Today is the other day that I knew would eventually come, but I didn’t expect to feel quite the way I do as I sit in my window seat and look at the Swiss countryside fading beneath me.

This is the end of the first of three trips I will make to Europe over the next year.  But this is the only one that I have done largely on my own, without my husband or a particular traveling partner beside me.  I have chosen where to go when and with whom.  I have figured out train schedules and fares, restaurant menus and tips, and places to sleep and visit.  I have made friends with Germans and French people, Spaniards and Swiss.  And I leave this Continent with more of a sense of self than I had when I first stepped foot here back in that warm April day in Barcelona.

I learned, for starters, about the sorts of things that irritate me, both about myself and about others.  Traveling brings out people’s rough edges, those things we can safely set to the side when we’re at home.  I learned that my edges revolve around my fears and loneliness.  If I feel lonely or isolated, I tend to get more quickly annoyed with others than I ordinarily would.  And if I feel afraid or threatened in any way, I have a hard time admitting it to others or dealing with the war that wages in my head over shoulds and shouldn’ts.

I went for a long walk last night by myself through the vineyards and paths of Rivaz and the surrounding Swiss villages.  I was indeed alone, but I felt like I was on a walk with the Creator of it all.  I took my time strolling around, watching the incredible sunset over the Alps reflecting its colors on the surface of the water.  I could feel my tired body getting more tired by the minute, but I pushed myself further and further.  If there’s anything that I have learned about myself, it’s that I can indeed be pushed to limits that I never would have approached before– I can survive narrowly being pick-pocketed, I can figure out how to get from one place to another (even in a language I don’t speak!), I can power hike up a mountain to enjoy a quick but life-giving view, I can not let a rainy day ruin my enjoyment of beauty.

After this flight lands in Newark, I’ll be greeted by my husband who has been busy packing the belongings we’ve accumulated over the past three years of marriage.  In three days, we will both graduate as Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.  And in a week, we’ll be turning over the keys to our apartment– the only home we’ve known together– as we embark on the next adventures laid out before us.  Peter will be traveling to Israel and Palestine.  He’ll then travel to Germany, where, in one month, I will meet him for another month of travel.  I am eager to return to the U.S., where my husband and family call home, but I know that I leave a piece of my heart behind in Europe.  I hope that I can find it when I return.

Until then…

Adventure seeker on an empty street

Just an alley creeper, light on his feet

A young fighter screaming, with no time for doubt

With the pain and anger can’t see a way out

It ain’t much I’m asking, I heard him say

Gotta find me a future move out of my way

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now…

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Phase three of this journey has officially begun!  We have left Taizé and have arrived in Geneva, a group of seven Americans together on an adventure.  It will be interesting to see how this group travel dynamic works out.  But, for now, it is safe to say that we are happy to be together and happy to be leaving the camp-like accommodations.

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Our first group adventure involved our bus ride from Taizé to the train station in Macon.  The bus was jam-packed, and everyone seemed to be willing to stomp on anyone else in order to catch this bus.  Gone was the goodwill fostered from our spiritual pilgrimage– not when there are public transportation schedules to adhere to!  Just as we were getting settled in our seats, a scuffle broke out near the front of the bus:

Australian man: Oh GREAT!  That’s just GREAT!  Take up an ENTIRE SEAT with your bag when there are NO SEATS LEFT on this bus!  SUCH IGNORANCE!

French man at whom he was yelling:  ?

A:  THIS IS UNBELIEVABLE!  MOVE YOUR BAG!

F: ? (looks out the window)

A: Dis-GUSTING!  And you call yourself a Christian…

Needless to say, the bus driver was having a bad morning.  But nothing could compare to the visible resignation that emanated from her seat when we finally arrived at the Macon train station…

And a car was blocking her entrance.

She honked and honked, but to no avail.  So, she put her head on her steering wheel and sighed.  Then, she opened the door and said, in that beautiful French language:  “You will have to get off here, I’m afraid.”

Well!  We Americans had seen enough!  We couldn’t leave this poor woman to her terrible day without giving at least one shot at making it better.  So, we did what any crazy group of Americans in our situation would do:

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We recruited French boy scouts from the bus.  And we moved the car.

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Though, not ALL of us were willing to undertake the risk.

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But, alas!  Victory!  Victory, at last!

Needless to say, I think the bus driver had her day a little brightened…

I’m listening to Over the Rhine while sitting on a bench atop the hill overlooking the Rhône in the park behind the Pope Palace in Avignon.  (A string of prepositional phrases!  I think I’m losing the ability to write or think in proper English.  Which is ok with me…)


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The view from here is so beautiful—I can see for Provençal miles and miles—and I feel like I have to wear my sunglasses to protect myself from this vision, sort of like how God has to turn his back to Moses when passing by.  The clouds are beginning to build around me, and I feel a few drops of refreshing rain on my arms.  I’m actually watching the shadows recede and come back over a vineyard in a valley situated along the winding Rhône between the hills, towns, and mountains.  Tourists are swarming around me, taking pictures and giving money to a telescope next to me.  I don’t know why they are bothering.  JUST OPEN YOUR EYES, I want to shout at them.  But they sound as if they are having fun, and isn’t that what this is all about?

I finished my time in Arles and moved on to Avignon yesterday.  I am discovering that my orientation to a new town is a lot like getting to know a person I find interesting.  At first, it can be overwhelming.  When I lose my way or don’t know my next move, I get nervous and a little frightened.  The townspeople seem less like friends and more like strangers.  Eventually, though, if all goes well and I push through that awkward phase, the town and I become friends.  It intimidates me no more than I intimidate it.  I learn the people and their style.  I learn how to move like one of them, how to do what they do.  It is amazing how human language separates us—but not completely.  We can still communicate.  We can still grow in affection.  We can still co-exist and enjoy life together.

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Back in Arles, my morning consisted of an excellent breakfast at the hotel and a stroll through the city.  I stumbled upon a wonderful little coffee shop and ordered a cappuccino.  I sat and listened to the barista speak French on the phone and to the other customers.  I told her that listening to French is, for me, like listening to someone singing.  She said she understood, but I don’t think she possibly could.

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Then, I made my way to the Van Gogh tribute museum, wherein artists have recreated some of Van Gogh’s masterpieces in their own style, paying tribute to him as an inspiration.  Clearly, the fact that Van Gogh had some serious and troubling mental problems did not stop his creativity.  In fact, for all we know, the two could have been two sides of the same coin.  It reminds me of an excellent essay I read in seminary about how Abraham Lincoln was known to plummet into what was then called “melancholy” from time to time.  The writer of the article argued that, without this thorn in his side, Lincoln may not have been so deeply disturbed by the war going on under his leadership—he may not have been so convinced that the American system of slavery was atrocious, he may not have written and spoken the words that continue to inspire leaders.  I don’t think that mental illness is something we should romanticize, but I also am not convinced that people who suffer mental illness ought to be manipulated into thinking that there is such a thing as “normal” that they have to become.  In the museum in Arles, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way that Van Gogh’s art had so deeply affected generations of artists following him.  My favorite painting was the one that paid tribute to Van Gogh’s painting of himself in his room with his head in his hands.  The tribute painter placed himself in the same chair, head in hands and room modernized.  It was as if the artist was trying to enter into Van Gogh’s solitude, to retroactively assure Van Gogh that he was and is not alone in his suffering.  Certainly, this is a lesson we all must learn and teach others.

I took a train to Avignon and settled into my hotel before making my way to a charming little restaurant for dinner.  I sat at a wooden table for two in a dark and candlelit backroom.  My waitress was so adorable—probably 19 years old or so—and was so patient with my horrible French.  When I asked if she spoke English, she smiled shyly and said, “Uh leetle.”  I ordered a tartine with mozzarella, pesto, and basil with a glass or regional white wine.  Deciding against dessert (for once!), I asked the waitress to bring me an after-dinner drink, anything she wanted.  She seemed nervous by the request, but I said that I didn’t know what most things were anyway and that I trusted her opinion.

And so I finished my first night in Avignon, basking in the glow of candlelight at my wooden table, listening to the melodic French spoken all around me, and sipping a cool glass of mead.  I think I’m moving here…

I think I am in love.  With Provence.

As I was crossing the bridge from the train station into Arles, I knew that the view was familiar, but I could not remember exactly how.  Then it dawned on me.  THIS is exactly where Van Gogh sat and painted his “Starry Night on the Rhône.”  The clouds were hovering in the air from the recently passed storm, but the light was gathering underneath like they had been waiting to give a newcomer a show.  I set my backpack down and watched.

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At the Hotel Regence, I was greeted by a small, kind man who convinced me to have the “simple, Provençal breakfast” the hotel offers in the morning.  He gave me directions to my room, which, though small by American standards, feels like my own chateau after three straight nights in hostels.  It has a TV!  And a double bed!  And a sink and a toilet and a shower!  It’s my most expensive night on the trip, but I couldn’t be more satisfied with this place.

After getting settled, I went out to explore and quickly felt like I was being haunted by the soul of Van Gogh… and figured I might be going crazy, too.  Arles is so confusing.  All the roads are windy and small, and every map I had only made it that much more frustrating that I could not find my way around.  My stomach was starting to feel like a caged animal trying to escape, and as it grew darker, I began to worry about all the perils of being a woman traveling solo: theft, strange men, getting lost forever, starving to death… (Ok, so these may not be your typical woman-traveling-solo fears; Arles makes you go a little nuts).

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Fortunately, I could locate the huge sights—the Roman amphitheater, the forum, etc.  But every time I started down a road I was sure would lead me to my designation—a row of restaurants recommended in my trusty guidebook—I ended up lost and retracing my steps.  I really started to worry when all the whistling started.  My friendly hotelier had assured me that Arles was very safe, and I think it probably really is, but when you are hungry and bewildered by a new place—and all alone—the last thing you want is a bunch of overly-romanced French dudes hitting on you.  First, a man wanted the time.  I showed him my watch (not on Euro-24-hour time) and bid him adieu, but he followed me for a while anyway.  I rolled my eyes and started walking alongside an Asian tourist couple, giving them my very best non-verbal ‘this-dude-won’t-leave-me-alone’ look.  They graciously let me accompany them for a few blocks before he went his own way.  Then I went mine.  Next, I was treated to a chorus of whistles from a passing group of younger men.  I kept walking and shook my head.  As I turned the corner, I had to walk past another group of men, sitting on the steps of a building, and another chorus of whistles erupted.  Finally, I made it back to the Rhône, opened my map once again in a last ditch attempt to find some food, and looked up just in time to see a man standing in his second floor window, staring at me with a big, creepy smile.  And who knows why this was my breaking point, but I suddenly had a resurgence of determination.  “Hell no,” I said to him (in English, mind you).  “I’m not dealing with this anymore until I EAT.”

So, I started down a street.  And, miracles of miracles, it turned out to be exactly the street I was looking for.  I checked out the menus at a few places before making my selection, deciding that Au Bryn du Thym would serve me just fine.  I found a seat and settled in for one of the most interesting nights of my travel so far.  My food was delicious—white wine, smoked salmon atop a pile of steamed and lightly seasoned brown rice, asparagus, and a generous portion of mousse au chocolat.  Being filled with a good meal, I was finally willing to open myself up to the possibility of conversation with some of these strange and overzealous French men.  Just for fun.

My first interaction occurred with the Spanish-guitar-playing minstrel, playing and singing (LOUDLY!) for each table.  When he got to my table, I decided that perhaps speaking to him would prevent him from hammering me for tips and scream-singing into my ear.  So, I asked, “¿Habla usted español?”  Yes, he said, and sat down at my table.  He told me he was from Catalunya and was pleased that I had started my trip in Barcelona.  When I told him I was from the U.S., he told me that it is his dream to go and live in New York City, but that so far, he had only spent time in Nebraska.  He insisted on singing a few songs for me (“La Triste Bella” and “Hecho el Café”), but thankfully, he did not ask me for any money.  When he asked what I did in the U.S., I couldn’t think of how to tell him that I am a seminary student, studying to be a pastor.  So, I just said, in simple Spanish, “Estudio Dios.”  He seemed alarmed!  He asked several other people how to ask me a question in English.  Finally he got the information he was looking for.  “Are you a nun?” he asked.  I laughed, and then considered having to ward off this French-Catalonian admirer for the rest of the evening.  “Yes,” I said.  “Yes, I am.”  Abruptly, he left for a smoke break.  I laughed to myself during the rest of my meal.

By the time my dessert came, it had grown very dark and my concerns now turned to finding my way back to my hotel.  So, I asked my very pleasant waiter if he knew the guitar-playing man.  “No,” he said, “I don’t know him.”  Hm, ok.  A little more to the point, I asked, “Is it safe for me to walk alone in Arles at night?”  “Oui!” he said.  “It’s no problem here.”  I thanked him, ate my mousse, and considered getting a taxi, just to avoid the worry.

A few minutes later, the waiter was back at my table.  “Are you really a nun?” he asked.  I smiled and told the truth.  “No, I am a student.”  He smiled and looked relieved.  I quickly added, “But I am married.”  This time, he laughed.  “Ok,” he said.  “I know if my wife was traveling somewhere and did not feel safe, I would want a good man to walk her back to her hotel.  As you like.”

I hesitated.  On the one hand, I AM married, and I was conflicted about whether or not accepting this offer would somehow dishonor that fact.  On the other hand, I was a little nervous about walking around in this crazy town in the dark.  On the other hand, I had confidence that I would eventually figure it out on my own.  On the other hand, did I want to pass up an opportunity for a native Arles-ite to show me around his town?

As these thoughts were going through my mind, the kind woman who owned the restaurant wandered over to the table.  “It’s ok,” she said.  “He is a good man.  And I know his mother.”

I laughed.  Well, if you know his mother!  “Ok,” I said.  “Oui.”

And thus ends my first night in Provence, walking alongside a kind French man through the labyrinthine streets of Arles, making small talk as we approached the sparkling Rhône, enjoying a starry, starry night.

Carcassonne.

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I was right to remember France so fondly.  The stereotypes of the snobbish French who refuse to help Americans are so ridiculous, and I imagine that, nine times out of ten, the American comes at the situation with that characteristic American assumption of entitlement.  I do think the French are right to be proud of their language.  It is so beautiful, melodic, and full of a kind of quiet passion.  I have to learn it.  Soon.

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Carcassonne is an astonishing place, amazing in its continued existence and regality.  It was even magical as I walked away from it this afternoon, over Pont Neuf being showered with more rain.  Yesterday, I decided to venture out into the cold and rainy town, first stopping at the Vinothéque across the street, Comptoir des Vins et Terroirs.  There, I had the best glass of wine I have ever tasted in all of my life and all of my travels—a strawberry-infused rosé native to the region.  The woman working there was very kind and patient with me, even when I broke the characteristic French solemnity that seems always to accompany food by ramming my daypack into a metal sign.

I watched the rain fall outside on the slick cobblestone streets, as I sipped my wine and ate two cheeses with a biscotti-shaped herb bread, an olive tapenade, and a jam.  It was so beautifully presented that my raging hunger was the only thing that kept me from just enjoying its presentation for long.  Still, this is something that I would probably not have thought to eat in the U.S.  There is something about traveling that brings out a kind of courage and adventure in me that I normally don’t feel.  Maybe it is necessary to survival or maybe it’s just a silly romantic wanderlust.  I tend to prefer to think of it as the former…

After a wonderful time at the Vinothéque, I decided that I just had to take a walk around this town, even if I ended up with pneumonia from the rain and cold.  The theme of my last trip to Europe seemed to be something along the lines of, “Eh, we’ll figure it out.”  So far, figuring things out doesn’t seem to be nearly as much a concern for me as does just living life to the full as opportunities present themselves.

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I walked and walked and even climbed the slippery wall a bit.  I took tons of pictures, tried to spot everything in my guidebook, took in the church and the posh hotel, and decided to head back to the hostel, soaked to the bone but feeling good all the same.  When I finished resting, I met another hosteller, Maartje, from Holland.  It’s always nice to make a friend in a rainstorm.  And she made me feel less insane by sharing that she had done basically the same thing I had in the horrendous weather, walking from the train station and meandering through the rain-soaked streets.

After our conversation, I decided to get some dinner at the Auberge des Lices down the street.  My dinner was incredible—a salad of romaine lettuce, slivers of meat and parmesan cheese, quartered tomatoes, and walnuts; Cassolet, the regional specialty stew with white beans, thick broth, and meat; and a “chocolate cappuccino,” which was utterly amazing and served with a perfectly round scoop of almond ice cream and a cinnamon-and-sugar stick of toast.  All of it was amazing, and the restaurant itself was beautiful and quiet.  So far, the best meal I’ve had in Europe.

Afterwards, I started wandering the spooky night-lit streets of Carcassonne, around 11:00 p.m.  Alone, I wasn’t brave enough to make the entire circuit around the town, but I got some wonderful photos nonetheless.  I was walking the first main road when I heard a clicking sound behind me.  But when I spun around, no one was there.  So I started to walk again.  Again, the sound: “click, click, click.”  I turned around again, sure that I was as pale as the lights that were shining in the town walls.  No one.  But then, a voice from far away on the wall.  “Bon-jour!” said a non-French speaker, snapping photos.  “Bon soir,” I replied.  It was clearly time for bed.

When I woke up and showered, Maartje and I decided to go to the Chateau Comtal together.  First, we wandered around town and found a place for a quick breakfast.  She told me that she was hoping to study to become a doctor and maybe work with Doctors Without Borders or some other non-profit agency.  Maybe it’s just our idealism, but I feel, when I meet someone like Maartje, that there is something special to our generation.  I hope we continue down this road, idealistic or not.  This world is in desperate need of some leaders with some actual ideals.

The Chateau offered some incredible and unique views of La Cité and the surrounding area.  It was nice to have someone to talk to after several days of solitude.  And it helped tremendously that she spoke some French.  While we were handing our tickets to the ticket-taker at the Chateau, he said something that made her laugh.  I just smiled and asked her later what he said.  “He told me to be careful with my head on the low ceilings.  But he said that you didn’t have anything to worry about.”  Nice.  Short jokes in French.

Sounds better than in English, at least.