Category Archives: Stories from other countries

An experimental week in the sun

Last week there was no blog because we were marooned on a desert island with no wifi.

This is nearly true.

We were actually not marooned, but booked in to an apartment, on a desert island. And there was wifi but you had to pay for it and we’re a bit stingy so we didn’t.

Despairing over the state of our little boy’s skin over the Christmas break, we remembered that his eczema had almost vanished one week over the summer when it was really hot. ‘Sunshine!’ we cried. ‘Sunshine is the answer!’ And then sat down to work out how to get him some sunshine (and get us all some relief) in 2017. We had an amazing British summer last year but there was no predicting how summer 2017 would pan out, and frankly, it only lasts 3 months anyway. We needed a strategy. Operation sunshine was born.

We’ve really tried to take all our holidays in the UK for the past few years, both for environmental and logistical reasons. It’s easier to drive baby-related kit in a car around the country than try to lug it on planes and trains around the world. And we’ve had lovely holidays, often with friends and family – in Cornwall (mostly), Devon, Cambridgeshire, and even over to Northern Ireland. We’ve usually stayed with friends or rented houses, because then you can relax in the evening instead of sitting in a dark room watching your children sleep. We haven’t camped yet, mostly because I can’t imagine trying to persuade small children to go to sleep in a tent in broad daylight, but we have just bought one in anticipation of this summer…

But. The sunshine called and promised to help Jesse’s skin. And so we found a super cheap deal and flew to the Canary Islands for a week, hoping like mad for an end to the scratching.

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(I should confess here my incredible geographical ignorance in relation to the Canaries. Did you know they’re off the west coast of Africa? And that Tenerife and Lanzarote are Canary Islands? Of course you probably did, but this was news to me.)

Ordinarily I’m the only one in the family who cares for sunshine. The boys are both super-fair, need factor 50 smothered all over them, and burn in no time. Jubes has yet to reveal her feelings about hot weather. But, for me at least, it was just amazing to feel the sun on my skin in January. Just indescribably amazing. (Why oh why do I live in such a cold, wet country?)

We had a self-catering apartment, in a big hotel complex with several swimming pools. And we were a stone’s throw from the town and the beach. Which was all extremely convenient and nice. So everyday we would just circulate around various play parks, the pool and the beach. Except Jubes basically just wanted to eat all the sand, all the time, so then I stopped taking her to the beach. We had ice-cream. I drank coffee. I read an excellent novel during her midday nap (when not sleeping myself). (It was Ian McEwan’s Nutshell if you are interested). We cooked a week’s worth of food on two small hobs and a microwave, using the most basic of supplies from the mini-mart (pasta, anyone?).

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The kids were very happy. They adored swimming and being outside and getting to do fun things every day with both of us. Jesse loved being in a ‘holiday house’ on our own ‘holiday island’. His personal highlight was probably the ‘real’ pirate ship he discovered and explored with daddy on our last day.

And did the sunshine save Jesse’s skin? Yes and no. The heat out there was dry rather than the humid British heat that had sorted him out in the summer. Parts of his body did really well, but then a combination of dust mite allergies and prickly heat meant his head and neck suffered. Which meant lots of broken nights of scratching, and so he and I didn’t sleep so well. Sunshine definitely served as a balm to my spirits in the day time, but there were several trips to the pharmacy for creams and medicines that we ran out of or suddenly needed. And holidays with small children really aren’t very much like grown-up holidays.

We had a lovely week, and it was great for us as a family in lots of ways. But it wasn’t the panacea we had hoped for, and I felt more than a little defeated on our return. Which was probably intensified by sleep deprivation. Now Jesse is back in his own room (with the anti-allergy bedding and humidifier and lack of soft furnishings) his skin is settling again, and we’re back in our familiar routines, with friends around to support us. I don’t think January package holidays will make an another appearance in family life. So we’ll chalk that one up to experience, and I will be grateful that I got to see some sunshine before June.

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What I’ve taken home from the USA

Yesterday we returned from the USA to the UK, to the inner-city, and our little flat.  (Which my amazingly kind parents have cleaned in our absence – thank you!).

In my last blog I listed a heap of ways in which life here is SO DIFFERENT from home; I could write another instalment, easily (in fact I could write a whole blog just on ‘attitudes to the military’).  But it’s hard to do that without focusing on the crazy extremes of life here, and leave you thinking that I consider everything about our life to be better, or more worthwhile.  Actually the main word I would use to describe it now I’m back is “smaller”!

The byline of this blog is “simple, messy city living”, and while I have the “messy” dimension covered, I am always aspiring to learn how to live more simply here in the urban jungle.  And I have a lot to learn from others.  Sure, the USA is hardly known for the simple lifestyle it encourages, but there’s something to learn from every culture, right?  And specifically, from the people you encounter in different places.   So I thought I’d end my epic trip with a short summary on things I have decided to take back with me (apart from peanut butter M&Ms, a new haircut and some more of my sister-in-law’s clothes).

You see, new hair!

You see, new hair!

1) Ramen coleslaw.  Sorry if you were expecting me to start out with someting more profound, but this stuff is SERIOUSLY AMAZING.  And healthy.  Check out one of the many online recipes.  You basically use raw ramen noodles, raw cabbage, almonds, and then some oil and vinegar instead of mayo or salad cream.  I never know what to do with cabbage!   So good.  It’s entering the regular repertoire.
2) Warmth.  I’m not talking about the climate, although it did start out that way (which was nice); sadly by the time we left we were hovering around freezing point.  No, I mean the general niceness. I realise that it’s a cliche, that it’s obvious and overstated, but there is such warmth exuded by people in the USA.  Maybe it’s a southern thing?  The accent does help.  People made such a point of welcoming me, of coming to talk to me at parties or church or whatever.  I enjoy the innocence, the genuineness of it (it’s why I like characters like Andy in The Office and, erm, Andy in Parks and Recreations – just a second, maybe it’s just the name Andy I like…).  London can by a cynical old place.  I think some pro-active niceness might be healthy (actually my hisband is pretty good at it, but I’m a bit more patchy). I tried it yesterday in the park, with the only other mum there at 4.30pm (turns out no-one goes to the park at dusk).  She was a little weirded out at first, but soon relaxed…
3) Space.  This is the biggie.  There is just so much darn space in suburban Arkansas compared to inner-city London.  It was incredible for Jesse, and pretty good for my soul too.  And while we’re never going to have space like that here, and have no imminent plans to move, there has to be a way, surely, to create space here.  It probably also has a relationship to tidiness and unclutteredness which is stress-relieving.  So how do we do that here?
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SPACE!

We live in a small flat.  We have the usual baby-related paraphernalia.  There’s no extending a third floor council flat.  But enough with the limitations!  I have come up with three small things I am going to do to try to create more space on our lives.
a) (because we already had numbers going).  I’m going to pass on a bunch of our crap (sorry – quality, pre-loved possessions). Sure, we decluttered pre-baby, but the stuff just multiples.  And there’s still too much for this small space.  I’m going to offer you before and after pictures on here too.  Woohoo, ACCOUNTABILITY!
b) I’m going to tidy up more (my mother gasps with delight).  Specifically, I’m going to work out a place where stuff SHOULD go (in an ideal world).  We’re not very tidy.  A baby boy is not likely to help us in this regard.  But I’m also lazy.  I started reading a little ebook the other day called Simplify by Joshua Becker (reduced to 80p, you see) and one thing it talked about was how clutter is stressful and I thought ‘YES!’.  It kind of reassured me too – I’m not just a control fresk who every now and then gets depressed about the state of her flat because it reflects how CHAOTIC the rest of life is.  Nope, the clutter enhances and even causes stress. So I’m taking action and going to make things more calming round here.
c) Despite the fact that it is now winter and the park is semi-deserted, we are going OUT and in search of SPACE where Jesse can play, at large.  All recommendations gratefully received.

 

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How life in Arkansas is really very different

It’s the second instalment from our big trip to the States!  Jesse and I are happily installed in Arkansas for a few weeks for some serious family time.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know we came to Arkansas once before, for Christmas, and suffered unexpectedly with culture shock.  Now we’re back for a second, bigger helping.

It always comes as a big surprise how different life here is; my mind is boggled by how everything is so familiar and yet so alien.  There’s plenty to love and seriously enjoy out here, a few things that make me feel discontent about life back home, and then another handful that make me feel grateful.  Allow me to spell it out.

Let’s start with the food.  Have you seen the size of their supermarkets?  It’s too much for me.  To help, there is always coffee, everywhere, and something strange called creamer to go with it.  At first that was exciting, but now I’m over creamer and happily reunited with good old milk. There is sugar in everything, and usually the faint aroma of cinnamon.  Fizzy drinks are ubiquitous and look radioactive, yet are “naturally flavoured” (“natural” seems to mean something a little different over here). There is an instant mix for everything, just add water and you can make up anything; cooking from scratch earns you the awe of your friends and neighbours.  Right now, everything is flavoured with pumpkin spice – your coffee, your cheesecake, your cookies, your air freshener.  Pumpkins are big news.

Did I mention that the trolleys are also huge?

Did I mention that the trolleys are also huge?

And talking of seasonal specialities, just a few days ago many of the houses in the quiet suburban neighbourhood had enormous skulls outside in their front gardens, alongside ghosts and ghouls, oversized spiders’ webs and the odd zombie.  On Halloween itself, groups of incredibly polite small children and their parents knocked on their doors (many of whom had been shipped across town to this ‘nice neighbourhood’ for the superior candy).  We dutifully handed it out to a chorus of “thank you ma’am” and “thank you sir”.  It was clear we weren’t in Camberwell anymore.

Now I can see that some of these difference are maybe as much about suburban life vs the inner city as they are about British life vs US life, but I’m just squeezing it all into one blog for convenience.

The most wonderful thing about it all is that there is space – so much space. I’m so flipping grateful for it, because despite all the reasons that I love the inner-city, it’s CRAMPED and CROWDED and CHAOTIC. Jesse still hasn’t fully explored the house and he is loving all the new corners he keeps finding. The house is big, the rooms are big, the cars (or mainly trucks) are big.  And did I mention they have a GARDEN? Nothing is crammed together, nothing is over-peopled.  Soft-play is quiet, the restaurants are quiet (after 7pm especially), the mall is quiet, the park is quiet, the suburban streets are quiet.  Right now Jesse is napping and the whole house is enveloped in a glorious hush.

Also, my sister-in-law is way tidier than me, which enhances the sense of calm.

My brother’s house is only one storey, because why build up when you can just build out?  This means I don’t have to carry Jesse up three flights of stairs twice a day. In related news, I do not have walk him up and down the Walworth Rd or across to Kennington Park every day in search of adventures. In fact I rarely have to carry or walk him anywhere because we drive everywhere, and everywhere you visit has some kind of ‘cart’ (trolley) to put them in. (This may mean I put on some weight).  Nowhere is close, everywhere is a 25 minute drive down a freeway.  So much space to cross.

When we go out, there is cheap or free childcare at every turn.  I mean, at home we have an amazing network of friends who help us out, but here it’s institutionalised: we drop Jesse off at creche for the whole of church, and they run the same service even for the Ladies’ Bible studies.  Tomorrow he’s off to my niece’s childminder for the day; and we have a super-qualified babysitter nicknamed Mary Poppins.

Speaking of church, my brother and his wife have found a gorgeous and welcoming community here that they love, and a network of friendship and support which they are already sad to be leaving in the Spring.  Sunday mornings are very friendly; and very polished.  There is a choice of creamers for your coffee. Everyone is beautifully turned out (and so much better groomed than I will ever be), but then we all enter into a dark warehouse where only the stage is lit and we can no longer admire this advanced level of grooming (perhaps it’s only me with the strange fascination for it), ready for the professionals to do their job.  It’s a big contrast with the organised chaos we participate it in, in broad daylight, on a Sunday morning in South London.  But there are genuine and kind people oiling both machines.

There is time here because I have no meetings or groups or commitments.  There is time to go slowly and breathe and think.  And oh man, it’s a relief.

I miss the proximity and spontaneity of life at home, I miss the jumble of people I stumble across each day, and the neighbours I can’t escape.  I think I need the chaos to be on my doorstep because I’m not good at finding the energy to keep seeking it out when it’s so well hidden.  And I think we’re meant to seek out the chaos and not just stay comfortable.  Although I think I’ll stay here a little bit longer first…

 

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Three take a trip to New York

We have fled our home city and flown across an ocean since I last wrote. Here’s the first instalment from our big trip…

A few months back, we were invited to New York to contribute to a conference that inspired us about city leadership, and I almost burst with excitement at the chance to visit the Big Apple.  Sure, we’d have our nearly-eleven-month-old with us, but how hard could that be?  People travel with babies all the time; we live in the middle of a big city ourselves; what could go wrong?

Well, let me try to paint an honest picture of taking a big transAtlantic trip with a small child.

Things started to get challenging when the poor little man developed an ear infection on our long haul flight. To be more accurate, it started before that when the booking made for us turned out to not include any accommodation for the wee man other than my lap, and had Andy sitting two seats away from us.  There was a lot of screaming (from Jesse mainly, but also inside my head) and only the tiniest amount of sleep. But we were stoical.  I can’t speak for the other passengers: the lady across the aisle was passionately extolling the virtues of Benadryl to me.

After a late arrival, an interminable queue in immigration and an exhaustion-defying sprint across Washington airport from my hero of a husband, the aeroplane doors we re-opened to admit us (thanks to some teary begging) onto the tiny flight to New York.  And then there were some views. IMG_2878We had the unspeakably good fortune to be staying with friends who live absurdly centrally, right by Central Park.  Demonstrating an insane level of hospitality they invited the THREE of us to SHARE their ONE BEDROOM APARTMENT with them, even though one of us was a sick, jet-lagged baby.  I imagine that they were hoping for more sleep than was possible in their lounge on an air mattress whilst a baby wailed in the next room.

Staying in an actual apartment rather than a hotel room made tons of stuff way easier for us – making food for Jesse, being able to stay up past seven o-clock, laundry facilities.

And then there was the conference.  It turns out that I still have unrealistic expectations when it comes to my capacity to participate in grown-up events, whilst looking after my child.  It continues to come as a rude shock to me when Jesse doesn’t seem to be interested in playing quietly in the corner whilst I hang out with the adults.  So, I dipped in for occasional five minute contributions, and otherwise we walked up and down fifth avenue whilst I hummed ‘puttin’ on the ritz’ and rewarded myself with coffee.  Andy played with the grown-ups.

And then the conference ended, and Andy collapsed in an exhausted heap. I thought about booking the little man into soft play, Manhattan-style, but have you seen the prices?!  The time, the effort, the money…it just seemed like a crazy thing to do for a still-poorly baby.  So instead, Jesse and I mastered the subway, and set out in torrential rain to see the Statue of Liberty.

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Hitting the subway

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Well worth an outing in the rain

At least we can say we saw it.

There wasn’t a lot of sleeping happening, and there was a limited amount of time I could prevent Jesse from breaking things in the apartment, so the only solution seemed to be hitting the town, repeatedly, and dodging the rain. After the hazy view of the Statue of Liberty, we crammed in the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, Central Park and the High Line.  We even made it to lunch at the Shake Shack in Grand Central Station.  (That last one was a personal mission, born of my exasperation at not managing to eat out once in the big city because of napping needs…)

At the top of the Empire State Building

At the top of the Empire State Building

 

Controlling traffic from the High Line

Controlling traffic from the High Line

Getting out and about was exhausting on so little sleep, but what else are you going to do in New York? There were definitely moments when I fumed with frustration and resentment – here I was in one of the greatest cities in the world, with no freedom to go and do the things I wanted.  The parenting was relentless in its intensity.

But that’s a pretty ungrateful mood to stay in.  We got to visit an extraordinary city.  We were shown great kindness.  We ate burgers, and at other moments there was wine and coffee.  It was a long shot from those halcyon days of travel as a couple, but we made it through and hit some iconic landmarks on the way.  The photos make me feel better about it already.

And afterwards there was health and sleep and space and sunshine.  (see the next instalment).

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When the world gets smaller

This past week I’ve been submerged once again in the story of Mario, a friend I made in Guatemala at the end of last year.  He’s a fun guy who had a crazy dream about coconuts which changed his life (remember the blog?), and I’ve been editing a film about him.

Mario (photo by Ginny Lattul)

Mario (photo by Ginny Lattul)

I was looking through some footage we shot and I came across these words from Tom Yaccino, who works alongside Mario as part of the Inspired Individuals Initiative.  He’s talking about how they’re helping Mario set up a sustainable business selling the products he makes out of recycled coconuts:

Our hope is that we could help Mario perfect the kind of production method that keeps it on a scale that is human, and doesn’t become a machine industry where people become cogs and gears – we want people to be people – and so does Mario. And so he just wants…to respond to demands, sell a product, make people aware of the reality of others in this world, and have his shoes and sandals become something that helps families with income, helps create awareness on a global scale of how people live and how we could help each other have the abundant life that God promises us.

Nice, isn’t it?

Mario is starting to get more international attention, but his real ambitions have remained local.  They don’t stretch outside his hometown.  Escuintla is the third largest city in the country and the poorest.  He wants to see life improve in a meaningful way for the people he knows and sees each day, the people he is employing, the families whose children are growing up alongside his, the people he collaborates and dreams with.

There is a big-picture, international dimension to what he wants to do, but it’s about feeding people’s understanding, sharing stories, growing in our willingness to help one another (and experiencing the richness of that two-way relationship).  It’s not the dream of becoming wildly successful and growing his project to a super-scale.  You’ll still find him most days in his hometown.

There’s been a growing trend in Christian circles (and even beyond) in recent years to rediscover and celebrate ‘the nobility of the local’.  I signed up, I’m a convert, but my work and lifestyle in the past few years don’t reflect any strict conformity to that picture.  I also believe in sharing stories and joining the dots.  I get on planes.

But at this particular juncture in my life, I am drawing hope from stories like Mario’s.  The grounds are shifting for me, and certain horizons seem to be shrinking.

I’ve had countless conversations with friends about the point when you decide that you’re ready to take your foot off the gas of your forward career trajectory and have a family.  (Assuming that it will then be easy to get pregnant, which it often, painfully, isn’t).  The decision is easy for some and agonising for others; it takes no time and it takes a decade.  But it is something.  It is a choosing of one thing over another.

I feel ready, and willing, and couldn’t even tell you where any career trajectory was heading, but there are things that you step away from which feel like something.  My geography is the most obvious change; there’s already a lot less getting on aeroplanes.  I’m excited because I want to be more present locally, I want to be a more regular part of my neighbours’ lives.  But I’m also afraid.  I’m afraid of discovering I’m less than I thought.  I’m afraid of feeling less of a person when I’m not meeting extraordinary people in far-flung corners of the earth.  I’m nervous to find out who I am when that stuff isn’t there.

I know there will be ways in which life will explode in new directions with this amazing God-created new person around; but in other ways the world will get smaller, it has to.  What I hope is that on my best days (maybe the ones where I’ve had some sleep the night before), I won’t shrink with my geography, but will find the courage and energy to move out towards my neighbourhood and find a new kind of life.

Here’s a preview of the film about Mario:

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Your Freedom is My Freedom

A whole two weeks have flown by since I wrote here.  Sorry for going quiet.  I got swept up in rehearsals and then my first ever Spring Harvest (yes, I spent a week at Butlins) and somehow I had nothing left at the end.

Today I went to the office.  It has got to the point where that is now a welcome relief; a gentle, appealing diary appointment; an invitation to quieten down and create.  And unexpectedly, I made a new friend over lunch.

Aaron is in the UK for the first time and is struggling with the climate. Lunch with him has left me with sincere respect for the work he is doing in his hometown, and a growing discomfort with my own complacency.

Aaron Masaba

He told us a recent story from his community in Uganda.  A 19 year old girl had a baby and didn’t know who the father was, or what to do, and so she abandoned the baby in the pit latrine.

It’s a visceral, violent picture, and I feel a deep ache – for the baby but also for the broken young woman.  When we got married 4 years ago, our wedding list kitted out an orphanage we know in Uganda – an orphanage for babies who, like this one, had been abandoned in unthinkable places.  But I hadn’t thought about the mothers.

The culture of Aaron’s village is dominated by men.  It’s polygamous.  Women have no economic power, no access to money.  Girls drop out of school at puberty because of the shame and embarrassment of having no access to sanitary products.  And because they’re now marriageable so why would their parents want them to stay at school.  Often their only access to cash for sanitary supplies comes from young men in the community, who expect payment in a very particular way.

Which brings us back to the 19 year old girl.  The community were quick to blame her (and managed to rescue the baby).  But Aaron’s organisation are asking the bigger questions of why this happened, and how to give the women in their community more choices.

Here, as much as there, it’s easier to condemn (or even just sigh over) anti-social, destructive behaviour than to dare to ask why it came about – and moreover to try and address the lack of freedom and choice that drives people to such horrific extremes.  It’s a head-ache because the answers are impossibly long and complex.  No-one has just one problem.  Nothing is easy. And that makes it a heart-ache too.

I think about my friend Patrick’s organisation, XLP, working with disaffected teenagers and gang members across London. They have t-shirts that say “We refuse to believe that this is a lost generation.”  But they’re constantly fighting a PR battle on that one.

I stumbled across this quotation from Nelson Mandela in South Africa recently:

I cherish my own freedom dearly but I care even more for your freedom…Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”

I am shaking my head as I read it again.  Could I care more for your freedom than mine?  The ugly truth is that too often the status quo suits me fairly well and I don’t feel the urge to fight and to ask the hard questions.  Your lack of freedom leaves me undisturbed.

And then stories like Aaron’s wake me up.  Not to guilt, but to a city (and world) without easy fixes where our freedom is tied together. I won’t walk blindly through it.

Aaron Masaba leads Mbale Partnership in Development and is part of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals Programme.

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South Africa Video Diary

On my last two days in South Africa I recorded a short video diary. The plan was to head into Kayamandi township and do some filming with one of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals, but you’ll hear why we never made it in…

South African video diary from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

To learn more about Heather, you can visit her profile on the Inspired Individuals website.  And hopefully a short interview is coming soon…

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Homeshares

When I was 19 I took a solo trip to California.  I stayed with friends up north for the first half and then was planning to hook up with another friend between LA and San Diego.  Only by the time I got across the ocean this friend had moved continents and broken up with the boyfriend whose spare room she had offered me.  Nightmare. I didn’t tell my mum.

What happened next was a beautiful thing.  I ended up staying with a complete strange in LA in her trailer home.  Someone I had never met before, who wasn’t wealthy and didn’t have the means to offer lavish hospitality, opened up her home to me for several days. Her name was Rhonda.

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It had come about through someone I met at a church who went to another church who knew someone from her church who might meet me off the Greyhound bus and let me stay.

That kind of hospitality is something I love about the church.  I know it doesn’t just happen among Christians, but I have been rescued and cared for countless times by complete strangers, because of their particular belief in how being family (through faith) matters.  It’s not a question of guest wings and en suites and matching towels and pools (although as I write I am enjoying a number of those with our new friends in Port Elizabeth, Leon and Mariana).  We have had folks share their homes with us in slums, trailers, tower blocks and tents, as well as the odd mansion and beach house.

I started reading a book about hospitality a while back, and how it’s always been central to what the church is supposed to do, and I was struck by how the author defined hospitality.  It wasn’t cooking lovely meals for your friends, or having family stay.  It was about treating strangers with the generosity and welcome you would ordinarily save for family, and without any expectation of reward.  Suddenly fewer of my efforts seem to qualify.

Not that the stuff you do with family and friends isn’t great, but real hospitality asks more of us.

Portuguese cheesecake

Hospitality was this enormous cheesecake and the rest of the feast we enjoyed with a group of Portuguese and British strangers in a Somerset village on the Jubilee last summer.  We came as outsiders with no offerings of our own and were welcomed like family.

It was staying for a month in Madagascar with Dr Francis and Sehenou and their three children, all of whom shared one tiny room for those four weeks so three of us could take the girls’ room.

Even here in South Africa, strangers have eagerly offered us their homes and their food, and more than that, their time.   And to me it’s better than the fanciest hotel.

Not that people tend to believe me.  When I stayed in Honduras a few years ago I was booked into a lovely guesthouse.  My colleague said I was welcome in his home but his experience had been that westerners prefer hotels.  I almost bit his hand off – I would love to stay with his family.  And one of my favourite memories from the trip was sitting eating with them and their neighbours, and swapping stories late into the night.

The rise of airbnb suggests that I’m not the only one with a craving for the world to feel more human (it’s a way to stay in people’s spare rooms when you travel, rather than hotels, and to let out your spare room if you have one).  We haven’t used it yet, but I love what it’s trying to do, and I hear great stories.

I’m no crazy extrovert and I need more quiet space than my hyper-sociable husband, but I love to be in people’s homes, places with a story and some humanity.  We’ve treasured the past week we spent living with our friends Phil, Rach & Zach, and just love the growing web of strange and wonderful people around the world who have, because of their generosity, become part of our family.

It’s also why we are incredibly grateful to have a spare room in our flat.  We just love to return the favour.  It might not be your dream to stay with us in our inner-city council estate (although a new friend in South Africa who is coming to London soon confessed that he was a little over-excited at the prospect), but we love to extend the same hospitality that we meet in every other corner of the world.

Have you ever been taken in by a stranger?  Or taken strangers in yourself?

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The cost of living

Durban beach

I’ve spent the last week staying with some wonderful friends in Durban in South Africa and oh! the sunshine!   My shoulders have un-hunched for the first time in weeks.  I realised that one thing I love about travel is the headspace.  Even when it’s hard work and the cultural shift is exhausting and I miss my home, there is space away from my responsibilities and meetings, time to think new thoughts  and catch sight of new horizons.  And yes, I love the sunshine (and dislike aircon).

Andy and I have been speaking at a conference about mission.  Well, speaking and singing and acting and listening.  Just this afternoon I was leading a workshop about where we choose to live.  That might seem like a strange question to  spend a workshop thinking about.  I certainly haven’t ever been to conference where I’ve been asked to think about that question before.

For most of my life I’ve thought in a fairly conventional way about the question.  You live in the nicest place you can afford, with the most space you can get (preferably a garden), and in the nicest part of town your pennies stretch to.  And hopefully, surrounded by other nice people (who are quite like you)  It’s obvious, right?

But then I started travelling to countries where (most) people lived in tiny houses, without all the amenities and luxuries I take for granted, and then what my choices should be became less clear.  I read books like The irresistable Revolution which excited and terrified me in equal measure.  We became friends with people who chose to live in slums, or the dodgiest part of town.

I started to realise that the criteria I used to decide where to live – safety, comfort, wherever was considered nice/cool – were maybe not so important to God.  They don’t seem to have informed Jesus’ geography.

Where we have chosen to live now is not a particularly scary part of the inner-city – it’s quite a nice, popular, mixed zone.  There is plenty expensive housing for the rich, but there are also huge estates and large immigrant communities – mainly Nigerians, Latinos and a growing number of Eastern Europeans.  We live on an estate because we hate the growing segregation of the city and we want to be good neighbours.  And because people ‘like us’ usually avoid council flats if we can.

Durban township

In yesterday’s workshop, a woman talked about how she and her husband and daughter choose to live in the same township where they work, doing community development.  It’s chaotic, there’s no sanitation, people are in her home 24-7, it never stops.  On top of that, 70% of women in townships have been raped.  It’s not the community most people would choose to raise their families.

It puts some things in perspective, doesn’t it?  In a country where some people live the luxurious western dream, and others live in houses made of wood and tin in informal settlements and in fear of sexual abuse, to choose the latter costs something.

And it’s not that aspiration is bad, or wanting the ‘best for your family’.  But the pendulum swings so far towards comfort, security, size, and those things have become synonymous with the good life, that the gap between those who can choose and those who can’t keeps growing.  And I’m not sure ‘the good life’ has anything to do with that kind of segregation (or in fact living in such an overly consumptive way, but that’s for another day…).

Certainly, for those of us trying to model our life around the values and teaching of Jesus, there’s a disconnect.  God left heaven and lived among a dispossessed, occupied nation, with few creature comforts.  He was trying to bridge a divide.

There is a cost, but there there’s another kind of good life that might be possible as a result.

How do you decide where to live?

 

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Liberian Girl

This week I am in Liberia, which is something of a divine joke given that when I began working at Tearfund, eight and a half years ago, I thought Liberia was a fictional country.  During the interview process I had to draft a letter on behalf of a staff member in Liberia (to prove I could write in sentences, I presume), and when I saw the country name, I thought, “Liberia? Liberia?  Clearly a country they have made up for my interview by combining the names of Libya and Siberia”. How I chuckled to myself (saying nothing).

And now here I am.  On the sunny green coast of West Africa while England remains wrapped in snow.  Basking in sunshine while London shivers.  You’d think I’d be grateful.

The truth is that sometimes travel just feels like a wrench.  It’s an interruption to familiarity and routine and relationship, and while that’s fun sometimes, the novelty wears off.  Do I sound like a spoilt brat?  I know it’s a privilege, but the hardest thing about it, is that it adds layers of complexity to life that I might otherwise be able to hide from.

I want to forget how most of the world lives, a lot of the time, and I want to disappear into my neighbourhood and not think about how much the world needs to change.  It’s hurts to be reminded how much is unfair and weighted in my favour.  And how connected it all is.

Downtown Monrovia, also known as the Red Light District because it had the region's first traffic light.

Downtown Monrovia, also known as the Red Light District because it had the region’s first traffic light.

This trip has not felt easy.  I am becoming blasé about change because I hear good stories a lot.  I am used to dirt streets and open sewers and children selling coke, and I don’t let them bother me much now.  I have one eye on my ticket home.

Last night as I lay in bed I prayed that God would help me to see past the familiar stories and jargon, to see deeper and further into the things that he is doing, the things that are good.  The signs of hope.  And I prayed that the calluses would fall off my heart.

I sat down to interview an old Liberian lady today – she was third in a line of six from a small Baptist church in Monrovia, queueing up to tell me about how their church was changing.

It was a slow start.  One word answers and numerous mentions of how much she had learnt without being able to tell me what she had learnt.  It was like trying to squeeze juice out of a conker.  There seemed no way to get to more, but I didn’t want to offend her and stop short.  So I asked her about the orphanage she runs…and she came to life.

She was an orphan, she told me, and she told God that she wanted to care for other orphans.  When she started her work, the war was still going on.  She told me how she found some of the children.  One 3 month old baby was strapped to his mother who had come out into the open during a government ceasefire in order to scrounge for food.  She was shot immediately by rebels and her baby remained strapped to her body for a week before she was brought to the orphanage.

My heart woke up.

It wasn’t just the savage story.  It was this woman’s faithfulness to these lonely children over a lifetime that stirred me to life.  She started to talk about how since the church had started the CCMP Process (which is what our film is about), suddenly the people around her are wanting to support her work, and to join in.  She isn’t carrying it alone any more.

Because the grief and the pain of the world are too much to carry alone.  And they are not something I can leave behind in any corner of my travels.

So I have two more days here to stay open-hearted and curious and wide-eyed.  And then I will take it all home with me.

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