July 2013

Driving in Paris

by Steve Brock on July 30, 2013

View from the top of the Arc de TriompheDon’t drive in Paris.

That’s the advice we had from every guidebook, travel site and traveler’s forum we read before heading to the City of Lights this summer. Whatever you do, they say, don’t drive in Paris, France. Why?

  •  The traffic is horrible (true, but so is it where I live and grew up).
  •  There are scooters and motorcycles cutting in and out all over the place (true, but patience and a car with good visibility help overcome that).
  • Paris is a warren of one-way streets built for horses, not cars (true, in certain areas like the Latin Quarter but the main streets are quite wide and modern).
  • You’ll never find parking (pretty true, but for us, we found a garage, parked our car there for the entire three days we were in Paris and used the metro or our feet to get around town).
  • The drivers are incredibly aggressive (true, but they are consistent and I’ll take on a good, aggressive driver any day over a wishy-washy one who speeds up and slows down for no apparent reason).

So let me amend the advice of others to say this:

Don’t drive in Paris…alone.

I was with my family and my 18-year-old son, Sumner, served as navigator. Armed with directions and most of all, my smart phone with Google maps, he guided me into and out of Paris like a charm. We even made it around the Arc de Triumph.

If you’ve not been to Paris, you may not realize what a triumph that feat was. One guidebook even suggested visiting the Arc de Triomphe, (Napoleon’s enormous victory arch to himself) surrounded by Place Charles de Gaulle (a traffic circle of equally dramatic proportions) just to watch the fights between drivers and the horrendous traffic jams during rush hour (the photo above was taken from the top of the Arc de Triomphe at midday during “light” traffic).

For us, however, it was almost surreal. When it was time to leave Paris, we departed from our apartment near the Eiffel Tower, fetched our garaged car and prayed for safety. We crossed the River Seine and, because it was mid-morning, encountered relatively light traffic as we plodded up the famed Champs Elysees (the street shown in the photo). And then, almost before we were expecting it, we were in…and through…the circle around the Arc de Triomphe.

It was, as my wife noted, like Moses parting the Red Sea. We entered one end of the circle in a miraculous break in traffic. As we did a half orbit of the Arc de Triomphe, the cars to our right were held back from entering by a nicely timed red light. Thus, we scooted in one end and out the other without a loss of speed like a leaf floating on a slippery current.

Could I have done all that on my own? Maybe, but with greater stress. Having Sumner’s excellent navigation assistance and God’s grace to get us through it all made all the difference. Plus, having my whole family with me turned it from a white-knuckle act of endurance into a shared experience and story.

You’ve probably already figured out the life metaphor implicit here. But it was a great tangible reminder to me of how we’re better off together than when we try and do something alone. The results – and the experience itself – improve when we involve others, rely on them and make them part of the adventure.

So if you’re ever in Paris with a car, it’s OK to drive there if you have to.

Just don’t do it alone.

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Habits and their ways

by Steve Brock on July 25, 2013

Damme Trees

What’s wrong with this picture?

I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the bicyclists or the angle at which I shot the photo.

These trees are simply leaning in, like the way a dog tilts its head as it listens to a high-pitched sound.

We encountered these trees a few weeks ago on a bike ride outside of Bruges, Belgium as we neared the small village of Damme. Only in Dutch can you merely mention a town and sound like you’re swearing.

Apparently, the wind through that area is so consistent and pervasive that the trees have grown askew over the years, leaning to the side in a uniform sway. They didn’t get that way overnight but through long-term, persistent forces.

I realized on this trip to Europe that change for us is quite similar. I think back to when I was younger and the mere surprise and shock of a new place/culture or the distance from home on a trip was enough to create an often acute sense of change. Life transformation came fairly readily, or so it seemed at the time. But I’m not sure those so-called changes really stuck.

bent trees and bikes near BrugesThis trip, however, reminded me of the old adage that “no matter where you go, there you are.” There you are. You. Me. Our old selves. The ones we carry with us and can’t leave behind like an out-of-date suitcase or yesterday’s paper.

Just going away may make us aware of the rough edges in our lives. But changing them? That takes more than a trip or two. It takes work. It requires new habits.

If we really want to change, we’ll need to apply small but consistent efforts over time. A long time. We’ll have moments when things seem better. But also long stretches when nothing seems to budge.

Yet when we step back, we can see that time and effort can have a dramatic effect. If we cultivate the good habits, the holy habits and spiritual disciplines we know we need, then we see can positive changes. If not, we may one day wake up and realize how much we, like the trees near that Damme village (sorry, old habits – see? – die hard), have grown up in ways we didn’t expect or want.

Don’t get me wrong. Those trees seem to be doing quite well. And they’re rather beautiful in their distinctive tilt.

But that’s not how trees are meant to grow.


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Surprise and wonder

by Steve Brock on July 17, 2013

I’m in Louisbourg, the recreated 18th century fort on the island of Nova Scotia, Canada. I’ve seen many of the reinactors throughout the day, especially those playing the role of soldiers as in this photo.

Soldiers at LouisbourgExcept for the modern-day spectacles on a few of the actors, nothing seems amiss.

Until I look more closely.

Actually, I didn’t look very closely when I took this next photo. I just liked the composition of the posts and the soldier leaning against the wall.

Leaning Soldier at LouisbourgBut after I snapped the shot, the person playing the soldier smiled at me. This actor, I gather, is used to being photographed. After all, that’s part of what they are there for. But when I saw the soldier smile, as small a thing as it is and as weird as this may sound, I had a bit of a shock. A surprise that bordered on wonder.

Wonder and surprise are interrelated. I’d say that surprise, in many cases, is a mild form of wonder. We can be surprised by something new or just by the suddenness of encountering something unexpected. And such was the case here. For if you look at the soldier closely, that isn’t a guy (as you would logically expect since in the 17oo’s I seriously doubt any soldiers were women).

She had this beautiful smile because she was a beautiful young woman dressed in this soldier’s outfit. Because I didn’t expect it, it threw me for quite a loop. Why?

First, I was embarrassed because she was aware of my taking her picture. That seemed to be fine because she continued to pose for me afterwards (though none of the other photos were as interesting). Still, I felt as if I was busted, like staring at a person you don’t realize you’re staring at until they give you a quizzical look.

Second, I had this fleeting feeling of being back in high school around a pretty girl and not knowing what to say. Silly, I know, but I was so taken aback that I was rather tongue-tied.

Third, I was surprised that I was surprised. By this I mean that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed earlier that this soldier was female. How could I have missed that?

Thus, the real wonder (if we can really even call this wonder) came as a combination of factors all caused by a single surprise. But because of this, if you ask me about that day now two years later and you inquire as to what stands out the most, I’d say it was this odd moment taking a photo of a young woman dressed as a soldier.

I used to think it was rather wimpy of me to fall back on the excuse that I couldn’t explain wonder. Now, I think it is par for the course. If you could explain wonder, it wouldn’t be wonder. If I could tell you why such a seemingly minor incident left such an impression, well, it probably wouldn’t have left such an impression.

I’m learning to be OK with not having explanations for everything we think or feel or experience on a trip or at home. Even small moments of surprise. I am learning to just accept them even if I don’t understand them and be thankful for wonders, both big and small.

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The wonder of us

by Steve Brock July 11, 2013

What’s the greatest wonder in the world? There are lots of options but let me suggest a very familiar one you see every day…

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The wonders you missed the first time

by Steve Brock July 2, 2013

In the midst of travel, we don’t always catch the wonder around us. But photos help us to see the wonder we might have missed at the time.

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