Au Revoir, France et Mes Amis!
Thursday was our big sortie, an all-day trip to Walibi, one of France’s few amusement parks. The announcement the night before was met with enthusiasm and excitement. I heard that Walibi was quite the destination, though after being to quite a few parks in the states, I had my doubts. A very large chartered bus arrived on the campground around mid-morning. After some wide-eyed maneuvering we finally got the bus turned around, and we were on our way down the single-lane country roads. We exchanged riddles and sang as a rolling patchwork of sunflowers, corn, and wheat whisked by.
My expectations for Walibi were rather dead-on. The parks biggest, scariest attraction was called Boomerang, a simple, dead-end rollercoaster that brought you forward and then backwards through a triple-loop. Runner-up was the swinging pirate ship and another spinning ride. The only other rollercoaster was a small, single-car ride, but it was closed all day. Perhaps it resembled a train too much and the workers decided to go on strike… Other than that, the rest of the rides were rather tame and the park had a mostly home-made feel to it. Still, the kids (teens included) seemed to really like the place. I mostly kept my mouth shut about the grander attractions we have in America, but I thought about how fun it would be to drop this group of kids into the middle of Islands of Adventure just to watch their reaction.
Friday evening was the banquet, an institution at each camp. The theme this year was Americana, and the kids spent most of the day in preparation. The dining hall was thoroughly decorated in reds, whites, and blues, posters with American landmarks were put up on the walls, and each table was themed for a different state.
Everybody participated in one way or another. My contribution was primarily with all the special music featured during the evening. I practiced songs with a couple of choral groups, instrumentalists, ensembles, and soloists. One 14-year-old girl, Clara, had been playing the viola at the evening services throughout the week. She usually stood on the other side of the room, so I often couldn’t hear her very well, but the few times I could, she sounded pretty good. She told me that she could read music, so I had my brother’s family fax me some violin arrangements for us to try out. When we met to practice, I noticed for the first time that she wasn’t actually playing a violin, but rather a viola, an instrument that uses a C clef. No worries, she could transpose. I started her off with a moderately difficult arrangement of Be Thou My Vision. I played the melody to see if she recognized the song. Nope. Well, let’s give it a try. OK, so our first time through could probably have served just fine for the final performance. For her age, she is a stunning musician, naturally expressive and precisely with me the whole way. Pretty song, she remarked after the first run through. Too bad I only discovered this talent only two days before camp ended.
Another song we did with the youth choral was an American gospel medley, a lively amalgamation of Oh When The Saints, Swing Low, and I’m Gonna Sing, I’m Gonna Shout. Perfect for the teen choir, I scanned a copy of the hand-written music to bring home with me.
The banquet started outside, much like it did last year, with snacks and drinks. Many of the kids were tasked with serving, walking around in white shirts and ties, arms draped with white towels. Everybody was escorted to their table before the formal part of the banquet began with the Star Spangled Banner and America The Beautiful. Salad, hamburgers, and chocolate chip cookies were on the menu. Several clever skits and lots of music provided the entertainment for the evening. Nathanael Chenier played one of his piano compositions, shocking the crowd with his unknown talent. Nathanael has some sort of slight handicap that causes him to walk with mild awkwardness, and his work in the kitchen kept him away from most of the activities in the camp. He got extended applause and calls for an encore. I was very pleased with this small spot in the limelight for him, and particularly enjoyed watching the proud admiration on the face of his younger brother Johan.
Sunday morning brought me back to church in St. Gaudens, but I returned back to camp for lunch and a pleasant, quiet afternoon. Some kids entertained themselves with games and others worked on some crafts. I was particularly charmed to stumble upon a group of boys from my tent, playing their own made-up game with some balloons they found an filled with water. This was the final night of camp, and would feature, as usual, testimonies around the camp fire. The last hour of sunlight awarded us the rich, warm light that makes this golden hour so magical. Smoke from the fire that was being prepared for the evening caught the light, providing dramatic beams of brilliance that made for some great photos. Because of the large group this year, they split the camp fire time between the juniors and the ados. The juniors went first while the evening turned to dusk. Then the whole camp gathered together for a final reunion in the chapel room. Clara and I played two more songs, including one of my arrangements that someone found in a stack of music. It was left over from when I was there the year before. Soon it was midnight, and I helped put the two junior boys tents to bed. I said some farewells to each of the tents, and was touched to hear some very kind sentiments in return.
As the ados began their time around the campfire, Babette, myself, and Dave & Melissa Price took off for a walk under the starry skies. The evening air was comfortable, the skies were clear, and we enjoyed a lively conversation. We got back in time for Babette and I to join the ados around the campfire and hear a few of the final testimonies. This is one of my favorite times at camp, as I find it very interesting and often encouraging to hear what the older kids have to say. There were a couple of tearful confessions about backslidden homes and struggles to remain strong in a secular world. Eventually we broke out hotdogs and marshmallows. Their spits were way too short, creating quite the challenge in roasting only the hot dog or marshmallow and not your hand. Things finally wrapped up around 3. I took care of some lingering work, showered, did some preparations for the following day’s departure, and finally found my sleeping bag around 5!
The next morning came far too early, and the final few hours at camp went by quickly. Dave and Melissa had offered to bring Babette and I to Toulouse, as it was Monday, and the local trains were once again on strike. We didn’t have to leave until just after lunch, and I was able to see the Cheniers just before we left. Young Samuel looked very pleased to be reunited with his older brothers.
As I was heading to the car, some of the boys from my tent realized I was leaving and dropped their ping pong paddles to run over for a group embrace, protesting my departure. It was very endearing. I finally peeled them off, hopped in the car, and we waved our final goodbyes as Camp Arc-en-Ciel shrank in the rearview mirror.
In Toulouse, Babette, myself, and the Prices enjoyed a pleasant meal al fresco. Dave tried a few times to convince me to stay a couple of more days. His reasonably compelling argument was that we needed to do some hiking in the Pyrenees, and it would be much easier to just change my return flight than it would be for me to come all the way back out here. Tempting as it was, I knew I had quite the backlog of work waiting for me back home. I must be responsible every now and then! We lingered to enjoy some fabulous desserts, just long enough for Babette and I to miss our train by about 60 seconds. No worries, we rebooked on another train that left just over an hour later. As we emerged back outside the train station to let Dave and Melissa know that we were good to go on the next train, we saw a caravan of other campers arriving. Several were boys from my tent, including Jeremie, who was quite pleased to see me again. It turned out that we would now be taking the same train to Paris. Someone broke out a mini deck of Uno cards, and we passed the hour quickly with a few games played out on the sidewalk.
Babette and I enjoyed the comfort and tranquility of the first class cabin for most of the trip to Paris. We took a stroll at one point through about 10 cars to meet up with the kids from camp. There were several groups of kids from other camps in the cars we passed, and I was instantly thankful for our first class seats. Most of the second class cabins were near complete chaos, with kids standing in the aisles drawing on each other’s arms, etc. We stayed with our friends from camp for about half an hour, and then returned to the tranquility of our own seats. We went through my pictures from camp and then struck up a long conversation with a businessman sharing our compartment. Before we knew it, we had arrived in Paris.
We met one final time with the kids from camp. As we walked the extraordinarily long platform into the station, Jeremie regaled me with more incomprehensible stories. Babette and I met Timothee Dufour, who was patiently waiting for us in the station. Final goodbyes to the kids from camp, then we hopped on another train with Timothee. He lead us expertly through several transfers until we reached a station near his home on the western edge of Paris. His father met us at the station for the short drive to their house where his mother had prepared a simple but much-appreciated meal for us. It was well past midnight, and by the time we finally made our way to bed, it was nearly 2. I was sorry for the imposition, but the Dufours were incredibly gracious hosts.
Babette had to leave fairly early the next morning in order to beat the worst of the traffic and get to her flight on time. I didn’t need to leave until the afternoon, so I spent the morning with Timothee as Mrs. Dufour drove Babette to the airport. My goodbye to Babette was predictably abrupt. I had already realized a few days ago that everything at the end would happen far too quickly for the satisfying closure of leisurely farewell. It would have been far nicer if we had stayed an extra day at camp, after the breakneck pace of things had come to a halt.
Timothee and I enjoyed a refreshingly slow morning with breakfast on their back patio. Timothee was one of the more memorable characters from last year’s camp, and I was very pleased to get this chance for a quick visit with him. He would in fact be returning to Arc-en-Ciel for the August camp this year, so this was my only chance to see him. Quintessentially preppie and polite to a fault, I find it best to describe him as a transplant straight from the early 50s. He accompanied me on the train all the way to the airport, something I knew was quite a chore. I assured him wasn’t necessary, but he insisted on making sure I had no troubles. He also refused to allow me to pay for any of the tickets along the way. I was once again, astonished by the generosity and hospitality. Safely arrived at Charles de Gaul, we said our au revoirs and he turned to retrace his 90 minute route back to his house.
I’ve been known to have some mishaps in all my years of travel. My trip back to New York, however, was flawlessly smooth, comfortable, and on-time. With unfortunate irony, Babette seemed to be inflicted with the misadventure that is all-too-familiar to me. Her flight from Paris was canceled, and she had to be rerouted through London and then Dallas. Though my flight was scheduled to leave 6 hours after hers, I still arrived at home about 4 hours before her! I was able to sleep for most of my flight, making up for the precious few hours I had slept over the past several days. In fact, I arrived at home pretty much without a trace of jet lag. I know that wasn’t the case for boor Babette.
So another chapter book of travels comes to a close. Again, my perception of time presents a paradox. The time seems to have blown right by, yet my memories of Austria seem rather distant. My bittersweet mood at the end of two great weeks at camp is predictable. My camp experience was certainly different this year. In some ways it was less fun and more work, but in other ways it was more rewarding. I definitely felt like I was more of a legitimate help this year, and I appreciated the increased responsibility. In many ways, I was only a small step away from being a regular counselor, a role I consider to be quite an honor considering my floundering abilities with the language. Saying goodbye to people you’ve spent two enjoyable weeks with is never terribly fun. The brief but clear manifestations of affection from the kids creates another melancholic tug on the heart. But greatest of all is my sympathy for these kids as most return to 50 weeks of relative Christian solitude. I learned that for most churches in France, 30 members would be considered a large congregation. Private Christian education doesn’t exist. So for the most part, these kids return to churches where they have few, if any, Christian friends. They spend most of the year in school surrounded by secular teachers and unbelieving peers.
Camp was always a special week for me in my youth, but I can truly understand why it is so precious to these Christian kids in France.