La Vie en Noir

{PART OF THE MEA CULPA SERIES OF POSTS _ where I post things I should have written a long time ago… yeah…that’s on me. Apparently I reposted this in Dec 2019 during my MEA CUPLA series…but this one was tagged 2011 so it showed up not as a new post.}

{{{This is a post I apparently wrote in 2011, while living in France. Not sure if it was intentional, but I never published it to the blog. So here it is. Despite really wanting to edit it now, I left it exactly as I found it, except for one typo’d sentence that was really unclear. I decided to let my 2011 self speak for himself.}}}}}

So I’ve had two people comment that from the sounds of this blog – all is rosy in La France.  It’s probably true that I have at some level not sounded off about what bothers me more about living here. That probably comes from just by being an ex-pat in a foreign country you tend to bump into lots of others here as a non-native.  And if there is one thing that seems to come easy in that situation is all too often a rather scathing,  often unending, critique of the French, their culture, the way they drive, their bureaucracy, the schools etc. etc.

I have made a very conscious effort since arriving here to try to disallow myself from falling into that trap for two reasons:

  1. the French didn’t invite me here – I chose to come
  2. the French didn’t ask for my input – it’s their country

There are I think a number of mitigating factors that make living in France quite enjoyable.

One – we’ve lived here before – so we kind of knew what we were in for with some things.  We knew what to be prepared for, remembered what kinds of things tended to be annoying last time – and set our expectations accordingly.

The second factor is that while France is a very foreign place compared to Edmonton – it’s not the kind of place where I stick out like a sore thumb as I would in South-East Asia, or in Africa.  If you were to see me walking down the street – I would (at least I think) look no more out of place than I do back home. Perhaps a bit above average height – but that’s about it. We could be from here – and it’s not until people actually hear us speaking that they know we’re not from here. And even then – there are lots of expats etc living in the Grenoble area – so it’s not likely we’re the first people that someone has run into that does not have French as their first language.  There are lots of North African Arabs in the city, the Universities attract a lot of African and Asian students – so I imagine me being here is nothing like a tall white dude walking around downtown Kampala.

I think the other thing to me that makes a lot of the issues more tolerable – is that in a lot of ways the things that can be annoying – are often just massive pendulum swings of things that I find annoying about North American culture.

Here: the customer hardy seems right  – but back home I find “the customer is ALWAYS right” to breed a fake sense of appreciation by store clerks, lots of entitlement by customers, and a generally synthetic exchange between the two.

Here you seem to have to wait in line, all the time, for a long time, for no apparent reason – it is really maddening.  However, this causes me to think about how everything back home MUST be done as soon as possible, in the least amount of time, in the fastest possible manner – no matter what.

Yes- the bureaucracy here is astounding, the time delay and paperwork required to get anything done (we still don’t have our French health coverage etc – which we started applying for last September) is at times beyond what can be imagined. However, I have yet to meet a French person who does not share that frustration.

So yes, there are a  number of things that I find difficult about living here – but in all honesty a lot of it is not living here specifically – but being outside of my comfort zone, being in a foreign place, living someplace where things do not come naturally, my reflexes and instincts more often fail, and the obvious answer to me usually does not apply.

majestic

There’s a lot of ways to describe the Rocky Mountains, but the one that seems to come the most naturally, and the most frequently, is majestic. We’ve lived in the Alps for years, but there really is something about these mountains that is truly unique. Our family has been incredibly fortunate to get a few camping trips out into the mountains over the last little while.

Our first trip proved how fickle the weather is in the mountains, and despite it being July, we were hit with freezing cold weather and smacked with a thundering hailstorm. Camping up by Jasper we tried to get some hikes in but kept getting rained out. The kids did get a nice paddle in down a creek that connected several lakes. We did at one point have to meet the kids at a bridge and have them pull the boats out so we could throw Matea in the car and rush her to Hinton where a friend of a friend allowed her to borrow a desk and internet so she could write her last final exam. Not likely the most ideal situation for scholarly work, but our kids have learned few things more than flexibility and working in sub-optimum conditions.

This week we headed south to Kananaskis, closer to Banff. We got some nice hikes in, saw some amazing scenerey and had a great time overall.

It was a full-mountain experience including waking up to a grizzly bear a few meters from our tent the first morning. A conservation officer came to shoo it away, then a mother and her cub showed up and walked through the campground. So quite a bit of authentic mountain experience before breakfast!

SNOW!!!

We went on hikes three days in a row, totaling about 40km. It was quite a bit – especially if you are an 8 year old! However, it was all easily worth it in her mind, because SHE SAW SNOW. This was a pretty big deal for Alma. She started asking as soon as she found out we were going to the mountains, and whenever she saw snow up on the peaks asked if we could hike up there.

Why yes, yes I DO want to build a snowman.

One ‘little hiccup” on our third day hiking was a broken fibula, which Nicole had to walk the 5km back down the mountain on. So – that was kind of a rough ending to a great weekend

An amazing time in the

Beautiful

Majestic

Canadian

Rocky Mountains*

*you’re supposed to read that last bit like Roman Mars from the podcast 99 Percent Invisible. If you don’t know what that should sound like – you really ought to give it a listen. One of my favourite podcasts of all time.

Stress Testing Everything

There is a product design theory that says f you really want to find out if something will do its normal job well, look for how it works when it’s stressed. Sometimes this is done via extreme users and extreme use situations. Designers will give a new keyboard design to a hardcore computer gamer, or conversely, try a new car design with someone who’s never driven before. To see if the design of your carrot peeler will work well for most people, you give it to seniors or someone with Parkinson’s.

Just plain worn out.

When we lived in France I knew some product engineers for heavy equipment design at Caterpillar. They would drag those things up to the glacier by the ski town of Val d’Isere as they could expose the machines to extreme temperatures and basically try to break them.

I remember as a kid IKEA used to have a similar thing in its giant maze-like stores. Inside a plexiglass case was a chair, or kitchen cabinet, which looked exactly like the ones for sale next to the see-through box. However, inside was a kind of abuse-robot, that mimicked opening and closing a drawer, but did it once every 3 seconds, all day, every day. There was a digital counter and you could see that the thing had already endured the equivalent of several decades of normal use.

THIS.
This is what it sometimes feels like is happening to us right now.
In many ways we are all the chair -and we’re going to find out just how much we can take before we break.

Similar stress-testing is done by cardiologists who make someone with a heart condition walk on a treadmill to see how their heart can handle a full cardio load, or by regulators trying to see if banks of other institutions can handle theoretical disaster scenarios.

The idea is that if you want to know how well something works, you try to break it. If you want to know how well it will hold up, you stress it out. If you want to see how and when it will bend, or become misshaped, or become a deformed version of itself, you must push it past what it normally would endure. That’s how you find when it will break, and where.

Honestly, it feels right now like the systems we have that in many ways we as societies are being put through a stress test. The COVID pandemic and its responses are pushing us as individuals and collectively as societies, in many instances to the breaking point.

If you hold the unwavering belief that the free market is always right, that government interference only brings inefficiency, there are situations now that push that. What about if entire industries (like air transport) seem to be (or seemed to be when I started writing this) on the verge of collapsing. Should the government jump in and help out those companies when they risk failing? If free-market economics work, then someone’s price gouging on hand sanitizer should not be stopped. Supply and demand working together to arrive at the ‘correct’ price are one of the most fundamental underpinnings of free-market economics. A few months ago there were stories of people buying up all the disinfectant wipes at a Costco and then reselling them at a massive markup out of their car. The general consensus was outrage. So if people shouldn’t be ‘gouging’ prices of Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer and toilet paper when it’s hard to get, why can movie theatres charge more on a weekend or prices of plane tickets around Christmas?

Should responses be controlled at a national level, or left up to local authorities? Some places are seeing widespread coordinated efforts, others where disjointed responses are hampering efforts. Some are seeing centralized control ignore regional differences, and others have local responses that seem apprpriate

to the breaking point…and then a bit more

Just last night we were talking with someone who said they knew three different marriages that have broken up since the start of this pandemic. Seems that both people being at home essentially all the time was a new kind of stress test.

The way we educate kids seems to be stress tested. What is the role of the classroom, of teachers, of elementary education? How can it work if it is forced to fundamentally shift?

Should we be for “our country first”, close our borders in case of problems, and look out for ourselves? What about when we need to coordinate on vaccine development or need international cooperation to solve these complex problems.

Related, we are part of a larger group of people working together as a society – until there is a perceived shortage of something- then I take what I think I need for myself.

I don’t think the stress test is showing that these things: free-market economics, nationalism, individualism etc. are wrong. I think that we’re just seeing their limits in more acute ways than we normally do. In many ways, it’s a good opportunity to see limits and to understand more the benefits and potential shortcomings of all these things that we often don’t question.

I think we’re probably even feeling it in the church. Over the past few centuries, much of the church has focused on “the Sunday morning service” as its raison d’etre, And even more so, “the sermon”, that 20 minutes or so monologue sits at its core for many. Now that most people in the world are streaming these things to their living room, I think we’re starting to feel the deficit in this perspective. In the Bible, the church is described as a body, as a family, as a community. Never as a lecture hall or theatre or living museum.

Some churches follow a style dripping with tradition to lend authority, others have lasers and close-ups of singers with fancy hair to prove cultural relevance. But these things must be losing their impact on almost everyone as they are streamed on a screen from your brunch table.

Honestly, my biggest hope is that at the end of this pandemic, we won’t go back to ‘normal.’ There were so many things that we did just because we did them, and now we are finally in a position to question them. Cities and towns that closed-off downtown streets to cars are realizing that a walkable downtown is actually possible. Flexibility in the way that people work that helps families. New understanding of how our kids are educated. Clearer insight into our very relationships as we spend time together in new ways.

This current season is one of loss – unprecedented loss for many people on the planet. At the very least we owe it to ourselves to learn something from it. So that collectively the giant scar that is left from this pandemic will lead to not just us telling our grandkids stories of ‘how bad it was’ but also “that’s when we learned to…”

twenty-four

Today marks exactly 24 years since Susan and I got married.

Twenty four years!

What’s shocking to me is just how much 24 is an ‘old people number.’ I can remember as a kid when some relatives celebrated their 25 anniversaries. Those people were old. We’re not old. Certainly not.

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I guess the other thing that really stands out as I look back over these 24 years is that you really don’t have any idea what your life will look like when you start out together. We thought we wanted to have kids, but of course, had no idea what our kids would be like. But our kids are such a core part of who we are now that it’s impossible to imagine what our lives would be like without them.


One of the things about being back in our old house in Canada is finding old photos to go through. It’s interesting for us…and super entertaining for the kids. So why keep that enjoyment from others….
when we had three small kids…which I’m pretty sure at this point we thought were ‘big kids’

When we got married we were both in liberal arts undergrad, Susan in Religious Studies and me in History. Even at the time, we weren’t sure what we were going to do, but man we never would have imagined where we went.

we were in India when – apparently we were 12 years old – and it was very, very hot.

We moved for Kazakstan a little after our first anniversary, to live and work there for a year. In many ways that experience, as mixed as it was, opened out eyes – collectively- for what living overseas could look like, what working in a foreign mission field may look like.

our first time in France – apparently 549 days before the year 2000

We ended up living in France, two times, for a total of eight years. Two of our kids were born there. Prior to moving there, neither of us had even travelled to France other than a few days as we were moving back from Kazakstan, and neither of us had anything beyond Anglophone-high-school-French. The kind of French that really is pretty bad, not because of what/how it was taught but because at the time as a teenager you can’t imagine you’ll ever use it.

We’ve changed a lot, and we’ve been through quite a bit. We’ve been hurt, we’ve hurt each other. We’ve experienced so much joy, sorrow, adventure, disappointment, love – and we’ve done it together.

The date in the corner there says it all – Aug 1 , 1996 – our honeymoon.

We were talking with a couple the other day coming up on 28 years, and they noted how you’re not really married to the same person through that time ( referring to something I think Tim Keller said about being married to a different person every year). That totally resonated, I think especially for us since we got married quite young and have gone through a lot since. I am not the same person I was when we got married. I look back on that guy – so young, so naive. So selfish, so sure of so many things. Had never really sacrificed much for anything – certainly not for anyone but me. Thought I had a firm grasp on God, what following Jesus meant. I never had been through much heartache, had no idea what real fear was, or honestly real deep joy, or actually much else.

Susan and I have both changed a lot over 24 years. A lot. In some ways looking back at who we were when we got married is like looking at someone else entirely.

Marrakesh, Morocco – with 1-year old Jonah who may or may or may not have had chicken pox)

But I guess that’s what life is. Perhaps the most significant things we learn are when we uncover that we don’t know what we don’t know.

As we spend more time experiencing life, one of the things that happens is we realize how little we know, and how much there is we cannot ever know. That’s why people who have it all figured out make me so nervous. Whether it’s people who think “it’s so obvious what we should be doing as a society about COVID” or people who have a theological system that creates neat rules about God that explains everything. But I suppose all that is for another post.

Christmas 2002

What this is about is one of the few things in this life that I am sure of.

I made a very, very, very good decision 24 years ago that I would never change. When I look over the ways I have changed, all the good ones are Susan-related. No person has taught me more about compassion, and concern, and empathy, and grace, and love, and faithfulness than my bride.

So while there have been some tough times, some scary times, that round off the amazing, and the joyous — I would never, ever, ever trade in these past 24 years for anything else.

Well, I made it to 46.

My birthday was last week, and as I often find myself doing at this annual life-marker, I look at what others had done by my age and the ole’ “who died at my age” question.

So I’ll tell you:

Pierre Currie, husband to Marie and Nobel prize-winning chemist & physicist, was hit by a horse-drawn wagon on the streets of Paris and died when he was 46.

Oscar Wilde, David Foster Wallace, actor Philip Seymore Hoffman and even John Fitzgerald Kennedy never made it past 46, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Antoine de Saint Exupery, and F Scott Fitzgerald, all died at 45. (So partially it would seem, being routinely known with three names puts you at an unacceptably high risk of death in your mid 40’s)

On average, on this planet, one could expect to live to 71. Of course, that fluctuates widely depending on where you live. In Canada it’s 82 (one of the highest in the world), in Burundi it’s 61 (one of the lowest)

I think a lot of times on my birthday I get hit with a kind of reassessment mentality. I look at what the last year has meant, and often I am tempted to examine what I accomplished. That tends to never end well. Especially when I look at the names like the ones in the paragraph above: accomplished actors, presidents, Nobel prize-winning scientists, writers, scholars, thinkers who have shifted society. They accomplished this before they were as old as I am now. And then I look at what I’ve done. That doesn’t feel super great. Of course, that is an incredibly unhealthy and unhelpful perspective. It reduces human value to human performance, and that’s wrong in so many ways. But honestly, that’s for another post. Today I’m cognisant of something else.

Normally I look at “what have I done when I made it to 46″ and focus on the ‘what have I done” part. This year it’s the second part of that thought: “I made it to 46.”

This birthday, I am painfully aware that I almost didn’t make it another year.

Almost exactly 5 months ago today, as much as it’s still hard to accept, I was almost killed. The reality is, one of the last things I remember before being strangled unconscious for the second time was a man coming at me with an AK-47 machine gun. It was loaded, his finger on the trigger, and when I regained consciousness that beating had left me with muzzle-shaped bruises on my chest, and broken and bruised ribs.


There are events that change you, permanently. Sometimes its things we learn, that open up our minds. Learning to read, is perhaps the most notable of those. Sometimes it’s a tangible marker of a change like getting married. Sometimes it’s an event like the birth of a child.

There are times I’ve come to understand things that have fundamentally changed who I am. There are certain books, or hearing people speak that have allowed me to understand God, or the true nature of forgiveness, or grasped love in a new way.

I’m quite sure that attack will be one of those things, but only the passage of time will show what impact it has.


I have strange memories that are tied to certain images, sounds, smells. Certain smells return me to my Grandmother’s house at Christmas. A certain type of shoelace reminds me of that time used one to repair my 1980 VW in a thunderstorm at night in the middle of nowhere on a prairie highway. I have vivid mental snapshots of the evening my little brother was hit by a car when we were walking to a local church for a kid’s program. Details stuck in my memory that there are no pictures of, no one else noticed, that I still take up space in my mind. Those have been there for almost 40 years since I was in second grade.

Memories are strange things, I can fully remember completely nonconsequential conversations with people. Where we were standing, what we were talking about, 20 years after the fact. Then there are events that people tell me happened, that it seems I should recall, but I honestly don’t. It seems that the more dramatic – or traumatic – experiences seem to get priority in our mind’s storage system.

Our trauma counsellor keeps reminding us, that what we went through was an event of enough significance that we don’t fully understand it. Apparently trauma of a certain level actually rewires the subconscious part of our mind. That’s why despite sleeping well (which is a huge blessing in itself) we are still very often tired and feel worn out. Our minds only have a certain capacity, and right now part of that bandwidth is still used up as our brains try to recover. That’s why despite liking to spend time with people, we feel the drain of being around others. Even though consciously we enjoy it, our minds are likely still reeling from a perceived threat and betrayal that on a subconscious level, our brains are trying to protect us from a repeat. That’s why someone pretending to hit someone else can make my heart jump and give me a mild anxiety attack as just the thought of violence still feels so real that it takes me back.

So five months on, I wish I were further along the path to a full recovery. I wish that my voice/throat still didn’t bother me, or that the scar tissue in my leg still didn’t make my left leg stiff every time I stand up. I wish my kids didn’t have to get through all the things they have gotten through, and are still working on. I can easily get angry that those men chose violence and greed and my family will be paying the price for who knows how long.

However, I am immeasurable grateful.

Here I am. I still get to be Susan’s husband and my kids’ Dad. I’m more aware that as a mere mortal I don’t have control over the number of days I have here. That was always something that I knew to be true, it’s just a lot more real now.

I know people often say things like that after a near-death experience, or when someone close to them dies. I guess now it’s just me who is the one saying it, the one being grateful to be here, instead of the one told to cherish every day.

Of course, there are no guarantees I’ll make it to my next birthday. There never are. There never were. However, I’m more aware of that now, and my prayers that start with “thank you for this day” mean a lot more than they did before.