Tuesday, 30 December 2008
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
Sunday, 28 December 2008
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
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
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
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
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
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
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
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
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
Thursday, 11 December 2008
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!