Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Taizé in Brussels: day two

The weather is cold (-4 centigrade); cars, houses and trees are iced with frost; but the skies are clear and there's no hail, drizzle, sleet, snow or freezing mist to contend with. Yesterday was the second day of the Taizé pilgrimage in Brussels. The hobbit-like habits of the Belgians are much in evidence: nobody is willing to let the pilgrims walk anywhere in the cold, and many will happily drive miles out of their way to see that they don't; before morning prayer the pilgrims get breakfast with their host families, then after morning prayer they get second breakfast in the local primary school that's functioning as reception centre and meeting place for the discussion groups. Although they're supposed to get noon and evening meals at the Heizel, some of them are given yoghurts and other odds and ends to take with them. After they get back, they're virtually force-fed supper (soup, tea, cake, weak coffee) before being dispatched to their various host families.

A couple we know in the next parish along have Serbian guests who manage to get lost when they go to the Heizel, and end up sight-seeing. I don't know whether our guests have that problem - I'm not particularly worried what they get up to, as long as they don't roll in drunk at three in the morning.

I'd planned to go to sit in on one of the "workshops" yesterday afternoon, but a rush job came in around lunchtime and by the time I'd turned it around and got to the Heizel all the afternoon workshops were over, and everybody was at a loose end for the hour before they began serving the evening meal. So I went to the "silent" area, which had a tremendously restful atmosphere, despite being busy with hundreds of people engaged in silent reflection or in muttering with the dozen or so priests and spiritual counsellors who, with decent distances between, were lining the walls of the hangar-like space. There were banners hanging from the roof, carpet on the floor, and images of Christmas-themed Brueghel paintings being projected on a massive screen at one end of the room. I poured out my woes to a South-East Asian priest whose main European language was French, and received a blessing and some sound advice that had nothing whatsoever to do with what I'd been talking about. Still, no reason to neglect it on that account. Then I poured out my woes to a Dutch sister, and got advice that was relevant. Two sets of sound advice at the price of a single set of woes - a bargain by any reckoning.

Today is actually day three, but I won't know how it's gone until this evening (when we have a peace vigil, followed by a New Year's party until 2 tomorrow morning). After morning prayer I took the children to sing out the old year in the little village that my mother-in-law is from (and where my sister now lives), so that old ladies who went to school with their grandmother can give them sweets, crisps, pieces of fruit and loose change.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Taizé in Brussels: day one

Our parish's Taizé-inspired visitors arrived yesterday morning, around half a dozen at a time, every half hour that the bus from Brussels stopped. We (that is, my family) have been assigned 2 Poles, 2 Italians, and there are 2 young pilgrims from Sweden staying here too (but that's a private arrangement: it's actually my youngest brother and his girlfriend). In our parish everybody was processed by 2 p.m. Then I went to help in the next parish along, to be greeted by scenes of chaos (they had twice as many visitors to process, and nothing nice and simple to deal with like groups of half a dozen, at half-hour intervals). I ended up hanging around until it was time to put the children to bed, with 7 of the assigned pilgrims still not having turned up in the parish. I hear they all made it in the end, so I don't feel too guilty about coming home into the bosom of my family.

It's a nice interaction of individual spirituality and the institutional church. I did read somewhere that the two have nothing to do with one another, but without the parish structures there would be no way to greet all these pilgrims, unless we were happy to run the risk of some of them freezing in the streets (crushed by the juggernaut of enthusiasm). And of course, the spirituality is a nice reminder of what the structures are actually there for.

Again, there was more, and more sympathetic, coverage on national news than I would expect in England:

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Falling at the last hurdle!

But just in case there are any chance readers in Hawaii:

Yesterday I finally got round to finishing my Christmas shopping (finding DVDs of Mole and the Three Robbers in the bookshop of the Palais des Beaux Arts), with the shops and streets in the city centre a jostling mass, pretty much shoulder to shoulder in places. In the evening there was a final Taizé meeting from 8 till after 11 (this is my excuse for being 14 hours late with the final O Antiphon).
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Sunday, December 21, 2008

O Oriens

Only two more days before Christmas Eve. I was surprised we didn't have "O Come, O Come Emanuel" in Mass this morning. And it's the last shopping Sunday before Christmas, the news reporting that the shops were hell. Not having done any shopping today, I'm willing to take their word for it (now, if the Post Office had Sunday opening I'd have been tempted to take the occasion to post our Christmas cards). For three hours this afternoon I was in a general informational meeting in the basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels, together with hundreds of other local organizers for the Taizé pilgrimage (one week to go!) It seems we can expect Poles, Croats and Romanians in our parish. The next parish along will be getting Poles, Portuguese, Belorussians, Italians, Lithuanians and Serbs; and Sint Martinus will have Poles, Germans and Hungarians. I'm not sure what parish will end up with Poles, Poles, Poles, Poles and Poles. In any case the whole has a rather Eastern theme (suitable for today).
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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Two days gone at once ...

or so it feels like. Is Christmas some sort of black hole, that bends time as you get closer to it? So today I'll post early, to avoid the rush:

Last night, on the way to a Taizé preparation meeting in the next parish along, I was breathalyzed for the first time ever, which was rather entertaining (especially the way the police officer stood fidgeting with his hi-tech breathalyzer, apologetically saying "It has to warm up for a couple of minutes first.") I was late for the meeting, but I'd be lying if I put it down entirely to the police. Yesterday was just not an organized day.
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Friday, December 19, 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The countdown to Christmas...

has now begun in earnest:

And there was me wondering why "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" was going through my head all morning!
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Opening scene of Gladiator - for real

(Updating to embed CNN report, with actual opening scene of Gladiator)

It seems as though somebody has whipped out their history books and cottoned on that the Romans did send expeditions across the Rhine, most famously those led by third-century emperor Maximinus Thrax, who boasted about it by taking the name Germanicus Maximus.

Nevertheless, they're sticking to the earlier story that the battle site at Kalefeld is the "find of the century", tracing the progress of the battle through finds of arrow heads, ballista bolts, broken harness, horseshoes, sandal nails, and other odds and ends (including an army-issue axe), scattered over an area of one and a half kilometres by 500 metres (suggesting that a substantial column came under attack and fought off its ambushers). Gosh, exciting stuff. They also say that the 600 finds already turned up barely scratch the surface.
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The Voice of Professor Yaffle

Having blogged about Bagpuss recently, I've just noticed a post elsewhere that includes the voice that inspired the character of the "carved wooden bookend":

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Roman trouble-making in Germania libera

For those interested, a post on my more historical blog about Roman-German confrontations post-AD 9. From around 300 Roman weapons are to be found in Norway (says Sigrid Undset in Saga of Saints), so I'm a little surprised at the surprise that a century earlier there was now and then something of a Roman military presence in Germany beyond the imperial frontiers.

(Update here)
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea

The most poetic and evocative line ever spoken on a children's television programme. OK, it's not Sigrid Undset, but it's as close as an eight year-old can want. I found an episode of Noggin the Nog on youtube but didn't embed it because the "related videos" include filth. I've flagged them and left a note for whoever is responsible for such things on youtube, but given their failure to act on eucharistic desecration videos I somehow don't hold out much hope of them doing anything about having put filth one mouseclick away from a children's programme ...

But now (updating an hour or two later) I see that In hoc signo vinces has found a "clean" version, so with thanks:

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Oliver Postgate RIP

Or: how the computer ate my afternoon. Going online to check my email for a phone number, I saw an email notification of a comment on the blog; on the blog I saw that Outlandish Knight had put up a new post: Oliver Postgate, it seems, has died. I've been following links to online interviews and videos ever since.

Being a thirty-something Englishman with four young children and a DVD player, Oliver Postgate's name calls up more associations than I can easily define and distinguish - all of them pleasant. Never much of a fan of Ivor the Engine (although I remember some of my younger siblings enjoying it), I was a childhood devotee of Bagpuss, the Clangers, and (above all) Noggin the Nog. My own children love Bagpuss, which we have on DVD (why are these things not repeated on the box? they're far superior to lots of what gets broadcast!) It was only when watching Bagpuss with my children that I realized how deeply the characters, stories and songs had embedded themselves in my own psyche. It's surprising that nobody has yet come up with the Facebook application "Which Bagpuss character are you?"

So for those of you who have no idea what I'm on about:

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

And for the occasion the Daily Gospel Online provides the text of a Marian hymn by Saint Ephraem (c.306-373), with the line "She suckled him who gives nourishment to the peoples". Dignity of breastfeeding and whatnot.
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Belgian Cultural Festival in China (continued)

The day after my lecture I took off to go and visit the Great Wall, in company with three musicians, a lecturer, and a lecturer's spouse. We left before dawn, to avoid the rush. Before leaving I asked at the hotel desk whether it would be possible to get something from the kitchen to take with us. The girl at the desk told me that breakfast wouldn't be served until 8. I asked again if we could take something, bread rolls, apples, anything, that wouldn't need cooking or serving, and she told me that there was a shop around the corner, but it wouldn't be open. I asked at the desk rather than at the kitchen because my Chinese was hardly up to the task, but having met such stubborn unhelpfulness at the desk I ventured my Chinese in the kitchen, and left laden with slices of cake and a plastic bucket of cherry tomatoes. The cooks wouldn't let guests go hungry, whatever the night clerk might say. The Great Wall just after dawn, with no one else about, and in a blaze of autumnal scenery, is quite a sight.
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Friday, December 5, 2008


I've just been looking at an alternative view of the Belgian Cultural Festival in China. Can't say I'm much the wiser - must improve my Chinese!

The programme for the festival had the letters of my name in the wrong order, but I didn't much mind that. What did disappoint me was that there was also a lengthy Chinese transliteration. My Chinese name is 安博远, as I'd have been happy to say if anyone had asked, and I really would have liked the chance to use it properly.
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Jesus grew in Mary's womb and was fed at Mary's breasts

A week ago I was in the church of St Martinus, in Sint-Martens-Bodegem, for the first time ever. I didn't have a camera with me, or I would have snapped a shot of the statue of a visibly pregnant Mary that stood before the altar. By chance there have been news reports about another such statue (it must be said, much more visibly pregnant) in America. And reading the report just linked to (following a link from this blog) I was struck (and it seems I was not the only one so struck) by the claim that representations of a pregnant or breastfeeding Mary were uncommon in art because considered undignified. (This is perhaps why there are so few images of Jesus being born in a stable or nailed to a cross?)

If such representations really are uncommon, I have been fortunate enough to see a disproportionate number. Not so very far from here is the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Halle, whose miracles were written up by none less than Neo-Stoic philosopher Justus Lipsius. The church is one of the very few in the Low Countries to retain anything of its medieval interior, thanks to the Virgin's saving it from the Calvinist forces who attempted to surprise the town in 1580.

And on wikimedia commons: the best such painting imaginable:

This is without even considering representations of pregnancy which "peep", such as this or this...
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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Note on previous post

This will give some idea of what the trio (Ensemble Sirocco) were performing. Nothing I know can give any idea of the music the choir was singing.
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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Belgian Cultural Festival in China

Almost a month ago now I was in China, to lecture at an event that was billed as the “First Belgian Cultural Festival in China”. Apparently this puts me among the “most renowned and diverse art forms, artists and academics” that Belgium has to offer. I’m pretty sure I’m not renowned, nor an art form, nor an artist, so I must be a diverse academic. There were perhaps a dozen of us: three academics, a comic book artist, a film-maker, two trios of musicians.

It was quite an intense few days, with as undoubted high-point one of the trios performing 18th-century music in Beijing North Cathedral, followed by the Cathedral Choir giving a rendition of two 17th-century sacred songs: Italian polyphonic chant with Chinese words, as sung by Chinese converts almost 400 years ago. Eerily beautiful music, beautifully performed, and with the added touch that it was in the the ideal setting: the oldest church in Beijing. It quite brought tears to my eyes. Afterwards, we were taken to a hot pot restaurant by a former student who now edits the lifestyle section of a business magazine (she’s also a former teacher, having done some Chinese tutoring after graduation: I’m not sure what that does to our relationship in Confucian terms, but I’m older so perhaps that settles things).

Chatting to a journalist after one of the lectures, I was asked what my “most profound impression of Beijing food” might be. My answer (“I really like the dumplings”) was plainly not profound enough for my interlocutor, whose smile took on a frozen look. What was I supposed to say?

Most of the event was hosted at Peking University, which (I discovered on our final day there) must be a front-runner for the title of most beautiful campus in the world.

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Novena: Day 9

St Martin’s miracles

St Martin performed many miracles during his life and after his holy death. We can go to him in confidence for he will obtain our petitions if they are for our true welfare. His great heart loves to help us in every way. We have only to tell him our troubles and to ask him to help us. If we do our part, we can be sure that our friend, St Martin, will do his part.

Lord Jesus Christ, who inflamed the heart of St Martin with an ardent love of the poor and who taught him the wisdom of always surrendering to God’s holy will, grant that, like him, we may be ever truly humble of heart and full of Christ-like charity for suffering humanity. Amen.

Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be

St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Novena: day 8

St Martin’s reward

St Martin died a holy and peaceful death. He had spent his life in doing good as a humble brother of the Dominican Order. But whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. Soon his heroic life became known all over the world, and on May 6, 1962, Pope John XXIII solemnly proclaimed him St Martin de Porres. Let us rejoice that we have such a powerful intercessor among the saints of God.

St Martin, you have been raised up by God to show us the way to our true home. You have given us the good example and the encouragement that we need. We now realize from your life that all we have to do to win the reward of glory is to love and serve the best of Masters. May we be humble that we, too, may be exalted unto everlasting life. Amen.

Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be

St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

That's My King 2

Another version of the "remix" posted a few days ago. The preacher is S. M. Lockridge, a Baptist pastor from Texas. The initials stand for Shadrach Meshach.
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St Nicholas

The good holy man will be visiting soon. A shame that this won't be available in time for 6 December ...
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Novena: day 7

St Martin’s spirit of penance

St Martin was a hard worker who dedicated all his energies to his ministry. He did not seek an easy comfortable life. Even though he laboured so hard, he also imposed on himself severe penances for his sins and the salvation of others. If so holy a man did penances, how much more should we, who have seriously offended God by our sins!

St Martin, from you we learn how to be dedicated and unselfish. You teach us to avoid idleness and self-seeking. Give us some of that spirit of penance which you had, so that we may be constant in the struggle with temptation. Ask Jesus crucified and Mary, the Queen of Martyrs, to give us the grace to fight the good fight. Amen.

Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be

St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Novena: day 6

St Martin’s devotion to prayer.

St Martin kept his mind and heart always lifted up to the Creator of all things. His prayer came from the depths of his being, not just from his lips. He naturally turned to praise and thank God, and to ask Him for help. St Martin prayed with humility and perseverance, and God answered his prayers in miraculous ways. Martin will pray for us before the throne of God in heaven.

St Martin, help us to have great faith in Christ’s promise, “Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Mt 7:7). Make us faithful in participating in Holy Mass and in devoting time to personal prayer every day, to obtain the blessings of God. Ask the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary to intercede for us too. Amen.

Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be

St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Litany of Christ the King?

Gosh, wish I'd found this before last weekend:

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Belgian news report

Belgian national news (Flemish version) broadcasts an appeal to provide sleeping places for Taizé pilgrims coming to Brussels. Hm. Can't imagine the BBC doing that, for all that they have a much more substantial Religion section than any Belgian TV station seems to.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Novena: day 5

St Martin’s confidence in God

St Martin put all his trust in the goodness and promises of God. He hoped to obtain an eternal reward, through the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ. We know that St Martin’s trust in God was not in vain. We, too, are confident that God will forgive us our sins if we are truly sorry, and that he will give us everlasting life if we serve Him faithfully, by obeying His commandments.

St Martin, help us to have a great confidence in almighty God. Make us understand that He is one friend who will never desert us. Keep us from foolishly presuming that we will be saved without doing our part, but keep us also from despair, which forgets the mercy of God. Ask Jesus and His Mother to increase in our hearts faith, hope and charity. Amen.
Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be
St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Novena: Day 4

St Martin’s faith

St Martin had a lively faith in all the teachings of the Catholic Church. He knew the Church was founded by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to teach us the way to the Father. God rewarded St Martin’s humble faith by enlightening his mind so that he could understand the mysteries of our holy religion. May God give us the grace always to believe the truths which he has revealed.

O St Martin, we need strong faith in God and His holy Church, especially in these days when religion is often considered unimportant. Bring all people to a knowledge and love of the true Church, that they may find the way of salvation and happiness. Ask Christ and Our Lady of Good Counsel to make us faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in life and in death. Amen.
Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be
St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Novena, day 3

St Martin’s love for the poor

St Martin was called “the Father of the Poor”. He saw the poor, the sick, and the dying as children of God, and he helped them in a thousand practical ways. He studied medicine that he might know how to cure the sick. Every day he distributed alms to the poor. He built an orphanage for children. Let us imitate the charity of St Martin, that God may bless us as He blessed him.

St Martin, teach us to be generous with the gifts that God has given us. Make us sympathetic toward those who are suffering and afflicted. Pray to our Redeemer and to Our Lady of Mercy that we may always be kind and generous to our neighbours because they are the children of our heavenly Father. Amen.

Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be

St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Novena: day 2

St Martin’s love of God

St Martin was entirely filled with the fire of God’s love. He knew that God sent His Son into the world to suffer and die on the cross for our sins. This thought stirred Martin’s heart wth deep affection for so loving a Redeemer, and his whole life gave evidence of his sincere gratitude. May we, too, learn to love our Saviour more and more and show our love by our good works.

St Martin, why are our hearts so cold and lacking in love for the Son of God, who became a little child for our salvation? Why are we so slow to love Jesus, who loved us so much that he gave his life for us? Ask God and Our Lady of Sorrows to make us realize that the only way to happiness is by loving and serving God with our whole heart and soul. Amen.
Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be
St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

George Formby

Came up in an email exchange, and with Youtube almost everything ever distributed can at least be sampled now. Twenty years ago I used to sit peeling potatoes and carrots while watching TV repeats of his wartime propaganda films...

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Novena: day 1

St Martin’s humility

St Martin imitated Our Lord who was meek and humble of heart. There was no pride or vanity in Martin, who realized that God is our Creator and that we are His creatures. Martin understood that God loves us as children and only wants us to be happy. So he had the wisdom to surrender entirely to the holy will of God. Let us imitate St Martin by humbly doing the will of God in all things.

St Martin, ask Our Lord and his Blessed Mother to give us the grace of true humility that we may not become proud, but may be contented with the gifts that God gives us. Obtain for us the light of the Holy Spirit that we may understand as you did that pride is an obstacle to union with God, and that true happiness comes only from doing the will of God. Amen.
Recite one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be
St Martin de Porres, pray for us.

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Prayer to St Martin de Porres

Most humble Martin of Porres, your burning charity embraced not only the poor and needy but even the animals of the field. For your splendid example of charity, we honor you and invoke your help. From your place in heaven, hear the requests of your needy brethren, so that, by imitating your virtues we may live contentedly in that state in which God has placed us. And carrying our cross with strength and courage, may we follow in the footsteps of our blessed Redeemer and his most sorrowful Mother, so that at last we may reach the kingdom of heaven through the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Taizé Brussels 2008

Taizé receives large numbers of young people during the spring, summer and autumn, but in wintertime they encourage them to meet up in a city, and trust to the locals to find them room for sleeping mats (in houses, school gyms, church halls). "Pilgrimage of trust" is a phrase I've heard for it; perhaps even the official name. They've done one city after another for 30 years, and this year they're coming to Brussels, from 29 December to 2 January.
I've been asked to help organize the sleeping places in our parish and it's proving a slow business to find people willing to open their doors to foreign youngsters during the Festive Season. That it is the Festive Season is one of the most common reasons given for not doing - which makes me wonder what they can be celebrating in the dead of winter if it doesn't include hospitality. Belgians are also reluctant to provide floor space: those who are willing to take in strangers are those with spare beds. Saying that the pilgrims are only expecting floorspace scandalizes them. As I recently said to a Hungarian friend: the Belgians are the most hobbit-like people on the planet.
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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Summer Palace, Beijing

Chrysanthemum tea and a bean cake in the tea house at the Summer Palace in Beijing. The tea was surprisingly flavourless, and the cake was dry. One really expects better for 30 yuan. This is clearly a tourist trap. Still, the locale is absolutely stunning.

(An hommage to Small Pleasures)
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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Lost in translation

This is almost too hilarious to be true.
It's good to see people trying to translate but they should really ask for expert help.
I coudn't have put it better myself.
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Monday, October 27, 2008

Brief break from blogging

Should anybody happen upon this page, do not be surprised if the last post is some days old, a week, or even older. For the next fortnight I will be very busy with other things.
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Thursday, October 23, 2008

American music

Somebody commenting on an earlier post drew my attention to this, so I thought I'd have a go at embedding a video here.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Faith of a Ten-Year-Old

Last week’s “Faith evening” (see here for the one before) was about the Good Shepherd. The initial talk by a diocesan director of catechetics (as I think she is - could be wrong on the exact job description) was very good indeed, quite making up for the lack of Redemptorists in the (post)modern parish mission. Still, I wouldn’t expect any less: she used to be a religion teacher at my wife’s school, where her absence is sorely missed. Then there was a hymn, a coffee break, and it was time to “share our faith experiences” with the rest of our table. The first session was about our images of God, this second session was about our personal faith journey (the emphasis is still very much on “us”). The assumption seemed to be that we were Catholics by accident of birth and socialization -- something that might have been true in Belgium thirty years ago, but surely not at any time since? (And of course, not in England since 1535!)

So here’s stage one of my "personal faith journey".

The religious education of children is based almost entirely on stories that are hard to distinguish from children’s stories: the Fall, the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, the testing of Abraham, Jacob and Esau’s birthright, Joseph’s captivity, Moses in the bullrushes, the Walls of Jericho, David and Goliath, the Infancy narratives, Christ’s parables. When I was about nine or ten I was given a book of “Norse Myths and Legends”, and something of a crisis of faith ensued. The stories of the ancient Norsemen were much more exciting than the stories to be found in most children’s bibles. If religion was going to be a set of archetypal stories to people my imagination with, I’d much rather have the Norse myths (I’d guess this view is pretty widespread among my contemporaries). I don’t recall ever talking to anybody about this at the time, and I was conscious of not wanting to shock my parents, and also of not wanting to be open to persuasion by others until I’d thought it through for myself.

This last Saturday I was teaching my second confirmation class, and asked the children who they would go to if they had questions about their Faith. Several said their parents, one said a teacher (a particular teacher, and one I’d reckon is a good choice: the day before the Feast of St Francis she showed her class of 8 year-olds Brother Sun, Sister Moon), one said “I’d think about it quietly and see what answer came to me” (a ten-year-old illuminist?), and two said “I’d look it up in a book” (quick! get those boys catechisms!).

My own attitude at that age was a combination of the illuminist and the bookish. During Mass I prayed for faith (because I still loved Jesus, even if ancient pagans had better stories), and I read the Bible: an (Anglican) uncle had given me a Good News Bible as a First Communion present. In so far as I can consciously tell, what more than anything kept me believing in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, was biblical texts like Leviticus 14:33-53, or Deuteronomy 20:2-9. This is plainly a God not so much into stories and more into people’s actual lives (something that can’t really be said about the gods of the Norse pantheon). Perhaps I was turning into a historian even then, but I’ve never understood why Leviticus and Deuteronomy have the reputation of being dry reading.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Hidden Bible

This (or something like it) was the title of a book about apocryphal scriptures that I noticed in Sterling Books yesterday. Is it not a little like entitling an anthology of legislative bills that failed to pass into law The Hidden Statute Book? Or have I missed something?
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The uncut book

The first time I came across a book in which the pages were uncut (and seriously, all of them) was in my first term as an undergraduate. Exploring the otherwise empty college library one evening, I came upon an 80-year-old volume of Cotton Mather's sermons that seemed to have been there for decades without anybody ever reading it. I cut the first quire, more for the experience of doing so than to read the actual sermons. What I did read didn't encourage me to continue, but it means that the name "Cotton Mather" takes me back to that autumn evening in the library, the scent of old books and wood polish, a chill breeze and the sound of rustling leaves coming through the tiny opening in the sash windows, with drizzle falling on the windowpanes.

And it's just happened again: clicking on links from one blog to another to another, like a squirrel jumping from branch to branch in a forest, I happened upon the nut, or nugget, that Cotton Mather wrote a six-volume encyclopaedic biblical commentary, the Biblia Americana, that has never been published, but will be one day soon.

All very scholarly no doubt, but I'm too busy revelling in nostalgia to care about that one way or the other.
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Friday, October 17, 2008

Lunchtime in Brussels

For the past weeks, indeed pretty much full-time since the end of February (except when preparing and travelling for conferences, or to family functions, or on holiday for two weeks in July), I've been working day and night to translate a book about the sixteenth-century translator Dirck Coornhert. I might say more about Coornhert another time, as he's a fascinating character. The book, alas, is about his religious disputations rather than his translations, so it meant getting to grips with imputed righteousness and forensic justification (he wasn't a fan of either), not to mention the formal technicalities of 16th-century debate ("After your opponent's counter-statement you will have a limit of two days for rebuttal.").

The translation itself was pretty much finished at 3 a.m. yesterday (Thursday) morning. There is still revision, some tinkering with footnotes, and other minor inconveniences to be seen to, but the laborious work of breaking in the language in is finally done. The rest is grooming.

So today I took the day off. This morning I met a former colleague for coffee, in a beautiful, art nouveau café by the name of A La Mort Subite ("sudden death" being the name of a once-popular card game, and only derivatively from that a macabre name for a café), and we chatted until it was time for him to get to a lunch appointment.

He asked me along, as an unscheduled addition to the lunch party: himself, his wife, and two of his wife's colleagues. He and I are English, his wife is Czech, and her colleagues are both French-speaking Belgians. There was no single language all of us spoke well enough to converse in freely, but between English and French we managed. Of the five of us, four spoke English to a conversational level, three French, two Czech, and two Dutch (to list only those that I am aware of), so there were several overlapping languages, even though we only needed two of them. This is the sort of thing that has happened to me again and again here, and never anywhere else. It's one of the reasons I like Brussels so much. It's not much of a place to visit, but it's a fascinating place to live.

A few years ago we were at a Chinese New Year function where my oldest son, who speaks English and Dutch, was playing with two boys of about the same age: one spoke Chinese and Dutch, the other Chinese and English; so all three could converse, but never all three together.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Miracle of Amsterdam

Just put a new post about the Miracle of Amsterdam, on my other blog, which some of the readers of this one might find interesting. It's also the first time I've embedded a youtube video in a post - and I'm still astonished at how easy it was. Modern technology is a wonderful thing.
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Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Or should that be some other word? Whatever you call it, there appears to be Transatlantic consensus that young people today don't know the Our Father.

Perhaps religious education in Belgium is not as bad as I think. All the kids in my confirmation class learnt the Our Father at school!
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Taizé is coming to Brussels!

With Taizé coming to Brussels, I suppose it saves me the trouble of actually going to Taizé. They're looking for beds. Or rather, floor space for sleeping mats. We can do 4, at a pinch. Now I need to find another 20 people in the parish to take some in.
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Friday, October 10, 2008

Faith evening 1

I posted a fortnight or so ago that there were to be weekly "faith evenings" in the parish (not actually our parish - the next one over, where the children go to school). The first full session was two nights ago, and now they'll be every Wednesday for five more weeks. I had been in two minds about blogging about it at all, but a query from a fellow blogger prompts me to say something more about them.

I do so still with some reservations. One reason for reticence is the confidentiality. It's not exactly the seal of the confessional, but these things are a little like how I imagine AA meetings to be (although as my acquaintance with these goes no further than American police serials and an Elmore Leonard novella, I could be way off on that one). Another thing is that I'm not sure I can hit the tone to do justice to the thing, partly because everything is in Dutch, and I feel a little out of place for other reasons too. At the beginning of the introductory evening, two weeks ago, I heard the voice of one of the organizers behind me saying "Oh, at least fifty." She was doing a rough headcount (the final figure must be closer to seventy), but for a moment I thought she was talking about the average age of the room, and falling about a decade short. And then only about a quarter of the participants are the same sex as me, and none of them are in the subgroup I landed in by dint of being a couple of minutes late and taking the only seat left. It's odd, as a thirty-something father of four, to be told how refreshing it is to see a "youngster" at such a gathering, and realize they mean you.

As I mentioned before, we're using a handbook, the German original of which was written by a Swiss-German duo called Leo Tanner and Klemens Armbruster. The Dutch adaptation, pictured, has the imprimatur (in the form of a foreword, rather than anything old-fashioned like a nihil obstat) of the bishops of Roermond and Hasselt. There's a description of the programme (in Dutch) here.

The first exercise was to think (or rather, free-associate) about our "image of God", in order to identify and neutralize unhelpful or impeding mental images that we might not even be aware of (such as a sympathetic but ineffectual grandpa, or an emotionally distant father, or a demanding mother, or a vindictive judge). God as an abstraction of pure logic or as an impersonal cosmic force didn't get a look-in, but I'd have thought they were easily as widespread, and as nefarious. They just don't fit the psychologizing paradigm of the programme, as I guess. Which isn't necessarily a bad paradigm (I'd think in light of what I've read of Karl Stern) but this is definitely about feelings rather than ideas.

In "group work" we were supposed to be sharing our own experiences. I couldn't help wondering if this "mutual sharing" format was the most fruitful way of spending the time allotted (rather than, say, getting a Redemptorist in). Still, it beats vegetating in front of the laptop.

The handbook for the course has daily exercises, and the first, a meditation on Psalm 138 (139 in the Hebrew numbering) had me in tears. Anything that gets you reading Psalm 138 with due attention has to be good. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a meditation on John 1:35-39 to attend to:
The next day again John stood and two of his disciples. And beholding Jesus walking, he saith: Behold the Lamb of God. And the two disciples heard him speak: and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turning and seeing them following him, saith to them: What seek you? Who said to him: Rabbi (which is to say, being interpreted, Master), where dwellest thou? He saith to them: Come and see. They came and saw where he abode: and they stayed with him that day. Now it was about the tenth hour.

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Agricultural Fair

A few days ago we had the agricultural fair that comes round once a year (the jaarmarkt rather than the kermis, which we get in the Spring - on Corpus Christi Sunday, to be precise). It's a bit like a harvest festival, in a way.

I mention it for two reasons. Firstly, to illustrate how ill-constituted I am to blog: rather than go out and get down immediate impressions from the fair itself, blogging on a mobile phone, and uploading pictures taken with said phone as I do so, I just wander around aimlessly, letting the children eat waffles the size of their heads, and don't think to mention it until days later. Secondly, because it really is rather odd.

This is a municipality just beyond Brussels, and the planning zones are a mix of commercial/industrial (particularly the bits under and inside the motorway ring road around Brussels), residential (particularly towards Brussels, on the major routes into the city and their side roads) and agricultural (hidden away behind the ribbon development on said major routes and side roads). So there are plenty of agricultural traditions, such as the annual market, but they take place in what any casual observer would imagine was a residential suburb. The quiet suburban streets are shut off with barriers and strewn with sawdust to make them more suitable for cows and horses to be paraded up and down against a backdrop of small blocks of flats, an orthodontist's surgery, a handful of cafés, and the estate agent's window.

And as I mentioned not so long ago that colours can be a sensitive issue, it was a joy to see the draught horses festively adorned with black, yellow and red, not just on their tack or bridles, but even in the plaits in their manes.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Newman's grave

It seems that there will be no primary relics of the Blessed John Henry Newman to be venerated. I can't help thinking this is somehow appropriate. Makes one wonder how archaeologists ever manage to find anything at all, really.

In an earlier post I mentioned reading Joyce Sugg's anthology of Newman's letters. It's a very nicely produced, clothbound OUP edition, that I borrowed from the university library. Monday night, splatter from a vomiting child hit the cover. I think I've got it clean enough to return, as long as the librarian doesn't decide to hold it up at an angle to the light.

And in recent purchases: Roderick Strange's John Henry Newman. A Mind Alive, a very timely publication.
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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Home again, home again ...

at last, and buzzing with caffeine, and recovering from the six-hour drive (each way), and the effort of making baptismal vows in German. But it has to be said: German motorway services are so much cleaner than those that one gets used to elsewhere!
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Friday, October 3, 2008

Nephews and nieces

Just now we're busy getting ready to go to a christening in Wilhelmshaven. The christening is tomorrow, but it's a six-hour drive, so we're spending two nights there. Matters are complicated by dental appointments corresponding with the time that the schools close for the weekend, and the time we should be hitting the road to miss the traffic - so we'll have to be in three places at once (as there are only two of us, this will have to involve bilocation, or really, really good timing).

I'm looking forward to seeing family at the christening. Last Sunday one of my brothers had Mass said for our late mother, at the Abbey of Park, and provided lunch afterwards. Not all of us could make it, but it was a joy to see those that could, and to spend a bit of time with nephews and nieces. As so often, the afternoon made me reflect that we ought to make more of an effort to create such occasions to see one another.

All being well, there'll be another christening to go to next year.
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Thursday, October 2, 2008


I'll get back to blogging soon; in the meantime, another link.
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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Taiwanese TV

Just to see if this will work, I'm posting a link to an intriguing Taiwanese romantic comedy series, Fated to Love You.
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Saturday, September 27, 2008


I've just been reading a blog post likening the examination of conscience to a dental check-up. Richard Verstegan has it that an unconfessed sin is like a pike in a pond, eating up the minor virtues like so many little fish. My own analogies tend to gardening (pulling up weeds, and such-like).

This afternoon I went at the brambles that had grown in under our geraniums, putting down roots every so often, and not sticking their heads out above the leafy cover. Weeds that put down roots without showing themselves, and thrive ignored, and are a bugger to get out (see picture), while more flamboyant weeds are pulled up quickly. Hm. Probably some sort of analogy somebody could make out of that. I'm too tired.
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Post-liberal theology

It's only in the last few days that I've heard of such a thing (even though it goes back 20 years). Last week I corrected the English of an article about the Tower of Babel for somebody in the Theology Faculty. I don't think I'm breaching translator confidentiality by saying that it presents a reading of Genesis 11 that makes Babel not the curse of confusion but the blessing of diversity.

Reading this article introduced me to George Lindbeck, a name I am now surprised not to have known earlier. Lindbeck, it seems, is a Lutheran who is very heavily invested in ecumenism (and was one of the observers at the most recent Ecumenical Council), but thinks that what works for ecumenists can’t work in interreligious dialogue. His reason is that all Christians can speak to one another in a biblical and Christ-oriented idiom, but adherents of different religions "speak different languages" (as it were), so when they say "God", or "good", or "sacred", they have different things in mind, and people end up assuming more common understanding than there really is. Well, I'm a translator -- and even if I weren't, I've had enough experience of being among people whose language was foreign to me that I'm simply not convinced that communication between people who "speak different languages" is so near-to-impossible (it has pitfalls, of course, but if it was impossible I'd be out of a job). Perhaps this is pressing the language analogy too hard, but are religious ideas really so incommensurable? Surely conversion itself would be impossible, if adherents of one religion were unable to communicate with or understand adherents of another?

I've not read much of Lindbeck's work, just a couple of his articles to see that there weren't specific terminological preferences I should leave untouched. It was enough to give me a very strong impression (open to being corrected) that this is just a postmodern, "linguistic turn" attempt to recuperate sola scriptura, and perhaps also sola fide: those who haven’t already accepted the Bible as authoritative and Christ as Saviour, simply won’t be able to understand what Christians are on about. This is so utterly foreign to any Catholic understanding of human reason and human virtue that it makes me wonder why Lindbeck doesn't extend his scepticism to ecumenism as well. How much attention was he paying at Vatican II?

One of his articles contains the phrase "The Reformers were, on the whole, right in their polemic against the establishment theology of their day -- Roman Catholics also now recognize that -- but they were clearly wrong in rejecting the radical left" . Roman Catholics recognize no such thing, and since the "radical left" presumably means Thomas Müntzer and John of Leyden I can't quite see why it's "clear" that Lutherans should have embraced them. Still, I want to read more of Lindbeck; but I also want to reread Christopher Derrick's introduction to Light of Revelation and Non-Christians, published in 1965 (presumably, and bizarrely, Derrick must be one of the "liberals" that Lindbeck is "post").

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Faith seminar

And this evening was the first in a series of "faith evenings" in the parish hall. Not a Redemptorist in sight: this is DIY revivalism, with a handbook. Tonight was only the introductory evening, but it followed the plan that the rest of the course will take: a half-hour talk, a hymn, a break, an exchange of personal insights, and a final prayer. Once a week for six weeks.
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I spent the afternoon revising a translation of an article about the concept of "pleasure", according to Plato, Aristotle, Freud and Lacan. This puts me somewhat out of my depth, but of course all I have to do is make sure that the sentences aren't in translationese (which in Lacan's case is a bit of a tall order, but who said being a translator was going to be easy?). I understood enough to be surprised to learn that Freud wasn't quite as sex mad as he's made out in popular culture: he regarded the sex drive as a way of getting rid of urges that prevented people from having a quiet lie down. The quiet lie down is what really matters.
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Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Our primary and nursery schools were both closed today so the staff could go on training days. So I took "the boys" (our oldest and our youngest) to the barber's. The oldest went into the chair first, with the youngest, just over two years old, dancing and singing and clapping his hands along to the radio. Then the youngest was sat down for his second haircut ever. He sat very still and assumed a studiously neutral expression. Snip-snip-snip went the scissors, and his face grew longer and more solemn. When the electric razor came out for the back of the neck, his lower lip began to pout and tremble. But he didn't complain once. What a philosopher! By the time my hair was close to finished, he was giggling with his big brother, and I was nervously trying to keep the pair of them in the corner of my eye.
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

First day of Autumn

and the leaves are already falling.

Yesterday morning and evening were spent neglecting work, in the interests of getting the garden ready for winter. Which mostly involved pruning, and the pulling up of weeds before they get too established, and in the evening bundling and carting away whatever won't compost easily. Always a good occasion for reflection, by analogy, on the Garden of the Soul, and all the horticultural parables.

My spouse did most of the work: I had to get back to the computer in the afternoon, or the urgent translation will never be finished on time.

There was, as a necessary result of our (unplanned) gardening moratorium since our youngest was born, a certain amount of "Did you plant that?"
"No, I didn't. What is it, anyway?"
"I don't know."
"Must be a blow-in. Is it cat mint?"
"No, smell that, it's lemon balm."
"Well we'd better pull it up whatever it is."
(An exchange that tells you everything you need to know about our expertise.)

A whole thicket of viciously spiky brambles has slyly grown in from next door's neglected garden, and is settling rootedly under camouflage of our geraniums. That was left for me to dig out another time (it'll be half a day's work in itself).
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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Confirmation classes

Confirmation classes kicked off this afternoon, so I spent two hours getting to know half a dozen eleven year olds, and then talking about Jesus with them. The first step was to gauge the state of their knowledge, and it turns out once they get going they can recount a fair number of events and stories from the Gospels: the Nativity, the Magi, the massacre of the innocents, the miraculous catch of fish, walking on water, the woman taken in adultery, the Last Supper, Judas's betrayal, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. Two of them did bring up Moses and Samuel as people Jesus had spoken to, which might not be entirely wrong (I'm not sure how the trinitarian theology plays out there), but wasn't what we were looking for.

The course we're using is based on Luke's Gospel. Asking whether they knew the names of the other evangelists brought some close misses -- guesses but not wild guesses: John! Philip! Simon! Matthew! Nobody managed to get Mark.

We read Luke's account of Jesus' baptism, and discussed it briefly: we were running behind by then, and wanted them to be able to burn off a bit of energy before Mass. They'd been told to bring photographs of their own baptism, and their baptism candles, if they could. Most did. There wasn't even any sword-fighting with the candles.
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Guild of St Sebastian

Last night I took our eldest to a meeting of the Guild of St Sebastian. It was the first time either of us had been, and we both enjoyed it. I think he'll make a better archer than I will. The Belgian tradition of vertical target practice is something I'd only seen in Baroque paintings before - now I've done it myself! Neither of us hit anything. No doubt we will with practice, but next week is the last meeting till April. I can well understand why shooting requires light evenings: you need to be able to see where the arrows are falling. Not just to find them, also to get out of the way.
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Friday, September 19, 2008

Meetings, meetings ...

Parents' association meeting tonight, catechists meeting the night before last - I'm starting to feel like a pillar of the community or something.

Apparently there have been complaints that the lion flag displayed at the school fête back in June (before the school, and the parents' association, broke up for the summer holidays), which should have been Or a lion sable armed and langued gules, was armed and langued sable (in other words, was all black and yellow, no red!). It's encouraging that people notice and complain about such things, as well as noticing and complaining that after-school care is getting more expensive and that swimming is now only once a fortnight rather than once a week. And that nits are upon us (not necessarily literally).
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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Too busy living to blog

Or at least that's the positive spin. Perhaps "too busy being disorganized to get anything done at all" is nearer the mark.

At any rate, there's little more to tell about the Italy trip I intended to continue on. Unexpectedly being in Milan Sunday morning (rather than passing through rapidly on Saturday afternoon) I took the opportunity to visit the cathedral. I'd been in Milan cathedral once before, but not for a sung Mass on a Sunday: an entirely unexpected bonus. Just lately, leafing through Joyce Sugg's anthology of Newman's letters, I happened on a letter written to Henry Wilberforce from Milan on 24 September 1846, describing services in "that overpowering place, the Duomo":
the incense rolling up from the high altar, and all this in one of the most wonderful buildings in the world, and [...] all of this without any show or effort, but what everyone is used to -- everyone at his own work, and leaving everyone else to his.
Alas, such joyful and unselfconscious solemnity is something I'm not at all used to, and it's rather like finding an oasis in the desert. My Chinese travelling companion tagged along, and although an unbeliever she happily sat through Mass just for the beauty of it.

The reason for going to Bologna was in large part to consult the oldest copy I'd been able to locate of a fascinating Dutch children's picture book I want to write about. Bologna has a copy printed in the 1710s, while the earliest I'd found in the Netherlands was from around 1760. Shortly after my return I found that an even older copy, from the 1690s, had turned up in Groningen or somewhere. Ugh.

Still, at least I got to do some other things in Bologna, not least simply be in the Archiginnasio. But I had serious academic stuff to do there, not just sightseeing: I had to consult Robert Dudley's Dell'Arcano del Mare, the first maritime encyclopedia (a strange absence from local libraries, but it was published in Florence so I suppose Italy is an obvious place to find it), and also managed to read some of the works of Thomas Dempster, a Scottish professor in 17th-century Bologna and a neglected figure in Neo-Latin letters.

Anyway, it's all months ago now. What I really want to be doing is getting down my impressions of South Africa from last week. This wasn't intended as an academic "travelblog", but somehow it's turning into that.
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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Flying Easyjet

Since blogging last, I’ve managed to get to Italy twice -- once for a couple of days in Bologna, for research, and once for a couple of weeks in Cortona, on holiday. The first time, back in June, was something of an adventure. Just as the aeroplane was about to take off, roaring down the runway, it juddered to a halt on the tarmac. We sat there for a little while, and then the co-pilot announced that two birds had collided with one of the engines. We trundle off the runway. We sit about. Mechanics come and look at the engine. The pilot announces that two of the blades are “outside the limit” (whatever it means it can't be good) and that buses will return us to the terminal. This is announced by the pilot in English and French, to sighs and muttering, and then by one of the stewards in Italian, to hubbub. A young man leaps to his feet, seizes his belongings from the overhead compartment, and triggers a rush of thirty or so people into the aisle -- where they stand waiting for the bus for a good ten minutes, all squashed together. People are strange creatures sometimes.

We were shuttled to the terminal, processed through security checks for a second time, shunted to a boarding gate, and left to wait. Eventually, at 6 o’clock, somebody came and told us that a replacement flight had been arranged for 8 o’clock (the original flight had been taking off on time, at 4.15, when the birds so abruptly intervened). Now the problem was, my plan had been to fly to Milan, and then get the Eurostar to Bologna, where I was booked into university accommodation (the simple but pleasant Collegio Erasmus), where I was supposed to arrive before 10 to be let in. Still, nothing to be done about it, so I emailed my friends in Bologna to inform them of developments, and had some dinner with the dinner voucher Easyjet had provided. Returning to the departure gate, I was greeted by the news that estimated departure had moved to 9 p.m., estimated time of arrival 11 p.m. With the flight so much delayed, I wouldn’t be able to get to Bologna that night at all. And what was I to do, unbudgeted, in Milan until morning? Ten years ago I’d have chanced the railway station until the first train, but now I have children to think of. A very good friend of mine lived in Milan for years; might he know someone who would put up a friend-of-a-friend at a moment’s notice? I phone his number - he isn’t in. I speak to his girlfriend, whose English can be patchy, on a poor line, and try to explain my problem. “Thank you for phoning, I hope you enjoy your trip,” she says cheerily, and hangs up. Hm.

Back to sitting at the departure gate, where a young woman of Chinese appearance is trying to get the staff to find her the phone number of the Milan Youth Hostel, so she can confirm her booking and let them know she’ll be arriving at 1 in the morning. I ask her to pass the number on, and we get talking. She suggests sharing a taxi to the youth hostel. Turns out she’s got an engineering degree, and is now a risk assessor by trade: I must look low-risk. Twenty minutes before the new plane finally arrives the staff hand out sheets of paper detailing our rights -- things like free phone calls, and the right to move the booking to a flight the next day at no extra charge, which if they’d informed us from the first we would no doubt all have done. Easyjet has quickly chartered a plane from Titan Airways. I have to keep mentally correcting myself: Titan, not Titanic.

We board the plane. We wait. We wait. Crew walk up and down counting us all. It is announced that we cannot depart until all the passengers who are checked in have been accounted for. One of our number is missing. Heads are counted again. Names are taken. Cabin crew consult with ground crew, muttering about locating her luggage so it can be removed from the plane. Staff put heads around the doorframe. Finally, to thunderous applause, the woman makes her entrance, bowing and apologising. As she takes her seat two rows behind me, I hear her outraged hiss to a companion: “I was stuck in the bathroom.” In the meantime the flight has missed its air traffic slot. We wait. I doze. We arrive in Milan at midnight.

To be continued ...

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Turkish Delight

Recently I had the privilege of speaking at a conference in Izmir (the city that used to be Smyrna). Flying out there, I got to see Istanbul from the air, which was tremendously impressive, especially the view out over the miles and miles of tankers and freighters in the Bosphorus. At Izmir airport I was met by a grad student, who put me into a taxi instructing the driver to take me to Ege University Guesthouse. The first thing to greet anybody arriving in the lobby of Ege University Guesthouse is a framed photograph of Ataturk. So is the second thing. Then there is the desk. I won’t try to describe my impressions of Turkey, just a few of the events that enlivened my trip.

The conference began the next morning, a Wednesday. There was a shuttle bus laid on from the guesthouse to the Faculty of Letters (above the driver’s head was a portrait of Ataturk, this time in poster form). What looked like the full student complement of the English department had turned out as helpers to facilitate the conference. I registered and hung around, at a loose end, for twenty minutes or so drinking instant coffee from a paper cup. I’d always been led to believe that the Turks had invented coffee; why would they want Nescaf?

The plenary sessions were to be held in a lecture theatre that was draped with flags and pictures of Ataturk. We trickled in and took our seats. All rise for the national anthem. Speeches by heads of department, of faculty, of association of English Studies, British Council local rep, winner of English Studies in Turkey lifetime achievement award (an eminent emeritus who described the study of English Literature as giving sympathetic access to different modes of thought and feeling; not the way it’s done these days it won’t be) - half a dozen in all. Conference officially declared open. Then a break for more coffee. Then the first plenary lecture (very erudite) until lunchtime.

My own paper was in the afternoon, followed by more coffee, then a couple of TEFL papers (less of the thought and feeling, more the "How do we equip our students with the English they will need to do business?"). The day’s academic delights being over, there was a bus to take us to a cocktail party on the lawn of one of the few surviving pre-1923 grand houses, now the university's restaurant. Waiters circulated with a choice between wine and glasses of fruit juice spiked with vodka. Those wanting non-alcoholic drinks had to go to the bar and specially request fruit juice without vodka. I was on my third fruit juice before I discovered this. I chatted to an Azeri Professor of English from Iran, a lecturer from Van (half Turkish half Kurdish), and a lecturer from Hong Kong. With the exception of the medieval studies conference at Kalamazoo this must be the most international conference I’ve ever attended. On arriving back at the guesthouse I headed to the restaurant with the intention of getting some dinner but ended up just drinking beers with an American (a lecturer at an American university in one of the Emirates), and two Turks (one a lecturer in Turkey, the other a graduate student at Manchester). The American regaled us with stories of the depravity of the oil sheikhs amongst his students. He went to bed about midnight, then the Turks started debating modernization and the “Eastern question”. Talked till 2 in the morning. Very profound and enlightening conversation, if only I could remember much of it.

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed just in time to have a bite of breakfast before the bus left for the Faculty of Arts. After the plenary session I asked a student the way to the railway station.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked
“To Efes,” I said, having read somewhere that this was the Turkish for Ephesus.
“Ephesus?” he clarified.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You can’t get there by metro,” he said, doubtfully.
“Well, I was thinking of going by train,” I clarified.
A cluster of three students consulted together. They called in others to canvas a broader range of views. A remarkably tall young woman turned to me and said, “You do know you can’t get there by metro?” I think I might have rolled my eyes. The consensus that emerged was that Ephesus by rail was a non-starter.
In the meantime another participant in the conference (with what looked like waist-length blonde hair) was telling me that she’d made the trip to Ephesus by bus the previous day, and that Turkish bus drivers were just so friendly and so helpful. In the end, one of the students volunteered to take me to a minibus stop that would get me to the big, out-of-town bus station, and wrote “How do I get to Ephesus?” and “How do I get to Izmir?” in Turkish on a piece of paper for me (I tried to get her to write “Please look after this bear”, but she didn’t think it would help). She even insisted on paying my minibus fare to the bus station.

Arrived at the bus station all right and got the minibus to Selçuk, the modern descendant of Ephesus (a sleepy-seeming place, certainly compared to Izmir). Journey time about 45 minutes by motorway. En route, the young man sitting in front of me asked to see my guidebook, translated parts of it into Turkish to entertain the person sitting next to him, and offered me a couple of biscuits and some handwash. Changed at Selçuk for a minibus that dropped me off only about a 15 minute walk from the site of Ephesus. Trudge, trudge, through the dust and heat (getting close to noon by now). Should have thought to buy a bottle of water somewhere.

Ephesus is a seriously impressive ruin. It's amazing how much of the Roman city is still there to be seen - two or three streets, an amphitheatre, a couple of gates, the shell of a Roman library, a scattering of ruined houses, a set of latrines, the odd bit of bath-house, and a few wells. There might be more Roman remains in Rome, or Trier, or a dozen other places, but in Ephesus they’re all together on a hillside, without a modern city in sight. And to have walked where St Paul and St John have walked! In a couple of the stalls lined up by the gates to the site I bought some gifts to bring home; in one sense I knew this must be the worst possible place to buy souvenirs, one of the greatest tourist traps of the Aegean, but it must mean something that these are gifts from Ephesus - surely? (And the prices weren’t bad by Belgian standards, even if I was getting ripped off by Turkish standards.)

Then I got a taxi from Ephesus to the putative house of the Blessed Virgin Mary - entry to the house is free, I was informed, but there’s a municipal charge on access to the grounds (hmm). I’d made especially sure to pack my rosary beads for the trip, but had somehow managed to leave them at the guesthouse. Luckily, in the chapel there was a prie dieu with beads provided, so I wasn’t reduced to counting on my fingers. Prayed the Glorious Mysteries while a coach-load of Japanese (or possibly Korean) pilgrims filed through, each in turn bowing to the altar and taking a candle to light (in the trays provided outside). Lit a candle for a friend’s intentions, posted a couple of postcards, and got the taxi back to the bus station.

I arrived back at Selçuk bus station just in time to get the bus to Izmir bus station, where I asked a number of people what bus to get to Ege University. After some consultation I was put on a bus, and told that the driver would tell me where to get off. After driving around through thick traffic for what seemed a very long time, the driver shouted something and another passenger told me that he was saying it was my stop. So I got off, and found myself at a gate bearing the inscription "Ege Universitesi" and then some other words in Turkish. Nothing looked familiar, but I had been told that Ege University had a large campus so I assumed this was just a different entrance from the one I was used to. After wandering lost for a while, approaching a number of people who didn't speak any more English than I speak Turkish, I found a helpful young medical student.
"Could you tell me the way to the Faculty of Letters?"
"The Faculty of what?"
"I don't understand"
"Literature, History, Languages?"
"I don't understand"
He got out his mobile phone, which had an English-Turkish dictionary in it, and suggested I dictate the word to him. He looked it up, consulted with a young lady, and then said,
"Follow me!"
I followed him. He took me into a building that wasn’t the Faculty of Letters, and to the office of a distinguished-looking silver-moustached gentleman, who had three different framed portraits of Ataturk on his office walls. I take him to have been the dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He explained that I was at Ege University Hospital and Medical Faculty - a different place entirely from Ege University Campus. He offered me a seat, and made a brief phone call. Ten seconds later his phone rang, he spoke again briefly, and passed it to me - it was the head of the English Department.
"We are having an international conference, is it about that?" she asked.
"Yes, that's right, I'm one of the speakers."
"I'm very sorry not to have met you. I should really attend, but with so much teaching to do, and getting ready to go to Bologna next week, I really haven't had the time."
"Well, I'm sorry to disturb you when you're so busy. It's really nothing, I just got off the bus at the wrong part of the university, and now I'm in somebody's office."
"And you're having trouble finding the faculty?"
"Yes, that's right."
"And are you supposed to be giving your paper now?"
"No, I gave my paper yesterday."
"Oh," she said in surprise, "So yesterday you could find the faculty, but not today?"
"Yesterday I just got the bus from the guesthouse," I said, somewhat defensively.
"Well I wish there was something I could do to help, but I'm teaching in ten minutes."
"Oh, please don't worry - now that I know what's happened to me I'll find my way somehow." (This brought a laugh from the man whose office I was in.)

So I thanked the dean of the faculty of medicine and took my leave of him. It was too late by this time to rejoin the conference group at the Faculty of Letters, so I got the metro from the University Hospital into the centre of town, sat on the waterfront for a while, near an Ottoman clock tower and a pretty little mosque (see photo), and wandered through the bazaar, which was an experience in itself.
After much wandering amazed, and briefly making the acquaintance of a number of friendly dealers in leather (their merchandise, not their attire), I bought a small loaf of bread and some fruit as a very late lunch. A picnic on a bench outside the Roman forum (which was all locked up by then) was followed by a walk to the main railway station to get the metro back out to the university suburb.

Just by the railway station I passed a barber's shop, and paused thinking "I could probably do with a haircut, and it's likely to be cheaper here than at home." Even as I paused, a barber dashed out and took me by the arm, sat me down, wrapped a sheet around me, and set to work. After a while he indicated that I had dandruff. "Yes, that's right," I said, nodding. He whipped a pot of smelly, oily stuff out of a cupboard and applied it to my head with a paintbrush. Then he shaved my chin, jaw and neck with a cut-throat razor, waxed my nose and cheeks, put a lit match to the hair in my ears and nose, gave me a cup of tea, rinsed the ointment out of my hair, put some sort of gel in it, massaged my shoulders, arms and hands, cracked my knuckles, seized my head and jerked it so my neck cracked, and charged me 50 euros (which I'd guess would be 60 or 70 American dollars).

By the time I'd got back to the guesthouse I was exhausted, but also hungry again. There didn’t seem to be anybody from the conference around, so I dined on kalamar alone, and just after I’d finished eating, my lunchtime companions from the previous day arrived. We enquired about one another’s day. By the time I’d finished telling them about mine one of them was doubled up in stitches with laughter, and insisted I share the story with a group of other people I’d never met before. Perhaps I should just have stuck to “I got lost and had a haircut”.

The third and final day of the conference was relatively uneventful. The plenary session in the morning went on far longer than scheduled, so there was very little time to go out for lunch - tagging along with one of my drinking companions from Wednesday night I found myself with half a dozen Turkish colleagues having lunch in the staff canteen (I seemed to be the only foreigner there). The meal was very basic - some stewed vegetables, some rice, and a bowl of cold yoghurt and cucumber soup - but nice enough. As it turned out, I would have had much longer for lunch than foreseen (not that I would have preferred to eat anywhere but in the staff canteen), since the afternoon session that I was planning to attend started half an hour late: there were supposed to be two speakers, but one (an Iranian) didn't turn up, and neither did the person supposed to be chairing the session. The speaker who did turn up was a Chinese lecturer, who I gather teaches Translation Studies at one of the technical universities in Beijing. She waited patiently while student assistants phoned around on their mobiles trying to find an alternative chair. I volunteered my services, but they seemed to think it was necessary that the chair be someone from the host institution, or at the very least the host nation.

That evening there was a "gala dinner" to celebrate the end of the conference, and it was a remarkable meal, in a restaurant near the top of a steep hill looking out over the bay (at the very top was the fort). There was even dancing, which I was almost sorry I couldn't join in.

We got back to the guesthouse about 2 in the morning, and I had to be up at 4 to get an early flight to Ankara (to transfer for a flight to Brussels). The previous afternoon (between the end of the conference and the depature for the dinner) I’d asked at the desk of the guesthouse whether they could arrange for a taxi at 4.10 the next morning to take me to the airport (no problem), whether I could pay by visa without knowing the secret four-digit code, since I can never remember the number (no problem), and whether they could give me a wake-up call a little before 4 (no problem).

Well, they came through on the wake-up call. But when I tried to check out, there was a problem paying (their machine would, after all, only accept payment by visa with a secret code), but in the end it turned out I could pay by debit card; by the time that was sorted out it was 4.20 and I was surprised there was still no sign of a taxi to take me to the airport. I asked about it and was told they'd call a taxi right away. It would only take 10 or 15 minutes to arrive. Twenty-five minutes later it was there, and the driver wanted to know where I was going. At the fourth or fifth attempt he grasped the word "airport" and took me to it. I paid him and he drove away. I dashed in and discovered that even though I'd stressed "domestic terminal", and "Ankara", I was at the international terminal. It was now after five in the morning, a little more than twenty minutes off boarding time. There was a single taxi by the terminal, but the driver was asleep with his seat down. When I knocked on the window he frowned and waved me away without opening his eyes. I walked as briskly as I could manage to the domestic terminal, arriving with less than ten minutes to boarding time. I was amazed that they let me check in. Even more amazed at having to wait forty minutes before the boarding gate opened. Would my suitcase make it? From my window seat I saw it being loaded on to the aeroplane. Oof.

Ankara, like Istanbul, I saw only from the air. Seen from above, the most noticeable things are the enormous blocks of flats on the edges of the city. An improvement on shanty towns, at least. I had about three hours to wait between flights, but resisted the temptation to explore the city by taxi - having tempted fate enough for one day.

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