January Thoughts

photo-1414541944151-2f3ec1cfd87d

A quiet month but a thoughtful one.  From a wonderful quote to start the New Year and a quick review of a great book about the many quirks and anecdotes of the different languages of Europe, More Thoughts, Vicar looked back at the blog’s evolution since that 2014 New Year’s Resolution.  There was a pause to hear God’s Word the day after the horrendous killings in Paris, a day when the call to love was a call to the whole of humanity.  And then another blogger prompted a trip down memory lane to a time back in the USSR, a theme picked up in reviewing a delicious book mixing Russian food, history and family life.  And then a final thought towards the end of the month on asylum – there is so much to say on this theme, but so little that can be said on a public forum when vulnerable lives are at risk.

A life worth listening to

Which real-life person would I invite over so as to hear their life story? 

That’s an easy one – the young woman I first met 6 months ago. We’ll call her M. As it happens, I’m due to meet her very soon just so she can tell me her life story.

I already know a few important details but there is so much I don’t know – and so much I know I’m almost afraid to know. She’s not long been an adult, yet has already seen more of the ugly side of humanity than someone in my comfortable, privileged shoes is likely to see in a whole lifetime. I know she comes from a country somewhere between Greece and China. And she left that country because, having become a Christian, she faced the real possibility of severe punishment, or even death.

She escaped – I don’t yet know how, but I know it will have been a difficult journey. And at the end of it, she found herself here in the UK, claiming asylum, longing for safety and a life free of fear.  But, for now, she sits in limbo, stateless, a young woman frighteningly far from home, often feeling very alone, and she waits. She waits as patiently as she is able while the asylum process grinds excruciatingly slowly through its gears. At time it seems inhuman – whisking her away to a grim hostel in a city too far away for her to afford to travel back to this place she had begin to call her new home – a place with friends and activity, familiar places and a church family.

Since the move, I sense she is so much more afraid and so much more alone. And now the legal process is clunking into first gear and we will appear in court together soon. She’s dreading it. I hardly dare admit I feel the same. You see, I’ve walked this way before with someone else and, on that journey, I learned there are parts of our legal system that seem not to operate under those sacrosanct words I have always taken for granted: ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Instead, the reality seems to be more ‘you are a liar, so I cannot believe your story. And your vicar here, who claims you are a genuine Christian, is naive and so you’ve been able to pull the wool over her eyes.’

M shows such courage in the face of her fears. She can be quite animated and enthusiastic in conversation. But now and again the facade cracks open and a chink of what’s really going on inside spills out.

As her command of English improves each day (while I have still only just cracked half the alphabet her language uses), she is able to share so much more. It will be a privilege to have that fireside chat.

Back in the USSR

I thought I’d join in with Musing Mondays again.  It’s hosted by Miz B over at Should Be Reading and offers a list of prompts to choose from.  I’m going with the first prompt on the list today because I’m loving what I’m currently reading . . .

As the post title suggests, it’s a book that takes the reader back to the USSR.  In fact the book also takes the reader back to pre-revolutionary Russia, as well as whizzing through post-Soviet Russia into the new millennium.

imageSo it’s a history book, right? Well, yes – and no! The book is Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen, and is a brilliantly well-written memoir of food, family and longing as its subtitle suggests.  The author herself was born into a Moscow family in the 1960s and, at the age of 10, emigrated with her mother to the USA, settling first in Philadelphia and later moving to New York.

Against a backdrop of her own family’s dramatic history, set itself on the wider stage of Russia history throughout the 20th century, the author recreates the food and cooking experiences of the nation for each decade from 1900 to the present day.

It’s a brilliantly- conceived idea, but the real reason the book makes such a fascinating read is the author’s extraordinary ability to combine both personal and national history with politics, family life, work, food and cooking. And the whole concoction is seasoned with a huge dollop of humour running throughout.  Von Bremzen has a lovely readable style, yet writes with great clarity and insight.  I myself spent time in the Soviet Union and Russia from the early 1980s and so have eaten the food of these different decade.  But, even without that live experience,  I have no doubt that the author’s writing would have enabled me to picture, smell and taste the foods she describes.  There are even a few recipes included at the back of the book, so that readers can recreate some of these foodie experiences for themselves.

The chapters describing the late Soviet years, when most things were defitsit (lack/shortage) resonated most for me because of my personal experience, and I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the memories it brought back.  But this is a book with wide appeal.  You don’t need to know anything about Russia and its history – this memoir will give you a mouth-watering introduction to this incredible country.  But if you’ve ever had any kind of interest in the country – or in what it might have been like to live in communist times – this book will more than whet your appetite.  In fact, I would challenge anyone to read it and not be stuffed full by the end – full of new insights, fascinating snippets of information, with humour, poignancy and serious reflection all mixed up in every bite.

Priyatnovo appetita!

A Russian winter

church-1141567-sI loved reading this wonderful post about a winter trip to St Petersburg in Russia. It took me right back to my first-ever visit to the city, going by the name of Leningrad back then. It’s a place I’ve had the good fortune to visit several times since, so I’ve seen the city in its spring and summer (White Nights) glory too.

But that first trip was a December visit back in the early 1980s.  I was on a three-month Russian language programme for students from British universities, a dream come true having been fascinated by the country, its language and its gymnasts from an early age.  And so I found myself there for those autumn and winter months as the Soviet Union was beginning to unravel behind the scenes – not that that was obvious to any of us at the time.

We spent most of our time in the southern city of Voronezh, but an excursion to Leningrad was part of our experience.  We had been in the country long enough by the time this trip was upon us to know that the big cities (Voronezh being ‘merely’ a provincial city of a million people) were where the shops had stuff.  We had seen our Russian roommates travel once or twice on overnight shopping trips to Moscow to bring back what couldn’t be had for love nor money out there in the sticks.  You know, shampoo and soap, sanitary goods, tinned foods – exotic stuff like that.

So, as we prepared for our trip north, we asked what they would like us to bring back from the nation’s former capital.’Toothpaste’, was the immediate response.  The list got a lot longer, and we did manage to find most of it, but it’s only the toothpaste that I still remember now. At the time, I recall feeling ashamed that I hadn’t even noticed the lack of toothpaste in their lives.  Though in my defence I would argue there was so little of anything in the provincial shops in those late Soviet days that it was hard to see when essential, and taken-for-granted items, were part of the general lack.

Just the day before, we had joined a queue near to our student hostel, simply because it was there.  We had, by then, been Soviet residents long enough to know that when you see a long street queue, you join it. And only then do you try to establish what everyone is waiting for. My roommate went to the front to investigate.  We held our place in the ever-growing line snaking along the cold, dark winter’s street. While she was gone we eavesdropped our neighbours in the queue and asked what was on sale.  ‘Big yellow oranges’, we were told.

‘Grapefruit from Cuba’, our fellow Brit informed us on her return.  We tried in vain to remember the Russian for grapefruit and, in the absence of a handy smartphone loaded with Google translate, we managed to find a dog-eared pocket dictionary and told our new queuing friends –  in their own language – what we were all waiting to buy.  They shrugged, the fruit clearly unknown to them.  They were simply after their first taste of ‘big yellow oranges’. Something new perhaps to tingle tastebuds bored of cabbage and potatoes in all their myriad Soviet forms, mayonnaise-swamped ‘salads’, and the occasional ‘kotleti’ (minced meat patties of dubious origin) to enliven the offering.

The day of the Leningrad trip dawned horribly early. We set off in what was really still the middle of the night.  It had been snowing heavily and we found ourselves trudging through dark streets simply to wait – for what seemed an age – at a random road junction for some rattling old bus to scoop us up out of the snow and trundle us out of town to the airport.  A trip that took us beyond the city limits sign which had attained mythical proportions as the boundary we were forbidden to cross on pain of arrest, imprisonment, hard labour or deportation.

photo-1414541944151-2f3ec1cfd87dAnd all the while we waited in the freezing darkness, we were aware of being watched. Ivan, we called him, as we always did his type.  Ivan stood swaddled in a long overcoat, the usual fur hat virtually obliterating his face, which was, in any case, completely hidden behind a newspaper.  We weren’t fooled.  Five o’clock in the morning on the edge of town in a snowdrift, and a man finds it necessary to stand reading a newspaper nearby. The bus arrived.  We scrambled in for warmth and watched Ivan vanish from sight – not to be seen again – not, that is, until we were in the ice cream shop in Leningrad later that same afternoon!  And he still hadn’t finished reading that newspaper – or maybe it was another one. Some people just don’t have what it takes for the job of surveillance!

On board our flight, the usual announcement was made about flying time and altitude and weather at the destination.  ‘It’s a bright morning with sunshine in Leningrad,’ we heard. ‘And the temperature on the ground is -26C’.  We all did a double-take, trying to process the information.  Minus 26 degrees Celsius! But we were students of the balmy south of Russia. It had been a mere -2C that chilly morning – the sort of temperature most of us had experienced even back home.  Children of England’s green and pleasant – and very temperate – land, none of us, it turned out, had ever been in such cold before.

And so we wrapped up as we disembarked.  Coats, hats, gloves, scarves – the full monty.  But we had no protection for our eyes and our mouths and that was my first experience of frozen eyelashes and nostrils – the brutal cold instantly freezing any exposed drop of moisture.  Nearly two decades later, my Russian travels took me out on a sunny afternoon walk in air another 20C colder again.  I remember that day how my moisture-rich contact lenses felt crisp and brittle in my eyes, but it’s still that first moment of Leningrad’s freeze that I can feel in my bones.

The Leningrad days passed in a blur – a constant battle between staying warm enough on sightseeing trips to the many fabulous buildings of that stunning city and then overheating as we entered those same buildings kept at more or less tropical temperatures.  We were amazed at the abundance in the shops. Yet this came to be a mere foretaste of the culture shock that was to hit us when we flew back into the materialistic madness of a pre-UK Christmas just a week or two later.

But there is no denying the beauty of Leningrad under blue skies and a fresh blanket of white.  Even on the grey days of winter when the half light of the city’s short daylight hours barely brighten the sky, it’s still a beautiful place. Its many rivers and canals were frozen to create a fascinating landscape of myriad jagged and snow-capped shapes – miracles of nature, the like of which we never get to see in this mild, grey land I call home.

dark-emperor-425009-sAnd so it was a delight to come across another blogger’s experience of that same winter wonder and beauty in modern-day St Petersburg.  And good to know, in a city and a country that has seen so much change, struggle and dramatic upheaval in recent years, that the city’s most amazing gifts to the world remain for all to see and enjoy. Its buildings and its watery infrastructure, yes.  But more than anything, it is surely nature’s winter splendour that amazes and awes the visitor to that city – a city I am assuming is these days replete with ‘big yellow oranges’, Cuban or otherwise, for most of the year.  But mother nature still visits to create that incredible winter wow factor for her first-time visitor.  Do go and see how it looks today. And, if you can’t get there yourself, then drop by on One Foot Out the Door for a wonderful description and stunning photographs.

Blogging New Year’s Resolution

I’m not one for making new year’s resolutions but last year I did. I started January 2014 with a promise to myself that it was to be the year to start a blog.  I found WordPress and discovered this brand-new challenge called  ‘Zerotohero’ aimed at people like me just starting to blog.  So I hastily threw together a blog title, tagline and theme, completed the first three tasks, and then ground to a halt!

I ground to a halt because I didn’t even know what the blog was for.  The days and weeks rumbled by and then we came to the season of Lent.  So I resolved to blog daily through the 40 days of Lent by way of a new blogging beginning.  But that effort also lasted a mere three days.  And after another similarly feeble attempt in about June, I began to conclude that blogging just wasn’t for me after all.

imageAnd then September came around – the first anniversary of my new job, a natural time for reviewing and reflecting, making new starts and plans for the future.  And so the blog got a bit more attention.  But most importantly, the blog got a new name, inspired in a moment of glimpsing my ‘More tea, vicar?’ teapot in the kitchen cabinet.

And so the re-christened blog entered Blogging 101 with an author intent on completing all the challenges this time around.  And it worked! OK, one or two challenges never got done, but most did.  And most of all, I found myself loving the opportunity to write, I had fun connecting with the Blogging 101 community and I wanted to carry on blogging by the end of it – and so I did!

And here we are, January 2015.  The blog that has kept going was four months old yesterday and is still alive with something new posted every few days. WordPress statistics tell me I have written 64 posts since September (not counting the drafts not yet published), which have had 1,118 views in 37 countries and 88 amazing people have chosen to follow the blog.  Thanks for all the comments, the follows and the big encouragement to a blogger who tried to fool herself into believing she was doing this just for herself!

Exactly what the blog is and who it’s for remain a mystery I’m still trying to fathom out.  I keep thinking I need to be more focussed – Christian ministry and/or theology, books, life, or responding to blogging prompts and challenges, but not all of these all mixed up together.  But I enjoy having a place to put a picture, or a Youtube clip I like, and sometimes it’s fun to respond to a daily prompt – in fact some of my favourite posts have come from prompts I’ve responded to.  Nevertheless, there’s a voice constantly rumbling away in my head saying, ‘just blog occasionally with more “heavyweight” opinion pieces responding theologically to the issues of the day’, but then another voice pipes up to object: ‘And where would the pictures, videos and short, quick comments or Words from the Word go?’

And so More thoughts, Vicar? moves into the new year as the eclectic mix it has become and is, for now, intent on continuing to be – until such time as the thoughts swirling in this vicar’s head streamline themselves into a few key areas for blogging.  I don’t see that happening anytime soon, so my webspace will continue to reflect the mixed bag of thoughts that pass through my head each and every day. Welcome to my world!

It’s been a good bloginning – long may it continue!