A Shoebox Full of Thanks

Three years ago, I wrote this blog.  Sitting here with my tree in my heated home, on a road made of tarmac, with no fear of the electricity cutting out or the lack of water it made me remember how much we have.  It made me remember how much difference a shoebox makes to many lives.  I remember giving out those boxes, snatching hands desperate to grab a box and rip it open, big eyes filled with wonder spreading down into the most beautiful smiles, peering eyes to see what their friend had in theirs.

So, if you have filled a shoebox and sent it away I wanted to thank you, it is not just some token thing that you do at Christmas.  It is not just a goodwill to calm your conscience.  It speaks of being important to someone in the world, it speaks of being cared for, possibilities and hopes and so from all the children who think they are forgotten and your gift has told them they matter, thank you.

Christmas day on the Keneta

Matilda at her Christmas show

Christmas day is very different year.  As the country was the first to declare itself “Atheist”, the governance may have changed but the traditions have not, so Christmas is not celebrated but instead the focus is on the New Year (Viti i Ri).  It makes things interesting, we don’t have a Christmas tree, we have a New Year tree.  We don’t have Christmas lights, we have New Year lights.  The workmen arrived to work on the drive at 8.15am unaware of the excited children inside who had been up for three hours and had long since scattered paper all over the lounge, scrambling to discover the wonder of the present inside.  Everyone goes about life just as normal and if you ask when Christmas is, some random guess is made, often getting December but no real idea on the date.  So Christmas is different.

We had the pure pleasure of going to the Christmas churches celebration where the Churches of Durres gathered together at the Sports Hall and worshipped the Saviour for whom the day is all about.  It was great to see over 500 people worshipping, reflecting and celebrating.

As we went back home two of the boys came over, intrigued by what we did on Christmas day.  Our kids wanted to get out their gifts to show them but we couldn’t let them.  Already our kids have so many more toys than anyone else… possibly than everyone else on the road combined!  By English standards they don’t have that much!!!!  So we let them get one thing out each to play with whilst their friends were there.  We had a great chat together about what we do at Christmas and why and asked them about their New Year traditions.  As part of this I asked when Babagjyshi comes (Santa Claus), they looked at each other and laughed.  “He doesn’t come here”.  I was suprised and said I thought he came at New Year with a gift, “no” they said “he doesn’t come here, he must have forgotten us.”  At that point my heart broke, whilst thanking God for the blessing (including material ones) that our family enjoys.

My dream this year is that we can find a way for Babagyshi to visit but more importantly that the real gift of Christmas, Jesus may be discovered amongst the celebrations.

The Amazing Offer – Buy Nothing

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I remember last year being shocked by all the Black Friday stuff, that was when I lived overseas and the scale of the consumerism was sickening.  This year my place of living may have changed back to Britain but that sick feeling Black Friday phrase gives me has not.

I’ve never really understood how a day of Thanksgiving for all we have in our lives is then overshadowed by the need to go out and buy more, get more, possess more.  It makes me wonder about the sincerity of the thanks.

I cannot help but see the name of Black Friday as one of the truest- the darkness of greed. The negative feeling of despair from debt from wants, wants and more wants. The bleakness of images of people fighting not over a loaf of bread to feed their family or a sack of rice to sustain them but the latest, hugest, flatest screen or some other peripheral so needed in life you would fight for it.

But my Friday is not going to be Black, its going to be about light, hope, brightness.  I will be part of the Buy Nothing Friday and I will seek out ways to bring a blessing, be a blessing and celebrate again the thankfulness in my life for all I have.

#SHOPLESSLIVEMORE

School Prayers Answered

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This is from the school website, his name is on the wall, written in the book.  The certificate added to his ‘achievement folder’. This was a very brief version of the incredible praise his teacher gave to him in front of the whole school – how amazing he is, how hard he has worked, how he does more than asked, what a great example he is, how fantastic his spelling, how great his attitude… she said she did not have enough words to praise him.

She didn’t need any more words.

Timmy has always tried his very best at school, he has faced massive challenges and kept on going, he has gone out of his way to try to make a positive difference and just been faced with criticism.  He has heard publicly several times a year how awful his writing is, how untidy he is, how he isn’t good enough.  Still he kept going, trying, pushing, being kind, being a light.  For four years his teacher was not nice, we had to report her physical punishments of children in the second year, we had to listen and try to show her positive love.  When we left, after four years I thanked her for teaching Timmy, for her input and ‘patience’.  She said… ‘safe journey’.  That was it, four years and no words of encouragement, best wishes, positive just ‘safe journey’.

My prayer has been that Timmy would be rewarded for all that he has put up with by a great teacher, a nice teacher.  When he started school in Britain his teacher was lovely, enthusiastic, creative, encouraging.  But nothing could have prepared us for the overly abundant way God was going to answer this prayer.  Timmy’s teacher loves him, she declares it, she loves his sense of humour, his attitude, his determination, him.  She chose him, singled him out, honoured him.  How my heart could have burst!

Annesley school has been the most incredible place, definitely God ordained for the kids to go to.  It is incredible, marvellous, wonderful…miraculous.  How faithful, how incredible God is, to answer the prayer so amazingly, for me and for Timmy.  What a great picture too of our God, its sometimes easier to picture Him as the mean teacher picking out our faults but really how much more is He like the one who sees all of us and just loves us, honours us, singles us out and puts us in the book.  Overwhelmed.

The Shelves are full of Ketchup.

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A year ago life faced one of its huge challenges, disaster was looming large on the horizon, stress surpassed normality and the what if’s of life seemed too great…. the stores were running out of Heinz Tomato Ketchup.

Here I sit without having thought or worried or bothered about ketchup for several months. I remember using up the last drops of the squeezy bottle with a week left in country and smiling that it would be okay.  Now, squeeze away kids, there is plenty more where that came from.  Life has changed.

The ketchup crisis may have seemed materialistic, silly, unreasonable but it was a part of our life, particularly for Eden which made his life happier.  The shortage summed up life in another culture, everyday things not being around and when they are and you just get used to something the goals move and stocks run out, worlds change, the sink floods the house with upstairs’ dirty water, the electric goes out, the words don’t flow.  Now, none of this happens.

But the stresses change to what may seem more normal to you… how much the bus fare has increased, filling in online forms, too many things to fit in the freezer, the toilet roll is empty and hasn’t been replaced (please tell me this is not just my family!!!)

Now looking back part of my heart longs for the shelves of empty ketchup,now the shelves are full of the stuff, different brands, different sizes, squeezy or traditional… not just one shop but loads of them, the challenge is to get the best value.  Life feels like this too, full of choices, opportunities in different shapes, sizes, quality.  So much around and yet searching for just the right thing, the right one.  Much of the time my mind boggles with options and choices, my head aches from all that could be or is available and I miss the simplicity and even the lack that reminded me to be grateful for what I have, what there is and just is.

Today I need to remind myself to be sparing with the ketchup, to savour the flavour and to be glad that there is more on the shelf.

Deafening Sounds of Silence

Silence so rarely happens round here… sometimes the afternoon siesta of grandparents snoozing gives a respite from noise but generally it is non stop.

But these sounds aren’t the sounds of cars going here and there, carrying children to school, colleagues to work.  They aren’t the rush to get the shopping and tick that off the list before moving down to the next “must do today” thing.  It isn’t the noise of heavy machinery or big factories manufacturing work and building for today and the future.  I don’t hear the drones of cellphones full of chattering demands or call centres requesting what you do not need.  No for all of this there is only silence.

The noises I hear are chickens (lots of them), croaks of frogs from the dirty canals, crickets chirping from the empty buildings.  I hear children kicking balls, chattering, playing.  I hear parents calling their children home, shouting across the neighbourhood to where ever they may be playing…. there is no fear here of distance and tracking.  I hear grandparents talking over the garden walls or rickety fences, the milk arriving and footsteps rushing to take their empty bottles to be refilled.  I hear cement mixers futilely creating more cement, for more walls of more unfinished or empty buildings that will never be called home.  I hear life.

In the desolation there is not the rushing, the racing, the fast paced life.  There is playing, family, community.

In the desolation there are not jobs, business, prosperity of wealth.  There is helping the neighbour, spinning wool and knitting needles and prosperity of skills we have long forgotten.

In the desolation there is not the noise of the outskirts of a busy town but the chirping, quacking, laughing, chattering of play, neighbours and freedom.

The problem is the sounds of desolation are deafening, we forget to hear the wonder of what is in this place and only listen to what we do not have.  Struggle shouts loud on these dust and mud filled roads.  Hardships peer from every draught filled, gaping window.  Dreams and desires have often been swept out the door and beaten like the rugs until not a speck of their dust remains.  But in all the broken, empty, desolation there are sounds more precious that many long for, days and times gone by where community was not just a theory or buzz word but was life.  That is the sound I hear.

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sounds of playing… how much fun elastic can be!

Kids and learning this week… or What I Learnt at School this Week.

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Timmy was talking to Grandma on skype….

“Which hand do you write with Timmy, your left hand?”

Timmy looks at his hands, “yes, yes my left hand…” checks again., “no, no, my right hand!” One more look at the hands… “Yeah, well one of those!”  Yep, unless you started using your feet Timmy!

Then at homeschool yesterday Matilda had to write where she lives, for a long time she was insisting she lives in Tirana, eventually she remembered she lives in Durres and we managed to spell it.  But then for Albania.  The A was easy, the L more tricky as how Matilda says it does not make the L clear, but we got there.  Short time later we managed the B but by now it was all becoming rather stressful (for both of us) “bania, bania, bania” was whispered, muttered, shouted, pondered over, cried over, sulked and stropped over.  “We have the B what comes next?” and so on and on the battle commenced, points were taken, dirty looks exchanged, tears shed, hands pounded upon the table, time limits placed and time limits passed, frustration now at boiling point for both of us but fortunately she has my stubborn streak and so neither of us was giving up on this one!  After at least fifteen minutes she got up from the table, walked around the table and to the wall.  I watched her ready to tell her that she was going to spell this word, she was going to do this work… she ran back to the chair. “A is next..” triumphantly declaring then off she ran again, “and N…” by now I was on to her… SHE IS A GENIUS!

On our wall is a huge world map with flags at the bottom, she had gone over, found the Albanian flag with the word written underneath and was now reading it to answer the question! Seriously! Genius!  Maybe not at spelling but I had to give her extra points for perseverance and problem solving.

It might seem some times that we just can’t solve the problem ourself but I’ll take that lesson I learnt at home school today, look around you, who or what might just give you the answer you need?

Fear…. and bottles of Heinz ketchup (this is not about a horror film!)

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This is how it all started, two days ago…

“I feel like this is trivial, but I’m hoping for some good answers….

Has anyone seen Heinz ketchup anywhere lately?”

A comment on an expat page of facebook and the torrent began. Criticism and advice to make your own jolly ketchup, live green.  The counter argument (and one of my own so don’t judge) that of course I would but it’s the children, the children.  The soft words of tastes of home, small comforts and …. WE NEED HEINZ KETCHUP!

Following were 46 comments, viewed by 88 people… a feeling of trivia that shows the reality of living overseas… nothing is trivial.  I can’t really say it is a taste of home to me or that I could not survive with out it, but the news that the warehouses are empty and there may be no more sent me on a detour, out of my way, into the middle of the city on a crowded morning, small child in hand and into the supermarket.  There on the row second from bottom I saw Heinz ketchup, I quickly took a bottle but noticed the shelf behind appeared to be empty… the last one????  I suddenly had a flash back to Indiana Jones and some great crusade and so, I moved the small child behind me to safety, tipped my hat and peered into the dark vacuum now created by removing that ketchup bottle.  Surely it could not be, someone please show me the light, this could not be it, the final, red plastic bottle of flavour.  I quickly put into check my rising feelings of regret of not having hidden our precious ketchup from our visitors who have just left and would be able to walk the aisles and purchase said ketchup without ever caring.  No, I would not be bitter, I had the bottle.  Then sneakily staring at me from behind the Heinz Hot Ketchup (which of course we do not care if it goes out of supply as it is hot) I saw not just one more tomato ketchup but three!  3!  Can you believe it, 3 more bottles on the shelf, there in the supermarket.  My mind flashed to my unknown faces of the expat facebook friends I saw their pleading eyes, their wishes and wondered if it may be possible to purchase it and get it to them.  I decided probably not.  And so, knowing that greed is bad, I took two more bottles, leaving one, slightly out of sight to bring hope to some other weary heart.  I never checked the price, it was irrelevant, I was triumphant, an overcomer, the bravest of the brave and the Queen of Ketchup (Heinz of course).

This may seem like one of the most random blog posts you’ve even bothered to skim past, and bravo to you for getting this far.  There is a point.  Fear makes us do weird things, it pushes us out of our way.  I remember inviting my mother in law over for coffee at 2.17 one afternoon to eventually get round to the true point of asking her to kill a spider for me.  Fear to speak to the foreigner stops us ever discovering someone’s story and places them into isolation.  Fear of heights stops us standing atop the mountain and seeing the most glorious view (ever scarier when the only way up is a cable car!)

But fear can push us… through the crowded streets and into the supermarket, to sit by the boy in class no one else likes because we know how he feels, to stand and say this is not right because we know this time we cannot be silent.

Living oversea’s provides potential platforms for fear (great alliteration!) Before we came our ears were filled with what if’s…. But the biggest fear for me is to become a prisoner to the  “What if’s…” and miss out on the discovery.

And just as a congratulations for getting to the end here are some interesting Heinz Ketchup facts….

Ketchup exits the iconic glass bottle at .028 miles per hour

Heinz sells 11 billion single-serve packets of ketchup per year around the world. That’s 2 packets for every person on earth.

Over 650 million bottles of Heinz Ketchup are sold around the world in more than 140 countries

THIS IS TOP SECRET AND ONLY 11% OF PEOPLE KNOW… tapping the “57” on the neck of the glass bottle is the optimum way to get ketchup out of the bottle.

Who, what, where….

In 2009 we followed our dream supported by our church, family and friends to move to Albania.  As a family of five we have had many adventures, we have learnt a lot, lived a lot and loved a lot.  

We live on the Keneta, which literally means ‘swamp’ and is one of the disadvantaged areas, with little infrastructure and high levels of poverty and issues associated with this.  We opened a centre in 2011 for children, young people, families and the community that would provide opportunities for people to learn, develop, be safe and also as a place to share the love of God.  We run three sessions most days, mornings for children and afternoons for teens and then throughout the year run special events, particularly where the children and young people get to share skills, talents and things they have learnt.  Many children would not have a chance for extra learning and as school is over double subscribed and teaching hours are short we get the opportunity to provide educational and informal learning.  All our activities are FREE.

As well as Burime, the centre, we live here, in a small house that suffers from damp, lacks regular water supply and electricity but is surrounded by the most amazing neighbours that nothing else could compensate for.  Our daughter, goes to Albanian nursery run by a foundation at our church.  Our two boys go to regular Albanian school in the afternoons.  I also homeschool the children to help them keep up with their English.  We shop at the little shed store down the dust road run by the loveliest old man.  We walk along the open sewerage canals, holding our breathe most mornings and not turning to look when we hear water flowing.  Our kids play in the dust filled empty building lot next door.  We share coffee, we share memories, we laugh together, get laughed at, we LIVE here.

We love life here but it is all supported from friends and family, people making a difference to others they may never meet but changing lives by their kindness.  We are also in our last year here, we feel it is time to return to the UK and with that come so many new challenges as our hearts live here but we know its time move.  This blog is random, sometimes its the amazing things happening at Burime, sometimes its words from the kids, sometimes its my observations, ponderings and wonderings as we wander along these roads on this amazing journey….

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What’s In Your Case?

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Little Trunki cases have been packed, unpacked, checked, repacked, waiting, waiting, waiting for the last two days.  The boys are going on their own to camp.  In the capital.  No parents.  No friends.  Nervous, worried, scared, full of questions and what if’s… of course I’m their mum. No not them.  They are just excited.

We have shoe issues at our house, the boys get through a lot of shoes.  When I say that I don’t mean their feet have grown.  I mean they get through them, soles dropping off, toes poking out, holes -big holes – in the bottom.  I guess when you walk alot on its on mud and stone roads and you are constantly playing football its not a surprise, but its quite a problem.  So for the last three days I asked if they had shoes to take that weren’t broken.  I checked. I double checked.  Are you sure?  Definitely got them?  Of course, of course, of course… I’m busy mum!

So this morning final check and adjustment of what is going on camp and its time to pack the shoes.  But we don’t have shoes, or not a pair, or not a pair that don’t stink so bad that a skunk would keep it’s distance.  Great.  My plan for a happy family morning is gone as my temper rises hotter than the sun… and it’s hot today!  Well the problem is later solved thanks to the wonderful second hand market and a quick run round whilst the boys are getting a haircut.  In fact they get to choose which pair of flip flops to take, Matilda gets a pair of new shoes into the bargain and when its time to head to camp they look smart, clean almost!

As we wait for the bus we are commenting, with surprise that actually out of all the people there they have some of the smallest bags/cases.  We talk about the surprise at the nice luggage around and the size of it and actually wonder how much has been brought for a short time.  Yes, I did panic that they didn’t then have enough, wouldn’t be okay, blah blah blah.  I turned and looked for the bus and noticed a man sat in a group of trees behind some big industrial type bins.  A little child was toddling over to him and I saw him sat on some pieces of foam, kind of like mattress with a toy in front of him, an old, worn armchair, scraps of things scattered around the area.  The children followed my eyes…. Suddenly it didn’t matter what was packed, how great the shoes looked, how smart the haircut was.  Matilda asked “Where is the mummy?” and then looked over to see her going through the bins trying to find something to salvage.

I looked into Eden’s eyes… He is way more grown up than I give him credit, he sees these things and understands.  I saw his gratitude and then heard Matilda asking questions about why they had to live like that, where was their house, what did they do in the winter?  

Sometimes we are so busy worrying about what we have, what we pack into our lives, our days to look right, fit in that we forget just how very much we have in the simplest of things.  I’m glad my kids saw and know that what’s in the case doesn’t matter, it’s where you are travelling and how you journey that counts.

Sewing Seeds….

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This week we have been running a Bible Bowl Camp, that isn’t making crockery out of bibles but preparing the kids over 4 mornings in the week to learn a passage of scripture, memory verses and to apply the bible to their lives.  This is the second year we have done this and it amazes me the kids enthusiasm to come and learn the Word of God.  Our theme this year has been the Parable of the Seeds.  I’ve loved catching snippets of the life application – standing together and meeting together, letting your light shine.  To hear the solid teaching explaining the parable, what it means, why Jesus used parables and to see the kids running around putting the Old Testament books into order (something I still can’t do!)

In the midst of this busy week I had made a commitment to visit a girl from the girl’s camp four weeks ago.  She had wanted to sew a bag but we hadn’t had time and then we have been full on with camps, work, life, she has been ill and ….  I didn’t have time this week.  i didn’t want to go out again and have to talk Albanian.  I didn’t want to answer questions or….

I also knew it would be looming over me next week and the guilt was already pretty big that I hadn’t managed it yet.  So I wandered the few dusty streets between our houses, heavy sewing machine tugging at my sweaty arms as the mid day sun beat down… yes, I was that enthusiastic.  I arrived to be greeted by Grandad, “I’m so glad you are here, come in for coffee..” the girls brother came running over, “you’re here, you’re here… are you going to stay?” and then running behind me came the girl.  Her grin was from ear to ear and she literally skipped through to her house excitedly telling her mum I was here.  Of course, it’s Albania, the greetings were warm, genuine, beautiful.  “Let me make you a coffee… let me get you some food… are you too hot… let me….” They didn’t need to do anything they had let me in to their hearts, what more could I ever need?

I got out some fabric for the girl to choose to make her bag, she had some great ideas of what she would like, her brother came to watch and asked if he could make one too.  Then her mum brought a tshirt… could I fix it?  Then the aunt came in with some clothes she had tried to hand sew, could I… or could she?  We began with the bag and chatter and food and drink.  She did an incredible job for the first time on a sewing machine, especially an electric one.  Then the Aunt began to suggest little things to finish it off… we chatted and she shared how she used to be a machinist.  Her little son came in, could he help too?  Then grandma came with a hundred questions about the electric machine and how it worked.  I was very glad Auntie was there with all the answers.  I suggested Auntie used the machine herself for the clothes she wanted to sew and she sat down and began to smile, her eyes sparkling, a pro but more than that…  The girls mum came in with a bag of cut material, apparently the auntie had designed and cut out an outfit for the girl but hadn’t got a machine to finish it.  It was really, really nice.  She began to tell me how she loved to sew and come up with ideas, it wouldn’t have mattered this time if I couldn’t understand her words because her face and eyes said it all.

We ran out of time, but I will go back, lugging the heavy machine but knowing again how fortunate I am but what a blessing something that seemed like a chore turned into in my life.  It was such a precious time with a whole family (even the dad came in at one point!) sharing life, skills, stories and moments.