In most towns in France, it’s inevitable that one will stumble upon at least one very old church. These impressive structures are often found in the center of a village or town, and if you don’t know where you are going, they can also be a useful landmark for finding civilization in a small village. Despite the fact that they are frigid on the inside due to the stone walls, these constructions are a welcome and comforting reminder of the old; the things we try to preserve as original rather than continuously change. Their presence demonstrates that there were still certain things that we aren’t constantly trying to update within the era where we are seemingly attached to our laptops and smartphones.
Within the mélange of retailers, restaurants, convenience stores and pharmacies, Julie’s family stumbled upon one of these churches.
“Let’s take a quick peak inside,” said Julie’s mom. Julie had been into at least ten similar buildings since beginning the trip with her family, but to tourists especially they are alluring masterpieces in their antique beauty. They meander down the aisle through the church admiring the trademark features of stained glass, pillars and intricate architecture and pause at a rack of postcards next to the door that is advertising photographs of the building before exiting. Before they realize someone is standing beside them, an old woman approaches Julie’s mom and starts speaking to her in French which is met with a confused look.
“English?” the woman answers her expression of non-comprehension, “Where are you from?” They have no choice but to answer her so they say they are from the U.S. and are visiting for the holidays.
“Come, come,” she says without regard for anything may be going on to do that afternoon. Everyone is too confused at what’s happening to protest so they follow her across the street where she pauses and plants herself facing the church. She’s standing between the four of them and the building and she points to a statue situated at the top right corner beneath the roof.
“It is Mary,” says the woman, “She is placed at the top right corner to protect the house.” They all gaze up at the Mary holding her child. It is an unassuming statue that does not have the imposing quality characterizing the inside of the church with its high ceilings and splendid stained glass. Unless the statue was pointed out to you it didn’t really catch the eye, but now it seemed to be an important facet of the church.
“Do you see how she is holding the child in front of her? She never looks at the child. In any Christian painting or statue she is never facing him; he is always looking forward.”
“I didn’t realize that,” said Julie.
“You didn’t know? That is because the child is not for her; he is for the world,” She says with conviction. They all take a moment to appreciate this and then the woman speaks again breaking their silence.
“You are from where in the U.S.?” She asks them, now seeming more curious about the group of tourists she’s been lecturing for the past thirty minutes. They say they are from the east coast near D.C. and then sensing a lull in her lecture, they take the opportunity to exit, thanking her for the interesting talk.
Julie was writing a story later that afternoon to try to relax and calm herself down with the gentle rhythm of words on a page and the soft clacking of the keys on the laptop. She was trying to write a romance but there was a old rule that said you should write about what you knew and she realized she didn’t know enough about the topic. It was always possible to go out and conduct research, but that could be difficult and messy and perhaps even impossible for such a topic.
And she didn’t know who she was writing for anymore. In the past there had always been a reason to write; a goal to accomplish or a reward to gain. Either to write an essay to earn a grade in a class, to defend one’s research for a thesis later on, or to apply for a job: all of these circumstances were inextricably tied to a goal, but perhaps telling a story for it’s own sake was a more difficult task.
Later, when dining at restaurant after placing their orders, they received their plates with a surprise of herring on their salads.
“Oops, didn’t know what hareng was,” said Julie. Now that it was established that hareng was actually herring in English it seemed like an obvious translation that should have been simple to figure out.
“We’re not going to learn all the words on the menus in one week,” said Julie’s father, “Surprises are fine with me,” he said, heartily digging into the herring salad, “You’re going to have some great writing material from this trip.” They start recounting their adventures of the day, including the old woman who is a seemingly noteworthy character.
“I was just skeptical about her intentions,” said Julie’s mother, “I thought she was trying to sell us a tour.” You couldn’t say she was a crazy lady; she had too many hard facts to be labeled as such, but she wanted to impart some piece of knowledge onto any passerby’s willing to stop and listen.
“Maybe she didn’t have an agenda,” she continued, “She could be a retired college professor who doesn’t have a class or students to lecture to anymore. I feel sorry for her.”
But there was a subtle goal: she wanted tourists to leave France with more than a few souvenir postcards and pictures of the Eiffel tower. This agenda wasn’t tied to money, nor could it be measured in any precise or accurate way, but what one gained from a story was the experience of going to a different time and place. Amidst the mess of reading maps, struggling with your foreign credit cards and figuring out transportation systems, you can temporarily lose sight of the reason for the journey. However, once you found it again in an unforeseen encounter, the effort usually seemed worth it.