What do you Believe?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

There are three things that I was taught never to talk about in polite conversation: Bush, Booze, or the Bible. 

Imagine my surprise when my host father asks me at dinner: 

Are you religious? 

We had talked briefly about religion before, when I mentioned that I had been raised Christian and found the cathedral in Caen beautiful.

That's the thing about France, and most of Europe, you know when you're going through a town because you will see a large cathedral with spires reaching towards the sky, rising out of the countryside. Without fail. Therefore, one could reasonably surmise that religion would be a huge part of the culture.

So I asked my host father: Are a lot of people in France religious?

The following conversation was incredibly enlightening. Basically, he explained that France is a very de-Christianized nation. There is an extreme separation between the church and state, although historically the kings were from a "divine" lineage, etc. So there are a lot of religious influences, but there is certainly not a lot of influence in the state or public sphere. I explained how it's really different in the United States. I know a lot of religious people at home, and religious ideas certainly permeate the public and political sphere. There are several celebrities, political figures, and other important public figures who are devout and outspoken about their religious beliefs. It's not like that in France. Religion is very much a private matter. You will not find politicians openly displaying their faith. There are certainly active members of religions, as even tourist landmark Notre Dame has a dedicated parish, but it's just not as public as it is in the US. 

We then started talking about our own personal beliefs. I won't divulge too much of what he said, but this one part really stood out to me. He said, "science explains the 'how,' but it's up to us to explain the 'why.'" 

That's a really interesting way of looking at it, I think. I feel like we have been conditioned to see science and religion on opposite sides of the coin, when in fact, they may be more compatible than we think. Science tells us that we are beautiful, amazing, unique creatures in our DNA, in the way that it is formed, in the natural processes of this world, in the immensity of our Universe. Maybe religion is one way of making sense of all of that... of the science. We know the how... by why? 

Okay, Zoe. Answer the question.

Here's the thing: I find religion beautiful. There's something comforting in having faith in something whole-heartedly. Every city and town in France I visit, I definitely see the cathedrals and they're gorgeous (my favorite has been Bayeux). It's amazing that even in the midst of bombing the crap out of this place, both sides during the world wars tried their best (and were pretty successful) in saving the cathedrals. The ceremonial aspect of certain sects of Christianity, like Catholic mass, are absolutely amazing to me (I use Christianity as the example because it's what I know best). The Bible is a beautifully written book, Psalms are my favorite.

I'm just not religious.

I went to church when I was a kid. I did the AWANA thing, and got all the stickers on all my badges, memorized a ton of verses, and was seriously into church and my friends that I made there. But some things that I learned at church were not compatible with what I feel in my heart to be right, especially as I grew older and started to be exposed to different ways of thinking. I became one of those people that only went to church on Easter and Christmas Eve. Not all churches are the same, and I know that. I just find organized religion to not be my thing. 

So what do I believe? 

Do I believe in God? Yes. And He - or She - is a comforting presence in my life. 

I believe in kindness. I believe in the capacity for good that we have. I believe in loving each other, in not judging each other, in compassion, in fairness, goodness, humility and forgiveness. I believe that even though the world is a scary place sometimes, there is reason to hope. At the risk of sounding like a feel-good hippie (mind you, I am from Colorado), I believe in the power of the Universe. 

So, here I am. A decidedly un-religious girl in a country where the influence of religion is built into the very fabric of the social, political, and historical landscape, and massive cathedrals dot the countryside. It's certainly an interesting place to be. 

Are you religious? Have you ever been to a place that made you think seriously about your religion/faith?

Poems I Cherish

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A while ago, I remember seeing a tag on facebook about books that you cherish. A few bloggers that I follow also did posts about books they cherish, and I want to. However, today I stumbled across a poem that I hadn't read for a while, and I think that I was meant to read it. So, I thought I would list my favorite poems, the poems I cherish, and invite you to do the same. 

1. "Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I performed this poem my senior year of high school in this poetry competition thing... that I can't remember the name of. I didn't win my class (I forgot a line) but I grew to love this poem. It's about passion, and never giving up even in the face of certain failure, or in the poem, death. It's an oldie, but a goodie. Plus, here it is being read by Tim McGraw. You're welcome.

2. "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott
I remember seeing this book that was called "Poems that make Grown Men Cry" which I thought was inherently sexist, but I digress. I was flipping through, and found this one. Guess who it makes cry? Tom Hiddleston. His reading of the poem basically made me cry. 

Now it's a go-to for me, especially in terms of self-love and gratitude. Every line of this poem stirs something in my heart, but I really get teary around the second stanza, at the line:

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.

For me, this is an incredibly beautiful message, as I feel rather lost, and rather unlovable at times. When I have those kinds of thoughts, I read this poem. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. You will love yourself, you will grow into someone you recognize, and you will love yourself. You may not now, but you will.

I also get teary at the last line, and the culmination. For me, this poem evokes an image of you eating, and giving wine and bread, giving thanks for your life, somewhat like Thanksgiving. But, instead of being grateful for other things, or for outside things, etc. you are grateful for yourself. It's a place I'd like to get to. 

3. "i carry your heart with me" by e. e. cummings

I have visions of my wedding day (very far in the future, but there hopefully) and think about how this would hopefully describe how I feel. I want to hold someone's heart in mine, and I want to be able to trust my heart to someone else's. You trust me with your heart, and I trust you with mine, and that's love. 

4. "The More Loving One" by W.H. Auden

If equal affection cannot be
let the more loving one be me.

Every time I read this poem, and come across this line, I just think about how vulnerable that is, and how amazing it is to be that vulnerable. That's basically what this poem is about, at least the way I read it: You may not love me, or even give a shit about me, but I will still always love you more. It's vulnerable, and powerful, and scary. But if it came down to it, if no one loved me, I would still rather be the loving one. 

I love Auden, and would venture to even say that he is one of my favorite poets, if not my favorite. I'm in love with "Funeral Blues" (of course, after Four Weddings and a Funeral, who isn't?), and "As I Walked Out One Evening."

5. "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou

If there was ever a battle cry for the confident woman, it would be this poem. I read this poem when I need a pick-me-up. Where do you get your confidence? From you... from all that you are... from every part of your body and soul. That's what makes a person phenomenal. All hail Queen B? Nah, all hail Maya Angelou, the original Phenomenal Woman.

What are your favorite poems? Are there any that you absolutely treasure? 

Real Life

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Whenever someone asks me what I study, or what I do, I usually respond with the following:

"Well, here in France, I am just studying French to learn French. In my real life, I study history and hope to work at a museum."

I didn't think much about it. That is, I didn't think much about it until a few weeks ago, on my way back from London.

I was standing near the door of the ferry, waiting for them to dock and let us off. Across the way, there was this guy. He kept looking at me. In my half-asleep-it's-too-early-for-this-shit daze, I assume a serious, blank expression and focus intently on the Brittany Ferries logo on the door.

"You're American, aren't you?" He announces.


I turn, and walk towards this guy, ready to give him a firm talking to about not drawing attention to your American-ness. Standing next to him, I respond softly, "what gave me away?"

"Well, you're wearing a Patagonia jacket, using a Samsonite suitcase."

Right. The French typically do not go for bright purple fleece jackets. Thank God it's too cold for my Chacos (they're tucked in my closet at my apartment).

I chuckle, and the conversation continues in the elevator and on the shuttle from the ferry dock to passport control. I explain that I'm studying abroad in France for four months, and learn that he's doing a cross-country road trip with some friends.

The inevitable question is asked: What do you study?

I give my usual response: "Well, here I'm just studying French. In my real life, I study history and work in a museum."

Then he looks at me, and says something I've been thinking about ever since:

"This is real too. This is part of your real life, if you make it. If you want it to be."

I probably stopped in my tracks. Luckily, it was my turn at passport control so I was able to temporarily distract myself. At the door, I showed him where to catch a cab and I trudged towards the bus stop.

This experience often does not feel like my real life. Some nights, I don't want to go to sleep for fear that in the morning I will wake up in my bed in Denver, and all of this will just be a dream. No matter how real, raw, and emotional it gets, I am always afraid that it will be gone too soon.

Don't get me wrong, I miss home. A lot. I miss my parents, my friends, my professors, Starbucks, Reese's, and Illegal Pete's queso. I miss seeing the mountains every day, and the clearness of the Colorado blue sky.

But I love France more than I miss queso.

I am in love with this place. I am in love with the Chateau, the cathedrals, the beaches, and the people. I am in love with the smell of fresh baked baguettes, rain, and the smell of cigarette smoke (even though it simultaneously repulses me). I am in love with the language I speak with less and less effort. I am in love with the way the words roll off my tongue when I order a pain au chocolat at my favorite boulangerie, or when I greet my professor at the coffee machines. I am in love with trains, the chaos of train stations, and the adrenaline rush when you barely make it onto the platform. I am in love with seeing new places, and finding the beauty in places I know well.

I am in love with this life.

So no, it doesn't feel real. I have a hard time accepting this as my real life, because I am terrified that it is not. In some ways, it's easier to accept it as an addition to my life, as a beautiful interlude, or almost as a break. It is not my real life. It's too good to be my real life.

How can something so good be real?

But why shouldn't it be?

Soon after my encounter with Random American Guy, I watched the seventh Harry Potter movie with my host mom (part 2... en français) and thought of this:

France is not happening in my head. I'm actually in France, actually traveling.

But I'm terrified that it will be just in my head when I leave this amazing place, and it will live there for the rest of my life.

I'm just over a month away from returning to Denver. I don't want to go home and have my life return to normal, as if this beautiful experience, these amazing four months, this journey I've been on, I'm afraid that it will just be in my head.

I want this to be my real life. I have changed in ways I could never have imagined - and I like that.

I'm afraid that this reality will fade to nothing more than a memory. Even when I'm no longer breathing in the beautiful Normandy air, I still want this to be very real. 

I think I'm going to take Random American Guy's advice: This is a real part of my life. It's not a dream, it's not a fantasy, and it is most certainly not a break. This is my life, and it's amazing. 

Have you ever been so in love with an experience, with your life, that you were afraid to let it go? How do you handle it?

The Beauty of Being Alone [My Weekend in Amsterdam]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You know how I wrote about Rouen, and how we wandered but weren't lost and it was amazing and fantastic and all that is good and right in the world?

Well, I was legitimately lost in Amsterdam. I had a map, I had my phone, I had my Lonely Planet travel guide, and I was still hopelessly lost.

But, man, was it amazing.

It was so nice to just be in a place, and to just feel the place. Yes, I did some of the touristy things, and I did visit the museums, but most of my weekend was spent wandering along the canals, finding comfortable benches and reading, writing, and thinking. Mostly thinking.

I'm one of those people that loves to be alone. When I'm around people for too long, my energy is completely drained and I get tired, and sometimes even nervous. I crave the moments I have to myself to just be with my thoughts, and with my own ideas. I feel like people pity those who are alone. When I ate at a restaurant, one of the waitresses offered to sit with me so that I wasn't alone. How do you explain to someone that you have been craving this moment - just a girl with her burger - for weeks?

This is the first trip I took alone in France. I've travelled alone before, but never to a foreign country. Every time I've travelled it has been with my parents or a school group, but I usually have a few days to myself to just be.

My whole trip to Amsterdam was like that.

There's something inherently liberating about letting yourself be alone. Most of the time, I really like to be with my friends, and share experiences with those I love. Like most, the best nights are spent with good food, better company, and endless conversation.

But there's something to be said for traveling just to see the world, just to make yourself happy. You don't have the pressure of anyone else's schedules, desire to do certain things, or expectations of having certain experiences. It's nice to just see something for yourself to make your soul happy.

The only schedule I had was the times printed on the tickets at the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank Huis.

Other than those two things, I was absolutely free to be unapologetically me, and it was absolutely freeing.

I spent four hours at the Rijksmuseum, roaming among masterpieces.

I found the most perfect, beautiful, amazing, magical, breathtaking library I have ever seen. 

I lost track of how many times I was almost hit by bicyclists on the banks of the various canals.

I got blisters on my feet and holes in my shoes trying to find the most perfect bench on which to read.

I drank Starbucks and shopped for tulip bulbs.

I took about a billion pictures of the buildings, because I felt like it and they're beautiful.

I was alone, and it was exhilerating.

My trip to Amsterdam was just for me. A gift to myself, a gift to remember that beauty exists, and the world is good, and I am capable of more than I know. It's the best gift I could ever ask for.

Do you ever travel alone? What's the best part? 

Make it Happen Monday! #17 [And a Note about Veterans Day/ArmisticeDay/Remembrance Day]

Monday, November 10, 2014

Last week and this past weekend were seriously amazing! I can't believe that last weekend I was in London, and this weekend I was in Amsterdam, and now I'm sitting in Caen writing this post. Gah, I love travelling. It is nice to be home though. 

This week promises to be rather quiet, which is a welcome change after the chaos of the last few weeks. Since tomorrow is Armistice Day here in France, Veterans Day in the US, and Remembrance Day in the UK, I do not have any classes. There are a few events in Caen to honor the veterans and the lives lost in WWI and WWII, so I will go to some of those. 

This week, my goals are mostly centered around housekeeping and more practical things I need to get done. 

Join the link-up at The Nectar Collective!

This Week:

1. Ace my Geography Exam. I have my first exam in this class, and I am super confused about what she's actually going to be testing us on. I'm not going to lie, it's not my favorite class, but I still want to do reasonably well. 

2. Rock my Literature oral. I have to perform a part of this play called "Rhinoceros" which I actually really enjoyed. I just get really nervous when I speak French, especially in front of a lot of people. 

3. Get ahead on blog posts. I have not been posting as much as I'd like, so I want to get ahead and write some of my posts in advance. My notebook and planner are full of ideas, so I just have to bring them to fruition! 

4. Make a vlog! :) 

5. Clean out my email inbox. Boring, but necessary. 


A Note on Armistice Day/Veterans Day/Remembrance Day

In honor of Armistice Day/Veterans Day/Remembrance Day, I just want to share a few thoughts. I have never really thought about Veterans Day aside from honoring Veterans (duh). My grandfather on my mother's side was in the military, but I never knew him as he died before I was born. Therefore, my life has never really been touched by war or the military as there was no personal connection for me.

However, here in France, the idea of war and the ravage of war is apparent and felt. This continent was torn apart during the wars, and there are parts of the country that bear the scars of that even today. In Normandy, it is also the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, and the 100th Anniversary of the start of the First World War, thus there are many events, commemorations, and discussions centered around war and remembering and honoring the victims of those wars. I have had many an emotional moment pondering the devastation and pain caused by WWII. 

In London, I was fortunate enough to visit the Tower of London to see the installation of the ceramic poppies, and it was stunning. It is quite powerful to be in the presence of such an important monument in an important moment in the consciousness of a country. 

To close, I will say this. I am not a fan of war, and I know few people who would say they are. Unfortunately, as a history major many of the important world events are wars, so I have spent a lot of my time studying wars and the consequences - moral, physical, spiritual, socio-economic, and political - that are felt by people everywhere. No matter if you agree with a war, the ideals of said war as laid out by those who organize the war, etc., it is important to realize that wars and the soldiers are not merely statistics, numbers on a sheet of paper. Numbers are cold, and they do not give you an idea about the human-ness of conflict. The people who died are real, they have families, and their loss is felt. To me, that is the importance of Armistice Day/Veterans Day/Remembrance Day. It is not a day to drone on about the glory of sacrifice, recite statistics, celebrate military achievements, or to half-heartedly spout "Never Forget" with a picture of the American flag on Facebook. It's about remembering the human cost of conflict, the people involved both civilian and military, and reflect on the actions we need to take to prevent such costly conflicts in the future. 

Mind the Gap [Adventures in London]

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

To be honest, I've had a really, really hard time writing this post. I've written no less than three full drafts, dozens of opening lines, and several random tidbits, but nothing seems to compare to how amazing this trip was. Until I can get my thoughts together, I have pictures.