Friday, July 17, 2009

Day Four and Five - Rouen, Reims, Liesse, and Laon.

It’s been a busy two days and my computer has been difficult (not enough memory – also my problem) so I will condense two days into one report.

On Wednesday morning, we packed up all our equipment and luggage, settled everything into the van – which required several tries to make everything fit – and set off for Rouen which is several hours away. Our GPS, we decided, was the best invention after the automobile itself. While not blessed with a “native” intelligence of Parisian streets, it gets you there. Along the way, we did stop at the downtown FNAC store in order to pick up a couple of technical items we’d forgotten to bring, but we were soon on our way towards Rouen on one of France’s wonderful toll roads. They’re not wonderful because of the price you pay, but they are in terms of the quality of the road and the speed with which you’re able to tool along.

Several hours and a rest stop later, we arrived in Rouen, making our way to the location where St. Yon had been. It now appears to be a largely abandoned building, with broken windows, wild gardens, and a generally unkept appearance. In fact, Roch and Scott decided that there were a number of squatters that they’d seen peering out from some of the upstairs windows. At the same time, it had been the Motherhouse of the Institute for quite some time, and the rebuilt chapel dates from just after the time of the Founder. So it deserved the time that we spend filming various aspects of the property.

We then walked down the street to where there is a 12-meter statue of DLS in a roundabout area. It’s really a fountain, but there’s no water in it. The statue could use some attention, and several bronze panels of Lasallian scenes are missing from the base of the statue. Kind of sad, actually, to see it neglected like that. But the surroundings are nice, and just across the street is the church of St. Clement, which was not from DLS’s time but had some very interesting things inside that allowed us set up and test out our equipment and technique for filming. The docents inside were quite helpful, turning on the various lights and giving us some of the history of the place.

After this, we made our way to the church of St. Sever, which does date from the 17th century, although the church building is new. Inside of this church is a fine little chapel dedicated to De La Salle, and we spent a good while filming it. This is where (approximately) De La Salle was buried right after his death, prior to being moved to the chapel at St. Yon some time later.

We took a short break in the busy plaza outside of the church, surrounded by shoppers going to and fro. It’s struck me repeatedly that the number of people going into the churches and cathedrals pales in comparison to the people going into the stores and shopping centers that surround them. Yet in terms of beauty and potential and depth of perspective, each represents an entirely different world.

Finally, it was time to get on the road to Reims. The town is located to the East of Rouen, some 3 hours or more away. So we were on the road for quite a while after that. I enjoyed the scenery of the countryside and the small French towns that occasionally showed up in the distance. The others either napped or read or stared vacantly into the distance.

We arrived in Reims around 7 PM and decided to stop for dinner prior to arriving at the Brothers house downtown. There was a plaza area we passed that was filled with bistros and restaurants, so we simply picked one and sat outside to watch the locals as they walked by. (One lady had a live white rat on the top of her head – apparently a pet. Roch explained to Scott that they were all the rage now.)

We arrived at the Hotel de La Salle (not actually a hotel; just its name) just before 9 PM and were kindly greeted by the two Brothers who are currently there. Two other Brothers were gone on vacation or elsewhere. Brothers Christian and Yves were very hospitable, inviting us to sit with them for some refreshments and conversation, which we happily did. Brother Christian knows English well, and Br. Yves gets along fine with some English and mostly French. Roch spoke most of the time or translated for us, and so we passed a companionable hour or so before heading off to our rooms. I spent another 90 minutes in the community office at the computer – finishing the previous blog entry – and then went to bed myself after midnight. A long day.

The next morning, Thursday, I woke up quite early and made my way to the community office to get online and get ready for the day’s activities. Today we would go to Liesse and Laon to visit the Lasallian sites there. During my time in the office, I heard the Brothers chanting morning prayer a little way off. There’s a fine chapel downstairs, but the Brothers use a small oratory upstairs for their prayers. Their singing tradition, I was told, dates from some years ago when a Brother who taught in their scholasticate for years trained all the Brothers coming through to sing the psalms, etc., and since then the Brothers have chanted all their prayers, even if there are only two of them in the house. Now I find that impressive. Of course, I’m prejudiced towards singing our prayers, but nevertheless it is a fine thing to hear.

The Brothers had a continental breakfast ready for us (toast, coffee au lait, tea, juice, fruit, etc.) and we shared the croissants we’d bought on the road yesterday. At 8 AM, I joined Br. Yves in going to Mass at the Reims cathedral. Walking into that vast structure is a trip, I can tell you. First we walked straight to it from the house, right through a portal and courtyards where the Canons lived. (I wondered if De La Salle had a house there – that he could rent out if he didn’t live there – while he was a Canon.) We walked into the vast space that is the cathedral and then made our way to the very, very back where there was a small chapel with about 20 people seated around a small wooden altar. We took our seats and were soon into a simple Mass – all in French, of course. There was no chanting or singing anywhere, unfortunately. Soon enough, it was done. (There were no prayers of intercession, by the way, which I found strange. I didn’t know they were optional.) On our way out, we met two Brothers from the other community in Reims – Br. Louis – who had taught in the U.S. for two years – and Br. Gilbert. We spent some time chatting in front of the cathedral and then walked off in different directions to our separate communities. The experience gave me a brief insight into what De La Salle must have done from a very early age and for many years as he made his way from his family home, where we were staying, to the cathedral for the various liturgical services as a young boy and as a Canon.

Br. Yves and I walked to the Post Office after Mass and as a result I got to see a good part of the old town in the process. The streets are narrow and lined by buildings that are either ancient or modern. The ancient ones have been restored, looking classic and interesting, while some of the modern ones look dated. As we walked along, I noticed some of the buried tram tracks that remain from trams that ran through town some 50+ years ago. Today, the main street in another part of town is completely torn up to install a brand-new set of tracks for a modern tramway, set to open in 2012. Everything old is becoming new again.

Once back, we organized ourselves for the day and then set off for Liesse. This small town is about 30 miles away from Reims. The GPS took us along country roads and through small villages, turning here and there, and generally giving us a tour of the countryside. Once in Liesse, Roch and I were familiar with its potential from our previous scouting trip after Easter. We took all of our equipment inside and spent a good 2.5 hours filming, setting up the lights for video shots, and testing how everything would work in a darker space. I was the stand-in for Br. Gerard as we did sample shots and refined the lighting and audio needs. Every once in a while, some tourists would come in and wonder about all our equipment and filming, looking around intently in case they’re missing something that we had noticed enough to film. Most of the time, however, we were there by ourselves.

After finishing our work there, we crossed the street to a bakery and had some fresh sandwiches made (fresh baguette with ham, lettuce, tomato, egg, and mayonnaise) which we decided were the best sandwiches we’d had so far in France. Roch said he wanted a “bucolic” setting to partake of our lunch, so I found a dirt road in the countryside, drove into a forest-like area and parked there. It was all quite nice.

Then we drove on to the medieval city of Laon, with its huge cathedral perched on top of a distinctive hill (500 – 700 feet high?) that you can see from miles away. We parked outside of the embattlements and walked in, carrying much of our equipment. Then we set up outside the location of our previous Lasallian school site to film a small statue of De La Salle in a niche in the wall and walked from there up to the cathedral where we spent the rest of our time filming and taking pictures both inside and outside of the cathedral. Finished with all that, we made our way back to the car and returned to Reims via the motorway, which may or may not have been quicker than returned via the country roads.

Back at the Hotel de La Salle, the Brothers had prepared a dinner for us, so we met upstairs at 7:30 PM and enjoyed our meal and conversation with them for quite a while before heading off to our rooms to end yet another full day. (Of course, we were all on our computers for some time after ending our day. Besides email and the like, we needed process the video and pictures we’d taken that day.) Tomorrow we will stay in Reims and visit many of the primary locations associated with De La Salle during the first part of his life.

(Note: Click on pictures for a larger version.)