Dune du Pilat, Arcachon
Dune du Pilat, Arcachon
Oh 2016, why do you seem to have it in for us? Why do you seem to be slowly taking from us the things we love? From Alan Rickman to David Bowie, from our British pride and place in Europe, to the prospect of President Trump. Now, once again I am mourning something dear to my heart, as the Great British Bake-Off seems to be crumbling before my eyes, like an overdone Victoria Sponge. Is there really no space for moist and spongy goodness in the world (well, on TV) anymore?
To those of you out there who have not experienced the simple joy of watching 12 bakers vie for the title of ‘Star Baker’ in a tent in the English countryside, then I cannot advise you strongly enough to check out this TV treasure while you can. A hugely popular show in the UK for almost ten years, the Great British Bake-Off consists of various cake, bread and pastry related challenges, as amateur bakers aim to impress the judges with their delicious creations. It’s a pretty simple concept, yet it’s execution is such to make it, in my opinion, the only reality TV worth watching.
Perhaps the thing that sets it apart the most is the camaraderie and cooperation that goes on between the competitors. Of course, they all want to win and to impress, yet they also help each other out, laugh together and cheer one another on. There’s no back-biting, bitching or trash talk. The most dramatic things to happen are when someone’s cake falls off their bench or their ice cream melts. Such is the Bake-Off’s popularity however, that these moments are discussed seriously over tea for days across Britain.
So why is this show crumbling? What could go wrong with this perfect mix? Well, the BBC has broadcast the show since it began, but now another channel has ‘outbid’ the Beeb for the rights. Unfortunately, this move has meant that three of the four presenters/judges are leaving the show and sticking with the BBC. This is such a big deal because Mel and Sue (the show’s presenters) are pretty key to the show’s success, helping to establish the supportive environment that sets Bake-Off apart. Apparently, they have been known to get alongside struggling and tearful bakers, swearing at the camera to make the footage unusable; protecting the show from becoming the overwrought and emotionally manipulative thing it could otherwise have been.
I have no doubt that the Bake-Off can survive the changes that are ahead, yet I am saddened that something as simple and joyous as a show about people making cake, has become the collateral damage in a bidding war. Each week, as I watch the current series of the Bake-Off (the last with the BBC), I am reminded not just of how much I love cake and love baking, but I am reminded of home, of how a talent shared is a talent used well, and how competition doesn’t have to be vitriolic and fractious.
I am sad that this little shaft of light has been prematurely (though hopefully temporarily) blocked out, yet I know that as long as there is cake in the world, then hope with endure.
Having clicked on the link I saw on facebook entitled ‘Breentry: Reject Brexit,’ I studiously searched for my MP and sent you the generic outraged plea that had been created. I’m sure you have received many such generic emails. When I received notice from your email that I needed to include my address and contact details, I thought I would reply with a more personal expression of my feelings about Brexit. For my feelings are strong and yet more subtle than any generic statement could encapsulate.
I have to say that I have felt very upset and disappointed about the result of the referendum, as my call to ‘Breentry’ (though what a terrible word that is) would suggest. I am actually currently living in Prague, Czech Republic, having been lucky enough to take advantage of the freedom of movement for all EU citizens. I am registered in Broxtowe as an overseas voter, having lived in Nottingham for 8 years previously.
The experience of living in a different nation has been an unfailingly positive one, as I have been able to learn more about different nations and peoples, recognising differences and similarities and most certainly becoming a more patient and tolerant person. The thought that future generations might not be able to enjoy this privilege deeply saddens me.
I recently came across a letter from prominent Czechs to the UK, in the run-up to the referendum. Here is a favourite quote – “Without the British legacy of democratic institutions, entrepreneurial spirit, common sense and pragmatic approach to problem-solving, the west as we know it would be much weakened, politically and spiritually.”
I feel that the UK has so much to offer Europe. That Europe has so much to offer the UK. I have seen and lived that. I have relished the honour of being an ambassador for the UK here in Central Europe and have learned so much about what the EU means through being here in a place which was so recently riven by war and destructive ideologies. Sadly, now I feel that the UK is the place riven and divided. It is my home and I am proud to be British, but I have never felt more ashamed of my nation. The response from my friends here, both European and from further afield, is one of consternation and sympathy at the mess we are in.
I want to make a plea to you and to your party, as our leaders, to represent not just the democratic mandate you have received to vote leave, but also the equally democratic incentive to seek compromise. To seek an arrangement where freedom of movement, goods and ideas can continue with the EU, as easily as possible. Without wanting to sound cliched, I am one of the 48%. Please ensure that you represent us in your decisions as well as the 52%.
Thank you for your service as my representative.
I trust that you will take all these considerations into account.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5
I love the light.
I love how it transforms things all around us.
How flowers bloom in the sunlight, brightening the grey streets and bare trees, reminding me that Spring is truly on the way.
How sunlight, even through closed windows, makes me feel warm in a way quite unlike anything else.
How it transforms everything it touches.
How it makes me feel like I just want to hit the beach (even when it’s March and I’m in a land-locked country.)
How fireworks turn darkness into a canvas for awe and wonder.
How light enables us to capture images of beauty, wherever we are, whether it’s people we love, things that make us laugh, or incredible natural wonders.
How the sunrise represents a brand new start, a new hope, a new opportunity to experience God’s goodness.
I was reminded of this viscerally while celebrating Christ’s resurrection at dawn this Easter Sunday. As the sun rose over Letná Park, the rays broke through the trees (and eventually the fog) to flood the city with myriad shades of light. Even though we were all shivering, the sheer wonder of the vistas opening before us were cause for great joy. Just as Jesus is victorious over darkness and death, darkness we are constantly reminded of in these times of fear, the dawn is victorious over the darkness every single morning.
Even if the view isn’t as spectacular as it was in the park, the dawn is inevitable.
Even when we lie awake full of anxiety and fear, the dawn is inevitable.
Even if the darkness feels so deep and so long, like a winter night, the dawn is inevitable.
Christ has risen. The darkness is defeated. The light I can see reminds me of this. It reminds me to love boldly and fiercely, it reminds me to laugh, it reminds me to cry with those in pain. It gives me hope. The dawn is coming and the darkness cannot overcome it.
The dawn is all the more amazing after the dark and cold nights of winter, just as the great dawn to come should seem sweeter in these dark times of fear and hurt. May I remember that when the sunlight isn’t shining. May we all.
As Spring truly takes hold and the days are more filled with beauty and wonder, as the trees blossom and the beach calls, I pray that I remember the wonder of dawn on that cold morning. How the darkness was defeated, how it gave me hope.
Who doesn’t love a good list?
They are undeniably satisfying to cross things off from. Sadly, there’s always something new to add. Sometimes I wonder whether all of these self-organisation apps, these good ideas for being more organised, serve to make me more organised at all, or whether they just draw attention to my lack of organisation. Surely they shouldn’t serve to increase my stress? I’m beginning to think something needs to be done.
I’m thinking of, in a crazy and reckless manner, abandoning my list making ways and risking that (shock!) I may forget something once in a while. I may forget the odd bit or bob, but I will be able to make more time for that person who needs to chat. I may forget to buy more pasta or loo roll, but I will be able to take time to read one of the many books I am looking forward to. I might not reply to that text as quickly, but I will hopefully be freed from being anxious about needing to reply quickly.
Maybe I will be able to think of time less as space to fit all my tasks into, but as space to be. To be who I am. To be me enjoying God and his goodness. Sure, to be me doing the stuff I need to do as well. But also feeling free to change it up. Free from the to-do list.
It seems lots of people struggle with feeling guilty about taking time to just ‘be.’ It would be easy to think; ‘How could I waste all that time?!’ ‘Think of all the things I could be doing!’ I feel that way sometimes. But I have also come to feel freed and able to spend time doing something I enjoy, even if that doesn’t look very productive. Truth be told, it’s probably not going to be productive at all. But that’s good! We aren’t supposed to be productive all the time, and I know I’m more diligent and productive in my job when I’ve had real downtime.
So when was the last time you had time to be? Just be. I encourage you to give it a go. Switch your phone off first.
Which destinations are on your list at the moment? Where next? What are your plans for the next holiday? Have you been to x place? Have you been to y? Where should I go next?
These are questions I ask and answer a lot. Holiday plans seem to take up a lot of space in my mind, not to mention my internet history. I have spent a lot of time searching for cheap flights to this place or that in the past year. I even now have frequent flyer miles accounts. How grown up.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is travelling. It’s not like I’m travelling for the first time or anything. It’s just noticeable how much of my time and energy is spent thinking about getting away, seeing this or that amazing place, getting an amazing deal on a flight, or just ticking places off my list. Basically being somewhere else.
The opportunity to travel so much in the last year has been a complete privilege and I am so fortunate to live in a place with many possibilities, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my desire to invest more in being here, now, and investing more in the community and place I’ve been put. This is one of my prayers for this year.
Wanderlust is something I’ve experienced over the past few years and I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing. It’s a wonderful refresher to move somewhere new, to see God’s goodness from a new perspective and in a new community, but I’m not sure it’s always good either. I don’t think it’s healthy to spend all my time and money seeking to be in as many places as possible. There are more important things.
I pray that travel takes the right place in my life and in my thinking; as something I love, which I do regularly, but which doesn’t stop me investing in community here, nor lead me to seek meaning and identity in a list of countries visited or places seen.
I was looking forward to time away over the summer for many reasons; the reliable sunshine, the travelling, the chance to see friends and family, the barbecues, and not least, the chance to reflect on life here in Prague. It’s a teacher perk, the long summer, providing the perfect opportunity to get some distance from the day-to-day and to consider the past and the future. I was so fortunate to have a full six weeks away, travelling around in the USA, Israel and the UK, and I was eager to seek God’s will for my future in that time.
I often find it really hard to spend time with God on holiday, when routine is interrupted and breakfasts move closer to the afternoon than in term time, and this was certainly the case this summer. As has been the case for the past year, I have found my relationship with God far too one sided; God being good to me and I only belatedly realising just what he has given me and done in and around me, if I notice at all. My half-hearted attempts at connecting with God amounted to reading the Bible in a hap-hazard manner and attending church wherever I ended up. Yet as I look back I am yet again amazed how God has been gently changing my thoughts, actions and viewpoint over the summer.
On my travels I was lucky enough to visit San Francisco, somewhere I had long wanted to visit, perhaps due to my love for the rather naff Bond movie A View to a Kill, featuring, among other things, a blimp battle atop the Golden Gate Bridge. I was struck while there just how far I was away from ‘home.’ By the time I made it there I hadn’t been back to the UK in over eight months, not that long in the grand scheme, but still the longest I’d actually been out of the country. My homesickness wasn’t painful, more wistful and bittersweet perhaps. When I arrived back in the UK for a visit a few weeks ago, I was again surprised at my depth of feeling for the land of my birth, and by just how nice it felt to be home (it may have helped that I went straight from the airport to a National Trust property, proceeded to have a walk in the rain, followed by a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Some stereotypes are true.)
This came as a surprise mostly because this last year has been a whirlwind of new and wonderful experiences, as I have settled into Prague and my new job. My thoughts went along the lines of ‘This is so great, why would I ever go home?!’ Yet it’s clear that home has a strong pull on me and the week or so I spent in the UK was perhaps the sweetest of my summer. God exposed my heart and I was surprised at the attractiveness of moving home and being in this place where everything is just more familiar and where I fit just a little bit more nicely.
I don’t know if I will stay or go, both hold real attractions and benefits. God has been so good in blessing me with opportunities both here in Prague and at home, and he was so faithful in helping me to reflect over the summer, pretty much despite my feeble efforts. I think I have a tendency to look inside myself when I seek to reflect. What do I want? What thing would be best for me? I have been challenged to look to God, in his word and in his person, as I seek to understand myself and my place in the world (both literally and figuratively.)
After the summer I feel less sure than ever about where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do. But maybe that’s a good thing. My prayer is that in the uncertainty and indecision I would seek God and allow his will to lead my actions, and that through the process, my love for and trust in him would grow as well.
Surely I’m grown up now right? I’m 26, have a job, an apartment, I’ve been to lots of places and done lots of things with lots of people. I have responsibility and stuff. I’ve even been called wise. So is that it, am I done? Is it no longer possible to say ‘When I grow up I want to be an…astronaut…rock star…librarian (I know, dream big Sam)?’ Well, possible or not I know that I still do think these things. I think ‘I can’t do this forever,’ or ‘I wish I could do that,’ or just ‘It would be cool if…’
‘What do you want to be when you grow up Sam?’
We must be asked that question hundreds of times in the course of our childhood and teenage years, and as much as culture has moved away from the mid-twentieth century idea of a fixed profession for life, we are still asked to identify one thing we want to do with our lives. Experience has shown me that children still pick one of the more ‘traditional’ professions when asked this question today.
‘I want to be a teacher, doctor or a professional footballer!’
I guess it’s easier that way. It’s also easier to follow the pretty straight-forward paths into these professions. When I decided to pursue teaching, I knew what I had to do to become a teacher. It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, but the steps are there for you to take. The pattern is set and expectations laid out. I think this fits with the more cautious side of my personality. I can be adventurous… but within these set boundaries. Interestingly, one unintended result of moving to Prague to teach in an international school is that these boundaries have changed and expanded. The possibilities are bigger somehow when the kids and teachers of the school have already up-shipped and moved across the world to be there. One of the things I have always loved about teaching is working in community, and it’s just so much closer and crazier when you’re all living in a foreign country together. Teaching abroad has taken me off-piste when it comes to teaching and I wholeheartedly love it.
This new perspective has made me consider the joy of going off the beaten track generally. I’ve been asking myself that question again… What do you want to be? What do you want to do? If I can move to Prague, if God wanted me to move here, then what else does he have in store? What else can I do? Should I do? It’s rather exciting.
I’m not saying that I’m going to chuck in teaching and go crazy, more that I want to be serious about dreaming. Dreaming, praying and considering the talents and gifts I’ve been given, and how I can use them. How I can use the creativity and passions given to me by God to pursue my dreams, ideas and even hair-brained schemes.
I want to keep asking that question, asking others too, seeking and embracing God’s will. Expecting him to be good and to not give us more than we can cope with. I want to keep using my God given gifts and taking opportunities, trusting in his help and dreaming big.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the wonderful musical ‘Matilda’ (go now!) but it has a song which beautifully considers the idea of what it is to be grown up. Rather than dreaming of being this profession or that, the children singing the song dream of being dreamers. They dream of climbing bigger trees, being braver, smarter and of playing ‘with things that mum pretends that mums don’t think are fun.’ Isn’t that a much better picture of being grown up than the one of ‘having a job, 2.4 children and a mortgage?’ It’s certainly one I like more! Of course, they also sing about eating sweets every day and laying in the sun…
So am I grown up? No. I don’t think I want to be thank you very much. But I pray that I keep dreaming and keep aspiring to the grown-up-ness sung about in this song (I also wouldn’t mind eating sweets and lying in the sun in case you wondered.)
When I grow up
I will be tall enough to reach the branches
that I need to reach to climb the trees
you get to climb when you’re grown up.
And when I grow up
I will be smart enough to answer all
the questions that you need to know
the answers to before you’re grown up.
And when I grow up
I will eat sweets every day
on the way to work and I
will go to bed late every night!
And I will wake up
when the sun comes up and I
will watch cartoons until my eyes go square
and I won’t care ’cause I’ll be all grown up!
When I grow up!
When I grow up, when I grow up
(When I grow up)
I will be strong enough to carry all
the heavy things you have to haul
around with you when you’re a grown-up!
And when I grow up, when I grow up
(When I grow up)
I will be brave enough to fight the creatures
that you have to fight beneath the bed
each night to be a grown-up!
And when I grow up
(When I grow up)
I will have treats every day.
And I’ll play with things that mum pretends
that mums don’t think are fun.
And I will wake up
when the sun comes up and I
will spend all day just lying in the sun
and I won’t burn ’cause I’ll be all grown-up!
When I grow up!
When I grow up. I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you need to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown-up.
“He was standing by the edge of a small pool – not more than ten feet from side to side – in a wood. The trees grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky. All the light was green that came through the leaves: but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine.”
In a rush of warmth and familiarity it came back to me, the same words and sentences I had read as child evoking the most calm and contented feeling. Where was I, who was I, when I last turned these pages? One of my favourite things about books is how they can serve as miniature, paper-filled, time machines, reminding us of things that have changed, as well as things that never will.
Reading the chapter in C. S. Lewis’ ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ where Digory (the eponymous nephew) travels for the first time out of our world into the ‘wood between worlds’ served to take me back to several times I’ve read this book. The idea of a calm, silent wood serving as an in-between place in the spaces between myriad worlds fascinated me. When I’m stressed, I often long, as I’m sure many do, to escape to such a place, lying down on the grass and falling asleep beneath green-leaved trees. Of course, it’s a very English vision of a peaceful getaway, but I’m very English so it appeals!
Since moving to Prague maybe I can understand the idea of a place between places better than before. My normal has changed, multiplied, since moving. Going home feels very normal, as does coming back to my new normal of work and friendships in Prague. I didn’t expect that. I thought going ‘home’ would be a relief, a welcome return, a restful experience. At times it was all of those things, but it was also, surprisingly and reassuringly, normal. I guess I have lived in England for twenty five years of my life; things are bound to have remained relatively unchanged in the course of four months.
Yet it wasn’t normal as it had been before because work, church, house and ‘stuff’ were here in the Czech Republic. It’s amazing how quickly I have started to feel comfortable here. I guess getting the bus to work each day, interacting with the same people, even dealing with the same dodgy customer-service, has made a routine like any other.
Between these two new normals I think I would like a wood. Somewhere to cosy up in and retreat to. The allure of an idealised countryside has a strong pull on me, as it seems to on the English consciousness as a whole. Rolling hills, a moss-covered forest floor, a National Trust tea shop… I think this desire to escape is also a symptom, for me at least, of busy working life and a desire to do lots and fill my time to the brim. If only I could simply slip on a magic ring (as Digory does) and flee the burdens of this busy life.
Yet C. S. Lewis makes this wood more than just a beautiful place, it is somewhere where you quickly lose all ties to the world you have left.
“The strangest thing was that, almost before he had looked about him, Digory had half-forgotten how he had got there. At any rate, he was certainly not thinking about Polly, or Uncle Andrew, or even his Mother. He was not in the least frightened, or excited, or curious. If anyone had asked him ‘Where did you come from?’ he would probably have said, ‘I’ve always been here.’ That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored even though nothing had ever happened.”
Sometimes I long for this too, or so it seems. To just be free of fear, excitement, curiosity, burden, events even, would be so much easier. Just give me a nice book, cup of tea and wood between worlds. But what would there be to escape, to enjoy, to achieve there. I’m tempted much of the time to just jack it all in and run to my bed, comfy and warm and free from danger. Yet I know that I have been put here for a reason, for God to work his purposes in, for his glory and my good. The place between normals isn’t as good as the normal, the run-of-the-mill, the stressful and busy.
Give me normal, as long as I know the wood is there. It’s in the pages of the book I’m reading, the simple pleasure of sleep, a nice cup of tea, Netflix. It’s in snatched ten minutes and lazy Saturdays. It’s ultimately and completely in heaven, though the metaphor is decidedly flawed when stretched to that extent. May my desire for escape and rest not lead to me fleeing normal, but to my enjoyment of that peaceful wood when I glimpse it.
It’s interesting and harrowing walking through the streets of a place like Brussels.
How does one quantify that feeling of unease? Is it an underlying racism? Am I more uncomfortable in ethnically diverse places? Do I have a crippling fear of concrete?
I hope not, yet something made me feel very uneasy as I arrived there compared to home, compared to Prague. Is it simply unfamiliarity? Is it the woman begging at the tram stop? It was certainly the possibly prostitutes who cheerfully said ‘Ca va?’ to me not far from my hotel (and outside designer shops no less).
I hope and pray I met some friendly Belgians and that I am being judgmental but I’m not sure.
Brussels is a real breathing, begging, sinning place, not simply the heart of a utopian new Europe/the demon beloved of UKIP (delete as appropriate). There are people there who have never, and will never, leave. People who call it home. People who wish they didn’t.
It is a challenge for me to remember that so often the places we visit as tourists have a life that we don’t see, sufferings and heartaches that are hidden out of the sight of fleeting visitors. This is something I have begun to realise about Prague as I have spent more time here. This rawness seemed much closer than I expected in Brussels. May my eyes stay open, may I pray and do what I can for this city, may I not put on my tourist blinkers once more.
On a lighter note, Brussels also has a most frustrating metro with many tram stops seemingly fiendishly hidden. But maybe that’s just me. The fact that I accidentally stroked a guy’s head on the metro probably didn’t help.
Admittedly, not Belgium’s fault.
Fantastic waffles (yes, it’s under there somewhere).