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.

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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.

 

On the Run

After making what was a rather hasty visit to Canada I realize that I have not had the time to write for a long time.  Much has happened, but little of it is of significance.  I recall reading the words of Roald Dahl in “Going Solo” that “A life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones.”  As well, what may be “enthralling” to me, is not necessarily memorable for all.

I’ve decided to change the template on the blog, and have considered going to a paid rate to get better services, as well as many other features.  Now that the GDPR rules are enforce I wonder if I should write anything at all, and if so, shall I still link them to Facebook, or Twitter.  All this is not the real reason I write.  The real reason I write is that I have an assignment in a Spiritual Direction course to complete, and well, the procrastination is ever present.  I have made several stabs at writing my paper on “How does one grow in intimacy with God?” and I am now in the editing phase.

Intimacy with God is a fickle thing.  There are times when some of the basics become just that – too basic – and I search for some other possibilities.  I am loth to write an easy answer that sounds like a self-help easy 10 steps to Spiritual Enlightenment.  At the moment, along with the classical examples of prayer and Bible reading, I have found running to be a quiet centre where I commune with God.

I have been active in running or jogging since living in Vancouver.  As a child I recall loving to run, until a diagnosis of Asthma happened and it felt as though I had a pillow stuffed over my face, or like I was trying to breathe through a thin plastic straw.  Eventually, having a lot of time alone and going to university, I was determined to run as some kind of exercise – an activity that was not expensive.  Over time, running along with walking became easier and easier.  The asthma no longer seemed present and I felt that I could extend my runs for longer periods of time.  I participated in the Vancouver Sun Run a number of times, the Grouse Grind Race, various seasonal ‘fun runs’, and several other Vancouver area runs.

The journey back to Canada to visit family was focused and short, but I wanted to include a race to help keep my mind set on some kind of goal.  I found that the Shaughnessy 8k was on so I submitted my entry form and fee and waited for the big day. The run had appeal as it was around the area in which I began running in ernest, and it was also a race for the good cause of cancer research.  Lapping up the nostalgia as I lapped the neighbourhood was what I was expecting.  What I did not remember was how hilly the route was!  From a steep initial incline, to the gradual rolling streets, it was a far cry of running for many kilometres down the German side of the Rhein!

My daughters stood on the side of the street screaming at me to run faster as the finish approached, and my father was able to be present for the race as well.  After having intended to go for a short run a couple of days prior to the race I became lost (poor signage) and circumnavigated most of a nature park only to return to the parking lot 5 minutes after other family members had finished their 4 km hike to see that I had completed 17 km of running through what was mostly elbow-high grass rather than trail.  Having now over-trained prior to the 8k race I felt unprepared and more than just a little winded as I climbed the first hill.  Running, with feet pounding the street, breathing paced, and sweat dripping down the forehead, are all paths to growing in intimacy with God.  “God, when will this end!”, may have been the prayer at one point in the race, but overall it is a style of meditation that draws me closer to God.

At the end of the race I was shocked to learn that I had won a door prize, and later, that I was called up for winning 3rd place for my age category.  And if you are thinking as my brother did; I can tell you there were more than three people in the 40-44 age group.

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And the bronze medal goes to…

Now having returned for some weeks to Germany I continue to run on a regular basis looking for scenic routes, for longer and longer distances, or even a quick jog that I can fit into my schedule.

Reading in a German running magazine the responses from various runners when asked if they thought it correct to greet other runners while out on your own run (I think only in Germany would this be an issue) I liked one gentleman’s response, in that he waves to everything but the trees because as he runs through the forests he doesn’t often see other people, so takes every opportunity to wave.  So far, of the places I have ventured to run in Europe, I have enjoyed Switzerland the most.  The scenery of both the Rhein, the Münsterplatz of old city of Basel, the parks, and the people (all of whom waved), have made it an enjoyable place to grow closer in intimacy with God.

Now that I have probably outdone myself in word-count and run-on-sentences for this blog post it is probably wise to head back to the paper on spiritual direction…or maybe there is still time for another run.

The Glass dropped and the Wind rose

According to national news broadcasts Germany has just experienced the worst storm in ten years.  High winds which swept through Netherland in which large shipping containers at harbour ports were seen blowing over like a child toppling a stack of Lego bricks.  In Germany warnings to avoid ‘non-essential’ travel, especially by train, were announced.  Footage of collapsed signs on the Autobahn, and downed trees over rail and road filled the network news.

In all my time living in Canada I don’t remember hearing about people being killed by falling trees.  Given that there are a lot of trees in Canada, the stories of ‘death-by-tree’ were more mythical warnings about ‘widow-makers’ – dead trees that still stand waiting to topple at the slightest breeze – trees that concerned those in the forestry industry rather than the average citizen.  Unfortunately, death by falling tree seems much more probable in Germany.

My immediate geographical surroundings are almost pancake flat, with a barely noticeable, slope towards the Rhein.  Despite being within walking distance of some of the ‘larger’ mountains of the Black Forest, the scenery, especially in the winter months, is flat and wide.  Now that there isn’t a cornstalk in sight and the only thing growing in the numerous fields surrounding our house is ‘feldsalat’ also known in English as Lambs Leaf Lettuce, and the winter barely, or rye grass that leaves fields looking like freshly shorn sheep with a green stubble poking up from the ground.  The dog has his winter coat on, which I suspect is more fat due to his inactivity, so I have started to walk the dog further into the fields.  At times we will go via bicycle; the dog tied to the bike running along side me, while we travel down busy bike paths, or areas close to the busy streets.  Once in the fields, with nobody around, the dog is off leash, and he can easily sprint past me. Stop to water a bush. Rush ahead again to jump on some poor unsuspecting field mouse. We can easily cover 5-7 kilometres on one outing.  The dog would happily do this three more times a day if possible, but that has yet to happen.

Riding by bike with a dog running along the field roads that network their way over the land I notice that I can get a lot closer to the hawks that sit in the fields scanning the horizon, and edges for signs of prey.  There are rarely trees on which to roost, so the birds of prey either hover in air, tirelessly flapping, or they sit on the ground.  When I walk through the fields, the hawks, and other birds, usually take flight when I am a good distance away from them.  Perhaps it is from generations of interactions by which the birds are wary of humans.  However, while riding a bike, the birds remain on the ground for much longer periods before being spooked by my presence.  This reminds me of canoeing and gliding silently up to all sorts of creatures as if you are just part of the natural scenery.

The weather extremes must do something to the bird populations, as wind storms surely push migrating birds off-course.  There is also the temperature differences that must make it difficult for birds.  The severity of temperature fluctuations gives people migraines, and it is not unusual for one day to be 16 C and the next -3 C.  My wardrobe is not large enough to contain four seasons worth of clothes at one time, and it feels as if I am going to open up my box of summer shirts that is stored away under the bed, only to find myself running for a parka the next day with a cold wind that feels like it has come directly from Siberia.  On one of my recent outings with the dog and the bike  – Murphy’s Law – I find myself the furthest from home when all of a sudden the weak low angled rays of and early winter sun have been replaced with horizontal slashing rain and snow. As I pedal my way home faster and faster, I must soon stop as my rear wheel spins in the slimy mud.

The mud is different here.  I grew up with a ground that seemed almost sponge-like, where 58 days of continuous rain did little to make the ground muddy.  Huge cedar trees would suck up the moisture, and most of the water would flow into cascading streams and rivers.  Even in Victoria, mud was rarely as thick as it is here.  Certainly pools of water could form, especially in the rocking outcroppings where grass and sea salted stunted trees grew.  In German fields, the ground is a thick clay like mud, which has the unique ability to be both slimy and sticky at the same time.  It is the mud I imagined when watching old movie footage of Canadian soldiers in war.

A large crater has formed at the front entrance of our house in the last week.  Eight hours of near continuous drilling that vibrates the floors and has shook pictures from the walls is part of the landlords scramble to prevent flooding and mould from spreading in the basement suit.  The workers heads protrude from the ground, and shovel blades heave mud and debris from the hole that will soon have new perimeter drainage pipes.  The workers joke that the dirt contains rubble from World War II, and that they hope they don’t find any unexploded bombs.  I hope so too!

During yesterdays storm, while the weather conditions here were nothing compared to elsewhere in Germany or Europe, it did feel for a moment like some battle raged around us.  The window blinds screamed a high-pitched whistle, the mounds of dirt, brick and debris was piled in a few locations around the house like we were living in a bunker, a tarp rested over the hole in the ground at the foot of the stairs like it was a grave prepared to accept a body, and the ducks waddled their way around the garden like some sentry patrol – only that they seemed very happy with the wet weather and all the drowning worms that wriggled to the surface of the grass.

Everybody looks like George Clooney

After a lovely Easter Vigil with the Old Catholic congregation in Freiburg, then an early sunrise service on the hills overlooking the city, and topped off with five baptisms on Easter morning – I was ready for a holiday.

A small camping site on the end of Lake Como (the opposite end to Clooney’s villa) was our home base for a few days of relaxation and exploring.  In a relatively short time we had driven through Switzerland and entered Italy via the Gotthard tunnel.  You know you’ve arrived in Italy as all of a sudden every driver behind you feels like they are in the trunk of your car and all the men look like George Clooney.

With some unseasonably cool weather pouring south over the alps, we had no use for our swimwear that we brought with us having expected warm wind from the Sahara to be blowing its way north.  No matter.  We found lots to do and explore.  An old church pilgrimage site over looking the lake, lakeside villages with loads of history, and fantastic coffee about every 100 metres.  Italy has to be the place for breaking ones coffee fast over Lent.

Fully caffeinated and feeling a little more Italian, we drove to Milan for a day to see the some sights, but mostly we watched people strolling around the boulevards looking like they had just walked out of a fashion magazine.

Eventually it was time to return home to Germany.  Knowing that the very lengthy tunnel passage through the Alps would, on a Saturday, be jam pack with traffic we opted for the scenic over the alps route.  Unfortunately, the sign to indicate that the mountain pass we had chosen was closed was at the very bottom of the road (which we didn’t see) and the next notice sign was at the top.  It was, despite the frustration, an amazing drive which reminded me of so many car chase scenes in a James Bond film.  Hairpin turns, sheer drops, amazing snow capped peaks, and short one-way icicle filled tunnels made sure that you had both hands on the wheel.

Having to turn back and descend the mountain to find another available pass forced us to see more of the worlds famous skiing and alpine resorts. If anything, it was better than sitting in a two and a half hour traffic jam in the tunnel.  We stopped for a coffee and snack at a small mountain top restaurant to be reminded that we had left Italy, and were now in Switzerland as the espresso coffee shot up in price to 4 Euros!

The holiday ended with us picking up the dog from the kennel.  Sadly, the dog was not able to join us despite us finding a dog friendly campground.  All the required inoculations for the dog made it so that he was not allowed out of the country.  Or, as we were told by the veterinarian – you could likely take him out of Germany, but coming back (if you get caught) would be very costly with a forced 6 week quarantine period.  Even with the dog having his Euro dog passport (yes, there is such a thing!) the new rules require a 3 week waiting period after a rabies booster injection.

All in all, we returned from the holiday relaxed and refreshed.

The Comma in my Day

The comma offers a pause, a break, in a sentence. The comma is a much needed in punctuation, and in life.  The comma comes as a grateful welcome when I read German with its extraordinarily long compound words that make some paragraphs a page long.  Punctuation has entered newsworthy status as I have heard about a long-distance truck drivers union winning a legal battle regarding overtime because of the Oxford Comma placed in the wording of a contract.  Similarly, an entertaining BBC short video about a person who blurs the lines of ethical vandalism as he lurks around high streets changing grammar mistakes in shop signs and advertising.  The person tapes over misplaced apostrophes in the dark of night.

The comma can change meanings of sentences.  I’ve discovered the change of of meaning in the simple phrase, “Ja, ja”.  “Yes, yes” as a statement of agreement, and then if the pause on the comma is too long, and the tone perceived as sarcastic, “Ja, ja” comes across in a vastly different way that is taken as an insulting slight, like “whatever”, or much worse.

On my day off, like a comma in a sentence, I went on a gentle bike ride.  The ground is only slightly graded so that there are no real hills to encounter, and only occasionally would I need to pedal.  Mounded fields are beginning to yield asparagus.  Poly-tunnels shelter acres of strawberries.  Storks are nested upon tall posts.  Before I knew it I found myself at the Rhein.  While not a long journey, only a 26 Kilometres round-trip, it was a welcome pause that changed the sentence of my day.

Time, Distance, Speed

Don’t think that I’m going to start on a physics lesson.  The themes of time, distance and speed are things you begin to think about when you are passed on the Autobahn like you are standing still.

140 Km/hr is very slow for some.

While not all the roads are unrestricted in speed, there are plenty of places on the highway and smaller roads which have either no speed limit, or a very high limit (100km/hr on a winding single track road in the mountains).  It is not often that I drive our car as Anke uses it mostly to get to and from work, leaving me to negotiate trains and Straßenbahn.  However, when I do get behind the wheel, our old car does well at around 120-130 km/hr and I settle into a groove being able to pass the large LKW (Trucks) and the occasional car towing a trailer, or camper.

The other night, as I made my way home after an evening meeting, I merged onto the autobahn and an Audi driving behind me was quick to get into the left lane in order to pass me as I sped along at 120 km/hr.  The roar of a diesel engine beside me was followed by two things.  First, a streak of black and chrome as the Audi driver passed me like I was standing still.  The second thing to happen was the flash of headlights from far behind me, as another car approached and signalled to the Audi that he was going far too slow and should move over into the slower right-hand lane.

Less than two seconds lapsed and some polished car of some make (it was a station wagon!) zoomed by me and eventually the first car, the Audi, now far ahead of me in the right lane.  My own old Volkswagen heaved to the side as the very fast car sucked us into its wake and the red rear lights of the speeding bullet of a car blurred like a vapour trail left by a jet on a cloudless sky.

All of this is a fairly normal occurrence, but one that makes me wonder how my own driving skills have changed, and what I will be like when we return to Canada for a holiday.  Perhaps I should budget in some extra money to pay for speeding tickets.

Speed is of course distance over time.  Two other aspects of life in Germany is the distortion of distance and time.  In Canada we celebrate 100 year anniversaries, and designate buildings even 75 years old as ‘heritage sites’.  Albeit, Canada is perceived as a young nation, so my sense of time fails to compare with the much longer notion of time in Germany and that of Europe in general.  My wife use to tease and say that the house she grew up in is older than my country.  Walking around any part of Germany I find buildings, houses, chapels, barns, fountains, and even cafés and breweries that were built in the 15th or 16th century.  These are the ‘young’ places, as there are plenty of other sites that are far older.

Time is also generational, having family members living and dying in the same house, the same family working the same land, the same last names selling the same product….for generations.  Large stone crosses that dot the landscape are maintained and preserved by family members of the landowners that many years ago decided to mark the edge of their field, or property.  With this long sense of time, it is no wonder that the re-ordering of the village centre takes so long, even if it looks like a better plan and layout.

With the lengthening of time, comes the lengthening of distance.  While a hundred years in Canada is considered heritage, a hundred kilometres is considered the other side of the planet.  When we signed up for car insurance for having a car in Germany, the agent on the phone understood that we had just moved and so having no driving record in Germany wanted to get an understanding of our driving habits.  Our answer to the question, “How many kilometres were on your previous car?” was met with shock thinking that our car must surely be 50 years old and had two new engines.  The trembling voice of the insurance agent shook all the more when we said our car was only 5 years old.  We had to explain living in Canada requires an awful lot of driving as the distances are much longer.  Considering that the land area of Germany would fit about two times into the province of British Columbia we realize that the sense of distance is also very different.  A lot of people say that France, or Switzerland are just too far away! Being that it took more time to travel to my parents house in Vancouver than it did to nip across to France for a baguette, or a meeting in Switzerland it takes time to assure people that perspectives are different.

I shake my head in astonishment at 100 years, while others shake their heads at 100 kilometres, but fortunately we are able to merge onto the same highway.