Bataclan – in memoriam

Look.
See the faces, the smiles, the eyes,
The names.

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Lola, 17 years old

So many tributes

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Juan Alberto Gonzalés Garrido, 29 years old

Each one with
A particular sense of humor,
A unique perspective,
That quirk that no one else quite had.

Brother, sister, daughter, son
Mother, father
Beloved
Friend

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The scene stretches on and on,
In front of the shuttered venue and across the street.
Even a block away,
Tributes and more tributes are spread on the sidewalks.

Candles pool with rainwater;
A few flames flicker.
Bouquets droop in the cold and wet;
So many of the messages have become little more than streaks of damp.

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It’s been twelve days.

I didn’t know a single one of them. The closest I’ve come to being touched by the events was when I passed a memorial shrine outside a communication school near our apartment; one of the students had died in the attacks.

The rain picks up. Fall is quickly giving way to winter in Paris and I’m reminded that I need a warmer coat. I dodge another puddle as I cross back over to the other side of the street. An officer with an automatic rifle paces along the narrow street next to the Bataclan.

I pass a man wiping his face with a handkerchief. Are they tears, or just the rain? It’s hard to say. I find the metro stop a few blocks away and head home. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.

A day for remembering.

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“We will not forget you”

 

A day in the life of revising a manuscript

November is NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. But while literally thousands of intrepid novelists are well on their way to their goal of 50,000 words, I’m neck-deep in the midst of revising the novel I started plotting in the fall of 2014.

I wonder if this is what it feels like to shoot a film. Hours of footage that have to be crafted into a coherent story. Endless editing of scenes to get them down to their essence. Cutting other scenes entirely. Realizing that even with all that’s been done, new scenes still need to be shot. Then going over it all again. And again.

In the last few months I’ve radically reconfigured my opening at least twice. Probably three times… maybe more! A pivotal moment at the end of the first act has been surgically removed and transported to its new home in the middle of the novel–as well as transposed to an entirely new physical location in the story, and most of the characters involved have been cut from the scene. So: pretty much a total rewrite. (Deep breath.) But not today.

I’ll pull back the curtain and give you a peak at what two cups of coffee and three hours at Coutume Café near Napoleon’s Tomb got me this morning (actually, this work carried over into lunch and then into yet another cup of coffee back home):

  • I gave one of my characters an addiction. Another one finally got a name—at least a provisional one (it’s a character I only started developing when I started revising the first draft).
  • I wrote yet another page of longhand notes on the what the main character is like.
  • Since writing a novel always means coming up against one’s own limited knowledge base, I compiled a list of questions related to astronomy, communication and satellite technology, etc. that I need to send off to a smart person.
  • Other tasks are mundane, but necessary to keep everything straight: I added a bunch of internal headings, not to be included in the final product, but to help me keep track of where all the pieces are.
  • I picked a few of the new scenes I’ve come up with that need to be added and started outlining them.
  • And, joy of joys, I actually even wrote actual words in actual scenes.

Revising isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s worth it. Want to know more? Check out this fantastic post by Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog for a great overview of how and why to revise.

As she says, “One small change can create the need for cascading changes throughout a manuscript.” Don’t I know it!

Dark night in the City of Lights

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I knew something wasn’t right.

What do you mean there aren’t any taxis available on a Friday night in Paris? The waiter had just told the people next to us at the restaurant that he was having trouble getting a taxi to come for them and were trying to contact another company.

Odd. But I didn’t give it much thought.

Merideth and I were out celebrating our twentieth anniversary at Goust, a nice restaurant in the second arrondissement near l’Opéra Garnier. It was 44 days after the actual date since we’d been on different continents on September 30th, but it was worth the wait. A Michelin starred restaurant (our first time to one) with an adventurous tasting menu: we tried things I’d never had before (like sea urchin). Meanwhile the girls were back at the apartment, no doubt happier to be having tomato soup and toasted baguette rather than sea urchin.

As the waiter helped us with our coats, he told us to be safe, that some kinds of attacks had been occurring in the city. We thanked him and headed to the metro to get back home.

The streets in the 2nd arrondissement were fairly quiet. The air was still and it wasn’t too cold; November was turning out to be mild. We passed a few other people on the sidewalk, saw homeless men bedding down in doorways, and soon came to the metro entrance right in front of the grand Palais Garnier, the historic opera house in Paris.

France, Paris (75), quartier de l'Opéra, l'Opéra Garnier au cœur du Paris haussmannien.

We descended into the metro tunnels and got to the platform. An announcement came on. I couldn’t understand everything that was said, but I could tell that the République metro stop was mentioned, and it sounded like it was closed. Our destination, the Passy neighborhood, lay in the opposite direction. I tried checking the internet on my phone for news, but I couldn’t get a connection underground. The metro arrived, we got on and were on our way. It was fairly full, with people quietly minding their own business and not making eye-contact. In other words, an utterly normal metro experience.

We changed lines at La Motte-Picquet Grenelle in the 15th arrondissement where the number 6 that takes us home runs above ground. Just three stops to go. As we came out of the underground portion, I finally got some information about what was happening when a text from Carolyn came through:

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Not the kind of news you ever want to hear, not the kind of texts you ever want to get. We were home soon and there were plenty of hugs and kisses. I checked the news and updated my status on Facebook to let people know we were okay; I was already getting messages from friends in the U.S. wanting to know if we were safe. Sometimes social media is a vortex of distraction and triviality; this time it was an absolute blessing to be able to so easily let so many people know that we were out of harm’s way.

For a little while I surfed from news site to news site, reading varying accounts of what was happening where and how many people had been killed and how many were still in danger. Finally, with heavy hearts over so much loss of life and so much ongoing uncertainty, we went to bed. It hadn’t been the anniversary celebration evening I’d expected.


At the end of September I participated in a group exercise in which we prepared for dealing with an armed attack by a gunman on a train. I was at a retreat for missionaries serving in Europe with my denomination and it was just a month after the incident when three Americans took down a shooter on the high speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. I’m not a missionary, but I’ve been invited to the last two of these retreats to lead the worship sessions. As part of the program, we had a session on safety and security on the mission field. The presenter covered such topics as dealing with medical emergencies, kidnappings, and evacuations from unstable situations—circumstances more associated with the developing world than Europe. Serving in Europe is safe, right? You can drink the water. You don’t need to get any special vaccinations. There are doctors and hospitals and functioning governments. Pickpockets and scam artists abound, but even savvy tourists learn to deal with those minor threats. The biggest danger is overpaying for a mediocre meal.

But then there was that shooting on the train. And earlier in the year, the Charlie Hebdo attack. Proof—as if we needed it—that nowhere on earth is truly, perfectly safe.

And now this. The worst act of terror ever on French soil.


In the morning, we learned that the city was going to be closed for business. All museums closed. Schools and universities (some are normally open on Saturdays). Swimming pools. The outdoor markets. I got an email from the girls’ fencing club that they were canceling lessons due to des circonstances dramatiques. Reading the news reports, we learned that Paris residents were being advised to stay home. While we got mixed reports about borders being closed, it sounded like air travel was still operating.

So the day after the worst terrorist attack ever in France, we cleaned house. Just like one of our more boring Saturdays. Sweeping, vacuuming, dishes, laundry, scrubbing sinks and toilets, taking out the trash.

All morning our street was quiet, but we could still hear cars going by and see people on the sidewalk. After finishing our chores, Merideth and I went for a walk. A nice view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro is only ten minutes away; I was curious how many people would be there. It turned out to be about the same as ever, people posing in front of the empty landmark and waving their selfie-sticks. A few officers with rifles were patrolling, but they were far outnumbered by the guys who are always there selling cheap souvenirs.

We continued our walk through the neighborhood. Most restaurants were open and tourists were scanning menus. We stopped by one of our favorite bakeries and picked up a sweet. Heading back home, we took a street we hadn’t been on before and passed through another one of the many lovely parks that you’ve never heard of scattered throughout the city. Even though it’s mid-November, its planting beds were a beautiful sight.

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It brings to mind a scripture that means so much to me, especially as someone given to melancholy thoughts:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

—John 1:5


In the afternoon, Merideth and the girls went to their trapeze lessons. The gym is way outside Paris in a sleepy suburb and the coach decided to go ahead with the sessions. I went for another walk, this time down to the Seine and along one of my favorite paths on a narrow man-made island in the river. I stopped for a coffee at a place in a nearby mall, but was told they’d be closing soon. The girl working there said they shouldn’t have even opened since the movie theater there hadn’t opened at all and the other shops were closing early.

Back in my neighborhood I went to my local grocery store. I’d never seen it so busy. Were people stocking up for the apocalypse or was it always like that on Saturday night? When Merideth and the girls got home, we ate in, put candles out on one of our window ledges, and watched a movie.

There’s no denying we’re lucky. Blessed. Thankful. And yet struck by how little we’ve been impacted or even inconvenienced by the tragedies around us. It’s truly humbling.

Life is precious, not to be taken for granted. You know that. I know that. Sometimes things come along to remind us just how precious–and how fragile–life really is.

Good morning, Africa!

Okay, that doesn’t quite have the ring of Good morning, Vietnam! but that’s okay.

I’ve never been this far south in my life, or even on this continent. The city of Maseru, in the Kingdom of Lesotho (pronounced luh-SOO-too) is situated at 29.31 degrees south latitude. This tiny country–a bit smaller than Maryland–is landlocked and entirely surrounded by South Africa. I’m here with a team putting on a retreat for the people working with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). They’re the ones who fly to remote places, bringing needed medical supplies, transporting doctors and patients, supplying missionaries and so on. Some people living in the mountains might be five days walking from a doctor, but you can fly across the country about an hour.

Here’s a little language lesson: The country is Lesotho. The people are the Basotho (buh-SOO-too), but one person is a Mosotho. And the language is Sesotho. With me so far? To greet someone, say, “Lumela” (pronounced Dumela–with a D!), which means hello. Or say, “Khotso” (HO-tso–without a K sound), which literally means “peace.” Got all that? Good. I’m not sure I do!

Statistics paint a bleak picture of Lesotho. Of the 2,000,000 people live here, 40% of them are living below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Major employers here in Maseru include garment factories that provide low-wage jobs and are typically Chinese-owned (which has led to some racial tensions). The HIV infection rate is around 24%. Life expectancy is 42 years for both men and women (according to a 2006 figure).

But life is more than statistics. The scenery is striking; rocky, dry, and dusty, but striking. From what I can tell, mountains seem to rim the country. Roads through Maseru seem to be in good shape. We passed two shopping malls on the way from the airport to my host family’s home. Plenty of young people were walking home in their school uniforms. We also saw plenty of police presence, and the MAF worker who picked me up said that corruption is an issue.

Today our team met in person for the first time to prepare for the retreat beginning tomorrow. Till now, we’ve been getting ready long-distance, since we come from different parts of the U.S. and I’ve been in France. There’s one other musician here on the team, Richard. We had a great time in the afternoon getting songs ready and figuring out each other’s playing styles. We were getting a groove going pretty easily, so I think it’s going to be a good time.

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One last story for now: when my flight touched down in Lesotho, the flight attendant gave the usual speech about waiting to get our luggage till we’d finished taxiing, thanked us for flying with South African Airways, wished us a pleasant stay, and then added something I’ve never heard a flight attendant ever say: “God bless.”

Sometimes you need a car

Sometimes you need a car. I really like the idea of using the metro, the regional trains and the busses. But sometimes you need a car. Before we moved to Paris the idea that I might not drive for an entire year sounded like a dream come true. I can get excited about a big road trip, but there’s not much I like about commuting or being dependent on a car. In America, however, very, very few cities are livable without your own wheels. Not so in Europe. All kinds of people in Paris and other cities don’t have a car, don’t want one, and are getting by just fine, thank you very much. No getting stuck in traffic. No driving around looking for parking, no paying exorbitant parking prices.

It sounds wonderful. A dream come true. Until you actually, really need a car.

We didn’t make it even two months before we broke down and rented one. And all told, we’ve now used almost every form of car transportation available in Paris. Right off the bat, when we moved in we used a taxi to schlep all of our stuff from the hotel we needed only for one night before our apartment was available. Later we took a taxi to the airport when we had a really early flight, one that made it impossible to use the metro and get there in time. We’ve also used uber a few times. But those things hardly count. Those are still other people driving.

But since then we’ve done a private car rental (where you rent someone’s personal car), I’ve driven a friend’s car, we’ve rented a zip car, we’ve even carpooled.

Things would be different if the girls and I had Navigo passes that allows for unlimited rides on the metro and RER (the regional trains), but it doesn’t really pencil out for them since they hardly need the metro during the week. And I’ve been out of town enough that it hasn’t quite made sense for me either.

Something I hadn’t anticipated before moving here was how many times we’d end up traveling out beyond central Paris. The girls’ trapeze lessons are waaaay out in the outskirts. Farther out than Versailles, even! We’ve also gone to see friends who live well beyond central Paris. We attended a church retreat that was up north in St. Prix and using uber was a better deal for all of us than train tickets.

Driving in Paris is an experience. Last night I had to navigate a roundabout where it seemed like a dozen delivery trucks were unexpectedly parked in and all around the roundabout. Scooters whizzed along doing their usual bob-and-weave through traffic. Cars jockeyed for position. One delivery truck clipped another one. Drivers got out, hands in the air. I found my opening, knifed my way through and sped onto the périphérique, the highway that rings Paris. Hurray! I zoomed down the on-ramp… and came to a stop. Sunday evening. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. It appears that in this city of many millions, traffic is a constant concern. But even as we passed multiple accidents, even as motorcycles zoomed by the stop-and-go traffic as they threaded their way along the lane strips, and even as an impatient driver rode my bumper flashing his lights (when traffic finally opened up and I was only going the speed limit), I was more relaxed than my first time driving.

Maybe it was riding in a taxi in Italy. There’s nothing like experiencing Italian traffic chaos where lane markings are completely irrelevant to real life to make driving in France seem like a civilized affair.

The dream of not needing to drive for a year may not have panned out, but at least I don’t need to try to get a French license. That’s an endeavor of a much greater magnitude. Thankfully, I can drive here for a year with just my Washington State license—although it will expire next May while I’m still here… hmm…

Toussaint

Halloween isn’t as a big of a deal here in France as it is the U.S. But the girls did get a week off for the Toussaint break—the “All Saints” vacation. A whole week—and the French schools take two! (The girls are at an international school which follows the French system closely, but not quite exactly.) Do you think this is because the French really want to spend a week (or two) honoring and contemplating the Christian saints? Can I interest you in some oceanfront property in Montana?

But we’re no better (Americans, that is). How many of us actually spend that first Monday in September devoting our waking thoughts to the virtues of the common worker and all that labor has done to contribute to “the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the country”? Or do we happily load up the grill with burgers and brats and swig down a beer or six? And then there’s Presidents’ Day. It makes for a nice long weekend to go skiing; how much thought is given Lincoln or Washington, much less Taft or Tyler or Zachary Taylor? Yes, there are parades for MLK and veterans on their days. People fly the flag on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Some even genuinely give thanks on Thanksgiving. But holidays (from the Old English word hāligdæg (hālig “holy” + dæg “day”) are by and large valued because they are A Day Off. And maybe in our busy, frenzied world, that’s enough.

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We spent the Toussaint break in the Eternal City, Rome. And now I’m ready to watch Roman Holiday all over again. The Pantheon, the Coliseum, the Forum; stunning works by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bernini, and Raphael; churches I’d never heard of that would be the pride of any other city but sit in the shadow of St. Peter’s; and the food. Pasta again and again. Pizza. Antipasti. Steak. I could go on, but it’ll just make me hungry.

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The Forum

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A lovely apple pastry that came wrapped up like a present!

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A bit of Halloween spirit at Campo de’ fiori.

Any visit to an ancient city means somethings will be under renovation. The Spanish Steps were cordoned off. The Trevi Fountain was drained and completely surrounded by barriers of plexiglass. Notices posted all around urged:

“Please do not throw coins in the fountain”

These were routinely ignored. And then:

“Restoration work in progress only for today”

Barriers all around? Construction equipment left in the fountain? And it’s “only for today?” I do not think that means what you think it means.

After Rome we took the train to Naples. The conventional wisdom says Italy gets more intense the farther south you go. Intense, meaning more unpredictable, more unreliable, more pickpockets.

We traced the Spaccanapoli—literally the “Naples splitter”—the ancient east-west street that divides part of the old city. “Street” seems too generous a term; it’s little more than an alley in many stretches. Businesses and markets and stalls spill out into the street, while pedestrians roam, cars inch along and scooters whiz through.

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Merideth and Carolyn checking out some of the “precepi”–nativity scenes that are popular in Naples

We only spent an afternoon in Naples before catching a ferry to Capri. That turned out to be an adventure in itself. You know what an adventure is, right? It’s when things go wrong. Nothing too disastrous, mind you, but we took the wrong tram, only discovering this fact when we were told to get off since it was the end of the line—and nowhere near where we thought we were. We finally caught a bus to get us back to where we belonged. As we were trying to track where we were and not miss our stop, a local helpfully informed us that all of the stops displayed on the bus’s electronic reader board were incorrect! “It’s a guessing game,” she said.

We got to our stop at the train station, collected our bags from where we’d left them for the day, found the Information kiosk and confirmed the sailing schedule of our ferry. It’s easy to find, we were assured. Right. But just finding the metro to the waterfront took some doing. It’s a new line, not covered in our guidebook and even some of the locals seemed to be unaware of it. We eventually located it (despite signage that pointed in contradictory directions), and made our way to the water. There will be plenty of signs, we were told. We saw none. The first place we found that looked promising booked passage to much farther destinations. The woman at the counter pointed us across the street. By now it was dark. Our boat would be setting sail in under thirty minutes. We dodged trucks loading onto large boats that clearly weren’t what we were looking for. We asked a dock worker for directions. “The red building,” he said, pointing down a service road parallel to the water. At last, the third red building was indeed the ticket office. And the second counter we checked out actually sold the tickets to where we wanted to go.

After all this, I was hoping Capri would be worth the effort. Was it ever! Even with threatening skies that not only shut down the boat tours to the famous Blue Grotto, precluded even the scenic boat rides around the island, and ultimately did much more than threaten, dumping sheeting rain at the end of our one full day there, we had a most memorable time. The island is simply beautiful. The tiny, twisting streets of the old town eventually branch out into walks that lead to various scenic overlooks. I kept stopping every few yards to take another picture of a glorious vista, a lovely garden, a vine covered walkway, or another one of the countless decorated ceramic tiles that name streets, houses, or even the location of a humble utility line.

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In our explorations we rambled around the ruins of a villa used by Roman emperors and followed goats that lived there. We took in views of the sea and the white cliffs plunging to the rocks below. Back in the town we found a little restaurant where we could eat outside but still under cover. We were the only ones there. Usually this makes me worried, but the family-run affair turned out to serve up some of the best food we’ve ever had in Europe. The woman who seated us said something about their regular menu not being available and then proceeded to describe the various offerings they had for the day. In her pronounced accent she declared, “We are strange, but the chef is good!” Strange? Maybe a little, but mostly definitely endearing. And the chef delivered. Everything—the artichoke and potato gratin, fried cod balls, radicchio and gorgonzola appetizer, followed by the entrees: swordfish, tuna burger, pastas; and finally the chocolate mousse—everything was delicious. I’d go back to Capri just to track this place down again.

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