A few months ago I went to a cultural day at a local park here in Canton Vaud, Switzerland. The park is called Signal de Bougy, and on a clear day it boasts a stunning panorama view of Mount Blanc and the surrounding Alps. The highlight of the cultural presentation was a concert with an alphorn orchestra fifty strong.
No one knows the exact origin of the alphorn, but they may have been used in midieval times as a warning signal, the way church bells were used in other regions of Europe.
Around 1,700 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Constantine, there lived a community of Greek Christians in Myra of Lycia.
Among them lived a poor widower with three daughters. This man was deeply troubled because his daughters were coming of age, but he lacked the money to pay their dowry. Without it they could not get married, and if they remained unmarried it was likely that when he died his daughters would have no alternative to prostitution.
One day, his eldest daughter proposed a solution to his dilemma. She would sell herself into slavery to pay the dowry for her younger sisters. The father was grieved and tried to dissuade her, but she resolved that this would be her final night in his household. The next day she would become a slave.
Neither the father nor daughter realized that their conversation was overheard by Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra who had come to visit them. When he heard the girl's declaration, Nicholas was deeply moved by her sacrifice. He went away, but returned that night after the family had gone to sleep. The girls' shoes were lined up outside the front door, and Bishop Nicholas placed three bags of coins into the girls' shoes, enough to provide them with a generous dowry.
It is because of this legend that we hang stockings on our mantles at Christmas time, and that little children in many European countries find chocolate in their shoes on December 6th (traditionally St. Nicholas' birthday). His story is meant to remind us to be generous and compassionate, and that one kind act can drastically change somebody's life for good.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, I frequented a neighborhood bakery where they sold a variety of cakes by the slice. One day I brought an Armenian student, Hasmik, to the bakery for a heart to heart. It was my job to make sure she was doing well personally and to encourage her however I could.
When we came into the bakery, the owner's face lit up. She spoke a bit of English and apparently had been bragging to anyone who would listen about the foreigners who had been coming to her shop.
There was a rowdy group of a dozen or so soldiers taking shots on the other side of the room. They left us alone at first, but after the owner delivered our cake, she could no longer contain herself. She announced to the soldiers that we were two of her foreign customers, that I was from America and Hasmik from Armenia. And then it started.
First they all hooted and hollered...in a friendly-ish way. Then one of them (I'll call him Dato since nearly all Georgian men are either named Dato, Gio, or Koba) stumbled toward our table, depositing two shot glasses. I tried to wave him off, but he poured some home-distilled liquor from a thermos. It was so strong my eyes burned just from sitting close to it, and he filled our shot glasses so full that a puddle formed on the table from the excess.
Hasmik and I met eyes. I was the leader, so I needed to try and get us out of it. I started to decline, but the soldier's commander (let's call him Gio, which means George. George the Georgian) stood up and raised his shot glass.
"To friendship between Georgia and America!"
Hasmik and I again met eyes. We both knew we HAD to drink, otherwise these men with guns would be seriously offended. So, I took up the shot glass, raised it half-heartedly, and took the smallest sip that could be considered acceptable. About then a fire spread down my esophogas, but whatever, it was in the name of friendship.
Dato lumbered forward to fill our glasses with the thermos. Since they were still so full he just made a bigger puddle of alcohol on the table.
Gio raised his glass again. "To friendship between Georgia and Armenia!"
This went on for a while. I started asking Gio questions to distract him from making more toasts.
I asked what branch of the army they were in, Gio answered they were the elite presidential guard. Fantastic.
Me: "So, you all just finished your shift?"
Gio (jovially): No, no! We're about to go to work! (looks at his watch) Oh, we're late!
He shouted to the men in Russian, and they collected their things to go. I tried to return the half-filled shot glasses to Dato, but he insisted we keep them and filled them again for good measure. Now the puddle spilled off the table, liquor dripping onto the ground. The soldiers left, hanging their arms over each others' necks for support and singing a joyful (and rather out-of-tune) song.
Hasmik and I finished our cake in silence, and then walked home, trying not to stumble into the road. We probably drank less than a shot, but my goodness that stuff was strong.
Five months later I was back in the US when I heard about the coup. The international media was shocked that the people managed to oust the president without any bloodshed. They called it the "Rose Revolution" because the citizens came to the president's residence with flowers, demanding his resignation. It didn't surprise me at all. I could just picture these drunken guards when the mob approached. I imagine Dato might have brought out the thermos, and Gio may have made a toast, "To the revolution!"
If you get lost in Istanbul and happen to pop into a restaurant to ask for directions, there's a good chance the owner will insist you sit down
and have a meal on the house. If you've already eaten, you'll at least need to drink a coffee at this man's expense. When you've finished, he'll explain where you need to go, but then worry you might not find it. He'll call up his cousin
to escort you to the ferry landing you're trying to find, and insist on paying your fare.
If you explore the Grand Bazaar, it's best to go early in the day. Shop owners are superstitious and believe if the first customer buys something it will be a profitable day, but if the first customer browses and leaves without buying, the day is essentially doomed.
Shop owners in the Grand Bazaar are experts at guessing nationality. When you walk by a shop they will shout at you in English, then German, then Italian. As you walk away, they'll shout something in Russian, just in case. Most of the merchants know basic Japanese and Mandarin as well.
As you stroll through the high arched passageways of the bazaar, you'll see the exquisite, the tacky, and everything in between: intricately crafted moonstone earrings set in silver; bowls of mustard, orange, and brown-colored spices; hand-painted ceramics; bedazzled belly dancing clothes; silk pillow cases; cashmere scarves; and, naturally, carpets. And Turkish delight.
As you browse a shop you might be invited for tea. The shop owner (and however many of his nephews work for him) will sit down with you in the back of the shop. They'll ask where you come from, inquire about your family, and share about theirs. They'll ask what you think of Turkey, a question to which the only appropriate answer is that it's the best, loveliest, most fascinating country you've ever been to. You'll be served sweet apple tea with
two sugar cubes beside it. Do NOT add the sugar cubes. Trust me. These people will have no expectation that you'll buy from them, but you might sit and talk for more than an hour, and at the end they'll thank you as if you'd done them a favor.
You might want to avoid visiting Istanbul in April, particularly the week before Anzac Day, when 25,000 rowdy Aussies and Kiwis fill the city on pilgrimage to Galipoli. The Turks have a soft spot for these tourists who have come half-way across the world to visit their grandfathers' graves. But the city, especially the street where all the hostels are, can get a little…rowdy. You'll definitely have a good time. You'll definitely be offered beer. You'll
definitely be called 'mate'. But you might not get any sleep for three days, and, when you finally do, a dorm-mate might wake up from her drunken stupor, put on your favorite shoes by mistake, and leave Istanbul with them. Just saying.
Did I mention Turkish Delight?
On the road in Nigeria you might be chased by little girls selling peanuts, ladies selling bundled carrots and zucchini, and shirtless men carrying five upside-down chickens in each hand. They'll run up to you with expectation, frown when you tell them no, but smile at your
kids anyway as you drive past.
On the road in Nigeria honking your horn isn't a warning of danger or rage, but simply a method of communication. A single lane road can almost always fit two cars side-by-side with motorbikes jumping the curb if they can't squeeze through. A yield sign is a guideline, for if you just GO, the other cars are sure to stop…probably…usually.
On the road in Nigeria a yellow light means Keep your bumper as close as possible to the car ahead of you." Red means "Don't stop!" --until you're the unfortunate driver accosted by the police officer enforcing the traffic light. Thankfully all he can really do is shout at you and hit the hood of your car with his stick. At the light's next cycle he'll find another delinquent for his tirade.
On the road in Nigeria it's good to have a sense of humor. You might see a dozen panicked goats strapped atop an inflatable raft set atop twenty sinewy white cows crowded in the
back of a rusting pick-up truck. You might see a motorbike standing in for a moving van, with boxes stacked upon the driver's lap and held secure with his chin and a passenger holding a stack of boxes so high he extends his hands straight up to steady the top one; you might see these men tumble as they turn a corner. Another time you might see a motorbike driving on the wrong side of the road, and, as you veer to avoid a collision, you might laugh to yourself when you realize the driver has a pair of crutches set across his lap.
On the road in Nigeria you might have to stop for a dozen roadblocks and swerve around a hundred potholes. You may smell sweat, exhaust, smoke, and livestock. You may worry that your kids will absolutely refuse to wear seatbelts when you get back home, because they see so much more with their faces pressed into the half-open window. And there is always something to see on the road in Nigeria.
South Africa is one of my favorite places in the world. Admittedly, I have a lot of favorites, but to me South Africa is an argument for hope and a demonstration of the power of forgiveness to smooth a future out of the jagged terrain of a violent past. On a personal note, it is home to my sister-in-law and some of my closest friends, and it is especially precious to me because it is where I had my honeymoon.
Okay, technically our honeymoon was in Mexico, but after that, and after we'd celebrated a second reception in Belgium, my new husband and I flew to South Africa for three months to complete a segment for our degrees.
It was July, and C O L D. Not freezing or anything, but without indoor heating you feel chilled to the bone all the time. We were happy though, and in love, so the cold became an extra excuse (as if we needed one) to keep each other warm.
We went scuba diving every weekend with this wild-man named Phillip who, aside from running a dive shop, earned a living by scaling the sides of buildings and skyscrapers to hang up banner advertisements. It's not tropical water, so there isn't much to see, but we were earning our advanced certification (underwater navigation, low-visibility, deep dives). There was something of a thrill sinking into the water, knowing it had the highest concentration of great white sharks in the world. We never saw one though (darn!).
There was a naval base nearby Muizenberg, so we got to know a bunch of Afrikaans sailors at the dive shop. We'd all go diving Saturday morning, then come back to the shop and have a braai. Once, Phillip decided to take us all to a pressure chamber to experience the effects of nitrogen in deep water. Martijn couldn't come, so it was me and a bunch of Afrikaans navy men. We're sitting in this chamber as they adjust they pressure, simulating diving underwater. By the time we reached fifty meters, we were all drunk on nitrogen (I've heard of divers so out of it they offer their mouthpieces to fish, fearing the fish are going to drown). They were all talking and laughing in Afrikaans. Then one of them turned to me and asked, "Can you understand Afrikaans at 50 meters?" Then they all howled with laughter when I pointed out that I couldn't understand Afrikaans in the first place.
Often, when Martijn and I both had the afternoon free, we'd walk along the water (trying to warm up!). It was whale season, and every day we'd see them coming up for air. Once we were taking the train through Simon's Town and spotted a whale in the bay, so close you could see its whole body under the shallow water. And we'd sit at a café in Kalk Bay that had a view, and these amazing almond croissants.
There's still great disparity between in the South African experience. Once a friend took us wine tasting, and on the way we passed by these impoverished townships that were a sobering contrast to the beautiful vineyards of the Western Cape. That evening we had a small party on our friend's yacht, and I couldn't relax to enjoy it. It's strange to feel so rich while you're every day confronted with the poorest of the poor. I personally prefer to hang in the shantytowns, but that's just me.
I love the spirit of celebration, the beauty, the diversity of South Africa.
The village of Thakhadzhor is nestled in a valley, high up in the Armenian plateau. I spent six weeks there in the spring of 2003, staffing a Christian training course in an old Soviet pioneer camp that in recent years had been converted into a hotel and conference center. I came because I had been invited, because I had never visited this part of the world, and because it simply felt right.
I had no idea how much Armenia's people would work their way into my heart, and I didn't forsee that this nation's past would shape everything about my future.
It began with an act of hospitality. Armenians joke that when Noah's arc landed on Ararat, an Armenian woman greeted him with bread and salt. To be Armenian is to be hospitable, and when the priest of the village church learned what we were doing, he did his all to welcome us.
He organized a celebration with local musicians and folk dancers, and lot and lots of food. Most everyone in the village attended. Here is a video to give you an idea of the setting:
When the festivities were winding down, we all took seats and listened as the priest told the story of St. Gregory Illuminator, the man who is credited with converting King Tiridates III and making Armenia the first Christian nation.
It is the story of a haunted exile whose father assassinated Armenia's king and opened the door for a violent Persian invasion. His name was Grigor. When he learned that one Armenian prince (Tiridates) escaped the Persian invasion and was living in exile in Rome, he sought out this prince, offering himself as a servant. Together they formed an alliance with Rome and drove the Persians out of Armenia.
Shortly after Tiridates became king, he ordered all the kingdom to offer sacrifice to the goddess Anahid, but Grigor was a Christian and his conscience forbade him from taking part. Though he was tortured, Grigor refused to recant his faith. Tiridates missed Grigor and longed for his counsel, but as he was on his way to relase Grigor, an advisor met him with the news that Grigor was in fact the son of the assassin who killed Tiridates' father.
Furious, King Tiridates had Grigor brutally tortured, dragged to the ruins of Artashad, and dumped into a scorpian-infested pit. The pit at Khor Virap (pictured left, though obviously the stairs are a modern addition) became Grigor's home for the next thirteen years. Everyone thought he died, but a widow tossed him a daily ration of bread from the opening, and he survived.
After thirteen years, King Tiridates fell in love with a young Christian named Hripsime, who refused him because she had taken a vow of chastisty. Tiridates tortured her in an attempt to make her renounce her vow, and she died. He then had her company of nuns murdered and beheaded.
The legend goes that, after Hripsime's death, King Tiridates was driven mad by an evil spirit, and the whole population of the capital became crazed. No one could cure the king, but then his sister dreamt of a prisoner in the pit. They discovered Grigor still alive. When he prayed for King Tiridates, the madness departed, and Tiridates converted to Christianity.
I thought it was an interesting story, but honestly didn't think much more of it. Before I left Armenia, a local iconographer presented me with a small painting of St. Gregory the Illuminator. She said she had felt in prayer to make it for me.
A few years later, I began to think about this story. I wondered if it was true, so I started compiling research. What I found captivated my imagination, and has turned into my first completed novel.
Here are some more pictures from Armenia:
Okay, so I know this post is common sense, but falling in love tends to suspend all manner of sense and foresight. I've only heard two ecclesiastical leaders give practical advice on how to choose a life partner, and I think given the shocking divorce statistics it's something we should talk about more.
I mentioned yesterday the advice Patrick Dodson gave me, and promised to expound on one point: "Before you decide to marry Martijn, make sure you know what's important to you and that you agree on the big things, the things that cause most marriages to fail."
The idea is that you should know what you want and value, ideally before you're blinded by love. Here are The Big 5 things you should know about yourself and discuss with your partner before you even consider marriage.
1. Faith. The Apostle Paul counsels us not to be unequally yoked. I have close Christian friends who are married to atheists. They love their husbands, and they married decent men, but that doesn't make it easy.
It might not seem like a major issue when you're thinking about the two of you, but what about when kids are in the picture? What will you teach them to believe? My friend Umar grew up with a Muslim father and Christian mother, both kind and good people, but religion was a constant stress within their marriage, and the children grew up confused and torn between their parents' beliefs. If they chose to be Christans, they betrayed their father; if they chose to be Muslims, they devastated their mother.
I've known many lovesick girls who married with the hope of converting their husbands to their faith, but I've never seen it end up that way.
2. Kids. Here's some common sense for you: if you hate kids and never want to be a parent, don't date and marry someone whose deepest desire is to have eight children. Talk early on about what you want, and if you can't come to a happy compromise, it's best for you both to go separate ways.
Resentment is not a quality you want to describe the climate of your marriage.
You get the idea. Here are a few more for you.
3. Geography. Where are you going to live? Are you willing to move? Will your parents live with you when they are older? Your spouse's parents?
4. Finances. Are you a spender or a saver? You both should be aware of any debt the other has. I have an acquaintance who found out after the wedding that her husband had upwards of $10,000 in credit card debt. Guess what-when she said "I do" it became herdebt too.
How will you handle finances? Will you tithe? Who does the budget? How will you decide what to spend, how much to save, etc.?
5. Roles. Before we were married, Martijn and I decided we would divide up our family roles in a more traditional way. I'm responsible for cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. He fixes things, oversees discipline, and kills spiders and cockroaches. That works for us--not everyone would be satisfied in that situation, but it's a conversation that every couple should have.
Bonus: This advice comes from the other person I've heard teaching on what to look like in a life partner (the first being Patrick Dodson), Aaron Stern.
Women: Look for a man who fasts. A man who fasts is willing to deny himself for someone he loves. That's a great quality in a husband.
Men: Pay attention to how a woman talks about people when they're not around. Don't marry a gossip. If a woman speaks ill of others, she'll talk badly about you too!