(This post was originally published on my personal blog, Of Postcards & Ink, between 2015-2016.)
“Déjà vu” is one of those French phrases that’s found itself seamlessly embraced and adopted into the vocabulary of almost all Anglophones. When directly translated, the words mean “already seen” and carry with them that strange sensation of having already lived through something. That, at least partially, describes how I felt as I hopped, once again, on a train from Paris to Strasbourg but this time, as a more seasoned traveller, a few days before Christmas in the middle of winter, and with a dear, dear friend. Having now spent six months in Europe, I’ve developed a certain appreciation and enjoyment of time spent in transit between one city or country and another, aboard a train that’s travelling at a couple hundred kilometres an hour. I like their rhythm, and I like the weightlessness of being suspended between two places, where all anxieties of purpose are taken care of and where, at least for the time being, my destination is set. As I watched the French countryside flitting by through the train window, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far God has brought me through this journey. I found myself watching my homesick and worried self from afar in my mind’s eye – the girl who was still feeling the acute heaviness of having left loved ones behind while watching the year abroad ahead of her stretch out for what felt like an eternity, shoulders tight from carrying the perpetual uneasiness that comes from travelling alone and being several oceans away from everything that is familiar, safe and home. While the worrier in me is very much still there, by being thrown into the deep end, God’s graciously honed my wisdom, willingness to step out of my comfort zone, ability to self-reflect, appreciation for His creation, general know-how about living on my own and looking after myself, and ultimately, my reliance on His providence, sovereignty and strength, despite my vulnerability.
But before I go on heart-eyed rants about the gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, beautifully decorated streets and mulled wine of Strasbourg, and let’s back-track a little bit. A little over a week after I finished my final exam, I woke up to the glorious sounds of my alarm clock blaring at the ripe hour of 5:30am and prepared to head out to CDG airport, hand-painted “bienvenue” sign in hand (obligatory French flag colours included), to meet Iris, whose plane was scheduled to arrive in Paris at 7:10am. Walking into CDG airport triggered so many sensory and emotional memories of the 13th of July, when I had first arrived in Paris with little more than 40kg of luggage to physically keep me company. That place will always be filled with mixed emotions for me, I think. But this time, I was able to add some incredibly joyful memories to that melting pot, as I waited with eager expectation at the Arrivals gate, eyes peeled for a familiar face. I don’t think either of us were ready for the wave of emotion that hit us both as soon as we made eye contact – joy, homesickness, familiarity, fullness of heart, love, thankfulness, shock and much more found us wrapped up in a tight hug with tears in our eyes.
The time that spanned the trip from the airport back to my apartment were bursting with conversations shared and words of excitement, though we noted how we almost strangely didn’t feel like we had to make up too much lost time, since we had Skyped almost weekly since I initially left Sydney. I’m incredibly thankful for God’s kindness of maintaining and continuing to intensely grow our friendship, despite the oceans and time zones that have stood between us. That afternoon saw an obligatory baguette and pain au chocolat of welcome, before spending the following day and a half leisurely wandering around parts of Paris, as I began to show Iris around the city that I’ve come to call home.
After couple of days in Paris, Iris and I headed off to Strasbourg, eagerly anticipating her famed Christmas markets that we had both heard so much about. Having won annual awards for the world’s best Christmas markets multiple years in a row, Strasbourg isn’t at all shy about parading this title, perhaps most evident in the lit-up archway that spells out “Strasbourg, the capital of Christmas” in huge, cursive letters. The photos below will probably capture the atmosphere and Christmas-y vibes better than my already slightly-faded memory of it can articulate, but I think part of what gives Strasbourg’s Christmas markets their own magic and special flavour is the city’s historically perfected mixture of French and German influences. Iris and I spent our fair share of hours (and euros) wandering through the cobblestone streets and along the rows of wooden stalls which displayed vast arrays of artisan goods, edible treats, cauldrons of mulled wine and everything in between, with their vendors offering petites degustations (little tastings/samples) and warm conversation. Particularly after sunset, there was a tangible excitement and cheer in the air, as the city’s huge and ornately Christmas trees were lit up, streets twinkled as they were transformed into winter wonderlands and the chill in the air was combatted by all the more cups of mulled wine and hot crepes. During our time in Strasbourg, it’s safe to say that we ate our way through an appropriately satisfying number of roasted chestnuts, Nutella crepes, gingerbread biscuits and the like ;)
The highlight of our time in Strasbourg, however, was found in the company of the Kings and a few of their friends from church and GBU on Christmas Eve. To give a bit of context, P and S King are two Australian missionaries serving in Strasbourg, who are, in part, supported by CBS and I’d been in touch with them while they were on home assignment back in Sydney before I began my exchange. Broadly speaking, I’d spoken to them about the spiritual life of France, potential churches I might be able to join in Paris and how I might be able to get involved with the GBU here, and they had also put me in touch with a few of the staff workers here in Paris. Not long before Iris arrived, I’d mentioned to them that a friend and I would be spending Christmas in Strasbourg and had asked whether they knew of any churches that would be holding a Christmas service that we could go along to. One thing led to another though, and before I knew it, we found ourselves invited along to the Christmas Eve dinner that they were hosting at their place! In short, it was an incredibly lovely night, filled with new friends, good food, reflections on the true meaning of Christmas (complete with a “the names of Jesus” crossword in French), hospitality, great conversations and warm company. I’ve included an obligatory self-timer photo from the night in my Facebook album if you’re interested in having a look there. An added blessing was that the Airbnb apartment that Iris and I were staying in was a quick two-minute walk from the Kings’ place, so we found ourselves contentedly wandering home at around 2am, thanking God for such a wonderful way to ring in Christmas Day. While being far from home and the people and traditions that we’re each used to celebrating Christmas with, the kindness of the Kings and their friends was such a precious reminder of the true meaning of Christmas and how the birth, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ allows us to know the God of this universe as our Father, and to enjoy fellowship with others He has welcomed into His family too, no matter where in the world we are.
Christmas Day itself was relatively quiet, with Strasbourg moving significantly more slowly. We spent most of the afternoon wandering through the city – past the temporary ice skating rink, along the river where swans were serenely gliding, through the university quarter and back to the Cathedral, where they had a lovely nativity display laid out. The next day saw us spontaneously decide to buy tickets for a boat ride that would take us along the River Rhine, complemented by an audio guide that explained the traces left by French and German periods of Alsacian history in the city’s present-day architecture and traditions as we drifted past and even to the section of Strasbourg that houses a range of European institutions (I got pretty excited about this). We finished up there just in time to watch the sun slowly dip behind the horizon and cast the river and neighbourhood in a warm, golden glow, before preparing to cross the border and head to Switzerland the following day. Looking forward to sharing those stories, memories and photographs soon too! x
I’m sorry for the belatedness of this post and the subsequent anachronistic prayer points that are relevant to my current situation (back in Paris) but not-so-relevant to Strasbourg! I decided not to bring my laptop with me while we were travelling, so I’m currently playing a huge game of catch-up in the writing and photo-editing department. Thank you for bearing with me, friends!
Thank God for the gift of deep friendships and the opportunity to spend time with Iris – whether that be on our travels or in Paris. Particularly after six months of starting afresh in a new country in almost every area of life, including friendships, it’s been such a blessing to enjoy the physical presence, company and conversation of a dear, dear friend and sister. This quote from George Eliot rings true: “Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” Please pray that as we spend our remaining week together, we might serve each other well and intentionally, and that God might continue to use us to sharpen each other in our godliness and character.
Please pray for my peace of mind and heart, and for opportunities to rest well before the semester officially begins. As I look ahead to the rapidly approaching second half and semester of my exchange, I’m overwhelmed by a mixture of excitement, anxiety and lots in between. I’m excited to be able to jump into the swing of my daily and weekly commitments and to continue growing in my relationships with people at church, uni and GBU, etc., equipped with six months worth of know-how and tried-and-tested elements of life here in Paris, but also anxiously waiting with bated breath for the periods of stress, feelings of inadequacy and waves of homesickness that will inevitably come crashing down on my shores. Please pray that I might not drift too far down these roads of worry and instead cling fast to the Father, whose peace transcends all understanding. Please pray that I might be able to rest well in His word and that He might fortify and equip me for all that’s to come.
As always, I’d love to continue hearing about what He’s been teaching you recently too, and how I can be praying and caring for you as you look ahead to the year stretching out before you! Bises x