And now for a word…………
Europe has proven to be a true eye-opener. Travelling through Italy, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland presented me with a variety of ways of being ‘European’. The differences between each of these nations were more noticeable than I had ever expected. Language, culture, customs, national traits, even the landscape – all differ sharply, and provide insights and clues to the diversity I encountered in the peoples of these lands.
Originally my plan was to do as much of the journey on foot as practicably possible. I have had to change my plans and utilise a different mode of transport and accommodate an unexpected change the Lord has shown me to be necessary. The distances involved in travel, the cost of a prolonged sojourn, and the necessity of a side trip to another continent precluded walking for the greater part of the journey. Flexibility has always been a built-in element in my whole approach to this undertaking as it resides in the Lord’s hands to determine all aspects of this journey for me, consequently resorting to hiring a car for a week and driving to visit the key sites [and do some exploration on foot] relevant to my novel’s storyline presented me with no real regrets. In a great sweeping oval I travelled my intended route; setting out from, and concluding the journey in, Turin, Italy.
What follows [with consequent grammatical, stylistic and structural inconsistencies] is a combination of log, journey outline, and reflection on, some of the experiences – the joys and hazards – of travelling alone in unknown lands; of encounters with people and places – the very landscape itself; and of circumstances and events, unfamiliar and puzzling, disconcerting and uplifting. Enjoy the ride……………..
Turin, Italy to Lyon, France
Arriving safe and sound in Lyon, France, I had thought to do but a short stint of driving this first day. As it was, I did not actually get away from Turin until about 11:30am following a 9am vehicle pick up. Having caught the Turin Metro [underground] to Lingotto station and then a cab to the car rental company – the start of the journey seemed easy enough. The car was ready for me – but – NO GPS. My eyes rolled back in their sockets involuntarily – I freaked, you could say, for I had very deliberately ordered a GPS. A solution was quickly arranged but involved travelling about 50 kms across the city to the airport to pick up the device – but with no map, no Italian! and almost no idea! The young man at the car rental firm hurriedly gave me an idea – of where to go and how to get there…………. I drove off full of hope, and within a few minutes was lost!
In short order, following some moments of prayer by the side of the road, I decided not to get anxious or upset, and to act trustingly in the Lord’s care and simply treat the situation as an adventure and an exploration. Possessed of a vague general sense of how to get back to where I started, I drove around for a while – about an hour. Slowly beginning to re-familiarise with left-hand drive, and get my bearings having been over quite a few streets a number of times, I navigated to what appeared to be a main road which I thought might be heading in the right general direction of the airport. And, lo and behold – airport symbols began to appear on signs above the roadway; I merely followed these intermittent pointers to the airport. A little trouble finding the car rental place created a momentary blip on the success radar, but nothing I couldn’t deal with by this stage.
Then – the car rental people informed me they only had a GPS that spoke Italian. Most apologetically they offered me an upgrade, for no extra cost, to a car with a built-in GPS – and a very lovely upgrade it was too! An Opal Astra Station Wagon with all the bells and whistles! A much larger car [the one I booked was a Fiat 500 – the smallest available]. After having driven both now – the Opal wins hands down – far easier and more pleasant to drive. Six on the floor manual and diesel – the Opal Astra was more comfortable, safer, quiet, cheaper and a lot more ‘solid’ to drive. The two cars were chalk and cheese.
The GPS was fantastic, very clear and accurate with a cultured English woman’s voice that made it especially easy for me to understand – glad it was not an Australian voice that might have made it more difficult, particularly in high traffic and noisy areas where quick lane changes and rapid turns were required. The English woman’s pronunciation was flawless and crystal clear.
Destination set, the motorway beckoned. Largely devoid of vehicles, I took the liberty of taking photos through the windscreen while driving. A few shots missed their intended targets but the task was accomplished without too much distraction or fuss. Holding up the camera I aimed in the general direction of the target mountains or valley and hoped for the best, surprisingly I achieved the much needed goal of a catalogue of landforms – of ways, and paths and tracks; of mountains, lakes, rivers and valleys. At times pulling over to the road’s shoulder and getting out I made more comprehensive surveys of the scenery. The landscape between Turin and Lyon fixed firmly in memory [mine and the camera’s]: I had what I needed. This approach is the one taken throughout the journey – consequently most of the photos are not suitable for publication, but nonetheless serve my purposes perfectly.
The morrow demanded an early start; out of bed, feed, packed and gone by 8:30am to arrive in The Netherlands by evening. A night of sound sleep was welcome in the coming.
Lyon, France to Undisclosed Location, The Netherlands
Driving all day for many hours: France – Lyon, Dijon, Nancy; Luxembourg; Belgium – Brussels, Antwerp; The Netherlands – Middelburg, Bergen op Zoom, and my ultimate destination.
Across the undulating, rolling fields and wide and open motorways of France, the contours of Luxembourg’s forested hills, planted groves and gracious gardens the way opened before me. Belgium’s breathtaking beauty, low hills, and thickly planted forests gave way to the masterwork of the hand of man – The Netherlands; broad and flat plains, created, reclaimed, and built from the wastes – foundations founded, formed and fashioned; beauty constructed, productivity elicited, order imposed. Every tree, every plant, every house, every garden, every road, every building – its proper place, arranged and ordered to a predetermined plan. Its beauty the construct of human will, ingenuity and energy.
Arriving at my destination, nightfall upon me, I drove the back lanes of tiny villages and hamlets and wandered the quiet and lonely lanes in search of a place to stay for the night. The task dragged on, minutes became hours and still no success near to my final goal. Relenting I resorted to the precious GPS and headed to the holiday resort of Bergen op Zoom. Arriving within an hour of initiating my GPS search, I quickly began seeking a hotel for the night. The town was quiet, not much activity at all apparent. Locating a hotel and going into the bar, which was full of holidaying Dutch yachtsmen, I requested a room for the night.
No problem – many Netherlanders speak excellent English – I took my key, ascended the narrow winding staircase, threw open the door and found a comfortable well appointed suite.
Unpacking and settling in, hunger began to make its presence felt. Heading down stairs I enquired at the bar for any restaurants within walking distance. A few were pointed out on a local map that were a 10-15 minute walk away. I headed out and soon came to a Dominos Pizza store. That was it. I immediately decided on pizza; it was much like any Dominos in Australia but with a few local twists – their own meats and cheeses, etc. The pizza was delicious! Satisfied, tired and ready for a good night’s sleep, in short order I was soon in an unconscious state.
Undisclosed Location, The Netherlands to Koln, Germany
Obtained plenty of photos of the right spot on the Netherlands coast – not at all beautiful, but the right spot nonetheless. Also got shots of the local flora – some rather specific and interesting – discovered in a native plant regeneration area – a least that is what I think it was – walking in the area verboten! Also got some good shots through the window of the car [again] and on foot from the surrounding area, of the dyke at this spot – awesome! [Sorry these photos are not included for obvious reasons].
I have decided that although The Netherlands is pretty, I would not like to live there. Everything, and I mean literally everything is a human construct – even the very land surface itself. The place is totally dead flat – like a pool table, the forests, the plants by the sides of the roads, the fields, the houses, the factories everything is in straight lines, I am not exaggerating, literally everything bears the mark of having been orderly planned, planted, constructed – even down to the weeds and low plants by the sides of roads. It becomes depressing not to see the randomness or chaos of nature. Chaos is not the exact word I am looking for but it will do. There is no wildness – no wilderness. Truly, I am not exaggerating this – it is totally ordered and organised down to most minute aspects. One great thing was the ubiquity of walking and bicycling paths – and again, I mean they were everywhere! Where there is a road, there is a cycle path. And they are used – people cycling all over the place even out in the countryside – old and young alike. Because it is flat, it is easy going. The Dutch however genuinely have a great love of the environment and do all they can to maintain and enhance it.
I am in Koln, Germany. Had an easy trip here. Went to Dusseldorf first but there was a major exhibition in the city so no hotel or hostel rooms available. Continued down the road about 40kms to Koln and got a room there. Have done a lot of driving around the inner city areas of both cities – very narrow little backstreets and alleys. And, right through the heart of Koln [Cologne] to the very door of the famous Cathedral.
The first hotel I put into the GPS was right next door it, but there were no parking spots so drove around the city for about an hour – didn’t have a clue where I was or where I was going [the same in Dusseldorf] but it was interesting and fun being lost in a foreign city without a clue! Eventually, I thought it best to head out of the city centre. Managing to get onto a major road and I started following it – after about 20 minutes a large hotel appeared, so eventually turned in there but was told no rooms were available – fortunately the concierge phoned another of the company’s hotels – an available room – relief. About 15 minutes drive away through dark, windy and narrow back streets – and I was there! Both German cities – Dusseldorf and Koln – look spectacular and beautiful, clean and well ordered.
Driving through the German countryside proved an interesting experience. The Germans have a fetish for order second only to the Dutch, who are fanatical about it. Both countries have everything in straight lines and neat squares everything is all set out ‘in order’. As I noted above, the Dutch have travelled further down this path. The Netherlands is a completely man-made environment – without exception, even down to every tree, every garden being neatly square and again in lines – you really have to see it in person to take in the full impact of this. The Germans have this same obsession but because they have much more space to play with there is the occasional slip up when something random appears. All the forests in Germany are planted – at least the ones I saw were, and were thus all in lines – beautiful trees and gorgeous colours but unimaginative – tedious to the eye and mind. These two countries I could not live in because there was nothing obviously ‘natural’ in their construction. I found it becoming a great burden and distressing to think that all these millions of people had little or nothing of the wild world – at least in their own countries. These are things I need. All things considered however, Germany itself is stunning – as is The Netherlands.
Apparently this hotel was formerly a Franciscan Convent. It is not too far from the city’s Cathedral – right in the centre of town. I now have the distinct impression the Lord wanted me out of Germany. My still small Voice said He has a reason for bringing me to Strasbourg, but did not say what it was. I like what I have seen of the place so far – a bit like Inverness in being low key – not as nice, but pretty in its own way.
Yes, Strasbourg – a surprise for sure, but I will explain further. Firstly, the trip was quick and safe – no problems at all and only about 4 hours from where I was in Koln, Germany. Now for the interesting bit: I was talking with the Lord in prayer this morning and was looking forward to actually visiting the Cathedral in Cologne apart from driving up to its main doors, and then moving on to Stuttgart – these plans were strongly in my mind. That was when the Lord told me He did not want me to go to either place. I was taken aback somewhat, especially about Stuttgart for I have wanted to visit the place for many years. I asked the Lord what this was all about – why He was asking this of me. He simply said, this trip was about visiting the places for the story, and seeing the landscapes in particular. This I have been doing even while driving, especially while driving. Seeing a great deal actually, and getting lots of photos from the car while driving. And it is all strongly imprinted in my mind as I mentioned before. So the real purpose of this trip has been successfully achieved. Besides, I have loved the driving. I have always loved driving – and now I have driven in Italy, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany, and will head to Geneva in Switzerland tomorrow.
You may wonder why I would expend so great an effort to merely drive through all these wonderful places and not spend time exploring and sight-seeing – that is a fair question. My response would have to be that I am prepared to be a fool for Christ if it comes to that, for I follow what I believe to be the Lord’s own Voice that I ‘hear’ and to which I am obedient – just as Francis of Assisi was a fool for Christ, ridiculed, disparaged, and attacked as mad [I am no saint, as many who know me would attest, but I seek to emulate Francis’ example]. He has become the most revered and loved of all the saints of God and has been identified as possibly the most Christ-like person who has ever lived. It was to a former Franciscan Convent that the Lord brought me yesterday, [I believe Francis interceded for me and helped me in the first instance to find this place – it was one of the very last of maybe 80 different Hotels on a list on the GPS in the car]. When I saw it – I thought it may be the right one for me. I phoned ahead and someone had just cancelled, and that room was the only one available – a triple room, which I was given with a twenty percent discount simply because I requested it. It was way up on the top 5th floor with exposed beams, quite old I think. I was very comfortable there – it felt like good things had happened in that room – a lot of prayer over many, many years. There I spent a day in the quietness and serenity of that upper room – time for prayer, reflection and the resolution of personal issues that had been distressing me for a long time.
All monasteries and convents take in guests and have times for retreats and spiritual respite and growth.Years ago I discovered a Buddhist Temple and Monastery – a couple of hours drive from where I lived in Sydney – a special place for quiet reflection and meditation – not that I am a Buddhist – but the Buddha taught many of the same things Jesus taught, and often expressed them in helpful ways. I believe God somehow spoke through him to a people who did not know Him – He gave him and them light, and for that I am thankful. In all honesty I can honour the Buddha as a fellow human being, a man who sought the truth and sought to live it – genuinely – and for that reason I believe God will be compassionate towards him. That Temple in Wollongong became a medium of great spiritual comfort and encouragement for me, where I learnt to see beauty in stillness and in customs and traditions unfamiliar to me. My stay in that old Franciscan Convent was special in a similar manner – I was meant to go there – take time to be still and know the wonders of God’s healing grace and to observe the miraculous unfold – I know now I was meant to be there.
Strasbourg to Geneva
Again I have driven many miles, for another 4 hours, in pouring rain, mist, fog, overcast skies and brilliant sunshine, to arrive in Geneva safe in the Lord’s care, having crossed back into France and now being in my hotel about 15 minutes drive from the centre of Geneva. Literally on the border of Switzerland and France, Geneva is essentially split between the two countries, although the French part has a different name.
A pretty little place but certainly nothing out of the box – except for the lake that is, which is special and beautiful. Surrounded in large part on one end by the city, it is quite large and a magnificent blue. From the promenade on one bank you can look across the lake to the incredible fountain and beyond to the snow covered peaks of the Alps proper in the distance – maybe 50 kms or more away. They were clearly visible as I had blue skies and a pleasant breeze. For awhile the snow poured streaming from the distant peaks as a fine white misty cloud coming from their very tops. The stirring wind must have abated as this display settled and ceased fairly quickly.
I took many photos; hopefully there will be a few good ones. There were crowds of young girls there – singly, and in smaller and larger groups – all around the 17 to 20 age group. As they walked past me sitting on a bench at the side of the road, I could hear them speaking all different sorts of languages, mostly English and French, but German, Spanish and Italian, and others too. I guess they all must come to Geneva after graduation from High School or College. There were groups of American girls too, not to mention some sleazy looking Middle Eastern men in their 20s to 40s hanging about too, one caught me watching him, I had my camera in my hand at the ready too – he eyeballed me, with a faintly disdainful look – so I eyeballed him right back – I was dressed in my Army style camouflage pants and dark green tee-shirt, heavy green and brown jacket and my hiking boots, and unshaven and pretty rough looking; almost ex-military I suppose [a little bit of self-delusion here!]. We eventually broke gaze at the same time. The whole situation reminded me of the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson – an ex-CIA agent whose 17 year old daughter gets kidnapped in Paris, by Albanian gangsters for prostitution. Obviously, he has to save her……….. I must admit I felt not a little concerned for those kids all just wandering about thinking life is all wonderful, and unaware of the characters eyeing-off the merchandise so to speak, at least that was my impression of what they were doing. That was my adventure for the day, and a concerning one at that.
Back now safely situated in my hotel room, I reflected on the nature of the world in which I found myself. For me it all started as a Journey into Hope – as you can probably tell by now [after reading all my articles on this blog], I do not always view things as they are in the mundane world we live in. I admit I have a romanticized, hopefully spiritual, view of the world – I would like to believe it is a more pure and real and hopeful and loving view of the world. There is far too much negativity and evil in the world for my liking – I want to view life as something wonderful and precious and as a gift from the Lord. He has helped me to begin to see the world in a different light as it could and should be, as it is and will be – perhaps a little in the way He sees it, and us.
I am fortunate and blessed that He has opened my eyes to the TRUTH – now I can see something of what He sees – only a pale reflection but enough to see something of the glory of the Lord. This is one of the changes He has wrought in me. I love Him, I listen to Him because He speaks to me and tells me wonderful things of His love for me, for all those I love – AND FOR ALL HE HAS CREATED. HE WANTS TO BRING EVERYTHING BACK TO HIMSELF, EVERYTHING – EVEN HIS WORST ENEMIES – HE LOVES THEM AND GIVES THEM LIFE, AND SUSTAINS THEIR VERY EXISTENCE, DESPITE THEIR REBELLION AND HATRED OF HIM – THAT IS THE GOD I LOVE AND WORSHIP AND ADORE – A WORTHY GOD – WORTHY OF ALL I COULD EVER RETURN TO HIM AND AN INFINITY OF ALL ELSE – MY LOVE, MY THANKS, MY UNREMITTING PRAISE – HE IS THE ONE!
This is the God I have come to know – who speaks to me – who tells me all these things in the still quiet Voice that speaks in my heart and mind – our GOD IS LOVE!
These are the important things I want to say to you all. His love is in me in a new way – not that I am perfect and perfectly able to live this vision out – I am still a weak and fallible man. But, I have caught – been given – a glimpse of the glory of the Lord our God – and that slight glimpse has radically changed me. I can never go back to being the man I was – that man no longer exists.
We have to be His love to this dead and dying world – through who we are, how we live, what we do, how we love. We are His exemplars. WE ARE HIS PEOPLE AND WE NEED TO REPRESENT HIM ACCORDINGLY.
Geneva to Turin
The final leg of this trip was without doubt the most spectacular. Mt Blanc and the Tunnel through the Alps were truly mind boggling. To stand before the highest mountain in Europe and gaze on its majestic bulk! The immensity of the mountain – massive and overpowering, vast and windswept, is beyond anything this poor Antipodean has ever encountered previously. I felt humbled to be in the presence of one of Lord’s statements of power.
The Tunnel [11.6 kms long] beneath the mountain also, is almost too difficult to appreciate. The audacious genius of the designer, the ingenuity, skill and perseverance of the workers who crafted the finished product – such a bold and positive statement of faith in the mastery of man over nature!
Turin reached, the GPS continued to guide me flawlessly to Joe’s apartment in the heart of Turin. Parking the car a couple of hundred metres down the street, I dragged my belongs to the external door, entered, unlocked the inner door, took the lift to the second floor, slid the key into the apartment door’s security lock, turned the double-sided key through 360 degrees the necessary 4 times, gave the key the appropriate little jerk – and I was home.