Make no mistake about it, travel is not easy. Navigating train stations, crowds of tourists, and impatient Parisian waiters can be downright stressful. Overall however, there is no comparison between staying home (safe and sound) and jumping head first into travel. I am happy either way. But what I discover after I leave the beaten trail is nothing short of thrilling.
Just before this last Christmas, I visited France for the third time in a year. This time, I was sure to schedule enough time in each city to see some of the sites. Being a history major, traveling through France is like a child’s visit to a toy store. I approach my visits with a sense of wonder. The things I find impact me profoundly.
Along the Champs Elysees, the entire two kilometres were packed with all sorts of Christmas delights. Families, friends, and especially children walked up and down the grand old street. I drank hot wine for the first time in my life. I even bought a scarf to fit in with all the well-dressed men.
In fact, every city in France gets decked out in Christmas finery. Markets, lights, food, and fun are the order of the season. Driving through the countryside, even the smallest of hamlet has lights out and various festival gatherings. This is a country that does Christmas right.
Pony rides with Santa Claus in Lyon. City center in Saint Etienne. And a promenade in Reims. Every city has these scenes of pure joy and anticipation.
And to sit with Santa in the shadow of a 1000-year-old cathedral in Lyon.
On a fun note, a visit to a restaurant in Paris found me shut out of my reservation. Then Secretary of State John Kerry had commandeered the restaurant to celebrate his receipt of the French Legion of Honor. No amount of sweet talk could get me around the Secret Service. Having aroused suspicion, a man asked me who I was.
“I’m an Economics teacher from Cleveland.
“Where do you teach?”
“Saint Ignatius High School.”
The two large men with earpieces who guarded the door smiled.
“I went to Loyola in Chicago. He went to Brophy in Phoenix.”
They called to another agent in one of the SUVs. He went to Xavier in Manhattan. So what are the chances that three Jesuit educated guys all end up on the same alley in Paris? This is the serendipity that I find thrilling. It only happens if you get out of your shell, get out of your house, and see the world. Once there, you gotta meet some people.
My last day in Paris, I went to mass at Notre Dame. Sunrise, 8:30, Christmas regalia, and thousand year arches. As I kneeled and said my after-communion prayers, a tourist snapped me in a selfie photo. As he took multiple shots, I could not help but make a face or two. Church or not, I cannot help but participate in a good photobomb.
After Paris, I traveled for a brief trip to Reims. Leaving a few hours to walk the streets, I made my way to the cathedral. A refreshing change to the throngs of summer, I had the church to myself. I lit a candle for my family, sat for a while, contemplated the universe, and walked the floors. It is then that I stumble upon a tile that reads:
Ici, Saint Remi baptisa Clovis, Roi des Franks
Happenstance. I had no idea. But this history major was shaken and stirred. What’s more, it is also on that spot that Charles de Gaul and Konrad Adenauer of Germany formally ended hostilities between France and Germany.
And as I travelled from school to school (with the hope of building a global network connecting pen pals between every Jesuit school in the world … yes, you read that correctly), I could not wait until the weekend. To spend some quality family time with my French family in Toulon.