Eric and Johannes Becker enjoy the breeze on a boat crossing the Loire River. Johannes, from Germany, is an evangelist with Agape France in Nantes, and has an uncommon love for and attachment to the city.
I enjoyed being in Nantes. It is a beautiful city near the western coast of France, where the Loire river is widening to flow into the ocean. There are university students there, and artists, and some fascinating historic buildings. It also boasts tons of sidewalk cafes, even more than Strasbourg, despite the fact that the weather seemed to be changing every five minutes…
But the single most important feature about the city to me was that it’s a place where the wind blows. Since it’s founding, Nantes has been a port city, a place of comings and goings, a place that saw countless maritime explorers leave French shores, a center of the less glorious but very lucrative slave trade (of which the residents saw nothing, but which brought them considerable wealth). I can’t help but feel all of this bubbling under the surface when I’m there. It comes out in the wonderfully useless machines artists and engineers design and build in the reconverted shipyards. You can also sense it when you walk the streets and see the wealth of colors, building designs, nationalities represented. There are sculptures and murals and a surprising number of green parks. In the group of students who joined us for discussions and Bible study at the Eglise Reformée in downtown Nantes, there were a surprising number of nationalities represented. We spoke French and English with Polish, Ivoirian, Togolais, Malgache (from Madagascar), and Marrocans, just to name the ones that come to mind. Oh yes, and I remember the Egyptian student who brought us home-made pastries that first Sunday. I had only been there for a day or two when I realized what I so appreciated about the place. The wind blows. Let me explain what I mean.
In Strasbourg, where I lived for eleven years before coming here to Waldersbach, things are settled and permanent. Lots of them simply don’t change. There are protestant churches there still named after saints. Now that is Lutheran, perhaps, but it is also a sign of deep, established tradition. There is something beautiful about the traditions. There is a long-standing oecumenical movement in Strasbourg, for example, between Protestants and Catholics which sometimes surprises people from other parts of France. There are many churches and a wealth of theologies, but in the end, Strasbourg is also a victim of geography. Although situated on a river, Strasbourg was never an important port city like Nantes, and after being fought over by French and German armies, Strasbourg would rather defend her own than open to new cultures. True, they just inaugurated the new mosque yesterday, but this is also a subject of much debate. Alsace remains a place where alsacians are for alsacians, and traditions are important. It’s a rather monocultural place, a place where foreigners have a hard time entering into friendships with locals. We once realized that our closest friends in Strasbourg are mostly people who have also come from other places in France. With the large exception of our friends at St Nicolas church, none of our close friends were alsatians. Strasbourg is also in a sort of a basin where there is not much wind. At times, during the summer months, the pollution is visible, hovering over the city. And I remember some stifling summer nights when there was not even a breath of air to cool us off.
But in Nantes, the wind is blowing. It felt to me like a place where anything can happen, where something new is just around the corner. So many times, as we were walking and enjoying the city, I would close my eyes and put my face into the wind and revel in it. It was a strong wind, especially on the bridge over the Loire. That wind might carry you away somewhere. Or it might bring something interesting, any time now.
The Eglise Réformée Protestante de Nantes
Now that I’m back home in Alsace, I remember Nantes with fondness, and not a little envy. As we slog along under the weight of these traditions, seeking and praying and longing for renewal, I remember the wind and wish for it. But as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind goes where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
And I have heard the wind whistling through the evergreens on the hill above our home…
(photo credits : Bekah Franklin, artist and AD2012 participant)