A Song of Egypt

friends from Paris
Five of us traveled together from Paris – me, Brenda, Cat, Jacques, and Betty. (Click on any photo to enlarge)

Every morning at our hotel by the Red Sea the guy making eggs would hum a little song. It was a happy song, though I had never heard the tune. It was always the same. He was always happy, cooking eggs, humming a song of Egypt.

I would never have chosen to travel to Egypt on my own, yet luckily I have friends who see the world differently. Our French friend Cat heard from her friends that Egypt was a great vacation experience and that the fear of terrorist attacks that had seriously affected tourism had subsided. She pushed for us to go there on a winter vacation, and thus it came to pass.

Egypt is so old. Go back a thousand years in our history to the beginnings of France and England. Continue back another thousand to the beginning of Christianity. Keep going back 300 more years, to the end of the Greeks and also the end of the Egyptian Pharaohs. Finally go back 2700 more years to the beginning of recorded Egyptian history (3000 BC), though the culture had no doubt been preparing itself for several hundred years before that time. The reign of Egyptian Pharaohs endured far longer than has our western culture.

Women with animals at rest stop
Several women with their animals showed up at our first rest stop to earn money by posing for photos.

Yet there is a modern day Egypt. 100 million people live there, 90% Muslim, 10% Coptic Christian (Coptic is a Greek word meaning Egyptian). The population is poor by western standards, yet richer than you would think in terms of material possessions, health care, infant survival, and many other measures of the quality of life (see the short video clip below). Tourism is the largest component of their economy. Despite perceptions, our guide told us that Christians and Muslims get along, that the culture is centered on the family and is traditional to a far greater extent than we accept today in the west. Another guide talked about the principles of Islam, the difficulty of remaining celibate until marriage, which typically for men is in their 30s and for women in their mid 20s. Religious law still prescribes death for the woman who becomes pregnant before marriage. Very unsettling for westerners.

Travel to Egypt

Travel to Egypt was harsh. Our flight on FlyEgypt Air was spartan – they serve free water, and the seats do not recline. People were packed in like sardines. Our flight from Paris to Hurghada, halfway down the country along the Red Sea, was delayed 3 hours, resulting in our spending a night in a hotel on the Red Sea coast before arriving at our Nile cruise boat. We were late to bed and set out early the next morning by bus for the Nile. All slack was removed from our tour schedule because of that delay.

On the Nile river proceeding south from Luxor
On the Nile River proceeding south from Luxor

Still, once aboard our boat on the Nile, everything was sublime. It was a fine hotel. The weather was mid 70s (25°C) and sunny. There was a gentle breeze. We spent a week cruising down the Nile, starting at Luxor (Thebes in ancient times), going to Aswan (where Egypt twice has built a dam to contain the flooding of the Nile), and then returning to Luxor. We went on a number of tours along the way to see the temples at Kom Ombo, the Temple of Isis on the Island of Philae, Abu Simbel, Esna, Karnak, Luxor, some tombs at the Valley of the Kings, and other tourist activities.

When we weren’t on tour, the boat was underway, and we were enjoying the sun and perfect weather while watching and listening to the sounds on the banks of the Nile as we passed by. While at Aswan, we ventured further south by bus to near the border of Sudan to see the ancient temples at Abu Simbel. These were moved in a giant engineering project of the ’60s to prevent permanent immersion beneath Lake Nasser when the High Aswan dam was built.

Mina, our tour guide
Mina, with the umbrella, was our guide and leader.

Our tour guide, Mina, was terrific. He spoke slow and grammatically correct French, which was perfect for us amateurs. Did I mention that only French and German were spoken on our boat? We fell in with our French group (18 total) and benefited from a concentrated course in French conversation. By the end of the trip we were all friends. We had mostly late nights and early mornings to make our tour schedule, and after a week of cruising and touring Egyptian antiquities, most of us were tired.

To get over being worn out from touring, we spent a second week in a quiet all-inclusive hotel along the Red Sea at Safaga. This area primarily attracts diving enthusiasts because of the ample sea life in the off shore reefs. For us it was a chance to relax and enjoy the sunny winter weather. Starting in 2008 there was a push to develop the Red Sea coast for tourism, but unfortunately an economic downturn in 2011 stopped many of these projects, leaving half finished buildings along the way.

Touring out in town – security concerns

Security guard Abu Simbel
Brenda poses with one of the security guards at Abu Simbel. He has us covered.

Security is still a concern. One day we ventured to the busier tourist area of Hurghada to the north. The city sprawls with hotels and unfinished development. We visited a mosque, a Coptic Christian church, and a mall with various shops selling Egyptian goods that might appeal to tourists. The mosque was fenced and guarded at the boundaries. Women had to don chadors, the body and head coverings traditional for muslim women. The street in front of the Coptic church was barricaded, and there was security at the entry. We could not visit the local marketplace, the souq, because there had been too many problems with theft and pickpocketing. Our boat and hotel had tight security and armed guards. A couple times we had an armed guard on the bus with us.

One morning in Luxor Brenda and I escaped our net of tourist security and went into the town unguided. We set out to walk from our boat to the Luxor Museum, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) to the north. As with every trip into the public, even with guides, we were immediately accosted by people wanting to sell us stuff – scarves, taxi rides, carriage rides. First they greet you – “hello, where are you from? Parlez vous français?” After establishing a language, they make low price offers. As we walked along a man was trotting in his carriage beside me, offering a ride at various prices. “Non merci”, I kept saying to him and to the many others who approached. One always must negotiate price; nothing is ever as first announced. It’s a tricky game that we don’t play well.

Mr Sisi
Brenda and Mr Sisi

Finally, after perhaps 4 kilometers we were approached by a man in bluejeans and a blue working shirt. He said his name was Mr Sisi and that he worked at the Tourist Bureau, that no one would bother us when he was around. Mr Sisi spoke the best English of anyone we met in our travel to Egypt. He told us he met his wife in Minnesota when he lived in the US, and that he spoke 6 different languages. Then he told us what a rip off it is to go to tourist shops with our guide, who probably gets a portion of whatever is sold, adding that he knew of a market where the prices were fair and a portion of the proceeds would go to benefit the children.

I asked if he wasn’t actually the President of Egypt (whose name is el-Sisi). He said no, he didn’t have time for that. He mentioned that the Luxor Museum only takes Egyptian pounds for entry fees. We only had Euros and a credit card.

He led us over to see his market, and eventually we found ourselves sitting in front of Mr George, who was a jeweler. He showed us movies of himself and his son making jewelry in their family business. Brenda found a piece she liked, and he told us the story of it. He quoted an enormous price, which we did not agree to. He kept talking about it. Since we were friends of Mr Sisi, he could reduce the price by 40%. Because we were his first customer of the day, he could reduce by another amount. Since he liked us, he could come down some more. Eventually he offered a price that was about 20% of the original price. We agreed to this amount and paid.

I’m sure we still overpaid, but it was quite an adventure. We lost interest in going to the museum and decided to head back to the boat. Mr Sisi, true to his every word, made all arrangements for us. I gave him a tip for all his hard work.

Learning to Appreciate Egyptian Art and History

Temple of Khnum at Esna
Temple of Khnum at Esna. King with queens of upper and lower Egypt approaching temple to honor Amun-Ra. This part built by Romans/Greeks about 150 BC.

On vacation I had the sense that what was in my guide book plus what I learned about ancient Egypt during our tours didn’t prepare me to appreciate the scope of what we had seen. Entering a tomb or temple with hundreds of hieroglyphs and art works provides an overwhelming experience of the very ancient art and the enormity of effort to construct these monumental works. I found myself asking what all this was about and why. So I bought a book on Egyptian Art. Though I still don’t know much, here’s a little more.

The Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the wonderful Cairo museum, as well as many ruins, are in the heavily populated north of the country. However, the temples and tombs of the New Kingdom at Thebes (1500 – 1100 BC) and further south are better preserved and offer a better way to appreciate how the tombs and temples were arranged in relation to the settlements, not to mention the opportunity of cruising the Nile, seeing the Aswan Dam developments, several later temples built under control of the Greeks, and the magnificent restoration of Abu Simbel almost at the border of Sudan.

Ramses III making an offering to Osiris and Isis
Ramses III making an offering to Osiris and Isis, 1150 BC

What is most striking is that the mythology, the artwork, the design of temples and tombs, and the basic organization of society hardly changed over the entire 3000 years of ancient Egypt. The temples and tombs and gods and goddesses of the Old Kingdom (3100 to 2100 BC) and the Middle Kingdom (2000 to 1650 BC) were like those of the New Kingdom and even like the temples built under Greek rule after 331 BC. Admittedly the tombs changed from pyramid design to underground structures, but the elements of design, the gods represented in typical art works, and the traditions of burial were not significantly different.

Two elements assisted in maintaining this incredibly stable society. One was the agricultural wonder of the Nile valley, where spring rains overflowed the banks and revitalized the desert soil every year, making crop production much easier than in other parts of the world. The second was a creation myth that explained that even before there was humanity, fundamental principles governed our world, not just principles of physics and mathematics but also of authority and morality. Everything a person might seek or need in his life had already been given.

Ceiling above the sarcophagus of one tomb shows Nut, the sky goddess and Osiris mother, held up by Shu, her father who separates the sky from the earth. Nut swallows the sun each night and gives birth to it each morning.

Before humanity, the Creator had made Osiris along with his brother Seth and sister Isis. Osiris was created as the first king and the first mortal. Seth, a force of chaos and rebellion, murdered Osiris and cut his body into pieces, distributing them all over Egypt. Isis, the mother figure, put the pieces of Osiris back together, wrapping his body in linen, and brought him back to life, the first to be mummified and then reborn into the next life. She also bore Osiris’s son, named Horus, who became the successor as king. Horus defeated Seth and his powers of disruption, and the stable Egypt was born. Every king is a descendant of Horus with authority that was spiritual and universal rather than political. Each new king buried his predecessor in a tomb, a monumental interpretation of his palace, and provided offerings for the late king as if for a god. 1

The Creator-given fundamental principles of authority, morality, mathematics, and physics created the fate of not only the pharaoh, but also every Egyptian. Every Egyptian was to seek to bring his life and expectations in line with the truth of what had been given by the Creator. In doing so, each could assure his or her perfect rebirth into life after death.2

Karnak temple
Karnak Temple, Luxor, Statues of Ramses II and Great hypostyle Hall, about 1250 BC, looking south along the path towards towards Luxor Temple.

Unlike anywhere else in that era (Mesopotamia excepted), Egypt could produce enough food so that a portion of society didn’t need to farm. Egyptians organized society to use the crops as the taxes paid to the pharaoh, who in turn used the taxes to support an enormous cultural effort to honor the gods, the kings as they passed to the next life, and to a lesser extent other officials deserving recognition for their contributions in helping society honor the Truth.

This was an enormous collective effort, farming, harvesting, moving the crops to storage, building communities and training artists to build temples and tombs, providing the resources to feed and house them, gathering and transporting the materials of construction, designing and building the structures, and planning and accounting for the materials and resources to accomplish the goals of the pharaoh. 3

Luxor Temple
Entrance to Luxor Temple. Twin of the Obelisk (about 1250 BC) shown rests at Place de la Concord, Paris, a gift to France in 1830. During the inundation festival, statues of the gods would sail here from Karnak to greet the god Amun-Ra.

The king must have spent much of his time traveling from temple to temple celebrating festival after festival away from his grand residence. The New Kingdom pharaoh was, as with the earliest of pharaohs, as much a figure in social and religious ceremonies as he was the central figure of government. Thebes was designed to accommodate the festival routes of Amun-Ra. North and South there were the temples of Karnak and Luxor, and between them was a sphinx-lined causeway running parallel to the river. Karnak also had a second axis east and west to celebrate the dry season through a festival from Karnak to the king’s mortuary temples near the Valley of the Kings. The Temple of Hatshepsut remains mostly intact, the lone remaining mortuary temple.

Ancient Egyptian art belongs in sacred, contemplative contexts, especially in temples and tombs that became places of offering. The act of making the art was an important part of Egyptian culture. Much of what was created was never intended to be seen. The art seeks to illustrate the perpetual and eternal. Egyptian art is intended to seem clear, familiar, and human. At the same time it is quite abstract and symbolic. It expresses abstract ideas in many different ways through iconography, relative size of figures, and texts. 4

Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon were statues at the entrance to the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, 1352 BC, the largest of the temples in the dry season procession from Karnak west to the mortuary temples of the kings.

The artist puts more stock in presenting recognizable characters and their interaction than in creating realistic representations of the world as it appears to the eye. The artist gives the gods human characteristics and the power of speech. He employs standard forms and poses with stock clothes and regalia. The artist organizes and divides the composition into distinct areas of information. The arrangements are acceptable to the eye and seem real-world at first glance. 5

Hieroglyphs state identities and details. They are a device for writing the sounds of ancient Egyptian to add information that enhances visual attractiveness while clarifying meaning. 6

The human form of Egyptian art in two dimensions is so iconic that we lampoon it, witness the 80’s sketch by Steve Martin. This style of art is not from lack of skill. The Egyptians maintained this form across dozens of centuries. Art often depicts shoulders square to the canvas, but shows the hips and feet and head turned 90 degrees. There is no unified viewpoint for the body as a whole, rather, the artist maintains a single distinctive view for each part of the body. The eyes are often over sized and looking at you even if the head itself is turned. 7

Great Temple of Ramses II
Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, 4 statues of Ramses II, about 1250 BC, stare impassively outward, inviting you to make an offering.

“The art of ancient Egypt represents a committed attempt throughout the centuries to illustrate human lives in a context that does not move on or pass away.”8 For nearly 3000 years Egypt remained this beehive of human activity responding to the Truth, the unchanging fundamental principles of its very creation.

Imagine how much different that is from our worldview of progress, scientific revolution, and individual attempts to achieve freedom, equality, nirvana, agelessness, peak experiences, etc. In our society we seek progress towards perfection. In ancient Egypt, perfection was already there, and the challenge was to accept the Truth and adore what was already perfect and present from the creation.

To see more photos of our travel to Egypt, including more about our time on the Red Sea, follow this link to a Photo Tour.

  1. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch2 loc 465 ↩︎
  2. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch3 loc 544 ↩︎
  3. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 4 loc 935 ↩︎
  4. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 8 loc 1661 ↩︎
  5. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 1 loc 156 ↩︎
  6. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 6 loc 1282 ↩︎
  7. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 7 loc 1371 ↩︎
  8. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 15 loc 4307 ↩︎

Bonne Année 2019

Happy New Year! 2018 ended for Brenda and me at an all-French party with friends and friends of friends in their home south of Paris. We returned to our apartment at about 4am this morning. Cafés and bars in our neighborhood were still going strong and there was lots of traffic. Über was charging surge prices. It’s sad to think that another Christmas season has passed so quickly.

Without trying to add too much detail, I can say that our 2018 was another year of traveling abroad and back to the US, meeting friends here in Paris, and taking advantage of some of the cultural opportunities that come our way in this part of the world.

Cami and Brenda enjoying the beautiful weather by the Seine

Just to name of few of the people who visited (I know I’ll miss some), Barb Maxey from Poulsbo stayed with us over Christmas and New Years 2018. Martha Pendergast (also from Washington) stayed with us in March. Patti and Bill Wilson (Washington) visited us in April. Cami Gurney (Washington) stayed with us in May. Dianne Rodway and John Becker (Portland) visited us in September. Kelly and Linda Lunn from Portugal stayed with us in October. Plus we’ve had a host of others whom we’ve met for dinner or at our apartment: MaryLou and Paul Vibrans, Brian Dunhill, PK McLean, Rick Anderson and Louise Rosenbaum, Pam Perry and Jane, Nancy Whitaker, Chad Zinda and partner Felix, Ward Fuentes, Hermie and Virgil Valdez.

Brenda and her mom at the end of Bloomsday
Presenting Gary Carlson with $50.

We traveled quite a bit. Brenda went back to Spokane to see her mom in February, May, and September, and I was able to join her in May, when we all competed in the Bloomsday 12km road race. Though Brenda and I finished out of the money, her mom placed 3rd in her age group for the second year in a row. On the same visit to Spokane I was able to pay off my outstanding debt for the 2017 Army-Navy Game to Army veteran Gary Carlson. We had been haggling over payment terms, but I was finally able to satisfy him by personally presenting a $50 bill. Unfortunately, Gary passed away in June, which was a very sad occasion. Though I would have lost the bet again this year, I very much miss the banter we had regarding the Army versus the Navy.

The beach at Ko Phi Phi
The beach at Ko Phi Phi
Patong Beach incoming fire from squirt guns on Songkran
Patong Beach incoming fire from squirt guns on Songkran

We spent nearly three weeks in Thailand with our French friends Cat and Jacques. We visited the beach areas of Ao Nang, Ko Lanta, Ko Phi Phi (with its breathtaking beach), and Phuket, with the unbelievable Songkran celebration of the Thai New Year at Patong Beach. Thousands celebrate the New Year by shooting each other with giant squirt guns or dousing each other with buckets of water. We returned from dinner soaked to the skin. We also spent several days in Bangkok, which was spectacular.

Our bed and breakfast in Normandy
Our bed and breakfast in Normandy
Brenda with Alison Fankhauser - they were school teachers together in Australia 40 years ago.
Brenda with Alison Fankhauser – they were school teachers together in Australia 40 years ago.

In July we went to Brussels, where our financial advisor Brian Dunhill invited us to celebrate Ommegang with the American Club of Brussels. The evening featured a wonderful dinner followed by a traditional pageant that ends with guys on stilts fighting to topple each other in the town square. Also in July we were in Normandy with Cat and Jacques, and later a week in Nice at the apartment of friend and Paris real estate expert Adrian Leeds. In September we spent a few days in Amsterdam with Poulsbo friends Wally and Wendy Hampton, and then later in September met our Australian friends Dean and Alison Fankhauser in Split, Croatia, prior to their big bike trip along the Dalmatian Coast.

Some street artists have made it big
Some street artists have made it big – this by the artist INTI
With Kelly and Linda Lunn atop the Eiffel Tower
With Kelly and Linda Lunn atop the Eiffel Tower

In our spare time there were concerts, art galleries, and local events here in Paris. I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Just to mention a couple of the less-well-known events we attended, there was a stunning multi media presentation of the artwork of Gustav Klimt (and others) at Atelier des Lumières, projecting an hour of ever changing artwork on all walls and the floor choreographed to beautiful music. Attendees were immersed and wandering around in the art. We also went on a street art tour in the 13th Arrondissement, where our passionate presenter spent more than 2 hours enlightening us about the fundamentals and the motivations of the artists, and new involvement of the Paris government in promoting this form of artistic expression.

Early February Snow storm
Early February Snow storm
January flooding by the Seine
January flooding by the Seine

There were the usual ups and downs in daily life. In late January there was historic flooding and high water on the river Seine that closed my running route by the river for two months. In early February there was a historic snow storm. There were the Giles Jaunes (yellow jackets) riots on the streets of Paris over the past month. These were very disruptive but also occurred at specific well advertised locations, so the overall effect was much less dangerous than it appeared from the TV coverage.

Hugh with lump on head above eye
Hugh with lump on head above eye
Brenda's broken hand (little finger)
Brenda’s broken hand (little finger)

I fell while running one time and hit my head on the pavement, causing a nice bruise. Brenda broke her hand in a fall while running, but she didn’t know it for a month. Now we tell each other « pick up your feet » before each run. I finished reading Les Misérables in French. I joined a monthly poker game. We went to two wine tasting events, where we learned there is a wide variation in how people taste wine, and that there is no reason to believe the point score of experts or the high prices of big name wineries as indicators of what wine would be best for you. Often in a blind taste test, a lower priced wine may be very competitive. So trust yourself.

mannequin Christmas tree
mannequin Christmas tree
Bonne Année!
Bonne Année!

The year ended with another wonderful Christmas Eve with Cat and Jacques and family. I spent a long time looking over with Cat’s father his cruise book from his time in the French Navy in the late 1940’s. My French is improving (but still has a long way to go). We also hosted our friend Barbara Hoehfeld (from Frankfurt) and her daughters Pascale (from Paris) and Ingrid (from Israel) and other family members on December 26th for a buffet lunch. Brenda created a beautiful mannequin Christmas tree, and we strung lights on the fireplace mantels and windows.

So…Bonne Année! We’re thankful for another great year here. All the lights are on for a final celebration. Go Huskies in tonight’s Rose Bowl. We wish you all a happy and healthy New Year. Bisous, Hugh Nelson and Brenda Prowse

 

Columbus Day

Statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona, Spain
Statue of Columbus for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888 commemorating his first voyage to America

With the growing unpopularity of Columbus Day (the second Monday of October in the US), this might be the perfect opportunity to review why we celebrate. This statue of Columbus in Barcelona was erected for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888 to commemorate his first voyage to America. His statue points seaward from the harbor in Barcelona.

Columbus was Italian, but he sailed under the flag of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They represented the crowns of Castile and Aragon, lands which today make up the northern part of Spain. Modern Barcelona was part of Aragon. Spain itself wouldn’t become a unified country until 1512.

Columbus was seeking a sea route to the East Indies (China and India and the spice islands). Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was charging European traders high fees for those making the dangerous passage to cross by land though the modern day Middle East and Russia or across Egypt to the Red Sea. It was possible but also very treacherous to sail around the horn of Africa. Another sea route would benefit the growing amount of trade between Europe and the East Indies.

At the time of Columbus’s voyage, many educated Europeans thought that the world was round, but they greatly underestimated its size. Columbus believed it was possible to reach the East Indies by sailing west. He first landed somewhere in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, and later would make expeditions to modern day Cuba, Hispaniola Island (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti), parts of Central and South America and other islands in the Antilles. Europeans named this part of the world the West Indies, since it obviously wasn’t the East Indies.

Columbus never realized his goal of finding another route to the East Indies, though his efforts and subsequent European exploration conferred great wealth upon Spain, brought French, English, and Dutch explorers to America, and left a lasting impact on the continents of North and South America, which we celebrate by a day named in his honor. The process of European exploration and colonization, which also involved slavery and subjugation of the indigenous peoples, produced many negative effects that continue to be addressed in national and world politics. Thus this heroic icon is taking on a new and fuller meaning of the process by which our world has developed.

The Assumption of Mary

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal - the Assumption of Mary
Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal – our destination for the Assumption of Mary

August 15th is the French national holiday for the Assumption of Mary. This religious day is celebrated in many parts of the world by about 1.5 billion Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, as well as by parts of the Anglican Church. The holiday celebrates the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life. For Catholics, it is a day to go to mass. For France, it is a day when almost everything is closed, similar to Christmas.

Yet France is one of the most unreligious countries in the world. In one survey of 2010, about 40% of the participants identified as not believing there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force, about 50% as Christian (almost all Catholic), less than 6% Islamic, and only small percentages of Jewish and other religions. The group identifying as Catholic has dropped from about 80% to 50% since 1985.

An article in Tuesday’s La Figaro showed how large numbers of believers participate in pilgrimages as part of practicing their faith. While destinations like Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain attract large numbers, there are numerous destinations in France that are also attractive. A sizable percentage of French tourism is for reasons of spiritual belief.

The Roman Catholic Church has recognized eleven Marian apparitions (supernatural appearances of Mary), five of which occurred at locations in France in the 19th Century. A line superimposed through these five locations on the map of France produces the shape of an M. One of the locations is in Paris, at a chapel I had never heard of, The Chapel of our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse). The La Figaro article said that over 2 million people visit this chapel each year. It’s on rue de Bac near the Bon Marché department store, not far from our apartment. So I set out on a pilgrimage.

Entry Hall, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse - the Assumption of Mary
Entry Hall, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse

On rue de Bac near the popular Grande Epicérie de Paris, the specialty food store of the Bon Marché, I found a doorway allowing people to come and go down a long corridor to Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse. I walked around trying to photograph the outside of the chapel, but at ground level it is completely hidden from view by other structures.

Once inside I walked past displays and religious coin vending machines, statues, and welcome offices for arriving pilgrims. The chapel was at the end of the hall. A service was in progress. I entered, found a seat in the back, took an inconspicuous photo, and sat through a mass in a language I believe was Korean. I tried to participate, but was hampered by my complete lack of knowledge of Catholic traditions, customs, and liturgy, not to mention the Asian language of the service. People occasionally left something in a basket in the center of the room. I assumed it was an offering, so as I departed I walked up and put in a small donation. Too late I noticed that inside the basket were slips of paper, prayer requests! My bad.

Chapel, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse - the Assumption of Mary
Chapel, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse

Outside again, I saw a display explaining the story of the Marian apparition. A young nun, Catherine Labouré, began her service here in 1830 with the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Their motherhouse was at 140 rue de Bac. On the 18th of July and the 27th of November 1830, the Blessed Virgin appeared in the Chapel before Catherine. She asked that a medallion be made to a design that she dictated, adding that, “All who wear this medal will receive great graces.”

It was a time of great unrest in France. The bloody 3 day revolution of July 1830 replaced the constitutional monarchy of the last of the post-revolution Bourbon kings with another conferring the monarchy to Louis Philippe of the Orleans line of the royal family. France was industrializing and becoming more wealthy, but there were few social services and the poor were miserable. The workers were dissatisfied with the status quo. It is the same setting as in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”, a novel that above all was about the misery of poor people in France. In 1830, Jean Val Jean, the hero of that story, is living with his adopted daughter Cosette on rue de Plumet (today’s rue Rue Oudinot). This street ends almost exactly at La Chapelle de Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse. Uncanny.

Catherine Labouré reported her visions to her priest, who took two years to report this to the archbishop. Eventually a medal referred to as the Miraculous Medal was produced. In the meantime, in 1831, Catherine was sent to Enghien les Bains, to a home for the elderly, north of Paris, where she spent the next 40 years serving these largely poor and miserable residents. The church did not forget her. Following her death in 1876, her body was moved in 1933 to the chapel at rue de Bac and placed under the alter. In July 1947, Pope Pius XII declared her a Saint. It was not until 1950, via this same Pope, that the Assumption of Mary was officially recognized, though it had been part of the teachings of the church for hundreds of years before.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in 1952 said that the Assumption of Mary was the most significant Christian religious event since the Reformation. Finally the church acknowledged a feminine element, allowing Mary to join the three masculine religious figures of Christianity. The realization of this feminine aspect has been slow in arriving, but gradually it is asserting itself, not only in the church, but in secular life as well. Religions adapt to changes in society to offer their adherents a more meaningful view of life, but as you can see, sometimes one must have lots of patience. Bonne fête de l’Assomption!

 

August in Paris

Brenda on deserted rue Cler
Brenda at 3pm on a practically deserted rue Cler – August in Paris (click to enlarge)

Today it’s about 97°F, which has been typical this August in Paris. We have bright sun and not much wind. Since most apartments don’t have air conditioning, it’s pretty miserable in most places. The French call this weather une canicule, which comes from the latin canicula for small dog. In English we call days like these dog days. The English word canine is also related. Many French have left Paris during the traditional August summer vacation period, so it’s quiet in the capital.

A French friend tells us that all the beautiful people have left, but in truth many of us common folks depart also for the seashore, the mountains, camping, or just to visit family outside the hot confines of the city. News media cover the Grands Départs en Vacances in July, including reports on the heavy traffic conditions and breathless interviews on the steps of the Palais de l’Élysée with the departing cabinet members. French President Macron and his wife have gone to Le Fort de Brégançon, the traditional summer vacation spot for French Presidents near Toulon on the Mediterranean.

movie screen at Parc de la Villette
Giant inflatable movie screen at Parc de la Villette. Cinema under the stars.

For those left behind

Ourselves, we’re back from a week’s vacation on the French Rivera in Nice. The seaside was lovely and our room had air conditioning. Now we’re back dealing with the canicule. The plumber came in the heat yesterday to fix the toilet. Thursday the man comes to read the utility meters. Still, it’s fun to be in Paris when everyone has gone on vacation. You don’t have to wait to cross the street, and there are some amusements for those of us left behind.

Paris Plages is a beach scene that attracts thousands down by the Seine and along the canals in the North of Paris. It simulates the beach with swimming, sports, dancing, eating and drinking (but no longer is there sand since there is a world-wide shortage). The other night we joined thousands more at the outdoor cinema set up at Parc de la Villette. They have a giant inflatable screen that allows a big crowd on folding canvas chairs or on blankets on the grass to sit back and enjoy a movie under the stars.

Our group met for a picnic and champagne ahead of the film, which was a classic 1965 Jean Paul Belmondo film entitled, «Pierrot le Fou».  It was from the era when artists were trying to find deep meaning in Campbells Soup cans; the storyline was a bit hard to follow. They gave us each a blanket with our chairs, and I was thinking what possible need would I have when, sure enough, I needed it in the suddenly cool night air. Back home later it was still the same old hot apartment, but guess what – maybe there’ll be a big storm tonight. Temperatures are supposed to fall into the 50’s by Thursday.

In a couple weeks all this heat will dissipate, and we’ll be wishing that August in Paris wouldn’t end. In the meantime we’ll be here, in the heat, sipping cool cucumber infused ice water and eating chilled watermelon. Happy August!

US Passport Renewal in Paris

Where to do passport renewal in France - US Embassy Paris
The US Embassy, where Americans in France complete passport renewal, stands demurely behind tall trees and iron gates at the corner of the largest square in Paris.

A small insight into life for Americans in France. We are in the process of passport renewal for our 10 year US passports. In the US you would fill out a form, send it with a check in the amount of the renewal fee to the State Department, along with a new passport photo and your old passport. They mail you back your new passport. In France you fill out this same form and mail it with your passport to the US Embassy. However, the Embassy neither accepts US money in the form of a personal US bank check nor a personal check from a European bank (nor a credit card of course). You need a French bank cashier’s check (chèque de banque).

When I went to the nearest branch of my bank, HSBC, presented my bank ID card, and requested a chèck de banque in the amount of 94 €, they told me they couldn’t do that. I would need to contact my bank counselor to make arrangements. So I went home and called my counselor. The counselor never answers the phone, so you talk to the person who answers. He asked me for my name and ID number, then had me input a secret code that verifies I’m really me, and then asked what I wanted. I told him I needed a chèck de banque for 94€ to renew my passport. We discussed that it must be made out to the US Embassy. He told me that it would be ready at the branch near us on the following Saturday morning (2 business days).

On Saturday morning Brenda and I went to the bank branch and asked for our cashier’s checks. They had no record of our order. We presented our bank ID cards and personal identification in the form of passports and residence cards. We filled out forms indicating our names and checking account number, the payee and amount. The bank teller told us the checks would be ready on Wednesday (2 business days), but to call first since our order might not be ready in that amount of time.

The US, like France, is very particular about passport and ID photos. However, the rules for background, size, etc., are different. Though there are photo booths all over France for ID photos, they aren’t correct for US passports. Thus we had our photos taken at Walgreens in Spokane when we last visited the US. Dodged that bullet.

Should we ever get the cashiers checks, I think we will be ready to make application. Since we have to send in our current passports, we need to make sure we don’t need them for at least 2 weeks in the future. That means we can’t travel to other countries or even within France. We will want to send in our forms by traceable mail just in case they get lost.

Unlike in the US, where the State Department sends back your passport for free, in France we must send a self addressed prepaid envelope of a certain type with our forms so that the new passport can be returned to us. It must be a Chronopost for France, or Collissimo, or a Lettre suivie 500g size A4 only. Chronopost is the French mail system’s package delivery. Collissimo is a private delivery service affiliated with the postal system. Lettre suivie is a prepaid, trackable envelope that you can purchase at the post office. I chose lettre suivie because I found the right envelope in the post office rack, but I don’t know if it’s the best choice. Each prepaid envelope cost about $8.

The destination, the US Embassy, is within easy walking distance of our apartment, but it’s guarded like Fort Knox, and you need an appointment to enter. Only plan a visit if you need emergency passport renewal. Don’t try to take a photo either; the French guards will start blowing their whistles and all hell will break loose.