Geneva consistently rates as one of the best cities to live in the world, but it tends to fare a bit worse on travel destination lists.  After spending a few days here, I would have to agree with those who say it’s a great place to breeze through, but there is no need to stay very long.  Sure, it’s clean and has some natural beauty with its city centre lake and the mountains surrounding it.  But, on the whole, most of the places I’ve been– other than Calvin’s church– have been rather disappointing.

I took a tram over to the UN headquarters and waited for a tour after going through a rather rigorous security check.  The tour began, and a snooty English-speaking man led us from room to room, walking briskly and getting upset with people translating for the other persons in their group.  “You signed up for the English language tour,” he said, “so, you’ll just have to listen as best you can as translate after the tour.”  I couldn’t help but find the irony in being shown around this building by a man who seemingly had disdain for the sort of inter-cultural dialogue that the UN was designed to foster.

Ultimately, the visit amounted to little more than a stroll through a large office building, so I decided to skip the opportunity to visit other such offices.  Lord knows I’ve seen enough of them in the States.

Geneva is also very proud of its “fountain,” the Jet d’Eau, which is a large stream of water that shoots 140m into the air from the middle of the lake.  And, sure, it made for some interesting photos, but that’s about it– it’s just a large spout!

What I think will really remain in my mind as quality experiences in Geneva all have to do with food, and as I continue my mission of eating my way around the world, perhaps Geneva has been a worthwhile stop after all.  I’m sure it might be a different story had I been the one footing the bill for these meals, but dinners of fondue and raclette and crepes and dessert– not to mention the hilariously fun dinner at Hotel Edelweiss– have been experiences I will surely not forget any time soon…

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Switzerland!  Whatta place!  I can feel the neutrality seeping into my bones, and the clock-shops and Swiss banks serve as an ever-present reminder that this is a place protective of its time and money.  No wonder they stay out of the warpath.

Rick Steves says that Geneva is worth skipping on a trip through Switzerland, and I’m trying to figure out why.  Rick probably doesn’t have the interest in Reformation history that a group like ours does, but he does tend to have his finger on the pulse of what makes a European excursion worthwhile.  Still, it’s 2009, and this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (Jean, as he would have preferred).  We celebrated with a trip to his church in the center of the old town.

It was eerie, walking around a place that was so central not only to history, but also to an entire way of thinking and of believing that has trickled down through the centuries and landed itself in my own mind and heart.  I’m no expert, but I would guess that Calvin is an incredibly misunderstood figure in history.  What passes for “Calvinism” might not actually be reflective of his own theology.  My favorite story we learned about him was that this very church used to have an exquisite pipe organ, but during Calvin’s time, as people were fleeing persecution because of the violence brought about by the Reformation and were flocking to Geneva, Pastor John Calvin made the decision to melt down the pipes of the organ in order to use the metal for bowls and utensils so that the people might be suitably fed.  This certainly presents a different picture of the man so often associated with systems of severe doctrines.

When I think of the connection that Switzerland has had with so many influential thinkers in the Christian tradition– Calvin, Brother Roger, Karl Barth– I can’t help but wonder if there is something in the alpine air here that inspires people to think beyond themselves.

Whatever it is, I hope I get a whiff of it…

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 am leaving Taizé today, and after a full week of being here, I think I finally “get” what is so special about this place.

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This community was started by a Swiss immigrant to France named Brother Roger.  He chose this location precisely because of its poverty and isolation, and, in the middle of World War II, he felt that he wanted to live among people who were being directly affected by the violence.  He wanted to be a presence of peace and reconciliation in a troubled place.

It’s hard to imagine such a picturesque place being disturbed by war and sadness.  And yet, decades after Brother Roger founded this community, violence erupted once again, reminding all who gather here that violence is not some abstraction that we can shelve and ignore.  The fact is that the seeds of violence and sin and despair lie within us all.

In 2005, Brother Roger was murdered– stabbed to death by a mentally-ill woman who had wandered into the Church of Reconciliation (the centerpiece of Taizé) during an evening prayer service, crossed into the Choir, and attacked Brother Roger, killing him almost instantly.

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The community did not react with violence or anger.  Instead, the community continued to exist as it always has, as a witnessing community where peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness (even in the face of murder) are at the core of every action, every word, and every intention of the community.

The spirit of hospitality that welcomes young people to gather and pray with the brothers day after day is the same spirit that allows for young people to welcome others from different countries, cultures, and languages into their own hearts and lives.

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It’s funny:  I was physically and emotionally uncomfortable for most of my time at Taizé.  But, having had this experience, I am forever changed.

And I can’t wait to go back.

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Today has been a pretty incredible day at Taizé, and, while my American friends ventured to town in order to find a restaurant, I stayed behind and was rewarded with some of the most thought-provoking and wonderful conversations.

After lunch, I sat in a circle with Julia, Eva, Dorota, and Kristina (German, Austrian, Polish, and German, respectively), and we talked about our difficulties with our mothers, with ourselves, and with God.  It was amazing to hear each of these young women– with various degrees of fluency in English– articulate some of the same struggles that I have had my whole life.  How do we make our mothers proud?  How do we get a sense of who we are supposed to be?  How can we believe in God in a day and age of such violence and suffering around the world?  It was remarkable, and I was overwhelmed with a feeling that maybe– just maybe— the experience of Taizé is not supposed to be an individualized spiritual quest.  Instead, maybe it is the very communality, the very togetherness of our being here that tells us something about who we are and who God is.

I have always wanted to have friends all over the world– and not just American friends who relocate.  I want German friends and French friends and Polish friends and Russian friends.  I want Korean friends and Australian friends and Iraqi friends.  And here, in this small space in this rural place in France, I have, miraculously, made such friends.  And indeed, it is life-changing.

I am still astonished by the fact that these young people come here.  We pray together, we eat together, we work together, we sleep together.  And, somehow, mysteriously, God is at work in it all.  God prays with us, eats with us, works with us, sleeps with us.  God gives us space to be here.  Our pilgrim God who has journeyed to us has made the space for us to journey to God.  I find this amazing, and I watch as the young people are drawn here.

Somehow, I get to be a little part of this story.  God’s story.  Taizé’s story.  My story is somehow a part– maybe even an important part– of the story, at least, insofar as my story intersects and intertwines with others’.

Remarkable.  Humbling.