A Sense of History… and of Purpose

4 JAN 2017

First, let us discuss breakfast. From 7 AM to until 10 AM a buffet breakfast is served. There are croissants, pain au chocolat, baked bread of the whole grain and white varieties, mixed sliced meats, assorted cheeses, jams, jellies, cereal, yogurt, orange juice, apple juice, multivitamin (?) juice, milk, coffee, espresso, cappuccino, and I am sure that I have forgotten at least a half dozen other things. And this is made available to us and the other guests of the château each morning. All they ask is that we do not arrive wearing pajamas; we must be respectable, of course. I, myself, indulged in quite a large and hearty breakfast.

Around noon, we went grocery shopping at the local Simply Market. Grocery shopping, and shopping in general, in France is a little different in that you must bring your own bags or purchase reusable bags at the store. This is something I would very much like to see happen stateside. I only had one bag myself, so I decided to only purchase a few things: Peanut butter, strawberry preserves, whole grain bread, hazelnut milk (No judging. I have to eat and drink much more consciously these days), and some bananas. I know, I know. “PB & Js, really?” Yes, because they are delicious and efficient, and they remind me of home. Besides, I am on a tight budget.

I realize I could talk entirely about the food, but that, shockingly, was not the most amazing thing that we experienced today. Our group walks the 15 minutes from the château to Bus 15 Lamproie stop. It is snowing again, but by the afternoon, the sun will have cleared away most of what sticks. We are each getting used to the cold, or not, in our own way. We transfer to the tram, and a couple stops later, we arrived at Parlement Européen.

The 28 member-nation flags of the European Union fly at full mast as we are shuffled through a security check and into the Salle (French for “room”) Margaret Thatcher. Eva, our information guide, and her colleague shared with us a brief presentation on how the European Parliament and other European institutions work and how they work together. It is a complicated, but still very fascinating, process. It is democracy at the multi-national level. Indeed, there are three European Union capitals: Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg. With any luck, I will see all three.

Strasbourg is the Seat of the European Parliament, one of the two legislative bodies and the only directly elected body of the European Union. They hold their plenary meetings here once of month in the hemicycle housed within the Louise Weiss building. Weiss was quite the fascinating native of Alsace. The main entrance is where members of parliament and distinguished guests arrive through the Espace (also French for room or area) Mariana Pineda (another historical heroine). They are guided by a red carpet to the Stairs of Honor. These are a particularly interesting pair of spiral staircases that form a double helix in tribute to Leonardo da Vinci. I was especially moved by the stairs, yes the stairs, because there are two other similar examples of the double helix staircases in Europe. One is at the Vatican, and the other is at Château de Chambord which I was fortunate enough to visit this past summer. I had no idea before today that those types of stairs existed elsewhere, and now I know I have already visited two of three. The stairs in the Louise Weiss building lead to the hemicycle.

The hemicycle, along with the rest of the facility, was designed by Parisian architecture firm Architecture-Studio. It is a giant sphere of curved wood panels on the exterior that can be seen from both within and without the building. The interior seats the 751 parliament members, plus an additional 112 seats for ministers and aides, and in the circular mezzanine above there are seats for 650 guests and journalists. It is a cavernous chamber in which some of the most extraordinary people have been and debates held. Guests such as Pope Francis, Ban Ki-moon, and many other distinguished leaders have visited. Laureates of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought like Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji Bashar, who both escaped Daesh, and Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot by the Taliban, have presented their protest against their attackers in this very room, this room in which our group now stands.

The sense that you get of what happens in places like this is the very reason why travel, I believe, is such a necessary activity. Here, in this building, in this room, democratically elected representatives and leaders discuss, debate, and vote on a variety of topics concerning the constituents, a population of over 500 million people, of 28 sovereign nations.

Once you have felt this “sense” it is hard to let go of finding it again and again and again. For me, personally, it is what drives me forward. One day, I hope to be a part of something that leaves a similar sense in the world.

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