Camp Arc-en-ciel

The Big Walk

The Big Walk

Well, camp is a little more than half over, and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I did indeed meet up with Tim Knickerbocker and his brother Pierre (Peter) at the station in Boussens. Two other guys, Stephen and Jeremy, from up near Normandy arrived shortly after and we piled into a van for the 20-some minute ride to the camp. Stephen is actually from South Carolina but spent the summer up in Rouen working with a missionary. Jeremy is a young sports-jock type of guy from Rouen with a clear zeal for the Lord. The ride in to the camp gave me a preview of the countryside in this part of France. I was quite impressed, finding it even more beautiful than Provence. The area clearly gets a bit more rain, and everything is more verdant. In some ways it reminds me of Vermont, with rolling hills and lots of farmland, but the difference is in the quaint, narrow, tree-lined roads, stone and slate houses that quietly command respect, and a teasing view of the Pyrenees on the horizon. The primary crops here seem to be hay and sunflowers. Most of the hay fields have already been harvested, leaving the fields speckled with giant rolls of baled hay. I knew I’d want to get back out with my camera.

Camp Arc-En-Ciel itself is nestled comfortably in the middle of two fields and backed by a forest. One side has bales of hay, the other a million sunflowers. The camp has a main building in a large L shape with a meeting room, dining hall, kitchen, infirmary, laundry, a couple of apartments, and a couple of dorm rooms. The campers stay in large, British-style tents with covered concrete floors, sleeping about 8 to a tent. There is one quaint “chalet” with 3 bunk beds where the junior girls sleep and a twin chalet with the sports equipment and snack shop.

Most of the campers didn’t arrive until Saturday, so Friday night after supper the staff and counselors met to go over the plan for the two weeks. We started out by introducing ourselves one by one. This was my first experience being put on the spot in a foreign language, but I would find myself in the same position the next afternoon in front of the whole camp. By throwing in some self deprecation and ending with, “oh, and I don’t speak French,” I was able to get a few laughs. Friday night, Stephen and I stayed up talking until nearly 4, something that would contribute, I’m sure, to a cold I picked up a few days later.

Two camps are running simultaneously for these two weeks: one for the juniors, with kids ages 9-12, and one for the ados (adolescents), with kids from 13-17. Most of the camp is fully integrated but most days split the juniors or ados off into separate activities, and some of the chapel services are divided as well.

One thing I noticed early on that struck me was the absence of clustering among the kids. Like in America, several kids are more extroverted and might be considered “cool” and several are quieter or more socially-awkward. However, I’ve seen no apparent division among the kids and they all seem to intermingle and get along wonderfully. I don’t see any teasing or relegation. Even what I might consider to be some of the “cool” kids do things that “cool” kids in America would never do, like swing on the swing set and wear full pajamas to bed. Oh, another thing I see that I can’t say I’d ever get myself to do, is boys wearing calf-length capris! I’ve actually seen this all over the place here in France and Spain. In general though, it’s a joy to see the kids all getting along so well–cool with nerdy, teens with juniors. This is, after all, Biblical.

Another thing I noticed early on about the kids here is that they love to sing. They’re doing it almost all the time. When we are walking somewhere, riding a bus, or almost any sort of “down time,” they usually break into one of the songs we’ve sung several times in chapel. I was somewhat surprised to find that the French have a ton of their own music. My only other experience in this area was when I went on a missions trip to Germany many years ago. Their hymnal was essentially the same as ours simply with translated lyrics. Here in France, they also have many familiar hymns, but most of what they sing are their own original songs. Quite a lot is written in minor keys, and it’s all very beautiful.

Sunday morning, I went with Pierre Knickerbocker and his eldest son, Steven, to the church in town. The small assembly of just a couple of families and a few older men meet in a small but pleasant store-front on a side street in a rather small town. In fact, the population of this whole region of France is rather meager. For example, Escenacrabe, the town proper where the camp is located, has a population of only 240. Sunday night was back at the camp for the evening chapel service.

The daily routine includes a bit more Bible than I was used to in camps from my childhood. The wakeup trumpet is at 8, with breakfast served at 8:30. At 10 there is Petit De’jeuner da Coeur (breakfast for the heart), with small groups split up for an ongoing Bible study and time of prayer. At 11 is the morning chapel service. At 12:30 is lunch, followed by an afternoon of games and activities. Siesta is at 5, showers are at 6, dinner at 7:00, junior chapel is at 8, with everyone together to sing at 8:45, teen chapel at 9:15, evening games at 10ish, and bed at 11.

With a two-week camp, there’s an advantage of having plenty of time to pace things comfortably. Still, the counselors have done a great job of planning quite a lot of well-executed activities. One thing I’ve noticed here is that the games seem to be quite a bit more elaborate than others I’ve played. For example, one of the evening games was essentially our game “Mafia,” but it had a ton more variables. They had a hunter who gets to kill someone in a parting shot when he gets executed; they have a someone who gets to “marry” two other players together, so that if one dies, so does the other; they have a thief that gets to change cards with any other player during one of the nights; they elect one player to be mayor who gets two votes; etc… It adds some interesting variables to the game. Other games have been complex too, and not only for someone like me who struggles to catch up with the language barrier. On our first Monday, we had a big game in the forest, similar to a human Stratego combined with Capture the Flag. Pierre-Emmanuel, one of the teen boys’ counselors inadvertently cut that game short when he badly dislocated his arm. With an ambulance on its way the rest of us headed out for a long walk through the forest, with a peripatetic version of “telephone” along the way. It was particularly interesting trying to get the short story passed along between people that spoke French, German, and then English.

Because of Pierre-Emmanuel’s injury, I ended up taking over as monitor for his tent at night. I joined a group of 5 guys who were fortunately pretty well-behaved. Also, Jeremy Knickerbocker, one of Pierre’s sons, is in my tent, helping bridge the language gap. At 17, Jeremy is one of the oldest campers, but he still reminds me of a big, overgrown puppy. Fairly extroverted, he’s one of the natural leaders. He seems to have a pretty serious heart for the Lord as well. Another tent mate, 13-year-old Arnaud is the youngest and smallest of the teen campers. Hispanic and dressed with fairly fashionable clothes and an ever-present silver chain, he has a perennial smile and very pleasant disposition. Rene-Pierre, with close cropped hair and a fair dosage of teen acne is perhaps my most mischievous tent mate, but not at all in a malevolent way. He loves to steal my Red Sox hat and wear it cocked at an angle. Next is Pierre-Paul, the quietest perhaps in the whole camp. He also has a ready smile and seems very respectful, often quietly observing antics like rough-housing until the rumble finds its way to him. Finally, Timothee, who is the tallest and perhaps thinnest of all campers, reminds me of someone transplanted straight out of the early 50s. He has neatly combed hair, a polite and mildly awkward demeanor, and a style of dress that almost always includes a button-up shirt and cardigan sweater, often tied around his neck.

The morning after my first night with them, we planned a trumpet-call attack on the other tent. A couple of minutes before 8, we were all assembled outside the next tent’s door, hopping around in our sleeping bags. Using the wake up trumpet as our call to charge, we burst through the doors to pounce on the still-sleeping rivals. This started what has become an ongoing, somewhat random war between the tents, though, I’ve noticed most of the aggression seems to come from our side.

One of my favorite days came last Wednesday when the teens had a “big activity” planned for them. I knew it basically involved a hike to another camp site where we’d be bivouacking for the night. I didn’t realize that it was a day-long trek that would cover over 15 kilometers (9 miles), searching for hidden sachets that included clues and pieces of a topo map to find the next point on our trip. What amazed me the most was that we were hardly ever on any roads; instead we were cutting through cow pastures, fields of sunflowers, very thick, trail-less forests, and generally all over the local farmers’ land. I guess trespassing is not as big of an offence over here. At one point after we had mostly run out of water, I suggested that our group (the teens were split into 3 groups that departed about 30 minutes apart) stop at a farmer’s house and ask for water. We found him in his side yard, leaning on a scythe while we filled up our bottles at his outside faucet. He was the perfect picture of an old-timer, with a lovely yard and gardens, lots of fruit trees, and a house that looks like it’s seen a few centuries and maintained its dignity. Our group was the last to depart for the day, and we were tickled to hear that two other groups of kids ahead of us had stopped to get water that day. I guess we all were running out of water at about the same point in our trek! After finally arriving at our destination, which was a lovely lake nestled in the hills, I realized as my dad said in one of his comments on my photos that there is no better ownership than walking. I felt like I’ve seen and gotten to know this part of southern France far better than I could have by just driving around. Actually better than just walking the roads–I actually walked the LAND.

Saturday was also an unexpected highlight. When you don’t readily understand the language, the day’s activities reveal themselves as pleasant surprises. What I did understand was that we were going whitewater rafting. What I didn’t know was that this was at the edge of the Pyrenees. What I totally had no clue about was that after the rafting, we were going hiking in the Pyrenees themselves up to a lake in a stunningly beautiful setting with a waterfall and snow-capped peaks in the background. The bad side of not knowing what’s going on is that you sometimes aren’t properly prepared. So on this day, I had a swimsuit and dry change of clothes, but figuring that we’d just be rafting, I didn’t bring along the camera–it’s not exactly something you can bring on a raft anyway. As we drove back from the river, I noticed we were going a very different way, up and into the mountains. We arrived in a beautiful valley and I learned we were going on a hike. Excellent! Regular shoes that cover the foot were required for the rafting, so my only pair of shoes were good and soaked, leaving me my sandals for the hike. I ended up just taking them off and hiking the couple of kilometers in my bare feet. What I didn’t know was that there was a spectacular lake at the end of the hike and I should wear my swimsuit. Oh well, while others swam in this crystal-clear, deep blue lake, I sat in wonder at the beauty that surrounded me, trying not to be frustrated with the fact that my camera was sitting useless back in a cabinet at the camp. The hillsides around us were a lush Irish-green, the sky was an azure blue, and the lake was crowned by a brilliant waterfall at its far end, with a more distant and higher granite peak just beyond that. What a treat!

We’ve had lots of other activities, most of which amaze me with their creativity. One was variation of the board game, “Battleship,” but using humans and water balloons to try to find the other team’s target. Another was a very well play-acted murder mystery investigation set in a nearby village. We went around interrogating various counselors who were playing the role of characters in the plot. The village was very small and some of the locals seemed to get a kick out of what we were doing. Right now we’re in a two-day camp-wide game kind of like the “secret pal” the ladies do back at my home church. We each drew a name out of a box and that person became our “cacahuete” (little peanut). We have to do nice things for them without revealing who we are. So the camp is in a frenzy of doing things for their cacahuete: posting well-wishing signs, getting special gifts, arranging preferential treatment during meals, etc. Even though there are still a few days left, I can already feel the pace of the camp rallying to a close. In fact, last night some of the guys in my tent were saying the same thing, already feeling melancholy. The week-long summer camps were always a major highlight of my year when I was younger, so I can see how the relationships and memories forged during a two-week camp are even tougher to leave.

3 Responses to “Camp Arc-en-ciel”

  1. Steven Says:

    cool trip!

  2. Dolly Says:

    I really enjoy your writings. It’s almost like being there. You write well. Of course I may be a little prejudice. 🙂 Mom

  3. Pete Says:

    Good job Ken glad to read you.

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