Archive for September, 2011

On Friday evening, we returned to the train station and set off on an overnight trip to Berlin.  This was the first time I had ever been on a train that had sleeping cars.  Our path took us through Belgium, so I guess you could add that to the list of countries I have been to, but I don’t think it really counts, since I was on the train and probably asleep at the time.

As with the other cities, we started our time in Berlin with a guided tour.  We stopped at the Reichstag Parliament Building, which was famously damaged in a fire in 1933 that the Nazis used as an excuse to suspend civil liberties in order to go after their opponents.  We saw the Brandnburg Gate, and we saw the site of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. (“I am a Berliner!”)  In honor of the speech, a few of my classmates then bought jelly doughnuts, also called “Berliners,” from a street vendor, and we shared them.

(A commonly told story is that JFK’s speechwriters used the German article improperly, and as a result, the President ended up stating that he was a jelly doughnut rather than a citizen of Berlin.  I have since read that is not true and they in fact got the statement correct.  Still, the jelly doughnuts were good!)

We could also see a small remaining part of the Berlin wall, every square inch of it covered with colorful graffiti.  I remembered the world atlas from my childhood, with the separate countries of West and East Germany, mirrored on a smaller scale by the city of Berlin.  I had seen the tearing down of the wall on the news, and I was impressed at the importance– this meant the maps would all have to be changed!  (Yes, I admit that I was a bit obsessed with maps.)

Berlin was full of history as the other cities had been, but there was a difference.  Whereas London and Paris were dominated by centuries-old buildings, the center of Berlin had more modern skyscrapers, a little more like an American city in some ways.  Our tour guide told us that this was because so much was destroyed during World War II.

We saw a very moving memorial in the public square where the Nazis had burned thousands of books written by Jewish authors, or that were deemed contrary to Nazi ideology.  The memorial is a plate of clear plastic set in the cobblestone ground, easy to miss unless you stop and look down.  Through the window in the ground, you can see rows of white bookshelves, all empty.  Our guide pointed out that, in the early part of the 20th century, Germany produced many Nobel Prize winners, great scholars, and scientists.  Many of them were suppressed, killed, or driven away because of the Nazis (some to America)– it is impossible to calculate how much was lost.  Then there is the memorial’s engraving, a quote by poet Heinrich Heine (loose translation): “Where they burn books, they will one day also burn people.”

The overall sense I got from the tour was of a city and country determined not to forget the lessons of its history, but also not to dwell on them.  Other countries, like my own, can very easily fool themselves into thinking “Well, something that bad could never happen here,” ignoring the many bad things that greed or the desire for power brings about in every country in the world.  The memorials in Germany are a reminder that it can, and did happen.  But at the same time, Berlin did not strike me as a depressing place.  On the contrary, there were lots of new building projects going on and a healthy sense of city and national pride.

Germany is a beautiful country, and there is even some country inside the city!  At one point we were riding the bus through Berlin, when suddenly we entered a dense forest.  I figured that we must have left the city, but our tour guide told us that we were still within it.  There is a huge forest inside the city limits of Berlin– pretty neat!  We would get to see more of the German countryside later on, as we were set to visit a couple of other cities.

The rest of our time in Paris was spent mainly at two landmarks– the Louvre and the palace at Versailles.  The interesting thing about the Louvre is that it is at the same time a museum and a historical artifact chronicling the history of France.  The very oldest parts of the Louvre date back to the 12th century, when it was a fortress.  There’s really only one connecting passageway left from that time, and you can walk through it on an elevated platform and see the rough stone walls on all sides.

The building was added to and remodeled many times by various kings over the centuries; it was transformed from a fortress into a dwelling place, and then a palace.  With the Renaissance came changes in architecture, and as kings continued to add new sections to the Louvre, the building became a record of architectural history.  It was also home to an ever-growing royal collection of works of art, and in the 18th century, kings Louis XV and XVI started using it as an art gallery.  It became truly public for the first time during the French Revolution, but that didn’t last long.  Napoleon added more sections, as did 19th-century rulers.  During World War II, the art had to be cleared out and hidden from the occupying Nazis.

The newest addition to the Louvre was completed in 1989– a pyramid made of many small triangular panes of glass.  Visitors enter the museum through the pyramid and take escalators down to the new underground entrance section.  Not everybody was sure that the pyramid fit with the centuries-old stone building, but since the Louvre is already a conglomeration of many different styles, I think it makes sense to give modern art a chance to be represented.

Once again, I stuck close to Dr. B., taking pictures of the artifacts he pointed out and keeping track of them with a notepad.  I really liked having someone to follow around through the enormous museum rather than simply being told to wander around.  It also meant that I got to pay attention to and read about some of the smaller artifacts that most people would walk past because there’s just so much to see.  We spend most of our time in the antiquities section of the museum, since we were looking for Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian artifacts.  It wasn’t crowded where we were at all.

The funny thing is that I ended up not seeing the work of art that the Louvre is probably most famous for– Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  I wonder how many other people have been to the Louvre but not seen the Mona Lisa!  My classmates told me that the Mona Lisa is smaller than most people imagine it, and that it is painted on a piece of wood, not on canvas.  It’s amazing how practically every movie and TV show gets these things totally wrong.  How many times have you seen a story about art thieves trying to steal the Mona Lisa by tearing it out of its frame and rolling it up?  You can’t do that; it’s a piece of wood!

I did see the Venus de Milo (a Greek statue of the goddess Aphrodite), though, which is not bad as famous works of art go.  It made me wonder if it was more or less famous because the arms are broken off, and whether the artist would be annoyed that everyone thinks of it as “that statue with the arms broken off.”

The garden of Versailles

Anyway, the other amazing place we got to visit was the palace at Versailles.  Versailles is a little over 10 miles southwest of southern Paris– I think we took the subway to get there.  It was where the French royalty ruled in luxury for most of the 18th century.  During my freshman year, I had read a book for class about Voltaire, Rousseau, and other French philosophers who were part of the Enlightenment movement, and for background it gave an overview of what was going on politically at the time.

I wish I had a better memory of what I read about; as it is, I am sure I have made plenty of mistakes in my recounting of French history.  The gist of it, though, is that during the time that the royalty lived at Versailles, the monarchy went from Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” who reigned for 77 years and took the monarchy to the height of its power, to Louis XV, who mishandled the nation’s foreign affairs and wealth while his court became known for decadence, to Louis XVI, who was driven from Versailles and executed by guillotine in the midst of a bloody revolution.

As I toured the palace, I thought about how it used to be that only the nobility and well-connected would have ever gotten the chance to see the things I was seeing.  There was room after room of ornate furniture, grand windows, gilded statues, and paintings large enough to cover an entire wall.  Some rooms were rich with portrayals of Biblical scenes; others were full of the gods of Greek and Roman mythology.  The windows gave you beautiful views of the garden, which went on for acres with hedges and fountains.

As pretty as the palace was, there are a whole lot of things that “common people” in many parts of the world have today that Louis XIV couldn’t have dreamed of.  Like air conditioning, for one.  Tylenol and aspirin also come to mind.  Clean food you can prepare and eat in minutes.  Not to mention libraries and the Internet.

The garden outside the palace was the favorite place I visited during my time in France.  It was big enough that you could wander around and find places that weren’t crowded; find a bench somewhere in a quiet corner and just look at the beauty of God’s creation.  On our day of free time, a few of my classmates and I went to the store to get food (I bought some chicken salad sandwiches) and had a picnic on the grounds of Versailles.

I guess if I had to sum up my impression of France, it would be with that picnic.  A place that had been built for royalty only was now open for anybody who wanted to come and enjoy.  Freedom is a wonderful blessing.

September 5: Paris

Our bus driver and tour guide in Paris was Antoine.  My mental picture of him is that he was bald and wore sunglasses, but I’m not too confident in my memory of faces.  He was experienced with the sometimes chaotic traffic of Paris, weaving the giant bus through gaps as easily as if it were one of the tiny cars zipping around.  Traffic jams could develop quickly, producing a cacaphony of horns and raised voices, but Antoine was usually able to anticipate and avoid them.

He shared a few facts about the city of Paris as we neared the hotel, including the fact that it was divided into districts, and the one where our hotel was located was known as a “red-light district.”  This produced nervous laughter from the students.  Our professors issued a friendly reminder not to be tempted by establishments selling sex.  “Once they have you inside, they will get you to give them as much of your money as they can.”  I don’t think we were tempted– in fact, we were a little nervous about possibly being in a rough part of town.  We made sure to only go out in groups.

The hotel was an old building with plenty of charm.  There continued to be lots of honking and shouting from the intersection outside, and as the hour got later, voices from the buildings joined in, presumably yelling for them to keep the noise down.  Believe it or not, I still got a good night’s sleep.  In the morning, we went downstairs for a breakfast of tea and croissants served by a delightful old lady.

I feel bad that this post so far has dwelt on the negatives of the part of town we were in.  I was impressed by the friendliness and warmth of the Parisians we interacted with.  Overall, our time in Paris was the most relaxing part of the trip– there was a laid-back attitude to the city that permeated everything.  Yes, people yelled in traffic jams, but that almost seemed more like a sport that people embraced with gusto rather than an outpouring of stress.

And, of course, the city is beautiful.  On Wednesday, Antoine took us on a bus tour to see many of its most famous sights.  We stopped at the Arc de Triomphe, which is in the middle of a huge roundabout– making your way to the center is an interesting challenge!  We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, which gave us a great view of the city.  I noticed several football (soccer) fields.

Notre Dame Cathedral was awe-inspiring.  I thought about how it almost two centuries to build and wondered what it must have been like to spend a lifetime working on a project that wouldn’t be complete for generations.  It still stood as a monument to God, who is not constrained by time.

For some reason, the thing that sticks in my memory the most was seeing the “zero point” of Paris, which is about fifty yards away from the cathedral.  Apparently, whenever the distance from Paris is given, if one is to be precise, it is actually the distance from that point.  So until you have been there, you have always been at least some distance from Paris.

Paris holds a lofty place in the development of our system of measurements.  A meter used to be defined as one ten-millionth the distance of a line from the North Pole to the Equator that passed through Paris.  And the standard weight still used to define a kilogram is kept in the Paris suburb of Sévres.

In the late afternoon, we took a sightseeing tour of Paris by boat on the river Seine.  One of the interesting things we saw was the other Statue of Liberty, the miniature copy that the United States gave to France as a thank-you for building the big statue designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi that looks out on New York Harbor.  Hopefully, they did not think it was tacky to give them a smaller version of the same thing.

As afternoon turned to evening, buildings and street lamps lit up, and we saw why Paris is called the City of Light.

One last thought for the day:  I’m fairly sure I remember seeing a memorial for American soldiers who died in France during World Wars I and II.  I thought about my grandfather, who had spent time in France as a soldier during the second World War.  He had been so excited to hear that I was taking a trip to Europe– he sent me a note wishing me a good trip along with some coins from each country I would be visiting.

He shared with me that he had made instant friends in Europe by giving people a pack of gum and suggested that I could do the same.  Of course, today anybody in Europe can get chewing gum any time they want to just by going to the store.  Practically anything that’s available here in the U.S. is also available in Europe.  But my grandfather’s story drove home how much the world can change in a lifetime– and how people in places like France and America are free to enjoy good things only because of the sacrifices of people like my grandfather, and the soldiers remembered at that memorial, and countless others from other countries.

I was surrounded by history on this trip– not just Biblical history, but also recent history that had shaped the world.

Tuesday was another travel day.  We took the Eurostar train directly from London to Paris.  I remembered reading about the completion of the Channel Tunnel (or “Chunnel”) when I was a kid, and how some Britons weren’t keen on the idea, since they rather liked being on an island.  One of my classmates had a bit of fun with the train staff by asking them “Are we in the Chunnel now?” when we passed through a small tunnel less than 5 minutes after leaving the station.

Apparently the train attracts strange characters, but we didn’t see this guy (naughty language/British humor warning).

The trip provided us with time to practice a few simple French phrases.  My Mom and Dad had gotten me a French, German, and Italian phrasebook, and I wanted to at least try to make an effort to communicate in the proper language.  I tried to use the phrase “un bon vin blanc” (a good white wine) to remind myself how the nasal vowels were pronounced.  I made sure to practice saying “Excuse me” (Excusez-moi) and “I’m sorry” (Pardonnez-moi) in each language, because I was sure I would make plenty of mistakes and would require people to be patient with me.

I think the most complicated thing I ended up actually saying was “Je voudrais…” (point to food) “…s’il vous plait.”  (I would like [that], please.)  Thankfully for me, I didn’t run into a situation where I couldn’t get by speaking English– everyone I interacted with spoke English much, much better than I spoke any other language.  It was humbling to be in a culture where to be multilingual was normal and expected, and to realize that I would not be much help to a visitor who didn’t speak English, since it was the only language I knew.

We arrived in Paris that evening.  I think we spent a while waiting at the station for our bus and doing things like getting currency exchanged.  It was getting late by the time we got to our hotel, which I’ll say more about in the next post.

It’s interesting how some things stand out sharply in my memory, while other things are a complete blur.  For instance, the names of almost anyone who went on the trip with me.  (Sigh– I don’t know whether it’s faceblindness or self-centeredness or both.)  I really did have a great time with all of the classmates who went with me on the trip, and I’m so thankful for them– it’s just that, with a few exceptions, I cannot remember their names.  Isn’t that awful?  I even have a list of them, and I can’t remember who’s who.

Other things have blurred for me, such as what day things took place on.  I talked about getting caught in the downpour of rain on Saturday night, but based on what I wrote on the postcards I never got around to sending, that actually happened on Sunday night.  It’s strange that I seem to be able to remember things from early in life better than I can remember things from ten years ago.  There are several possible explanations for this, of course:

  • My memories from early in life consist of the most memorable events over a period of several years, while my memories of this trip come from a period of just two weeks.
  • My brain became overwhelmed by input by the time I was in college, and it dealt with this by not bothering to store things long-term.
  • My “hard drive” ran out of memory about when I turned 18.

Anyway, classmates with better memories are welcome to dispute the details of when we did what.
: )

Monday was mostly a “free” day; I think the only thing on our schedule was a visit to the British Library.  Among the items on display there were the Codex Sinaiticus (a 4th-century copy of the Old and New Testaments in Greek from before lowercase letters OR spaces were used!), the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, and some of Shakespeare’s writing.  All of them much older than my entire country.  Pretty amazing!

Here’s an example of how awesome my classmates on this trip were.  When we were on the bus tour, they noticed that the Palace Theatre was advertising Broadway musicals like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, at prices that you would never see in the U.S.  Several people in the class were interested in trying to go, though it didn’t seem likely we’d be able to get tickets during the short time we’d be in London.  But my classmates stopped by and got tickets to see Les Miserables on Monday evening, the night before we were to leave for Paris!

I was excited; I loved the story and had a CD with all the songs on it.  It’s one of the most powerful portrayals of Christ-like love and mercy I’ve encountered in art.  Our seats were up in the balcony, but the view was fine.  The seats cost only 10 pounds, which was about $15.  And the performance was terrific.

A few other random memories of London:

  • The pavement near the crosswalks had “LOOK RIGHT” written on it in big letters to keep people like me who are used to cars driving on the right from instinctively looking the wrong way and stepping out in front of traffic.  That was considerate.
  • I liked the simplicity of using the London Underground (the subway) to get around the city.  It kept me from ever getting totally lost.  I also liked the famous simplified underground map, which I would eventually study as an example of efficient technical communication.
  • The British one-pound coins were my favorite coins from the trip.  They have a nice thickness and weight that feels good to hold in your hand (appropriate for a coin worth more than a dollar).  Like all British coins, the “heads” side has the queen on it, but there were a lot of different designs for the “tails” side.  My favorite was a dragon– unfortunately, I don’t think I managed to hold on to that one, because I needed it for a bus ride back to the hotel.  It occurs to me that this was before the U.S. started making a quarter for every state in the union; the different designs may not have made as big an impression on me otherwise.
  • We walked through Harrods, a famous department store with all sorts of things much too expensive to buy.  I noticed a chess set there with an American Revolution theme, with Washington and his blue-clad colonials facing off against the British redcoats.  I remembered the old rule “white on the right, and queen on her color,” and looked closely at how the pieces were set up.  Sure enough, the red queen was on a white square, making the British the white pieces and thus the forces of good in this chess game.
    : )

I felt so much better on Sunday morning after getting a good night’s sleep.  I found out that all of England was in a celebratory mood, because England’s national soccer team (more properly their “football team,” since we were in Europe) had just defeated Germany 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier that evening while we slept.  In soccer, 5-1 is a major beating, and this win had come against a historical rival on their home turf, in Munich.  England’s Michael Owen recorded a hat trick (three goals in one game), which is cause for celebration in ice hockey but truly a rarity in soccer.

We got breakfast in the hotel’s cafeteria.  I got there a bit late asked the woman at the cafeteria line for some scrambled eggs, and she responded with something I didn’t understand.  I repeated myself, and she repeated herself a few times, until finally she gave up and served me some scrambled eggs.  Finally, one of my classmates explained that she had been trying to tell me that the hot breakfast items weren’t included in our room fee and I’d have to pay for them.  I had the money to pay, so it was no problem, but I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to decipher her accent.  It was strangely ironic that during the course of our whole trip, the only time I couldn’t understand someone speaking English, it had happened not in France, Germany, or Italy, but in England.

We attended a morning service at All Souls Church, an Evangelical Anglican church in London.  According to Wikipedia, the building has stood since 1823 and survived damage during World War II.  The church itself has withstood a trend in 20th-century Christianity (in America as well as in Europe) to focus on preaching about what humans should do to improve our lives rather than what Jesus Christ has done to save us from the penalty for our sins.  Influential evangelical leader John Stott, who passed away just a few months ago at the age of 90, ministered and worshipped at All Souls Church for most of his life.

I found the service very encouraging.  As we sang the hymns and worship songs and read the Lord’s Prayer, I thought about my family, who would be going to church back home in Ohio in a few hours.  They were probably praying for me, and I could pray for them.  We were on opposite sides of the ocean, but we were loved by the same God.  All the years I had been going to church in the U.S., there had been believers in England and other countries, in every continent, meeting to worship God.

The sermon that morning was from Zephaniah 3, which I’m having a hard time summing up because so much is in it.  It’s a message from God to Jerusalem, the capital city of his covenant people Israel.  At the start, God declares “woe” upon the city because its leaders– the rulers, prophets and priests– are preying on the weak and leading the people to disobey God.  The preacher was quite bold in talking about leaders within the church in Britain who were leading people astray.  (He made the point that God’s message in this passage is directed towards those who consider themselves very religious– not people who don’t go to church.)

God promises to be the righteous judge that those disobedient leaders were not; he will pour out his anger on those who deserve it.  Which is bad news for me, because I too have disobeyed God, and I’m sure I’ve led other people to disobey him, even if it was just by watching how I behaved.  But that is why we need a Savior.  As impossible as it may seem, our hope is to turn to that same God who promises to punish sin.  God tells the city that “the remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord.”

The second half of the chapter is as joyful and tender as the first half is severe:  “Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem!  The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.”  God promises his people “I will bring you home.”  How can this be, if being a righteous judge requires him to punish the city?  It is only possible because God poured out that judgment on his own perfect Son, who willingly took the punishment we all deserved in order to save us.

Sorry; that got a bit long– I told you it was hard to summarize briefly.  I’m not sure I did it justice.  One of my favorite souveniers from the trip is a recording of that sermon.  I really wanted to share it with my parents, but the group was getting ready to leave, so I did something I don’t like to do and asked a stranger where I could get sermon tapes.  At first the elderly man didn’t understand what I was saying, but after I repeated myself, he said, “Oh, TYPES!” (pronouncing the “A” like a “Y”) and pointed me in the right direction.

That afternoon, we visited the British Museum.  I stuck close to Dr. B. and took digital photos of each artifact according to his instructions, using a notepad to record the identity of each object.  I wish I could give more detail about the things we saw there, because they were really neat, but the museum visits have blended together a bit in my mind, and so I can’t remember which things I saw in which museum.  The British Museum had artifacts from Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, some of which were old when Zephaniah was still alive.

Look at me; I’m a day behind already!  : )  Oh, well.

Thanks to the five-hour difference in time zones, our flight departed Newark at 7:00 PM on Friday and arrived in London about 7:00 AM on Saturday.  I tried to get some sleep, but that was a bit tough, because they served us dinner, followed by breakfast only a few hours later!  Also, the pilot kept waking everyone up to make announcements about turbulence.  “Turbulence is fine,” I thought.  “Just let me sleep!”

It was neat to watch the overhead screen that showed the plane’s position and altitude.  We took a path that curved northward near Greenland in order to follow the curvature of the Earth.

Impossibly soon, the sun came up, and I watched out the window as the ocean was suddenly replaced by green farmland.  The roads and fences divided the land in haphazard angles and curves rather than neat rectangles.  I wondered if that was the result of having so much more history than my home country.

I realized that despite my mental picture of it, England was a big country.  I was going to see London, but that didn’t mean that I was seeing what the whole country was like, any more than all of the U.S. is like New York.  Soon, I could see the roads and buildings becoming more and more dense as we neared our destination.

With the plane on the ground, we groggily collected our luggage.  The speakers on the plane played songs by British musicians.  I still remember them playing the song “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by The Police, even though I had no idea what it was at the time.  (I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would not have even recognized a Beatles song unless it was “Yesterday”!  Sad, huh?)

We stopped by our hotel to drop off our suitcases, and at that moment, all we wanted to do was go to sleep.  After all, we had been travelling for most of the day until then, and it felt like we were getting in a little past midnight.  One problem:  It was actualy 8 in the morning, and we had a full day of touring lined up!  We piled onto a bus and met our tour guide, a cheery young woman, who began to show us around the city.

I knew that American tourists had a reputation in Europe for being rude, so I wanted to do my best to be polite.  The situation prompted me to wonder if the reason for the rude reputation was that Americans were always arriving in Europe cranky because they hadn’t had enough sleep!

Thankfully, the things we were seeing were interesting enough to wake us up.  It helped even more to get a good lunch of fish and chips!

One of the first places we visited was Westminster Cathedral.  The amount of history in a place like that is staggering.  So many famous writers, poets, and kings are buried there– there is scarcely enough room to mark them all.  It was very crowded there as people filed through.  When I saw The King’s Speech several months ago, I was struck by how different the building looked with no one in it during the rehearsal scenes for the coronation.  (Then I found out that they didn’t film those scenes at Westminster.  No wonder it looked different!)

We also visited Buckingham Palace.  The Queen was not at home, as indicated by the lack of a flag flying on the roof.  I’m not sure if that meant that more or less of it was open for guided tours, but we did get to see a little bit of it.  I bought some postcards at the gift shop, hoping I’d have a chance to send notes to my parents and grandparents.

After that, we saw the Tower of London.  There’s an interesting combination of things on display there– the crown jewels, suits of armor with swords, shields, and maces, and a wide array of torture devices that thankfully aren’t in use anymore.  The tradition surrounding the custodians of the tower was really interesting.  They wore distinctive black and red uniforms and were also responsible for taking care of the ravens that lived around the tower.  A legend says that the tower will always stand as long as the ravens do not desert it.  The ravens had colored leg bands to make it easier to identify them; I got a brochure with a list of their names and the colors they wore.

We saw lots of other London landmarks– Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Big Ben, the famous London Bridge, and the new Millennium Wheel.  I have to be honest; I thought a Ferris wheel was a really strange idea for a landmark, but people probably felt that way about the Eiffel Tower when it was first built.  Maybe I would have felt differently if I had gotten to take a ride on it.  : )

At the end of the day, I went to dinner with a small group of my classmates, and we were caught in a sudden downpour on the way back.  We were delighted– rain is certainly part of the London experience!  It had been a very full day, and I had no trouble falling asleep once I was back at the hotel.