Sunday, 31 July 2011

Vale Sunday

A decent morning for an early drive out into the Vale, to celebrate and preach, first at Penllyn and then at St Hilary. Looking at the church registers, I found it was three months since my last visit, yet it seems much more recent than that - how time flies when life is full of good things to appreciate. Numbers were down at Penllyn as there was another service that evening at the ancient Parish Church of Llanfrynach, which is only open for worship in July. I'd like to have been able to return to visit and worship there, as I've never been there before and it has an interesting history, but I'm booked to do Evensong and Benediction at St German's weekly until the end of September. 

There were also fewer people than usual at St German's as well, as several regulars were away and others were invited to a garden party that afternoon. One of the worshippers is minding Father Roy's two terriers Thomas and Megan while he is away from home, and brought them to church. They sat quietly in the choir stalls as they have done for many years during services, impeccably behaved, though I noticed them looking around for their master, aware that in this familiar place it wasn't quite business as usual. 

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Everyday dialogue

At St German's again this morning to celebrate Mass. Afterwords a young mum arrived with a year old toddler to arrange the christening of all three of her children. We installed ourselves in one of the gated side chapels with a nice carpet, so that the little one could crawl around and explore safely, while mum filled in the forms. I learned that her partner was a non-practicing muslim, and that for several years he had been opposed to her desire to christen the children. She'd not given up however, and returned to the matter time and time again, saying that for her it was important, a matter of family identity. Finally, it seems he saw some TV programme about Christianity that led to a softening of his attitude. He agreed to let her go ahead, but so far, neither he nor his family has committed to attending. Mum agreed that it was vital to invite them, even if they refused to come. "It's what we do isn't it? Invite people."

This young woman may not regard herself as a serious churchgoer, but she'd grown up, knowing that she belonged. This sense of identity was something she wanted to pass on to her offspring. I admire her courage and persistence. Her faith may not be well articulated, and it might take decades to flourish fully, as so much of what the church is and does is quite foreign to her life. But somehow she understands something she has to do  to affirm her sense of belonging to God's people. The challenge for the church is how to respond to this in a positive way and nurture its development. For her, the context is a dialogue about belief and culture with her partner at the heart of an everyday pattern of life that leaves her little time and space for reflection, let alone church attendance. Faith as big and fecund as a grain of mustard seed - that's what it's all about.

Just as I arrived home, the Jehovah's witnesses were working the street, and I couldn't escape fifteen minutes of doorstep discussion, with a bright young man who had the demeanour and confidence of a keen salesman about him. Wearing a black shirt and a cross it was immediately obvious to him that I was some kind of religious guy, so I had to come clean and say that I'd just come from leading worship. He wanted to get me into discussion about the authority of scripture. He started to quote the book of Daniel to me. I said that I wouldn't ever start there, everything I rely on is centred around and evaluated on the basis of the Gospel of Jesus, and the God he revealed as Father of all creation. 

I enjoyed prosecuting my non-fundamentalist liberal approach to reading, understanding and applying scripture to real life. This elicited the standard question: "Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?" "I don't start with the book" I said. "The Word of God is for me alive and speaks from every atom of the universe. The same Word speaks to me from the Bible, even though my approach is critical and I don't regard every part of it as having equal value as inspired text." I also insisted that has to be read in relation to our ever changing understanding of life, if God is to reach us through it. It didn't quite stop him in his tracks, but I'm not sure he'd been on the receiving end of non-hostile enthusiasm about scripture from a viewpoint so utterly different to his own before.

Somehow we got on to 'hypocrisy'. I claimed that the best New Testament interpretation of this was 'play acting' - hiding behind masks, he said. Not necessarily hiding said I, rather stuck in our roles playing the same old unproductive games. Like you and me - I said. Conservative and liberal believers arguing the toss when there was real work to be done elsewhere making the world a better place by our deeds, together if it was ever possible to agree on practical priorities. Beliefs can be quite a problem if they fail to enable agreement to be reached on what matters most that must be done.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Faith Equality on the agenda

Something that has travelled with me into retirement from my previous ministry is an interest in the work of the Cardiff and Vale Coalition for Disabled People.  I got to  know Charles Willie, its director in the context of working groups preparing of the re-launch of the city centre once redevelopment work was complete. The Council's partnership with C&VCDP includes an Access Focus Group which is consulted at the early stages of building projects, with the aim of influencing and inspiring architects and designers to think inclusively. Expertise in any aspect of social inclusion policy and the new Single Equalities Act is a natural development for this voluntary organisation so it is often approached by other organisations, voluntary and statutory which are obliged to formulate their own working policy plans and commitments.

This morning, for the first time, I was free to respond to an invitation to share in an equalities policy working group, with Arts Council of Wales staff at the C&VCDP HQ on Cowbridge Road. There were nine of us, and that included two sign language interpreters, assisting one of the Arts Council team. The Spiritual Capital research project developed my interest in Cardiff's 200+ faith groups, and out of that developed an interest in the difficult and contentious area of Faith Equalities. 

The aspiration to treat everyone equally in respect of disability, race, gender, age or sexuality is starting to be well established in social policy deliberations. Equality in matters of faith or non-belief is far less  straightforward in practice, perhaps because of the subjective as well as cultural components involved in recognising someone's faith. I feel I have a great deal to learn about how a satisfactory method might be designed to tackle areas of conflict, where differing passionate convictions of faith groups may lead them to mutual rejection and exclusion. I come to policy discussion as a learner, aware of more problems than solutions. As that learning process started out for me with the Spiritual Capital project if asked I describe myself now as a 'Spiritual Capital researcher', hoping that covers what I don't know as well as what I know.

The two hour session was stimulating, with the Arts Council people willing to rise to the challenge of thinking about how their Equalities policy could find fresh creative and artistic expression in their work programme. It was pleasing to learn that they knew about the Faith Equalities training workshop which I was first took part in two years ago, and they wish to take part next time it is run. It'll be interesting to see how this piece of work develops, and what difference it makes in practice.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Midweek inspiration

I celebrated Mass at St German's this morning for seven people, as I will be doing for the rest of the summer, and on Saturdays too, as part of helping out during the interregnum. I enjoy being part of the everyday prayer life of a parish in this way. It's so much easier when duties are part of the regular structure of my life, somehow, less of an effort than having to turn up to attend a service. It's easy to be distracted if I'm not responsible for making things happen!

After lunch, Ashley and I attended a meeting of the city centre Licensees Forum. It's a 2 or 3 times a year gathering of license holders from local pubs and clubs, to which police and community safety people are invited. The new night time economy police officer was introduced, and the new licensing Sergeant spoke about criteria for livensees deploying plastic drinks containers on occassions attracting 30,000+ visitors. 

Ashley addressed the meeting about the cost of RadioNet subscriptions and what this covers. Lately there have been some grumbling from ill-informed users, making comparisons with commercial radio systems in other places, apparently at lower initial outlay, so it was time to set the record straight, and explain just how much added value RadioNet users get, with a stable independent voluntary not-for-profit organisation, with a high level of support on hand 24/7. He received a polite hearing with few questions. 

I think it's time to get busy informing and promoting what we do, to consolidate confidence in our outfit, rather than rely on passive acceptance of what we provide. I feel a CBS newsletter initiative coming on ... After the meeting, we went to see Kieron at Oner Signs about several print jobs we've commissioned from him. He's been tremendously helpful, re-constructing a couple of our logos to make them render in a more print friendly manner. His print shop is a constant hive of activity, with a healthy flow of jobs from city centre retailers large and small. The business seems to have grown despite recession, but Kieron and his crew work tremendously hard, and good repute naturally spreads by word of mouth.

For the evening Clare proposed an outing to Chapter Arts Cinema to see a film called 'The First Grader'. It tells the true story of a Kikuyu Mau Mau independence war veteran who decides aged 84 to go to primary school for the first time in his life, and learn to read and write. His decision followed the government's introduction of universal free primary education. It causes controversy, and not a little opposition and hostility. It's a testimony to his courage and humility as an adult learner, and gives an insight into his early life and his suffering in an English concentration camp in Kenya. Very powerful and inspiring.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sunday duties

Up early this morning to drive to Ely and celebrate the eight and ten o'clock Eucharists. The Norwegian massacre has been much on my mind, so I preached about it, and how Christians fully engaged in building community and caring for others could contribute to overcoming the tendency to violence. It is so much part of human culture almost everywhere now, that we hardly notice it.

How difficult it is for anyone to get alongside someone with repulsive opinions and behaviour to show them another better way. We hardly know where to start. In this tolerant laissez faire world, it's all too easy to avoid challenging the unacceptable, with the excuse that 'everyone's entitled to their opinion and their own way of doing things' - but surely not if it means harming others? Yet, harm is so often what happens. Overnight, news came in of a gunman in Texas killed four and injured three before killing himself in an altercation at a birthday party.

This afternoon I presided at Solemn Evensong and Benediction at St German's for the first time. I was glad of the support of the assisting ministers as it's  nearly a decade since I was last called upon to do this, and I needed reminding. I'll be officiating at Benediction weekly over the next couple of months, as one of the duties I've taken on during the Parish interregnum.

Archbishop Barry was there to celebrate the morning Eucharist, during which there was an unexpected infant baptism. Believing they'd made a firm arrangement when they'd previously visited to enquire, a family just turned up for the service ready with their baby decked in christening robe. They were welcomed, made to feel at home. The surprise was taken in its stride by all, and recalled with a confident smile. Despite the semblance of formality in the ritual at St German's, they are in reality relaxed, flexible, ready to respond - a result of having to think a lot about what they do and why they do it.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


We got up early and breakfasted outdoors in the sunshine. However, the news of the distressingly high death toll, and the stories coming out of Norway this morning were such a distraction that I forgot to take myself over to St German's to say the ten o'clock mass after I'd said Morning Prayer. I felt ashamed of myself, but these tragic events and the world's reaction to them have weighed heavy on me.

A number of media watchers were reproachful of  the initial presumption that this was a work of islamist terrorism, criticising the rush to judgement. Criticism was directed at US news sources describing this as 'Norway's 9/11' when likening it to the Columbine and Oklahoma massacres was the unavoidable home truth.

CNN to its credit interviewed a neighbouring island holidaymaker who'd taken his boat over three times to rescue youngsters fleeing the gunman. They showed a couple of his photos of them on his boat, shiocked by their ordeal. In the picture, a black lad was flanked by two blond lasses. You couldn't have made it up. It's how Norway is today, as open and diverse as any other european country, challenged, as we all are, by the demands of the prejudiced and intolerant. The diversity of the members of this youth camp under attack was to my mind the real target, plus the centre of government in Oslo sustaining this modern multi-cultural society.

Such pathogens are not interested in the vigour of debate, nor putting up with anyone who disagrees with them. What they cannot achieve openly in terms of change, they will take revenge for, suddenly by stealth. I hope the Swiss, equally rich, equally secure in their land, with not much larger a population than Norway, will take extra good care to keep an eye on its dissenters and extremists in times ahead.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Enemy within

I returned to work yesterday, with a security user group meeting, to which members of the HANR Outreach Team were invited. The HANR crew are social workers dedicated to the city centre's street people. Last month, I discovered to my surprise that security personnel weren't acquainted with them or their work, so I secured an invitation for them to join the meeting. As there are a handful of street people who can cause real problems for the public and security people when they are the worse for wear with drink or drugs (not to mention the persistent sometimes awkward beggars), I felt this was long overdue. 

Street level social workers can defuse difficult situations sometimes simply because they know people causing a rumpus by name. They know how to draw them away from making worse trouble. So it was positive start in the general direction of managing problems, particularly in the evenings when street people hang around waiting for the soup run to start around the Charles Street exit from the shopping centre. I hope there can be a regular representation at the meeting from the HANR team in future.

This morning I wrote up the minutes of the meeting from my notes, then headed into the office to print them off for editorial corrections. It took me an age to do this because the internet connection went down, as it often does around Friday teatime. I'd done the minutes on Google Docs, being too lazy to save them to a memory stick to carry. Serves me right to rely on this Cloud nonsense. We simply don't yet have as a rule universal stable consistent 24/7 internet access. Even if it's 99% good, it goes down in the 1% when you need it, if now slowing to a crawl when something big happens. As was the case today perhaps.

After I got the minutes printed from Google Docs - less of a pain than it used to be - I took time out to check my Twitter feed, and saw the first reports just coming in of the Oslo bombing, then the shootings at Utoeya Island. Obama was quick to condemn international terrorism, I noted. A a group of fanatical idiots claimed the attacks for their perverted cause, but by the time I got home a different reality was emerging from the facts on the ground. An enemy within - an upper class racist far right extremist - pure Aryan Norwegian - author of both outrages. A different category of idolater of violence. Every country has them they seem to emerge in public from nowhere - and what suffering they cause. The human race sometimes seems unable to get the measure of its own capacity for violence, and it can break out even in the most secure and peaceful of places, like Oslo.

Few seem willing to hear the critique of theologians and spiritual guides of the effects of a culture of violence which is tolerated almost universally, so much so that it is part of our mindset, part of the way we take leisure in movies and the world of sport. The world is so attached to its demons and idols that its only when violent acts cause large numbers of deaths that there's much collective consideration as to why this is so. I seem to have been nagging on about it in sermons for the past forty years to no avail. 

Now I give admin support to an outfit that enables security people in the city to communicate and work with each other in keeping shops pubs and clubs safe to visit and use. I get to see how difficult their job is, and what a lot of problem people there are behaving violently in public. That goodness it's rarely with guns here in Cardiff, but that there is violence at all, whether on the pitch or in the streets cause me to wonder what kind of world we think we have made.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Back to blighty

Manel drove us to the airport for our lunchtime flight. As usual, the morning security check queue was very long, due to the departure of a couple of big US flights within the same hour. And it is vacation time, after all. The queues (there are several) moved at a healthy rate, however an we were 'air-side' in fifteen minutes, cruising through the expanded range of posh bargain free shops, toting every kind of luxury imaginable at inflated prices. 

No sign of recession in airport retailing, although the summer sales flourish as ever in the city. I'd dithered all week about buying a LaCie portable hard drive at at a sale discount price. Discounts aren't applied in airport shops of the same store chain, so I lost my opportunity of a bargain, since the special offer price, even in strong Swiss francs was better than the sterling price I'd have paid on my credit card. However, I find it hard to convince myself I really need anything more than I already have.
France and England were entirely covered by cloud for the flight. The take-off was delayed ten minutes due to the queue of aircraft taking off.  When we arrived our new passports were processed for the first time by the new technology - the RFID chip once scanned gave access to a gated area where a photograph was taken of our faces and compared with that stored on the chip. Once the match was made, another gate opened and let us through. It took a couple of minutes. The access queue was shorter, so we passed through quite quickly. What it will be like when the majority of UK passport holders have moved on to new passports is anyone's guess.

We missed a connecting train at Temple Meads because the ticket clerk had to leave us, mid purchase to collect a batch of fivers to give us change, but six hours after leaving Petit Sacconex we were home again, greeted vocally by pussycat Ben, demanding food from each of us in turn, even though he had food on his plate. It it  a welcome home or a reproach for our absence, I wonder.

One of the better things about being retired is that you can be away for twelve days, and the pile of mail to be dealt with is not nearly as big or as urgent to be dealt with as it used to be. So the leisurely pace can continue just a little longer. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Gift of new life

It was a morning for final shopping errands and packing, and an afternoon visit to Gill. Having recently broken a wrist she needed help with ordering Buckingham Palace visitor tickets on-line. It's rather a disadvantage to be in a cast with a painful injury, especially when you're a newcomer to computers at seventy one. I acted as her scribe for answering emails yesterday, which was less straightforward than I'd anticipated, as it involved using MS Outlook, which I've hardly ever resorted to, as I began on Pegasus Mail nineteen years ago and was an early adopter of Mozilla's Thunderbird client - both easier to use, to my mind.

We went with Manel out to Meyrin for supper with the Hester family. Alec and Ann-Marie had their three grand children from Paris, staying for summer holidays, as they often have done over the past decade. They also had their newest grandson with them, adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage by Dagmar and Guy, whom I married in Geneva a dozen years ago. Both are doctors in Geneva, and Samuel is their first child. We saw photos of him last year, just before he arrived. Now he's a very lively, charming and curious three year old, who gets on well with his three French cousins. It was such a delight to be at Alec and Ann-Marie's huge and ever hospitable table with all four of their grandchildren together for the first time.

Ann-Marie observed how Samuel had grown so rapidly during his first year in Switzerland, and that he was never finicky about food, but willingly tried new things and ate whatever he was given with enthusiasm. Also, when taken on occasions to play at the CERN day care nursery, he never showed the least sign of nerves or reticence, but enthusiastically joined in with a large group of strange children. After his early years spent in an orphanage, playing in a large group of children would for him be normality. He's already bringing the gift of great joy to his parents, and it's wonderful to see.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Food memory

Monday we met with Keith and Claudine again at a restaurant lunch in Genthod-Bellevue with Manel, and Gill who was our host. We had that classic genevois version of fish and chips, with filets de perche du lac fried without batter and served with a variety of garnishes and pommes frites. A gastric trip down memory lane in good company. Claudine showed us pictures on her iPad of the infamous Thai river Kwai, and the memorial to prisoners of war lost there during the building of the 'railway of death' over sixty five years ago.

Now that school term is over, Keith has finished teaching as well as his church music job. He's joining Claudine already at work in Bangkok since Easter. She returned this week to complete the home removal formalities and join him for the farewells. After fourteen marellous years at Holy Trinity as organist and choirmaster, he's going to Thailand without work plans, aiming to discover fresh possibilities there. His immense talent as both musician and teacher will soon be put to good use in my opinion.

He's already agreed to go into neighbouring Myanmar, at the invitation of the Burmese Anglican Church, to conduct a summer singing school with refugee childen. He's been doing similar things for many summers for the rich kids of expatriates at the Collège du Léman, where he worked. This'll be an adventure at many levels, as there's little likelyhood that teacher and children will have a common language.

After we'd said our farewells, Manel drove us to Versoix to enjoy a little sunshine on the lakeside beach there. It was quite empty, considering that schools are now on holiday. I took the train back into town on a secret errand to purchase a freshly made tarte aux pommes for supper from the supermarket bakery of Manor department store, yet another gastric memory of la vie genevoise.  With a glass of organic wine, a nice lean fruity Gamay de Genéve from the farm shop below the apartment, it went down a treat.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

More farewell festivity

It rained for most of the day. We attended the 10h30 Sung Eucharist at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, which was Keith Dale's final service as organist. A lay reader from Paris was guest preacher. Keith was prayed for in the intercessions, and at the end church warden Deborah Vorheis and former church warden Jenny Buffle gave excellent tributes to his work and presented him with gifts. This was followed by a buffet lunch in the parish hall downstairs, with more tributes from choir and congregation. For us it was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends, and so good to share this rite of passage with them, particularly as I was Chaplain when Keith was appointed. He'd been interviewed by church warden Freddie Raveney, and it was delightful that he and his wife Eve came out for the weekend to join the farewells.
After lunch, we returned to Manel's for an hour, and then went with her to Gingins for their 16h30 Eucharist. This gave us an opportunity to catch up with a few more friends, and to meet Carolyn Cook, the new Chaplain of La Cȏte for the first time. Although it's summer vacation when many people are away, there were still four dozen people in church. I was pleasantly suprised to discover that the majority of faces were new to me. We've worshipped on and off there down the years since we left Geneva, and while there are still familiar faces in both La Cȏte and Geneva, the number of newcomers grows. More so in La Cȏte than in Geneva currently - and the average age is far less than the 61 quoted gloomily by some surveyor of the English church scene at home last week. Something is going right out here. Church mission is engaging, and making is mark in building community and sharing the Gospel.

But the time the service had ended, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining through the clouds. We had a cup of tea and a chat in the Maison Paroissale, and then drove up the Col de la Givrine to Saint-Cergue to meet with Keith and Claudine for a fondue in a village restaurant. We looked at photos of Thailand Claudine had brought with her on her iPhone and shared their excitement about their new life, ten hours flight away from Switzerland. The air was clear for the evening drive back to Geneva, and the clouds had cleared enough to reveal Mont Blanc in gleaming glory, first white and then golden. One of my favourite of all commuter journeys during my working life.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Farewell concert

Yesterday morning we went into the city centre together for a while, then Clare went off to meet up with a former colleague in Morges, and I went off to see my friend  and former colleague Julia in Divonne. I took the train to Coppet, which is as far as one can travel on the Geneva public transport season ticket. Philippe picked me up and drove me the last leg to their home for an afternoon of conversation sitting out under the trees in their garden, catching up on all that's happened since my visit last October. I was very pleased to hear that Julia's post-ordination training programme is at last completed, and soon, after an interview, she will be fully licensed as a non-stipendiary assistant chaplain.

This morning we visited the farm shop, in one of the buildings belonging to the farm which is the nearest neighbour to the apartment block in which Manel lives. Until the late fifties, most of Petit Saconnex was still given over to orchards and pasture. The farmers who owned the land which is now the Parc du Budé, sold of most of it for housing development, reserving a few hectares and farm buildings in the middle of it, until 2050 for their own use. The land is now managed by a new generation of organic farmers, growing and selling their own organic produce in situ. The shop is well used by neighbours and sells a select range of organic vegetables, oil, honey and Geneva organic wines.

Then we went into the city centre shops to look for a few things we need but can;t get at home and lunched in our favourite department store. As we didn't find what we wanted in the city centre Migros supermarket, we went out on the 18 tram to the Migros in the much larger suburban shopping centre of Balexert. Clare was after a pair of basanes, a lightweight gym shoe, to wear for eurythmy. I also found a pair that just fit me. They'll do nicely for Tai Chi. I also looked for some rubber washers to replace ineffective ones on the joints underneath Manel's leaky kitchen sink. We had no luck in the Migros, so we jumped back on the 18 tram and went further out to the Jumbo DIY superstore in Meyrin, where we quickly found the right ones. We returned to Manel's and I fitted them without any difficulty. A successful expedition.

Our evening was given over to Keith Dale's farewell organ concert in Holy Trinity Anglican Church. Over eighty people were present. Keith delivered a fine programme, which included some duets with trumpeter Christian Crocoll, who attends Gingins. In his day job he's a local air traffic controller working at Cointrin Airport. Keith introduced each of the pieces performed with a background story about the composer and the piece of music. He's an enthusiastic raconteur and his 'act' certainly brings the music alive. It was good to see so many supporters of Geneva Anglican church music present for this occasion. A collection was taken which raised £1,200, to be divided between the organ fund and an orphanage in Myanmar. 

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Le quatorze Juillet

We slept well, and eventually walked into the city centre through the generous parks in which many of Geneva's high rise blocks of the sixties and seventies are set. This is a persisting tribute to the influence of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, one of the european pioneers of modern urban high rise lifestyle, and in places like Petit Sacconex where this kind of urban design is particularly well done and well managed, residents indeed live in a green and pleasant land in the heart of the city. 

Having said that, the costs of renting or buying a place to live this lifestyle are very high indeed - not only because of the high demand from people with plenty of money to spend, but also because of the high cost of maintaining both buildings and park landscape. I don't suppose Le Corbusier, designing and planning between the Great Wars, could have imagined the cost of his creations in future generations. Switzerland then was not nearly so wealthy then and contribution made by routine labour was undervalued. Most importantly however, habitations were created that raised aspirations about the quality of living space any constructor could set out to achieve, both in private and publicly funded housing.

Our mission was to get city travel passes for the week (anywhere in the Cantonal network on any kind of transport at any time, for thirty quid), to have lunch in our favourite department store, with the summer sales in full swing, and to get some Swiss money. I'd brought with me to use some spare Canadian dollar travellers cheques left over from our Christmas excursion. We discovered that none of the many bureaux de change handled travellers cheques, but the UBS bank was most obliging.

We walked across to the Rive Gauche, had an ice cream at an open air bar on the banks of the Rhone, and observed an eight year old working his way with a small cup through the clientele, and tourists seated on steps nearby begging for centimes. Earlier, before crossing the bridge we'd been accosted by a young woman, tidily dressed, begging for a tram fare to get her to the end of the canton for some unstated reason. We watched her work the queues of visitors waiting to cross the street and at the bus stop. 

It was an odd pretext to beg, given that even visitors soon find out how rarely anyone on public transport is asked to produce a ticket. When it happens, fines are steep. Few people resent paying because fares are reasonable and the quality of service is so good. I also noticed a couple of women in  black wearing the hijab and begging in the streets. One had propped herself up against a parked white van, in exactly the same position as where I took a photo of a woman begging last summer.  I guess this is as much of a challenge to police in Geneva as it is in Cardiff.

We made our way back to Petit Sacconex at tea time, and later went out for a brief  visit to our friend Gill, who lives in a nearby apartment. The last time we'd seen her was in the televised broadcast of the Royal Maundy service from Westminster Abbey, where she was among representatives of the diocese in Europe.

Tonight we can hear fireworks from France voisine.  After all, it is Bastille Day.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Rainy train trip

The weather changed for the worse overnight, with thunder and intermittent rain. The mountains were either shrouded in mist or decorated with massive cloud formations. We said our goodbyes and took a taxi from Grabs to Buchs railway station, rather than get wet through walking to the bus. In fact, it rained on and off, all the way from the east of the country to its westernmost tip.

We went from Buchs to Sargans on a regional train, and shared the carriage with a class of primary school children who sang with their teacher for most of the journey. At Sargans we picked up the inter-city train to Zurich, and with perfect timing caught the westbound train which, although destined for Geneva, only took us as far as Bern, where we had to change from the standard double decker inter-city express to another older train, 40-50 years old to take us onwards.

Apparently the double decker had to be taken out of service for technical reasons. All we had to do was walk across the platform and board the replacement. This took less than ten minutes, and we still arrived in Geneva at the scheduled time. A very impressive feat of organisation on the part of Swiss railways, and quite crucial, given that the final destination of the train is Geneva Airport, and some travellers would be relying on punctuality to catch flights elsewhere.

As for us, our dear friend Manel met us at Cornavin station and drove us to her apartment in Petit Sacconex, where she fed us royally with a Sri Lankan curry for supper. It's great to be back in the city we know and love as much as we love Cardiff.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Mountain stroll and village visit

After an early night, I awoke at 5.20am to see a beautiful orange sky. I sat outside on the balcony in the cool morning air and waited, camera in hand, to watch the sun rise. Just after the church clock stuck six, the first brilliant flash of the sun's rays broke out of a low mountain ridge across the plain, over in Austria. Then I did some Chi Gung exercises before returning to bed to sleep for another hour.Not too long as we had to breakfast and then get a nine fifteen bus from Grabs Post Office to take us up the narrow winding Grabserberg road to Voralp, for a cool walk on a hot day around a lake set in the forest surrounded by mountain peaks at 1,200m.

In a meadow above the lake twenty cows with grey velvety coats made music with their bells as they munched. It was the only sound to be heard apart from that of distant streams descending steep slopes. Four elderly herdsmen quietly worked the grassy enclave with scythes, excising unwanted plants which can grow to occupy such space that the grass yeild is reduced. And grass yeild of high quality is essential to the cheese making that follows milking.

Also above the lake is a small terrace with a portakabin for serving drinks and snacks. A fire had reduced the wooden one to ashes last winter, and this will be replaced eventually, but in the meanwhile, service to visitors continues as usual. By the time we'd walked around the lake families with children began to arrive to have their picnics, walk their dogs or go out on the lake in an inflatable. The only other occupant of the lake was a pair of brown ducks with their brood, making strenuous efforts to keep as far away as they could from anyone else enjoying the water.

By the time we arrived back in Grabs, with the midday bus, the temperature had risen to over thirty degrees and it was quite humid. Later as it began to cool slightly, I walked the two kilometres down the valley to take photographs of Werdenberg Castle, and the remarkable collection of three dozen wooden houses gathered within its outer walls. Some of the houses date from the middle of the fifteenth century and all are different in style and decoration. It's one of the oldest collections of wooden buildings extant. Most others comparable villages have burned to the ground and been re-built at one time or another. Not unsurprisingly there was a notice which declared the entire area as a no smoking zone. Another notice describes it as the smallest town in Switzerland.

This 'smallest town' and its castle (now a cultural centre) are in the commune of Grabs and sit just beside the main road from Buchs to Grabs. The castle has a small vineyard, and on our first evening, Hans gave us a glass of their 2008 Blauburgunder rotwein. It was something of a rarity as only 500 bottles were produced - a gift from a patient. It was a pleasure to photograph this remarkable historic treasure - as much a tribute to the Swiss passion for conservation as the alpine forest, meadow and lake we'd visited earlier in the day.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Philatelist's Haven

This morning we visited the Principality of Liechtenstein, a 35 minute journey from Grabs across the Rhine Valley, with one slick bus change in Buchs. The return trip cost CHF 4.20 - equal to the cost of a cup of coffee at high street prices here. A very reasonably priced excursion to another country. 

Liechenstein features  regularly on Swiss weather maps as one of the consistently hottest places in the country. It functions much like a Swiss Canton with its own elected government and institutions, but it uses Swiss currency, has a constitutional monarch, the Prince as head of state. It has its own legal code, even its own Archbishop, whose flock is the size of a large UK parish.

In the 20th century, this small state rose from rural poverty to become a international banking and tax haven. It's a lot larger than Monaco with its 60 sq miles of mostly mountainous land area, but its population at 30,000 is roughly the same. There's good skiing in winter, some high tech engineering businesses, a famous postage stamp industry, endless streams of day visitors, and private banking industry. All of these work to make its population unusually wealthy.

There's not much more to the town centre of Vaduz, the capital city than a high street of rather dull late 20th century shops offering all the prestige high value brands, some curious public art, and a few stylish new art galleries. Standing next to the Parish Church of Sankt Florin, which doubles as a Cathedral, is a 19th century government building in the Austrian imperial style. This is now flanked by a new building clad in yellow brick, its simple lines in daring contrast to its neighbour. The open precinct in front of them contains an array of lime trees, planted in five straight lines running for over a hundred metres, a hundred trees in all. Probably each is planted in a growth restricting container to make this artificial grove of trees manageable in the public realm. It looks striking in summer, offering a shady area within a large open space, but the trees are not evergreens. Apart from looking good in summer, it's hard to imagine how this area will function in winter.

We wandered the main street, bought ourselves some post cards and stamps, and a picnic lunch. Then we climbed up the footpath to the Palace. It's on a promontory overlooking the town, about six hundred feet above the plain. The first stage, past the houses on the slower slopes is all steps. Then the path becomes a series of long gradients, with occasional views through the trees, and punctuated by a succession of information panels giving the history of the royal house and principality, an account of its social and economic geography, religion and political constitution. This is very well set out in German, French and English, clear and simple, a super resource for visiting school parties to use on their ascent. At the top there is a viewing platform, and a place where we could eat our picnic lunch. 

The road to the castle runs close by, so we were able to walk up to the outskirts of the palace and take in the scenic location before descending. The castle is not open to visitors, it's the private home and work place of the Prince and his family. Having reached our goal and sent our handful of postcards, we returned to Grabs, feeling unusually tired after our steep climb in one of Switzerland's hottest places, today and any day.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Protestant Sunday

Another sun-filled early awakening. Summoned by bells, I walked to worship at the church I can see from the bedroom balcony.Its clock strikes the hours and signals the beginning and end of the working day for people in the parish. It's the parish church of Swiss Reformed community, I discovered when I arrived and joined the assembly - a large building with balconies, seating over six hundred. There were about eighty people in church, two thirds of them belonged to a couple of families bringing babies for baptism. My guess that the regularly attending congregation is around thirty people was later confirmed by Heinz.

Yesterday in Alt Sankt Johannes, the Swiss Reformed Church I looked at had been renovated in recent times, and the sanctuary was furnished with a small pulpit, font and altar table, in keeping with contemporary liturgical design practice which has been truly ecumenical as well as widespread in its influence. The Grabs Gemeindekirche reflected an earlier movement of renovation and restorations, probably 19th, early 20th century, still faithful to reformation tradition.

Thus, on the north side of the nave was a finely carved wooden pulpit fifteen feet above floor level, high enough for the preacher to be able to eyeball people sitting in the gallery. The semi-circular vaulted gothic apse, had one central stained glass lancet window depicting Christ the Good Shepherd and was empty apart from a dozen chairs around the wall. At what Anglicans would call the chancel step stood the font, with the lit paschal candle nearby - one concession to the modern liturgical emphasis on the importance of baptism. However, the font cover provided a surface on which a bookstand could be placed for the pastor to use while officiating. There was no altar - very Zwinglian. The first time saw this was in a Wintertur church 25 years ago.

The Pastor, dressed in dark suit and tie, looking like an undertaker on a home visit, led the baptismal families in at the start. He addressed the congregation, and the making of the baptismal promises seemed to be no more than a simple 'yes' on the part of the parents and sponsors. Then came the baptism. He didn't use the font, but rather a small silver ewer and bowl for the baptismal water. He held each child and put a drop of water on the forehead of each as he spoke the trinitarian words. After saying some prayers and then a hymn together, he went up into the pulpit, read a passage from Exodus, then preached for fifteen minutes. We stood to pray and sat to sing hymns. The service ended with the Lord's prayer said together, a sung prayer from the hymn book, then we were dismissed with the Pastor's benediction.

When I got outside I realised no collection had been taken. I wonder if this was because the church is still funded through the kirchensteuer - the church tax or some other means of subscription which takes the offering of gifts right out of the liturgical action. The point of the reformation was to re-engage all people fully in church life and this was meant to be expressed in the liturgy, which up until that time had been mainly a clerical monologue with a passive audience, unless there was a choir to sing parts of the service. Congregational hymn singing is part of the historic legacy of the reformation for protestant and catholic churches alike. Up until the liturgical reform movement of the 20th century worship remained for the most part a clerical monologue with a passive audience, except for hymn singing. It was like that in some non-conformist chapels when I was growing up. Anglican lay people were reading lessons and sometimes prayers also, however. That made us different. Still, participation has to be worked at, developed and sustained in any religious tradition, or else the tendency to revert to passivity reasserts itself.

It was good to be reminded about how things used to be, and as my German is not too good, it was quite a struggle to follow the monologue. Vernacular speech is right and proper to use in any local worship setting, but this always makes it difficult to enable visitors who do not understand the language to feel at home. Being a a non-eucharistic liturgy exacerbates the difficulty, for at least the commonly accepted form of a eucharistic liturgy makes the entire activity accessible to participation if if it is not wholly intelligible. And this holds true wherever you are. I was glad to have attended a service with a baptism, because that has a recognisable form and identity as a pastoral social action. Without that I think I would have felt quite lost, more like a stranger in the Lord's house.

After brunch and a siesta, we took a leisurely afternoon stroll along footpaths around the village of Grabs and sawe something of its colourful mix of old and new housing, and small industries, not set apart, but in among the houses as they have been since the village was more thinly populated and quite rural. Ringed around by high cliffed mountains and wonderfully green alpine hillsides below them, it's a pleasant place to live, well connected to the rest of the region by superb public transport, if you have to work elsewhere. Heinz is blessed with his own dental practice in the heart of the village, ten minutes cycle ride from home, and Marie-Louisa, works at home and in the community with mothers and infants.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Hills alive with the sound of music

We slept well and woke up as the sun rose, the air still and clear, promising decent weather. After a leisurely breakfast, we took the Post Bus up into the Toggenenberg Valley to Wildhaus (birth place of Huydrich Zwingli, radical Swiss 16th century church reformer), and on to the village of Alt Sankt Johannes, where a Catholic church with former convent building attached (now turned into apartments) stands next to the Reformed Church, with a beautiful herb garden and quirky water scuplture between them.

From here we took the chair lift half way up the south side face of the mountain to join a walking trail going east along the contours through alpine pasture and forest with views north across the valley of the mountain range crowned by the Säntis peak, with its panoramic restaurant at 3,000m+, topped by a tall TV relay mast. Throughout the afternoon, clouds came and went from the high peaks, making every view different. The reason we'd come up here to walk was not just the scenery however.

The trail is punctuated with a series of artistic installations of devices making different sounds when a user interacts with them. Several use a wide range of cowbells and chimes struck or shaken by different mechanisms. Animal bells in alpine pastureland is one of the most evocative mountain sounds, but here, the listener rings the bells, and they are placed, sometimes very close and other times away at a height for different effect. Our favourite was a see-saw fitted with a xylophone along which a ball rolled as it tipped. It gives a new understanding to the phrase 'playing music'.

There are several other sound making devices as well - including a rotating cylinder covered with metal strings with a movable bow attached, so that it can be made to play notes and overtones at different frequencies simultaneously. An awesome ethereal sound. ('Awesome' is word I now rarely use since hearing it exhausted of meaning in Canadian common parlance.) This installation was housed in part of a working barn. We rode a bicycle tethered to a device whirling a hollow tube around, its pitch varying with the rate of pedalling, and a played with sphere composed of large metal disks like cymbals, that could be struck together or separately to make huge resonant metallic sounds.

There was a suite of hollow metal bowls, each containing a metal ball. When rotated, the balls made the bowls sing. Our friends told us that similar singing bowls are traditionally used to accompany yodellers. Strange to say, but before we reached this place, we came across of group of mainly young women, standing by a drinking trough, singing a folk song. Later we heard them testing the acoustic of the landscape, singing out from a grass promonotory - what else could you expect to find here in the Alps but a group attending a yodelling course!

This sound trail - Klangweg in German, is the creative idea of a local musician. He now has several collaborators making suitable sound installations for this environment and sponsorship to develop a music centre for the Toggental. Apart from birdsong and running water, this is such a quiet environment, far from roads railways, airlanes and factories. This enhances the beauty and pleasure of listening. It makes attentiveness easier. The naturally produced sounds of the installations fit beautifully into the setting. It's inspirational. I wonder if it's unique? It's certainly a special feature of local tourism summer and winter.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Rainbow Journey

As I was about to leave for Cardiff Airport this morning for a flight to Zurich, using the new Air Helvetica service, Pauline popped in to feed Ben, thinking we'd left yesteday. We had a quick tea and a chat before she drove me to meet Clare at the bus station. She'd gone ahead earlier on an errand. As we departed, I realised I didn't have with me the Swiss Rail Half fare card which both of us were relying on for reasonably priced travel across Switzerland. Searching my office in a state of panic produced no happy outcome, and put me in a miserable mood. We caught the bus for the airport and arrived in good time, with me still fretting about the lost fare card. I'd done exactly the same thing when I went to Geneva last October, so I was doubly annoyed with myself.

Airport security obliged Clare to exchange her perfectly serviceable plastic ten inch transparent plastic bag for liquid medicines for a smaller six inch bag, something we'd never encountered flying from anywhere else. She had to pay a pound to obtain four regulation sized bags from a vending machine, packaged in a plastic sphere. The bag size rules are set by the security company employed, and there is no prior notification of this. The procedure enforces a purchase on spurious grounds, taking advantage of travellers' vulnerability at this moment, anxious about being barred from a flight. The airport unusually charges two pounds to use a baggage trolley, and a pound to drop off car passengers in the vicinity of the terminal entrance. None of these little annoyances serve as an incentive to passengers to use the airport. So it's no surprise it's proving hard to grow passenger numbers. Major carrier BMI Baby has pulled out of Cardiff. I wonder how long Air Helvetica's new four times weekly flight initiative will last. Our flight on a small-medium sized Fokker 110 jet was only 20% full.

From the comparative emptiness of Cardiff International, we arrived at the vast Zurich - Kloten Flughafen, and unusually had to queue for fifteen minutes for a passport check. Only half the gates were staffed at Friday rush hour time, with flights arriving from all over the world every few minutes. Once through, our bags were ready to be picked up, and we were just a minute's walk from the rail station and travel enquiry desk. My half fare card predicament turned out to be no predicament at all. For five Swiss francs I was issued a rail ticket sized card marked 'halb-tax vergessen' (forgotten fare card), with my card expiry date printed on it. All I had to was sign and present with any ticket bought. The details of my card purchase eleven months ago in Geneva were still on the computer system.

Much cheered, we sped to platform three with five minutes to spare to take the next train to Zurich Hauptbahnhof, where a train for Buchs SG awaited us - an Austrian inter-city express, bound for Innsbruck, no further train changing necessary. The weather was kinder to us than the last time we made this trip. The mix of evening sun and cloud produced an enchanting succession of rainbows over lake and land alike as we sped south before turning east at Sargans for the last leg to Buchs. We only five minutes to wait before a bus arrived to take us to take us the last mile and half to our destination, Grabs, for a happy re-union with our friends Marie-Luisa and Heinz, just four hours after leaving Cardiff.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Letting go

I travelled with my friend Martin and his son Andrew up to the village of Ton Pentre this afternoon, to attend the funeral Mass for our mutual friend Fr Elfed Hughes, who died suddenly at his home in Tonyrefail nearly two weeks ago. There were 200 mourners at St Peter's Pentre, the church where Elfed was Vicar in his early years of ministry, where he had requested in his will that the service be held. Over a quarter of those present were clergy, colleagues from the various places where he had exercised ministry. Bishop David Yeoman presided over the Mass and Bishop Michael Doe, head of USPG, whose employ Elfed had only recently left, gave an address.

The order of service had been prepared by Elfed in advance, containing favourite hymns and prayers for such an occasion. Particularly striking was the use of Wesley's classic 'O thou who camest from above', with its final verse sung three times. At first glance I though it was a typo, but then I recalled Michael Doe's words about "a service carefully prepared" and thought, this is no accident, this is Elfed's Gospel message to us all.

Ready for all Thy perfect will
my acts of faith and love repeat
till death Thine endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.

Elfed once told me that he had learned to live with two potentially life threatening conditions, one related to the kidneys and another to the heart, either of which could kill him quickly. Throughout the thirty odd years of his ministry, he considered he was living on borrowed time, and lived it to the full, right up to the day when he returned to his Tonyrefail home from London where he'd been working, preparing to move on, and died in a place where he always felt he belonged. The service reflected faithfully his spirit as a missionary pastor. I love his own words, quoted on the back of the service sheet.

"The whole emphasis should be on celebrating life
of which my death is yet another God-given experience.
If there is grief, I hope that it will not centre on pain and hurt
but merely the difficulty of letting go."

After the service we stood and chatted for a good while outside, meeting briefly with colleagues not seen for years. I don't envy Bishop David his role in retirement. He is often called in to officiate at funerals for former colleagues, some of whom he'd have been very close to, over decades of ministry together. This gives an extra layer of sadness and remembrance to the grief awakened by as Elfed stated, 'the difficulty of letting go'.

We didn't go to the service at the Crem - another hour's journey away in Bridgend, but returned to Cardiff straight away. Martin returned home, to a house full of guests, and I went in to the office to put things in order before taking a break from work.

When I arrived, I was greeted with news that City Centre Manager Paul Williams, who'd been interviewed for his own job, as part of Council re-structuring has been passed over in favour of someone more senior  in the Council's job pecking order, who doesn't have the same experience of ten year's day to day city centre management in the face of total upheaval. By the time the appointee has learned to job, it'll be time to retire. I think many people working in the city centre will be questioning the wisdom of such judgements in the next few days.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Uncertain future

This morning, I sang the Solemn Mass at St German's, for the first interregnum Sunday there, and Archdeacon Peggy preached very well on St Thomas the Apostle. It will be the first of many visits to St German's in the coming months, before Fr Dean Atkins is licensed to the combined charge of the Parishes of Splott St Saviour and Adamsdown St German's. In its heyday between the wars, the parishes of of this urban priority area, had as many as half a dozen clergy. It will now have just one full timer, serving a total population of 19,000 in the two electoral Wards. While there are a dozen or more other churches, mosques, temples etc catering for the pastoral needs of the area, if no preference is expressed by a bereaved family, usually it's the Anglican Parish priest who is called upon to officiate at funerals. With an ageing population, this call of duty alone can keep a full time cleric very busy.

At Fr Roy's retirement do on Wednesday last it was reported that he'd done 399 baptisms in fifteen years as Vicar. That's roughly one a fortnight throughout. The number of weddings will certainly have fallen to a few dozen in those years, but baptisms and funerals in church still feature as part of community life. Fr Dean will be adding this to the work he already does in Splott, which is twice the population of Adamsdown. Both Parishes have been developing lay ministries in an encouraging way. However, many lay people have full lives and limited availability when it comes to sharing the pastoral load, and freeing the priest to take missionary initiatives in the locality. The drastic reduction of numbers of full time serving clerics that's been happening this past decade offers a special challenge to the church in urban working class areas where vestiges of traditional community life that still touch upon the church can make a difference when it comes to community renewal. This is true up in the Valleys communities too. A this stage it's not easy to envisage what the future will be for both Parish churches and the area they serve.

Yesterday evening, my Swedish friend Sara, whom I met in Geneva not long before we left there arrived this evening with her husband Gunnar and three children at the start of a week's holiday touring around Wales. It's her first trip back to Britain since before she got married five years ago, our first opportunity to meet with  Gunnar and the children. We shared a meal and briefed them about some of the local visitor opportuunities before they went off to find their B&B on the embankment opposite the Millennium Stadium. They came back for supper again this evening following a somewhat unsuccessful expedition to find Barry's best beaches. I forgot to register 'Barry Island' in their consciousness, and the quality of the tourism signs in the vicinity of the town leaves something to be desired by way of information which publicises the town's best family asset. Tomorrow they are off to the Gower, much better briefed.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Birthday outing

Today was Owain's birthday - we going to go out into the countryside for lunch, but we got delayed, as he set about installing a new PC in the morning, and ran into wi-fi problems, so my journey to pick him up turned into a trouble-shooting session, during which a friend arrived to greet him and give him a present. By the time we were ready to leave, we decided not to risk being too late for lunch afer our journey and ate at Oscar's around the corner instead.

Then we drove out to Southerndown for a walk along the beach. I did ten minutes' Chi Gung on the beach in the sunshine until the tide was lapping at my feet. Then we walked around neighbouring Dunraven Castle gardens, a place we'd never been before, but which was known to Owain. The Vale's unspoiled Jurassic coastline along this stretch is one of its best natural assets, especially in perfect weather. I counted three falcons flying around in the same section of cliff face above a small inaccessible beach, possibly all of the same family. Both Owain's sisters rang him on his mobile phone - one from Kenilworth and one from Canada, so he was able to speak to them, and his nieces as well. This year uniquely, Owain is exactly half my age. How life whizzes by.