A Travellerspoint blog

May 2012

#8: France

A beautiful culture...

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frans, frahns; Fr. frahns]
noun

a republic in W Europe. 58,470,421; 212,736 sq. mi. (550,985 sq. km). Capital: Paris.

In France, a walk down one block will produce a plethora of delightful culinary options. Last week a few friends and I took a break from visiting the touristy sights of Paris and opted instead to sit at a café and watch locals and tourists. We browsed the decadent display of desserts, and my eyes landed on this delight. As the French diet is carb-rich, I was excited to see some raspberries atop the towering layers of sweetness.

As we sat, we observed the activity of the street. We were on a walking path that was evidently a tourist hotspot, just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, yet there were several locals milling about as well. I feel bad for tourists. We go into a country, usually lacking a solid linguistic background, and wanting for our every desire to be catered to by a culture that is worlds apart from our own. We go as consumers, wanting, wanting, wanting.

One thing I wanted was to be able to smile at others. Alex, our BCA contact in Strasbourg, told us that the French don’t smile at strangers. Smiles mean something. They mean something? It took me two weeks to understand what this meant. In the States, a smile is gesture of acknowledgement, a means of welcoming others or showing approval. In the States, or at least on my college campus, smiling at others is a natural part of the culture. For the first week I had to force myself to not be too friendly with those around me, knowing it was rude but not knowing why.

But now, I think it makes more sense. A friend as well as a book entitled “A Xenophobe’s Guide to the French” helped me out. My friend explained it in the terms of saying “I love you.” We don’t throw the phrase “I love you” around lightly. At least I don’t. I reserve it for those people who are especially special to me. To say it to anyone on the street would be to cheapen the phrase.

The French are a private people and are very loyal to their friends. Breaking into their cultural is difficult. It’s not so because they are rude or cold, but because of their strong loyalty to each other. They value their relationships, and to throw around gestures suggesting friendliness or intimacy to people they haven’t meant is to cheapen their relationships.

I think of how we smile at others in the States. It’s a kind gesture, and I’m not saying we should start walking around with blank stares and solemn lips. But I appreciate France’s value for other people. The French value their private lives, and to break in is to cheapen their loyalty. Sometimes, smiles in the States seem so artificial. In France, smiles hold value. I appreciate this idea of valuing people. We in the States of course value people; we just express it differently.

Something else about the French is their value of quality. In France, dinner at a restaurant can last for up to three hours or more. Waiters don’t rush patrons out the door. The food preparation isn’t rushed, either. The food is based on quality rather than quantity. For example, this pastry, which I ate at the aforementioned café, would have taken much preparation. There are several thin, flaky layers as well as thick, creamy layers that compose one individual pastry. The time that goes into creating such a piece, one which takes but minutes to consume, impacts me. The meticulous attention to detail seems in contrast to America’s fast-paced, consumerist society that values quantity.

France in general is beautiful. From cathedrals to cobble stones, every piece seems to have been places where it has been placed for aesthetic purposes. In France, even the pigeons take on a magical, mysterious quality.

Besides beauty and loyalty, France also reflects its national values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Staying in our Paris residence, which shared its space with HandiSport, an athletic group for individuals with mobility needs, I saw the pride held by the French. They value their freedom and independence. I enjoyed seeing the pride the men and women had, the men and women who, unfortunately, would likely be less revered in the States than in France due to their hindered mobility. Some were in wheel chairs and others used walkers, yet they all carried with them the knowledge that they were on equal footing with people who used no walking aids.

In summary, I believe that France can be summed up with this photo. France is a beautiful country which values quality in its food, architecture, artwork, and relationships. French individuals have several layers to them and take a long time to get to know deeply. They value equality, loyalty, and freedom.

Posted by klewis91 04:23 Comments (0)

#11: Human Rights

Taking the time to see the one...

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human rights 
noun fundamental rights, especially those believed to belong to an individual and in whose exercise a government may not interfere, as the rights to speak, associate, work, etc.

Over the past few days I’ve visited several amazing art museums – museums of impressionist art, modern art, and renaissance art – and seen incredible sculptures, paintings, and sketches. I spent hours -- an entire day – in the Louvre on Monday. I’ve felt like I’ve lived in a painted whirlwind. Seeing so many paintings has been wonderful, but flying through the paintings is…difficult.

I doubt that art was created to be sped through. Art is created to make one sit and ponder life and choose to live differently. It’s not mere aesthetics; it’s philosophy and religion. It’s a declaration for change as much as a reflection of reality. It’s dreaming. It’s proclaiming. So to fly through so many beautiful museums filled with awe-inspiring artwork has been dizzying.

I have decided that I would rather sit and enjoy one work of art than speed through a museum without much more than a glance at a painting, unless it’s been done by a great artist such as Picasso, Monet, or Van Gough. Each painting tells a story, and each story has something for us to learn.

Like paintings, so too do people have stories. If we spent the time to sit and listen to their stories instead of speeding past at blazing speeds, I suspect that our hearts would be softened rather than calloused by the needs of others. In our current world, it is easy to grow used to the pain of the world. Browsing the news, one reads dozens of stories about human tragedy. The human heart naturally flees from pain, so someone seeing so much hurt will usually experience pain or apathy. The first will result in paralysis or action. The second results in emotional numbness.

Statistics ensure numbness, whereas personal contact, time, and investment penetrate the heart and spark revolution.

If we want to change the world, if we want to speak up for humanity, we must look at the individual rather than the group. While populations are important, moreso are persons. I am more moved by talking to one student about their personal struggles and home life than when I consider the needs of all of my students collectively. Numbers overwhelm, but relationships give us personal connection and motivation.
Human rights imply depending individuals. It’s about defending the voiceless when the seas of injustice bellow against their cries. How easily we can crush the weak, simply because we hold that we, collectively, are more important than one.

Yet when we think about God’s love for one person, we’re blown away by human value. To allow someone – anyone – be tramped on by another, we’re allowing a human being, created in God’s image, to be dehumanized. To be human is to be fearfully and wonderfully made. God knew of us before our conception. He placed us in a particular time and space for a reason. He put us there for His glory. He created us with purpose. To steal someone’s dignity is to dehumanize them and to therefore refuse their divine reflection.

God, like a painter, took time on each human being. He carefully planned and created each unique individual. Each person has a story, drafted and edited by the Author and Perfecter of Life. Together, the world seems to have an overwhelming amount of issues to be redeemed. But when we encounter individuals, we will feel more compelled to act on their behalves.

Posted by klewis91 02:31 Comments (0)

#14: The Other

Us vs. them

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oth•er
[uhth-er]
noun

the remaining one of two or more

It was just a dip in the earth encircling a couple dozen buildings, seemingly benign. In the spring air in 2012, the little hill leading into the forest seemed like a perfect location for rolling down the hill, or perhaps for sledding should one envision a few inches of gleaming white snow. The sky overhead was blue, dotted with puffy clouds, and the sun shone warm, but not too hot, on my sweater.

Yet in the mid 1940s, this gully represented the chasm separating life from death. This ditch, which surrounded the entirety of the concentration camp known today as Struthof, served as the weapon of choice by which Nazi soldiers would kill the imprisoned persons serving time, unjustly, at the camp. Prisoners attempting to escape the camp, which was surrounded by three high walls of barbed wire, would be shot on-site. To expedite their work, some Nazi guards would shove or kick prisoners, who were often weakened by poor nutrition and excruciating work, into the ravine. Once this line was crossed, prisoners were assumed to be escapees, and would face the line of fire.

Initially, the thought of photographing the site of such terrible acts repulsed me. Several times I turned to take a picture, but each time returned my camera to my side. How could I capture something so awful?

But then I saw the numerous groups of school tours walking about the camp. I thought about how countries such as Germany have mandated that students be educated about the Holocaust in order to prevent further travesties from happening. I thought about my middle schoolers, who read a book called “The Shadow Club,” which tells the story about the terror that ensues when students target other teenagers who make them feel inferior and eventually nearly take the life (accidentally) of another student who they view as subhuman.

I thought about why we educate our students about valuing those we view as inferior or as outliers. We teach them to respect people with different cultural backgrounds, with different ability levels, and with different talents and interests. We educate them in order to prevent tragedies such as the Holocaust from occurring again.

Does this work? Can education alone prevent the abuse of human rights? I visited the Holocaust museum in DC a couple of years ago, and I discovered that no, we do not learn from history. The human heart is not changed by facts and knowledge alone. An entire exhibit in the museum focused on genocides that occurred after the Holocaust across the eastern world.

No, education does not change things. Nor does the law. The Civil Rights movement encouraged legislative changes, but the deeper, more important changes occurred with time and increasing familiarity with the ideas that all men were created equal. While we can change actions through education and the law, the human heart is changed by meeting other people, sharing stories, and learning to see everyone as valuable human beings.

To return to the photo, what the Nazi soldiers did was “otherizing” the prisoners. They were looking at red-blooded human beings, and, due to indoctrination and ignoring the similarities they shared with these people, they saw the political prisoners and Jewish inmates as less than human. They removed any traces of humanity from their speech about the prisoners, labeling them in demeaning terms. Similar to how some people today throw around labels such as “retard,” “hobo,” or “colored” to insultingly refer to people who have intellectual disabilities, are homeless, or have darker pigmentation, these Nazi guards referred to the inmates in dehumanizing terms. Instead of seeing them as equals, they ignored their shared humanity and instead referred to these image bearers of the Father as dirt.

We teach the Holocaust to children, hoping that they won’t repeat the horrors of past generations. We teach them “character education,” hoping that by teaching them to share and take turns we can prevent World War Three. I sat through an entire middle school assembly about cyber-bullying, followed up with a statement that stopped me in my tracks: “We know that you all have good hearts. We’re good people, not evil. We can do what is right.” Just last fall, one of my first graders observed, quite more realistically, that “we all have evil inside of us.” Bingo. That’s it. We’re all depraved creatures, fallen from our intended design. We have darkness inside of us, as my little guy observed. To teach students to “just be good and love people” is a wonderful, albeit mistaken, ideology.

We’re naturally resistant toward “the other.” It’s natural; they are the other for a reason. By name alone, “other” implies difference. It implies separation. But what if we could learn to “otherize” less. Or to stop otherizing completely. Is it possible? Unlikely. Seeing the differences in other groups and individuals is not necessarily bad. Doing so allows us to engage with people unlike ourselves and to create distinct cultures. Yet when we ostracize certain groups of people or single out individuals to target, even jokingly, we damage lives and harden our hearts.

So how do we respond? For me, simply engaging with “the other” has helped me to confront prejudices, resist stereotypes, and view people through God’s eyes. Interacting with people whose lives are different than mine – people who use wheelchairs, people who speak Spanish, people who live on the streets – helps me to remove the natural fear that I encounter when I engaging with people who are different than me. By exposure, what was once different – the other – become familiar and less frightening.

We can do the same with children. Perhaps instead of – or in addition to – toting school kids around concentration camps and Holocaust museums, or reading them books about bullying, we can expose children to people who are different. We create prejudices on rumors, lies, misinformation, and fear. If our students could engage with people of various ability levels, or talk with students from different nations and backgrounds, or befriend people living in a shelter, their understandings of different groups of people will be based on their interactions with individuals.

Posted by klewis91 14:09 Comments (0)

#6: Embrace

Receiving the other despite obstacles...

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em•brace
[em-breys]
verb
1. to take or clasp in the arms; press to the bosom; hug.
2. to take or receive gladly or eagerly; accept willingly: to embrace an idea.
3. to avail oneself of: to embrace an opportunity.
4. to adopt (a profession, a religion, etc.): to embrace Buddhism.
5. to take in with the eye or the mind.

We talk about accepting other people. We talk about loving them. We talk about taking in “the other.” We talk.

Coming to the realization that we need to accept the other is a great first step of cosmopolitanism. Spreading the idea that we need to bring them in is awesome. But to actually take them in and accept them takes a considerable amount of work. Effort is required for someone to be embraced and accepted.

Last Friday we visited a mountain-top convent. It was large and serene, and the blue skies overhead enhanced its natural beauty. On the way back to the bus I saw this sign and snapped a quick photograph. I sensed with this image the essence of “embrace.”

To embrace someone is to eagerly accept someone. It is to welcome them in. Often times, however, to make someone feel welcome, one must intentionally get into the head of the guest, consider their needs, and respond accordingly.

Working with people with special needs is one of these areas. To work with these individuals, one must consider what life with the individual’s particular needs would be like. It does not mean that we should do everything for someone in need, but that we should respond appropriately. To do everything for someone else teaches them learned helplessness and essentially dehumanizes them. At the same time, to do nothing for someone with an obvious need who truly desires assistance is to be equally inhumane. This is where conversation comes in. This is also where we as individuals and as a society must step forward and speak up for the defenseless. We must give a voice to those who have none.

Embracing another is not always easy or comfortable. In the instance of accommodating people who use wheelchairs or walkers, for example, accessible ramps and walkways must be built to ensure that these individuals – “the other,” if you will – can be included, or embraced, by society.

Indeed, to embrace can mean to sacrifice. It may require time, money, and resources. It may mean driving downtown to teach English to recent immigrants on the weekend. It may imply creating programs which will employ young people who otherwise will be found on the streets during the summer. It may mean making and delivering meals to shut-ins. It may mean remodeling a building to make it wheelchair accessible.

Embracing the other is not always easy. It is not always comfortable. But to have a society which values not only humanity, but also individuals, and to have a world which reflects the kingdom of God, we must live with eyes wide open to the needs of others, willing to embrace them and to implement changes as needed.

Posted by klewis91 02:42 Archived in France Comments (0)

#10: Hospitality

Going the extra mile for outsiders...

semi-overcast

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hos•pi•tal•i•ty
noun, plural hos•pi•tal•i•ties.
1. the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers.
2. the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.

I am convinced that hospitality is two pieces of thick white bread, filled with tuna and wrapped in plastic. It was simple yet profound, undeserved or expected yet appreciated.

Hospitality is the act of receiving strangers and treating them generously. In a world that frequently shoves outliers to the side, acknowledging and humanizing the “other” is a rare phenomenon. The easier, more comfortable action is to ignore those who are different, or, should fear escalate emotions and turn them into dark hatred, eliminate that which causes one to feel threatened.

The Nazis forced Jews into death camps, the South imposed Jim Crow laws onto people of color, and middle schoolers exploit those they deem inferior, nerdy, or just plain weird.

It is rare for someone to take the outcast, the outlier, by the hand and draw them close. It is unusual when someone deemed “different” is acknowledged as human.

Last weekend my class (fifteen of us total) took two rentals over the Swiss Alps to a small facility known as L’Abri. Francis Schaeffer, an American missionary who moved with his wife to Switzerland, founded L’Abri in 1955 as a response to the spread of modern thought. As a theologian and apologetic, Schaeffer desired to create a place in which individuals could come and both experience Christian community as well as explore their faith. L’Abri still operates on the same principles and constantly welcomes visiting seekers.

We were eagerly welcomed into the L’Abri community and set up in fine accommodations. Seven of us females were situated in the Schaeffers’ original chalet (house). As we had driven the four hours to the mountains at night, what a view the scenery created after the sun peaked over the Alps the next morning! What followed were two wonderful days of attending a lecture about epistemology, eating amazing meals, fellowshipping and playing cards and volleyball with individuals from Canada, New Zealand, France, and other locations, napping, and most of all, studying! There is something refreshing about studying out of an intrinsic desire to learn. On Saturday, a cold, drizzly day which covered the mountains in layers of heavy fog, I clocked in about eight hours of reading. With tea in hand and a pile of books on the floor, I sat…and sat…and read. Oh! How lovely.

The way we were welcomed most intrigued me, however. I love books, and I love people, but I had rarely seen the hospitality shown to us by the wonderful staff at L’Abri. This was a bunch that had intentionally moved to Switzerland to minister to people by running what was essentially a boarding house for searching people. Searching people in need of emotional healing, intellectual answers, spiritual rest, or a mix of the above. They welcomed us in, these American students from the middle of cornfields, to join the community and engage in conversation.

When we gathered to leave on Sunday morning we were handed two bags to take with us for our journey back to France – lunches for the road. When we unpacked our lunches after stopping around noon, we discovered massive tuna sandwiches, carrot sticks, fruit, and tinfoil-wrapped chocolate. I was surprised that we had been given something so thoughtful, that they had anticipated our physical needs that went beyond our stay at L’Abri. They had gone beyond what was expected; they had gone the extra mile. Not only were they welcoming and accommodating, but they were hospitable, being generous with their time, service, and supplies to ensure that we were taken care of.

Regardless of our being guests, we were outsiders, Americans on Swiss soil. We were in a diverse community, but still, we were newcomers, immigrants to a distinct location and culture. Yet we were accepted and cared for.

I wonder: Am I hospitable? Do I receive the stranger? Do I not only acknowledge the last, the lowest, the littlest, and the lonely, or do I also go beyond the level of simply humanizing them with recognition? Do I treat them generously? Do I, like the father of the prodigal son, run to the downtrodden and cover them with love and grace? How do I respond to those who make me uncomfortable, who I don’t like, who frighten me?

A tuna sandwich isn’t much, but it says so much. It humanizes the stranger.

Posted by klewis91 14:45 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

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