Time to Ding-Dong Merrily

One of the things about being an expat is that you sometimes get a very skewed view of matters that you would never have questioned if you had stayed back home. I grew up in Middle England, going around on cold dark December evenings from door to door with my pals singing the old Christmas carols for pennies to the familiar traditional melodies, and never dreamed there could be any alternative (apart from Little Town of Bethlehem to which I knew at least 3 different tunes not including descants). So it was a shock to my true-blue British system to hear Away in a Manger sung by Americans.

“No, no, it goes like this,” I cried, and they gazed at me in amazement.

“Never heard THAT before!” was the response.

Even more incongruous to my ears is the tune that Americans use for It Came upon the Midnight Clear. Our British version thunders from the church organ, and dignified Baroque angels lean gracefully down through the clouds towards the shepherds.

ANGELS main-qimg-4ba9399db7b254d7093b17ec8e365157-c

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Americans sing the same words but their melody is in three-four time. These are Rococo angels waltzing around, maybe even bouncing up and down on carousel horses; certainly not playing golden harps, more likely keyboards with hurdy-gurdy harmonic effects. Yes, it’s a pretty tune, but I can’t take it seriously. Walt Disney should illustrate this, not Michaelangelo.

And look what our transatlantic cousins have done to Angels from the Realms of Glory. Once again, I prepare my full-throated version and after a couple of bars am stopped in my tracks.

“You’re singing Angels We Have Heard On High.”

“No I’m not. I don’t know that one.”

They sing their versions of the two slightly different carols, and I can see that there must have been a mid-Atlantic storm that shifted some of the notes around. Okay, I’m enriched by learning a new carol, and my Christmas angels are still pretty well Johann Sebastian  Bach rather than Johann Strauss.

They also add to my repertoire with a fourth melody for Little Town of Bethlehem, which is still lying pretty still amid its deep and dreamy streets. No waltzing there. But wait! Why am I being so stuffy about three-four time? Next up is the mediaeval carol In dulci jubilo  (Good Christian Men Rejoice): surely these angels must be skipping and lindyhopping, and I can’t blame the Yanks. Even the Putti must be bouncing about to this! I remember that wonderful jaunty rendering by Mike Oldfield – 1970-something, I think – and have to claim that there are some tunes that are immortal, and can stand up to virtually any treatment. Listen to Bach’s arrangement sung by a choir.

I’m off on a tangent now, looking for the origins of this joyful song. Thank you, Wikipedia! This is a great story. And I have learnt a new word: macaronic.

The original song text, a macaronic alternation of Medieval German and Latin, is thought to have been written by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse  circa 1328. According to folklore, Seuse heard angels sing these words and joined them in a dance of worship. In his biography (or perhaps autobiography), it was written:

Now this same angel came up to the Servant (Suso) brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew the Servant by the hand into the dance, and the youth began a joyous song about the infant Jesus …

The tune first appears in Codex 1305, a manuscript in Leipzig University Library dating from c. 1400, although it has been suggested that the melody may have existed in Europe prior to this date. In print, the tune was included in Geistliche Lieder, a 1533 Lutheran hymnal by Joseph Klug. It also appears in Michael Vehe‘s Gesangbuch of 1537. In 1545, another verse was added, possibly by Martin Luther. This was included in Valentin Babst’s Geistliche Lieder, printed in Leipzig. The melody was also popular elsewhere in Europe, and appears in a Swedish/Latin version in the 1582 Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, a collection of sacred and secular medieval songs.

I have left all the links in this excerpt so that anyone with time to spare can also dig deeper down this rabbit hole.

A blessed and joyous Second Sunday in Advent to you all.

Grief is the price … 

Geneviève was born in Paris, and always emphasised that she was a Parisienne, notwithstanding her blatantly Breton surname. She met her husband, Guy, at a wedding. One of the girls in her office was getting married, so the colleagues put together to buy the bride a bouquet and Geneviève was delegated to deliver it at the reception. As soon as she entered the room, this pretty little blonde caught Guy’s eye. He was a cousin of the bride, feeling bored among his family members, and – as he later told the story – “suddenly the room lit up”.

Immediately he asked his cousin, the bride, who she was and begged that she be invited to stay at the reception. Of course, Geneviève noticed the smart young man in naval officer’s uniform, but as he was surrounded by a gaggle of pretty young women (“like the rooster in a henhouse” she later recalled), she dismissed him as a charming heart-breaker. Everyone knows that sailors have a wife in every port!

However, several dances later, when she had discovered that his harem consisted entirely of cousins and he really was serious and single, she dropped her guard, agreed to a date, and the rest is 60 years of history, with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

For about thirty of those years, Guy was at sea. On his retirement in his early fifties, he swore never to set foot on deck again, and to make up for his many absences by never ever leaving his wife alone. I have rarely known such a devoted couple. I first met them in 1991 when we bought our little house in Brittany, as they were one of the few people who lived there all the year round. We became firm friends, and my first outing on arrival there was always to take them some Swiss chocolates, share a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and exchange our latest news.

Over the last few years, especially while I was looking after my mother, I wasn’t able to make my regular visits to Brittany and so I didn’t see my friends for a long time. In October of last year, I was able to catch up at last and was sorry to hear that Geneviève’s health had deteriorated badly. When I arrived in August this year, I learnt that Geneviève had been in hospital for some time, and Guy was spending his days at her bedside, so I was unable to have any contact with them. Our entire cul-de-sac was following her progress anxiously, and with very heavy hearts. On 4 September, the day before we left for Switzerland, we heard the sad news that Geneviève had died.

Neighbourhood grapevines, even when they spread over several countries, tend to be most efficient when the news is bad. Some of our neighbours in Brittany live in Germany, others in England, and we are in Switzerland, but e-mail gives us instant contact so the devastating news travelled fast. Ten days after losing his only reason for living, Guy took his own life. Whatever we think or feel about that decision, he ended his agony on his own terms. All the same, I can’t imagine the pain their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going through. I hope that they can gain some comfort and solace from their memories and the knowledge that Guy and Geneviève’s long relationship was so happy and fulfilling for them.

An old superstition claims that deaths occur in threes. I’m not superstitious, but on 10 September came the dreadful news that the 18-year-old daughter of some friends here in Switzerland had died in an accident. I have known this young lady all her life: a beautiful, cheerful, lively girl, a loving big sister to her three younger siblings and the joy of her parents’ heart. She was on the verge of her adult life, looking forward to a happy, exciting future, when the tractor she was driving overturned on her, killing her outright.

How do you cope with that as a parent? It is a grief beyond words, beyond the sobs and howls of deepest pain and sorrow, beyond any expression. Time may quieten the crying and weeping, but the wound of such an amputation remains raw. I can think of no anguish greater than losing your child, and have written about it before.  This is a deeply Christian family, now facing a profound test of their faith. They are also surrounded by a very solid network of family and friends, several hundred of whom attended the funeral. This is no time for platitudes. I have no answers, but I pray that they will all stand the test and by the grace of God come through, together and individually, even stronger.

Three deaths. And three different aspects of grief for those left behind. We can’t measure or compare them. An elderly lady who had a good long life is released from her suffering. A broken-hearted man who can’t face a lonely old age without the love of his life takes his fate into his own hands. A happy teenager with her life ahead of her is torn violently away from her family and friends without warning.

Queen Elizabeth reminded us that grief is the price we pay for love. She was quoting from this:

“The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love: it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our own lives and unprepared to help others cope with losses in theirs.”
Dr Colin Murray Parkes (Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life) 

An Excuse For A Celebration

It’s that time of year again, though this time the little ghoulies and ghosties will be knocking in vain at my mother’s door in the fearful hope of me pouncing on them (see my posts from previous years). In a way, I’m quite glad to be missing it. Hallowe’en has got out of hand. It’s an oxymoron to wish people “Happy Hallowe’en”: what could possibly be happy about it?

If we really want to celebrate a pagan festival at this time of year, then I suggest we adopt Diwali, which is already a fixture in many parts of the UK. I was rather startled a few years ago in the English Midlands by the fireworks that accompany this festival, thinking someone was going overboard over Guy Fawkes. Then it was explained to me that it was Diwali, and so – naturally -I googled it and discovered from Wikipedia that:

Diwali , Tihar or Deepawali is the Hindu festival of lights native to Nepal and India celebrated every year in autumn in the northern hemisphere (spring in southern hemisphere). It is an official holiday in Fiji, Guyana, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. One of the major festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. Its celebration includes millions of lights shining on housetops, outside doors and windows, around temples and other buildings in the communities and countries where it is observed. The festival preparations and rituals typically extend over a five-day period, but the main festival night of Diwali coincides with the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika in Bikram Sambat calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, Diwali night falls between mid-October and mid-November.

Before Diwali night, people clean, renovate, and decorate their homes and offices.[ On Diwali night, people dress up in new clothes or their best outfit, light up diyas (lamps and candles) inside and outside their home, participate in family puja (prayers) typically to Lakshmi – the goddess of fertility and prosperity. After puja, fireworks follow, then a family feast including mithai (sweets), and an exchange of gifts between family members and close friends. Deepavali also marks a major shopping period in nations where it is celebrated

The name of festive days as well as the rituals of Diwali vary significantly among Hindus, based on the region of India. In many parts of India, the festivities start with Dhanteras (in Northern and Western part of India), followed by Naraka Chaturdasi on second day, Deepavali on the third day, Diwali Padva dedicated to wife–husband relationship on the fourth day, and festivities end with Bhai Dooj dedicated to sister–brother bond on the fifth day. Dhanteras usually falls eighteen days after Dussehra.”

There’s a lot more to it, and you can read all about it on Wikipedia. Some of my Christian friends will object to me advocating a Hindu custom, but hey, come on! The early Christian church incorporated an awful lot of pagan feasts into their calendar, including Christmas and Hallowe’en itself. Why not replace these, which have both reverted to their pagan roots, by a festival that “spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair”? 

There’s a lot of positive stuff here, including giving your home and workplace a good clean and making a real effort to love your family. Not to mention endorsing shopping – that should be good for the economy, too. And, not least, dressing up to look good, not scary.

I daresay we could bring in a pumpkin or two and bobbing for apples, as a westernising contribution, and maybe tie it all up with Guy Fawkes in the UK. What a great way to integrate communities, all joining in one big happy party with only positive vibes and associations of light, love and hope. What can Christians object to in that?

This year, Diwali started yesterday on 30 October, and so this is the week of festivities and celebrations if you happen to be in an area populated by Hindus, Sikhs or Jains. Happy Diwali!

(Just don’t send off paper lanterns with candles in them
– they can cause untold damage.)

Book Launch

This evening, I’m invited to a “vernissage” – but not for paintings. This is a book launch, and one I am very pleased to be able to attend.

Three years ago, I reported here an exciting and momentous event that changed the lives of five people I know. And in April of last year came the announcement that the incredible story of this family was to be told in book form.

Joséphine book

The book – in German – has now been written and published, and is available online. The German title is Auf der Flucht getrennt and the author is Johanna Krapf.  I am hoping to be allowed to translate this, and that we can find a suitable publisher for the English version of this Odyssey, which reads like the scenario of an Indiana Jones movie. Fingers crossed.

The Christian names of this family are inspiring: Joséphine means “God will increase”, Désiré is the desired one, Patrick is the noble one, Joyeux is joyful and Espoir is hope. They are living up to their names.

Is this the right time to be bringing out stories of refugees? Isn’t the world fed up and tired of hearing about people trying to escape from war, violence and genocide? Perhaps. But this is also a story of hope, faith and love in the midst of indescribable horror and hardship, and it shines a bright beam of optimism into the darkness. It’s an ongoing story, and in some ways this family still has a long way to go before all the trauma of the past can be dealt with. However, as St Paul tells us in Romans 5:3-5: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us …”



I put my hand in yours.
Please hold it tight.
For my own grasp may weaken as I tire
And stumble on this narrow, stony way,
But though I slip and trip, I will not fall
If you will hold my hand.
Please hold my hand
And guide me through the fog
As well as through the bright and sunny days
When I’m thinking I can manage on my own.
Please hold it tight.
I put my hand in yours
And leave it there.
I trust in you.

“We are human beings!”

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
John Donne

Six degrees of separation: we have all heard of the concept first postulated by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy (25 June 1887 – 29 August 1938) in his 1929 story Chains. It reminds us that each one of us is linked to everyone else on this planet. We can’t just wash our hands and pretend that we have no connection with the forces of IS or their victims. We are all part of one another’s life, whether settled law-abiding citizens, murdering terrorists or migrants. We cannot, whoever we are, wherever we are, ignore the events in the Middle East and those fleeing from the horrors there. But what can we do? How should we react, how should we respond?

In the last weeks, I have been asked to sign petitions asking the UK government to act in many different ways, ranging from total refusal of assistance – a freeze on foreign aid and a stop to all immigration – to raising the number of asylum seekers accepted, especially Afghan interpreters and Syrians with families.

There are those who are almost paranoid about IS members entering Europe along with the Syrian refugees, and Facebook has shown photos of at least one alleged IS fighter standing on Munich main station. Their knee-jerk reaction is to bring down the portcullis and keep everyone out of these islands. Others are collecting clothes, blankets and toys to take to the “swarms” camped outside Calais as autumn and winter approach. Photos and film footage of their plight abound.

We have also seen photos of the state in which the trains transporting refugees from Hungary to Austria and Germany were left after they had disembarked. For Germanic people, with their love of everything clean and tidy and in the right place, the sight of the filthy, messy compartments and corridors strewn with donated clothes, blankets and toys, comes as a big shock. It’s almost as if the migrants are biting the hand that is feeding them.

The refugees themselves are probably totally unaware of this. It must be utterly confusing for them, especially the children and adolescents, to be beaten, pepper sprayed, water-cannoned, physically and verbally abused in one country and a few hours later to be greeted with applause, food, sweets, good quality clothing (even if it is Bavarian Lederhosen and Trachtenjacke!) and offers of comfortable accommodation.

My heart says that we should support efforts to help these people find a new life. Let’s hope the German and Austrian welcome can endure and extend across the borders into the neighbouring EU countries, and to other continents. Let’s also hope that the migrants will soon understand the expectations of their hosts with regard to behaviour, and that they can learn to adapt to the culture of the countries where they find themselves. And let’s hope that the fears of infiltration by jihadists are unfounded, or that their numbers are small enough to be ineffective.

And not least, as a Christian I believe in loving my neighbour whether my neighbour reciprocates or not. The main point of the story about the Good Samaritan was that the Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews, yet he was the one who showed love in action. I also claim as my motto “Do unto others as you would be done by.” So my heart says help, whatever the circumstances. These are my brothers and sisters.

However, my head has a slightly less impulsive response. I remember the phrase used by the Swiss to refuse asylum to Jews fleeing the Nazis in the Third Reich: Das Boot ist voll! The boat is full, and if we take anyone else on board it will capsize. The metaphor is appropriate in the current context, given that the sea is turning to blood as boat after flimsy boat packed to the brim sinks under its load. Nevertheless, there are cautious voices warning us that this country does not have the capacity to take large numbers of asylum-seekers.

It is a platitude to say that the solution is to tackle the cause and not the symptoms. Much easier said than done, since international law doesn’t allow us to impose our will by force on other countries where we disapprove of their regime. Maybe diplomacy and military action will eventually prevail but in the meantime we still need to alleviate the symptoms. How many people are camped in the Jungle outside Calais, attempting to enter the UK illegally? The fact that some of them are succeeding means that the rest will remain there, and their success encourages more to join them. Can we, should we, continue to block their passage?

David Cameron has proposed to take Syrian refugees only from the camps in the countries neighbouring Syria, refusing any who have undertaken the hazardous journey into Europe. His reasoning is clear: to discourage people from using the so-called services of people-traffickers. But what of the hundreds of thousands who are already in Europe?

Like the UK and Ireland, Denmark can choose whether to participate in the quota scheme. For the moment, it has closed its motorway and suspended rail links with Germany to prevent migrant hordes crossing its borders en route to Sweden, which has offered hospitality. This stand-off will hopefully soon be resolved, and the footsore families re-settled in a more hospitable environment.

The media has snatched up the word ‘migrant’ and it has rapidly been imbued with a pejorative sense. I speak as a migrant myself, having lived and worked in different countries outside the land of my birth for many years. I have, however, always been there legally, abiding by the national laws and, most significantly, paying all my taxes, tithes and contributions to social institutions and insurances. I know from my own experience how important it is to learn the customs and culture of the country where one is resident.

At the moment, after an absence of 4 decades, I have temporarily returned as a stranger to my native land, and find my old familiar environment filled with migrants from many different parts of the world. Although I have spent most of my adult life in an international environment I grew up surrounded by white British faces. Nowadays, I see every possible shade of skin from the palest Poles to the blackest West Africans, including Chinese and other Asians. They all seem to be well integrated here. The majority are working hard, duly paying taxes and other contributions, and providing much-needed services, from waiters and taxi-drivers to nurses and doctors, lawyers and teachers.

Many of those currently making their dangerous way to a new life in Europe are also skilled and well-educated people with much to offer once they are granted asylum. How can we say that we don’t have room for more?

I have also had plenty of contact in my time with refugees and asylum-seekers, a different kind of migrant. Some are genuinely desperate, traumatised people who have been through hell, others – and I would say definitely a minority – are hangers-on with a different agenda. How are the authorities to discriminate between these groups?

Distinctions have also been made in these discussions between so-called “genuine” refugees fleeing persecution and war, and “economic” refugees, who simply “want a better life”. There is a tendency to dismiss the latter, as not really being in want and distress. But consider the huge numbers of Irish who fled to the UK and the USA in the nineteenth century: these were trying to escape starvation and deprivation, too. Yet nobody called them “economic refugees” or denies that they deserved asylum in the countries where they landed. Remember the inscription in the Statue of Liberty? Are those words as hollow as the statue herself?

Others point out that the great majority of refugees at present are from an Islamic background, yet ironically they are fleeing into what used to be called Christendom. In spite of the upheaval in so many countries affected by the Arab Spring, there are still plenty of wealthy, prosperous Arab states that could very easily support large numbers of these people, both financially and in terms of settlement. And they have the advantage of a shared Islamic culture. Is it really so difficult for Sunni and Shia to coexist in peace?

It is never easy to uproot yourself from your native soil and migrate to another country. I know this, even though I migrated from choice. I cannot imagine the heartbreak of having to set out with nothing but what you can carry and, at the mercy of unscrupulous people willing to exploit any kind of human misery, run headlong into the unknown. Of course you hope for a Promised Land and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That keeps you going. But how many find it?

The debate goes on. I have no answers.

When Life Becomes A Fairytale

Yesterday, I received a very short e-mail with some exciting news. Back in September 2013, I wrote here about the miraculous events in the life of an African refugee family, events that I had the privilege of witnessing personally.

Against the odds and in spite of all the massive problems due to the upheaval in their lives, this couple and their three boys are managing to lead a normal, happy family life in their new country, and the outlook for the future is positive. The e-mail I received was simply the message: Here is the flyer about our project.

What project? I wondered.

When I opened the attachment, I discovered that a Swiss author is planning to write the story of Joséphine and Désiré and publish it as a book by means of Crowdfunding. So far, they have raised just under half of the sum required. This book will, of course, be in German, and my immediate reaction was to offer to translate it into English. It will be a long and arduous task for them all until the material is ready: hours of interviews and research, and the emotional trauma involved for the family can’t be underestimated. But what a tale that will be! No fiction could match it for drama.nyo family

It will cover the last 20 years, since Joséphine, aged 14 at the time, and Désiré (then 20) were forced to flee from the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It raises so many questions. How did they meet in the first place, these two young refugees? What kind of life did they have in the early years, with their two little boys? How did they cope with being separated so dramatically? How did Désiré lose his sons, and how did all three of them still manage to survive? He was taken captive and enslaved – how did he escape? What happened to the two boys? How were they found? When they were reunited with their mother, the children had no memory of either of their parents: how did they manage to recreate the family bonds? And what happened when their father was finally reunited with the family unit? What kind of emotional roller-coaster ride have these five people been through?

Switzerland is notoriously hard on asylum-seekers, but this family seems to be integrating well into their new home. Both Joséphine and Désiré are employed and following professional training programmes, and the boys are all doing well in school. It does seem like a fairytale in many respects, and almost too good to be true. I hope the author they have found will do it justice, and I also look forward to being allowed to put this wonderful account into English. I might add, if the Swiss author doesn’t do a good job, I shall ask for permission to rewrite it. It is proof that miracles happen and shows the power of faith. This story really deserves to be told.

For some reason, clicking on this link doesn’t work. It has to be copied and pasted into the browser. This is in German, but it contains photos of the family in their new homeland, including the one above of the second wedding of Joséphine and Désiré: https://wemakeit.com/projects/schritt-fuer-schritt