I like to travel in part because of what it reminds me about God. I have been blessed to travel a bit in my life. I lived in the Philippines for almost one year during college and briefly stopped in Tokyo on the way over and have spent a few days in Hong Kong on three occasions. Ten years ago Heather and I spent five days in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with a group of pastors and spouses from our district. For our twenty-fifth anniversary in 2003 Heather and I took Hannah and Elizabeth and traveled to Europe for three weeks – France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and back to France. The next year I took a high school senior from our church and went back to the Philippines to speak at a pastor’s conference in Cebu City where I lived during college. In 2006 I was privileged to go to Africa – Guinea and Sierra Leone – with a close friend on behalf of our church to visit people and ministries we support. Earlier this year I led a team of people from our church back to Guinea and Sierra Leone on a short-term mission. And finally, thanks to a travel voucher from our church for my 25th anniversary as pastor, Heather and I traveled to Prague and Paris.
There are no geopolitical boundaries with God. He lives in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Cebu City, Puerto Vallarta, Paris, Haarlem, Mannheim, Basel, Rome, Florence, Conakry, Lungi, Freetown, and Prague as well as Dodge City, Boise, Regina, Canby, and Pasadena, places I have lived in North America. Travel never fails to remind me that God is bigger than my country and my culture. God transcends all human borderlines and nationalities.
I am amazed by how old things are in Europe and especially in Prague. The Old Town Square (above picture), which dates back to the late 12th century, started life as the central marketplace for Prague. Over the next few centuries many buildings of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic styles were erected around the market and still stand today. Construction on The Church of Our Lady of Tyn, easy to identify by its spires which shoot up into the sky above the Square, began in 1365. The Church of St. Nicholas occupies a piece of land on the edge of the Square that has held a church since the 12th century. The present church was completed in 1735. The Old Town Hall Tower, built in 1338, is one of the most striking buildings in Prague. We climbed the stairs on the inside of the tower to a lookout on top that gave us a breath-taking view of the city.
A few blocks from the Old Town Square is The Charles Bridge, a pedestrian only bridge commissioned by Charles IV in 1357. The Powder Gate, which formed one of thirteen entrances to Old Town, started to take shape when its foundation stone was laid in 1475. The streets and sidewalks in Prague are cobblestone. Who knows how long they have been there but when you walk them you sense that every stone cries out with some kind of history.
Prague felt quaint, old, charming, romantic and fairy tale-like. Compared to Paris, Prague is compact. You can easily walk from Wenceslas Square to the Old Town Square to the Jewish Quarter to the Prague Castle across the Vltava River and everywhere in between. Cobblestone streets and sidewalks, probably hundreds of years old, take you where you want to go. You pass through narrow, windy streets lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, and apartments. You encounter limited cars and traffic in the downtown core. From the Old Town Hall Tower your eyes are flooded with red tiled roofs in every direction you look spread out over Prague. The skyline is dotted with church spires. Tables and chairs from outdoor cafes and restaurants fill the sidewalks even on a chilly November evening (blankets are draped over chairs if you need one to wrap up in to stay warm). Prague has been called one of the most magical cities in the world and rightly so. It looks and feels medieval.
I felt a sense of spiritual darkness in Europe. First some statistics and then my comments. According to a 2001 Czech Republic census 59% of the people identify themselves as agnostic, atheist, or non-believer. The fastest growing group of people between 1991 and 2001 were those with no religion which increased by nearly 2 million people or 19.1%. Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, showed negative growth in that same block of time and lost more than 1 million members. Only 19% of the Czech people believe there is a God which is the second lowest rate among the European Union countries. France fares a little better – only 31% of the population claim to be atheists. Of the 51% who describe themselves as Catholics only half of those claimed to believe in God.
As I walked the streets of Prague and Paris I asked myself what had happened to the souls of these people. They were spiritual beings just like me who were created in the image and likeness of God. By and large churches are no longer sacred spaces for worship but historical buildings, concert halls, and art galleries. I wondered if the people of Prague and Paris ever experienced spiritual longings, and if so, how did they identify them and what did they do with them. I wondered if they sometimes felt a need to pray out of gratitude or of a need for help. I questioned how they approached the birth of a new child, the miracle and mystery of new life entering the world. I pondered if they feared death and what they thought might lie on the other side.
One evening in Prague Heather and I walked into a Roman Catholic Church whose door we found unlocked which was rare. The church was cold and dark, a small church compared to others we had visited. The only lights shining lit up the altar area. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness I noticed an elderly lady off to the left front of the church kneeling and praying – finally, a church where someone was engaged in prayer and worship even if it was only one person.
I love the coffee in European cafes. I am no coffee connoisseur. I have never worked as a barista, roasted coffee, or attended a coffee tasting event. But I love a good, strong latte. The coffee I drank in local cafes in Prague and Paris was the best I have ever tasted – rick, dark, strong but smooth going down. No after taste or acidy residue.
I found a Starbucks in Prague and showed up early one morning for coffee – 7am by Prague time – and ordered a latte. I felt like I was in Portland. Everything looked the same. The latte tasted the same as in the States as well, you know, the usual Starbucks overly roasted burnt taste. Starbucks may have popularized espresso and good coffee in the States but it doesn’t hold a candle to what I enjoyed in Europe.
I noticed something else about coffee in Europe – it is served in a cup and saucer or in a glass mug instead of in a paper cup to go. Coffee is meant to be sipped, enjoyed, lingered over, and shared with a close friend. No hurry, no rush to get in and out. Coffee is not just a drink but an experience and I liked that.
The majority of people in Europe seem to smoke. Lots of people in Europe smoke – men, women, young, old, sophisticated, and simple. Finding a non-smoking restaurant in Prague was a challenge. One night in a nice Czech restaurant we asked for non-smoking. The host led us to a fairly large room in the rear of the restaurant designated for non-smoking. Five minutes after we were seated a group of people took a table on the other side of the room and began to smoke. Soon after others in the room followed. Our non-smoking sanctuary was filled with smoke. I think all of Europe must be dying of lung cancer.
My wife knows how to read a map. I am pretty good at directions as long as I know which way is north, south, east, and west. But put me in a strange city, hand me a map I have never seen before, and tell me to find my way to such-and-such a place and I am instantly in trouble. It does me no good to try to bluff my way around the map or the city – I have tried and it does not work. Often the longer I stare down at the map the more confused I become. My wife is just the opposite. She loves maps. In fact, her eyes light up at the sight of a map.
One night in Paris she used three maps to help us find our way to the neighborhood apartment where Ernest Hemingway first lived in 1921. I was amazed, I still am, and I still might be looking for Hemingway’s apartment if not for the map expertise of Heather.
Flying economy means feeling squished for a long time. 10 hours from Portland to Amsterdam. 8 hours from Paris to New York City. 5 1/2 hours from New York City to Portland (add another 90 minutes which is what happened to us in New York City when we sat in the plane for this long before it finally took off). I fought envy on every flight when I walked through the first-class section – the wide, comfortable, leather-bound seats, the large arm rests with beverage holders, the comfy head rests, and the ample leg room (did I mention the leg room?!).
On our flight from Paris to New York City I sat between Heather and a man from Toronto who was flying home after visiting his family in Egypt. I wouldn’t say he was over-weight but he was certainly stocky and filled his seat. He slept most of the flight (this filled me with envy also). Sometimes in his sleep he would shift over toward me, take the whole arm rest and crowd my side of the seat. My already space living quarters shrunk depending upon how he moved and shifted in his sleep.
Flight space did not improve on the last leg home from New York City to Portland. This time my seat mates were Heather and a young man who looked big enough to be a college football player, probably a fullback or a linebacker. He didn’t fall asleep or shift over to my side but he filled up every square inch of his seat and in doing so made my space seem smaller, especially as the flight wore on.
The flights home from Europe are the closest I have ever been to feeling claustrophobic. I don’t want to see the inside of a plane for a long time. I think there should be law against making people sit in the economy section during international flights!