28 March 2010

Verdun: Capitale Mondiale de la Paix - World Capital of Peace

Upon my arrival in Verdun, I paused at the base of the massive staircase leading up to the Victory Monument (Monument à la Victoire et aux Soldats de Verdun.)  An elderly man (I must really attract them in France) approached me and asked if I was a visitor.  I replied yes, that I was touring the city and battlefields for the day.  "Vous n'êtes pas d'ici." He exclaimed, noting my accent. "You're right, I'm an American, working in France at the moment." I replied.  He seemed quite delighted that I was visiting his town, and proceeded to give me a narrative of the historic monument before me, and of the Battle of Verdun, during WWI, one of the bloodiest battles in human history, ending the lives of a quarter million.  He spoke with such conviction, I began to wonder if he was a tourist guide, or merely a proud citizen of Verdun.  "I'd best be on my way," he said eventually, "But I ask you to remember throughout your visit that Verdun is a World Capital of Peace."  I had seen that expression on road signs on my trip into town, and to hear those words spoken sent chills through my body. Those words of hope were a beacon of light, leading the Lorraine region into the longest period of peace it has ever known. 

Throughout the day, I wandered the city of Verdun, and then the battlefields and cemeteries.  Seeing the rows of white crosses converging on the horizon, I noticed a striking resemblance to Arlington National Cemetery... but here in Verdun, all of these deaths were the product of one battle, fought from February through December of 1916.  The city has been mostly restored, but surrounding villages have been obliterated, never to be rebuilt. 

Arriving at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery approximately 30 kilometers away from Verdun, the horrors of war became personal when I saw a grave marker of a soldier from Michigan, my home state.  He became more than an anonymous white cross among over 14,000 resting in the cemetery.  I lingered at his grave, touching the white stone, imagining the life he knew and the dreams he never would.  While the French and German cemeteries were moving, it wasn't until I was standing among the fallen from my own country that I truly began to grasp the magnitude of the war.  For every uniform grave stone, I imagined the ripple effect that death would cause.  For each person that violently lost his life, how many mourning family members and friends did he leave behind?  How many children would never be fathered? Suddenly, even the countless seemed insufficient, because the number of lives destroyed far exceeds those memorialized in the cemeteries.  

In Verdun, the ground and buildings still bear the scars of explosions, but nature has blanketed the earth with grass and flowers.  I expected to be plagued by the echoes of screams and explosions, but instead encountered the greatest serenity.  The place has been softened without diminishing in any way the events that took place, which seems impossible to imagine until you've actually been to Verdun.  My experience in Verdun, while at times tear-filled, was a healing one, because of the determination to continue the reign of peace.

As spoken by General John J. Pershing, "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds."

Le Monument aux Enfants de Verdun morts pour la France
The Monument to Children of Verdun who died for France

The city of Verdun, and the River Meuse

Monument à la Victoire et aux Soldats de Verdun.
Victory Monument

Overlooking Verdun from the top of the Victory Monument

The cathedral still bears the scars of battle

Hard to believe that the cathedral was so badly 
bombed that the roof collapsed.

The Cathedral towers

Memorial made of helmets

Ossuaire de Douaumont, which contains the unknown remains of French and German soldiers.

Inside the Ossuary 

Verdun Memorial

French cemetery

Graves of Algerian Muslims killed in the war

Memorial at the Trench of the Bayonets (Tranchée des Baïonnettes)
A unit of French troops was buried alive by shell bursts, leaving only their rifles protruding above the ground.

Inside the trench of the Bayonets

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery 

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
A fallen soldier from Michigan brought the war to a personal level.

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery 

23 March 2010

My French Studio

I've been in the new place a month now, and I must say, my stress level has plummeted. I'm enjoying the new found freedoms of living on my own, the greatest of which is being back in the center of the action, Metz centre-ville.  I'm loving my workstation for painting, my two glorious windows which provide lovely natural light.  Outside, I step onto a beautiful medieval street, one of the oldest parts of the city.  Steps away are my favorite boulangerie, shopping, my other assistant friends and of course, my beloved Cathedral.  

Of course, the euphoria had hardly begun when darling France decided to throw yet another obstacle my way.  

A few days into my stay here, when the depression over the move was finally subsiding, I noticed mysterious bites appearing on my body, and as the weeks passed, they multiplied all over my arms, legs, and back.  Larger and more unbearable than mosquito bites, and curiously more numerous after a good night's sleep-- oh god, could it be?  A Google search quickly confirmed my worst fear: bedbugs (in French, punaises.)

The problem on its own was easily solved with a few chemical treatments of the room, but it seemed more terrible than it probably was since it was the latest in a succession of misfortunes to befall me in a short period of time. On second thought, no, it was pretty damn terrible even as an isolated incident!

At times, I liken France to the ultimate lover: beautiful, enveloping, and irresistible.  At the same time, she is aloof, out of my league, and delights in torturing me... It's like a game for her. Like a moth to the flame, I keep coming back for more, because the fact is, I love her so unconditionally, I would be honored to have her walk all over me for the rest of my life.  :-)

Joking aside, I wouldn't trade my experience in France for all the world.  The evolution of my strength of character, the friends I've made, my progression in the language, and the little unexpected details that pop up unexpectedly... all of this makes my life more complete.

I never would have imagined emerging from this devastating situation, but the fact is, I am enormously at peace now. It happened in a painful way, but each day that passes, I'm more and more convinced it's for the best. I may no longer have a view of the glorious cathedral, but now, I'm close enough to hear the bells.

I've converted the table into my art station.

The courtyard outside my window. 

Natural light in the evening has a lovely effect.

06 March 2010

The Great Escape

While in Lourdes, I had managed to reserve myself a studio apartment by phone in the Metz centre-ville.

Now came the messy part: Extracting myself from the current apartment with as little confrontation as possible.  The idea of staying even one more night there was humiliating and intolerable to me.  The thought of a mere face-to-face conversation with her, her boyfriend, or her son caused my heart rate to quicken.  The last thing I wanted was to cry in front of her.  I would leave the same day as my arrival in Metz.  There was no other way.

After a sleepless overnight train from Lourdes to Paris, my anxiety began to mount on the brief ride from Paris to Metz. In my mind, I tried to retreat to the tranquility of Lourdes, but by the time the train arrived in Metz, I was sweating profusely.  I headed directly from the train station to the new apartment, where I dumped the contents of my suitcase, and of course paid my first bill for my studio.  Because I had to pay the first month's rent right away, plus the 200 Euro deposit, my paycheck for March was completely obliterated at the reception desk. Fighting back tears, I handed over my credit card, recalling my financial woes of only a few weeks ago.  Now that my rent is three times higher, what the hell was I going to do? 

After settling up at the reception desk, I caught a bus to the apartment I had called home since October.  

With a thudding heart, I climbed the stairs, and sighed with relief to find no one at home.  As quickly as possible, I carelessly hurled my belongings into my suitcases, racing up and down the three flights of stairs, stacking everything on the street level.  I hadn't realized how much I had accumulated in my time in France... books, shelving, art supplies, clothing, shoes... and of course my food in the pantry.  My hasty packing meant that I could fit less into my suitcases than normal.  I had to resort to filling garbage bags.  Seven or Eight trips later, I had evacuated my belongings.  I called a cab, requesting a large car to accommodate my things.  The entire time, my anxiety was affecting my breathing, I was positively petrified that she would return before I had finished.

I raced back upstairs one last time.  I scribbled out a note thanking her and her son for their kindness in taking me in, telling them that I would miss them, and that they could call me anytime.  I signed it with all my love... and then as an afterthought, left a tiny bottle of Lourdes water next to the note, along with my keys to the apartment.

It was the hardest thing I've ever done, taking the high road rather than expressing my hurt, my rage.  I could have sought revenge in a number of ways, quite easily, but even fantasizing about it made me feel queasy.  The spirit of Lourdes was inside of me, and to do anything less than honorable would have made my pilgrimage a lie. 

I kissed the cat goodbye, and left the apartment for the last time.

When I arrived downstairs, the cab driver had arrived in a station wagon.  He stared mournfully at the piles of things lined up on the sidewalk, and I apologized profusely and helped as much as I could. As we drove away, I sighed with relief, realizing I had gotten the worst over with, and had successfully avoided an encounter with her. Within minutes, we had unloaded my things in front of my new apartment building, and I was standing at the base of the stairwell, defeated, wondering how on earth I would survive the agonizing process of getting everything up three flights of stairs.  I couldn't lose momentum, I told myself, and trudged on, gasping and cursing up every step.  

I glanced at my watch.  I had arrived in Metz at 12:30pm.  It was now 3pm.  Impressive.  The confrontation I had feared was simply not to be.  I looked around my place.  I realized that this was my first apartment of my own.  No roommates.  No parents paying the bill.  It was small, but not without a certain charm.  There were two windows that filled the room with light.  A large table, which would be ideal for painting.  Lots of shelving and closet space... a desk, a bed... it was mine.  My own French apartment.  

I collapsed on the bed, overwhelmed by sleep deprivation and ragged emotions.  I thought I could finally breath a sigh of relief, but for some reason, all I could do was cry.  

05 March 2010

The healing waters of Lourdes

Be forewarned, this entry is long.  Scroll down for photos if reading about my spiritual wanderings isn't your thing!

Sprezza-tour had come to a close. After bidding Genna farewell in Hungary, I set off for the south of France for my three day pilgrimage to Lourdes. In my prayers, I had promised to go to Lourdes in honor of my grandfather's devotion to Our Lady if granted the opportunity to teach in France. Well, Our Lady held up her end of the bargain, so it was my turn to come through. 

After a sleepless overnight train from Paris, I arrived in Lourdes at 6am. Since check-in wouldn't be until the afternoon, I propped myself on my suitcase and slept in the train station until daylight. Stepping outside, I was amazed by the contrast of palm trees against the
 backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrénées Mountains. I also had to pause to remove my coat on the downhill trek to my hotel. After two frozen weeks in central and eastern Europe, the warmth of southern France was a most welcome change of pace.

After getting settled in my hotel, I set off for the Sanctuary of Lourdes, only a few hundred meters away. What amazed me was the tranquility and natural beauty of the place, and how badly I really needed to be there. Fresh from a tour of Europe and from receiving news that I needed to vacate the apartment upon my arrival back in Metz, my brain and soul were overwhelmed with noise. I had nearly cancelled the Lourdes portion of my trip so I could head back to Metz and deal with the situation with Hélène, but thank God I had a change of heart and continued on. I have never felt such an instant wave of peace wash over me like this. Something in the breeze seemed to whisper "You belong here."

I entered the crypt and spent some time before the Blessed Sacrament, to clear my head of the anguish I was going through. I tried to pray, but instead fell asleep sitting in the pew. The non-stop tourism-mode had caught up with me, and obviously the tranquility of Lourdes was a much needed "vacation from a vacation." I woke up, hoping no one had noticed my "sacred snooze," resumed my prayer only to feel my eyelids drooping yet again. Perhaps this place was too welcoming, too serene for an exhausted soul like myself.

I opted to wake myself up by going to confession (funny how the thought caused me to snap awake!) The priest was a lovely English-speaking South African, and he was so delighted by my presence, even telling me it was "a privilege." He told me he could tell I was a worrier and to stop trying so hard, lest I miss the message of Lourdes. He also advised that my most important time would be spent at the Grotto, and to spend a lot of time there. He also invited me to the English Mass he would be celebrating the next day.

Per his advice, I headed straight to the Grotto, where Bernadette Soubirous witnessed 18 apparitions of the Virgin in 1858. Because of the visions of an impoverished young girl, a tiny town with a current population of 15,000 now accommodates 5,000,000 pilgrims a year. As I approached the Grotto, I heard the trickling water as it echoed in the natural rock formation, and trembled in anticipation as I walked the path. I passed the faucets from which flow the water from the miraculous spring.  Several pilgrims were washing their hands, drinking the water, and filling vessels with the precious liquid.  I continued along the patch.  Instinctively I ran my hand along the wet stone, polished smooth by 150 years of pilgrims praying for a miracle. The stone seems to bleed water, and I could not detect where it was coming from, there were no holes. Around me, many were doing the same, touching the rock, exploring its every curve with their hands, leaning their heads against it, even kissing it. All in silence. As I rounded the corner, the rock formation opened into a cavern, and there was the hole in the ground where Bernadette had discovered the miraculous source of the spring. A few steps more, and I was gazing up at the niche in the rock, where the Virgin had stood. From the crevices above, cool water dripped down, and many held up their hands to catch a few drops.

I stared up at the sculpture in the niche for a long time, before sitting down on the benches set up in rows before the grotto. From this perspective, I could see the entire rock formation, and gazing up, the massive church built on top. Close behind me flowed the Gave river, and in the distance, the Pyrénées mountains. Such a beautiful, natural place. I was satiated with joy. Presently, microphones were brought out and a priest conducted the daily rosary radio broadcast. By the end, my French prayers were pretty solidly memorized. At the rosary's conclusion, I noticed that the gray skies had been replaced with radiant blue, the bluest sky I had ever seen. This was the first hint of color I'd seen after months of winter in Northern France. The color of the sky seemed to confirm that I was indeed in the right place and I was filled with indescribable elation.

I channeled my newfound energy toward climbing the mountain to see the high Stations of the Cross. Up the mountain, life-sized sculptures illustrated the story of Christ's passion. I quickly became winded and began to bemoan the steep incline of the path... until I saw some older people ahead of me, exhibiting no signs of complaint as they continued the path... on their knees.

The following morning at the English speaking Mass, Father Horowitz recognized me from the day before, and greeted me warmly. It was lovely to attend an English Mass that even had familiar songs, making me much more at ease than at French Masses.  I approached the baths of Lourdes with excitement and trepedation, having always been mystified by the thousands of miraculous healings attributed to the spring water. I suffered no malady, but still felt compelled to participate in the ritual.  I waited on a bench with a few dozen other women, not knowing what to expect. Presently, a grandmotherly Swiss woman next to me invited me to do a rosary together, and when she noticed I was rather slow when praying in French, she switched to English without skipping a beat. Apparently she had noticed me in adoration the day before, and that my youthful presence had touched her. I was afraid to ask if she had seen me dozing off! She told me she had something to give me after the baths and to wait for her afterward.

Suddenly, it was my turn to enter the baths. I was summoned into a blue tent, where a women held up a cloth and instructed me to remove all my clothing. Another women swooped in with a blue robe to wrap around myself, and led me to a small pool in the ground. As I stepped into the icy water, they pulled back the robe, and I gasped audibly at the shocking temperature. I then proceeded to immerse myself in the water as instructed, emerging sputtering and teeth chattering, but strangely invigorated. Throughout, my two attendants recited a prayer. I was whisked away once more to the tent, where the women covered my modesty as I dressed, while others prepared the women after me. Such efficiency and grace, I marveled. These women are all volunteers.

I waited for Hedwig as requested, and she proceeded to give me a medal of Saint Michael and tell me all about her conversion at the age of 28 at Lourdes, and her own tales of physical healing (oral and vision problems) throughout the years. Speaking to her was remarkably easy, and I soon found myself confiding in her about my current living situation disaster, and how I would be homeless upon my return to Metz.  Our rapport was almost instant, and she seemed so protective of me upon hearing my story. She took it upon herself to show me Lourdes, walking me to the bookstore, where she recommended several books, and le Cachot, the abandoned prison where Saint Bernadette's family had sought shelter for a number of impoverished years.  Hedwig paused here to ask me to reflect about my own housing situation. I never would have thought of that without her presence.  I stood there in silence, humbled yet again.

It was simply lovely walking and talking with her.  She left me at the parish church where Bernadette had been baptized, saying she hoped we'd meet again, and that I would be in her prayers.  She also urged me to reflect at the Grotto and to pray.

"It was not par hazard that I met you," she assured me.  "It was Our Lady, of this I'm certain."  

The rest of my time in Lourdes was a mixture of reflection and exploration. I spent a lot of time at the Grotto, but also traveled the Chemin du Jubile, or Footsteps of Saint Bernadette.  Marked by a blue painted path that snakes its way throughout the city of Lourdes, the Chemin du Jubile stops at l'Eglise Paroissiale (Parish church where Bernadette was baptized), Le Cachot (the abandoned prison where her family was forced to reside), La Grotte (the Grotto where the Virgin appeared in 18 apparitions to Bernadette), and l'Hospice (the Hospital where Bernadette received her first communion and attended school.)  In 2008, Pope Benedict attached a plenary indulgence to anyone who traveled this path in conjunction with communion, confession, prayer and charitable acts. On this path, I fell into step with several pilgrims from all over the world, all of whom wished me a blessed pilgrimage and I have never experienced this amount of warmth in France before. 

I also opted to take a free French guided tour of the Sanctuary, but when I showed up, I was the only one! The guide was very gracious and nevertheless walked around with me for nearly two hours, narrating the story of Bernadette, was we walked her very footsteps.  She spoke slowly at first, having noted my accent, but eventually sped up considerably, but I found myself understanding quite well.

We ended our walk at the welcome center for disabled or handicapped visitors, where another woman showed me around the facilities and showed me artwork by various handicapped visitors... The common theme was bright colors and hope. The two women then chatted with me for awhile, and I almost felt guilty for having such a personalized, in-depth experience for free.  But such is the nature of Lourdes. 

In Lourdes, the handicapped, the elderly, and sick receive celebrity treatment.  Particularly in the high season, trams and wheelchairs are pushed by volunteers.  The disabled are brought to the front of lines at the baths and permitted more time in the Grotto (which becomes insanely crowded in warmer months.)  There are entire blocks of seating reserved for them, and fellow pilgrims assist as much as they can as an unspoken rule. I would love to return to see this vision of Lourdes, the candlelit processions at night, the crowds, the magic.  As I was there in the off season, I had the luxury of ample time at each attraction, light traffic, and virtually no lines.  But to hear the fellow pilgrims speak, there is also a certain something missing.  To be present among the throngs of faithful is to experience Lourdes at her most beautiful.

After my tour, the light in the sky was waning.  I had a 10pm train back to Paris to catch, so I opted to spend my last precious hours at the Grotto.  I reenacted my first time in the Grotto, running my hand along the slick, smooth surface of the rock, gazing up at the niche in the stone formation, silently locking every detail into my memory.  I paused at the hole in the ground, and felt compelled to kneel.  There was already a woman there, and as I stared at the hole in the ground, I felt her eyes on me.  Finally I turned to address her, and found myself face to face with Hedwig!  She smiled softly as if to caution me not to speak in the Grotto, but to wait until we exited.

As we wandered away from the Grotto together, I was so overjoyed to see her again, as I had truly regretted not taking her information the day before.  She invited me to one last rosary at the monastery of cloistered Dominicans before spending nearly an hour talking to me in the street.  She lovingly tightened my scarf around my neck and hugged me goodbye.  This time, I insisted on getting her address, so that I could send her a postcard to thank her.  She again assured me everything would be alright with my living arrangement troubles. 

"As I said, we did not meet by accident. I know in my heart Our Lady wanted us to meet," she said, suddenly grinning as she noticed that directly over our heads where we had stopped to talk on the street was a sculpture of the Virgin.  

I headed for the train station, the bells chiming Ave Maria and the gurgling Grotto waters still echoing in my head.  I felt prepared, armed to handle the dreaded situation waiting for me in Metz.  I felt at peace.  The noise in my head was gone.  

Whether or not the waters of Lourdes can indeed cause miracle cures, of one thing I'm sure: A visitor to Lourdes, whether religious or not, is sure to find healing of spirit.  The key to surviving the turmoils of this world is to carry a piece of Lourdes inside you wherever you go, so that you can retreat there, if only in your mind.  I intend to do just that, for the rest of my life.

My first glimpse of Lourdes, exiting the train station

Le château fort, (the castle fort)

Le château fort, (the castle fort) in happier skies

The Rosary Basilica

The Rosary Basilica across the Gave River

The Grotto

The niche where the apparition occurred

A pilgrim kissing the rock of the Grotto

The actual spot where Bernadette scratched at
the earth to reveal the miraculous spring

Rosary in the Grotto

Ancien Presbytère
Where Bernadette relayed the Virgin's message to skeptical church authorites

Font where Bernadette was baptized

The Rosary Basilica

Mosaic depicting the Agony in the Garden

Life-sized stations of the cross on the mountainside

The Pyrénées Mountains

In the Sanctuary

It's like he's saying "Behold, the amazing blue sky!"

Bernadette's birthplace and childhood home

Le Cachot: The abandoned prison where Bernadette and
her impoverished family sought refuge

Inside Bernadette's parish church

Related Posts with Thumbnails