The train ride to Paris took two hours. The first hour or so gave us unhindered views of tranquil countryside; then we inched slowly through the outskirts of Paris, clearly a metropolis with substantial industrial and commercial activity.
We arrived at the Gare Bercy (Bercy Station), on the south side of the city. We had toyed with the idea of taking the Metro to our hotel on the north side of Paris, but had decided to take a taxi, despite the extra cost.
Having rushed so hard to make our early train, we were now hungry and thirsty. I sat on a bench to watch our bags while Dori explored the options.
Suddenly, the platform, which was open to the trains, resounded with glorious classical piano music. Was it a recording? If so, that would contrast sharply with what we would hear in America.
Listening more intently, I realized that no recording over a loudspeaker could sound so natural and real, so I left my bench, keeping one eye on our things, and walked a few paces to a place where I could see the other side of the vending area in front of me.
As I rounded the corner, there was a young man playing on a piano. So, in my country we have pianos in the lobbies of hotels, hospitals, and sometimes even airports, where people can share their talent with passersby and perhaps collect some grateful offerings.
We were in France, however, and the rich cultural heritage of this elegant nation expressed itself in the masterful playing of a traveler who was, perhaps, waiting for his train to arrive. A gifted pianist, he entertained us – for others had gathered around him also – with pieces from Liszt and Schubert, flawlessly rendered on an instrument that was a match for the quality of the music he was playing.
For a few brief moments, the beautiful sounds of a previous era wiped from my mind the gritty, depressing sights of the underside of Paris that we had recently traversed. The contrast struck me powerfully, and reminded me that we can, and should, do all we can to bring harmony and loveliness to even the most mundane and ugly environments.
But that was not all.
After Dori returned with something for us to eat, we found a taxi outside the station and told him where we wanted to go.
I have a habit of talking with taxi drivers no matter where I am. They often have interesting backgrounds and are sometimes open to the gospel.
Well, we discovered right away that conversing with this driver would be a challenge. He was from Algeria and could only bring a few English words or phrases to the interchange, while neither Dori nor I could speak more than a smattering of words in French, which we had both studied many decades ago.
God does not allow language to erect an insurmountable barrier to communication, however.
As we drove through the heart of Paris, he pointed out different landmarks, including the new performing center.
Then he added, “I have performed there.” That certainly piqued our curiosity, so we followed up with questions.
It turns out that he is a musician who specializes in Arabic folk songs from Algeria. We were quite impressed, so we asked more questions. When he saw that our interest was genuine, he picked up his cell phone and showed us a clip of him and his band singing and playing these songs.
I seemed to me that we had established a connection with him. I knew we had a few more minutes before arriving at our hotel, so I decided to try to share the gospel with him.
I remembered how God had put me beside a Frenchwoman on a flight to visit my mother in Pensacola, Florida, at least thirty years ago. For some reason, I had put Dori’s little French New Testament and Psalms into my pocket before leaving home. Not being able to converse with her, I took it out, showed it to her, and turned to the first chapter of John for her to see.
Imagine my surprise when she indicated that she reads the Bible and that she is a Protestant Christian!
That encounter prompted me to take the little book with me on our trip to France. I often read the New Testament or Psalms in French, and I had been doing so for the previous few days. I also hoped it could use the French Bible to share the gospel with someone. No such opportunity had presented itself, however.
Once again, I slipped the book out of my pocket and turned to the first chapter of John.
I said, “I can’t speak French, but I can read it a little. May I read something to you?’
Intrigued, and perhaps pleased that I wanted to use his second language to communicate with him, he said, “Sure, go ahead.”
So I read the first eighteen verses of John 1 to him in my very imperfect French. Perhaps my pronunciation, never very good, had improved a bit over the previous week. At any rate, I seemed a bit more “fluent” than ever before as I read those ancient words, so full of life and light and love.
He is a Muslim, of course, but he responded most courteously.
Who knows? Maybe a few seeds were planted in his mind and heart.
When he deposited us at the Marriott Courtyard Saint Denis, we parted with warm and sincere expressions of mutual gratitude for what had been an extremely pleasant and enlightening ride through the streets of Paris. Though we came from two entirely different worlds, we had each been able to share something precious with someone we would never see again, but whose acquaintance we were most happy to have made.
Once more, Dori and I marveled at God’s minute providence, even on the last day of our stay in France.