Saturday, September 4, 2010

Moscow surprised me!


Moscow far surpassed my expectations. There was stunning architecture, classy, fashionable woman, self confident and busy. Beautiful cars on the streets. Fabulous restaurants at night. Spectacular hotels. The latest technology.
Everybody has their own points of reference and therefore their own first impressions when visiting a new city. My visit to Moscow last May was influenced by my childhood in France. I only moved to America 22 years ago when I married Doug, so most of my ideas of Moscow and the Russian people were formed earlier.
One of the great surprises was the risky and sensational architecture of the many new buildings rising above the city. On the one hand there are the monotonous rows of Soviet buildings from earlier times, although the size and scale and sheer numbers of them far exceeded my expectations, but on the other hand, there are amazing new buildings with daring style. While most cities are staid and tradition bound, with changes only made after great political and public debate, Moscow is obviously still a living city, with enough freedom for very dramatic things to happen.
The traffic was worse than I thought it would be. The pollution was assaulting.
But the greatest impressions were the prosperity, the advanced technology, the flush of success and self confidence of the people. Moscow is booming, one of the most dynamic cities in the world. If Paris has a self confident, even lazy sense of pride and tradition, Moscow is a city of the future, a city on the move, a city that is going somewhere and it knows it.
Our favorite restaurant was The Academy, which was walking distance form our hotel, The National, overlooking Red Square. The Academy had wonderful salads and pasta, call it “Moscow Italian.” We ate their six times and never tired of it for a moment.
When we came out of the restaurant one night the street was packed with tanks, military vehicles carrying rockets and towing howitzers. They had turned this grand boulevard into a parking lot for the next morning’s May Day parade through Red Square. The young people and older citizens alike expressed no awkwardness about this old Soviet tradition. If anything there was a sense of community pride at the show of strength. Still a super power with which to be reckoned.
My husband has visited the far reaches of Russia and I know there is poverty only miles from the city centers, I just was a little unprepared for the beauty and prosperity of its two jeweled cities.
In St. Petersburg I was as impressed by the Hermitage as I expected to be. And as I compared in my mind the glories of that great museum with the Louvre of my own country I was amazed at how a few generations of rulers grew so competitive and so corrupt, each trying to outdo the other, that their egos and ambitions bankrupted their countries and reduced masses to extreme poverty, early death and eventually ended their forms of government.
It is old history but it never seemed so connected, Russia, France, Austria, Britain, how the ambitions of each monarch impacted the others and how they all brought revolutions down on themselves. The irony of how they competed and thus ensured their own mutual destruction became suddenly clear.
When I visited Florence last summer, I could see it all over again.
One other thought. As a new American citizen now I was struck by how generous America still is and yet how bankrupt she is. It is as if she gives out of habit. As if she still thinks she is rich.
In Russia the people have a more realistic and less arrogant view of themselves and their role. They are focused on taking care of themselves. Not the world. One can see the determination in their enterprises and in their faces. Where this will all lead will not probably be known in my lifetime. But I imagine my children will see its impact.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lessons From Friends

I was born and raised in a village near Segre, France, only moved to Canada in 1988. So my early friendships were forged in France. In my little village my friends were almost entirely family, siblings and cousins and I learned much from them.

But my friends outside the family opened the world to me.

Michele Menard: We met as teenagers, working together in a Catholic Outreach for patients in assisted living facilities. I needed a friend and through Michelle I learned that if you get busy helping others the friends will come to you.

Cecile Rousseau: We were kindred spirits who spent much of our college years laughing about our respective situations. Cecile taught me how to have fun when you are a penniless student and the world is crashing down all around you.

My adult friends are built around children and career and mutual faith.

Eulah Ryan, is an 84 year old, pastor's wife from Trinidad in our community Bible Study, whose steadfast faith is an example to any ladies young and old. She put her knowledge of human nature and theology to work, uniting our whole community of Christians, from Catholic to Episcopal to Baptist to Pentecostal. I learned from Eulah how to emphasize what friends have in common instead of looking for the differences. And how to keep praying until the answer comes.

Lila Leib, my dear pastor’s wife, taught me the power of transparency. Lila shared her life with me without pretention and it led to an instant bond. Now, Lila’s parents were Swedish but Lila was born and raised in America and this transparency is a gift that Americans seem to have. Europeans often hide their lives. It is not uncommon for a European parent to live and die without telling their children that they love them. And Eastern Europeans consider transparency to be something more than bad taste, they see it as downright dangerous, even life threatening. Lila has helped me become more transparent and vulnerable and it has brought me richer relationships and experiences.

Lola Yoder taught me the value of emotional strength. Everyone depends on Lola, who is even tempered, always kind, and seems to balance work, family and her social life without a sense of panic. When there is a death in her circle of friends, Lola and her husband are right in the middle of the action, carrying the emotional burden as they anticipate what will be needed. Lola lives out her faith.

Kristy Donaldson taught me how to be loyal. When Doug experienced tough times, and everyone else could have dropped us, and we were too numb to act or think straight, Kristy and her husband Dave, jumped in to take charge. She had nothing to gain.

Treche Phipps has taught me the art of discretion. She is a dedicated registered nurse, a good one. And she is always on duty, steady, full of joy, keeping her patients calm, whether they are at the clinic or at a picnic at someone else’s home. Treche sees crisis at the hospital every week. So when she encounters it in her private life, she just laughs and goes to work, doing what can be done and not worrying about what can’t be done and entrusting everything to the lord. She never panics, always makes you feel included but is nevertheless discreet at the same time.

Melanie Kaminski, also a registered nurse, has taught me the joy of laughter. She turns my problems into moments of hilarity and gives me new perspective whenever we talk. When I encounter false stories about me or Doug or my friends on the internet I used to be outraged. Melanie has helped me to learn how to be amused. The Proverbs say, “Laughter does good like a medicine.”

Gayle Burns taught me the power of obeying God’s voice. She did herself and it has transformed a community.

Amy Staggs taught me the power of service as an act of love. She and her husband are “on call” to work with the youth of our church. In spite of demands from work and career and family, they find time to be leaders for others too.

Narla Breithaupt taught me that love is not just a feeling it is action. She took in a child that no one else could help. Not because she was lonely or needed more work to do but because it had to be done and no one else was going to do it.

Carrie Suneson showed me how to delight in young people outside my own family. While it is our tendencies as parents to focus and worry over our own children, Carrie is not only a great mom, she joyously embraces other young people around her, with the heart of a youth pastor, she is the field manager of our Edge Clubs, our student Christian group outreach to the public schools.

There are so many new lessons to life that I am learning and almost all of them are coming from others. As the weeks go by I will write about them.

Through my husband’s work I have had the privilege of meeting presidents and kings. “I just met your Prime Minister,” an American president once told me at a White House State Dinner, as if France were all mine. But the lessons I have learned from my daily friends are far more profound than any I have seen or read about in the lives of the great public figures of my day.

Laugh, love, be vulnerable to friends, stay calm, obey God’s voice, be ready to put your faith in action. What more could anyone do to find peace and happiness in this life?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Finding Faith in America

I’m not the first French visitor to America who has marveled at the faith of its people. De Tocqueville had the same observations, 200 years ago. It’s not hard to understand why. Those early Americans had to brave the wild animals, the uncultivated forests, the Indians who were fighting for their own way of life. It took six months to get a pair of scissors from the old world, they had to have faith in God.

I suppose that early spirit of the nation still has its influence. I can tell you that it is a refreshing innocence for a visitor from the land of Voltaire.

The fact is that I am now an American citizen, having waited fourteen years for the privilege of being sworn in by the Attorney General in his office in a private ceremony. It made up for all the years of paper chasing and it was a tearful, moving moment for me and my husband and children.

It hurts me to read other people criticizing people of faith. And it especially hurts to hear people of faith criticizing each other. Joel Osteen is now the target of many religious critics. And no doubt his popularity with the masses creates jealousy as well as doctrinal concern.

But I love to hear Joel Osteen. And I still love to hear Dr. Robert Schuller. Their positive messages of hope and inspiration help me and early in my life, the words of Schuller, gave me a thirst for God and drove me to His word. It astounds me to hear others accuse them of shallow doctrines. What can be shallow about coming to God?

I first started listening to Schuller in Canada. I was there in the 1980’s to learn English and his positive messages were a startling contrast to the legalism of Christianity in my French village. I have since met Dr. Robert Schuller and most of the leaders of American Evangelical Christianity. Many of them have flaws, as we all do, but I cannot find fault with the message of love, hope and faith. I need to hear it. My children need to hear it. Our marriages need to hear it. Our nation needs to hear it. The world needs to hear it.