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.

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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.

Thermal Bath

With the conclusion of the churches hosting of the German Synod, and later the congregations own annual general meeting my wife and I went to the Vita Classica.  The town of Bad Krozingen has the designation ‘Bad’ meaning bath and one of these baths is the thermal bath/spa of the Vita Classica.  A whole range of spa treatments are available, but we went for a swim in the several different pools.

The pools are warm, but not as hot as I was expecting from my experience of a Canadian outdoor natural hot spring.  However, what was nice was the ‘gong’ system.  The Gong works like this: each part of some of the pools has bubbles blasting away, and you get a nice massage as you go from one part of the pool to the next.  There is always a movement of people around the edge of the pool as a gong sounds signalling to those in the water that it is time to move to the next station.  If you have ever done a circuit training workout at a gym, going from different weightlifting machinery and cardio equipment, then you have some idea of what goes on in the pool.  Moving slowly from one blast of warm water to the next leaves you feeling like you have done a workout without really going anywhere.

Another interesting pool was the music room.  A large indoor pool with clusters of people floating about on their backs with the help of the Styrofoam ‘pool noodle’.  The water is almost at body temperature and nobody really talks beyond that of a whisper.  What is really great is once you relax and begin to float, and as your ears go under the water; you are serenaded by classical music which can only be heard underwater.

One more feature that I enjoyed about the pools were the changing lights.  My wife and I had hoped that the night sky would be full of bright stars to gaze at while we floated on our backs in the hot water, but the cloudy sky blocked out that hope.  The runner-up to the stars was the changing lights in the pools, or of the whole rooms if we were inside.  Deep blue lights signified the temperature of the pool was cool, or that the lights cycled around the pool like a visual gong, reminding swimmers to move on to the next active pool.

The basic pools were plenty to leave my wife and I more rested and relaxed.

 

 

Threading the Needle

I am of an age that can simultaneously recall mocking my elders for not being able to pass a thread through the eye of a large needle, and having the shame of now not being able to do the same myself.  My daughter, from across the kitchen informed me that I had succeeded in my endeavour to thread the needle.

Family reading this will likely be overjoyed at the turn of events.  I blame the strongly calcified water that I drink in Germany on my increasingly poor vision.

There are many things that while they seemed easy before, now seem like Herculean feats.  Getting over the fact that there are ten eggs in the container rather than the expected dozen seems like a small thing, but it makes a big difference when you want to cook, or bake something, and you realize that your planning is off.

Going to school for the children, while a normal event, can be more arduous than before.  The daughter that so clearly saw the needle finally being threaded is at a stage in life where the future is laid out before her.  The school system begins the classroom streaming this year, and for many young children, and their parents, they are forced to cast their gaze to a wide horizon and imagine what they want to be when they grow up.  The categories, levels, abilities and temperaments of the children (and to some initial extent, the parents) are all piled up and muddled through as career planning starts to get going.  Of course, one can always change streams, or continue on with more schooling; it is the initial segregation of pupils into academic abilities that feels so different.

If I look back on my experience of grade 4 it is not a pretty picture.  Even more scary is the idea that my abilities then would subject me to a certain destiny.  While I can see some reasons and rational for streaming the children at this stage in life, it does go against the grain to think that we, no matter what age, are always growing.  Surely, if we are not growing, we are likely to be dead.

Grade 4 was a terrible year.  It must have been as I can remember it.  I recall running away from school and having the police looking for me.  I had a terrible, dictatorial, sadistic and torturous teacher.  To think that that year would determine my placement in a future school…it just doesn’t really end well.

I’m happy to say, that my daughter doesn’t have the same feelings of her grade four teacher, but I still feel for her as we look at a big step in life.  I hope that she can understand that it may seem like a huge stage in life (as it is for her, or anyone who is in that moment), but that in the grand scheme of things, it is pretty small.  Small, but memorable; just like threading the needle.

Held up at Gunpoint

The other day as I got of the train nearby our home, hands in my pockets, I rounded the corner and walked right into a standoff.

Two boys, around 7 years old, approached with bandana’s covering their mouths, and hands at their sides.  They were too fast for me, and drew their guns out of their holsters, and blasted me.  The smell of gunpowder was on the air as the midday sun shone down on all of us.

I had no chance.  The children during the Fasnet celebrations had got me.  The boys laughed and laughed, as their cap guns clacked away.  No horses to ride off on, but I was left alone and I soon heard in the distance the next unsuspecting victim being shot to smithereens.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a child’s toy cap gun in a store, but they flood the shelves at the department stores and village toy shops.  Costumes for young and old are for sale, and so begins the regional celebrations.  While Shrove Tuesday is a few days away still, the spirit of Mardi Gras is alive and well in some shape and form here in Freiburg.  Children take over their schools, groups of children raid the village and city halls.  The Roman Catholic priest wasn’t able to attend a recent meeting as he was detained by the children in his congregation as fun and havoc rules for a short time every year.

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Each village has a particular style of clothing, and costume.  Some are expensive carved wooden masks depicting witches, or furred animals. The suits are old pieces of stitched on cloth,  pottery shards, or tiles. The partying can shut down offices, trains and trams as parades, and mockery take hold.  The spirit of carnival lasts for about a week, and then there is another celebration in Basel, Switzerland with its own customs and traditions.  And then there is the Alemannisch Fastnacht which offers another set of customs.  Some photos of the costumes can be found at the Black Forest Tourism Office.

I couldn’t possibly go into details about the richness of the various traditions, as many of the villages, groups and people have their own stories to tell.  It is however, an exciting time, full of fun, tradition and celebration.  There’s always a surprise waiting around the corner.

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.

Cold enough for you?

As it is the new year and the temperatures are usually in the minus numbers for the majority of the day, I am actually reminded of the autumn day I was out walking the dog in one of the nearby fields.  Most of the harvesting had been done so we could see that a man and his dog was approaching us on the dirt road that cuts through the fields.  We stopped and chatted a few minutes as our dogs played.  We had met previously and found out that the man was not German, but French and had spent a year in Montréal, Canada on some navy commando exercise.  The Frenchman was bundled up in his down-jacket, scarf and touque (winter hat-for the non-Canadian readers), and he was surprised that I was out in the blowing wind in shorts and t-shirt.

The cold has certainly set in and has been around for a long time, apparently too long for most people.  I remember that the cold weather made for a quick night out on New Years Eve.  Having a visitors with young children over New Years I ran out of the house early to buy a bunch of fireworks for our party.  In Victoria, Canada, fireworks were deemed illegal, but occasionally you would see and hear a few explosions around Halloween and New Years.  The city would put on a summertime festival of music and fireworks – a large display by Canadian standards.

While I can tolerate the cold, it appears that Germans can out do me with their appreciation for fireworks.  Having stood in line to buy 3 or 4 set packages of fireworks and spending around 40 Euros my eyes grew wider and wider with the family ahead of me in the line at the ALDI. A mother pushed a buggy full of food, whilst the father and kids had a buggy full of fireworks.  The family ended with a bill close to 400 Euros, which is a huge feat in a store like ALDI that prides itself on very low prices.  (Think 8 Euros for a child’s snowsuit).

Despite my seemingly frugal purchase of firepower, we still had a good time, and I couldn’t get through all the stuff I had bought before the kids had had enough of the cold and the lack of sleep.  Every corner on the street had small crowds of people lighting rockets, whirling, flaming, banging fireworks.  The dog hated it, but we loved it!

While New Years seems a distant memory now, themes of new year still come up in conversations, especially with those who have never experienced a German New Years (Sylvester, as it is known here).  The last feature of most German New Year’s parties is the ever present “Same Procedure as Every Year” moment as people gather around a screen to watch “Dinner for One“.  A slapstick style comedy in English, which, I am growing more convinced, no English speakers have every heard of before.

While the cold continues to take us into the minus temperatures, life in German continues to feel warm and welcoming.  Just when I think I have learned it all…you really haven’t.

Do Farmers go on Holiday?

A very thick fog has settled in our area.  I’m not used to so much fog, and neither is the dog.  Early morning walks and especially the late evening walks through the farmer fields make the dog a little anxious.  Now that it has rained throughout the night the fog has cleared, but I am sure it will return soon.  I appreciate the fog when the temperature drops and it appears that the fog is freezing and falling from sky, or it attaches itself to skeletal shapes of leafless trees and bushes.  Even ones own breath blows out and looks to freeze and drop to the ground to join the swirl of fog.

The light from street lamps are fuzzy blurs at worst, and at best the light beams highlight the swirls of fog that blow around like a Canadian snowdrift.  In just a dozen or so steps into one of the many surrounding farm fields you can easily loose all sense of direction as any directional lights start to disappear with every step away from buildings and roads.  While your vision subsides the noises seem to grow more intense.

The other night as I walked with the dog through this soupy fog we were both suddenly shocked to see a huge farm tractor appear beside us in one of the fields with a large plow lowered to turn over the soil.  With only lights on in the front of the tractor we felt the effects of the rumbling machine before we had the chance to see it clearly.

Truly the farmer never seems to take a break.  A field recently harvested is quickly turned over and reseeded with the next crop.  Over the year it seems that the cycle goes something like this: grain, maize, feldsalat (a tiny little lettuce that is harvested by many workers on their hands and knees).  Then there is some kind of root, or tuber vegetable that is simply mixed into the soil as a natural fertilizer.  There are other food crops and non-food crops, but the same thing applies…they are always doing something in the fields.

Most of the local farmers are people with ‘regular’ jobs on top of their family farm so that when work is done in a 9 to 5 job, the evenings are spent either sowing, or harvesting.

One of the only fields around our house that is still sitting (as far as I can tell) fallow with a fertilizer crop waiting to be plowed into the ground is home to a pair of Ring Neck Pheasants.  The dog usually keeps off the fields as there are plenty of field mice to catch on the edges and borders of the fields, yet the other day in the misty evening fog the dog ran back along the dirt road looking like someone who has realized they’ve just missed an item in the last aisle they passed in the grocery store.  A new sound, or smell has directed him to the edge of the field and on instinct he plunges into the frost covered greenery and bounds like a dolphin would at sea.  Then, Whoosh! a pheasant hen takes to the air and skims the plants with a zigzag flight only to disappear into the fog at the other end of the field.  With determination the dog keeps looking and soon a large male pheasant complete with a beautiful long tail shoots out of the plants a few metres away from where I am standing on the roadside.  Along with the zigzag flight he adds his own scolding clucking as he too disappears the same way his mate did a few seconds earlier.

Winter fog has obscured my vision, but it has also helped to make some things clear.  The farmer never stops, and nature will always surprise.

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Ghostly horses graze in a frost covered field.

Another View on Another Advent

The expectation of both the birth of the Christ child, and the second coming of the Messiah echo through the liturgical year.  Advent is ever present in the local news as televised German news broadcasts have Advent wreaths burning just off to the sides of the newscasters desks.

While Advent brings the new liturgical year there are somethings that remain constant.  I’m glad to say that things are beginning to repeat themselves and I don’t feel like I am climbing such a steep learning curve.

The learning curve isn’t declining for all people however.  My final (I hope) language and integration class was spent trying to moderate the religious freedoms represented in Germany.  Being the only person that has had opportunity to read a lot of different scriptures from a variety of faiths it made some sense that I would navigate the final discussion on faith and religion.  With even a wide variety of Christian denominations and traditions being represented, along with followers of Islam, Buddhism and an Atheist the discussion was curious as people seemed to discover a new curiosity.

The first Sunday in Advent had Bishop Robert Innes presiding over the Eucharist and Confirming three of the youth in the Anglican Church in Freiburg.  Bishop Robert was able to speak about confirmation as a commitment.  This commitment is certainly true, and is contrary to many feeling that confirmation as a ‘graduation’ for many youth to now leave the life of church community.

While we continue to wait with pregnant expectation this Advent, I also hope that we might rediscover the curiosity of those who are witnessing the freedom of religion in a new country.  As I write, the church is preparing a two day Advent Prayer Path where several members of the church have creatively made prayer stations that will certainly awaken our Advent curiosity and help us not to hear an ever fainter echo of Advent, rather a resounding renewal of what it means to see Advent with renewed passion and commitment.

Just One Star?!

Rating systems and pollsters have hit some new lows, yet we remain surrounded by subjective public ranking. The church Facebook page gives the ability to any user to rate the church. Equally, hotels, restaurants and even a public washroom can have star quality. In some news there’s been reports of the famous Michelin Stars being granted to a Canadian highway rest stop because of the quality food they sell. The same star rank was given to a food truck in another country.
There is some debate about the levels of quality, nonetheless the stars are there along with the opinions. Do they really matter? I believe they do, and they don’t. Read on and I will try to explain.

In the church there are a couple of tests, quality controls, or plain simple observations that can offer constructive feedback – at least that’s the ideal. One such test is the “mystery worshipper” who, like the commercial equivalent of the mystery shopper, has a list of check points to cover. If you’re still not clear, think of the mechanic giving your car a 21 point inspection. I’m not sure if the Anglican Church in Freiburg folks are aware, but they’ve been reviewed by a ‘Ship of Fools’ mystery worshipper. You can find the review online.

In past congregations I have brought in mystery worshippers to give some evaluation. It helps me to get another point of view. I try to alternate between a Christian reviewer and someone who is Spiritual but not religious (SBNR). The reviewers have different points of view: someone of a different church or denomination makes comments that are, well, ‘churchy’. They have a bit of a critical eye towards form and function. For example, they might suggest that ‘you say baptism declares full participation in the church, but then only adults do the major rolls of service in worship’. The non-religious, or the spiritual but not religious person usually has a very different report that is no-less important. The SBNR person usually has some powerful insights about belonging, and some that are so basic that they are invisible in plain sight. Here’s some comments as examples – ‘do you really think that everyone knows when to sit stand or kneel? I felt foolish as the only one mumbling along to a prayer everyone else seemed to know. I couldn’t find the front door.’
Another test that I have done personally in churches that I might visit is the ‘Coffee test’. Esenially, the coffe test is a test to see if the community ‘walks the talk’. They’ve been in worship, now what do they do afterwards? Grab a cup of coffee and see who talks to you. What do they talk about? Is God mentioned in the conversation?

Travelling with my own small children we found a local church to go to for a Sunday morning. It was a disaster! The online presence was nothing like the actual experience. Admittedly, I was only there for one Sunday so I can say it is a limited survey, but the impressions were long lasting.

I felt lied to. Pictures of a young active church online was replaced with the reverse. Apparently everyone was on holiday. We were forced to stand and introduce ourselves. The congregation was small enough that we were easily recognised as ‘others’. Worship was standard. The children were children and the adults did their bit by making ‘ssshhhhing’ sounds at us. I felt like crawling into a hole. I was just glad we made it to church as the online directions actually brought us to another neighbouring building and the only door with a sign said ‘Ancestry research library open Tuesday to Friday.’ I nervously explained that we were at the Jehovas Witness’.

At coffee I was told the pastor would come and introduce herself. She was nowhere in sight. I was given a ‘visitors mug’ to identify me as a visitor (as if standing up and publicly stating this fact in worship had now slipped the minds of the regular worshippers).
Needless to say, I had a cup of coffee and ate several doughnuts. Maybe I’m a nervous eater, as nobody ever came to speak to me. I was upset. I did however, fail the church as I never gave any polite comments about my feelings. How would they ever know if I didn’t tell them? How would they ever try to make changes or corrections when I had never expressed my own perceptions and needs? Of course I didn’t think that they would automatically change things just for me, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be the last to feel this way. We are not consumers of religion, yet rankings somehow make us fall dangerously into this model.

Saying this: the rankings do have a role that the church needs to be aware of in its service to the wider community. I therefore see both the good and the not so good power of rankings. If we put all our hope on one system it will sadly let us down. If I go to church strictly for the top quality raking I might be disappointed. Fortunately, I have found that no matter how great, or how terrible the worship was, I’ve still been able to meet God in the experience.

Let me propose that God is always calling us for better, but at the same time we live with the brokeness, the complex relationships and the fragility of the world knowing that God has already declared it Good.

Now, let’s see how many stars I get for this post!

(Editorial Notes: I pounded out this article the other day while I was waiting for my language exam to begin – that’s another story.  Typing with my thumbs on my smartphone keyboard was less than ideal, but at least my nervous energy was directed toward something constructive.  

What I would like to add is, there are, and will be times when the congregation does not pass the coffee test.  Perhaps a ranking of one star will show up sooner or later, however, this is no reason to fret.  Conversely, if we always get high rankings, 5 stars, can’t we then aim for a sixth…just one more star?  As Advent will begin soon, the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany will soon follow.  Upon reflection, this long article might be left as ‘all thumbs’ if we just follow the stars.  The Magi certainly follow the star, but it is not what they come to worship.  As communities of faith being aware of the rankings is one thing, but forgetting who we really worship is a much more risky and damaging game to play.)