‘May I walk with you a way, friend?’ ‘Yes, of course. Glad to have you.’ ‘Do you know any stories you can tell, as we go? ‘A story..? Yes, I think so. There’s one I’ve been waiting to tell someone.’ And off they went, walking and talking and listening, one foot in front of another, as you do.
Realise that you don’t want to wake up. (p15)
‘It was the beginning of September, the first Sunday it must have been, during the notices after meeting for worship, I asked my friends to uphold me. I told them I was flying to France to the Centre Quaker Congenies, near Nimes, for a weeklong holiday. It wasn’t the flying that bothered me. I have flown many times before and feel fine with that. What I did find troubling and this may sound daft to you but it was the fear I might do something really stupid, like leaving my passport at home or missing the call for the plane. My lovely mum, you see, is 85 and has severe dementia. It’s there now…in the room.
I’d noticed I’d done some pretty inexplicable things recently, not just wandering into rooms and wondering why I was there. You can’t help asking yourself if it’s the start of something…and my handwriting looks increasingly shakey. I remember listening to a programme about someone who’d noticed his handwriting was getting worse, one of the first signs of his Alzheimer’s, apparently. At least, it was for him. Well, at times, I can barely hold a pen. I told myself that’s quite separate, that it had no connection to me at all…just please don’t ask me to do sums or dates in my head! That’s just getting older and having so much stuff inside and, and…over-reliance on calculators and computers, obviously, isn’t it?
So, enough going on, then… quietly in the background’, I told my friend, who nodded, as we made our way along, with the butterflies bouncing over the path.
In the East…we have the image of the dancer and the dance. God is viewed as the dancer and creation as God’s dance. It isn’t as if God is the big dancer and you the little dancer. Oh no. You’re not a dancer at all. You are being danced! (p105)
On the plane on Monday, I was lucky enough to sit next to someone who told me all about bus travel in and around Nimes. “You buy a card. It’s called a ‘BANG.’ For one euro. Then, you pay another euro sixty for your ticket and it takes you anywhere you like, one way, inside the Departement, like a county, only bigger.”
Halfway through my holiday, I did one day take two buses down to the Mediterranean Sea to go swimming for three euros twenty return. It was well worth it.
When I lept out of the shuttle bus at Nimes railway station, I was feeling exhuberant, excited, elated, so happy to be back in France and on holiday in this lovely sunshine. I’d intended to check bus connections beforehand but had run out of time. I’ll find out when I get there. And I did. It took me nearly an hour and visits to three different offices to learn that the D41, ‘Direction Sommieres’ left from Bus Stop 14 every two hours.
A young woman passed by again. “Have you found your bus stop, monsieur?” “Ah, yes, I have. No. 14.” She looked pleased for me but then I told her how, just moments before, I’d realised something was not right. But what? I’d been moving round with a spring in my step. Too lightly, I’d stepped off the bus like a fool with only my rucksack, leaving my holdall in the boot of the shuttle bus with all my worldly goods, well almost. “Oh, no, my bag. My clothes. My books. And a whole week to go in France…” “Je suis desolée, monsieur”, she said to me kindly. “Je suis un idiot!” I looked back at her, shaking my head.
An attachment destroys your capacity to love…there is nothing so clear sighted as love. (p140)
I ran to the front of the station but the shuttle bus had long gone. I thought about what to do. Don’t panic, Be Quiet. I’m a Quaker, I thought of the postcard on my pinboard above my desk at work. I went back to the queue for bus information in the railway station, trying my best to tell the young member of staff what had happened. My French felt very limited but, thankfully, she understood enough to make a phone call for me. “They say they may have your bag, monsieur. Here’s the number. They say to ring this number later.” I thanked her. There was a chance then. I noticed the time. The next bus to Congenies was leavng in 15 minutes. There was nothing more I could do in Nimes, so I went for the bus. Luckily for me, I still had all my valuables in my rucksack. I couldn’t help smiling, when the bus driver took one euro for my Bang card and then one euro sixty for my ticket. I was off.
The bus ride to Congenies takes about 50 minutes. The yellow Edgard buses are air-conditioned and it was lovely just to sit watching, as friends got on and off along the route, some of them, delightful village squares – Caveirac, Langlade, Saint-Dionisy, Calvisson – inviting me to get off too and explore. I started to think, well, maybe, this is not so bad. I’ve lost my bag, that’s all. My clothes. Can that really be so bad?
Deal with the villain of self-condemnation, self-hatred, self-dissatisfaction. (p158)
It was so hot when I stepped down from the bus at Congenies. The church bell in the village rang out four times and there was hardly anyone about. I walked back towards the Quaker house and pushed open the gate. Now, I know enough to go around to the side door and through the French windows but not then. I rang the bell on the old, wooden door, rising up above the steps. Inside, all was quiet. I pushed it again, beginning to hear myself say, ‘Is anybody in?’ and ‘poor me’ when someone started pulling back the stiff bolts. Next, I heard a key – it sounded like a large one – being placed in the lock of the old door. Next moment, it juddered open and I found myself looking up into the faces of two women. “Bonjour, Mesdames, I suis Bernard, d’Angleterre…”, I soared, my words in French ‘I hope you are expecting me’, I failed in English. “J’ai perdu mon sac!”, I crumpled.
The faces belong to Bonnie and Michaela. Michaela helps out with odd jobs at the Centre and lives in the village. She is an artist and a very fine cook, originally from Rumania. She looked at Bonnie, who is Canadian, and, with her husband, David, were the acting Friends in Residence. Michaela looked down at me and said, “Welcome to the House of the Lost Sacks.”
Bonnie’s bag had disappeared too on the flight over. She had been waiting for nearly a week for it to turn up. Each day, the airline said ‘it is in Montpellier. Ah, sorry, no, it’s in Paris, we think. Or it is in Perpignan today.’ It’s possible all three but it might be somewhere else, besides, tomorrow? The airline staff were very polite and said a courier would deliver her case the next day, for sure. I don’t think it ever did turn up. Fortunately, David’s had, so Bonnie got by, wearing David’s t-shirts, left over clothes belonging to the Friends in Residence, away on holiday, and some from Michaela.
…in those words of the gospel: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…Consider the lilies of the field…they neither toil nor spin.” (p114)
“Michaela, Bonnie, would you be able to ring this number to ask if they have my bag for me, please? There’s just a chance, you see…” Michaela, with the best French, rang…and she speaks some English. We exchanged a cultural and linguistic hotchpotch of words and looks, possibly even some Rumanian, till she came off the phone. “I’ve spoken to someone at the Shuttle Bus. They will look into it for you and will ring here later.” “Oh, thank you, Michaela. And you too, Bonnie.” No bag but there was still hope.
For the first time, I was able to take in the house. Bonnie told me a large party had left that morning and nobody else was expected till Thursday, so I could have my pick of the rooms. Apart from Bonnie and David, the Amis Residents, I was completely alone in the place. I had been looking forward to a bit of solitude but, right now, it was the last thing I wanted. I really felt like some company, if only to take my mind off my bag and the nagging voice in my head.
After another ear bashing of ‘You stupid idiot’, I thought I would do something. Eating seemed a good idea. I still had some fruit and oatcakes in my rucksack and, as I stepped out of my room and reached the top of the landing, the Amis Residents’ door opened and Bonnie asked me, ’Would you like a glass of wine?’ “My angel!” I said to myself. “Oh, yes, please.” I took the precious glass of red wine outside into the garden, with my food to sit under the canopy of the arbres. The day was still warm; the wind still blowing through the trees. I took a small sip and felt it warm my veins. I relaxed a little. Still having a conversation, “I’ve lost my bag. Well, then, was that so bad..?”
Later that evening, the phone rang and both Bonnie and Michaela ran into the office. “Oui, oui, ah, oui…oui, oui…long pause. Merci, madame”, and Michaela put the phone down while I held my breath. “They’ve taken your bag to reception at the airport. We can go there tomorrow in our car. I have some things I need to do in Nimes and we can take you to the airport. It is better if we go in the afternoon, so you can go to your French class.” “Really? Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes, of course, I am sure. No problem.” “Well, that is wonderful, Michaela. Thank you so much. I will give you something for the petrol.” “We’ll see. We can talk about it later.”
I felt my spirits lifting. I had more hope, but then looked at Bonnie, smiling at me too. She’d been promised her case every day for a week now and must be feeling really fed up. Every day, she or David rang the airline. “It’ll be there tomorrow by courier, for sure,” they said, yet the next day arrived but not the suitcase.
You don’t chase darkness out with a broom. You turn on a light. (p147)
The French class the next morning was excellent. A group of English and French friends meet usually in one of their homes each Tuesday; sometimes at the Quaker centre too. They read and discuss an article in the papers. That morning, we read one about abandoned villages in the countryside. I found my French was up to it and I loved the reading out loud. I’d hated reading anything out in class at school. Afterwards, we had a terrific lunch with lots of wine, sitting out on the terrace under the shade of a canopy, a sprawling fig tree and an essential borrowed straw hat. Lunchtime temperatures rise to 35°C, even in early September.
The time came to set off for Nimes airport. It was further than I thought, especially at rush hour, but Jean Paul, Michaela’s husband, got us there. I walked ahead of Michaela and Jean Paul into Reception. “Pardon, mademoiselle, vous avez un sac bleu, assez vieux, s’il vous…” “Ah, oui, moment…” And the young woman disappeared into her office, returning with my old, blue holdall. “Voila, monsieur.” And that was that.
I felt so happy to have my bag back. I had my clothes, my new coat, my six books, my sandals…my toothpaste. The previous evening, Michaela had tapped on the French window quite late. “Here you are – toothbrush and paste”, holding out a new pack of 3 toothbrushes. While I stood gazing at them, she said, “Choose one, Bernie.” “Oh, yes, Michaela, merci.” So, I did and still have it as backup. The toothpaste I returned the next day.
My friend asked me, “Did they just keep your bag for you at the airport to pick up, an unmarked bag..?” “Yes, they did. I know. Amazing, really, with everything that’s happening in the world right now…”
Dying is wonderful; it is only horrible to people who have never understood life. p150
The following morning, I was still feeling happy I celebrated under the vines with a breakfast of coffee and delicious, fresh croissants from the local boulangerie and fruit. Carrying my tray outside, I passed through the room where they hold meeting for worship and I experienced the silence.
Michaela came round again that evening. I had given her and Jean Paul some money for the petrol and for helping me. “Too much, Bernie”, she’d said but it was a fair exchange. Standing in the office where David was working, she told us how much it meant to her to be able to help her friends…and people she’d barely knew too. On the way back from the airport, we’d stopped at the hospital, where she’d taken some food she’d cooked earlier up to a young man and his mum, both Rumanian. His mum was at her son’s bedside following a road accident. It was a struggle for them in every way.
After that, we stopped off at the supermarket to buy some things. I wanted some local wine but Michaela urged, “Don’t’ buy wine here. It is too dear. We have wine. Jean Paul is a member of the CAVE, the local wine cooperative.” Later that evening, I heard another tap on the window and there stood Michaela holding out three bottles of wine – one white, one red and a rose – “from the CAVE and here’s a hot meal for you for tomorrow.” She had become like my guardian angel! “Thank you, Michaela. That’s very generous of you.” “I like helping people. When we were growing up in Romania, we had nothing. We were so poor. I don’t forget those days and I like to help where I can.” It left me thinking about my good fortune in meeting friends like Michaela and Bonnie and David, just when I needed them. I couldn’t help thinking that, if I’d not left my bag on the bus, none of this would be happening.
A couple of days later, a group of us met again for lunch back on the same terrace as before. It belonged to Francoise and Dennis. Francoise told a story of how, when she was living in England with Dennis, they were having lunch with his boss. She gently chastised his boss for something he’d said or done, “Oh, don’t be stupid. I wondered why the atmosphere in the room suddenly felt cool. Later, someone pointed out to me that you can’t call English people stupid, not to their faces and certainly not your husband’s boss. But I had no idea. In French, we say it a lot. It is very mild, affectionate, even, like saying you silly sausage. Anyway, it all ended well and we laughed a lot about it later.”
I much prefer the French sense of ‘stupide’ to the English. I’d got my bag back but what if I hadn’t? I’m sure I’d have managed. My youngest son tells me he can get four days wear, five even with care, out of a single pair of underpants.
To give something back to Françoise and Dennis for their generosity, I offered to do some washing up after our meal and mentioned Brother Lawrence to Francoise, mindfully doing the same many years before. And then, because I was in France and because you do, I offered to sing a song, called ‘Butterfly’. We were surrounded by so many yellow and white, big, big butterflies in the garden. So, when everybody was back sat down together on the terrace, I sang, both in French and in English.
“Formidable!”, exclaimed my charming audience. And one more thing I can tell you. Since the holiday, my handwriting is so much neater.
One day Nasr-ed-Din was strumming a guitar, playing just one note. After a while a crowd collected around him (this was in a marketplace) and one of the men sitting on the ground there said, “That’s a nice note you’re playing, Mullah, but why don’t you vary it a bit the way other musicians do?” “Those fools,” Nasr-ed- Din said, “they’re searching for the right note. I’ve found it. (p111)
Well, that’s what happened to me in France. Thanks for being a good listener. And what about you? We still have a way to go. Have you got a story for me?’ My friend paused, “Let me see…yes. Yes, I do.’ We all have our stories.
My friend started telling me this story, as we walked further along the path, winding through the woods under the canopy of the tall trees, shielding us from the hot sun, skirting round the edges of the muddy puddles, following the butterflies…
A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them.
All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings.
The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked.
“That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbour. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.”
So the eagle lived and died a chicken,
for that’s what he thought he was. (p3)
All quotations in italics taken from Awareness by Anthony deMello, Zondervan Press, 2002, which I read during my stay at Congenies. It was one of my six books.