Monday, April 7, 2014

There and Back Again - Part 1: Culture

I totally stole this title from Bilbo Baggins. But it is perfect. What I want to communicate in these posts is the wonder of travel, and the nature of it, as a very healthy refocus on reality for the purpose of rejuvenation and expanding horizons, as opposed to an escape from reality for the purpose of mindless vegetation or a wild fling completely contrary to a realistic lifestyle. All of this in the context of a trip to London, Guildford, and Paris with my wife to visit friends and celebrate our 2nd wedding anniversary. I will summarize my thoughts, and our trip, in three categories: culture, cuisine, and churches. But first, some commentary on travel.

Why do we like to travel? What is the purpose? To see new things, have new experiences, relax, take a break from our busy lives, expose ourselves to new cultures and people, eat, drink, and perhaps to spread the gospel. All of these reasons are very good. But why do we look forward to it? Why do we make the planning of it so much more time than the trip itself? Sometimes I worry that the reason we look forward to a big trip so much, and the reason we spend so much effort planning it, is a dangerous reason. I know for me it is a reason that I need to guard against.

Recently, I was convicted by Philippians 4:8, where Paul says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Through this verse John Piper helped me see the importance of never turning my brain off. Never completely escaping from reality. He described it in the context of movies - do the movies we watch allow us to think on what is lovely, pure, and honorable? Or do they allow us to escape from these things? I am encouraged that I can watch a movie, even a movie very far from reality (Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, for example), without completely escaping from reality or ceasing to think on pure, honorable, lovely, excellent things. It just takes some discipline.

In the context of travel, my concern is that the reason we (I) look so forward to travel, plan so much for it, and miss it when we return and immediately look forward to the next trip, can be that we desire an escape from reality. We look forward to it not as a healthy refocus on reality, or enhancement on the definition of reality (expanding our horizons and enlarging our concept of reality), but as an escape from it - an opportunity to "turn our brain off" as we relax, explore, etc. This, I think, is the wrong reason to travel, and a dangerous approach to it. I hope my recap of a wonderful recent trip can gently challenge and also encourage you to look back at past trips this way, and look forward to future trips with this thought in mind.

I believe that heaven in part will be eternal travel - constant exploration, constant relaxation, completely free from sin. If that is true, than the purpose of travel would have to be growth in likeness to Christ and depth of worship, all by continuing to experience more and more of a greater reality (Jesus), as opposed to escaping from reality in any sense. Should we not consider the same purpose for travel now? What would that look like?


My wife and I are very similar in that we do not necessarily need an agenda when we travel. We like to experience culture, watch and interact with people, take it all in - instead of necessarily doing specific things or activities. In fact, one of the things I love most about my wife is her spontaneity. It brings out a side of myself that was mostly untapped before we met, and together as a couple our unplanned adventures and experiences are also our most precious memories. Traveling is a perfect time to prepare the space to let this type of spontaneity flourish. But there are extremes to avoid. It can be a time to squash it altogether if you have too strict of a schedule. On the other hand, no schedule at all can create the situation where spontaneity runs amok and you never end up doing or seeing anything. So you have to be careful, but we seem to balance this very well.

So going into this trip to London, Guildford, and Paris, we did some planning, but really hoped to take in the culture however we could - eating, drinking, shopping, people watching, walking, etc. I think we definitely succeeded, and both of us now miss both the culture of England and the culture of Paris, and wish we could recreate those different cultures back in our suburban American home of Fishers, Indiana. Alas, that is but a dream. But I think our brief immersion in both cultures expanded our horizons in a way that going forward will help us communicate with people better, enjoy simple pleasures better, appreciate history more, and see the world both much smaller and also much bigger than we did before. All of this I think is a healthy result of our travels.

One of our highlights in London was stopping in a classic English Pub, called The Red Lion, in the middle of a great walk through Green Park and St. James Park, and after a visit to Westminster Abbey. I should take this opportunity to thank Andrew Wilson, not only for joining Katie and I at The Wolseley for a great meal and conversation, but also for the counsel on a manageable and beautiful walk through London.

After the Abbey, the timing was perfect for an ale. We had English ales in an establishment that had existed in the form of a tavern at the same site since the 15th century, and had hosted the likes of Charles Dickens and Sir Winston Churchill in more recent years. You can't experience something like that in Indiana, or anywhere in the United States for that matter. And while the beer was awesome, the overall experience of going from Westminster Abbey seeing the burial place of Kings and Queens from the last several centuries (and also poets and authors including Charles Dickens as it happens), to a classic and historic pub that had existed for hundreds of years, was incredible. The combination of walking through beautiful parks, seeing historic sites, and then having an ale in a historic pub, brings you into the culture of London way more than any one of those three things by itself could. And so just on our first afternoon we felt fully part of English culture, and we loved it. Here is another picture of a historic pub that we didn't go in, but I love the picture because it captures the culture of the pub so well: on the corner, people outside, conversation, etc.

Americans should not be surprised that culture in other places is largely defined by food and drink. This is not a new concept. And when you think England, you shouldn't only think pubs and ale, you should also think tea.

Tea in England is not just tea, if you didn't know. Especially afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is tea, sandwiches, biscuits, chocolates, and more. And it is an experience. We stayed and experienced afternoon tea with our friends who live in Guildford for more than two hours. I would now say that you would be hard pressed to say you have experienced or even seen English culture if you have not had afternoon tea. I wonder, how much better can we identify with English people, how much deeper do we understand their backgrounds, their interests, their comfort zones, now that we have experienced something so natural in their culture? 

Culture in Paris is no where more centralized than in the cafe, in my opinion. And the cafe is most identified with coffee, wine, croissants, and charcuterie, with views of amazing sites, interesting streets, and moving people. That is what I think of at least. You might be thinking, wait, is he going to focus on cuisine in a different category? The answer is yes. Food is a huge part of culture, but it also deserves its own category.

We had some great experiences in cafes. If we go back, I hope for many more, and could even see myself spending more than half my time in cafes. One example: my wife generously treated an aspiring artist to a hot chocolate as she was sketching the St. Germain des Pres (the oldest church in Paris) outside in the cold and rain. Her thankfulness was worth the trip to Paris. Sidenote: do you ever think like that? Do you ever think in the context of eternity so extremely, and reason with the thought that blessing one person in even a small way is worth an entire trip to the other side of the world? I usually only think that way in hindsight, but still it is helpful for me in being attentive to those opportunities in the future. In this case, I am so thankful for my amazing wife who was attentive to this type of opportunity in the moment.

As anyone who knows me or knows this blog would predict, the culture of books, writing, and literature in Paris was one of my favorite parts. One of the most famous bookstores in the world, Shakespeare and Company, did not disappoint. There even was a pianist upstairs as we browsed the collection of books that Ernest Hemingway himself was among at one time. I think that the "pianist" was actually just a regular guy showing off for the store manager, but still, the experience was memorable. I love thinking that so much culture was captured, and in some cases even created, in this bookstore. I can assure you I did not turn off my brain during this experience.

At another bookstore not pictured, I encountered an elderly French man who seemed to have worked at this bookstore for 100 years. I'm not kidding. I was actually standing bewildered outside his door trying to figure out if he was open, when he noticed me, and went to great effort to come to the door (he was old, and there were a lot of books in his store - like, he could have tripped on them). When he opened the door, the first thing I said was, Parlez vous anglais? He looked confused and angry. And, he may have been deaf. So, he extended his ear to me, I repeated, his confusion increased. Eventually, he proceeded back to his desk in the back of the store, while he mumbled in French, and I guess I took that to mean I could look around. He managed some English at this point and said if he could help to let him know. I wish I spent more time at this store and with this man.

I asked if he had a Bible in French. Huh? Ear in my face, repeat, huh? Maybe he was just acting like he was deaf? Anyway, after falling over some unorganized stacks of dusty books (not literally, but almost), and dropping several books as he made his way around the store mumbling in French, he came back to me with a Bible I think he said was Italian. It was enormous, and probably 200 years old. I don't know why I didn't ask. Maybe I was scared of him. I looked around a little more, and he came back up to me after a couple minutes and apologized for being unprepared for my "visit' (not his words, exactly), but you see, he was closed. It would have been appropriate for him to call me an idiot. I probably broke a dozen rules of common courtesy. Heck, maybe he could make an argument that I forced my way in? In the end, he was very nice to me. I wonder how his store is doing? I wonder if he has read that Italian Bible? Or a French one maybe he had in the back but had forgotten about in the mess? I wonder if he has family? I wonder what his story is? I wish I spoke French in moments like these. 

Art is something that both Katie and I are not naturally drawn to. But, when I think of culture, even specifically when I think of the influence of culture, or the creating of culture, especially as it applies to Christians in culture, I think of artistic expression. And so when in Paris, you go to the Louvre. Its just what you do. You would be crazy not to. We went with a very general objective, with room to deviate, and actually it worked out great. We spent two hours very productively and I would recommend our exact approach with enthusiasm. Our general objective was to go straight to the Mona Lisa, and allow ourselves freedom to linger at whatever caught our eye on the way to it and on the way back.

Well, it just so happens that the Mona Lisa is small and way overrated. And crowded. But around the Mona Lisa, in the same wing of the museum as the Mona Lisa, and in the adjacent rooms, are some of the most amazing, intricate, and alive paintings I have ever seen. I say alive because you can just stare at them for several minutes and the amount of detail you see is fascinating, and you start to feel inside the painting. The size of the paintings I am speaking of also creates this experience of awe. The highlights for us were the Wedding Feast at Cana, the Raft of the Medusa, and the Coronation of Napoleon. The one I pictured above I actually don't recall the name, but I included it because Katie and I lingered around it and discussed it for awhile. Is that what the cherubim look like? What is the deal with the man / horse? Why are they trying to get out of the forest? Is something driving them out? Fascinating. Culture at its finest.

The second hour we spent in another wing of the museum looking at Greek sculptures and Egyptian artifacts. The draw to all this to me was the age; sculptures from 120 B.C., Egyptian relics and statues from 1300 B.C. Think about that. Most famous of what we saw, and well worth the hype, was the Venus de Milo and the Ramses II. You have to go to the Louvre when in Paris. I recommend heading straight towards the Mona Lisa, taking a brief look to say you did, and spending a great deal of time at the wall-sized paintings in the rooms surrounding. Then head to the Ancient Greek Sculptures and Egyptian rooms and think about the concept of eternity, where beautiful artistic expression like this will be created and admired forever in an environment where time is not even a category. If you have more than two hours you are willing to spend, you are more cultured than I and probably should be the one writing this post. Two hours for us was perfect.

After experiencing art in this way, I feel more imaginative, more aware of the imagination of others, more conversant about history and other cultures, and more in awe of the God-given creativity of man created in the image of God, and therefore more able to praise that God, who through Jesus Christ I know personally as my Lord and Savior. What a great result of travel!

Returning home, we have officially left these cultures, and we are back to our own. We can make afternoon tea and biscuits (which we have), we can visit art museums in our city (which we have), we can dine at French restaurants (which we have), but the culture is different. What did we leave with these cultures? What did they leave with us? Were any differences bridged? Was the love of Christ communicated through us? Were we changed as a result of our trip? I am thankful that the boldness and generosity of my wife gave some specific and practical answers to these very good questions. Below is the aspiring artist I mentioned before, with her hot chocolate.

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