Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why I'm for staying in

Over the last month or so you may have noticed that I have been travelling around Europe.  This was part of my sabbatical time and I did to spend some time alone experiencing other cultures and ways of being.  I travelled (Interrailed actually!) by train through Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France, before returning home.

Throughout all of this journey I was faced with constant reminders that this huge area of land has been almost constantly the scene of bloody warfare, consuming and destroying the land and people involved.  In Spain, the mediaeval castles on the hilltops, the tortured images in Picasso’s Guernica, in Italy the Renaissance city states, in Vienna the reminders of the Austro-Hungarian empire that fought over much of eastern Europe, in Berlin not only the very stark history of the Cold War and the terror it created, but the previous terror of the Third Reich, in Holland Ann Frank’s house, crossing the battlefields of northern France, and finally in Paris the memorials on almost every building to resistance fighters who were killed all through WW2. Like it or not we, on our little island stuck of the coast of this, have always been part of this – many of us are descended from Vikings from Scandinavia, Angles and Saxons from Northern Germany, Normans from France.  And we have participated in some way in the conflicts that have dominated Europe, either as instigators, supporters, participants, defenders, liberators.

In another post doing the rounds on Facebook this quote from Winston Churchill addressing the Congress of Europe in 1948 appears:

 “A high and a solemn responsibility rests upon us here ... If we allow ourselves to be rent and disordered by pettiness and small disputes, if we fail in clarity of view or courage in action, a priceless occasion may be cast away forever. But if we all pull together and pool the luck and the comradeship - and we shall need all the comradeship and not a little luck … then all the little children who are now growing up in this tormented world may find themselves not the victors nor the vanquished in the fleeting triumphs of one country over another in the bloody turmoil of … war, but the heirs of all the treasures of the past and the masters of all the science, the abundance and the glories of the future.”

This was the vision of the founders of the EU – that never again would lives be wasted fighting back and forth over the land which could be so fertile. It makes me mad that some argue that those who fought in two world wars didn’t fight for what we have now.  I bet this is exactly what they fought for – so that their children would never have to do what they so bravely did.

Yes, there are probably some things that need fixing with the EU, but there is a higher vision here, a vision that says that despite the problems we are still better working it out together, than carrying on fighting each other. It seems even more important now in light of the murder of Jo Cox MP allegedly by someone who has named himself in court as "Death to traitors, freedom for Britain." When you have stood between a piece of the Berlin wall and the ruins of the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin it focusses the mind on the need to stand up and be counted and say “I do not want a future that looks like this.”

So after spending a month getting up close and personal with Europe, I’ll be voting to remain in it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

What does a teacher make?

Can you remember how to do something you were taught forty years ago and haven't practiced since?

What might it be about the teaching that increases the likelihood of this happening? Your answers to this will probably include the quality of the teaching and maybe the personality of the teacher themselves.  So this blog is a salute to the quality of the teacher, namely Mr Hay, who taught German at Biddulph Grammar School, then at Biddulph High School in the 1970s. I got a B in my German O level and have some good memories of German lessons and a school trip to St. Goar in 1976.

Today, 40 years later I find myself in Austria and I can still speak it, and as I speak it more and more comes flooding back, and usually I can hear Mr Hay's voice saying it. 

And because I understand what is said to me, and can have a stab at saying something sensible back, I don't feel so isolated. I feel a sense of connectedness and belonging with strangers - I even helped an elderly Austrian gent find his way on the tram! 

I kind of hope or wish that Mr Hay might still be alive so I can tell him what a good teacher he was. I think a lot of my teacher friends and relations these days feel undervalued, and unappreciated, so may this be an encouragement to you - that what you're doing now is making a difference to the students at the time, and that it lives on a long way into the future, not just as a grade on an exam paper but as something that enriches and empowers.

Vielen dank, Herr Hay.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Come on in...

One of the main themes that underlies my work is hospitality, making people welcome, and in particular making people feel welcome into the house of God and introducing them to his generous hospitality.  This travelling experience has put me on the receiving end of many different kinds of hospitality, but my experience at the rather wonderful Ostello Bello in Milan has been such a fine example of it.

I arrived at about ten o'clock last night, tired and dirty after twelve hours on French and Italian trains.  My feet were hurting and my backpack felt heavy on my shoulders.  I found the address of the hostel and thoughts I'd made a mistake - it looked like there was a huge party going on.  I stood in the middle of the crowd of people talking, drinking, laughing, and wondered if I'd made a mistake-I felt like I was somewhere I didn't belong.

The check-in guy saw me across the room and rushed over saying "You must be Sarah, here let me take your pack off.  I undid the straps and he lifted it of and tucked safely behind the reception desk.  He handed me a form and led me over to a table where a load of people were talking.  He introduced me and then said "I bet you could use a drink and a plate of pasta.  Sit here and fill in your form and I'll bring it over"  The beer and pasta duly arrived- simple but delicious and just what I needed.  After I had finished, I took the form back and he checked me in.  There is a guest tax for everyone staying in Italian guest houses and hotels, and he explained that they pay that included in the price so I didn't need to worry.  Then he picked up my pack and showed me where everything is in the building, finally leading me to my bed.

The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming and the staff seem to naturally create an atmosphere that encourages people to talk to each other.  They do things with love and care, so they did my laundry, and returned it neatly folded.  There is food in the guest kitchen that you can help yourself to - it's pasta with a sauce but take as much as you want.  Happy hour is 7-9pm and includes free dinner, breakfast is 7-12 and is a generous and tasty selection of things, with good coffee, scrambled eggs and chunks of brownie.

This place is so nice that the locals come and drink there in the evening - hence the party atmosphere when I arrived. Despite that there are a couple of tables reserved for the folks staying in the hostel, so there is always a place for you. The whole thing makes me feel at home, makes me want to stay, and be with these people, to join it with what they have.

So what words do I tag for this blog entry?  Generous, open, love, care, community, welcome, free,  kind, thoughtful, responsive, inviting...

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Travels Part 1: Spain

Today is the seventh day of my thirty day journey around Europe.  Its traditional to spend some time on sabbatical doing something challenging that stretches and enlarges one's horizons.  When I was thinking about what to do I knew I wouldn't find something very spiritually focussed helpful. Instead I chose to travel, to Interrail in fact, around Europe.  I planned to see some of the art I've only ever read about, to spend time with myself, and to be stretched by having to live my life with only the resources I have on my own.

It would be fair to say at this point in the proceedings that I am achieving all of the above.  The travelling has not been as simple as I thought it would be - trying to cover long distances using the Interrail pass has been complicated and stressful, particularly as my Spanish is non-existent, so I've never been entirely sure if I got the right ticket.

Yesterday I left Spain and traveled to Italy, with a quick stop in Nimes.  I planned my route to go round the Spanish and French coastline, passing through Marseilles, Cap d'Antibes, Cannes, Nice and Monaco. Sitting on the train gives me chance to ponder and reflect on the journey so far, so in the tradition of my youth group at church, here is my Good Thing/Bad Things:

Bad things:

The rain - apart from two sunny days in Granada it has poured with rain fairly solidly. Spain is still beautiful, but sunshine would have suited it and me better.

Travel arrangements - I deliberately didn't want to nail everything down before I left to allow for some spontaneity but that has added a lot of work and stress that I hadn't realised would happen.  I'm going to try and make it simpler from here on.

Loneliness - my family have been lovely and kept in touch via What's App and FaceTime, but I haven't actually had a conversation with anyone about anything other than ordering food and other necessities since a lovely chat in the hostel in Seville with Armando the Brazilian...and that was Friday!  I think this is actually a good thing in the making because it pushes me to spend time with myself, which I don't often do, so I think that's a work in progress - I'll let you know.

Good things:

Moorish architecture - the Alhambra is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  You've seen the photos; it's like that, only it's real!  (See below)

Art - two museum visits in one day, the Prado and Reina Sophia, gave me a crash course in Spanish art.  I've seen some paintings I've loved for a while: Bosch's Garden of Earthy Delights, Las Meninas, along with all the other Velasquez, Goya (they've got a lot of Goya in the Prado)' and then Dali, Miro and Picasso, including Guernica.  The last was more moving than I thought it would be, and to see it alongside works that put it in context, its image of shattered humanity destroyed spiritually as well as physically by war was very powerful, emphasised by its monumental size.

People - the utterly charming and delightful Eli, who works at TOC hostel in Seville. She has a rare gift for welcome and hospitality that was a blessing to be on the receiving end of.  

On balance Spain has been a delight and this taster session has made me want to come back and see more.  On to Italy now...and the weather forecast is...more rain!

P.s. Also on the plus side, I have walked at least 10,000 steps very day, with a record breaking 16,440 in Seville on Friday!  That was 11km!!!