We Celebrate the Light

Twenty hours after arriving in Iceland, I was starting to feel enclosed by the darkness and anxious for dawn to finally arrive. I had seen the sunset from the airplane mid-afternoon, but by 10:30am the next day, the night felt far too long. Even when the sun came up, it was a dim light, hushed by the cloudy sky.

That night my friend Johanna and I joined a French couple that we had just met and together we drove out to a lighthouse, sat in the car and looked into the dark, hoping to spot some Northern Lights. We were again surrounded by darkness and not even sure for what we were looking. Would they appear like a shooting star, there and then gone again in the blink of an eye? Would they come in slowly or as a flash of lightning? All we knew was that we were looking for some impressive light display, in whatever form it might appear. We were not successful, so eventually we gave up and drove home.

The next morning, Dec. 26, I again found myself staring into the darkness, even though I had been up for hours. I was on a bus to the Southshore of Iceland and was listening to many interesting stories and anecdotes from our tour guide. Then we passed a small church and cemetery. Each tombstone was lit up with Christmas lights, usually outlining a cross. The tour guide explained that in December, the darkest month of the year, it is a tradition to light up the cemeteries like this. She went on, “Perhaps it appears that we go a bit crazy with the Christmas lights here, but in the midst of so much darkness, at Christmastime, we celebrate the light.”

We celebrate the light. Those words stuck with me for the rest of the journey. My thoughts immediately went back to Paris, which has been stained by dark acts of violence and death in 2015. I will never forget in the days following the attacks, the scenes of hundreds of candles scattered throughout the city of lights helping to illuminate those dark places.

And then I thought again of Christmas, which Icelanders celebrate for two full weeks until Epiphany on January 6. And how Jesus, the person traditionally at the center of this celebration, claimed to be “the light of the world.” Celebrating Christmas is to celebrate this light, even though the destiny for baby Jesus would include a night of such profound darkness that even his closest disciples would flee the scene. The light that followed at his resurrection is a light eternal, a light that Christians celebrate every day of the year.

Yet it is interesting that it takes darkness to recognize the light. Or rather that darkness is the absence of light and that light casts out all darkness. So it makes sense that the darker the darkness, the brighter the light shines, the more it is appreciated, and the more we are even at times desperate for it. In so many ways, 2015 was for me a year of darkness and light, so spending the last few days in Iceland during their celebration of light was ever so fitting.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Paris 2015: The Marathon I finally ran!

The Paris Marathon has been on my bucket list ever since I moved to the city nearly five years ago. I first registered for the 2011 edition of the race just after moving here. That spring, I got a bad sinus infection that lasted over a month and basically put a stop to my training.

I tried again for the 2013 edition. I trained hard through a cold and snowy winter and was in the best running shape of my life. I went all out for this one: raised money for an association in India, told everyone I knew that I was doing it, and even hosted a “Marathon party” (which was a lot of fun). Two weeks before the race, I got a stress fracture and had to stop running for six months. So it was the marathon I didn’t run. That was really tough.

Psychologically, I wasn’t prepared to try again in 2014 (I ran two other marathons that year instead). And even when I signed up for 2015, I still felt uncertain about it. But I knew that it was something that I wanted to, needed to finally overcome. I had to at least make it to the start line this year!

Sunday was a beautiful day in Paris and finally I was in the starting corral. I was thankful that the departure area was well organized so that we weren’t overly congested in the first kilometers. This was a pleasant surprise, as the Paris Half-Marathon has been quite a different experience in recent years! Yet I was still a bit overwhelmed by the massive size of this race, especially since my last two marathons have been quite small in comparison.

And so I started out easy and a lot of people around me made me smile. There were people in costumes, and a pair of surfers passed me up after a few kilometers. We ran straight from the Champs-Elysees to the Bastille, a very familiar stroll for me. Just before km 5, we passed by my French church. I was happy to see a few familiar faces outside, notably Anne and Nathan. I gave them the sweater I had been carrying, as the sun was already warm.

I continued on easy and was encouraged to see my Let’s Run Paris friends cheering at km 8. Shortly later we entered the Bois de Vincennes, where I train regularly. Lots of people were running around trying to find a tree behind which to pee. Around km 10 my ankle started hurting (a pain that has been recurring over the past few weeks). I tried to relax it a bit and hoped it would loosen up. I also noticed that a tiny pebble had entered my shoe. It moved with each step, which quickly became incredibly annoying, but I didn’t want to stop to remove it.

The sun was bright and the temperature was rising. I don’t do well in heat, so I knew I needed to be careful to not overdo it. Every once in a while volunteers were spraying cold water which was so refreshing to run through. The run was feeling good and as we left the Bois de Vincennes, I anticipated the slight decline ahead on Rue de Gravelle. The musical groups were great, but at around km 16 I think I almost lost my hearing, it was so loud!

11138501_10153058779446655_6038725072341612948_nWe were returning to the halfway point at Bastille and the sun was starting to get to me. My head was hurting and I realized I was slowing a bit. I thought of this chart that someone posted on Facebook a few days before the race. I’d say it’s fairly accurate. The halfway point can be a bit of a downer, especially if you think about the fact that you’re only half way there. I figured I just needed to push through until km 34 when I would see the LRP cheerleaders again, but some more familiar faces around this point would have been encouraging. Later I found out that Anne and Nathan were looking for me at the Bastille but missed me. If only I had known I would have looked too!

We turned the corner and started running along the river and at this point I remembered standing in that exact spot two years ago, sadly injured but still cheering like a crazy American, “YES YOU CAN! YES YOU CAN!” I was again filled with gratitude that this year I was pounding the pavement rather than standing on the sideline.

People have told me about the dreariness of the tunnels along the next stretch, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. There was, indeed, a long tunnel followed by two shorter ones. The great thing was that they provided shade from the sun. There were also videos, disco lights and what!? Even a D.J.!? And this marked the transition from the “familiar East” side of Paris to the “less familiar West” side. I settled in and waited for how the course would surprise me.

Finally we were approaching the Eiffel Tower. I was in pain by this time, but my drive was still strong. Now around km 30, I wondered if it would be better to incorporate some walking intervals through the refreshment area or to just keep running. But when I tried to walk, it seemed to hurt even more, so I just kept running instead. I tried to make myself accelerate, but it was tough. The uphill segments were not at all appreciated at this point!

From km 32, I started to calculate my anticipated finish time. I was having bouts of nausea but determined to push forward. The kilometers were still passing relatively quickly. I knew I would see the LRP cheering squad at km 34 and sure enough there they were, along with Ivy who jumped on course with me for the last 8km. I was just trying to focus on closing in on one kilometer at a time, still dealing with some nausea, and she brought enough fun and energy for both of us. She was taking pictures, videos, carried my water and grabbed more water for me when we passed the refreshment points. I was starting to feel dehydrated by this point and couldn’t seem to get in enough water. So it was brilliant to have a water angel by my side!

11093191_857429574318318_347116911_n

But there was this thing that was annoying me to no end, that tiny pebble in my shoe! I tried to trap it between my toes, but it continued to bounce at every step. Whatever! And then, much to Ivy’s amusement, we caught up to the surfer men! And of course Ivy took their picture.

 

 

11154765_763539036129_3289397791418764948_oDon’t break under pressure. At km 41 a picture would be taken and automatically posted to my Facebook profile. That kilometer was long as it always is in a marathon. Then came mile 26, then km 42… and at that point Ivy was directed off course because she wasn’t wearing a bib. In my calculations from km 32, I had forgotten to factor in the extra .195, but it was ok because in any case I still finished 4 minutes faster than in Florence. Progressing little by little on this challenging distance, that’s all I require!

However, I was really dehydrated by the end. Proof? I went for over 8 hours without peeing! After my arrival, I felt pretty bad and I knew I just needed some water. But the water station was still too far away. Just before I was about to collect my finisher T-shirt, a volunteer stopped me and called for Red Cross personnel, who then promptly took me to the first-aid tent. There they gave me water and checked my vitals. Before long I was feeling better and was ready to leave, but they wouldn’t let me go because my heart rate remained elevated… for over an hour. Finally I got in touch with Franck and Luvyl who finished after me and came to rescue me after I waited there for an hour and a half. After some serious rehydration, everything eventually returned to normal.

All in all it was a great experience, the Paris Marathon finally conquered. And now I wonder… shall I give it another shot in 2016 or just be content and move on?

11129696_763577563919_543397285074960198_o10505040_761781877489_216000914257180996_o

 

Today is Uncomfortable

I’m a bit shaken right now. In the middle of a rehearsal with a colleague early this afternoon, I saw that my dad was calling. Usually I don’t answer my phone while rehearsing, but I felt like I needed to check in so I picked up and said, “Hi Dad, I’m in a rehearsal, but is everything ok?”

At the same time, my colleague looked at her phone and saw that her mother had called. And so we learned of the shooting that had just taken place in my very neighborhood here in Paris. Time started to slip away as we read news reports in shock. When I saw the pictures, I couldn’t believe it. This is my neighborhood of Paris, my hood. The street I so often run, bike, walk…

When we finally tried to resume rehearsing, we struggled to concentrate. Instead we spent most of our rehearsal time talking about fear, peace, life and death.

Last night I was biking home from my German class, in a bike lane, and a car nearly hit me. I yelled and they stopped just inches from where I passed. It was the closest call I’ve ever had on a bike.

On Christmas Eve, I was in Amsterdam and went with friends to a 10pm service. I didn’t understand much, but the music was beautiful and the evening peaceful. And at least I understood what we were celebrating. On the way back, I thought I saw blood on the street as we were arriving home. Later someone told us that two men had been stabbed on our street while we were at church.

I’m saddened for these lives that were lost and especially burdened for Paris today. Everyone here has been affected. Whether it was interrupted rehearsals, school lock-downs, canceled activities, gatherings of solidarity or deserted streets, we all felt it and saw the effects today in some way.

These recent situations, which have come too close for comfort, remind me of the fragility of life. In an instant everything we hold to in life could be gone. I shared with a friend today how I almost lost my life in 2007. Usually conversations about death take me back to that experience.

It’s easy to get comfortable and to not think so much about important issues of life and death. Sometimes it takes uncomfortable experiences to turn our focus from the temporal to the eternal. Indeed, it was during those days of feeling so close to eternity back in 2007 that I had such a clear focus on what is truly important in life and what is trivial. And the deep assurance that nothing can rob me of what I treasure the most:

“For I am persuaded that not even death or life,
angels or rulers,
things present or things to come, hostile powers,
height or depth, or any other created thing
will have the power to separate us
from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Rom. 8:38-39)

Today is uncomfortable, but it draws my heart to what is really important. So again I claim these words. And I cling to Jesus.

Top Ten Things to do in Paris from a Local!

People often ask me what they should see when they come to Paris. Truth is, I feel incompetent to respond as my daily life here is far from the world of tourism, except for being annoyed with tourists ignoring the bike lanes! (Please, watch where you are walking!) 🙂 So I tend to think that people are better off doing a quick Google search for the top ten attractions to make the best use of their vacation time here. Although I have seen many of the touristic sights (mostly before I lived here), “what to see” really depends on your personal interests. There is so much to discover!

However, because some have insisted, here is my own list. If you shadow me for a few days, these are the activities you might find me doing, although some only on a rare occasion. But here’s a disclaimer: these activities are very specific to my life and interests! So they may or may not appeal to you. Also, since I have to live modestly in an expensive city, all of these activities are either free or quite affordable (10€ or less). I hope you will find something useful here.

  1. Go for a run (or walk or bike ride) in the Bois de Vincennes (or Bois de Boulogne)

2014-01-03 16.44.40It’s incredible that you can step just outside of the city and get lost in a 2500-acre park. Year round, I love running in the Bois de Vincennes. There are lakes, paths that stretch on for miles, plenty of trees, a castle, a floral garden, and a hippodrome. It’s a great place to go for a walk, run, bike ride, picnic, etc. In the summer, you can also catch free concerts in the Parc Floral (5€ to get in, then the concert is free). You can access the Bois de Vincennes from Metro line 1 (Chateau de Vincennes) or line 8 (Porte Dorée, Liberté).

However, I would recommend staying out of the park when it’s dark. The streets of both Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne are lined with prostitute caravans at night and this of course significantly changes the atmosphere from of a place of light, families and athletic energy in the daytime to a place of darkness and illegal activity at night.

  1. Stroll through the Belleville open market on a Tuesday or Friday morning

This is the market where I used to buy fresh produce almost weekly. It’s a bit of a jog from where I live but I took the time to go there because it seems to be the cheapest market in Paris. I could fill my caddy with fresh fruits and veggies for a mere 20€ – a real steal! It is also interesting culturally. Step inside and you will find yourself surrounded by Asians at one end and Arabs at the other, complete with multiple languages and clothing styles. Hold onto your wallet and be prepared to be shoved around a bit as you make your way through the crowd. While the prices are fixed, you would be wise to pick your own fruit, as sometimes the quality is less than desirable, especially when the merchants try to convince you of what to buy. If you exit the metro at Belleville (line 2 or 11) or Couronnes (line 2) on a Tuesday or Friday morning, you will find yourself in the market.

In my continued effort to “go green,” I now prefer the market at Bastille because there is an organic vendor where I can even find kale! More expensive yes, but for my health it’s worth it! Located near Metro Bastille, this market is open on Thursday and Sunday mornings.

  1. Rent a bike for a day

The Paris city bikes (Velib) are my primary means of transportation. For a resident, it’s super easy. You pay 39€ for the year and have 45 minutes free every time you check out a bike. The concept is brilliant: take a bike from one station, ride to your destination and return it to another station. So you never have to worry about your bike getting stolen and if a pedal falls off or a tire goes flat or if it starts down-pouring (I speak from experience!), you can simply park it at the nearest station and move on with another means of transportation. The downside to this system is that there is not always a bike or a free spot available when you need it. However, since there are stations all over the city, you can often find another one within a five-minute walk. A new option allows visitors to purchase short-term passes online in advance.

I should caution visitors to be careful while biking in Paris because traffic can be crazy, especially in the roundabouts. There are a lot of bike lanes, but pedestrians are often in the way and much of the time, you have to share a lane with the city busses, which aren’t very considerate at times. 😦 Because of this, there are certain streets that I try to avoid when on a bike, and I always expect that I’m invisible to most of the traffic out there. I now know Paris quite well and can get around easily on a bike. However, I got lost a lot in the beginning. It’s hard to navigate the streets with a map and still be cautious of the traffic. Getting around on the metro is much easier and straightforward for visitors.

However, biking is a great way to see the city if you’re up for the challenge. Guided bike tours are another good option. Check out Bike About Tours and Fat Tire Bike Tours. I have never used these services, but when I see people on the tours, they seem to be enjoying themselves!

  1. Visit a French church

If you’re in Paris on a Sunday and would like to experience a thriving French church, consider attending one of the services at the Eglise Protestante Unie du Marais at 17, rue Saint-Antoine in the 4th arrondissement (in-between Metro stops Bastille and Saint-Paul). The Sunday services are at 10:30am, 5:30pm and 7:30pm. You can try out your French here, but you will be sure to find some English speakers as well.

  1. Have a picnic in one of the beautiful parks in Paris

You can easily stop in a grocery store and pick up cheese, wine, fruits and veggies and some bread from a bakery (boulangerie) for a simple picnic in a park. Some of my favorite picnic spots are: Luxembourg, Buttes Chaumont, and Champs de Mars. On July 14 (the France national holiday) and on New Year’s Eve you can also see fireworks at the Eiffel Tower.

  1. Have a tea or coffee at the top of the Montparnasse Tower

Most tourists go up the Eiffel tower for the view, but if you would like a more classy experience with a panoramic view of the city, I recommend the Ciel de Paris restaurant, at the top of the Montparnasse Tower. It’s free to access the restaurant, but the service is expensive. So on occasion I’ll go up at around 3pm (when it’s not too busy) and order a tea. It will be pricey, but if it’s clear out, you’ll have a great view! And it’s still less than a ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower. It reminds me of the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, which I always suggested as an alternative to the Sears Tower (sorry, I still can’t refer to it by that other silly name).

  1. Visit the Pavé d’Orsay

A little art gallery on a side street in a chic quarter, the Pavé d’Orsay hosts art showings, concerts, acting workshops and other events to promote emerging artists. Check out what’s on and stop in for a visit, especially if you’re in the area visiting the Musée d’Orsay or the Louvre.

  1. Explore the Paris cemeteries

2013-01-02 13.16.40The cemeteries in Paris can redefine an American’s concept of a graveyard. You can almost get lost amidst the tombstones. Whenever I stroll through one of these cemeteries, I always discover so many interesting things, from the old sculptures to the recent pictures and inscriptions. You can also find the graves of many famous people in Paris.

  1. Attend a concert or opera

Catching a concert or opera will take some planning in advance (if you want to get a ticket for a decent price), but most tickets you can buy online and then print out, so it’s simple to do from a distance. There are two opera houses, the old famous one (Garnier) and the newer one (Bastille). The latter hosts most of the opera productions and the older one is where ballets generally take place. For shows at either location, check out the Paris opera website. Ticket sales open on a specific day for each production and if you reserve the same day, you can get tickets for as little as 5€ (although you may have an obstructed view at this price). For orchestral and other classical music, check out these two concert halls: Theatre des Champs-Elysees and Salle Pleyel. And for a vast array of concerts and other shows in Paris, look for tickets at this site.

  1. Get a falafel in the Marais

It’s a bit hidden away, but it’s definitely worth finding for an excellent falafel. You can sit in or pay less for take-away. It’s called “L’As du Fallafel” and is located at 34, rue des Rosiers, 75004, Paris. The closest metro stop is Saint Paul on line 1.

Now for the more touristic things to do in Paris, please ask google!