The Ways We Talk

This Advent I have begun an educational series on morality based upon several podcast episodes from the BBC titled, ‘Morality in the 21st Century‘ which is hosted by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  What I admire about the series is the ability to learn from each other, whilst asking difficult questions.  While there are points in each of the conversations that some might describe as ‘more heated’ than others, the general consensus is that using language in a dignified and edifying way certainly helps to debate issues which are challenging.  Many of the deeply rooted ethical conundrums we find ourselves in are about choosing between two ‘goods’, or ‘the lesser of two evils.’  Given the seriousness of the theological, moral and ethical issues which the church faces (or refuses to face) to meet together with some decorum goes a long way.  

Watching debates in German politics feels to me a very intellectual matter, not only for me to consciously translate, but in the way that serious issues are looked at and scrutinized.  To flip over to the Parliamentary broadcasts of the UK House of Commons, is to some extent, like changing channels on the television from the scenic Christmas-log-burning-on-the-fire, to a wrestling match between thespians.  Recent political manoeuvres around the Brexit debate, the challenges made within and beyond the Conservative government and party leadership has made for fascinating late night viewing.  The quick witted remarks, the scathing insults, the show and shout of the backbenches, and the cries from the Speaker — ‘Order! Order!’ — are all a little bit addictive.  The form and function of parliamentary debate have always fascinated me, as much of the Church governance operates on a similar system…without the yelling (usually).  There is some niceties to all of it that being the address of the individual to another member of the house, such as: ‘I would like to thank the Honourable Member across from me…,’ and other small, but important, acknowledgements of world affairs like that of the recent events in Strasbourg’s Christmas Market.  

When I show my children the proceedings of the Canadian House of Parliament, the biggest surprise came from one of my daughters, “Daddy, why does that man have a woman’s voice?!”  As we were watching the proceedings in English the various simultaneous translators, either male or female, work hard to get the messages out in either French or English, so the message can come across with a disembodied feel.  The Canadian House of Commons has a different feel and indeed, a different atmosphere of debate as Members and staff flip back and forth in either one of the two official languages.  While there is nothing on the scale of Brexit in Canada, there remains other national issues that cause debate, and still, the thanks continue to go back and forth across the chamber before arguments and points of order are fired off.  

The Church of England has regular General Synod meetings, which you can also view online, and which also has a parliamentary structure.  Difficult topics can be raised, debated and voted upon.  While these systems in the UK, Canada and Germany slightly differ, they are the models of governance we have to work with, and they do work.  

I think that as Church, canons and regulations are debated, and in Parliamentary systems, country laws and state bills are argued about it.  In every place it is important to remember how we speak to people who may hold differing views.  There may be something that we can learn from another point of view if we risk listening.  

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The News

Lately I have been wondering how best to keep up with world affairs.  For what feels like over a dozen years I have subscribed to the Guardian Weekly.  Many attempts at reformatting the paper have taken place over those years, and I remember receiving the different formats, if you are a familiar reader, you will know that stories from other dedicated readers who describe the thin onion-skin-like quality of the paper for delivery via Air Mail.  The shape and size of the paper has changed and now is a brightly coloured magazine.  The price has also changed.  While I like the various points of view my subscription has lapsed and I feel reluctant to renew.  Maybe I will, but for now I am shopping around for other options.  

Many people don’t realize this, but I am a Doctor.  Well, that is at least what comes every so often in the post.  Letters addressed not as Mr. or even Rev. but Dr., due to, as far as I can discern, a typo in my school address list which may have either been sold, or picked up by other junk mail providers.  It was the easiest PhD, and it did come with some benefits.  At one time I took out a subscription to The Economist which I also enjoyed, more so because of the ‘professional rate’ given to me which made each issue about 25 cents a copy.  This was all due to being a ‘Doctor’ as I received a special advertisement to help stock my waiting room with important magazines for all my patients.  The Economist, was a mighty challenge to read from cover to cover each week.  I feel badly if I don’t read the whole issue.  Yes, this may be strange, but it is true.  

Now living in Germany the added challenge is to find something to read in English.  Occasionally we buy a issue of Der Spiegel (and I thought that the Economist was difficult to finish in a weeks time!).  Inevitably, it is only the newsstands at the main translations that have the largest selection of daily and weekly publications.  This means either a subscription, with home delivery as I still don’t really like reading off of a screen, or a dedicated effort to get to the Newsstands before the other 5 people who buy the same English newspaper get there.  Sorry if you have a standing order and find that your copy is mysteriously gone from the stands.  

There are some news magazines which I might have an interest in reading, but frankly I can’t put my head around spending 13 Euros for a copy of the New Yorker.  Then of course, there are plenty of newspapers and magazines which, even if they were given away I probably wouldn’t have any interest reading.  Now passing the newsstands I spin the carousel of newspapers and glance at Le Monde Diplomatique which only shows up in French or German given where we live.  My French is rust, but I can still read a fair amount, but it can be a strain.  

Flights which take me through the UK usually mean that I have creative pockets and ways of sneaking onboard a pile of magazines and books despite the weight restrictions of Ryan Air or Easy Jet.  Necessity is the mother of all invention I say, as I stuff my jacket full of reading material.  However, even some of the UK publications can seem to be an entirely different beast.  Take the Spectator for example, even when recognizing one contributing writer as a Canadian who has adopted London as a new home, the Spectator has a rather narrow focus.  If I wanted to read more about thoughts on Brexit then certainly it would be a magazine to look through.  For a time I had a generous gift of the Church Times, which kept me abreast of what was going on in the C of E, and a tad with the rest of the Anglican Communion.  

For my birthday I wished for an internet radio, which I was pleased to receive, and now I can tune into radio stations from all over the world.  What this basically means, in the short time that I have had the radio, is that it is like getting your news from Facebook posts.  The ten spots to remember stations have been filled with what I want to hear.  Either that or they are stations which we enjoyed while living in Victoria and we feel like night owls listening to shows playing in what would be the dead of night on the west coast of Canada.  So, the search continues for something to read, in English.  While I still keep my Guardian Weekly addiction through the kindness of those who pass along copies, I do want to find something else.  I’m still looking to devour a newspaper, or news magazine that is something other than the likes of chicken soup – tasty, but never really satisfying.  

The Unofficial Official (or, don’t cross on a red light)

Last week I returned, once again, to the local authorities for an extension on my visa which allows me to live and work in Germany.  The Landratsamt – Breisgau — Hochschwarzwald is like many other government buildings, functional and institutional.  There is a lot of concrete, and only one flight of stairs down has the feel of being subterranean.

I have spent a great deal of effort photocopying my forms and checking off lists of documents that are full of official stamps.  A hefty file folder sits in my bag and summarizes my basic existence in Germany.  As I stand at a cross walk waiting for the lights to change my thoughts begin to wander.  A few men are standing behind me, and a few other people standing at the street corner.  The men are loudly speaking a language that I do not recognize.  They seem to be having a conversation well known to them which is punctuated with what I considered to be sarcastic laughter, but they seem to be in good spirits.  I realize that in my own nervousness in going to visit the government building and its power-welding employees that I am probably feeling a bit threatened for no good reason.  A bunch of traffic drives past and there is a pause of absolutely no street traffic.  There are no cars, nor bikes of any kind.  I, and the several people gathered on either side of the cross walk stand and wait for the ‘green man’ walking light.  The three men behind, push and bump there way through the little crowd standing at the corner and walk across the street.  I find myself shaking my head along with the others, and seeing what looks like one parent across the road standing with a hand on the shoulder of a child, shooting daggers at the men as they amble across the quiet intersection with the blazing ‘red man’ crossing signal burning a hole in the grey air.

I find myself irritated that the three men have now successfully crossed the road, but now stop on the opposite corner as the crosswalk light turns green for pedestrians, so that they can turn and stare – no, stop and ogle – a young woman crossing the street.  The scene prompts whispered remarks and shaking of heads again from the other people gathered.

By this time, I think that I really don’t need the negative thoughts racing through my head prior to my visit to the visa office so I hurriedly walk past and ahead of the three young men still laughing and still rubbernecking the women crossing the road.

It isn’t a long before I turn the corner and see the building looming on the next city block and I begin to think to myself, “Do I have that form? Did I take that document?”.  Like checking for watch, wallet, glasses…I am padding myself down and opening my bag to check for the umpteenth time my list of items which I might need.  I feel a fool.  Now the three men are past me again and seem to be going to the same building.  This would not be unusual.

As it turns out, they are heading to the same building, and the same department.  And this is where I start to think to myself about my hidden anger.  Despite being 30 minutes early for opening time, there is already a line up of about 50 people, just for the ticket dispenser.  There are some changes since the last time I visited, notably, there are two security guards giving people, in a friendly way, instructions on how to line up, and how to speed up the process by having your Personalausweiß (ID like my Passport) handy, as your name and place in the line up will be required by the woman entering the information into the ticket machine.  Having an employee at the ticket dispenser is also a new feature, and it certainly seemed to speed things up.

This process did not seem to impress the three young men who now stood in front of me in the snaking line. For one, they did not seem to understand the instructions, despite the repeated attempts to clarify by one security guard.  Once the instructions seemed to be understood there seemed to be a lot of disbelief on a couple of accounts.  One was, that only one of the three had business to conduct in the office, the other two were just buddies or relatives along for the journey.  Only the one conducting business needed to be in line.  This seemed hard to understand that not all three needed a ticket.  The other complication was that the fellow which needed a ticket, had no personal ID in order to get a ticket.  He argued that he would use his friends ID instead.  This was also met with more clarity around the rules offered by the still smiling security guard.  To my dismay the one fellow left the line up and walked up to the front of the line and after some waving of arms and shouting back and forth this his two friends, or family members, tried to explain to the guard that he doesn’t need to wait in the line up, and that they don’t need a woman to help them at the end of the line.

This ended up to be the end of the line for the three men who were politely told by the still smiling security guard that there is a procedure and rules that need to be followed.  The three men left for home to get the necessary documentation, and I hope, a bit more humility.

These events are relatively uncommon, but they are part of the ‘gut-reactions’ that often lead to miscommunication and prejudice.  I know that I was dismayed at the behaviours around the treatment of women while crossing the road.  What I am left with after the relatively brief encounter is the professionalism of the staff, especially the smiling security guard.  Crossing on a red light is a cultural ‘no-no’ in Germany, and even Germans will have a laugh about this at times.  My own personal cultural taboo was crossed with what looked like the disrespect and objectification of women, especially women in some role of authority like a the ticket giver.

After not too long a time, I found myself at the front of the line and greeted the woman asking for my ID so she could see my name.  After saying good day, the woman looked up with stunned shock that I had spoken to her.  She even said this aloud and was glad to return a final greeting as I departed to look for a hard plastic seat for my long wait.

The procedure past the ticket dispenser is a long wait sitting in an uncomfortable chair glancing up at a tv screen waiting for the opening time to start and the various ticket numbers to start flashing next to room numbers.  There are all sorts of different tactics and behaviours for this wait.  Some people, like a man sitting next to me in a chair, rocks gently back and forth with breathing that sounds like he’s in a pre-natal class preparing to give birth.  Then there are those who ‘camp out’ with computers watching foreign shows and movies, spreading a small banquet over one of the few tables.  Then there are those, who are the opportunistic type that go from door to door in this circular hallway knocking quickly and then going in to the small office.  One such fellow did exactly this to the office door which was nearest where I sat.  A slightly tired and irritated voice of a woman came through the shut door explaining that, “No, you cannot just come in and jump the cue, there is a process.  No, I cannot help you with these papers. No, you will need to wait outside please.”  Then, out comes the man, and off he goes to the next door.

It was not as long a wait as I had thought until my ticket Letter and Number ‘pinged’ on the many screens.  I jumped up with my belongings and ran for the door like I’d won some jackpot.  A quick knock on the door before entering and an official looking across the desk asked for proof of my number so I gave over my ticket.  I was asked, “What do you want?” and I blurted out a very long German word which basically means a-permission-to-sit in the country.  My file was pulled up on the screen of her computer and a trainee perched next to the official reviewed my status.

I was asked, “Did you get a letter from the state to apply? Or are you doing this on your?”

I meekly said, “I am doing this on my own,” thinking that this is where the rejection starts.

The Official replied, “do you have form X?”

“Yes,” I said. And I handed over the form.

(Then in the tone of her voice it seemed we were playing card games like ‘go-fish’) “Well, do you have copies of Y?”

Yes!

This went on a few more times as I handed over documents and letters and stamped copies of translations.  I brought out of my bag the entire file folder with orange label tabs as a statement that I was well prepared.

“Herr Parsons, please wait in the hallway until you see your number again. We will deliberate your case.”

In twenty minutes a few other officials came and went from the office as I tried to imagine their thoughts from the expressions on their faces.

Eventually my number came up again, to the astonishment of the crowd around me, and I returned to the office.  In the end, I got another appointment not during business hours and with ‘no ticket’ required to bring a photo along with my passport.  I was then presented with a small document giving permission to stay in the country for a few more months, a “fiction”, or an unofficial official document until my personal card arrives for pick up.

I can stay in the country, thankfully, and the extra document helps cover the gap of an old visa until the new Personalausweiß arrives.

Lost in Translation

Hier ist mein Versuch, einen Blogbeitrag auf Deutsch zu schreiben. Es wird kurz sein!

Ich hatte die unrealistische Idee, dass ich in eine sehr kurzer Zeit (etwa ein Jahr) fließend sprechen würde. Ich kann jedoch viel Deutsch verstehen, und auch nur deutsches Fernsehen, Filme schauen und deutsches Radio hören. Es gibt sicherlich Momente, in denen ich das Gefühl habe, in meinem Deutsch angekommen zu sein, und andere Momente, in denen ich das Gefühl habe, einen Schritt zurück gegangen zu sein.

Ich habe heute gemerkt, dass sich für mich in den Jahren hier in und um Freiburg Deutschland viel verändert hat. Ich kenne die Straßen und wie ich mich fortbewege. Ich kann auf einer bestimmten Ebene kommunizieren. Was hat mich veranlasst, an die frühen Tage in Deutschland zu denken? Ich sehe zufällig einen Student aus meinem Sprach- und Integrationsunterricht. Gemeinsam haben wir gemerkt, dass wir in Deutschland leben und arbeiten und besser miteinander kommunizieren können als zuvor. Da es keine vorherige gemeinsame Sprache gab, auf die man sich verlassen konnte, da er kein Wort Englisch spricht und mein Solvakian schrecklich ist, war die Veränderung wirklich riesig.

Jetzt Antwort ich auf deutsche E-Mails von unterwegs, aber merke, dass selbst meine Rechtschreibung und Grammatik nicht oft richtig sind. Und ich viele Fehler mache, aber ich bin besser als vorher. Früher habe ich meinestest einen Tag gebraucht, um eine deutsche E-Mail zu versenden, und jetzt sende ich mehrere am Tag. Die Rechtschreibfehler beschuldige ich Autokorrektur. Wenn Sie andere Sprachen kennen, war sicherlich nützlich, wenn wir auf Reisen waren, wie wir in Frankreich bei einem kürzlichen Familienurlaub erlebt hatten – der Kellner (der auch mehrsprachig war) war verwirrt, wenn wir Englisch, Französisch oder Deutsch sprachen.

In the Dog House?

Actually not the dog house, but the dog bed.  The warm weather (mid to high 30’s) mixed in with humidity makes for some changes.  As I don’t have any administrative assistance in the sense that I had in a previous parish (Hilary telling me what appointments were on and taking care of all the Sunday service sheets for two congregations) I find myself this week sitting behind a computer more than I would like to.  This administrative load is not an onerous duty most weeks, as I have my routines that I stick by to make sure I don’t get snowed under.  However, as I plan to take three weeks of holiday I am planning further in advance which means making sure the visiting clergy are well prepared, the volunteers ready, and the presentation built up for Sunday worship (we don’t use any paper for our worship services).  Being in the heat and sticking to the chair and desk are now hazards of the job, which is where the dogs bed comes into action.

My wife found at Aldi or Lidl a cheap cooling mat for the dog.  Apparently this extraordinary mat is non-toxic which is a big plus when it comes to our dog Skippy who still tends to chew up beds.  The blue cooling dog bed turns out not to be at all popular with the dog who viewed it with deep suspicion, preferring to lay motionless on the tile floors as a way of remaining cool.  Today I decided to try out the dog mat at my desk having it migrate under foot so that I’d feel cooler.  Just like a dog which creeps with affection slowly up onto your laps as you sit on the sofa the dog bed has made its way to my chair and it really does work. Whatever magic is inside this blue pad is certainly working.

It is too bad that all of us cannot find relief from the heat.  The river that runs through the village has dried up for the most part, only pools remain at this point downstream and a smell of decaying fish fills the air every so often.  Two little boys were busy with net and bucket taking some of the trout out and carrying them up stream to larger pools of water.  Apparently this is a normal summer occurrence to have the rivers run dry around Freiburg (so far it has happened every year we have lived here), but it still surprises me.  Waterfalls run wild year round in the river behind my parents house in Canada, even with small pools that we can swim in when the weather is warm.  Even when we don’t have the rivers running dry there are certainly other concerns to be aware of when out along the trails.  IMG_20180530_171030#1

In the church we have had, and will continue to have a run on baptisms.  As we do not own the building, rather rent from the German church, the protestant tradition of having a shallow bowl of water on the Lord’s table as a baptism font.  Certainly, not every church is in this situation as I have seen plenty of massive old stone fonts in other churches, but this is not the local experience at least in our church building.  Water is a unique symbol where we can say it can give and take.  Too little water is not good, neither is too much water.  Freiburg may feel dry, but Japan seems to be washed out.  After a hot Sunday baptism service with a church so full of people that there was standing room only I was secretly thinking that a parishioner might do the church equivalent to the sports team prank in which team members pick up the large field side drink cooler and pour it all over the coach after wining the game.  Even though the weather is hot, I still pray that that one child (and others) experienced the refreshing life-giving waters of baptism.

Wise Ones on Humour

One of the many church groups that meets from month to month is called The Wise Ones and it is for people who retired.  The group is facilitated by a capable group of women and men as it brings together people from a diverse number of nationalities and backgrounds for some light discussion, refreshments, and usually homemade cakes.

I enjoy coming to the group as an ‘honorary’ member since it is a while until I reach the age of retirement.  (But one can never be so certain nowadays as I recently met a fellow at a wedding reception who told me that he retired at the ripe old age of 38 after inventing some gizmo that computer companies are still interested in using).  I love being with the people who have so many interesting stories to tell.

Most months there is a topic that is discussed where memories can be shared and I am fortunate to bask in a collective wisdom.  Yesterday the theme was humour (which I spell with a ‘u’ because with out u it wouldn’t be funny).  Everyone expresses humour in different styles and forms.  I think the group tried to avoid the generalizations that some nations seem to be more appreciative of humour than others, but it is an interesting social phenomenon to look at how humour is used from place to place, and from person to person.

I have come across people who have found themselves living in Germany who have named an inability to use their sense of humour to their full potential and therefore, they feel diminished as a person.  Their sense of self shrinks.  Not only is there the language hurdle, but humour can be, well, different for cultures and groups than ones own preferred style.  German humour, at least what is on the television shows, tends to be very ‘heady’ and often political, and truthfully, some of what is deemed funny just doesn’t tickle my funny bone.  If you are someone who loves witticism and word play you may find yourself at a loss.  However, during our group discussion the question asked of me, “what is Canadian humour like?” has remained with me, and I am not sure how I could summarize it as it differs from person to person.  I do think that some of the funniest things, be they jokes or stories, are ones that emphasize the shortcomings of one own self.  To laugh at ones self seems to be important…at least for me.  However, I don’t know if that is a particularly Canadian attribute.  Certainly we have political satire and slap-stick comedy which appears on tv, and there were comedy shows which often had dreadful comic routines which we watched because we knew that there would be at least one ‘zinger’ that kept you thirsting for more.

In a former parish there was a young woman whom you would be hard pressed to consider a comic genius, as she seemed to be shy, moderately funny but not outwardly so, and to look at her, one could imagine her being an middle level office manager.  In reality she was a comic writer for a variety of Canadian comedy shows, like ‘Kids in the Hall.’  One would be hard pressed to see her as one of a team of comedians but she was cutting with her razor sharp wit and observations on life.  Be it comic writing, or stand up comedy, her personality would almost change, or morph, once in the limelight.

One of my favourite comedians was Robin Williams, and having met him once while he was hiking with his young family you would never have thought he was funny.  He seemed like anyone else a nice parent out with his children, but whilst on stage, or in front of a camera he became something completely different.  In some early documentary about William’s life the stage persona and the backroom persona were vastly different.  Which makes me recall a quote from Robin Williams that is reflective of a lot of humour and the people that we find ‘funny’, he says, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”

German Education: Lions, Tigers and Trees

The school year is coming to a close and so begins the season of school projects, class parties, and general year-end celebrations.  The various activities keep parents busy either attending events where the children proudly show off their projects, or skills; or there is the effort of getting children to different locations be it a forest grillplatz, or a outdoor swimming pool.

For my oldest daughter she is staring in a theatre production where the children have written the script, set the scenery and will be acting out their show for two different groups of parents, family and other school children.  As for my youngest daughter, there was the year-end grill party where we all got to say goodbye to one of her much loved teachers who will be moving.  A few weeks ago the same daughter performed with her entire school in a circus.

The circus culture is alive and well in Germany with any number of travelling shows that make their way from village to village setting up a large tent in some generous farmers meadow.  There are also, to my surprise, professional circus performers that travel from school to school.  The children get a week of circus training in areas which they can choose to participate.  Students get to sign-up for their top three activities in the hopes that they will get to be part of the team in that particular area.  Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) ours was not picked for anything she signed up for – the top being fire juggling.

I will admit that my initial reaction was a bit harsh and critical as I heard that there would be no homework, nor classes (in the strictest sense) for a whole week as the children practiced their ‘routines’ in circus training.  Maybe I was just a bit jealous of the deal.

A huge amount of effort was put into the production of the circus.  Two shows were offered, each show being about 3 hours long (including the 20 minute intermission) and had all that you could think of in a actual circus.  There was music, song, trapeze, lion taming (kids in the lion costumes were very funny), clowns (not so funny), rhythm and dance, fire juggling, acrobatics, magic show and even intermission snacks and toys sold by the kids.  The large gym hall was full of around 300 parents for each of the two shows, and the decorations around the room were made by a team of kids working as stage hands.  The various acts all had special costumes and the adult supervisors were very discreet in their stage presence so as not to detract from the show.  After having seen the show, it did occur to me that it was a bit sexist in that all the flame juggling kids were boys, and all the trapeze kids were girls. I guess this is my own resentfulness in not letting my own daughter play with fire.

As for my older daughter who performs in her class production in the evening, she has recently had a two week school trip into the Black-forest. This two week long trip was a forestry practicum where the class learned about the care and maintenance of the forest as a economic resource for the country.  As well, the kids had to work every day helping to construct wooden tables and benches that are frequently seen all over the place in parks and forest.  The professional foresters helped to supervise and teach, and the day’s were packed with activity and learning.  The students returned home with a growing sense of appreciation for the forest and plant-life, as well as, a sense of pride in the work of some basic carpentry skills have all been the result of a two week trip into the woods.

This evening we are set to watch my oldest daughter preform in her class theatre production and I am sure that we will be amazed and entertained at what has been learned, achieved and celebrated.

Despite some of my personal challenges and disagreements with the way the school system works in Germany, on the whole, the process of learning is good.  While I still disagree with the ‘streaming’ of kids at an early age that sets them up for a certain path in life; I do appreciate the style of learning which gets the children outdoors and active.  The circus week and the forestry practicum have certainly added to the learning accomplishments of our children, and their parents have been entertained and rewarded with all the learning and accomplishment that is put on display at the end of the school year.  Lions, and tigers, and trees, Oh my! – we are not in Canada anymore.