Thursday, 25 June 2020

Let Nothing Disturb You


Let Nothing Disturb You...,
Let nothing make you afraid,
All things are passing,
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is lacking to the one who has God--
God alone is enough.  


I am sure we are all thanking the Rev. John for the calming reassurance of these words on which he based his Reflection/Sermon on Sunday 21st June.   

So far 2020 has been a very difficult and tedious year for us all and our patience has been strained and our hearts broken by the grief and the worry of trying to care for ourselves and those that we love as we witness the misery and the death that confronts millions of people around the world.  

St. Teresa - known as "Terasa of Avila - Painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
(Wikipedia - photo of painting in Kunsthistorisches Museum)

The Rev. John said; “These words, from a meditation titled "St. Teresa's bookmark," are a fine summary of today's Scripture Readings.  They all speak to us, strangely enough, about the gift of patience. We are taught that patience is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but it often feels like a heavy burden. People in today's society mistake patience for submission in the same way they mistake kindness for weakness -- and they walk all over you. But as usual, we must look beyond the surface. God has a greater message in store.  Some truly great people in the history of Christianity have been "walked on" in this way, you see. Just as one example, St. Teresa, known as Teresa of Avila, is world famous as a theologian, reformer of the Carmelite Order, and spiritual advisor to the great medieval Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross. But Teresa's ministry was not well received in the community that she loved.  Her sisters had grown lax in faith and practice, she called for reform, and their response was to throw her out of convents that she herself had established.

On one occasion, she was turned out at night in the middle of a rainstorm. Dressed from head to toe in her coarse wool habit, she got back into her donkey cart and was riding along when the wheel of the cart hit a ditch and the cart turned over, dumping Teresa into the mud. She sat there, in mud-soaked wool, looked up to heaven, and said, "Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it's no wonder that you don't have many."

On sitting down to reflect on the Rev. John’s thoughts on Wednesday I found I could really relate to St Teresa’s reactions when, as the last straw of a really bad day, she had a little rant at God and a bit of a Spiritual meltdown.  There was one year about 53 years ago when, like Queen Elizabeth said in 1992, my husband and I could have said it was an “annus horribilis”.  So many difficulties in one year made us decide to dress up and go to a restaurant near Sydney Harbour for dinner on New Year’s eve and begin the new year with optimism and a “bang”.  As the midnight countdown began I smiled in anticipation of a much better and healthier year – then right on the stroke of midnight a passing waiter spilled a glass of red wine all over me as he rushed by to deliver it to another table!   I looked at my lovely white faux fur jacket and my pretty dress and burst into tears as the cheering and the fireworks and the kissing and hugging erupted all around us.  “Well next year will have to be better I said as I mopped up the mess – this one certainly stayed difficult right to the end!”

“But frustrated as she was, Teresa clung to God. Her writings also lead us to suspect that she got a response from God while sitting in that muddy ditch. One of her meditations on the Disciplines of the Holy Spirit talks about how we must not be deceived by the appearance that evil triumphs over good, for sometimes, as she wrote, "God uses the Devil as a sharpening-stone for Christians.”  Teresa not only taught this lesson, she lived by it. She did not give up on God, even when her sisters fought her every step of the way, going to priests and bishops to make trouble for her.”

As a child I thought it was really good the way my Roman Catholic friends could call up a saint to help in a wide variety of inconvenient or difficult circumstances.  However, at the same time I soon discovered that although some of my friends always appealed to St Anthony to find something they had lost, it was my experience that it was much more fruitful to sit down and go back in my mind and work out where, when, why or how, I may have mislaid the item which was missing, before systematically searching thoroughly in all the possible places. 

I found it refreshingly different to focus on a traditionally Roman Catholic Saint in our service this week, specially as a person with an Anglican background. It is not that I have a problem with the recognition of many of the saints whose biographies show amazing kindness and selfless lives as they worked for the poor and lonely or the sick and homeless – it is just that I think that like knighthoods, the Order of Australia, Victoria Crosses and medals or other awards to recognize outstanding human beings, there are only a chosen few who gain wide recognition as saints or heroes in many walks of life.

While it is of course good for those people who are noticed or chosen and for those who admire or love them; we all know that like the unnoticed sparrows, there are countless “saints” and “heroes” as well as quiet and lonely people who will never be noticed, except perhaps by God.

King George VI (Photo from Wikipedia)
This work has been released into the public domain by its author Begoon.

On a night in February 1952 there was a news flash to report that King George V1 had died in his sleep.  On that same night in Sydney during a very fierce thunderstorm my grandfather’s sister Alice also died in her sleep.  Grand Auntie Alice was 78 years old and lived with my grandparents for several years before her death.  She had lived most of her life in the country, had never married and was quiet and reserved and walked with a distinct limp because one leg was several inches shorter than the other.  I never knew anything about Auntie Alice’s life except that she once told my brothers she had ridden a penny-farthing bicycle as a young woman.  This had seemed most incredible to us because as well as being lame, she was a very tiny woman.  When she lived with my grandmother and grandfather she cooked and cleaned for them and never complained.  I hardly ever remember her speaking, but she was a gentle soul and was grateful to be “taken in” by her brother and his wife.


The death of the King of England was front-page news all over the world with blurry radio photos showing the new Queen arriving home in London from Africa, and pages of pictures of the old King’s life.  There were family photos and Pedigree charts and pictures of the life of Queen Elizabeth 11 from the moment of her birth.  Everyone had a story to tell about the Royal Family.  


Auntie Alice died as quietly as she had lived without the world noticing that she had even been here. Yet strangely, I have always remembered that she died the same night as King George V1, and I think that at that time I realised for the first time, that each life is different, yet every life is important. 

I have often thought of Auntie Alice as being one of the fallen sparrows noticed only by God and I wish I could say that I had noticed her more.

So I believe, that as Christians it is only right that each of us must do our part to encourage and thank everyone who we notice being kind, thoughtful and caring and that we look for something special to notice and appreciate in absolutely everyone we meet.  Life is very tough for many people and it is a struggle just to keep going, but often others do not notice their struggles and appreciate their amazing strength of character.  Hence I love this final quote from the Rev. John’s sermon;

“Holy Scripture gives us lots of examples to follow. The Bible tells the story of a God who recognizes the righteous human, striving to do right in the midst of people who would do harm. Jesus spoke of "sheep among wolves" and warned of the harm that comes from people of ill will. But his warning is intended to teach us to handle our problems with the patience of God and to trust in God's righteous outcome, for "A disciple is not above the teacher." When we try to be like God, giving people the chance to do what is right, God steps in at decisive moments -- and miracles happen.”

So we must all be patient for as long as it takes and keep praying and working towards a special miracle to overcome the threat of this 2020 pandemic and for the individual miracles of recovery and healing being brought about by God’s hard-working and selfless “saints” throughout the world.



Thursday, 18 June 2020

"We have so many ways of learning about God."


I found myself completely in accord with the Rev. John’s Reflection/Sermon last Sunday as I have found great depth and reason in my personal reflection of many many unintended “Jesus movies”.   


“We have so many ways of learning about God. We learn from Holy Scripture, of course. We learn from our worship, from the seasons of the year and the glories of nature, from one another, in our prayers. There is a way of watching movies that can open our minds and hearts to God in ways more powerful than we might imagine. When we see a movie strictly for entertainment, we've received our money's worth, but when we watch the screen through the eyes of faith, God can touch us in ways that are worth much more, ways that are surprising, even transcendent. Ordinary, commercial films become "Jesus movies." Take the film, The Green Mile, for instance.”


I find that I am able to watch and find much to reflect upon in such movies, sometimes watching them over and over again.  The relatively new political correctness of the random “judgements” of “history deniers” can only remove the opportunity for reasonable people to learn from history and avoid repeating some serious mistakes of the past.  Like “Gone with the Wind” - “The Green Miles” could easily be included in the growing list of ‘inappropriate’ movies.


“Gone with the Wind” is an enduring story full of life lessons, laughter and tears.  It is rich in history, although offering a biased account of the American Civil War and slavery.  It paints a broad social history from the perspective of the privileged residents of the Old South.  However, from the moment I first read Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel as a romantic 12 or 13 year old - at a time in my life when I greedily devoured books with my entire being, I did not for even one moment, form ideas of approval for any of the behaviour of the privileged people whose lives were presented.  


Although this Pulitzer Prize winning novel was then just a page turning and exciting story that kept me reading until the small hours of the morning; after the passage of almost 60 years of my own life experience I understand so much more of those life lessons and the historical and cultural significance that I imbibed as I read.  I can remember lying outstretched on the lounge room floor hoping that my mother would not wake up and discover I was still reading.  She had no patience with reading and would have spoilt the magic by nagging me off to bed with a guilty feeling that I had once more wasted my time reading.  My dear mother thought that reading was only a reward for having finished all the outstanding work still to be done.


When my husband and I visited Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston and other southern places in 1991, I re-lived some of the feelings of romance and heroism of the Deep South that Margaret Mitchell lamented in her story which has been called, “The last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy.”   As we drove for many kilometres along a tree lined road looking for our accommodation one hot summer evening the sight of the Spanish Moss hanging in abundance from all the trees instantly transported my mind to the Atlanta of Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton.


As we explored Atlanta during the next two days we found Margaret Mitchell’s grave in the Oakland Cemetery; saw beautiful antebellum mansions and visited the impressive Cyclorama and Civil War Museum which houses the largest oil painting in the world.  The painting is 42 feet tall, covers 16,000 square feet and has a 358 foot circumference.  We were told that laid flat, it would cover an entire football field.  With an air of expectancy we were transported to the Atlanta of 1864 and as we sat in rotating tiered seats, the Battle of Atlanta unfolded all around us.  In the foreground of this huge panorama is a three dimensional diorama with scenery and figures which blend with the painting to complete the reality experience.  The canvas was commissioned in 1885 and was painted by artists who visited the battlefields and listened to first hand accounts of the battle. 


Like most foreign tourists we went looking for Auburn Street or “Sweet Auburn” to pay homage to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and visit his birthplace, his tomb and the Ebeneezer Baptist Church where he was the pastor; following in the steps of his father and grandfather.  We discovered four city blocks had effectively become a shrine to the man and his work; yet a white woman we asked to give us directions when we were one block from Auburn Street, literally turned her back on us and muttered, “I wouldn’t know where that is.” 

Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Auburn Street, Atlanta


A few days later, as we watched a thoughtful man slowly walk alone in the grounds of the Carter’s Grove Plantation in Virginia, we wondered about the thoughts of this giant of a man, who just a few generations ago, would have been a much prized plantation slave.  As a white person I felt embarrassed that he may indeed have been a descendant of some of the slaves who had worked this plantation and lived in the slave quarters there.  We had seen an archaeological dig in progress in the mizzen heaps where the original slave quarters had stood and read some of the documented evidence that the Carter’s Grove slaves were brought to America from what we know today as Nigeria and Cameroon.  Was he wondering how they must have felt?  Was he feeling their pain and was he still feeling frustrated by the lack of equality he encountered in the south?  Having read “Gone with the Wind” and seen the movie, we could almost feel his pain.

A Reconstruction of Carter's Grove Slave Quarters

 
Carter's Grove Plantation on the northern bank of the James River near Williamsburg, Virginia
was built in 1750 by Carter Burwell  

We discovered as we explored the historical, cultural and architectural highlights in Williamsburg, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia that there was still a great division between white Americans and African Americans as well as people from the north and those from the south.  We were surprised to see many Confederate Flags; but perhaps we were most surprised by the unfortunate gap that still existed between the very rich and the very poor - and this gap existed in both the white and black communities.   


We also discovered that the Civil War is still extremely personal in the South and that the selfish flawed characters of Scarlett and Rhett represented the people who adjusted and continued to flourish in the changing order of things after such a comprehensive defeat; while Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton embodied those who crumpled and lost all when the old South was swept away as if “Gone with the Wind”. 


When it was written this book may have been as divisive as the Civil War itself; but it was one woman’s act of defiance after history took the side of the Union while the people of the South did not really concede defeat.  The ‘heroine’ Scarlett O’Hara represents the fight that Southern women must have faced as they looked towards a very different future and struggled to accept change. Some of the characterisations were surely drawn from Margaret Mitchell’s own life experiences - and that may be why her characters are so believable and timeless. 


Born in November 1900, Margaret Mitchell grew up listening to the war stories of old Confederate soldiers and she suffered grief when her first love was killed at the end of the First World War.  Shortly after this her mother died and it was she who had to care for her father and brother.  Did she secretly wrestle against this responsibility as Scarlett did after the death of her mother?  Margaret was the first serious woman journalist for the Atlanta Journal and was said to have had many suitors – does this sound like the independent Scarlett O’Hara?


Her first husband, Red Upshaw turned out to be a bootlegger and an alcoholic – was he the foundation for the character of Rhett Butler?   She married John Marsh in 1925 and remained married to him until she died as the result of being struck by a car on an Atlanta Street in 1949.  Margaret Mitchell once said in an interview that the theme of her novel was survival and that in writing it she had looked at what it is that makes some people who seemed brave and strong “go under” while others survive similar circumstances.  She called this attribute “gumption”.  Was Margaret Mitchell demonstrating Scarlett’s gumption by having her retreat to Tara to regroup each time she was faced with intolerable odds?  Or do you think it was weakness and denial?  Perhaps even plain selfishness?


I often use a paraphrase of the famous final quote after a hard day when I feel unable to make any more decisions.  If you know me I may have said to you; “I will go back to Tara and think about it tomorrow!“


As the Rev. John noted at the end of his sermon; “John Coffey, the Jesus figure in The Green Mile is obvious; of course.”  However, there are hundreds of movies, old and new, which can help us through our reflections and respect for the past and willingness to learn in our quest to: – “As 21st Century Apostles, identify as people who strive to embody Jesus and to become daily more filled with the love and grace of our Saviour.”   I believe we should not live with guilt about history – we cannot change the past.  However, as Scarlett O’Hara said; “After all - Tomorrow is another day!” God teaches us - if we live well each day we can bring HOPE.

Friday, 12 June 2020

“Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty”



When I was in primary school we attended “St. Anne’s” Anglican Church at Strathfield which was rather a grand structure for our Sydney suburbs in the early 1950s. To be quite truthful, it was not all that warm and welcoming for young children – it seemed a bit “stuffy”, although in those times it was not usual for services to focus on the children present.  It was very early that I gave up trying to understand the difficult sermons about Trinity Sunday, which heralded the long “ordinary time” in the church year, when the colour green reappeared in the elaborate drapes and cloths around the Sanctuary and the altar, to stay until Advent in November.  

When we visited the Church of St. Mary in Shawbury in Shropshire, the altar was dressed with green.
The Rev. John Mayor (my GG Grandfather) was the Vicar there for 45 years and it was there
that his son the Rev. Robert Mayor was born in 1791.  


I loved the white and gold of Easter and Christmas, the purple of Advent and Lent; and the red of Pentecost and these church seasons were more interesting and even exciting for me.  After a few years one of my older brothers met a friend who had been to another local church that had a lively youth group, so gradually the family drifted towards that church, which had a warm sense of community. 
It is only in the last decade that I have been pleased to hear that some of our Marsden Road ministers continue to have feelings of concern about what the Rev. John this Sunday called, “This anomaly of Trinity Sundays”.  He said; “It is always a Sunday that has provided most clergy with anxiety or anguish or consternation as they attempt to prepare a sermon on the Trinity that is not boring or so full of theological jargon that parishioners will fall asleep. How often have you heard clergy lament on having to preach on the Trinity? Well today is no exception for me.” 
Yet, although you can read the Rev. John’s entire sermon as you possibly have already done – I think I should quote an entire long paragraph that I felt very descriptive and thought provoking without causing disturbance of mind or feelings of inadequacy in trying to understand theology.  So here it is:
People are not converted to Jesus because we can articulate a theological doctrine, but because we can share our faith in very human terms. Sharing how God has acted in our lives as creator/parent, redeemer, brother, and empower spirit. Our God is a loving and generous God who gives to us unconditionally. The God we worship is the God who created all of us and accepts all of us as we are. God does not make mistakes. Understanding God in this way gives us knew insight into loving and accepting others who are different from us for we are all made in God's image. It is us, not God, who has put limits and parameters on who is acceptable to God. Understanding God this way also calls us to reach out and care for all of God's children especially those who cannot care for themselves. Paul reminds us there are a variety of gifts but one spirit. We are a variety of people in one Spirit. We are called to live out and develop our gifts to the fullest. Our gifts are complimentary to one another and there is no scale of 1-10 on the gifts of the spirit.
Everyone is making the most of a difficult situation and doing their best to keep in touch and talk and listen to each other and lift the spirits of others; especially the people who are unable to attend church online.  It is sad that we are missing going to church with the familiar surroundings and the opportunity to Worship together, however the magic of “Zoom” manages to deliver the Sermon, the Prayers and the Bible Readings quite satisfactorily and it is good to see the people sitting at their computers making the best of the situation.  This week the Rev. John tried out a computer “trick” which placed him and his wife in front of a photo of the Marsden Road Church, which felt familiar and “homely”.
However, we are still missing the joy of singing the hymns and have tried looking and listening to Youtube, which had some difficulties for a group situation.  We are now trying out having a pianist play the piano in their home while we all mute our sound and sing to ourselves, but somehow it just doesn’t give that wonderful sense of singing together, with the benefits of the amazing acoustics of our little church. 
So on Sunday morning when I heard that we were to have the hymn “Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty” which was written by Bishop Reginald Heber of Calcutta, I really longed for the time we can all sing together in Praise once again.
I have always been rather keen on Bishop Heber’s hymns and as a keen student of history and family history the stories of the British in India and what I have discovered of the dozens of my mother’s ancestors who went to India during many decades of the 19th century for a wide variety of reasons - all of which would probably be seen only in an unfavourable light by those today who deny history - I have done quite a lot of reading and research.  My great great grandmother’s brother, the Rev. Robert Mayor went with his new wife and two other missionaries from the CMS in London, as the first missionaries to “work for ten years among the heathen” in Galle in 1817 and I remember being shocked when I read his memorial plaque in the church in England where he is buried.  Those were the exact words used.  I was quite relieved to discover that he was also a medical doctor who was said to have saved the sight of many of the people he served. 


Among my reading I came across a letter written to Robert’s father by Bishop Heber:
“I arrived at this port five weeks ago, in visiting the different parts of my great diocese; and had the pleasure to be greeted, among those who first came off to our vessel, by your son Robert, looking stout and well and very little altered from what he was when I last saw him in England ….. Mrs Heber and I had the pleasure, in our return from the North, of passing the best part of three days with him and Mrs, Mayor, in their romantic abode at Baddagamma, where we also found his colleague Mr. Ward, his wife and family, in perfect health and contented cheerfulness.  I consecrated their church, which is really an extraordinary building, considering the place in which, and the circumstances under which, it has been erected; and I also had the happiness of administering confirmation and the Lord’s Supper to a small but promising band of their converts and usual hearers; and I can truly say, both for my wife and myself that we have never paid a visit which has interested and impressed us more agreeably, from the good sense, good taste, and right feeling, the concord, the zeal, and orderly and industrious piety, which appeared to pervade both families and every part of their establishment.  Mr Ward has in some degree got the start in Cingalese studies, but the progress which both have made in such a difficult language has been mentioned to me as highly honourable to them; and Robert, from his medical skill, his truly masculine sense, his bodily as well as mental energy, and his cheerfulness under difficulties, has qualifications of the most valuable kind for the life which he has chosen.  Both of them are all in fact which you or I could wish them; active zealous, well-informed, and orderly clergymen, devoted to the instruction and help of their heathen neighbours; both enjoying a favourable report, I think I may say without exception, from the governor, public functionaries, and in general from all the English in the colony whom I have heard speak of them.  The cause of Christianity is, I hope, going on well here.”
Bishop Heber’s once popular Mission Hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, has been called “A conspicuous example of that fervent belief to convert the world to Christianity which led Heber and others to lay down their lives in the mission field"; has been omitted from some publications in the last 40 years for words that “Seem patronising and insensitive to other beliefs.”  In 1925 Mahatma Gandhi expressed his offence 99 years after Bishop Heber’s death.  He said that such phrases as “Every prospect pleases and only man is vile", and the "the heathen in his blindness [bowing] down to wood and stone", implied assumptions that were untrue in his experiences. Gandhi said; "My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary ... [Man] is not vile. He is as much a seeker after truth as you and I are, possibly more so".





Thursday, 4 June 2020

Every person should be able to hear God's Word in his or her heart language.


While I was re-reading and contemplating the Rev. John’s sermon which looked at the Pentecost story this Sunday; first from John 20: 19-23 and then from Acts 2: 1-21, I began to consider the wonderful possibilities and the difficulties that could be overcome in the world today if we could indeed all communicate with and understand everyone no matter what language was being spoken.  I love what the Rev. John called, “The stunningly powerful imagery of a raging wind and flames of fire written by St. Paul in Acts”. I continued to read the sermon which you can read in full on the Marsden Road Church website.  The Rev. John wrote; “Filled with the Spirit of God, the disciples can now speak, preach, teach, and communicate in such a way that they are understood by all sorts of different people in many different languages. The power of God to recreate the human community in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit breaks through the human boundaries of language and culture.”



Marsden Road Uniting Church "dressed" for Pentecost Sunday
At this point there was a “ping” on my computer to tell me I had a new email.  

I checked my email and discovered a message from a friend of more than 50 years who lives and works in Cappadocia, Turkey to raise awareness of the ‘Love of God and the joy of knowing Jesus’ in one of the places mentioned in the passage in Acts 2: 1-21.  How timely her message was!  Our friend had mentioned in her email last month, that what she called “The Jesus film”, was allowed to be shown on some Turkish secular TV channels for the first time at Easter.  Today she told us that the film was viewed by around eight million people!  Just consider for a moment that 99% of the population of Turkey are non – Christian!

In her email, our friend included a report made on April 21, 2020 from the “Christian Newswire”.

"Amid strict coronavirus lockdowns, millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa clamouring for a spiritual and practical lifeline are finding help right in their own homes through "living television."   In the region where Christianity began but is now a minority faith, Christian satellite television broadcaster SAT-7 (www.sat7usa.org ) has seen viewer numbers surge and social media interest skyrocket since the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

"There's an explosion of spiritual hunger across the Middle East and North Africa right now as people stuck at home seek real hope and real answers," said Dr. Rex Rogers, president of SAT-7 USA.   SAT-7 continues to broadcast shows 24/7 that present Christians as 'living epistles' who speak to people where they are in life.  "Millions of people in countries like Iran, Iraq and Turkey are clamouring to see and hear in their own language what it's like to be a follower of Jesus in a time of crisis," Rogers said.

In coronavirus hotspot Turkey, where 99 percent of the population is non-Christian, more viewers have contacted the SAT-7 T√úRK channel daily in the past few weeks than any day in the previous five years since broadcasts began.

"Coronavirus has locked people inside their homes, but it's opening hearts to God," said Rogers. "Lockdown and social isolation do not stop our unique satellite and online Christian programs from reaching millions of adults and children where they live."

Before I finished reading our friend’s email I looked at the website for SAT-7 Christian TV and there was a statement on the HOME page that spells out their goals:

MAKING THE GOSPEL AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

Every person should be able to hear God's Word in his or her heart language. SAT-7 Christian TV supports a growing Church in the Middle East and North Africa, confident in Christian faith and witness, serving the community and contributing to the good of society and culture.

Our friend’s email continued; “I loved our online Turkish fellowship time on Pentecost Sunday (on Zoom) and allowed my imagination to carry me away a little the day after Pentecost, when suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty wind-storm, and it filled the house where we were sitting.  Well! OK it was a day later but it was so stirring and such a privilege and joy to be part of praying for the work of the Holy Spirit here in this land, here in Cappadocia (see Acts 2:9...there were people from Cappadocia there that day!!) ...such longing, such zeal, a fire in our bellies.  We've just been at home in our "upper rooms" with more time to pray.  Now, Lord, what will you do next?”

I’m so glad that our friend’s email arrived at just the right moment so I could share it with you all.

I would also like to share an experience that touched me many years ago on a train in Italy and on the Greek Island of Corfu.  Not all travel experiences are entirely enjoyable at the time of the experience and it is often lack of communication that creates and exacerbates problems.  Almost 40 years ago my husband and I purchased a train ticket from an agent in London for a reserved seat on a specific train, to travel from Rome to Brindisi.  The day before we left Rome we went to the train station and checked the booking and presented our ticket for confirmation.  We were assured everything was in order.

Our tickets were inspected a number of times on the long journey across Italy from Rome to the coast and down to the heel of “the boot”.  It was not however, until about the third pair of inspectors arrived that our tickets created any undue interest and we first heard the words “supplemento rapido”; although after a bit of arm waving and pointing we were left alone and the guards moved on muttering in Italian.

The mood changed at the next stop when a new set of inspectors boarded the train. “Supplemento rapido!  Supplemento rapido!”  shouted the first inspector.  “I don’t understand – do you speak English?” we asked.

“Supplemento rapido!  Supplemento rapido!” shouted the second inspector even louder as he waved his arms furiously to make us understand and held out a hand for some money.  The inspectors continued to shout at us in Italian that we didn’t understand, except for those now familiar words, “Supplemento rapido” repeated at ever increasing intervals and ever increasing volume.  We assumed they wanted extra money because this train was a fast train.  “Does anyone on this train speak English?” my husband asked hopefully and in desperation.  One of the inspectors went off to try and find a translator.  He returned with a Chinese gentleman in tow.

“Speak English, speak English” the inspector told us pointing to his would-be translator, and the hapless Chinese Italian tried unsuccessfully to translate and communicate with us.  Somehow with all the shouting, and with Chinese Italian being translated into Chinese English and then back to Chinese Italian it appeared that we were arguing about a sum of 23,400 lire (₤10) which was about half the amount we had paid for our two tickets.

The inspectors kept shouting louder and louder and waved their arms at ever increasing intervals to make us understand why we were expected to pay more money.  Soon a new word had entered the conversation – the inspectors were now shouting “Polizzi, Polizzi” as they continued to wave their arms about.

“Tell them to call the Polizzi !” my husband finally told the Chinese Italian.  He felt reasonably sure that the police would neither be called or be interested in such a trivial matter.  He was also absolutely convinced the inspectors intended to pocket the money and keep it for themselves if we paid. 

The train continued to speed towards Bari, the next big town along the Italian coast; and as we pulled into the train station we saw no less than three police cars parked in a row along the station platform with eight gun carrying Polizzi coming towards the train to arrest us and drag us off to an Italian prison.

Bari Centrale Railway Station photo by Chris0693 - Own work Wikimedia Commons Licence 

“I think now is a good time to pay the Supplemento Rapido” we decided.  “O.K. I’ll pay the money, but I want a receipt”, he told the Chinese Italian as the Polizzi marched down the train corridor to arrest us.

“I don’t believe I owe any money, but I’ll pay it if I get a receipt,” my husband told the police officers.  Once the money was paid, with a receipt duly issued, the Polizzi left the train and it started on the last uneventful leg of the journey to Brindisi.

As we enjoyed the tranquillity and the backward charm of the little Island of Corfu the next day we came upon a little old Greek woman wearing the typical black clothing of old Greek women all over the world as she sold dolls to tourists.  She spoke no English and we spoke no Greek, yet quietly and easily we had a ‘conversation’.

“Your Bambino?” she smiled as she handed me the traditional Greek doll I had selected.

“Yes” I answered as I paid her the money.  “She is nine years old”; I told the little old lady as I held up nine fingers; and she smiled again and made a sign like an embrace to show she understood how much I loved my “bambino”, and we parted in peace and with understanding.

I realised that in just two days we had enjoyed a lesson in international relations the world leaders could learn from; we had seen two ways of dealing with the difficulties of communication caused by a language barrier - the easy and effective way of the gentle smile and the soft voice, and the ineffectual way of bullying and shouting and shutting out understanding with noise and aggression.