Early morning is early morning, and 4:15 AM is a prime example. I woke to the sounds of Roch and Scott loading up the van downstairs in preparation for our trip to the South of France. It didn’t take long for me to pack and get ready. We’d be leaving some of our things here in Reims since we would be back within the week, but nevertheless I took most of my things with me – you never know what you’d need, and if you didn't bring something, you'd certainly end up needing it.
By 4:35 AM we were on the road, making our way through the dark and empty streets of Reims to the toll road just outside the city. At the toll booth, we took one of the magnetic paper tickets that recorded your "start" point and proceeded down the road at 130 Kph, or thereabouts. There were a number of cars and trucks already on the road, and it rained intermittently for the next several hours. The problem wasn’t so much the rain as it was the water thrown up by the cars and trucks that passed us or that we passed. Sometimes the water that was thrown up obscured virtually everything in front of us, as if an instant rain torrent had occurred.
Scott went quickly to sleep, while Roch helped to keep me alert with general conversation and planning for the week ahead. We’d turned on the all-France music and traffic station – advertised on the road every once in a while – and we listened as descriptions were given of the various roads and congestion spots throughout France. As the morning progressed, the “A4” between Paris and Lyons became more a more a virtual parking lot. At one point, apparently, it was gridlock for 13 km. This is the time when most of northern France goes on vacation to southern France, something that the campers and packed cars that passed us going 180 Kph attested to. By way of the advice given on the radio, we avoided going through Lyons on the way to Grenoble and instead took roads that went around that city.
After some 300 or 400 kilometers, I thought it would be a good time to stop, so we pulled off the road into one of the occasional rest stops with a gas station, stores, and all the rest. In the parking lot, as soon as I’d turned off the engine, we all proceeded to sit there and nap for about twenty minutes, listening as the rain pelted the roof of the car. Then Roch and I went into the store for some food and coffee. Thus restored, we continued on our way. Noticing the signs along the road, we gave up the chance to go to Switzerland or to Italy - both were now within driving distance - and proceeded obediently toward Grenoble and Parmenie as our GPS directed. Along the way, we would see small villages at a short distance away from the road, whose small streets and quaint squares would have been very different from the smooth, straight, efficient highway that we were driving on right now. Both were welcome.
Just before 10:30 AM we pulled off the toll road and proceeded to the booths where we would pay for our journey. The lines here were long, but we thought that the “credit card” row would probably work best. Some ten minutes later, when it was our turn, I placed my ticket in one slot and my VISA card in the other, only to find out that this toll booth only took American Express. So now it was a scramble for the back-pack in the back that had Roch’s credit cards, among which was an American Express card, while I tried other cards that I had. While the people behind us must have shaken their heads at this guy who kept stuffing different cards into the machine, Roch ransacked through his stuff until he’d found his wallet, and happily the machine was happy with his American Express card. Although the screen was so bad that we couldn’t see how much the journey between Reims and here had cost, and the receipt part of the machine was either broken or non-existent (nothing came out no matter how many buttons I pushed), at least the bar in front of the van raised and we were able to make our escape.
Some thirty minutes later we had gone through several small towns, and after Izeaux came to the Parmenie turn-off. Thankfully, the rains and cloudy weather that we’d experienced all day had begun to dissipate, and now there were just large clouds in the sky that broke up the sunlight streaming through. Driving into the Parmenie property, we noticed a bunch of tents pitched on the large lawn in front of the chapel. We subsequently found out that three groups of young people were there for a camping / retreat experience. This location is special to the Brothers because it was here that De La Salle came on an extended retreat towards the end of his life - a place already filled with a long history that dates back to Roman times. It was here that he found both quiet personal contentment and an understanding that his work with the Brothers was not yet complete. Although he wished to remain here, he was called back to Paris by the Brothers, and Sister Louise - a holy, simply woman who was both a mystic and friend of De La Salle's and who "owned" the place - told him that God wanted him to continue to be with the Brothers he had founded.
We went in and re-acquainted ourselves with the Brothers, almost all of whom had been here when we’d come last Easter. We were soon settled in our rooms and joined the community for lunch in their dining room, gazing out of the windows at the wonderful vistas just beyond the property. The Brothers were most gracious with Scott and I, who knew so little French, and Roch of course was very helpful in translating when necessary. Some of the Brothers knew a little English. We all got along just fine.
After lunch, the three of us went to “lay down for a while.” Two hours later, we again stirred and began filming & taking photographs throughout the property. We concentrated on the vista of the Grenoble valley at one end of the property. It’s an amazing scene that overlooks a large part of the valley beyond. The view reminded me of a location in Switzerland rather than in France.
I took several panoramic series of pictures and went to my room to process the results and make sure that the results were acceptable. Roch and Scott continued to other parts of the property to film their “B roll” material.
Around 6:30 PM, I joined the Brothers in the restored small chapel for their evening prayer. As with the Brothers in Reims, they sang practically the entire prayer service. Afterwards, one of the Brothers told me that their novice master had been a great musician and a strong advocate for sung prayer. Therefore, all the Brothers now were quite familiar with sung prayer and found it both easy to do and rewarding.
Supper followed, consisting of soup, bread, ham, peas, cheese, and fruit. All the time, the Brothers talked and translated and joked with warm familiarity. One could tell that the ministry that they do here – retreats, conferences, and the like – spreads to the quality of their community life.
After supper, I continued working in my room while Roch and Scott went with Br. Francois to the crypt in order to film there. Later on, Roch came to my room and we made plans for tomorrow; where to go, what to film, how to make sure that we’d be at the Lyons airport to meet Br. Gerard in the evening.
A long day today, but full of the kinds of things that make it a good day.