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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Heart-stopping, Part twee

"FEET, don't fail me now."

If my feet could express themselves emotionally, they would be not be too pleased with the amount of walking Brussels demands.

"It's the world's second-smallest continent," I snark at their whines. "You can handle this."

Their reply is cold, unfeeling.

But, when in Europe, the best sights and sites will be found by foot. Cathedrals in their holy splendor, museums with all of history spread before you, bistros and shops from which to sample delicacies. All of these are best accessed with those beautiful tools with which the Maker equipped our legs. And so, our tour of Brussels continues à pied.

Along the way:


The icy-cold glowers of imposing edifices stare us into submission.

Along the way:


Time gets told on in the most European fashion.

Along the way:














Those that walked these hallowed streets before us, wish us godspeed.

Each city beckons us with feelings and auras unique to that place. These are the strings that move the marionettes we politely dub "tourists"; all notions of autonomy are illusory.

Of course, walking, talking, and gawking take on added dimensions when the rest of the world is revolving 'round you, caught in its daily tracks and spheres of influence. The language barrier is only isolating us further.


However, the city is pleasant; at one point, we pass a cathedral, and I swear I hear music being piped through its sound system. I am disillusioned when we pass a man on a street corner, making glorious music, solely with the aid of his vocal chords.

No artificial recordings need apply.

We eventually stumble across the main part of town. The electric current that pulses through any city's downtown region is shocking us gently; gradually the amp's get turned up, and we are on fire. Soon enough, we find ourselves drinking in every ounce of culture which permeates the streets. We imbibe the rich nectar of the clothing shops; we slowly absorb the beautiful language; we eat well.


When in Belgium, eat a waffle. I don't think they let you leave without one.


Seafood and chocolate; seafood and chocolate. These two sellers alternate, leaving a zebra-striped appearance to the city. But we don't mind the monotony.

Satiated, we walk on.


Heart-stopping, Part één

The train ran its way toward us; try as it might, it never outpaces the dawn.



It's 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. The air of Northern France breathes quite well; the only hindrance to a beautiful breathing experience is the smoke. However, this is no matter, as the olfactory senses it stimulates will serve me well as a memory bank. I need to have my memory jogged. Especially of this morning, of this day...

Things begin to unfold as soon as the train screeches to a halt in front of us. We climb aboard the local; our bleary, caffeine-deprived eyes grant us membership on the 6:45 train to Lille, France's 2nd largest metropolitan region. From there, half-an-hour on the TGV, the high-speed line, will drop us off in the capital of Belgium.

The pristine, manicured landscape we pass looks in on us. We are being observed by the neat, rolling hills out-of-doors. What do they see? Not just the country-side of Northern France, but all the nations of Europe? Perhaps the continent views us as children who needed space to grow; thus we ran away from home some centuries ago. The terrain of Europe looks inside, and wonders at urban-sprawl, and houses made of fine wood, and trucks whose roars would shame the heartiest dragon. Our interiors make the out-of-doors hum with speculation and wonder...

Or, perhaps, that noise I hear is only the sound of train wheels slowing to a halt.

Out come the passengers, a vomit of hurry and focus; the only attributes people who ride public transportation possess. My friend and I amble along; he's been to Brussels before, but never in this part of the city. The feeling of discovery sets us on equal playing fields; only the advantage of speaking a local language, a talent my travelling companion possesses in spades, will get us from point A to point B.

The list of point B's is endless and enthralling:


  • An entire museum devoted to Magritte.
  • Many exhibits on the series Tintin
  • A giant replica of an atom
  • Chocolate!
Each and every venue promises excitement and vivid experiences.

Our tour of the Capital of the E.U. begins well-enough, with a visit to a  majestic tower. This particular ancient edifice we find ourselves enclosed in is old; very old. To prove its antiquity, a beautiful display of artifacts greets us:







These public time-capsules reach inside and pull into the centuries past. And then there were the stairs:


Magnificent marble altars! Practical and beautiful, as only Europe can produce. Onward, ever upward they climb. They reach into the skies of Belgium, inviting us to ascend Valhalla as the gods in Das Rheingold do. Invitations this long-standing are not to be snubbed.


And, when the view is from this point of reference, we would be most impolite to refuse.

For the Love of Language

Through a fortunate accident, a love of language was rekindled last year. In the search for one last humanities course to make a complement, I stumbled across Spanish 101. My experience with High School Spanish was a positive one; after four years, I was comprehending with ease. Now, a chance to refresh and further my studies had presented itself, and I ran through the open door with alacrity. A chance to experience a new culture, a new way of life...

A new set of words.

Words. They are what set us apart from all the other life-forms on the planet. They tear down, they build up. They can destroy a marriage, they can make peace between tribes. Everything began with a word, and all will find its terminus in a spoken breath.

On a recent trip to France, I had the good fortune to make a friend in the Cathedral town I was visiting. Oddly enough, he was cleaning the cathedral. We made fast friends, even though the words passing our lips were just vague husks of communication. Too wide a gap existed between us for any meaningful verbal exchanges, so we did the best pantomime we could, until our meanings struck home. Which happened one out of every five attempts to speak. This encounter gave me pause. Here is man, with the same general appearance: a bipedal creature with bilateral symmetry. Each human looks equivalent to all the others, with differences no greater than one's relative position to the equator. And yet, the lack of understanding of a common language will separate us instantaneously. With this experience a burning impetus, I endeavor, with the last two months of Summer, to learn as much as I can about two languages:

Spanish: This I have some background with, and I can already speak in the past and present indicative with some effort. I will work out of a workbook named "Destinos". This is a program which allows the learner to view a video series while practicing with grammar and vocabulary. The video series follows a telenovela, a soap opera which allows the student to experience the language through real life situations. I have found it very effective, more so than the textbooks used in High School.

French: To expose myself to basic French, I am using a Living Language course by Random House. This is a set of CD's with a textbook included. The grammar is very similar between Spanish and French; the grave gulf between the two is pronunciation. With the aid of the CD's, I hope to beat my mouth muscles into submission until the pleasant sounds of the French tongue come through with greater clarity.

So an adventure awaits. It is with no little trepidation that I broach the idea of learning two foreign languages simultaneously, but the slight fear is tempered with great joy. I'll never be perfect at the languages I seek to understand, but I will gain a greater appreciation for the heritages of two mover and shaker nations in the world community. And, I'll gain backstage access to the workings of language and its origin in the human mind. I hope to share my experiences with those across the keyboard who are also interested in learning another tongue. I am sure I am not the first to journal his thoughts while exploring a few foreign languages; this endeavor is to allow me to keep my thoughts corralled as I go through each lesson. It also serves as a useful conversation starter, as my vocabulary grows through a community of fellow lovers of learning.

So come along for the ride. I anticipate a post every other day, and I will be posting my general thoughts and natural blogs as well. Soak them up, offer criticism, mold me into a blogger which can express your thoughts as well as my own.

And, happy learning!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Keeper of the Castle


Leed's Castle.

A beautiful, historic structure jutting straight up from the English countryside, reminding the traveler of a time when castles were an everyday sight.

Nearly 900 years ago, this beautiful castle was constructed. Many historical figures have waltzed their way through these grounds; the most famous would have to be a certain grotesquely obese monarch and his unfortunate harem.


That's right; the King everyone loves to hate, Henry the Eighth, found this delightful 500 acre site the perfect summer home, and converted it to such in honor of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

As a child whose youthful imagination was stoked by the coals of such masterpieces as "The Chronicles of Narnia," and the King Arthur fables, Leeds was a perfect castle.


This section of the castle was a more recent addition, but even this served to conjure up images of Knights and Maidens riding steeds out of the mists of Albion (the ancient Roman word for Britain).

Everything was so real. Everything was engraved upon my memory with a searing iron; I've been in Europe before, but these images stick out among the rest as what the Medieval world should be.

Looking at the castle, I couldn't help but remember the wonderful songs the sweet Psalmist of Israel wrote long before Leeds was even an idea in some architect's mind:

Lift up your heads, O gates,
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in!



And no matter how glorious Henry thought he was, (or at least his grocer thought he was), it it comforting to think that there is a King whose glory lasts forever.


Inside the castle, we were greeted by actual round head armor from the 17th century! It was fascinating to think that this armor was probably used in the English Civil War. Makes me want to go pummel some puritans.


Another fascinating relic was this bathtub that Catherine of Aragon used. In keeping with the modest culture of the day, she would bathe with her robe on. How you get clean when covered with a robe is beyond me, but more power to her.

History is a wonderful thing; it becomes even more vibrant when you get to experience the ruins of time for yourself. I've stood in the Colosseum; setting my watch back a millennium or so, I could hear the roar of the gladiators as they fought their merciless fights.

I've stood in Ephesus, in front of that great library of the ancient world, and listened for the echoes of an excited church reading a letter from their spiritual mentor.

I've walked the streets of Tombstone, and have felt the bullets whiz by as two factions finally sought to rectify their differences.

But Leeds was different. In Leeds, I became a part of the history. I was a servant preparing the inordinate amount of food to feed a gross caricature of a monarch. I was the priest reciting mass in the chapel; I was among the congregation releasing our guilt.

Leeds was history flowing through my veins. I was immersed in a sweet, misty dream...

All dreams end. As we made our way further into the castle, a distinct change washed over the structure. Suddenly, gaudy paintings of black swans lined the halls. The color of the rooms switched from subtle stone to loud pastel.

We were in the 1930's.

In the early part of the Twentieth century, a socialite bought the castle, and preserved half of it in its original state, while the other half turned into her personal playground.

My attention span turned off at this point. As Early British history fascinates me, and I find it tasteful (my subjective view), the early 20th Century was gaudy and frivolousness (also my subjective opinion).


But I did admire her book collection.

History is nothing but change. Watching the transition from early 15th century to early 20th at Leeds drove this point home in a vivid manner. With so many changes in the world, I personally look for a solid foundation. And for that, I follow the tones of the Psalmist of Israel:

I love Thee, O Lord my strength,
The Lord is my rock and my fortress
and my deliverer; My God, my rock in
whom I take refuge.


A castle that does not change with the times. A word that withstands all undulating sentiments.


The fortress the world is looking for.

I'm sharing this with Faith Filled Fridays.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Day of Discovery

Our dog is a faithful dog.

She was once a seeing eye project; a project who just about missed muster on her exams. With this failure behind her, she came to live with us. Needless to say, the seeing eye's loss is our gain.

For over a decade, our gentle, lovable golden retriever has graced our company with her playful, if absent-minded, hi-jinks. We laugh at her eagerness to chase her tail; we smile at her willingness to please; we smirk at her half-hearted attempts to chase the ubiquitous deer off our property.

But what I appreciate most about our Halo, for that is her name, is her sense of discovery. This commitment to exploration of the surrounding world is not unique to her; every dog worth its salt should share an ever curious nose.

But watching my dog sniff out new areas with all the eagerness and wide-eyed wonder of Marco Polo is truly special. So I try to maximize her exposure to unknown regions to explore.


And she is just as eager to explore as anyone has ever been.

I took her to Turkey Point recently: a secluded, natural area on the banks of the Delaware Bayshore. Its wonder has never failed to capture my imagination; and I was curious to see how Halo would respond to the new surroundings.





First on discovery's unlimited menu: moss. Sphagnum moss: a dense carpet of vibrant color in an otherwise gray winter landscape. Also known as peat moss, this non vascular organism has had a variety of uses over time, including use as a fertilizer or a diaper for Native American children.

Moving on...

Halo's found a fern. Many types of ferns decorate our local woodlands. Whether cinnamon or fiddle-head, these fascinating plants serve as a beautiful under-story accent.


Ferns thrive in moist climates, which explains why in the forests of Britain, I found ferns the size of my head, (bigger than you think). But anyway, good job Halo, your nose has not let you down so far. See if it can find you something in animal kingdom...


Ah, my canid friend has found the remnants from another canid friend, probably a coyote. This wily creature has made his abode in a berm surrounding a nearby pond. Halo knows that this is the most interesting find so far; in this very hole, one of her distant relatives has set up shop, and has done quite well, if the demise of the deer population is any sign.


It's wonderful to watch new horizons of knowledge open up for people (and dogs.) It must be such a joy to be an educator, to sense the smiles form on virgin minds when a new concept is grasped. I see it all the time when I educate others on nature, and it has built the most rewarding type of job imaginable: sharing knowledge with others. It brings to mind the quote which has become a maxim: "If you have knowledge, let others light their candles by it." Not only a maxim, a God-given purpose to define our lives by.

But perhaps the most important discovery of all came toward the end of our walk; discoveries are endless. We found that out on the brisk February afternoon we walked through the woodlands of Turkey Point; up ahead was only one trail left to explore. Halo was fearlessly leading the charge when the woods suddenly opened up to a picturesque vista overlooking the marshes of the Delaware bayshore. We looked on as Black Ducks winged by in their usual brisk hurry. We watched the Great Blue Heron abscond with a cacophony of grunts and squawks accompanying.

But mostly, we watched the horizon, knowing the horizon of discovery to be loaded with possibilities.

Onward, Halo. The discoveries of God's creation are endless.

And we don't want to miss a single one.


---

I am sharing this on Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday.

Friday, February 10, 2012

An Interview with Mr. D.

The heavenly aura filled the room, ebbing and flowing like some half forgotten body of water in man's memory. The lights were very bright, but this did not seem to bother the girl at the desk. No, it appeared as if nothing would perturb her. In fact, a fall from Grace could take place right before her eyes and still not one stroke of her filing would be amiss. She sat there, cool and tranquil, chewing her gum.


I, on the other hand, sat sweaty palm in sweaty palm, staring at the ground. Too scared to move, too scared to speak.

"Excuse me Gloria?," I said, summoning all the courage I could muster. "Could you hurry him up? I've got things to do, and I'm not used to the time zone shift yet. Jet lag is still hanging on."

The secretary looked up at me with the speed of a cow during milking, and said in a most unearthly nasal voice, "Why don't you start walking, by the time you get there, he should be ready."

I agreed.

"When he's ready for you, his door will turn from red to green."

"Like the signs on a airplane bathroom" I offered to lighten the mood. The only light was a lightning bolt and low rumbles of thunder. My nervous chuckles were responded to with demeaning chuckles behind the receptionist's desk.

To interrupt the awkward moment, two enormous gates opened their masses toward us, reavealing a grand stairway.

"Is this the...uh..?" I inquired, not being able to say "Stairway to Heaven". Two apathetic nods were the only reply I recieved.

I started up the steps, and simeltaneously began to think. And judging by the size of the stairway, I had plenty of time to think.

How would I approach him? Cordially of course, but with determination. I had to be completely frank in all my motions. Surely he would respond to this. After all, he was the greatest character builder in the 19th Century, perhaps all of history. If I was honest and frank and to the point, this was sure to gain me a more favorable recpetion.

To be sure, honesty would be a big part of my succsess. He knew the difference between a truth and a lie. As simple as that may seem, he has it down to an art. There would be no buffaloing this guy.

And number one on my list of things to avoid: autographs! This would screw up everything royally. It would show me in an insincere light, which would ruin the whole interview. This mission is too important for that. No autographs. Ever.

"Man, this is taking an eternity!" I bemoaned. At that instant, the stair started to move. "Thanks" I offered the entity in charge of the stairs. I wonder what Led Zeppelin would think of an escalator in heaven.

The doors to his office were huge. I stood in amzement and awe at the beautiful engravings. Soon, I was to enter these doors. Was I prepared? What if I goofed up? Would I get a second.....?

My thoughts were interrupted by the silent creaking of the doors gliding effortessly apart, revealing something beyond all imagination. The room was an exact replica of his office on earth, only ten times more grand than anything earth could ever offer. I stood in awe of its beauty, in spite of the fact that my visibility was limited.

Even though it was hard to see, I saw his figure at the desk. Before I knew it, I was greeted by a hand. Not a particularily welcoming hand, but one that assured me I would be honored here.

"I thank you for recieveing me sir, you're very kind." I criticized every word I said, just waiting to mess up.

"What can I do for you" the kindly yet firm voice intoned.

Do for me? Do for me? What haven't you done for me, Mr. Dickens. Here I am, here civilization is, 200 years after your first earthly cry, and we are not same. We are moved by your characters, figments of your imagination that have taken the world by storm.

Do for me? Why, I would have never survived those boring, monotonous hours between college classes without David Copperfield. Without Bleak House, how different those twilight hours in the late summer would have seemed. Why, in fact Great Expectations and a Tale of Two Cities are perhaps the two greatest examples of sacrifice next to the Gospels themselves...

You, Mr. Dickens have done so much for us, a universe without you scarcely bears thinking about.

But these thoughts never materialized in the factory bewteen my brain and my mouth. They just sat there in backstock, waiting....

He looked at me with a silent tolerance, waiting for me to speak.

"Can I have your autograph? Sir?" I whined for lack of words.

More silence.




----

Happy 200th Birthday, Mr. Dickens! May your works live on well past 200 years!

I am sharing this with Brag on God Fridays.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Hallowed Walls

The chill of a Canterbury Evening is a chill like no other. It really blows my mind, but this is the same chill Thomas Becket must have felt in December 1170, before he met with some knights with a different sense of reverence than he had.

"I'm late for Evensong," I mutter, mad at myself that I can't find the entrance. Didn't the people in the twelfth century have any idea of signage. A simple "Ye Are Getting Hotter," would have been sufficient: but no, I'm left to wander among the cloisters on a moonlit Canterbury evening sans guidance.

I finally find my way into the Cathedral. Once there, I'm pleasantly greeted and directed by an usher to the place where evensong will be conducted.


Inside, I take my seat along with all the other participants. We sit simply and contentedly, listening to the bells ring. I don't know how old the bells are, but with each gong, I feel as if their triumphant heraldings have echoed through the hollows of time.

The bells fall silent; conversations die away among the whispers of the cathedral, and the boy's choir enters.

In the states, I've heard the Philadelphia's boy choir, and they are very good. But the ancient tradition that these boys take part in adds a deeply meditative quality to their high pitched strains. I wonder if these boys appreciate the sacred ritual they're allowed to participate in.

All eyes focus on the choir as they begin to sing. With Psalm book in hand, I think back to the young Israeli King who originally penned these words. I wonder if his spirit is with us now, approving of how his words have survived the ages, to once again be sung by those expressing their love to God.

It was Thanksgiving back in the U.S, so the strange irony that came when the minister approached the pulpit and read from Revelation 16, where 100 pound hailstones fall on people, did not pass me by. I could imagine the joyful hymns and Psalms of praise back home contrasting with this bleak prophecy, and suppressed a sick snicker.

The service broke.

The seats were vacated.

The boys choir made their way to the vestry once again; another days work done.

But I stay behind to ponder a little. I think about all the Kings, Queens and other various rulers who have graced this marvelous hall.

How many souls of historical import have mingled within these beautiful stones.

How lucky I am to be adding my footprints to such a distinguished list of shadows.

Once outside, the wind grows bitterer still, and my coat proves too thin for the brisk, English air. But as I walk away, I witness the moon rise over that mammoth structure.


And the memories of young voices mingling with ancient stone is enough to get me home warm enough.
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