Saturday, May 31, 2008

Jardins, jardin aux Tuileries, Paris

People in France are passionate about their gardens and have been advancing the art of gardening for many centuries. The formal gardens of the nation's aristocratic dwellings have been cited, painted and photographed since being opened to the public, but there is also tremendous interest in the small private gardens within small walled areas or on terraces or patios. I cannot recall ever seeing an open market without at least one vendor selling cut flowers to those who have no garden.

This weekend (29 May-1 June 2008) Parisians can enjoy the fifth garden show for professionals (Friday) and the public (Saturday-Sunday), Jardins, jardin aux Tuileries (Gardens in the Garden of the Tuileries, just west of the Louvre Palace. This 'garden' is essentially a formal arrangement of large trees, but since there are so many thousands of tourists and visitors, there is no grass, only hard packed clay soil compacted with small stones. This was transformed in amazing ways for the garden show.

We were greeted with an area on the hard ground that was covered in grassy sod which outlined each of the globe's continents. This was in keeping with this year's theme focusing on how plants have traveled from one part of the world to another. Avid gardeners would pause and admire rare plants brought here from exotic climes. Sitting directly on the compacted soil of the Tuileries would be long flowing streams of water nourishing tropical plants requiring wet feet. Misters would emit delicate sprays of water which protected other plants or added bits of fog to a Japanese fountain, moss was brought in and added to dozens of large displays. Some of the trees imported for the occasion would surely require small cranes for moving. When I was trying to catch my breath afterwards, someone reminded me that 'this is Paris', the city which once turned the entire Champs Elysee into a wheat field. Of course this made international news, but it shows the extent to which some government officials support gardening endeavours and garden extravaganzas.

But other things caught my eye as well. Someone created the outline of a golfer finishing his swing. This was achieved with a metal mesh frame into which one inserts lots of moss. Since Vancouverites have all the free moss they want, I started thinking to myself . . . .

One garden shop cleverly wrote plant names and prices on an old laurel leaf, which looks more natural and is certainly ecological. Janice wanted a picture of the beautiful metal sculptures of chickens and a rooster, all created from scrap metal by an artist in Zimbabwe. Since the day was heavily overcast and since the flower displays were under the dark shade of the large plane trees, lighting was nearly ideal for photographers trying to capture at least some of the beautiful colours of the orchids, lobelia, and hydrangeas. I enjoyed watching two professional photographers take pictures with equipment I will likely never even touch. They worked so quietly, quickly, efficiently, and when they were obtrusive, managed to set up and smile in ways which made you want to cooperate fully.

I suppose there were quite a few gardening innovations and hybrids being introduced, but one idea that was new to me was the display of metal columns in which the metal was hidden, being covered with grass--sod placed absolutely vertically all around the structures. How one mows this grass beats me, possibly with a scissors or electric trimmer? Then, just to add to the novelty, the artist added a window in the column showing a plant on the inside, having a lighter contrasting colour.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gordes, Provence, France

One of my favourite old hilltop villages in Provence is Gordes. This ancient site once had structures built of flat stones without cement, much like those seen in parts of Ireland. Some were still in use in the early 1800s. The present village has been extensively rebuilt, its infrastructure appears to be modern in every respect, its restaurants excellent (one offered a menu dinner for 94 Euros or about $150), property prices are now exceedingly high, views are stunning as one overlooks the valley, and the village is equally attractive when seen from the valley or the road wending its way upward. That afternoon we experienced very high winds which just ripped through the narrow streets, sweeping up the valley and through the village with such force that you held onto things tightly. This was a warm wind, unlike the cold Mistral from the north (consequently virtually no hill villages face north). So many women lit candles in front of one of the church's various statues that I took a picture. The church wall is suffering from dampness affecting the soft stone and plaster, yet the faithful come faithfully. I hope that the village leaders will now see fit to devote some resources to maintaining this lovely church, for one cannot imagine the village without it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ansouis, Provence, France

 We spent one week in Provence, staying seven nights at Un Patio en Luberon in Ansouis, a 16th-17th century building recently renovated. Michel most willingly spoke French with utter clarity, offering us excellent ideas for day trips and things to see, and warning us away from some of the tourist traps promoted so enthusiastically by American writers. Once in the Luberon, we focused primarily on the hill villages, those small but fascinating villages seemingly made solely of the light and somewhat soft local stone. I will be creating a number of blogs on these villages. They seem to have begun as modest hilltop fortresses which protected locals from northern bandits and warriors. Huts and then modest houses would eventually be built within easy access to the safety of the castle's tower. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, these villages fell on hard times economically, and were severely depopulated until perhaps 30-40 years ago when visionaries devoted resources to refurbishing the infrastructure. In each village we saw evidence of recent excavation for new drainage/sewage, of electric and phone lines, artisan shops, and places which support tourism and locals alike. The tile roofs fascinate me, as workmen create layer after layer of tiles and cement. All of this initially seems exceptionally sturdy, but one eventually realized that the several Mistral winds from the north, the rains and temperature changes take their toll of the soft stone masonry, and cracks inevitably appear and require attention--constant attention.

The castle in Ansouis is no longer open to the public, for it has recently been purchased by a doctor and will likely be refurbished. The fortified church was open only on Sunday, the somewhat modest market is also only once a week, and there are relatively few shops (1 each of restaurant, bakery, news stand, bar, tea house), no bank or bank machines, no gas station or school. So it is a very quiet sleepy sort of place, ideal for peace and quiet. Evenings could hardly be nicer, with the clouds overhead, the village bell tolling on the hour and half-hour (7-10 both morning and evening, with a perfectly-tuned minor third overtone).

Avignon, Papal Palace in Provence (part 1)

Although it makes virtually no sense, even though I am an active Mennonite, I remain fascinated with the history of the papacy at Avignon. Rome's infrastructure had seriously deteriorated by the late 13th century, its water supply was hardly the best, the city's leading families were not to be trusted, the city's population had dwindled to possibly a mere 20,000 residents (possibly considerably fewer), peninsular politics were as treacherous as they were passionate, and Peter's tomb was only one of many worthy pilgrimage destinations in Europe. By 1300, a number of popes had never bothered to live in Rome, and instead imitated secular monarchs who lived in a variety of places. Clement V felt that Avignon might be a good compromise location, considering rivalries of the blacks and whites (Italian political parties) and the unprecedented political interference of King Philip of France. So the papacy became increasingly centered in Avignon c. 1307-09 into the late 1370s, and afterwards during the decades in which European Christians watched helplessly as two--and then three--popes vied for legitimacy. The court centered at Avignon became increasingly secular in its trappings and politics, and its music (of great interest to me) reached rhythmic complexities unmatched until the 20th century.

The papal palace has since undergone at least one major fire, multiple plunderings, served as a military garrison, was bombed, and has finally once again found peace as an historical monument. It was fascinating to walk through the rooms, listening to the excellent recorded explanations by guides, and ruminating about papal life in this fortified palace far from Rome. Today large slabs of pavement stones are propped up to reveal where the papacy used to hide its silver artifacts and gold coins, for there were no bank vaults that could be trusted with such wealth and the only reasonable insurance available was provided by highly-paid armed guards.

The large chapel would have offered excellent acoustics for the intricate three- and four-part counterpoint of Europe's best soloists, and also enhanced the unison singing of the monks, priests and cardinals. The furniture and tapestries have long since vanished (to Rome and elsewhere), and the paintings on the ceilings and walls could hardly be expected to survive 600 years, but with a little creativity one can still re-enter this period of time in one's imagination.

The pictures I have selected show the great chapel in which I stood, imagining how its stone surfaces would enhance vocal singing and becloud a speaking voice. Since the palace underwent multiple enlargements, I include one photo showing multiple arches which are utterly confusing and would require more architectural knowledge than I have if they are to be sorted out. I also give a picture of the town and countryside as seen through an archer's eyes when looking out through the defensive slits towards the top of the outer stone walls, slits which cleverly protected the palace's archers while raining arrows on unwanted visitors. The tower seen through the archways of the cloister's walkway reminds me that there were both times of contemplative peace in the cloister and the promise of safety in the tower. If only the papal study had not been blocked off so effectively, I would have gladly included a shot of that relatively modest upper room (reconstructed). For more photos, see Avignon, Papal Palace (part 2).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Entryways to hidden courtyards in old Paris

My stroll today focused on a few blocks on the Left Bank a bit east of the Musee d'Orsay, in the art district of St Germain des Pres. Since some shops prefer that pictures not be taken of displayed original works of art (for obvious reasons), my attention soon turned to narrow lanes and finally to those fascinating entryways for cars and pedestrians which provide access from the sidewalk, underneath the first floor (not ground level), into an open central courtyard. At one point in its history, the more wealthy citizens of Paris revived the old Roman plan of providing multiple levels of housing with air and sunlight not only from the front, but also from a courtyard which was open to the sky and surrounded on all sides of the building's rooms. (Most of Oxford's colleges use a form of this medieval plan, greatly expanded.) The entryways' heavy double doors are normally closed and locked, providing a high level of privacy to the occupants. Fortunately, just a few were open this afternoon--a car had just pulled in, workmen were coming and going, a delivery was being made--and I caught a glimpse of these brightly lit courtyards through the long tunnels.

Monday, May 19, 2008

French Mennonite Conference, May 17-18, 2008, Villeneuve le Comte and Hautefeuille

I was privileged to observe this weekend's meeting of delegates to the Association des Eglises Evangeliques Mennonites de France. Many of the conference's 31 churches are in or near the Alsace, but this meeting was unusual in that it was hosted by the three congregations located in the greater Parisian area. The delegates met both at a new church in Villeneuve le Comte and at Domaine Emmanuel in the tiny village of Hautefeuille, about 40 minutes east of Paris. Domaine Emmanuel was an ambitious project begun jointly by the North American Mennonite Board of Missions and French Mennonites about 40 years ago in order to offer suitable assistance and dignified living conditions to adults with mental difficulties. This establishment is now fully supported by public funds, but still seeks to maintain an unofficial relationship to the French Mennonites.

Although there were similarities with Mennonite conference sessions in Canada, there seemed to be a number of interesting differences. For example, since delegates gather twice a year in France, the budget can be fully considered by them in two distinct stages (the proposed budget is presented to the delegates in November and in May they verify the previous year's accounts). Delegates are expected to take proposed budgets back to their congregations, which will discuss how much they can contribute. Congregations (or their councils) instruct their delegates how to vote, and delegates are expected to honour those instructions. Last year, when the conference wished to reach a truly major decision, it took the additional step of asking each congregation to discuss the issue fully and have all members vote (which recalled a somewhat similar recent debate on a different issue within the Conference of Mennonites in Canada). I also noticed that although the business sessions were populated primarily by Mennonites of French origin, Sunday's worship was more interracial. My sense is that immigrants to France are expected to learn French (or they have come from former French colonies), can more easily integrate with the French-speaking congregations, and are not seeking to create their own congregations for linguistic reasons.

Sessions also provided opportunities to hear brief but interesting reports on conference-related projects, recent publications and on summer retreat opportunities (e.g., Bienenberg, a Mennonite/Anabaptist centre in Switzerland which offers courses and retreats). If time permits, some semiannual gatherings feature the activities of one congregation. The Eglise Evangelique Mennonite de Chatenay Malabry was highlighted this time. This type of reporting helps to inform people what other churches are doing, facing, or hoping to accomplish. There were also times set aside for reflection, testimony on faith and life, and prayer, and a concert was presented Saturday evening. It was fun watching friends greet each other, and gratifying to be accepted by people, in spite of my linguistic limitations.

Unlike some conferences I have attended in North America, meals here were not rushed, for food and conversations are to be enjoyed in France. This conference definitely receives my highest commendation for understanding the importance of food being accompanied by wine. It was a pleasure to see how the Syrah rose (this software does not enable accents) and Cotes du Rhone mingled with the flavours of the various dishes. Indeed, if you want good food at a church conference, skip North America altogether and head straight for continental Europe.

Sunday morning was open to the public and devoted entirely to worship (about 250 participants; out of respect for the act of worship, I did not take any photographs). This included a very thoughtful communion service (excellent fresh bread and wine from the Luberon), congregational singing, lots of scripture reading, a sermon, and music provided by a joint choir and instrumentalists from the three 'Parisian' churches. Since those congregations are inter-racial (one has people from 9 different countries), one of the morning's themes appropriately stressed the oneness Christians should experience in practice and faith, regardless of their ancestry--a timely theme for all of France, and indeed, for the world.

Quite a few delegates from Alsace came together by bus, and reports indicated that they certainly enjoyed their time together. I found that all of the sessions exhibited a delightful combination of purposefulness and home-spun joviality. Since there are only about 2,500 Mennonites in France, it is conceivable that some of the faithful attendees may learn to know a high percentage of the country's Mennonites by attending these semi-annual meetings.

I was pleased to learn of the interests French Mennonites have in donating money to relief work and helping others in various ways. From a Canadian's perspective, they appear to devote a higher portion of their charitable giving to projects which benefit others than to those which would primarily benefit themselves. (This is a model I hope North American Evangelical Christians will examine more closely. ) They accomplish this, in part, by (1) not having enormous complexes of church buildings which require substantial mortgages or donations, (2) by being lay-led and (3) by many members donating countless hours of volunteer work to the local congregations rather than leaving those tasks to paid pastors and staff. In keeping with this, the conference's executive is comprised entirely of volunteers (none are pastors, this year's moderator is a full-time farmer), though a secretary is hired part-time to keep the office going. Only 12/31 congregations have any paid leadership whatsoever (of those, merely 5 are full-time) and several congregations share a pastor. Consequently, some of their young people elect to attend seminary for a year or two, not because they expect to become paid pastors but because they hope to assist their congregation as trained laity. Since the last time I attended this conference (1989), the leadership seems to have shifted to those in their 50s to early 60s (with exceptions on both ends of the spectrum), women are now more visibly involved (several have been ordained as either elders, deacons or preachers--French Mennonites distinguish between these three categories) and people generally seemed to be well-informed and interested.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Festival of Bread (Fete du pain), Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Yesterday (May 15, 2008) I happened upon the Fete du Pain 2008 on the plaza before the Cathedral de Notre Dame. This festival is now held annually in May in most of the regions of France. One large tent served as a pavilion in which dozens of professional bakers worked in shifts to produce all sorts of breads. With all the ovens working around the tent's perimeter, the hot temperatures reminded me of the conditions under which these folks toil daily.

The various breads and croissants were then freely distributed to people, both in the main tent and in the smaller tents arraigned under the protective eye of a victorious Charlemagne mounted on his horse. I had to think that his tents sheltered soldiers rather than bakers. The bakers were obviously enjoying working together, comparing notes, swapping stories, joking, and meeting their public. Some bakers invited children to try their hand at forming loaves as young apprentices.

I was especially pleased to meet M. Jacques Mabille, President of the Chamber of Professional Bakers in Paris, Hauts-de-Seine, Seine Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne. He provided the preface to a beautiful book entitled L'art du pain francais (2008), which features wonderful pictures of every stage of producing bread.