Stephen that a terrorist attack had happened in Paris, the very city we were visiting. I send a hasty reassurance to everyone who had messaged me, mind whirring and heart pounding as I try and fail to make sense of it all. An attack? How could this happen? How did it happen? How bad was it? I read and re-read the early reports but they have little details. A message comes in from my brother, saying that he had used my Google account to set off my phone’s alarm. I set the phone down again.

My heart continues to sprint and the knot in my stomach tightens. I hear a faint sound downstairs and jump violently. The shadows of the tree branches outside give me goosebumps. We should turn the light off again to try to sleep, but I don’t want to. Maybe we’ll just sleep with it on.

4 a.m.

“Are you still awake?”

Sleeping is futile. How can one calm the mind enough to rest at such a time?

I keep thinking of the dissonance between the news we received and how ordinary life had been that day. How could a day so normal bring about a night so tragic? I had sat outside a sunny café in the very neighborhoods where the tragedy would later happen, drinking coffee without a care in the world. The Christmas market had been so bright, so lighthearted. I had bought a fuzzy scarf. I watched a young bride and groom get pictures by a fountain. The Eiffel tower sparkled in joy. How was it possible for all of that to happen so freely and then be shattered so suddenly only a few hours later? It doesn’t make sense, I can’t make it make sense.

I turn over, unable to wrestle with the complicated, repulsive feelings welling up inside of me. The light comes on. We read Narnia until the early hours of dawn. I fall asleep breathing thanks that we had been tired and took the early train back home.

12 p.m.

Heartbroken faces, dismayed thoughts, comforting gestures.

Our host family shares the sadness with us. The house fills as friends and family members come from Paris to stay in this safe, quiet suburb. A radio offers a constant stream of updates. At least 100 people have been killed, maybe more. The borders are closed, and we are not to go into the city. Our host makes brunch.

Upstairs, I watch the neighbors from our room’s window. An older gentleman works at taking a French flag out of a bag. A neighbor bikes by. They chat a little, and then together raise the flag by the side of the house.

4 p.m.

We get a message from the next host we are planning to stay with in Versailles. He writes that we are welcome at any time we need to come, and that he won’t let such acts of hate ruin his family’s love and hospitality. Later we will learn that one of his coworkers survived the Bataclan, despite being shot in the forearm.

Monday, November 16

We go back into the Paris city center. In the spirit of our future host, we won’t let the hateful actions of a few ruin our few days here with fear.

Guards are everywhere, and the sky is gray. We watch a group of police question a man sitting in a park. Slowly we meander to the Eiffel Tower. It is closed, but we stroll around the park area and have a picnic of bread, cheese, and cold clementines. It’s too quiet for such a world-famous landmark as this, but we eat our lunch in gratitude for the simple fact that we are able to do so.

We are finishing our snacks when a strange sight catches our eye. Across the green two men in suits and ties stand around a strange contraption. Part of it is certainly a bike. The other part looks like a trailer hitch connected to a beat-up grand piano and bench. What?

I watch as one of the men gets on the bike and starts pedaling. The piano and bench follow. We start laughing. “Let’s get a picture!” We get up and follow to document this bizarre sight. As we walk, the cyclist slows to a stop and the other man takes a seat on the bench. They begin to take off again. We follow, and the pianist commences the steady, thoughtful chords of John Lennon’s Imagine.

We’re no longer laughing. As the music begins to fill the park, people look up from their conversations and lunches. Smiles, but not of amusement, begin to grow on downcast faces. I don’t know whether to smile or cry. They continue to travel and play under the gray skies. Imagine all the people living life in peace…

The song ends, and we stand in reverence at their…hope? resilience? love? It doesn’t matter the term. Whatever it was it was moving, powerful. They had the healing gift of music and were sharing it in the city where it was most needed.

As they roll away they begin another song. I watch them as they leave the park, moving peacefully onward to share Let It Be with the next block.

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Welcome Home

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Dear Reader,

Following nearly two months away I am now home. Home in a quiet room of a colorful cabin bathed in November’s low-hanging sunlight and fenced in by thickets of birch and pine. After the maniacal streets of Kathmandu I can’t imagine anywhere more dissimilar to find myself. The clean air and deep silence are new sensations which I drink in like never before, each bursting with a freshness and healthiness that nears overwhelming. That somewhere so pure, so wholesome as the woods, the clear lake, or the bright sky can exist seems a miracle. Yet thousands of such miraculous gifts surround me every day, and I’m learning to stop and appreciate them all as little bits of living a fully present life.

In this little corner of the north woods we’re transitioning into the next phase of our lives. Several years of classes, travel, moving, starting jobs, quitting jobs, traveling, and moving some more is giving way to a time of less movement and more peace. This place feels like home, and I hope to call it home for a long time to come. The little cabin we are renting is the perfect host to welcome us into this new era, with plenty of lovable quirk and character. The maple floors creak with experience, the front porch greets me with that endearing musty, old-house smell, and I ponder its past in the boundary waters before being moved here to Grand Marais. It’s seen a lot, like we have, and seems a fitting location to begin a new phase of settling in, of healing, of slowing life down to cherish what needs to be treasured and cut what needs to go. I will write about these things in time and share my reflections from the northland as the days go on, but for now I will look back a bit and share a story from my time abroad.

I had every intention of continuing to write while in Nepal, but it seems third-world internet and WordPress don’t cooperate. Compounding that was the feeling a sore lack of inspiration and creative energy, and so I did not put a whole lot of words to paper in the first place. Perhaps I’ll return and give more accounts of our time abroad, once the dust settles. We’ll see. But for now I’ll content myself with this simple story that I hope not to forget.

It happened after some friends and I jumped on a decrepit bus to take the rough, pothole-ridden road across town. Thousands and thousands of people crowd the skinny dirt lanes, travelling here and there in the plume of dust and black smoke pouring out of every vehicle’s tailpipe. Some people smile and laugh, but most wear the careworn expression of constantly battling life in this nearly unlivable place.

On this particular day, our bus trip followed a huge thunderstorm, and the roads and alleys were transformed into giant pits of mud. I watched from the window as people tried to avoid the lakes in the sidewalks or utilize the fraction of road that was actually usable. We travelled along block after block of tiny shops, me starting to wonder if walking would be more efficient than putting up with this bus’s snail-like pace. As I looked out the window, searching for patience, the normal wall of buildings gave way to a recess resembling a miniature courtyard. This nook was piled high and packed tight with garbage: old wooden planks, broken pieces of metal, rotting furniture; all of it stacked haphazardly and staying in place by what I assumed to be a miracle. It would take days upon days to go through every piece stuffed into that space. Yet there was a certain order to it, and as the bus slowed I noticed a small, old man with a little twig broom in his hand.

He stood on a pathway of slate stepping stones that led into this great rubbish pile, steps that were surrounded on all sides by the deep mud of last night’s storm. As I watched, the man stooped over, took his broom and carefully swept off each stone step. I marveled. Why clean stones stuck in a mud pit that leads to a bunch of trash? I guess I don’t have an answer, and that’s fine. I don’t have to understand. But whatever the reason, to this diligent man the little set of steps mattered. And since they mattered, he was faithful in taking care of them. It didn’t bother him if others perceived his efforts as a lost cause or a waste of time. To him they were important, and they were in his care, and thanks to his faithfulness there is a set of fresh, clean stones in the middle of a chaotic city.

As small people in the middle of a wild world, we can’t change everything. There will be corruption, poverty, and darkness beyond our control. It’s heartbreaking, truly, but just because the problems of this world can daunt, overwhelm, and abound, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. This man could have easily considered the little bit of property in his care a lost cause, but he didn’t. He could have stood complaining about everyone else’s messes, but he didn’t. He helped the little bit that he could, even if the rest of the world saw it as a waste of time, even if the rest of the world was letting what was entrusted to them fall apart.

And still today I’m thankful for that man. For his faithfulness, for his care, and for the well-loved set of stone steps.

Love,

Rae

 

A Separate Life

Dear Reader,

I spent years anticipating this time. Somehow, so seamlessly it escaped my notice, the minutes became hours, which formed a day, and enough of those passed where I started calling them weeks and then months. And two months has now brought me to my penultimate day in Stirling. Sometimes beginnings, endings, and milestones don’t feel real. This one feels real. Everything is tinged with a hue of lasts, of final pictures, visits to our favorite haunts, and pending goodbyes. Remember being asked that question of if you’d want to know when you’ll die? I’ve been asked that; it’s hard to conceptualize knowing when you’ll die, but this kind of feels like it. Not death, of course, but an end, and knowing that it’s coming whether you want it to or not. I’ve always been one to answer no to that question, but as these last few days have shown, there is a certain amount of comfort in fully appreciating every moment knowing that time is limited. You get that closure that we so often want out of life yet don’t always get.

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In one of my favorite kitchens in the world, a dry erase board on the fridge bore the words One should count each day a separate life. I don’t know about each day, but I approached this journey as a separate life, inscribing the first page of my travel journal with Day One. (We’re now on day 67 if you were curious). Travel has felt to me like life condensed into a short amount of time. We arrived clueless and excited, with everyone to meet and everywhere to see. We explored and grew friendships and became known, relaxed a bit in the excitement and cluelessness and grew in the appreciation and confidence. There is still more to see; there always will be. But our time has run its course and we’ll leave and say goodbye, hoping we’ll see each other in another time and place but not really knowing for sure. When I think about it, it’s that experience of life that gives me the gratitude and passion to live out my whole life to the fullest, the one that’s more akin to a marathon than a sprint. Sometimes seeing an image of something on a smaller and more comprehensible scale can bring you into fuller understanding of what it represents. So it has been for this separate live and the lessons it’s taught me about the bigger one.

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Reflections aside, Stirling in and of itself has been a joy to live. Through my classes I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Stirling Castle, which sits bright yellow (no joke) on a hill. This fortress was once home to the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, who was kept here when Protestant England considered her Catholicism a threat to the nation. That suspicion of her later took her life. Other famous characters have left their mark on Stirling as well, namely William Wallace, whom many Americans will recognize as Braveheart. A prominent figure in the Scottish fights for independence, a monument dedicated to him crowns the city, and if you climb all the steps to the top you get a beautiful view of miles of Scotland and glimpses of history along the way through artifacts such as Wallace’s sword, which I think is about as tall as I am.

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We’ve certainly partaken of our share of the local culture in these last few days, highlighted in events such as the Bridge of Allan Highland Games this last Sunday, where we witnessed firsthand the feats of strength performed by men in kilts, activities such as hurling weights (or each other) and throwing logs into the air. Last night as our farewell the university put on a ceilidh for us, or a traditional Scottish dance. There we all enjoyed the music and perfected our folk dancing skills in the ballroom of a castle. A perfect way to end a term, if you ask me; I think Eau Claire should take notes.

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While my journey will take me on to England and France after this, my second home and family in Scotland is something that I will not easily forget. And so it’s not goodbye really, but until we meet again. Whenever that may be.

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Love always,

Rae

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivAusmXpRwI

London

Dear Reader,

This last weekend I caught a train from the rugged hills of Scotland to bustling streets of London, England. London’s influence seems to permeate the world and the imaginations of even those who have never set foot in it. Images of red telephone boxes, waving Union Jack, and double-decker busses zooming past iconic landmarks have dwelt with me most of my life, an idealized vision of some place I’ve always dreamed of going. I have to admit that while I had high hopes for this city, half of me wondered if its charm was grounded more in hype than what it actually had to offer. Yet every moment from arriving in King’s Cross Station to when we left on Sunday exceeded all expectations, leaving me in no doubt as to why London was someplace I had always been dying to see.

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Being in London sort of felt like Christmas. Sticky July heat aside, we were alive with the childlike giddiness of seeing long-anticipated places that before had only been real in pictures. It’s surreal to walk over Tower Bridge, past Parliament, and hear Big Ben tolling noon like it’s the most normal thing in the world. For many walking the streets it was; just another day getting from here to there and home again. But for us it was the joy of discovering for ourselves somewhere that has touched and influenced millions of people for thousands of years.

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It was an intense four days of trying to pack in as much as possible, and I think we did a pretty good job. We mastered the London Underground, which brought us to places such as the Tower of London, the infamous fortress where people where held prisoner and executed; Buckingham Palace, where the guards really do look as goofy in real life as they do on the Travel Channel; the Westminster Abbey, site of every coronation and royal wedding; and Kensington Palace, where Queen Victoria was born and raised. I think it’s best to have a somewhat high pain tolerance when visiting London; the need to pinch yourself to remember the significance of what you’re seeing may happen more than once. When you see armour worn by King Henry VIII, the Crown Jewels, Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, and the graves of people like Sir Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, and Winston Churchill all in a matter of hours, you may start to lose touch with reality. Occasional tears are also acceptable.

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Though it was all magnificent (save for the blisters), what was arguably my favorite part was touring the Harry Potter set at the Warner Brothers Studios. For those of you who did not know me during my elementary and middle school years, Harry Potter was a defining feature of my childhood. Perhaps the defining feature for a while. I lost sleep staying up late reading the series by flashlight, counted down the days until each new book or movie was released, proudly plastered my room with movie posters, and even planned how I would tell my family and friends when I got my Hogwarts acceptance letter. I’m still waiting for the last bit. While I’ve mostly mellowed from that degree of obsession, I still have a strong connection to the books and films. Maybe I liked the story of a J.K. Rowling, whose good idea and talent for writing has changed the world of childhood literacy. Or Hermione Granger, a young female character whose defining traits were not beauty and desperation but strength and intelligence (finally!). Or the intricacies of an imagined world that is so convincing you still wonder if it can be real. Whatever it was that drew me to the series originally, what has lasted more than anything is the personal and family connections I have to Harry Potter.

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Those memories came to life as we walked through the film sets and got to see the places and props used to make the movies. I remember my family buying the first movie on VHS when I was in third grade, and the five of us watching it on our old TV for the first time. I think Mom got more joy watching me watch the film than from the movie itself. I walked through the set of the Great Hall and remembered the end of the second movie, and Dad and I tearing up in the theater when he and I first went to see it together. Or my senior year of high school when the last film was released, and my parents took me out of school so we could see it opening day. The love of these stories was always something that my family shared. Together we discovered the wizarding world, and among other things, it was something we had in common that united all of us.

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In a way, this trip to London was like a pilgrimage, the long-awaited visit to somewhere I’d dream of after a rough day of middle school or the monotony of high school. It was neat because rather than having reality be a letdown from my imagination, that childlike excitement returned, and I could live reality from that perspective of wonder. Sometimes I’m sad that childhood is over. But as I get older, I also realize that part of it never really ends. There will always be the treasured stories and memories that come back to spark our imaginations and bring us back to those times that we loved. We just have to let them.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4E1uKYl1Jg

Keep imagining,

Rae

Time in Glencoe

Dear Reader,

It is raining hard here in Scotland, and I thought I would take advantage of this stormy afternoon to wander back onto WordPress. I have been in Europe forty days now, and I want to thank you so much for sticking with me so far during this amazing time.

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I find myself now at the second major turning point of the journey. Our first block of classes has concluded, and this last week was a whirlwind of final presentations, projects, and papers. Hence my lack of communication with the outside world. Come Monday I will begin a new course, as well as some preliminary studying for the GRE, but we won’t talk about that last bit.

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Most on my mind at the moment is the fact that many friends who were only here for the first block are going home, and I don’t know whether our paths will cross again. It’s funny how it took coming to Scotland for all of us Americans to meet and become friends. Life works backwards like that sometimes.  Fortunately all of my wonderful flatmates are here for the rest of the summer, and I am eager to meet those arriving today for the second half of the summer.

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A lot has happened since I last wrote, and I’ve seen a variety of places such as Edinburgh, Stirling Castle, and the Highlands. Rather than trying to play catch-up, I’m going to focus on last weekend’s excursion to Glencoe with my friends Nick and Holly. The three of us wanted to travel north and do some mountain climbing, and so we headed to the renowned destination of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands.

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A tiny village with a bloody history, Glencoe’s main draw is the location: a wide valley surrounded on every side by mountains that rise into the misty sky. Some call it the most beautiful place in Scotland. While I have not been everywhere in this fine land, I cannot begin to fathom a place more breathtaking than Glencoe. I’ve never seen real mountains before, and was completely unprepared to be so enamored with the majesty of the Highlands.

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We figured we backpacked over twenty miles in two days, every step and blister well worth the joys of trekking through the woods and seeing sights I want burned into my memory forever. As we sat in the sun by Loch Leven waiting for our bus to take us back—and half hoping it wouldn’t come—I thought of how much I didn’t want to leave the Highlands or face the goodbyes of the coming week.

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As sad as it is when good things come to an end, in a way I’m glad that they do. It makes time more meaningful when you know that it’s definite; you see the time you do have as a gift, time that must be spent well and not wasted. And while good things do end, you never know what better things lie ahead. And the best things, we are promised, last eternally.

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Holly and I somehow returned from our weekend with a rekindled Coldplay obsession. This one’s at the top of my list again, a tune that was popular the last time I was in Europe.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyMhvkC3A84

Thanking you for reading and wishing you all the best,

Rae

 

 

 

 

 

Glasgow

Dear Reader,

This Thursday past, my journey brought me to the city of Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland. Buzzing with fast-paced life, Glasgow has to be one of the most underrated cities in Europe. It doesn’t share the same noble past or historic attraction as its neighbor, Edinburgh, but brings the rehabilitated energy of a place that was once dark and careworn but has turned around to offer bright new adventures.

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Traces of Glasgow’s past can still be found among the modern museums and shops, in places like the Willow Tea Rooms, meticulously designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1903, and still open for the business of college students who wander off the streets for tea and scones.

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It seems impossible to arrive in a city without visiting its cathedral. After spending our morning meandering through museums of modern art and architecture, we found ourselves at the Glasgow Cathedral, a haunting Gothic masterpiece in the shadow of the necropolis, the Victorian cemetery on the hill. We spent a good hour in the cathedral and necropolis, intrigued by the dark peace that veiled them. When I say dark I do not mean evil, but rather the mysterious beauty of the unknown that both locations encompassed. The kind of dark that can exist with light.

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I had almost forgotten that I had originally intended to study in Glasgow my sophomore year of college; I had been accepted and everything, and then withdrew my commitment for a handful of reasons that are no longer relevant.  It was compelling to walk Glasgow’s streets and wonder how my life in that city might have been, or what I would be doing this summer in lieu of Stirling. I cannot know the answer to either question, and as neither is reality it is of little significance.

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There is great wisdom in not being able to know everything, and I am appreciating more and more how I can’t. And while my travels in Scotland may have taken a different direction, I am thankful that I am here now, and that this is the trip that has chosen me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT7_IZPHHb0

Love, Rae

Light

Dear Reader,

As my lovely and faithful companion—more commonly known as a journal—tells me, it is day nineteen of the journey, and life has settled into a regular rhythm. That is, if you can call daily activities like climbing mountains and exploring dungeons regular. I think it is a lifestyle that I can get used to. Thursday involved an excursion to St. Andrews, a picturesque town by the sea, made famous most recently by the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met at the university there. Some of the highlights included exploring the ruins of the castle and cathedral, walking around one of the oldest golf courses in the world, and stumbling across a man sitting on the beach playing the bagpipes. Today’s excitement consisted of venturing into the rugged highlands for some hiking, a day well spent with breathtaking views, good exercise, and great company.

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Being a foreigner takes you on an interesting ride. It’s been neat to experience it with a group of people that are all in the exact same boat, living and navigating life in this new land together. Some of my family can trace its roots to Ireland and Scotland, and I admire their vision and courage as I take on a new life in the lands that they left so many years ago.

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Recently, I have been impressed and refreshed by the simplicity of life since leaving America. I have enough possessions to fill a small suitcase and a backpack, a very simple flat with stark white walls, no wifi, and exactly one drawer of space in our refrigerator. Everything is downsized and refocused.  While simplicity is the antithesis of American culture, I find that it’s hard to make a mess out of a life without clutter.  The longer I’m here, the less it makes sense to me why we willingly confuse and complicate our lives by continually adding. That unwarranted stress takes away from the simple gifts we have all around us, like fresh air to breathe, a bed to sleep in, or the delicious warmth of the sun.

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Today is the longest day of the year, especially so here at 56 degrees north, where morning comes early and nighttime falls late. The sky is never quite dark; even in the middle of the night there is a faint glow on the horizon that illuminates the earth, something I find wondrous. In the mindset of simplicity, something as common as the light of the sun is enough to make the heart leap for joy. For it is within simplicity that the common becomes miraculous.

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The song I will leave you with today is an old favorite in honor of the miracle of light. I hope you enjoy it along with the other common miracles in your life.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZrJvvD_29k

Grace and peace,

Rae