Balkans Road-Trip

I took my camera on a recent trip around the Balkans. Visiting nine countries in two weeks, we saw some truly beautiful places. Here are a few snapshots.

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The abandoned bobsleigh track in the hills above Sarajevo.

This photo also nabbed me an honourable mention in a photo competition. Pretty cool.

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My travel companions, Ryan and Kiki, checking out a pretty great lake at Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.

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A roadside picnic in Bosnia. An amazingly green country.

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The waterfalls are also pretty great at Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.

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This was the view from our place in Mostar, Bosnia.

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The Montenegrin coast is rather nice. We travelled to the islands in the bay with a rather sketchy but very friendly local guide.

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The rather majestic Kotor, Montenegro.

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Close to Thessaloniki, Greece.

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Some of the many strays we found. We had to exercise all of our self-control not to come back with several extra passengers.

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Sofia, Bulgaria. Surprisingly green and decidedly church-filled.

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We finished our trip in Serbia. The final sunset in Belgrade was rather wonderful.

I can’t recommend the Balkans highly enough. Though the amount of grilled meat I ate may have stretched my stomach to the limit, the culture and landscapes (not to mention cheap and cheerful prices) of these small nations made for an incredible trip.

Where there’s cake, there’s hope

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.

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A Letter to My MP

Dear Anna,

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.

Sincerely,

Samwise

 

Douze Points

I want to extend an invitation to friends both European and international. I want to let you in on a little secret. Well, actually, a rather big, camptastic, wonderful secret. Yes, it’s the Eurovision song contest. Many Americans among will you will be clueless about this celebration of ‘song’ which has been going on for more that 60 years. But now is the time to discover the delights of this annual battle of the wind-machines; for where else could you expect to see Moldova (yes, it’s a country) contend with Azerbaijan for the crown of least offensive Europop performance.

I have been trying to describe Eurovision to many of my North American friends recently and it’s really one of those things that has to be seen to be believed. Imagine a whole series of American Idol crammed into one glorious night of nonsense, with an added frisson of political intrigue and tactical voting. It’s a bit like the Olympics, but with a lot more glitter. For example, two of this year’s favourites are Russia and Ukraine. You can imagine how tense that could become. Yet, of course, this is a war fought not with threats or soldiers, but by troupes of dancers and expensive lighting effects. I can’t wait to find out who will be victorious…

Ask any British person about Eurovision and you are likely to get a rather sarcastic and sceptical response. For here is another secret about Eurovision; it has become, of late, a ritual humiliation for the United Kingdom. Every year it is the same it seems; we get our hopes up, talk of winning once again (the UK has won Eurovision 5 times fact fans), then end up near the bottom of the table and complain bitterly about the fact that we seem to have no European friends. Part of the problem is the fact that we don’t take the contest very seriously, normally sending as our representative one of the following; a washed-up veteran; an unknown group (as in this year’s offering) or a ‘funny’ novelty act. The British commentary on the contest is also firmly tongue-in-cheek, in the best fashion. This sad state of affairs doesn’t lessen my love for Eurovision however, and British people watch the contest in their millions. I mean, of course we love to take every opportunity to giggle at our neighbours, and to groan delightedly at the rubbish the BBC has sent to represent ‘the best of British music.’

The truth of the matter is that it’s not just about the song. Not for me anyway. We are never going to send One Direction or Adele to perform at Eurovision. That would be taking it too seriously. The point of the party is, well, just that. It’s a party. It’s a Europe-wide celebration of the fact that we all love a good time. We all like to dance along to catchy nonsense and smile/cheer at the increasingly ridiculously staged acts. We all recognise that the whole thing is so much better with copious amounts of the national alcohol of choice…

So, what are you doing?! Get yourself to a TV (or it’s streamed live on YouTube these days) and sit back, relax, and join me in watching the world’s best variety show. You may gasp in incredulity, but you’ll end the night smiling. I mean, where else would you get to root for an Armenian diva singing about a ‘Lovewave’ amidst copious pyrotechnics and overworked smoke-machines…?

Below are some of my favourite Eurovision entries, just to give you a flavour of the sheer wonderful-ridiculousness of the whole affair –

A Russian diva un-ironically singing about world peace in 2015.

Who knew ‘la’ could be used so many times in a song…

Oh wait. And this one won.

As did this British entry, which started the Eurovision tradition of dramatic clothing-removal.

This Finnish masterpiece of nonsense-rock also won. If you aren’t excited about Eurovision now, then there’s no hope…

All the light we can see

“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.

Time to be

  • Mark those maths books
  • Check those emails
  • Grab a cuppa
  • Research flights
  • Make some slides for a science lesson
  • Cook something healthy
  • Arrange a catch up or 3
  • Write a blog post
  • Do the ironing
  • Etc

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.