Jonathan’s Sabbatical Blog ♯5: A tale of two countries

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‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ The opening line of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities with its backdrop of the French revolution could equally describe a contemporary tale of the two countries France is today.

One is the home of friends and family we have experienced these last three months, with the national motto of ‘Liberté, egalité, fraternité.’ Although merely travellers from abroad passing through, we have been on the receiving end of those values lived out by so many, including those we’ve never met before. Such as the owner of the guest house on the St James’ Way we turned up at some weeks back. She was, she said, fully booked. The next place? Five miles down the Way. But pas de problème, no problem. A couple of phone calls later she’d found us a spare room with one of her friends in the village. Apparently it’s a daily occurrence to help pilgrims like us. For the pittance of 10 euros we got an amazing bed and breakfast, and for another 10 an equally extraordinary dinner. Whose courses just kept coming.

Hospitality like that happens a lot here. This is the country where ‘bouchon’ means either a traffic jam or the cork in a bottle. Perhaps the connection is that the traffic, like the bottle contents, are usually free-flowing in France. In the unlikely case of a hold-up, pas de problème, because you have regular service stations where the cuisine is definitely haute, and there are now free theatre productions and comedy shows for motorists who stop. It’s the latest gig offered to our son-in-law who is an actor over here. Where else does this happen? Broadway meets motorway.

Tiny French villages we’ve stayed near put on festivals stretching over a weekend with artistes, singers, poets, actors and stand-up comedians on stage in the central square. Once a week or more this is also the venue for the local farmers to set up stalls and sell their produce, thus missing out the middle man. We’ve learnt to buy everything here. The experience gives a whole new meaning to ‘super market’. Two words.

If the French tourist board need a reference on Tripadvisor, they can come to me.

But the same country is also going through the worst of times. Even before the atrocity in Nice and this week’s murder of a Catholic priest celebrating mass in Rouen, there was on this side of the Channel also a sense of deep unrest, anger and national questioning. One cause of the malaise was the threat of more terrorist attacks. Another was the ‘loi travail’, a statute on working conditions aimed at reducing French unemployment but which resulted in weeks of national strikes and the alienation of millions.

‘A waste of time’ was the summing-up of the new law by French national newspaper Le Figaro, a sentiment echoed by others we meet – the campsite owner who fears for his livelihood, the pastis-drinkers at the neighbouring table in the cafe last week, the bus driver regaling his passengers with his outrage at the French president and all those in power. In buses, in cafes, around dinner tables all over the country the seemingly intractable problems of the nation and the continent are dissected and discussed out loud. Often very loud as feelings run high and are mixed with sadness and fear that the foundational values of the country are under threat. Candidates for next year’s presidential elections have to address the clamour for national security: the truck killing 84 and injuring 300 in Nice is the third major attack in France in 18 months.

When it happened on 14 July – just round the corner from where our daughter Joanna and her husband David live – Ruthli and I were with them helping at a youth camp near Valence some 5 hours drive away. That day I was doing the daily Bible study for the leaders’ team there. It was the calling of the first disciples by Jesus, in Mark Chapter 1. With the backdrop of all that is going on around us, I’m thinking what a unique discovery it is to meet someone with a power that is not manipulative, a message that goes beyond the next election and a vision of such authority that it gives hope even in the worst of times.

Many in the local church here believe that this is a moment when the call of Jesus can be heard louder than ever.

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