So we've made our way to France. Different language, different culture, and certainly different landscape and weather. Being from a continental climate myself, this is more how I expect to feel in June.
|Needless to say, we took the sea route.|
Before this trip, I’d never stayed in an Airbnb before. I expected these to be budget places to stay, and to vary in their eccentricity, and those things are true. But our hosts, together with other people we’ve met along the way, have made the difference between tourism, with a guidebook in hand, and getting a glimpse of what a place is really like. And while I know that sounds clichéd, it seems more important to me to write about that right now than about the beautiful views.
I have some deep personal beliefs, and one of them is that love is the strongest force in the universe. Like other beliefs, this one has been tested plenty of times; faith by definition is a conviction of something that is not provable or evident to the senses. But I believe that treating each other with kindness is the truly human way, and this is true no matter where you are in the world. Hatred and violence are deviations from that, no matter how often they keep cropping up.
It is the kindness and helpfulness of people that makes me feel I have really been to a place, rather than just passed through. For example the Italian guys, married in Ireland last year, who could not do enough for us when we stayed with them in Galway. Rather than just being customers, we came away feeling that we had friends in the city. Sitting in a pub listening to traditional Irish music, we met a priest who was visiting from Pemba, Tanzania. It was the first time he’d ever heard Irish reels and jigs, and he seemed to be enjoying them as much as I was. He said he’d see us in his country later this year.
Now we find ourselves in Chambon, Poitou-Charentes. We chose to stay here because there is nothing—that is, it is not on the tourist map (I couldn’t even find it in the atlas). That is exactly what we wanted after an overnight ferry journey and a long drive down from Brittany. I’ve been to the historic sites of northern France; I wanted to see more of the countryside.
And so, I’m speaking to the kids (mostly) in French and hanging out with the animals. Clearly this is a house of Christian faith, as the Bibles and many signs attest. I know that many of my friends would jump to fundamentalist conclusions about Christianity, because they have been wounded by the church, just as many others have been hurt by violence in the name of other religions. But here in the French countryside—Marine Le Pen country—is a house full of rescue animals, damaged creatures, and human guests, and it simply exudes love. That is the faith I was raised in. That the kindness with which you treat God’s creation is how you show your Christian love.
Back in Ireland, we stayed with a man who was a devout Buddhist and eager to talk about his religion to us. It was interesting, but the real impact he made on me was to say he would chant for our safety, and that we would have the best trip ever. His sincerity was evident. We did not have to share his faith—he was sharing it with us. And he did this by extending positive energy to us on our travels.
On our way through Bretagne, we stopped in a lovely and well-preserved small town called Dinan. We only stopped for a coffee (and to make sure our French worked), but then T. saw a sign for the Cimetière des 31 Martyrs. She thought we’d mosey on over and check out this historic site. Imagine our surprise when the gravel parking area was full of cars, and the sound of a bugle alerted us that a ceremony was taking place.
It was the closest Sunday to the 13 of June, and on that day in 1944, 31 hostages had lost their lives for the Resistance in this place--the Bois de Boudan. Of course, a few days earlier had been the anniversary of D Day or “Jour J.” In revenge for this invasion by the Allies, the Nazis tortured and murdered 31 people.
It’s surprising how much we can understand when a person is speaking deliberately, as when making a speech. From the speakers at this ceremony, I heard that the community remembers the martyrs every year: that whether of North African or French origin, known or unknown, they did not die for nothing, “but for us, and for our liberty.” And that “we are working together with the younger generations to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
(But it can happen again. We've already met a woman whose cousin was shot in the Bataclan, in Paris. Isn’t it rational to fear? How far can faith get us?)
Then that younger generation, a lineup of schoolchildren, read the names of each of the 31, followed by the words “Mort pour la France.” I could read the names on the gravestones closest to me: Christian and Islamic buried side by side.
A clarinet and drum played La Marseillaise. And I remembered the previous day, at Killarney National Park, where there is a memorial to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Thanks to this “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican,” 6,500 Italian Jews, Allied prisoners and airmen were saved from the Gestapo. After the war, Monsignor O’Flaherty turned his efforts to making sure the Allies, in their turn, did not mistreat their Axis prisoners. He upheld his faith in kindness and morality whether it was war or peace, British, American, or German. The memorial urges us to remember O’Flaherty by his strong belief:
In Killarney National Park, we heard a German boy whistle the whole of Beethoven's “Ode To Joy.” (That’s the European anthem that Emmanuel Macron walked onstage to at his first appearance as the elected president of France—a powerful rebuke to Le Pen’s nationalism.) Then on the ferry we spotted a group of Americans, one of whom was wearing a diabetes.org T-shirt with all kinds of Tennessee sponsors listed on it. Turns out they are from Knoxville. They had just biked down from Dublin to Cork and now they’re off to do more biking in the Loire Valley of France.
In a way, this whole journey is an act of faith: that the world is beautiful, full of people doing wonderful things. Never let anything convince you otherwise.