An American in Paris (and Louvier, and Brugge, and Brussels, and Berlin, and Rome)

[NOTE: This was actually written a couple of days ago while we were still in the air, but this is the first time things have settled down enough after our return for me to put it out here. — WGS]

My apologies if some of you had comments waiting in the moderation queue for a while and if you came out checking the blog for the last two weeks or so only to find that, yet again, there was nothing here. I have been negligent in posting because my wife and I have been in Europe. (You might have noticed the tweet I did a couple of weeks ago, which was, I believe, my last dispatch before leaving.)

The Arc de Triomphe -- also known as the Crazy Traffic Circle of Guaranteed Death
The Arc de Triomphe in Paris — also known as the Crazy Traffic Circle of Guaranteed Death

Actually, it was my goal to blog from Europe while we were there. That (plus being very busy) is why I did not post about the trip before we left. I thought a surprise “Ah ha! I am posting from Paris!” post would be fun, but I should listen to my wife more, who has pointed out to me that my desire to surprise sometimes doesn’t work out well. It was my goal to make video dispatches for my congregations from various locales, as well. But the pace was so hectic (and WiFi so unpredictable) that all I managed to do was produce a couple of Friday Night Greetings videos for my local churches and make sporadic e-mail checks. So, a “post-Europe trip” post it is!

And why were we in Europe in the first place? Would you believe that Francis wanted to look at some of our literature? No?

Brussels Town Hall at night
Brussels Town Hall at night — gorgeous and creepy all rolled into one

Mr. Meredith has mentioned to me many times that it would be beneficial for my outlook and my ability to serve to have some experience in Europe, even if brief, and that’s what this trip was about, much like he had asked of Mr. Ogwyn several years ago. After consulting with various helpful ones, a two week trip was planned, ultimately involving visits to Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and Rome. Along the way, side trips to Louvier (visiting with our friends the Boyer family!) and Brugge (accompanied by the delightful Mr. & Mrs. Rees Ellis) materialized. Of the two Sabbaths, only the first involved being in an area where we have a congregation: Charleroi, Belgium. The congregation there in Charleroi was wonderful — I really enjoyed getting to give the sermon there and I wish we could have had more time with them! What a great bunch of people. The second Sabbath my wife and I spent together in Rome in personal study, much-needed rest, and waiting for Signore Francis to call requesting a Bible Study. (He didn’t.)

Actually, as I write this the trip is not technically over, yet. I am, at this particular moment, approximately 35,103 feet above the Atlantic Ocean where it is a balmy -73 degrees Fahrenheit outside and we are still 3,030 miles from our stop in New York, where we’ll hop a second plane to Cincinnati after passing through customs. But I won’t be able to post this until we’re home, so it will be done by the time this gets posted.

Ruins from a market gate entrance to ancient Miletus (the city mentioned in Acts 20:17 and 2 Timorhy 4:20), present at the Pergamon museum in Berlin
Ruins from a market gate entrance to ancient Miletus (the city mentioned in Acts 20:17 and 2 Timothy 4:20), rebuilt at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

While I had more grandiose plans when starting this post, I think I will have to make it a bit more perfunctory. I wanted to gather my thoughts a bit about the trip and begin making some observations, but–wow–there is just so much! Mr. Meredith believed that some time in Europe–again, however brief–would expand my viewpoint a bit, and I certainly believe it has. I did visit England very briefly when I was a pre-teen, but he felt that focusing on the cultures there on the continent would be more beneficial for these purposes, and I think he was right. But, to borrow a metaphor I sometimes use too much, all of this in just two weeks was much like drinking from a firehose, and my wife and I both think that it will take a little while for out thoughts to settle and for so many disparate ideas and observations to mature. I’d like some time to categorize what I’ve seen and experienced, as it really seems as though I’ve got a few too many thoughts for my teeny little brain to process efficiently. Still, I’ll mention a few things here before I wrap up.

The Brandenburg Gate (one of my favorite structures in Europe). Beautiful Wife (my favorite structure on any continent) can be seen in the lower right corner taking a picture.
The Brandenburg Gate (one of my favorite structures in Europe) in Berlin. Beautiful Wife (my favorite structure on any continent) can be seen in the lower right corner taking a picture.

Though the trip was very rushed (in a sense, it seemed as though we only had enough time to realize that we need to come back to spend more time!) there was a benefit to seeing several different approaches to life on the continent in such a small span of days. The iron and clay nature of the future European power really stood out as one culture differed in so many ways from the next. It’s a political union, to be sure, but the sense of national identity is still very strong–so much more so than the individual sense of identity that American’s attach to their state. (Well, except Texans, perhaps…) It really will need something to bind it together and to influence individuals to think of themselves more as Europeans. In Brussels, though, the Parlamentarium exhibit (which was a very interesting place to visit, by the way) embodied the very opposite of that spirit, as a place where a single “Europa” lives and breathes. It strove to celebrate the EU, sell the EU, and explain the “why” behind the EU. On this last point, I thought the Parlamentarium was most valuable. While some of the ideas would seem abhorrent to many Americans, our country hasn’t experienced what European continent has, and seeing it from that perspective (part of the purpose of the trip) changes the calculations entirely. I’ll revisit that another time and try to blog about it.

Detail in the Arch of Titus, depicting the treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem being carried away in victory.
Detail in the Arch of Titus, depicting the treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem being carried away in victory.

On a more practical note, let me say here that one of the most valuable things we did was to take two bike tours from the “Fat Tire” tour guide company while in Berlin. The first focused on the Jewish experience leading up to and during WWII and the rise and fall of Nazism, and the second focused on the post-war period, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, and the East-West divide in Germany. Both were headed by excellent guides who helped us bike around Berlin in groups visiting significant places related to each theme while educating us on the topics. Not only was it nice to have some wheels on those days (my feet and I are no longer on speaking terms after this trip), but the educational experience was fantastic. While both Beautiful Wife and I have learned much about these things over time, having such a concentrated focus while actually visiting the relevant sites was amazing. If someone is ever going to Berlin (and they also serve other cities) and is able to ride a bicycle, I highly recommend a “Fat Tire” bike tour.

The last trip in Rome–which did include the Vatican–was amazing in a number of ways. Again, I need some processing time to put it all together into some coherent points worth dressing up with words. But it was very humbling to walk around among the ruins of the Palatine Hill, the center of the famous Seven Hills of Rome, gazing at the few weathered, impotent columns and stones that remain of the once impressive Roman Forum. Two words constantly came to mind, over and over: “Empires fall.”

Beautiful Wife had some particularly interesting thoughts while were where there, both in Rome at the Forum and walking around the (so-called) St. Peter’s Basilica and I look forward to sharing them eventually. Actually, her observations in all of these cities was very helpful and insightful (if I do say so, myself), and I’ll be sure to mention them when I get to writing more.

Gluten-free bruschetta in Italy -- easily the most "gluten-free friendly" country on our trip.
Gluten-free bruschetta in Italy — easily the most “gluten-free friendly” country on our trip.

I should warn, though, that it really might take a while. Not only will I likely be only semi-verbal after landing (jet lag, mind knot, experience overload, etc.), but also we have to turn around and gear up to leave in less than a week for one of the regular Council of Elders meetings, and some tasks (camp, Feast, and good old pastorin’) have built up a bit while we’ve been gone. Plus, I’d hate to put off blogging about whatever goofy things come up while my thoughts continue to bake–if scientists discover a new pair of quarks (fuzzy & bald? apple & pc?), I want to be there to say something inconsequential about it! 🙂 Besides, I’ve learned than when I have bigger thoughts that are taking a while to come together, if I force them to be “next in line” then I go for a long time writing nothing, which gets me out of a writing mode and doesn’t do my scripts or articles any good. So, I’ll try to blog inconsistently and inefficiently like usual, while allowing observations from the trip to come out in a natural way from time to time.

Until then, just accept my apologies if your comment waited unusually long in the moderation queue before being approved! And I will try to use many of the new foreign language words I learned on our trip in my next post–maybe even all five or six of them.

Niagara Falls, Europa, and Jabba the Squirrel

Feeling better and finally blogging, again.  Wow — the cold/flu/whatever kicked my behind!  On our recent trip to Syracuse with Mr. & Mrs. Jonathan McNair and Mr. Sheldon Monson, I came down with a serious case of the horribles just about one week ago.  I haven’t been sick in a while, but it still kicked me around mercilessly.  My Beautiful Wife was spared, which was an answer to prayer as far as I am concerned, because it ran through every single one of the rest of us Smiths.

And the timing was a real bummer, too, because I missed a couple of sessions at the camping conference that I would have loved to see in person, although my wife brought back some very good materials.  Thankfully, I was well enough to speak in Rochester, New York (great folks, there–loved the visit! Thank you!) during the church-wide fast, though the next few days I still felt as though I had been dragged around by a truck “Indiana Jones” style.  Today is probably the first day I can say that I feel more than 90% normal (well, 90% normal for me).  And the kids are recovering well, also.  And Beautiful Wife? Continuing just fine, cold/flu/whatever-free!

Niagara Falls (American Falls)
This picture misses showing some of the drop off of the American Falls, but I like having the two humans in the image on the left for scale. (Do you see them?)

Another “bummer” element was the fact that we had planned to stop by Niagara Falls on the way back, as it was simply too incredibly close to ignore.  And while it was amazingly beautiful, even in the winter, it would have been wonderful to visit at a time when I don’t feel like a dog’s leftovers.  The pictures I am adding to this post are from that visit.

As yucky as some of the kids and I felt, though, it was very worth stopping for.  The Falls are absolutely gorgeous, and the raw power of the place is exhilarating to experience. Being without passports, we were limited to seeing the American Falls up close, as opposed to the Canadian “Horseshoe” Falls, which are, perhaps, more iconic, and I thought this might be disappointing.  However, it was not disappointing in the least — really, absolutely amazing.

Canadian & US Flags on border bridge
Mr. Weston! Mr. Arseneault! Can you hear us? So close, and yet so far...

It was a motivation to get our passports, I must say, knowing that we were just yards away from entering the exciting and exotic land of Canada!  What odd and unusual crafts and artifacts they would have had there!  I can scarcely imagine the strange language and dialects we would have heard and experienced, or the unusual rituals and foreign customs of that mysterious land!  What would we use to barter?  How would we communicate?

OK, I’m kidding.  But to be so close to the land of so many of our northern friends and to realize that we couldn’t step foot across that border because we are passport-less Americans was enough of a prod, I think, to finally push us into getting them.  We’ve wanted to for some time, but, like many things that we’ve wanted to do for some time, it just hasn’t risen too high on the “Must do now!” list.

On the “different” side of things, the visit reminded me much of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Many scientists believe that Europa’s icy shell actually surrounds an ocean of liquid water which, predictably, has many excited about the possibility of life there.

Ice in the river at the bottom of the American Falls
Ice in the river at the bottom of the American Falls.

The view that brought Europa to mind was this one, at right.  There was a lot of ice on the river below, and you could tell that at its fringes near the bottom of the American Falls more was forming as the water calmed.  But the activity under the ice and the constant pressing formed numerous cracks and crevices, and looking at it I thought of the icy Jovian moon.  Not exactly the same, I know (check out the real thing here on Wikipedia), but enough to get me on a “Hey, kids, let’s talk about Europa” kick for a good five minutes or so.

The Chubby Squirrels of Niagar
Bo shuda...

And the final treat I have for you (if you don’t think of them as treats, please don’t tell me; I’m still weak and recovering <cough, cough>), is an image of this guy at left: one of the legendary Chubby Squirrels of Niagara. These guys were enormous (the guy pictured here was not the biggest, methinks), and completely lacking in fear of us puny humans.  And no wonder: they likely equate us with giant pockets of free food.  As I stood there in my coat, gloves, and hat, shivering a bit in my post-sickness enhanced chill, Jabba the squirrel, here, looked as warm as could be.  The first one I noticed was actually just a few inches above my head on a tree limb.  I thought to myself, “You are the chubbiest squirrel I have ever seen in my life–how in the world did you get up in that tree?” Of course, looking at me, he could have been thinking analogous thoughts (ahem), but both of us were courteous enough not to say anything.  And, again, he did look warm.  I suppose if it serves a purpose, who can complain?

Yes, it was horrible feeling horrible, but it was an opportunity we just couldn’t pass up, and we loved it.  I would definitely like to visit again sometime when it is warmer and we all feel better.  Really, an absolutely stunning sight.