June 7, 2014
April 25, 2014
As I mentioned in a post a little while ago, I recently went on a very secretive trip for a week. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I genuinely didn’t want to feel obligated to bring things back for people or see various things that people think are a “must see.” Instead, as this was a bit of a gift, trip-wise (I had a bunch of vacation time at work that I had to use before I lost it), I wanted to just go somewhere and have a nice, relaxing trip all by myself and just do whatever came to my mind, whether that meant sitting in a cafe all day every day, or renting a car and travelling all over the country. Well, I decided to go to Amsterdam. I had been through their airport countless times, as it’s usually the airport through which I have to travel in order to get to other destinations in Europe. And over the years, I have seen pretty much all that there is to see in the airport, form the kiosks to the snack shops to pretty much every single bathroom. So, I figured that it was about time to just stop by and actually the city to which the airport was attached.
Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but if you are like me, then you probably go to a place with at least some preconceived notions about it. That could be something as simple as assuming that people in Spanish might not speak English on a reliable basis, to something more intriguing, such as wondering whether people in China wear pants. No seriously, someone once asked me that question once. So it was with me and Amsterdam. Now, admittedly, I came to have this particular assumption based on prior experiences with travelling to countries that surround the Netherlands, including Belgium, Germany and France. I have been now to all of those countries – Germany, several times – and have enjoyed the abundant and flavorful food that each of these countries has to offer. Now, I know that Germany does have a lot of “heavy” foods, like bratwurst and potato dumplings, but I am part German, so I was used to these foods and still really enjoy them, albeit on a rare occasion. France, well, if you don’t know how good the food in France is, just go there. You will melt just staring at the breads on offer at the local boulangerie. That’s not even mentioning the cheese, the wine, the pastries, the charcuterie and all of the other things that they are known for. And Belgium, although known for its chocolate and beer, does a lot of other things very well, too, and shouldn’t be overlooked for it’s savory tarts and sandwiches.
Now, will all of that background in my memory, I had high hopes for the food in Amsterdam. So it is with those memories in mind that I ask this completely honest question: How is it that a country with miles of coastline, surrounded by three food-loving countries puts out what can only be described as spackle? No, really. I think that rice cakes might actually taste better than the food that I had in Amsterdam. And that isn’t the tourist row version of Dutch food, either. I make it a point to shop and eat from the supermarkets whenever I travel abroad, and this was certainly no exception. I tried some of the street foods, as well as what was in the supermarkets and it was all basically the same. The traditional Dutch foods were just so bland that I could barely stand them. And I was hard-pressed to find any decent seafood anywhere.
So, back to the title of this post: What to do? Well, you focus on the few things that the Dutch do well. And I want to emphasize this especially, since I have eaten over 50 types of cheese that the French make while staying in Paris a few years ago. The Dutch to two things (okay, if you count Genever, then three) *very* well: Cheese and beer. And I cannot understate the amazing array of cheese and beer that this country produces, nor the knowledge that the local Dutch have of each. When I asked people at the supermarket which cheeses to try, they asked me “Do you prefer old or new?” What? This is a question that you would never hear here in the US. Americans have just no concept of decent cheese. And I blame Kraft for that. But I digress. Each day I made it a point to try at least two or three of their cheeses and never once was I disappointed. Some were firm and pungent, others soft and creamy and more like Swiss. All of them delectable. Not one cheese did I try that I would not happily eat to my dying day.
And the beer. Well, this is coming from a person that barely drinks a glass of any alcohol more than once every six months. I tried a real Heineken at their brewery on the very first day and amazingly, liked it! And I am not normally much of a beer person. And then, every night thereafter, I spent at a local (apparently, the third oldest) pub / bar in the Spui district that made their own micro beers. And each one, from the blond, to the stout, was just superb. Rich, flavorful, not filling like they would sit as a brick in your stomach, but light and aromatic. And each one in their own glass, too. I would just sit there, nursing one every night (again, I am a lightweight, so I had to limit myself to one, or I will be legless and likely not be able to make it back to my hotel). I was just in awe.
So, the answer is: For a week, anyone, especially me, can survive on good cheese and beer. And do so quite happily. And frankly, looking back on it, even if their other food never really gets any better, I would happily live in Amsterdam for the rest of my life and eat nothing but cheese and drink a beer every night. And I would die a happy person. Amsterdam, you might want to just take some notes from your neighbors in Europe, but in the meantime, never stop making your cheese and beer!!!
April 24, 2014
I don’t really know how I started thinking about this experience, but it was definitely one of the more unusual (not to say that any of my experiences in Papua New Guinea were anything like usual) experiences that I had while I was in PNG. Now, I think that I have mentioned before that I did not fit into the culture there, not just for the fact that I didn’t speak more than a handful of words of their working language (Pidgin), nor the fact that I was at least a head taller than everyone, but more for the fact that I was stark white and covered head to toe in clothes to try to keep the lobster burns away (yeah, I basically go from white to lobster in a matter of minutes, and then back to white again, without any hope of a tan of any kind). I smelled, to, have I mentioned that? Smell badly? Well, I suppose that depends on what you call “bad.” You see, I was already taking anti-malarial medication, but the mosquitoes were just relentless there in the humidity and all of the standing water everywhere. So, in order to take extra precautions, I basically bathed in repellent. And I don’t mean the lovely, new coconut or lime-scented versions of repellent that exist today. No, I mean, DDT. That’s right. The really stinky, smelly repellent that only those in desperate need of a way to get rid of mosquitoes resorts to. Thanks, Dad. So, I smelled. But, I will say this: I never got more than a handful of bites the entire time that I was there. So I really do thank you, Dad. That was perhaps the most helpful piece of advice (“Bring DDT!”) that gave me before I left. Well, that and remembering to also bring along cortizone for those few bites that I did get.
Anyway, on to the rest of the story (what you thought that was it?). . . So, i stood out, is what I am trying to say. And that goes for pretty much everything about me. Right down to my knickers (that’s underwear to those of you not of the UK persuasion). Thanks to a long-standing and profound addiction to Victoria’s Secret for bras and knickers, I was the proud owner of over thirty pairs of *extremely* floraly, frilly, colorful knickers – that’s right, everything from neon pink to green lace coupled with bright blue flowers. Now, why does that matter, you ask? Don’t you normally wear clothes over you knickers? Why yes, yes you do. However, everyone, no matter how many pairs they own or bother to bring on an extended visit to a remote area in the middle of the South Pacific, will eventually need to wash them.
But, I wouldn’t be the one washing them. No. You see, I was (at the time of this event) staying at a hotel on Wewak on our way to the small island on which we would be living for a few weeks. The rains and the delay in the delivery of our equipment (see: prior stories involving the vanilla trade in PNG) caused a further delay in journey to Koil and in the meantime, I had run out of clean knickers. I asked Glenn where I could take them to wash (I was presuming that Wewak had a laundromat -silly me), and he just told me to leave them for the hotel staff to clean. I couldn’t quite explain to this fifty-plus year-old man how leaving my underthings in the hands of unknown staffers worried me, given my previous experiences with the local people thinking that I was already quite far removed from their reality, if not Reality in general. Instead, I asked him if it might not be possible, then, to take Herman (one of the PNG people that helped us on our trip and regularly worked as a translator / facilitator for Glenn on his trips here) and go to the “supermarket” (or at least, what they had to serve as one) and purchase some clothing soap that I had seen on their local TV shows and then wash my clothes in the hotel’s bathroom. No. He would have none of it. That would be taken very badly and would essentially, apparently, signal to the staff and thus all of the local people of Wewak, that we thought that they were inept and incapable of even the most basic of tasks: washing clothes.
So, defeated, I left my clothes in their hands. Now, I should mention at this point that at the time, I was still under the somewhat naive presumption that Wewak, and PNG in general, possessed things that I took for granted, like can openers, electricity and, of course, washing machines. I assumed that the staff would simply take my clothes, bring them to a washing machine, wash them, put them in a dryer and then bring them back to me. I had known that such a procedure happened every day in hotels around the world, from Norway to Mexico. Apparently, that’s not what happens in PNG. And I found out the hard way; or rather, the loud way.
The next day, while trying to pass the time by talking to Glenn about his experiences in the South Pacific over the years (remember, no electricity most of them time, only one TV channel in a language you don’t understand and nothing else to do means that there is a *lot* of time to pass every day), I suddenly heard some kids in the distance giggling. At first, I thought that it was coming from the road across from the hotel that led down to a beach. I had heard kids there before, but this time, the laughing and giggling was louder and it was punctuated by adults giggling and talking loudly. Again, I couldn’t understand much, but it sounded like they were having a grand old time somewhere. Well, given that there wasn’t much else going on, Glenn and I decided to see what was going on that was clearly so funny.
What was it? Well, let’s just say that Victoria has one less secret now. You see, hanging from a wire across two tree stumps and waving in the slight breeze, with the sunlight shining off of them and highlighting their beautiful colorful decorations, were my knickers and bras, slowly drying. Yup. About ten of them, if my memory serves. And around them were no fewer than five young children, a couple of teens and the entire hotel staff laughing and pointing at them. And it wasn’t as if I could pretend that anyone else had left those to be washed. Nope. Those knickers clearly belonged to the strange, smelly, White Woman.
Now, I suppose that, on the plus side, at least it was just Glenn and I that witnessed that mortifying site and have escaped the island to remember and pass along the story. But frankly, I blush even just thinking about it, and dread that one day, randomly (as things like this often occur) I will encounter one of those kids, now grown, that was laughing so merrily at my expense, and remember me and start laughing all over again.
Lesson learned: Next time, listen to my mother and shop at Macy’s, where the prices are low and the knickers are all plain.
March 10, 2014
It’s been awhile since I posted anything here, and for anything this is interested, for that I deeply apologize. I haven’t honestly been really into showing my feelings about travel for a while now and for a very good reason (or twenty). Aside from the fact that I have been incredibly busy with my day-job and have been doing a lot of baking, I have been in a real mental hard place for me, hence the topic of this post.
Why do you travel? Really, why do you do it? Do you enjoy seeing the sites or trying all of the different and unique foods that you find? Do you collect things, like clothes or books or antiques? Do you just love to have (collect?) new experiences and capture new memories that only you and you alone will ever fully appreciate?
I used to think that I travelled more for the sake of it than anything else, and I think that, some part of me feels that way. I travel as often as I can; as much as time and money will allow. I used to think that, if I could, I would travel all the time, just collecting those experiences that no one else will ever have. Like getting lost in Helsinki and walking into a suburb and on the way home, accidentally finding their amazing amusement park and riding on the Ferris wheel. Or being the first white woman to set foot on a small island in the South Pacific and learn what it’s like to really be the odd one out, in every sense of the word.
As I get older, though, I realize more and more that those really aren’t the reasons that I travel. Here’s the real reason, truly shown to me as I started to cry (in public) reading a passage in a book from a woman much like me, who was in search of the same thing:
I travel because I am looking for my home. My real home. Not that I don’t like the place that I live. I love my little condo. It’s a perfect size and a real haven for me (when the dog downstairs isn’t barking, that is). I live very near to my parents, with whom I am very close, and I really treasure that. But more and more, I realize that I am not meant to live here; that this isn’t my real home. I think that that explains, more than anything else, why I haven’t dated anyone since I moved back to the US from Europe the last time. I just don’t get American guys. Or most Americans, for that matter. Why? I don’t fully know, but I just feel like the odd one out and as an outsider here. I want to sit at a sidewalk cafe in the evenings with friends, and people here don’t really do that. I want to go out and drink for the conversations with companions that happens, and Americans haven’t learned how to do that yet. I don’t understand baseball caps, tennis shows, shouting at waiters or the need to photograph, tweet and post to facebook every single aspect of one’s life.
I don’t know why people don’t go out, but rather, stay at home, binge-watching shows on Netflix or On Demand. I get lonely, because no one but my parents wants to go to the museums and then to a cafe and discuss what was on display. No one wants to just take a leisurely time at a meal. Talking. Eating. Enjoying the atmosphere. That doesn’t happen here. Buildings are too new. People have to drive everywhere. People, especially where I live, aren’t interested in meeting people and making new friends. Not after high school or possibly college. They will be nice to you, but never will that really translate into an invitation to join them for a meal or a trip to a movie or anything like that.
And more than that, there is something singularly intangible that I cannot even put into words, but that makes me cry in the US and smile broadly in Europe. Call it atmosphere, call it whatever you will, but whenever I am in Europe I just become lighter. Almost another person. I stop more. And I mean that in the sense that I don’t feel the incessant need to always be *doing* something. No. Instead, I stop. I have a coffee at a cafe or a glass of wine somewhere and just watch the world. Or I talk to people. And there, they not only talk back, they start conversations, invite me to their homes or out with their friends or even into the backs of their restaurants to teach me to make real dumplings, in the case of my time in Shanghai, China.
I travel because I want to find the place where I really belong. The place where I just naturally feel comfortable. Peaceful. Content. Where people want to be my friends as much I want to be theirs. The place where I would be happy to just ‘be.’
I have come very close on a number of occasions. Germany was the first, when I visited my brother while he we stationed there. Austria was even closer. I spent a few days in Vienna, and on accident I had a last-minute issue that prevented me from going back to Hungary, so instead went back to Vienna and never regretted it. Ireland was close, but somehow, not as much as Norway. There was just a sense of total ease that I felt in these places. Even Paris, not speaking any French or even really knowing the true Parisian culture, I felt it closely, though I knew all along that it wasn’t *quite* the place for me. Close, but just not quite.
In about a week, I am taking another trip. I have chosen to keep it a secret to everyone bu my parents and two trusted friends, so forgive me for not mentioning it here. I will say this, though. I feel as though I am getting messages from the universe that this might be “it.” The one. I don’t want to jinx it, and I don’t really want to get my hopes up, at least any more than they already are. But at night, and when I am having a rough day at work, I let myself say “maybe” a few times, and I dream. Maybe I will meet a friend that I can stay in contact with. Maybe I will meet someone “special” as my mother and grandmother would say.
Maybe I will, this time, not use my return ticket. Maybe I will, but immediately file for a visa. Or maybe this isn’t it, and I will check it off my list and start trying to find time and money to make another trip somewhere else to try it again; getting ever closer each time until I finally find it; sigh to myself, and make that call to my parents letting them know that I won’t be needing them to come and fetch me from the airport.
For anyone out there reading this – especially those that might feel the same way – wish me good luck. And I wish all of you out there in the same position the same good luck. I hope that we all manage to find our respective homes, wherever they may be.
December 24, 2013
At this time of year, everyone has a craving for a food that they associate with the holidays, whichever holiday you celebrate. Some people crave latkes, other people crave their grandmother’s peirogi. What do I crave? Lefse. For the uninitiated, lefse is like the Norwegian version of a tortilla, though usually they are used in a sweet application, not a savory one. Made out of riced potatoes (strong hands and wrists are required!) or mashed potato flakes, if you are lazy or in a place where you don’t have a ricer, they form the basis of one of my favorite treats during the Christmas season. Some people take them with loads of butter, others with cinnamon and sugar, some with all three. Me? I like them served warm with a healthy dose of cinnamon and maybe a little light coating of sugar. Or sometimes, for breakfast, dunked in maple syrup (that must be the American in me). The sad part is that I don’t have the space, the money or the tools that I need to make them properly, so I am generally reduced to enjoying them only during a few wonderful weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. But then, I suppose that that ensures that they remain special, right?
Now, I have been eating lefse for as long as I can remember and I have had it in a lot of different places; from here in the US to Norway, where it originated. This brings up the question: Where can you find the best lefse? Was it found in Norway, land of its birth? Or was it the potato-flake version that a friend in Malta made one year for a celebration, using only a banged up, scorched frying pan and a stove that couldn’t control heat?
The lefse made in Malta was, let’s just say, edible. It served its purpose. No one would write home to their mother to tell her how much better it was than hers, but it was serviceable. Edible, like I said. The accomplishment was not in the flavor, but rather in the fact that my friend was able to use store flaked potatoes, water and butter, along with the only tools available to her at the time: a small frying pan, turned over to create a larger, flatter surface; a stove that had to be lit using a match and which rarely held a flame for long enough to heat soup, let alone make lefse; a spatula that was more like a rather large spoon and a mixing bowl that was clearly not large enough. It must have taken her a long time to get even one that worked, but I remember watching her, listening to Maltese pop radio in the background, occasionally interrupted by her roommates coming in asking her what on earth she was doing, and smelling the faint whif of charred frying pan. It was beautiful. The steam between that and the tea that was boiling on the stove created was so great that it fogged up the glass doors to the flat, making it look very dubious what was going on in there. Only when we emerged to the party with fresh lefse, covered in melted butter and cinnamon and sugar did people realize the alchemy that could elicit such delicious treats.
Now, I also had it in Norway, in Oslo in fact, while travelling there with my parents a few years ago. We were at the outdoor museum, and they were making it fresh, from scratch, in one of the houses and then handing them out for chump change, given the quality of the product. Warm, almost too warm, with perfect coloring (no scorch marks in sight, but a nice golden color all around) and rolled and filled with any of the previously mentioned fillings that you wanted, they were a joy. The sun was shining, the air was clear, and you could see the beautiful forest in the distance. We were already having a wonderful time there, and this was simply the icing on the cake. You could tell that the quality was the highest possible; well, you would expect nothing less, since this was lefse meant to show off the abilities of the Norwegians to create great food – food for tourists. It was grand, I admit. But, you know what? It wasn’t the best.
The best lefse that I have ever eaten, and which I still reminisce about every year, was made by my aunt, Judy, in her kitchen in North Dakota. Did she have all of the equipment necessary to make them perfect; from the ricer to the pan? You know what, I don’t even remember. What I do remember is that it was the last Christmas that my entire father’s side of the family was able to gather together, my grandmother included, before she finally succumbed to dimentia and moved to a nursing home. It was dark outside, multiple tables had been pushed together in their living room to accommodate everyone, and the tree was lit, with presents beneath it. The house was warm from all of the cooking and baking going on, and everyone was drinking, talking and eating. I by my grandmother and listened to her tell me stories about how Christmas used to be, back when my brother and I were too young to remember and he and I couldn’t wait to open our gifts, and wasn’t it nice that we were now old enough (both adults, by this point) to sit and enjoy dinner and not get distracted by the pretty wrapping and boxes on the floor? The rest of the meal was typical for us; lasagna (it easily fed everyone and didn’t take too much time or effort to prepare) and garlic bread. Then, my aunt brought out the lefse. I don’t think that anyone else really cared very much about it. It wasn’t as if it was something that had never eaten before, bu somehow, for me at least, it was magical. My mother is German and I never grew up eating it except when we went up north to visit my relatives, and even then it wasn’t always there. Lefse is tricky to make well and it takes dedication. So the fact that my aunt made some that year was very special to me. It was perfect. It was warm, served folded, not rolled, and covered in just the faintest hint of cinnamon and sugar and butter. Just enough to add flavor, but not so much that you couldn’t revel in the potato-y goodness underpinning it all. My grandmother and I both ate our fair share, and although I don’t think that anyone noticed, I alter snuck back into the kitchen and took another few pieces, now less warm, but no less perfect.
Following that year, my family got together less and less often, and every time with fewer members. That was many years ago, now that I think about it, but i can still remember it so well. And the lovingly, perfectly made lefse was the cap to it all. eating lefse now, even inferior lefse, never fails to bring back those treasured memories. That’s why, above all others, that lefse was and will always be the best.
November 25, 2013
This is Thanksgiving week, so I wanted to write a little something about some of my experiences of Thanksgiving that I have had in my life abroad.
Growing up in the US, I have been a part of normal Thanksgiving practices for most of my life. You the ones – the turkey, the trimmings, the occasional drunk relative that you end up having to listen to for hours as they regale you with stories about their teenage years, which, in case you weren’t around for them, were the best years in the history of the world, and gee, don’t the kids these days miss out on all of the fun that could be had “back in the day”? Yeah, those. Oh, and the memories of my father putting so much sage into the stuffing that only he liked the end-result. My brother, mother and I would endure a few mouthfuls, to be polite, and then relinquish the rest to my father. Thankfully, I have always been a fan of Stovetop stuffing anyway, so I wasn’t really expecting much from that stuffing in the first place.
Back to the point: A Maltese Thanksgiving. Well, the one that I experienced, anyway. Which wasn’t exactly Maltese, but really more of a dinner that we American students in the international student’s flat complex decided to throw for anyone and everyone that wanted to participate. It started out as a somewhat small affair, from what I can remember. All of the international students, everyone from Nigerian nursing students to Indian engineering students to myself and another American there for the archaeology courses, lived in a large complex surrounding a rather dodgy pool that ended up giving a couple of the Canadians eye infections at one point. I myself only dangled my legs in that water, and never swam in it, much to my relief when they each came back from the local doctor with nasty infections and hefty prescriptions. Instead, I swam in the open water, on the rare occasions that I got a chance to swim, that is.
Anyway, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, a few of us American students were talking late one night and decided that it would be fun to do something for it. You know, it would be cultural. Something to demonstrate to the other students as an American tradition, and one that didn’t discriminate against race, religion, political inclination or anything else. It was just all about the food. We each agreed that we would bring something distinctly American, or at least something that we thought would represent something that we grew up eating. So, mashed potatoes, corn, lefse from one girl (who managed, by the way, to make a really good mock-lefse, giving that she was using potato flakes, a dodgy stove and warped cooking pans – I am still impressed to this day). I don’t actually even remember what I brought, to be honest. Something silly, I am sure, like corn or something. I was enough of a foodie at that point that by not remembering it, I know that it must have been something lame and uncreative.
Before the night of the dinner, though, which was to be held in the *enormous* dining room of one of the larger flats, we started hearing from other people in the complex that wanted to join in, and on top of that, they wanted to bring their own cultural foods to include in the repast. Well, if you know anything about the first Thanksgiving, then you know that Pilgrims also accepted foods that were native to the tribes that joined them in the feast. So, who were we to turn that addition? We gladly welcomed it.
On the night of the dinner, then, to the sounds of CD’s playing everything from Italian rap music, so the popular techno tunes of the day (late 1990’s), literally dozens of us gathered in that dining room to join together in what turned out to be one of the best, and more memorable meals that I would have in Malta. Copious amounts of cheap Maltese wine was drunk, Indian and Bangladeshi curries mingled with the lefse, mashed potatoes, turkey breasts (that someone managed to locate somewhere, although I can’t imagine how much they ended up paying for it, since turkey in Malta is rare indeed), not to mention the cookies that someone brought, fresh from the local Balzan bakery (remember them, from an earlier post?), the Russian dumplings, the Nigerian breads, and so many other things. So much that no one was able to really eat everything, but we – every one of us – tried very hard!
After the food, and when the wine started to really take its effect, we moved the table back, and cranked up the music and began to dance. People showed off their cultural dances and mainstream dances alike. I did a rather serviceable Irish ceili dance, if I do say so myself. Someone started to do a little Bollywood style dance and everyone enjoyed the night, well into the wee hours of the morning. Somewhere along the line, I am sure that the flatware from several flats disappeared into the one hosting the dinner, never to resurface again. Several chairs were broken, and at one point a few nights later, someone got the bright idea to take one of the broken chairs, dismantle it and use it as a bonfire. Actually, it made a great bonfire that we used for cooking the Iranian chicken skewers that a friend made. I can still taste them – a little funny-tasting, since the varnish from the wood on the chairs must have permeated the chicken a little bit, but they were still good.
All in all, that Thanksgiving was one of the best that I have ever had. No one fought. There weren’t any people there fighting over who would get the last crescent roll, or how best to make stuffing (do you put it in the bird or not?) and in the end, everyone went back to their respective flats, full, drunk, happy and dead tired. I can still hear the music, see the dancing and taste the wine. And I hope that I never forget it. I have lot contact with nearly everyone that took part in that dinner, but as I eat my Thanksgiving dinner this year, like I have done every year since that night, I will raise my glass just once in their honor and say that wherever they are, and whatever they are doing, I am forever thankful that they were once a part of my life, and will forever be a part of my memories – some of the best of my life.
November 17, 2013
You know, when I was little, I used to stay at my grandmother’s home when my family would go “up north” to visit our relatives every winter and summer. The rest of my family got to stay at my uncle’s house, but I stayed with my grandmother. I credit that with a lot of things in my life, from my love of cooking and more especially baking, to my fear of ever having my home be so warm that it melts candles (another story for another time).
One thing that I really remember, more than a lot of others, is the fact that I was raised as a Lutheran, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. You see, my mother’s side was Lutheran and therefore so was I. However, my father’s side was Catholic (mostly lapsed, now), and my grandmother; well, she was Mother Superior, in every sense of the word. While the rest of my family was in my uncle’s house watching movies on Saturday evenings before we would meet for dinner, my grandmother would take me to Saturday night Mass at her church. Even though I wasn’t Catholic, and really, even though I was too young, she would always tell me that I could go up to the altar when it came time for the sacrament and tell me that I could take it, because really, they didn’t know that I wasn’t Catholic, and honestly, God probably wouldn’t mind. Secretly, I always thought that she just really wanted me to be Catholic and would try anything in her power to make me one.
Flash forward to my holiday in Paris a couple of years ago. On one of my last days there I decided that it was time to go to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in the Montmarte area of the north of the city. I walked all the way there; all the way up the stairs, in the beautiful light of an early spring evening in Paris, with the birds singing and the other tourists flashing their cameras as they took photos of each other in front of the church and on the surrounding lawns that yawned out from all sides.
I hadn’t realized that I actually arrived right at the start of the nightly Mass there, but following in my grandmother’s footsteps and feeling that a) she would love to have been able to be in such a place at some point in her life and b) God wouldn’t really mind, I walked up front, in front of the tourists and those that were illegally trying to take photos with their cameras (it was forbidden to photograph inside the church itself, unlike Notre Dame). I walked all the way to one of the first rows and sat next to a beautiful woman of some African decent. She was deep in thought and prayer, on her knees while the priest spoke. I tried not to disturb her, but she noticed me sitting down, flashed me a huge smile and gestured for me to join her on the wooden pew, third row center. Although I had no idea what was being said (not only do I not know the traditional Catholic Mass, but I know it even less when it’s in French, since I don’t speak the language at all), I tried to imitate her as much as possible. I knelt when she did, I crossed myself when she did, and when it came time for the sacrament, she gestured enthusiastically that I should join her when she went up for it.
Now this was a little forbidding – this was not just a small Catholic church in some small city in the Midwest in the US. No indeed. This was La Basilique du Sacre Coeur! In Paris! Now, those not familiar with Christian sacraments or denominations might not really understand, but the sacrament at Mass (the wafer and wine) are sacred. Lutherans might allow others of the Christian faith to partake, but the Catholics don’t play that game. if you aren’t Catholic, you can’t partake. You can walk up and get a blessing from the priest, but not the actual wafer or wine. At least in theory. And I felt uncomfortable going up there, but this time, with this lovely French / African woman gesturing for me to follow her, and me not knowing nearly enough French to tell the priest that I shouldn’t be receiving the Mass, I walked up in the shadow of the grand, awe-inspiring dome of the Basilica, covered in a beautiful mural, with angels and saints watching me, and I stood before the priest, hands in a prayer (which is typically used to indicate that one is not taking the sacrament) and watched as the priest handed me a wafer. And then the golden goblet in which was the sacred red wine.
There are times in life when one should follow the rules. Certainly, when you are in Tunisia, you shouldn’t take photos of the police. That’s not only frowned upon, but generally, well, it’s illegal. However, it’s not like me taking the wafer and wine was technically illegal. And the brief thought in my head said to me “I am sure that God won’t mind and has much more important things to think about than whether or not a Lutheran partook in the sacrament.” So in a moment, I opened my palm to take the wafer and then found myself taking a sip of the wine, and suddenly turning back around and walking, solemnly, back to my seat, next to the smiling, now praying woman.
The Mass lasted only a few more minutes, and in that time, I felt flush. Flush with a slight feeling of deviancy, but also of, well, I don’t know. Not holiness, but something more akin to companionship. In the community of the church, of the French, of belonging to a group, if only for an hour.
And as I walked around the inside of the church following the service and then out into the slowly waning light and rising moon, I felt somehow whole. Somehow reminded of the love of my grandmother when she and I would go to Mass. Reminded of a greater love that so rarely manifests itself, deep in one’s heart. And for however brief a time, I couldn’t stop smiling. And the evening air, the walk back to my hotel for dinner, the lights of the city turning on for the night – it was all beautiful in a way that I had only barely noticed before.
I love Paris.