Wine Country

Asked if I could help harvest grapes for a family wanting to expand their Bio-wine industry; I agreed, and found that it was more than just grapes that were harvested.

A local family which we have come to know, began a business venture a few years ago producing ecologically friendly wine. Bio-wine, as it is known in Germany, has some tightly controlled standards which involve everything from the growing of the grapes, the maintenance of the vines; to the fermentation process, and end product. When I agreed to help I was simply told when to meet at the house, and the departure time to the Kaiserstuhl area where the vineyard is located.

I arrived at the beautiful rustic farmhouse to find some family members out in the field attending to the horses, and others attaching trailers to vehicles that were brimming full with colourful boxes and further supplies needed for the harvest. A group of about 12 people sat around a dinning table still laden with a hearty breakfast and I was met with the sent of warm bread, strong coffee and a number of different languages: German, French and English. A loud welcome was heard, and it was quickly announced that here we all use ‘Du’ the informal you whilst people poured out of the narrow doorway of the dinning room like sand in an hourglass to find rubber boats, jackets and bags, everyone shaking my hand in greeting.

A number of vehicles transported the group to the Kaiserstuhl region, an old volcanic area now teared with various vineyards, the hill cross-hatched with fencing and vines now heavy with grapes. Today we will be harvesting Spätbegrunder (Pino Noir), a full bodied red grape with compact bunches. After a quick tutorial about watching out for signs of fungus, rot and insects; some small plier-like sisores were placed in my hand and I was paired up with someone to work a row.

A few hired hands had also been brought to the vineyard, and as it seemed everyone had done this before, the people seemed to speed away down the sharply slopped land filling box after colourful box with a load of grapes the only sounds being the snip of scissors and shuffle of boots in the damp grass. The process was really very simple. Cut the bunches, pick out any signs of rotting fruit (easily seen, and smelled with the waft of vinegar) and place the grapes in the box, then repeat until you reached the end of the row, at which time you and your partner found another row to harvest. The work sped by as you quietly discuss things with your helper, getting to know about your individual stories and backgrounds. Every so often, one of the two young men who own the operation would come past to chat and take a look at the progress, often producing their own pruning sheers from pockets and working along side you in conversation, both quality control and encouragement.

At midday the sun has made the grey sky a lighter grey; the call to stop is shouted out, and a ‘table’ has been set using boxes and an old table clothe. Wine is poured into real wine glasses and we all wait until everyone has be served, and ‘Cheers’ is announced by the brothers together to which we echo with raised glasses, the sun appearing briefly to add sparkle to the ruby liquid in our wineglasses. We all begin to eat and drink as soup, sandwiches, chocolate and coffee are served. The two brothers who own and operate the vineyard make sure that everyone is well fed and happy. People sit around on upturned empty crates chatting to one another. For some, they have gathered here every year, and others much like myself, have only just started to work. The sun emerges from behind the high cloud cover and we have a view to the Rhein valley and beyond; all of it making the wine in our glasses taste all the more better.

By mid-afternoon we have cleared out one area of the vineyard and need to move to the next, which as it turns out, is easier said then done, as we are not the only ones on the hill harvesting today. Rains and a shortage of labourers have made it difficult and the window of opportunity will soon be slammed shut so tractors, both large and small, modern and ancient are travelling around the steep hill and the many narrow switchbacked roads. We move everyone and all the equipment down to the ‘crater’ where the village is, and over to the other side of the hill which affords more views. Cliff faces full of holes from nesting swallows and breeding pairs of Bee Eaters remind us of the ecologically sensitive area. Having taken a short 15 minute break as the smallest of all the vehicle present opens and beer has been unloaded for everyone to drink, no sooner is has the bottle been finished that we are back to work with another partner, and the snip of scissors and shuffle of feet is matched with the fall of grapes and rise of conversations.

A micro-climate change has happened from one location to the next so that despite only a short ‘hop’ from one location to the next, here the grapes are larger, less tightly compact and very fresh, making the boxes fill quickly. A short rain shower passes and everyone is told to look out for a rainbow; a full one is found stretching across the whole valley, some take out mobile phones to photograph the scene, others talk in amazement.

As the sun prepares to set, the final preparations are made for departure. I am in one of the vehicles assigned to get some of the Romanian workers back to their lodgings, but we find ourselves all a bit frustrated, in that the lead car with the navigation and address has made it down the hillside quickly and left us behind as we slowly reverse down the narrow lanes with the sound of our tires slipping underneath. The driver I am with turns out to be from out of town, Berlin, and has no idea of the surrounding villages and we discover once he has pulled over in the village streets, his phone has no signal. My mobile alerts me quickly, that I am apparently in France and Roaming, just before the screen goes dark as the battery has run out of power. We turn to ask the Romanians where they live. They don’t know and they cannot answer even with using German and English we try to piece together were they are staying. The man who does the only speaking says it is near the ‘Rewe,’ a grocery store chain which is about as frequently seen as an Aldi, or Lidl in every village. He pronounces a name of a place which sounds like a garbled version of a village listed on a directional sign so we take a chance and head out.

Eventually we find ourselves pulled to the side of the road with me leaning out the window asking people for directions to this mysterious place where the farm labourers reside and to my astonishment a woman remarks, “Down the road, over the train tracks, then left.” We drive with renewed vigour having only to brake suddenly for a passing tractor hauling three wagons full of grapes. We find the road closed for construction and our led out several kilometres in the now dark valley. A large REWE sign illuminates our path ahead, and the man in the backseat starts looking around keenly with a hidden instinct of recognition.

“Not here!” The fellow shouts out. “Go.” he says and points straight ahead. After a few kilometres more, he says, “Slow,” and then he seems to have found his way more clearly by memory and he gives us a steady stream of directions as he yells out, “Left” while he points to his right, and “Right” as he points to his left. In the beginning of all this our van does a quick swerve at each instruction as the driver responds to the vocal response, and I have to reinterpret, glancing back to hand gestures pointing in the opposite directions. Soon the driver and I are speaking about the “other left” and the “other right” and our van remains steady on course. As the darkness surrounds us in the countryside the labourers are safely back at a large barn where they are housed.

A car waits for us in the dark and everything is explained about how we got lost and had the perfect combination of people in the van to get even more confused and disoriented. Now for the remainder of the the journey the driver and I have a more lighthearted conversation. We get to know each others backgrounds and he jokes in saying that for the last ten days he has been helping with the harvest and maybe knows a little more about what it is like to be a priest. He explains the routine of eating and work, but that each day is a different vineyard, often with different helpers. You are well fed, not paid well, and have to listen to people at what he called, “the vineyard confessional.” I laughed as he explained how the vines often obstruct the ‘co-worker’ on the other side of the trellis as does the screen in a confessional box. The conversation, he remarks, is also rather confessional, as people end up telling you their life-story. The driver also said that at the end of the day he is simply so exhausted that he has no energy left for himself, he cannot even make it through reading a newspaper article before falling asleep. Then he is woken by an alarm and a new day has dawned.

While I am now tired, and I am sure my muscles will let me know more about it tomorrow, I believe that the whole experience will be like a fine wine, better as it ages. Maybe, in due season, I will be asked again to help out with another harvest and my appreciation for those who labour and toil will make the food and drink taste all the more richer, and that while listening to the life stories of others mixed in with the snip of scissors and the swish of dew moistened grass, we may all be encouraged to pause glance upward and await a rainbow.

Intergenerational Worship

At a recent gathering of the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches in Germany we had opportunity to collectively think about how our chaplaincies work (or maybe don’t work) on an intergenerational level. The two dynamic leaders were Diane Craven and Harvey Howlett. The theme for our yearly educational event came from the chair of the organizing committee after reading an article by Diane in the Church Times which addressed issues of intergenerational work, worship and witness with areas focusing on: Learning together, Praying together, and Serving together. The article is here to read if you are interested.

Rarely is the church not intergenerational. Even if people like to highlight ‘missing generations’ that seem not to be present in the gathered community; on the whole, church is intergenerational, with my only experience of it not being so is at a number of ‘mega’ churches which felt more like a concert than church, and if you paid enough attention, you would realize that there were a variety of ages represented.

The real question for me, having had some time to reflect on the three day event is, how do we relate to each other if, in reality, our congregations are evenly spread through with a number of generations. At times, it is majority rule, and other times it is like being held hostage by a small faction of determined individuals; as the church joke goes, ‘what’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.’ (Groan) I think that at the best of times, the gathered people is like a community which is similar to a family set about a common or similar aim. For this reason, there is a lot of emphasis placed on meals together. One only needs to think of a family meal in which a number of generations gather, which apparently happens less often in by today’s standards — some estimate that we spend 30 minutes a day with ‘family’ and over 8 hours a day on some electronic device.

Every cohort of a generation will have different needs and expectations of what it is to be church; this leads to friction of course, as differing needs collide. Being reflective and intentional might be the best way forward. Reflective in how we learn, pray and serve at different stages of life and faith development. As well, we need to be forgiving because we will not always get what we are looking for and find that there will always be some group or individual which is somehow alienated: be it the singles at the family service, the crying infant and overwhelmed lonely single parent at the meditative Book of Common Prayer service, the elder who hears nothing but feedback as the loud music plays havoc with hearing aids as the printed font used for the projected worship service is too small to see; or the immigrant who desperately wants to be in a community, but finds that she cannot understand all of the language so that words which are packed with meaning only lead to more confusion and a growing feeling of alienation.

Each generation will think that they have the answer, as the answer is them, and they must be right. Over the years I have heard strange phrases from the mouths of otherwise pleasant people like, “They will learn to like the BCP if they hand out the prayer books in their role as sides-people and stop loafing around,” or “No wonder this place is half dead, all they care about is investing thousands of dollars on redoing their memorial garden, but they won’t let us paint a youth room.” There might be some value in shifting our perspectives, that our own generation has got it right, and other generations have it all wrong, to something a bit more positive and collaborative and forgiving, such as, “I am, because we are.”

However, rather than focusing on what might be seen as dividing lines between generational needs, there is actually a great deal of good things going on. Such as a church outing to the ice rink when Children’s Church teachers fall flat on the ice and the children skate daring circles around them; the adults have been made into the pupils and the child the teacher; an interaction which then changes the relationship when they next meet on Sunday to discover that we all fall down, nobody is perfect, and we all have something to learn. Or another role reversal when a server does not turn up to help with distributing the bread and wine of communion and a child is eager to help, and does, bringing tears to some as they receive this sacred meal from a child who knows no proper phrase, or liturgical response and has no special ‘license,’ but simply beams with love and enthusiasm. And finally an example of praying together when despite the years of theological study by the youth leader/quasi-theologian a young boy who has started to come to youth group proclaims that knowing God is simple, one only needs to look at an acorn from an oak tree — and the idea strikes the leader as he suddenly realizes that this sounds awfully familiar — like a saying from an ancient female mystic, or one of the desert fathers.

There is no easy way to ‘solve’ intergenerational worship, especially as our own needs and desires, as we search for God, continue to change. I might want a rock band today, but long for simple silence tomorrow. While people change and develop, so does the nature of our churches, and our society where there never seems to be one particular model or identifying factor, rather there is a lot of things all mixed together where we might feel that the church is like a social club today, and tomorrow a group of pilgrims. I imagine it is a bit of both, and more.

Rather than intergenerational: seeing the generations (however we define them) as separate and then somehow linked together; maybe it is better to speak of intragenerational where we recognize that within a church, or chaplaincy structure we have webs of connectedness and that at times, those who may be students are at times the teachers; and those who are leaders are sometimes servants. But then, that’s really about my generations needs, and so it must be correct. Right?

Norway – Some Rain Must Fall

Traveling from the sunniest place in Germany to the rainiest place in Europe for a vacation was full of unexpected delights. Here are my ABC’s for our short, but enjoyable, time in Norway.

A – Another Race

I have started a tradition when travelling in that I look for a race in which to participate. While I did run through the city of Oslo, and up along the banks of the Akerselva river trail to see the fish ladders, spawning channels, rapids and waterfalls all with scenic cafés and clubs nestled in amongst moist air and velvety moss; this was not the main race goal for this vacation. The main race event which I registered for was part of the Bergen Marathon Carosel, which has a race every couple of months throughout the year of varying length through the forest trails near Bergen. The races range from a 10 km to an Ultra-marathon of 100 km, but I entered into the “Skogsmarton” for a half marathon. Determined to feel better and still taking medicine for my stomach condition, I planned the race ahead as something to aim for as I wanted to get healthy. The race itself was mostly gravel trail which undulated through the beautiful forest with a small section of narrow track that had turned to thick dark mud after a few hundred footsteps of those who had earlier in the day raced a 10km and marathon. Dodging roots, other runners, and trying not to loose shoes to the sticky mud, was the best part of the race as far as I was concerned. There are some very fit and friendly people in Norway, and while I didn’t get a personal best, I did place first for Canada (wink, wink). I walked away from the race with a nice race t-shirt and a ‘trophy’ shot glass in which to say Skål!

B – Book

Ok, who am I kidding, the title should read ‘Books’ as I can never read just one. Before I left for our trip I bought a small Jo Nesbø book called ‘Midnight Sun’ to enjoy while I travelled in Norway. However, even before I left I started reading a book passed on to me by some church members called, “Der Pfau” by Isabel Bogdan. Der Pfau, or The Peacock, is not available in English, but written with English humour – think Faulty Towers. I regret that due to having only carry on luggage, I could only take one book and settled on the Jo Nesbø simply because it was thinner.

Thin books rule went out the window on our last day in Bergen as I had long finished my copy of Midnight Sun and now had some space left in the luggage after giving away our presents that we had taken with us for friends and family as our travels took us north. Now the real hunt was on for the 5th volume of the Min Kamp (My Struggle) series by Karl Ove Knausgård entitled (at least in the English versions) ‘Some Rain Must Fall’ which is a wrist-breaker-of-a-book. We thought of getting another bag just to take my new book home with me, or maybe getting it a seat on the plane. The book highlights Knausgård’s years living in Bergen, and I am getting to travel the city again having been to many of the streets, cafés and locations that are mentioned in the book. In a way it is a holiday after the holiday ever time I open up the book for a read.

Oslo rooftop picnic panorama

C – Cold Water

Despite all the warnings of it being the rainiest place in Europe, Bergen proved to be sunny for the time we were there. As soon as we had boarded the airplane bound for return trip to Germany we were grounded due to a large thunderstorm. Maybe we really did bring the sun with us.

On a couple of warm sunny days we went swimming in the Bergen harbour at the ‘pool’ which is more than just a pool, rather it is a sauna and warm saltwater swimming pool with diving boards off the cliffs into the fjord. This place summarized all the swimming holes of the North Shore in Vancouver, and others along the coast of Vancouver Island. I love swimming in saltwater even if it is a water temperature of 14-16 Celsius. Jumping off the diving board and watching out for ghostly pale jellyfish the size of dinner plates was worth it, especially as cruise ships entered the harbour and waving passengers looked shocked to see tanned Norwegians and tourists alike, springing into the dark water made choppy with the wake of boat traffic.

Look before you leap – there’s a jellyfish below!

In almost every situation, not only at the poolside, did I find Norwegians striking up conversations. Usually I was addressed first in Norsk and once people figured out that I was an English speaker we enjoyed many short chats with the locals who liked to joke and were generally easygoing and relaxed.

I remain deeply impressed by Norway, from what little I was able to see of it, and could easily continue with an alphabet of new letters like ø and å of enthusiastic sights and stories.

Happy Shinny People

I have been debating what to say on my blog after a long pause. Even finding the right words feels out of practice. Certainly, the blog is a creative outlet, but recently I have been enjoying painting and sketching. Rather than an online blog, I’ve filled a couple sketchbooks with pen and ink drawings and watercolour paintings. Even the format of the blog post seems to have changed in the few months of my absence, but I hope I can make go of it.

Part of my absence has been due to some health concerns. Making frequent visits to doctors and specialists; being tested, poked, prodded. I had been training for a marathon, and signed up for some more half marathons. I love running. I found that as I ran longer distances I was consuming more food. (Duh) This makes perfect sense. Then for a few months, no matter what I ate, or how much I ate, I was loosing weight. Apparently, this makes some people very jealous and people were asking how I did it. I was starting to wondering myself. I began to cut down on my weekly millage, and still eat a healthy diet, but strangely I could not put weight on.

Then the pain started. Sure there is pain in running, but pain in my gut was becoming steadily stronger. Off to the doctors office I went and with some tests and results there was enough concern to send me off to specialists with even more special tests. I am fortunate to live in Germany were there is a good healthcare system, and relatively low wait times to see specialists.

What was probably the most difficult part of this journey though illness is the waiting. Something about a doctor in a white coat telling you we are looking for this disease or this type of cancer, certainly sharpens the mind. The unknowing and the sense of helplessness as you go through tests is exhausting.

I was also curious as to how people perceive image. As a priest I have had plenty of experience with various people in and outside of church-land giving me their perceptions of what a priest/pastor/minister should and should not look like. I think female clergy get this treatment to a greater degree. Wearing a white alb, and a clergy collar is like walking around with a huge screen where everyone projects something onto you.

You haven’t shaved.

Your hair is getting too long.

Your hair cut is too short.

Your eyes are bloodshot.

You’re wearing brown / black / blue / no shoes!

Did you cut yourself shaving?

Is that a tattoo?!

You’ve been in the sun.

You look tired / wired / excited / sad / etc.

The best comments are often the ones that are left unsaid and there is only the look of shock or horror that appears on the persons face when I don’t make the grade.

However, there is a public dimension to clergy, and people expect a lot of us, and how we are to behave and act. Getting thinner and thinner with less and less energy doesn’t seem to go over well with people. It doesn’t go over well with me either. Maybe it is like having an overweight, smoking, and drinking doctor. “Physician heal thyself!”

I’m feeling pretty good at the moment, running more, seeing how things work as a vegetarian in Germany (the Vegan movement is only just beginning here), gaining a little more weight, regaining strength and energy. I’m happy being myself and know that suffering and illness are just part of life.

I have finished reading “In Search of the Lost: The death and life of seven peacemakers of the Melanesian Brotherhood” by Richard Anthony Carter. I have had this book for over ten years and have never been able to pass the first chapter. Not that it is poorly written, or that the narrative is terrible – it certainly isn’t either of these. I’ve not been able to read it as it is too close to home, as it describes people I know and times which were chaotic. My wife bought be a copy not realizing that I have had one on the shelf for ages. I guess it was now time to read it. It has been a healing read to make it through the book and remember some of the great sadness of life in Solomon Islands. There are times I could barely read because it describes so perfectly some of the tragedy. The book has brought back both painful memories and many joyous ones. Brother Richard Carter, as I knew him, was somewhat of a legend and I only got to briefly meet him as our two Toyota Hilux trucks past each other in a bit of a lull as we drove through a river heading to the brothers main house. However, Richard’s presence was larger than life, as tremendous stories of love and friendship, wisdom and teaching seemed to follow him around the region – and still do. He has done a fine job of writing about the great trauma and even great sacrifice made by many of the Melanesian Brothers, and other religious in the country during a time of great uncertainty and horror.

One aspect of the book is the ability to convey that suffering is everywhere. Death doesn’t just come close, it comes and waits in your home. The wails of birth, and the gasps of death are all part of life. It seems that in a developing country it is a lot closer then what we try to sterilize in our great civilizations. You quickly realize that suffering is all around us, and in many ways, unites us to each other. To suffer alone is something nobody should try, but many do. We cannot all be shinny happy people choosing our best side, our favourite moment, and our clan of friends as we seem to do with our online presence only to agonize in our day-to-day lives.

Bigger than a shoebox with much more inside

For the most part, homes in Germany are smaller by comparison to North American homes. Obviously, with a larger population, and a smaller landmass you get roughly 230 people per square kilometre in Germany, whereas in Canada you have 2.3 people per square kilometre. Consequently, living arrangements are on the whole different, but I have often wondered about all the stuff that people supposedly amass.

I realize that family homes can quickly fill up with items in a short period of time – I arrived with two suitcases and a dog – and now have a house brimming with items. A new fad is of Spring cleaning is making headlines, and changing lives. For odd reasons people have even shown me personal photos of their closets where very little is left after a big purge, but what remains somehow fills the owners heart with joy, and things appear more accessible due to colour coding.

There was a growing market for storage facilities. People seemed too attached to all there stuff, realized that they needed some room to live, and instead of clearing out, an expensive heated secure storage room is rented to accommodate all the extra stuff. I haven’t seen anything like this in Germany, but perhaps I am just ignorant. I’ve noticed fields that fill up with caravans and camping vans for the winter, and now that the Spring sun is brighter and some flower petals are emerging, some of the tattered tarpaulins have been folded up, wheels inflated and caravans hitched up to the backs of cars, ready for a new season of European holiday making.

Where do they put all the stuff? Do they even have that much? Do people just buy less, or do they secretly throw it out?

It is now the season of the ‘Spurrmüll’ where people purchase a certain amount of cubic metres of disposal. Wood, metal, and plastic get placed upon the curb ready for a large truck to come along and a team of burly men to start hauling it away. If your neighbours are friendly with you, they will say that they still have some space and you are welcome to add a cubic metre or two. Sofas, dinning tables, beds, cupboards etc. all sits out on the side of the road and it is this time of year that you see the garage doors opening to reveal, ‘one mans treasure, and another mans garbage’.

In our neighbourhood I find people to be rather inquisitive, and at times nosy, about what is actually in a garage. If, on a sunny afternoon, I have our garage door open, and sit in the garden I observe the pedestrians walking past the house a little more slowly. Head turn, necks bend, but they keep on walking past, taking in the view of whatever it is that might be in the garage. I find myself doing the same thing, as most of the homes will, come evening, clatter with the rolled shutters which hang over the majority of windows. Only pinhole light emerges from the lighted interior of the homes, and your guess is as good as mine as to what is inside. Perhaps it is this inability to really see into other peoples homes that makes an open garage door so much more attractive. In Vancouver, with multi-million dollar homes and properties often making the news the reverse happens, as wide windows, and bright interiors gleam out like signals of wealth and great opulence onto the night sky. In fact, I recall one home/mansion which I frequently passed on the way to university being in the news for a number of reasons. One reason for the newsworthiness was that the amount of money that was estimated to have been spent on the renovations; the other was that the owner was the owner of Lululemon, the Yoga fashion label. In a tongue in cheek comment passersby could enjoy the beachfront as you could look right through the home from one end to the other. It just so happened that this took place around the unfortunate time that the Yoga leggings were making the headlines due to some error in design and quality of material, as the tightly stretched fabric became remarkably thin when stretched. This caused both the design of the house and the flaw in the leggings to be similarly transparent.

I have to admit that while I was out walking the dog I walked past one apartment block which has a series of squat garages lined up in front, and saw that one young fellow who has a hobby, or business, of fixing up old cars had his garage opened up and one of his new projects parked in front of the garage door. It is magnificent to see the transformation of the cars, that usually arrive on a flatbed truck in some major state of disrepair; only to see them several months later looking like they have come from the movie set of one of the Fast and Furious films. I completely expected to see a miniaturized auto detailing set-up with a garage lined with tools and specialized equipment. As I slowed my pace and turned my head to see what was in the garage I was astonished to see boxes and boxes of shoes and a small rack of clothes. Some of the shoes seemed to be out on display, more so than any of the cars I had ever noticed in passing. Blue Adidas shoe boxes seemed alternately stacked with orange Nike shoeboxes. Trainers of all sorts of designs and colours lined the walls of the garage so tightly I can only think that once a small car is parked inside, the driver would have no choice but to exit the vehicle through the rear hatch-back.

Returning back to my own home I realize with more interest that ‘stuff’ has pilled up far beyond a meagre two suitcases. A neighbour comes over and offers a couple cubic metres of space on his large pile of rubbish. My neck feels a bit cramped from looking sideways at the neighbouring garage whilst being pulled along by an ever excited dog. The buds are forming. The birds are arriving from distant lands. The garage doors are opening to disgorge the amassed collections.

Surely, this must be Spring in Germany.

World Poetry Day

Yesterday, according to various emails that I found in my inbox, was a trifecta of world celebrations. In no particular order, it seemed as if the stars had aligned so that we simultaneously celebrated World Recognition of Down-syndrome Day, World Poetry Day, and World Commonwealth Day. And here I thought my own calendar planning was poor as I battle mistaken double-bookings and overstretched responsibilities.

Recently I found myself fielding a number of questions about my blog, and why I write one. I let it be known to a small gathering of people that I also enjoy poetry, and when I said that I write a blog, I know in my heart of hearts that there are really blogs that I write, not just this one you may be reading now.

Poetry, fiction, general writing, and for a large part, English classes, were not seen as a highlight of my academic career. More a point of humorous embarrassment and ineptitude. English was a subject for other people in my family. I cannot ever recall learning the building blocks of English grammar, and I think that I grew up in an era of English teaching reform where the students would just ‘know’ English and come to practice it without having to go into all the details; something like ‘new maths’. As such, I tend to blunder my way through writing but get immense pleasure from reading and writing. I even like the sound of words and marvel at people who have provided the world with silly rhymes, or majestic marvels (like Gerard Manley Hopkins). If I was to compare my English studies and eduction, it would be not dissimilar to building furniture from IKEA without the directions — you could manage, and in the end you have something recognizably like a sofa, but with a lot of left over metal washers and screws. So far, the sofa in our house is holding together, and I suppose the same is true for my writing and general use of the English language. Just don’t move it around too much.

Family will likely read this, or if they are smart, only see that a new post has arrived in their ‘inbox’ and promptly ignore it. Reading, writing and general composition were painful events. I read faster upside-down than right side up, and especially when tired, I will simply turn the book around and read upside down as it is not as difficult. These actions truly annoyed professors as they thought I was mocking them, but in reality it makes my brain hurt less. I get emotionally attached to what I have written, so much so, that I will sulk and pout if others wish to edit and correct. I am not always as clear as I think I am in my writing (or at any time), as I feel that my brain jumps to conclusions that are easily made, but others tell me that they cannot follow. Catch up!

In order to enter university studies I needed to take English classes until my final days of high school. I think I skimmed most of the reading, and played dumb for a lot of the response that was needed to speak about plays, novels, and poems, especially poems because only girls read poems. That’s what was the underlying message from my peers and so I, wanting to fit in, acted in this way. I think that I have now, later in life, rediscovered the books that I read in school or was suppose to have read, and have gone and done my penitence and re-read all of them. Well, there is still Doctor Zhivago, but I enjoyed the movie more anyway.

My mother and sister are the English buffs, as the bookshelves in our family home can attest to a prolonged love and study of English literature. I have to admit that as my grades were not good I needed to take a test for English in order to register for English 100 in school. Those of my peers who had done better at English 12 immediately jumped into English 101 which was only one digit higher, but held a infinitely greater prestige.

To this day I do not know what I did on that placement test, but I now look back at it with a smile. After standing in a long line of students at a registrars office I received my test score which allowed me to try for enrolment, not in English 100, but (gasp!) English as a Second Language classes.

So why am I writing this blog? Why do I like to read poetry? Why do I even bother? I suppose a lot has changed in my attitude about how I learn and in what ways I have progressed enough in my own self that allows me to write more publicly. When pressed by friends and acquaintances as to the reason why I write at all, let alone on a public forum like a blog, I need to think deeply about this question. I can say I don’t often enjoy it. No, it isn’t like that. I enjoy writing, but it is hard work. It feels like something I just have to do. Perhaps it is a compulsion or a laborious event that just has to happen.

Writing is something that takes a great deal of effort, and at times, I cannot be bothered and have learned other methods to express myself. When re-taking the English placement test, I did get into the regular English classes. Mostly those tests taught me absolutely nothing about English, and everything about my own determination, desire, and destiny.

There and back again

Not all travel is easy. We often forget that while we sit so comfortably in a cushioned seat that we are speeding through countryside at nearly 300 km/hr, or traveling at even higher speeds, and loftier heights. The past few days has brought with it much travel.

Having returned from the UK after finishing the residential session for becoming a diocesan Spiritual Director, I now sit at home, phone in hand, sending short messages to my daughter who is, at this moment, stuck with her friends returning from their Harry Potter excursion in London. A cancelled train in Brussels, and now a bus ride to Germany to be put up in a hotel. They are all in good hands, and we will see each other tomorrow.

My own travels to and from the UK were also challenging. High winds were such that flights were cancelled out of Basel, and my own airplane remained on the runway for nearly an hour, but if I closed my eyes it felt as if we were high up in the air. The jet was buffeted by strong gusts of wind that made the wings tip back and forth. Getting to the UK was a bit delayed, but the return trip was also interesting.

Leaving the retreat centre, a number of our group caught a taxi to the main station where I am sure some clown music played faintly in the background and we anxiously played a game of Tetris with luggage and people in amongst folded seats and a rather small mini van having to leave one person behind for another cab. Most of us hopped onto the coach upon our arrival at the train station, which then took us to the various airport terminals. Exceptionally polite bus drivers carefully examined each ticket in turn, and personally loaded the baggage which left me feeling rather stunned as de rigour of Flixbus travel in Germany is elbows out whilst throwing your baggage onto the bus in amongst other passengers removing luggage. As a sure sign of belief, we all hope that in the confusion my nondescript black suitcase which is of the identical dimensions of every other traveller on a discount flight will, by some miracle, arrive at our destination, and that I will find all the same clothes to wear as I had placed in the bag to begin with. In the short space of time it took me to travel from the bus to the main door of the Heathrow departure terminal – about 100 metres – half a wheel fell off my luggage and just as the large glass sliding door opened a pigeon placed a well aimed splat of white guano to go with my emerald green puffy jacket. I tried to think of it all as a sign of good luck; or, if this is happening now, surely the wheels and wings of the airplane will stay on.

In the lift to find the baggage drop I examined myself in the mirrored wall of the elevator trying to clean myself off. At least it gave the other travellers something to look at other than just the numbers flashing above the door as we rose to the fifth floor. Thinking I was finally finished wiping myself clean of the signature bird poop I felt yet another drop of something on my head. How is it even possible that an interior elevator leaks? Why is it that I have to stand under the place of the drip?

The checked in baggage has great advantages being almost solely automated. There are no longer snaking lines of tired travellers navigating labaryths made from movable pillars with seatbelt railings; instead, there is a series of touch screens which ask you for more, and more, and more information until finally the system can be sure that it has no idea who you are and you must look for an actual person to help explain to you that the documentation would have already been emailed to you as an e-ticket. This is when I realize that in spite of all this, my phone has chosen this moment to give up and need recharging. This is exactly why I like to leave a little time before boarding; to give the airplane a fighting chance of leaving with out me. That, and the feeling of Murphy’s Law which works its way to the front of my thoughts.

I then found myself with bag on conveyor belt standing next to another fellow, also with bag on a conveyor belt. We looked at each other an wondered if that was it. “Is that as far as it goes? Just sits there?” We tried wheels first. Wheels last. We tried throwing my bag a little further along to the other set of conveyor belts which joined the nearest set. Nope. We banged the conveyor like one does with the Deutsche Bahn luggage assist that runs beside concrete steps of the German train stations. Nope, still nothing. We need to look for an actual person to help us. Very soon a helpful employee wandered by to toss, not our luggage, but a rhetorical question, “Why does someone keep turning on the defective station after I’ve turned it off!” Why indeed.

Card scanned. Code words entered. Hidden switches switched. Laser scanners activated. Bags handed over to be sorted out by the staff person, conveyers whizzing and whirring, only to find that I would be paying 178 Pounds for over-weight luggage. What!!!

My shoulder bag had been tagged as the other passengers, whilst I was now left ‘holding the bag’ of the other fellow. It was quickly discovered that of the two broken conveyor belts to choose from, both of us passengers shared the same first name which led to some confusion as to who’s bag was scanned. With a rubber-like arm, the staff member again flipped a hidden switch, and both sets of bags were once again regurgitated from the belly of the mechanical beast, no longer having our personal items shipped to Tarshish and Nineveh respectively.

Life is exciting enough without all the travel stress. Having landed safely – now more than a week ago – as like the false starts, the groundings, the tiny taxis and well-aimed poop, the internet broke and I lost this story until I could finally put the finishing touches on it just now.

I think I am about full up with my Lenten penitence and will be glad to remain in one place for a while.

Posting about Post

There are a couple differences to the postal services of Germany and Canada, as well as some similarities. Now that Spring feels like it is budding forth more and more each day with still chilled mornings met with afternoon temperatures, at times, in the balmy double digits, the window in my office is opened and the sound of birdsong fills the air. Along with the metallic squawking of the pair of Magpies constructing a nest of twigs in the neighbours tree there is the familiar hum and squeak of the Deutsche Post’s uniquely made yellow cube-like postal vehicle. With electric motor and (maybe purposely) noisy brakes, the postman makes his rounds.

The dog, from a dead sleep, can hear the garage door opening, the foot falls of children returning from school and a cheese wrapper being opened in the kitchen at 2 in the morning. Yet, day-by-day the dog has yet to realize, as I do, the faithful sound of the postal truck and so he is rudely awakened most mornings by the ringing door buzzer like a hound stung by a hornet.

I have to admit that I have long held a great respect for the postal service, as in Canada they were people, which for the most part, were fit, friendly, and got to drive around in little right-hand drive jeeps that parked on the sidewalks. Perhaps the postal service was also idealized in my Richard Scarey books growing up, or that they always seemed invincible wearing shorts in any weather. As such, the tradition has long been that, come Christmas time, we usually left a small present out for the ‘postie’.

Now in Germany, I would hazard a guess and say that 98 percent of the time the arrival of a package is not for anyone in our home, rather for one of the other two apartments as our neighbours seem to do the majority of their shopping online so the parcels with grinning Amazon logos sit at our respective doorways after being signed for by yours truly.

I have, due only to the frequency of meeting, become more acquainted with the postal worker who, day after day, pounds the pavement (after parking his little yellow electric van) in our neighbourhood. There is usually a polite request over the intercom at the door asking if I would be so kind as to sign for the parcels that have arrived for my neighbours. I’m referred to by name — Herr Parsons — and told that “it is very nice of you to always do this!”. Recently, just after signing my signature on an mobile phone like device, and already being handed a few small packages and envelopes, I was asked to wait at the door for an extra package that was large. Looking from our front steps out onto the street the postman walked up to the bright yellow cube on four wheels, and after rolling up the rear door, proceeded to struggle with a cardboard box which looked incredibly heavy. Seeing the scarf-clad postman hauling and sliding a large box to the edge of the vehicle door it was like watching a mid-wife helping the postal van give birth to another little cube. I ran out in my bare feet and surprised the postman as I stood next to him so as to take one end of the crate. Taking hold of the package: it took the two of us a great deal of effort to manhandle it through the narrow doorway of the house. I’m still not sure what was in the heavy box, but in the past I have received everything from a set of winter tires to a plate-full of steamed broccoli in a Styrofoam box which was forgotten as part of a meal delivery, so your guess is as good as mine. With a glistening of sweat on our brows there was a polite thank you (we are on ‘Sie’ terms) and a handshake. The electric hum of the postal van as it drove down the street seemed to be less strained, less burdened, its yellow a bit more shiny, as if it was now a proud parent handing out cigars.

There are also some postal mishaps that can be frustrating either in Canada; like striking under-appreciated postal workers, or in Germany, as with postal agent who sent an important parcel to Edmonton via Hong Kong and Australia by surface.

Recently it felt like Christmas in February as a batch of Christmas cards were delivered, allaying my fears that I had unknowingly annoyed a great many people and had been struck from the list. As my oldest prepares for Confirmation, the letters of invitation and announcement were sent out weeks ago. We had one letter returned with a pencilled apology from a Canadian postal worker which said, “Sorry! I tried very hard to find this address but couldn’t in the end.”. We had, in our rush, forgotten to put most of the address on the envelope, but a valiant effort was seemingly made to find the recipient.

For a time I lived and worked in a neighbourhood which had an noticeably ugly house. A colleague said that he had devised a test for the postal workers, sending a stamped postcard addressed to something similar as, “TO: the Ugly Eggplant Purple bungalow with Bile Green trim on the corner of Arbutus Street and Broadway”. No numeric address and no postal code. A week later, passing the ugly house on the way into work he knocked on the front door and inquired if his postcard had arrived – it had! Soon afterwards we noticed that the house had been freshly painted with new colours.

The Job Fair

A couple of weeks ago I attended a job fair which was held at a local school. The premise was that students nearing the end of their school year would come and look at the many local and international job opportunities. It has been many-a-year since I attended my own high school job fair, and I found myself in a reflective mood. If I was a bit wiser, and could now go back to those pre-graduation days, I would certainly give myself a forceful shake and tell myself to take things more seriously.

Like most grade 12 students I had to endure the career and aptitude test, which consisted of a school councillor leading the class to the library where we sat for 45 minutes in front of yellow computer monitors plunking responses to questions. The dot-matrix printer would scream and grind out our results: I was either going to be a priest of a biologist. I kid you not. A neighbouring student asked the from the front of the room as he held his paper up, “what’s a backhoe operator?”. Apparently, he is still a backhoe operator; seems very happy with his life, and probably makes a lot more money than I do on any particular job site.

Of the German job fair there were the usual types of companies; however, there were a few differences. One being that there were no ‘resource industries’ represented. Nobody is going to grow up to be a logger, or fisherman here! Instead, the University was present with a sign saying that they ‘invest in people’ which is very much what the German work environment does. There’s not a lot of nature, but there sure is a lot of people.

Another interesting difference was that I was on the market; meaning, a few people from the job stands came up to chat with me. One was a company which focuses on retraining people – say from Coal Miner to become an Electrical Engineer. At my own high school job fair I remember feeling that I was the one trying to sell myself to the employers, not vice versa. I may have seen one or two young people handing out resumés the entire evening, but on the whole, it was the companies which were trying to sell themselves to the students.

My job, that evening, was to walk around with a sausage and bun lathered in mustard, slowly enjoying my food so that people would find themselves hungry and head to the class shop selling food, drinks and cake — all to raise funds for my daughters school trip. I was a walking advertisement.

Many of the employers at the school job fair struggle to find workers, and there is nowhere near the same level of flexibility in your career pick, but you do end up with some very highly trained and highly dedicated employees. In Germany, employers will train people for sometimes 2-3 years, often with the assurance of a career at the end of it all. The catch is that while a company invests in your training, they really don’t pay well during that period. In a way, both parties, the employee and the employer are banking on the future. One problem is that you better be darn sure you are going to like being a florist (which are in short supply apparently), as I have heard horror stories of people training for years in a specialized career only to find that in the real job situation they actually (finally) find that they have no desire whatsoever to do the job. (Who new I was so allergic to flowers!) And there’s the trap. Either you are going to get a heavily invested, highly trained workforce; or you get people who hate every moment of their jobs and they know that they will be doing this for the rest of their working career. Welcome the passive aggressive customer service representative who robotically makes a habit of making my life in the store a tedious experience. (Maybe that is what they are really trained to do in the first place?) The system seems to produce the very best, or possibly the very worst.

On the other hand, it reminded me of being a student handing out resumé after resumé being asked if I have experience in — fill-in-the-blank — job as they only hire people with experience. How can I have experience if I’ve never had a job? Just how difficult is it to wash dishes anyway?

Nearing the end of high school I can remember job hunting with a friend. We both went to a restaurant as a number of positions were advertised as available. We were both told that we might be able to work as dishwashers, because we were not good looking enough to be serving staff. I left the interview then and there, whilst my friend got the job…and left after a week because he hated it so much.

For this particular evening at the German school job fair my role was to be the supportive husband and loving father. I taxied people back and forth from the school and came late to pick up the left over racks from the bakery and my wife who had done the bulk of the organization. I ‘modelled’ the Wurst waving the scent around so that people would become moved with hunger and finance my daughters school trip. I consoled groups of students who felt too nervous to go and talk with the technical employer as they didn’t really know what to ask. I asked the strange unexpected questions to some of the kiosk members (like, why do you have a beard if you are working in the Army? I had to explain, as the smile on the large man in camouflage disappeared that this isn’t really done in Canada unless you are Navy). I held bags of ‘swag’ that students had collected (we have more pens, sticky-notes, and key chains than we know what to do with). I met and spoke to a few teachers, parents and some job fair headhunters and tried to explain my own job as the Anglican priest in Freiburg.

Maybe we just land in the right job, big or small, after all is said and done.

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.