Risky Business

On New Year’s Eve, a question was asked of the table at which I was seated: “What did you learn in 2016 and what would you like to master in 2017?”

As reflective, end of year questions go, it was a pretty good one. Not too cheesy;  not uber-religious (given as it was a mixed crowd); and it could be interpreted in a few ways.

I probably could have answered it multiple times over. Looking at my list of 2016 Firsts [yes, I still do this – less intentionally, more reflectively realising what I’d done for the first time in the past year], there were plenty of things I’d learned. Including:

  • How to take a funeral.
  • A huge number of film-related factoids, thanks to regular attendance at the BFI’s monthly MK3D nights – when Mark Kermode shares his wisdom.
  • How to lead a Transformational Index workshop on my own. [Now a significant part of my freelance income.)
  • More about gin. Specifically, which gins I like. (Still not found many that I don’t like!)
  • That it’s possible to walk from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz and really is the best way to combat French strike action in Paris.
  • How to preside at the Eucharist.

Some lessons were simply the natural course for the stage of ministry I’m at. Some were delightful happenings. Other lessons were less of a joy and more of a necessity. But I’ve learned a lot all the same.

However, it wasn’t anything from that list that came to mind on New Year’s Eve. In fact, it wasn’t a specific event or experience, it was an attitude. In 2016, I learnt that I can take risks and it will be ok. And if it doesn’t turn out ok, that can be fine too.

I’m not a natural risk taker. My Myers-Briggs profile is ISTJ (some readers will at this point nod sagely and understand exactly what this means…) I am an introvert and a planner. I don’t do spontaneity well. I like to know what’s next. Someone once commented that my love of walking across London is indicative of my personality type: it’s time alone with my thoughts (or podcasts) and I always know exactly how long it will take to reach my destination because traffic/other people won’t interfere with my journey time. They were pretty spot on.

It’s not that as 2016 dawned I decided to become a risky person. It just sort of happened and it was good.

The example I shared on NYE was from my adventures this year at the BFI. Back in February I went to my first MK3D event. I knew that in the room were people who I’d communicated with on Twitter, but I didn’t intentionally set out to meet any of them. When I returned in March, I noticed that a few of them were sitting together and so, with all my extrovertedness mustered, I approached them in the bar afterwards and asked if I could join them for a drink. I don’t do that sort of thing – ever! But it worked. We’re now a committed foursome and sit together at each event. We all agreed in December that becoming friends was a definite highlight of the year.

It may not sound that incredible, but as friends who heard about it at the time commented, it just wasn’t something I’d usually do.

Fast-forward to the summer and the planning of a holiday to the States. I discovered a while ago that my sister has coined the term “Doing a Liz”, to describe my habit of jetting off to some semi-exotic location simply on the premise that I have friends there. She has never travelled alone. I thrive on it.

Usually, these trips are pretty well planned. I know where I’m going, where I’m staying, who I’ll see and when I’ll get there. Over the last few years, my trips have increasingly involved friends who are my MBTI opposites. There’s less planning, more spontaneity. I’m getting better at having a flexible schedule (to a degree). But on that October trip to the States I left a whole weekend blank. I was hopeful that it would be spent in Virginia, but I’d not been able to lock down the details. I’d told the friend I was staying with in New York that I’d probably be with them on the Monday, but that there was an element of uncertainty around it – if things went wrong, perhaps I’d end up there sooner.

I took a risk. A previous version of me may well have said that it was a ridiculous plan (or non-plan) and booked to go straight from DC to NYC. It all worked out. In fact, it worked out better than I might ever have been able to plan it – including a car-ride from Northern Virginia all the way to Brooklyn (what are the chances that someone will need to make an 8 hour drive to your destination on the same day you need to be there??). I had a great time and returned home so thankful that I had *not* planned the trip to within an inch of its life.

As if to cement 2016 as something of a risk-taking year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve back in Virginia on a trip that ranks as the most spontaneous bit of international travel I’ve ever undertaken. Friends were heading out there before a work trip to North Carolina and I had unexpectedly secured Sunday January 1st off work – cue space for a decent length holiday. But the actual trip booking? The week before Christmas. That is decidedly uncharacteristic Liz behaviour – but my goodness, how much did I need that trip!!

Thinking about this theme of risk in the early days of the new year, I’ve been struck that actually, riskiness has been a bigger part of my life since I got ordained. Not so much because of ordination, but because I took up a half-stipend job, trusting that I’d be able to muster enough freelance work to make up the difference. Financially I’ve not quite managed the other half of my stipend, but every time I’ve finished a piece of work a new piece has shown up pretty quickly. As 2017 dawned, I’ve got two pretty exciting projects on the table and the prospect of more to come. The risk is paying off.

A dear friend who was with me on both my American adventures in 2016 has told me more than once how proud she is of me. (Each time emphasising very sweetly that she doesn’t mean it in any kind of a patronising way!) It’s not that she wants me to live in a particularly risky way, but that taking certain risks is demonstrative of confidence – confidence in myself and perhaps most importantly, confidence that God has got this.

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve taken risks, but I think in 2016 I realised how important it can be – even when the risks don’t quite work out how you expect them to. In fact, especially when they don’t!

Appropriately enough, on January 4th, in Durham NC, I discovered this print in the rather fabulous Parker & Otis:

The plan is that it’ll hang on the wall and help me face the risks of 2017. I will not be afraid. Even when I get stuck into the thing I said I was looking to master…

…driving. Yep. 2017 could actually be the year I knuckle down, feel the fear and do it anyway. God help me and all other road users!

Looking back, 2013 times

Another year has passed and thus it is time for the obligatory end of year round-up blogpost. 2013 began with an optimistic blogpost about the start of the new year and the end of my project to count up things I had done for the first time.

This post contained a commitment to Project 365 – the taking of one photo a day – which should have been an easy task, given that barely a day goes by without my taking a photo. But a combination of illness (not leaving the house for 3 days isn’t conducive to photography) and forgetfulness meant that it didn’t last past March. However, an unexpected development of 2013 was my commitment to the 0-5km running app, meaning that between February and May I learnt to run 5km – which has since evolved into a fairly regular running habit and an Instagram hashtag of #photographyontherun. It’s amazing what you pass while running…

Photography on the run 2013Before you ask, I’ve got very good at jogging on the spot while taking photos. It basically came about because the RunKeeper app allows you to save photos to your runs, so why not keep track of where you’re running? 

Several of the year’s highlights came with their own form of ID or pass. Obviously, the first thing one does when given one of these is take a photo of it. (Especially as you never know whether you’ll get to keep them at the end of your visit.)

Passes

That would be Matryoshka Haus’ meeting at Apple; my glorious evening at Facebook; the Ask DEC event at BT Tower; writing for the Church Times at Greenbelt; and being interviewed by 8 different local BBC stations. Effectively, have a pass, have a highlight of your year.

This time last year, I already knew I’d be heading to Africa for the very first time – on a trip to Uganda with Tearfund in February/March. Without a doubt, it’s a trip that will never be forgotten. Lately, I’ve been having to re-tell some of the stories of our time there, as part of the promotion for Tearfund’s 2014 bloggers’ trip to Cambodia. (You have until Jan 5th to enter, get writing!) Apparently, this time 12 months ago, I expressed a hope of a return trip to Texas. It didn’t happen, but luckily, Texas came to London in the form of the first-ever Matryoshka Haus Learning Lab. And then a plan became concocted that saw me make a debut visit to San Francisco in September. Combined with a Chateau Duffy trip and a return to Merville, and all-in-all, this year’s travel hasn’t been too shabby!

Travel 2013

The other main highlight of 2013 would be the people I got to share it with. As I rather soppily wrote back in October, I am lucky to have some incredibly long-standing and fabulous friends – but they are not the only ones. The Matryoshka Haus folk have played a big part in the year, as have Vicar School chums, but most excitingly, there have been plenty of new friends too!

Friends 2013

Finally, while traipsing through the blog’s 2013 archive, I couldn’t resist compiling a list of 2013 Firsts. Even though I’ve not been keeping track of them throughout the year, it’s amazing what I can remember just with a few prompts. I found so many that I’ve had to create a separate post for them. I guess it will always be a really positive way of reflecting upon the things that have been achieved in a single year!

Oh, and my happiest moment in the whole of 2013? Don’t judge me, but it would probably be this:

Murray wins Wimbledon

Par Avion

Did I tell you I was going to California for 2 weeks? No? Well, I’m here – in San Francisco to be precise. (Or, to be precise-r, San Rafael – a town across the Golden Gate bridge.)  There will be more than enough opportunities to share the joys of this trip later, this is simply an introduction as to why I’m writing a post about the French national air carrier…

One of the things I love about flying is the ways in which the personalities of countries or regions are expressed on board planes. Last year’s trip to Texas saw my first experience of Delta’s southern charm; Aer Lingus is my airline of choice to Belfast (it has excellent music choices and inoffensive uniforms); and flying BA to Uganda was surreal and hilarious – our return flight included the poshest stewardess in the world.

Somehow, en route to San Francisco, I found myself on board Air France. [I booked through Delta – MH’s airline of choice – and they’re a partner.] Overall this was a good thing. It’s the first flight I’ve been on where I’ve been handed a menu of the flight’s food programme, complete with wine list and vintages (including champagne); it’s certainly the first time I’ve had my choice of French films to watch on board; and the flight attendants are certainly very well dressed.

However, there were disadvantages…

A major one was the fact that, 7 hours after I’d arrived at Heathrow, I found myself flying back over it – having spent the previous hours flying to Paris and then boarding a flight to SF. Slightly frustrating, especially at the point when I realised it would have been quicker to take the train from St Pancras to Paris, and then the Metro to Charles de Gaulle. Ho hum. [There was method to this madness. If you’re doing a long-haul flight that requires a change, do the shortest leg first. I’d have hated to do the 11hr flight to LA and then board another plane to SF.]

On the plus side, this did mean that I found myself with just over an hour to kill in Charles de Gaulle airport. If ever you should find yourself there, note that there are more places at which to buy macarons than there are to buy a nutritious lunch. (Although, who says macarons aren’t a nutritious lunch?) My gate was adjacent to a Laudurée wagon, which says it all really.

7 days of NutellaCDG – where you can also buy ‘weekly’ packs of Nutella. You know, for when a single jar isn’t handy enough…

This adventure also provided me with an excellent opportunity to practice my French. Aboard the flight to Paris, there was a drinks service (the flight was under an hour!) and I asked – in English – for a Diet Coke. The steward did not understand me, so I tried again with “Je voudrais un coke light s’il vous plait” – he obliged and apologised for not speaking good English. I began to wonder how a flight attendant on a route operating out of London could get a job without good English, but then I remembered the French attitude towards their own language and their general belief that it is wonderful – and I vowed to try not to speak English for the rest of the journey.

Initially, this went very well. An “au revoir” to the cabin crew upon landing and a tour-de-force of conversation skills with security while having my hand luggage checked again.
Security: “iPhone?”
Me: “ici” [Pointing to handbag]
Security: [Beckons me through security gate]
Me: “D’accord”
I was impressed with myself…

Things started well aboard the long flight. I understood most of the French announcements – enough to know that the French speakers were getting more information than the English. I ordered my meal in French, chose vin rouge to accompany it and made polite small talk with my French neighbours. Things only began to unravel when I wanted a gin tonic. No one had taught us this at school. Tricolore did not have a spirits section! So I gave up and asked in English. (The bonus was that because the tonic came in 330ml cans, I got two gins…) As my tiredness progressed, the ability to speak even basic French evaded me. The final straw was my US customs form – which proved to be a French translation. If there’s ever a form in which you don’t want to misunderstand the questions, it’s a document issued by US immigration. With zero help from another flight attendant who claimed not to know much English, my neighbour successfully helped me deduce the correct responses.

All in all, I’m pretty relieved that my flight home is via Virgin Atlantic. They may not have menus and champagne, but at least there will be a plentiful supply of films in English and my poor, jet-lagged brain will not be over worked.

Reflecting & remembering

We’re home. It’s hugely surreal and slightly overwhelming.

Yesterday, I arrived back at my flat around 5pm having left Soroti 36 hours previously. In the intervening time, we had driven to Kampala via Jinja and the (disputed) source of the Nile; we’d shopped for souvenirs in Kampala; we’d bidden farewell to our amazing PAG team; waited for what seemed an eternity at Entebbe for our flight; spent 9 hours on a plane; and done a full day at Vicar School. (People thought I was mad, but it was the best thing I could have done – the excitement of catching up with people and an interesting day of endless activity kept me awake and invigorated.)

The team at JinjaOdiira & Shane, Katie from Tearfund and the #tfbloggers at the source of the Nile. To quote the tweet that accompanied this yesterday:Less than 24hrs ago, the #tfbloggers were at the source of the Nile. Now I’m in a pneumotology lecture. *Mind blown*”

It’s now time to reflect and remember the amazing week that was the #tfbloggers trip. As a start, what follows is something of a more light-hearted look at the trip – that shouldn’t undermine what I’ve written thus far, but is more a collection of ‘notes to self’ I made while away…

  • Uganda roads (particularly in rural areas) require bras that have the support level of a high-impact sports bra. (When I posted this on Facebook I was accused of a TMI, but I insist that this is helpful info for anyone travelling there.)
  • Don’t be alarmed if you are offered a plate of “boiled Irish” – this does not refer to a cannibalistic activity, but is instead the Ugandan way of referring to potato. “Mashed Irish” was also a daily option at our guest house. I hope the Irish are proud.
  • Background music can add a high degree of surrealness to situations. Two example of this from last week came courtesy of the music choices of one of our drivers (there was never any in music in the other van). Firstly, the moment when we pulled onto a tiny dirt track en route to Ogongora for the first, when a muzak version of My Heart Will Go On came on. Secondly, the following morning when part of our journey along the dusty road was accompanied by Back for Good – all of a sudden I was back at Wembley watching them live, while conscious that I was 1000’s of miles away. (Other soundtracks included some much more culturally appropriate Rwandan music and a bizarre collection of Country & Western gospel tracks.)

The everlasting dust roadThis + Take That = Weird.

  • See enough “Enjoy an Ice Cold Coke” signs and you will start to crave the stuff with a passion. As virtually every school sign in Uganda is sponsored by Coke, this is a very common sighting. Combined with the distinct lack of ice cold beverages of any variety in the field, this was a painful craving in 37C heat. I don’t even like Coke generally – but the Diet version is not to be found in Uganda.
  • It seems we Brits have under-estimated the usefulness of umbrellas. We think they’re just for keeping our heads dry – how foolish! Didn’t you know they could also function as a sunshade? In fact, Odiira was shocked that we hadn’t thought of bringing them with us – I had to explain that I’d assumed the lack of rain would render one surplus to requirements.

Umbrellas as sunshades

  • Many MTN adverts (a national mobile network) informed me that MTN was the “biggest supporter of the Ugandan cranes”. For some time I wondered why construction equipment or even a breed of bird required such support, then I twigged that the cranes are the national football team. Obviously.
  • Being accompanied on a trip like this by a 6 month old baby is an utter joy. Especially when the baby in question is super cute, placid and exceptionally happy. Shane, Odiira’s daughter, was a joy and it was very sad saying goodbye to her at the airport.

Lunch with ShaneLunch with Shane at Jinja.

  • It’s perfectly acceptable to interrupt a sermon with a request that a member of the congregation lead everyone in an a cappella chorus. I plan to introduce this into my next sermon at St George’s. (Consider this a warning!)
  • Maxi skirts really are the most useful of articles. Not only do they meet the modest dress code needed when travelling, they also have myriad uses: sunshade for legs & feet; plentiful towel for drying hands on; protector of legs from vicious plants & insects; and often colourful enough to be an identifying marker from a distance. Top tip: I love a good maxi skirt and already have one that is my go-to “modest skirt for hot climate” skirt (bought 6 years ago and served me well). A second such skirt was purchased on eBay for 99p last month, meaning that I cared not a jot that it’s returned home with a small hole in it.

In John Julius' homeMy eBay maxi skirt in action. (And the French braids – see below.) [Credit: Bex]

  • My decision to spend an evening learning how to French plait my hair three weeks ago was an excellent use of time. (Even though it was blatant sermon writing procrastination in the moment.) Long hair is a pain in hot weather, and two French braids worked well at keeping it under control and looking good. A single French braid with a bandana was also a good choice for long drives and flights. For years I’ve believed I just couldn’t do it – turned out all I needed was this YouTube tutorial.

French braid at the source of the NileThe French plait at the source of the Nile. (A bit had escaped during the long car journey…) [Credit: Bex]

  • Chickens are surprisingly good travel companions – more so when travelling in a box, rather than loose in the boot. (The former being how Joseph’s new chicken travelled all day Sunday; the latter how it travelled for an hour on Saturday.) Oh, and it’s good to feed them soda to drink, they need the sugar – apparently.

Hydrating the chickenJoseph rehydrates his chicken while we ate lunch.

There’s still more to write, but don’t worry if you’re getting bored with all of this – I’m fairly sure I’ll be done by the end of the week! Thank you for your patience, your support and your prayers/well wishes. It’s been amazing being on this journey knowing how many people have been sharing in it!

To pack; packing; packed

All week, people have been greeting me with “so, are you all set for Uganda?”. Yesterday, I was at a meeting where several people I’d never met before asked me this by way of a greeting – I still had just under 48 hours until I needed to be at Heathrow, so as if I’d have put anything into an actual suitcase already! Obviously, lists had been made and (much) shopping had been done. I felt ready, even though the emptiness of my case might not show it.

But departure day is now tomorrow. I began packing last night, consulted my (extensive list) – I wouldn’t want to make any major packing errors of the ilk I made just a fortnight ago! Today involves a few last minute tasks like picking up new contact lenses and buying bubble mixture (I’ll explain later). Ultimately, all is good.

What Would Jesus Pack? My friend Johnny posted this on my Facebook wall earlier in the week.
My response was that the answer to that question was probably significantly less than what was on my list!

Thing is, this trip involves breaking or adapting most of my regular travelling rules. Usually I would be going offline, and wouldn’t dream of taking my Macbook with me. Obviously, given the aim of the trip, the Macbook is essential (though this would be another occasion on which an iPad would be ideal), as is getting plenty of time online telling people what I’m up to. My travel journal would be my main companion and would be dutifully completed each evening. This time, I’m taking a notebook but I suspect my journalling (as such) online and the notebook will be just that – a book for making notes in.

Oh, and I’ve also got a surge protector – which seems to have caused quite a bit of hilarity on Twitter. From people asking what one was, to some rather dodgy jokes about travel companions called Serge… [For the uninitiated, it’s something to plug electrical items into to protect them against sudden surges in the electrical current. Obviously.] The oddest item in my luggage is probably the door stop, but I’m told it’s an essential.

In 12 hours time I’ll be on the tube to Heathrow and the adventure will have begun. Well, perhaps the Piccadilly Line isn’t terribly adventurous, but the adventure begins tomorrow nonetheless. The aim is to be blogging each evening – but as we arrive at the airport around 11pm tomorrow, I doubt anything will be up before Monday. There is also Twitter (we’ll have Ugandan 3G sims), so if that’s your thing, you can also follow our progress there. If you’re a praying type, do bear us in mind – especially for safe travels, great experiences and good bonding as a team. Thank you!