Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Healthy and safe or health and safety?

We’ve discussed many things tonight but one of them is Britain’s obsession with ‘health and safety’. These often futile directives have all the freeing powers of a hungry boa-constrictor. If there was a prize for stifling adventure is surely belongs to the stuffy bureaucrats whose fickle and fearful sensibilities get enshrined in law. The ‘health and safety’ adherent becomes a person planning for every negative eventuality, almost willing on disaster to enable the implementation of their contingency plan or to vouch for the veracity of their risk assessment.

Earlier today we’ve visited Počitelj, “one of few urban ensembles in Bosnia and Herzegovina preserved in their integrity to the present time developed through the several phases of the history, beginning with the medieval period.” Put simply, it’s old. It’s a small old village built on the side of a hill with a tower at the top and ramparts around its borders. Being boys, my sister-in-laws husband and I had to climb the tower. Steps in the dark with no lights or handrails, easily climb-into-able windows with no bars and not a warning sign in sight – surely not! It was deliciously dangerous. I actually have a healthy respect for heights, which means I feel sick when I look out over big drops, but you can’t let such bodily self-preservation instincts stand in the way of a good bit of exploration.

Up on the ramparts we suddenly discovered a hole in the ground. Perhaps it wasn’t quite big enough for us to fall through but it’d have easily swallowed a leg up to the thigh. Being boys we had to see what was in it so we talk a photo. The flash showed up water. It seemed close but dropping a stone in indicated it was easily a ten foot drop. I say all this to say we had fun while admiring everything in the golden light of the setting sun. There was no accident or injury because we took responsibility for our own actions. Too many regulations undoubtedly lead to the worst kind of passive abdication. Here’s to a world more healthy and safe but caring less for the blight that is ‘health and safety’.

Monday, 29 December 2008

For the love of a soggy sandwich!

I got hungry on the drive back from Dubrovnik last night. The chocolate rations I’d packed had suffered a softening process thanks to the hot air blowing on the windscreen. While not entirely in an inedible state they were, I deemed, now a slip hazard for the fingers of a driver. Help, however, was at hand. My sister-in-law had pocketed the British Airways in-flight sandwich which she deemed too disgusting for consumption. For an ex-pat living in a land that doesn’t understand the charm of a pre-packaged sandwich this was a nostalgic godsend. Yes, it too was a little too warm but to my taste buds the combination of one half cheese and chutney, the other coronation chicken was a little slice of home from home. I’ll never knock airline food again!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Going fast - sort of!

In an email to a friend the other day I mentioned that in the last three months the fastest I’ve driven was 80kph. They’d done a fair amount of travelling with us in the UK and were well familiar with the way we used to enjoy our Minis. Needless to say they were surprised, possibly verging on disbelieving. However, I know I wasn’t lying. The Toyota Combi we drive here gives no impression of being able to travel any faster than the national speed limit for out-of-town single carriageway roads. I have taken to telling myself all speed sign are in fact in miles-per-hour to save myself from depression. That we spend most of our lives trundling around at thirty miles-per-hour or less requires some getting used to.

Today we travelled to Dubrovnik to pick up Rowan’s family from the airport. I made the welcome discovery that Croatia has a 90kph speed limit on out-of-town single carriageway roads. The two and a half hour journey contained two or three short sections of uphill dual carriageway along the Croatian coast but apart from that you must either exercise patience in single file or resort to life-threatening overtaking manoeuvres. So for much of the journey we trundled but for a few brief moments we actually felt like we were moving. On one section of downhill I actually caught the needle hovering around the magical three figures. I’ll choose to ignore the fact those three figures are the poor relative of their UK equivalent and enjoy the feeling of going fast again.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

From an atheist's perspective

Every now and then I read a column that really resonates. All too often I get the suspicion columnists are being contrary purely because balanced opinions are rarely exciting, or likely to generate buzz. This can lead to foolish over-statements that undermine good arguments. Today I stumbled upon something that seemed truly heartfelt, an against-my-better-judgement confession. The columnist was dragging out from under the carpet what we moderns, or post-moderns, or post-post-moderns, would prefer kept from sight.

Under the headline “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God” Matthew Parris placed the subheading: “Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset.” There was no way I was not going to read on. And if you are in any way interested in aid and true transformation of society and culture I recommend you don’t overlook it either. Sure it’s one man’s perspective but he is one man daring to say what many would rather ignore. He gives praise where all too often frowning faces question the strings attached. He mentions evangelism without a condescending tone. I am as surprised as I am inspired.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Day games

I forget where I read about the resurgence of the board game as a Christmas favourite. Maybe it’s true; maybe a tired hack needed to make up a few column inches before their festive frivolities. Nevertheless, if it is a trend we are almost up with it, with a twist. Boggle probably doesn’t constitute a true broad game in the classic Monopoly or Cluedo mould, but it is a tabletop game that engages the brain, particularly when playing in another language.

Our language teacher would have been so proud to see us and our Finnish friend battle our way through round after round of very foreign word play. While almost every word we saw had three or four letters Rowan and I both managed to hit six letters once. That wouldn’t be much in English but here it felt like a huge literary achievement. With dictionary on hand as adjudicator it was a vocabulary enhancing experience: probably my most educational hour of any Christmas Day ever!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008


I once bought Christmas Tea from Whittards. This morning it seemed unlikely I’d be doing that again, at least according to an article I read. Things it seems really are bad for peddlers of non-essentials, which is, if we’re honest, what Whittards had become. Most of their stores I visited seemed to lurch from sale to sale, offloading oddly shaped teapots and novelty chocolates to those of aspirational taste and adequate means. Tonight I read that there is hope, but still all is not rosy.

Being out of the country I’ve no way of knowing if the British press are blowing the real mood on the high street way out of proportion. However, as voluntary workers funded solely by the voluntary donations of a fantastic bunch of individuals all this focus on financial crisis makes us all the more aware of how important it is to work wisely with what we are given.

I read Libby Purves column on charity. I had to agree with much she wrote. There is a danger of over professionalising, of too many layers, of donations diverted to fund bureaucracy. There is a danger that we cynical about giving. There is always need. And there is always someone shouting about it. Usually loudly! Compassion-fatigue is the new-fangled description for those bewildered into inaction by the competition for attention.

But having spent the last week watching hundreds of children and young people on the receiving end of the generosity of UK charitable giving I hope the current economic climate does not provoke self-preservation to get the better of the desire to help those who struggle for life’s essentials. To quote the King James Bible: And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Scrooge vs Santa

Up until now I had been quite excited to discover I wasn’t the only Scrooge in the country. Back in England, to be in church and not to be into Christmas was, certainly in my experience, something of an anathema. The two seemed indivisible. Over the years I found myself the centre of much seasonal bafflement – particularly when I married someone who enjoys all things Christmasy! My lack of emotional attachment to the celebrations finds me fitting well amongst a group of Christians from Muslim, Catholic and communist backgrounds. While none of us doubt the importance of Jesus’ birth we have our questions about what the celebration has turned into. I’m not going to try and persuade anyone to my point of view, but neither am I going to get excited about something I think at best unimportant, at worst misguided.

Sadly, such high-sounding principles lay dashed by an ignominious fall from the moral high ground. I had to make a tough decision in what was an interestingly organised trip distributing humanitarian aid. Our team was performing puppet shows to children and giving out hundreds of shoeboxes stuffed with toys, treats and essentials sent from the UK. In a couple of locations the local organisers had asked that a ‘Santa’ be on hand to help distribute the parcels. Our designated ‘Santa’ pulled out of the trip at the last minute. With only two blokes left in the team it became a me-or-him scenario. I was told I was to be Santa. They tried to soften the blow by telling me that since communist times Santa is a New Year figure here. I tried a typically subtle English response to indicate my disapproval, but that doesn’t translate cross-culturally.

I was eventually presented with the opportunity to flat out refuse but by now it was apparent I would be letting down the local organisers and, of course, the children – and aren’t they who it’s all about? So reluctantly I donned the stupid red outfit to become possibly the most un-ho-ho-ho-ing Santa in the world (an untimely blocked-up nose wasn’t helping matters). Yes, babies cried, small children looked the other way and some refused to have their picture taken with this grotty Santa. But for those who laughed and smiled – and took photos – and went home with something meaningful from the experience let’s hope it was worth it. Meanwhile I’m left to hope this sacrifice of principle isn’t the thin end of the wedge.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

That's my kind of card

Rowan came back from another dancing visit to a school yesterday with a story that put a smile on my face. The team had done their show when a boy came up to give them a card. Explaining that it was in English he said he hoped he’d spelled everything right. He’d done better than that. The card read: Merry Christmas and a Happy New York!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


I’ve just bought Jeff Buckley’s version of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah. It was an unashamedly bandwagon- jumping purchase, all thanks to the power of the internet. I was reading an article on the Times website about how loyal Buckley fan are hoping against hope that they can prevent X-factor’s Alexandra Burke from claiming Christmas number one with what they see as a sacrilegious version of their sacred song.

I’m not a Buckley fan; I’ve never owned, or even listened, to his music before. However there was something about this quest to show the world the real thing instead of the sanitised, homogenised, sensationalised version that really appealed to me. So in a couple of clicks iTunes was whirring away and I was listening to some new music. I don’t follow X-factor so I have no reason to put more money in Simon Cowell’s pockets. I liked Elton John’s comment. (Yes, I’m a fan and have an extensive collection of his music!) Despite the fact this season’s winner will sing with him he says he despises the show, although not the hopefuls involved. He’d prefer to see people playing their own stuff rather than singing his songs week after week.

Authenticity: it’s an attractive quality. If we are sick of people in entertainment producing shallow copies of other people’s masterpieces then the same is true when it comes to issues of faith. All too often we sense insincerity, or an unhealthy showmanship. Perhaps we feel someone isn’t really singing from their own song-sheet. They’re regurgitating someone else’s experience, not being honest about their own story. Therein lays the challenge. Faith gets a bad name because of its prepackaged proponents. It shouldn’t. Buckley’s fans are still routing for Hallelujah, but they want it presented properly. The same is true of faith. Confronted with the real thing, even critics have to admit its profoundly moving qualities.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Slippers - a tribute!

I’d love to write a rant here but I can’t. I‘d love to because it would be funny and amuse at least some of the English element of the audience. But there are two good reasons I can’t. One is it would be profoundly culturally insensitive. Secondly, it would be hugely hypocritical.

My would-be subject is slippers! Yes – fluffy footwear. I’ve visited several kindergartens over the last couple of days and seen a startling array of slip ons. I would love to claim this was a case of disturbing indoctrination but I too have joined their ranks.

In England I eschewed anything to do with slippers. How horribly old-man they are was my logic. However, in a town without central heating and where wall to wall carpets are unheard of they are, in my opinion, one of life’s essentials. Rowan would disagree but this is my post so let’s hear it for slippers and comfortably warm feet!

Monday, 15 December 2008

Making a connection

Tonight we were somewhere in the region of Međugorje. You’ll forgive me for not being specific but it was dark and raining and I was tired and not really paying attention. I wasn’t driving either! We were visiting an orphanage to perform and puppet show, a dance and some drama, and to give out Christmas shoeboxes. I don’t think I’ve been in an orphanage before and I certainly wasn’t expecting what I experienced. We walked in to a room full of children, from tots to teenagers, sitting on benches smiling and singing song after song unaccompanied.

We set up and did our show but what I’ll remember most happened after that. As the team set about distributing boxes to grateful recipients I felt a tug on my trousers. I looked down to see a small boy hugging my leg. He looked up, smiling but not saying anything. Realising I was in a poor position to initiate conversation I reach for my camera to show him the pictures I’d just taken of the dancers and the boxes. He made positive sounding noises and was then whisked away, presumably he should really have stayed seated.

As we drove home I thought about it. There was a challenge to his action. I had gone out to do what I had to do tonight: carry things, set them up, packed them down. He had done what I should have be looking to do, instead of hiding behind my responsibilities. He made a connection. He did something spontaneous that will be remembered. A random act of kindness, if you will. Suitably upstaged by a boy whose name I’ll probably never know I’ll grab a metaphoric red pen and scribble a big ‘must try harder’ over tonight’s experience.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Christmas is coming...slowly!

I have a reputation among some of my friends as being a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas. Back in England, where the festive season stretches over several months it’s harder to hide. Here, not only is the season significantly shorter but half the people I know have no emotional connection to the festivities. With less than two weeks to go decorations are just becoming more obvious in shops and there are lights up in the streets. There is a notable absence of the soundtrack usually underscoring the UK Christmas. We were in a shopping centre today which was playing the amusingly, pertinently titled U2 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The excesses of the western, consumer Christmas are something I’m more than happy to walk away from.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Integration: this stuff really happens!

It was end-of-term karaoke night a Klub. It was also a farewell bash for Kate, who’s moving back to the UK after three years in Mostar. The place was packed and it was noisy. Again, it was a reminder that although sometimes people believe he who shouts loudest, there are often untold stories that defy the common wisdom. There are plenty who will tell you that in this part of the world you can’t witness what I saw tonight. So, as the chances are you weren’t there, let me fill you in on things the way I see them.

I saw a room full of young people enjoying themselves. The stereo was blasting as one after the other took the mic and belted out local tunes. As the evening warmed up it became first a group sing-a-long, finally and jumping, shouting, dancing party! I didn’t spot anyone who wasn’t having fun. All that is good, but not necessarily surprising; young people enjoy enjoying themselves. But when you realise these young people represent all the ethnic groups in Bosnia Herzegovina, including Roma, you get a picture of integration many say is not possible. That it clearly is should be a source of hope for everyone invested in the future of this region.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Success on what terms?

What does success look like? That was the question that kicked of the team meeting this morning. It provoked a couple of hours of healthy discussion. Perhaps you’ll forgive me for not divulging the specifics if I give you some of my subsequent musings.

You could be said to have had success if you achieve your aims while working in a specific area. Is it perhaps a greater success if, after your departure, that area continues to thrives? Let me find a ‘for example’. Imagine an entrepreneur starts a business and is soon employing others and turning a profit. Unlike current conditions, the market is stable and the future looks good. Then they get a new idea. Needing time to pursue this new interest they hand the first business over to their staff team and embark on the new venture. Within six months they have a thriving business developing while their previous project is losing its market share, laying off staff and giving the best impression of being yesterday’s news.

The entrepreneur could rightly be lauded as a success by one measure: they start things well. However, they are also a failure because their first company didn’t go the distance after their departure. They failed to invest in others, giving them the skills and insight to continue what others had started. It is easy, at least comparatively so, to be an individual success; much harder to shape successful successors. However, leaving a living legacy: that is the true test of greatness. And it’s all too rare in our world of short-term self-interest.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Moving boxes...again!

Today we were moving boxes again. The ‘we’ doesn’t include Rowan this time. The male contingent of the Novi Most Mostar team was sent over to the local warehouse of Mission Without Borders to pick up food packages that will be distributed among people we work with over the next couple of weeks. This provided another insight into the sharp end of humanitarian aid. It’s easy to feel detached standing in a warehouse piled high with identical-looking boxes. It’s much harder to remain so when you see locals collecting parcels that so obviously will make a massive difference in their live, albeit perhaps only for the lifespan of their contents.

I’m sure at some point down the road I’ll have the perspective to draw all the thoughts flying round my head into a logical form. For now, it’s too early for that – and I’m typing too late at night to risk anything too profound! And so with that fairly feeble get-out I’ll draw this post to a close. Doubtless this is a topic that will be revisited – probably just after the next time we start shifting boxes again.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A virtual return

Before we left England Rowan and I were both employed as youth workers at a church in southern England. Last night we made a virtual return to a youth service courtesy of Skype and a little bit of technical ingenuity at both ends. Our end was undoubtedly the easier. Nevertheless, Heath Robinson would have been proud of the laptop perched on a chair, itself on a coffee table; miscellaneous desk lights provided that all-important face-light. Employing two pairs of headphones Rowan and I were able to hear our interviewer, while ensuring the digital camera got sound too; all without creating a nasty feedback loop.

Back in England I do wonder what our webcam looked like projected about ten feet tall. Our interviewer will have stood on stage and stared up at a much-larger-than-life version of us. Not that we could see much on the webcam feed from England. Webcams are designed for offices or bedrooms, not for sending a crisp image of a hall that’d seat a thousand. I’ve done more sound checks than I care to remember in that building. I’ve been involved in plenty of creative feats of technical bodgery but it was strange to sound check from the other side of the continent.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Stamping and boxing!

Rowan has bruises on her legs and my right arm aches a little. Such are our scars from shifting shoeboxes. We got the call to join a large team of people to unload a truck full of Samaritan’s Purse goodies for distribution here over the next month. We shouldn’t complain because a language lesson meant we missed half the unloading and the rain was kind and held off by the time we arrived to help fill a second container. As with all repetitive manual tasks there is some fun to be found in it and so we passed a pleasant hour passing boxes.

Boxes where obviously a theme for today. Earlier we visited the post office to collect four parcels. This seemed to take an eternity as the lady behind the counter made sure all the paperwork matched up and got signatures in the appropriate places. It also got us wondering about why French is the international language of post. Am I mistaken in thinking that as Rowland Hill is widely credited as the inventor of the model postal service that English would be more appropriate? Perhaps someone would care to enlighten me!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Throwing games

I’m a competitive person. At least, I am if I allow myself to be. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t really buy the ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ argument. I’m much more of the play-to-win persuasion. This creates a moral dilemma when working with young people. It wouldn’t be helpful to engage in a metaphoric fight to the death over Jenga, Playstation or table tennis. Unnecessarily demoralising for one thing; downright annoying would be another reason. At the same time, you can’t throw games really obviously because the opposition senses you’re not trying and gets upset by that. So there is a skill to be developed in throwing games convincingly.

Working in another country adds another twist to this scenario. Language. Some young people have a smattering of English, some don’t. Tonight I managed a couple of successful table tennis game. I lost both! I did so convincingly while keeping an agreed score count in Bosnian. I even manage to pronounce my opponent the winner in local language. He was always going to win. I quickly realised this as he counted it as his point if he was the last to hit the ball, regardless of where the ball ended up after it left his paddle. But, dodgy counting or not, it was worth throwing the games to see the look on his face once he’d decided he’d won!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Funny what Can Happen In A Year

One year ago today it was our first day back in England after a weekend in Sarajevo. That was our first trip to Bosnia Herzegovina. Rowan had been waiting half her life for it, my main association with Sarajevo was Miss Sarajevo – the Passengers (U2) song. It was a year ago this week Rowan first made contact with Novi Most, beginning a process that would see us making, what was to many, perhaps our most surprising decision yet.

As years go 2008 has been a pretty full one for us. That’s good. There’s no way we can look back and question just what happened to the last twelve months. We’ve started an adventure; another chapter of our lives. You can’t compare what was with what is now and it’d be wrong to say one or other is better. We had a good life in England; we now have a good life in Bosnia Herzegovina. 2009 is just around the corner and who knows what we’ll be writing this time next year!