The life artistic – Cooking up a blast from the past

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They say that nothing conjures up memories better than smells, a fact that anyone who has ever taken the Christmas box out of the attic and found old decorations made from cinnamon sticks and dried oranges will attest to.  For me, taste should definitely be included here.  Most of our sense of taste is really smell anyway, so I think it’s OK for me to stretch the definition of smell slightly.  I also think that the process can work in reverse; with the memory of the way a food smells and tastes being able to conjure up feelings that we associate with it.  This is why every time I feel ill I crave Knorr Austrian Cream of Herb soup, unusual, I know, but when I was little Mum always used to make it for me if I was ill, and the mere memory of the flavour is now enough to provide me with some comfort when I’m off colour.

Unfortunately for me, they discontinued it about ten years ago, and my sick days have been just that little bit worse ever since.  Not anymore though, as I think I’ve finally managed to come up with a recipe that just about reproduces it.  It takes a bit of effort, but it’s well worth it for the yummy, creamy, herby goodness that you end up with.  If, like me, you were once a fan, give it a go and see what you think.  If you’ve never heard of it, give it a go anyway.  I think you’ll like it.

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Cream of Herb Soup (à la Knorr Soups of the World)

Rich, creamy soup made with herbs, mushrooms and sweetcorn

Ingredients:

10g dried wild mushrooms

150ml boiling water

3 shallots, diced finely

2 cloves garlic, diced finely

25g butter

50g flat-leaf parsley, chopped

100g frozen spinach (or wilted fresh spinach)

20g basil, chopped

3 or 4 stalks of thyme, leaves stripped from stems

3 or 4 stalks of dill, chopped

500ml vegetable stock

100ml white wine

Bay leaf

170g tinned sweetcorn

150ml double cream

1 tsp lemon juice

Salt and Pepper

Method:

  1. Place dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour over 150ml boiling water.  Set to one side and leave for 30 mins.
  2. Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the onions and garlic over a medium heat until soft and translucent.
  3. Drain the mushrooms, saving the liquor.  Chop finely, add to the onions and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes.
  4. Add the parsley, basil, spinach, dill, thyme and bay leaf, and cook for a couple of minutes.
  5. Add the white wine and bubble for a minute or so, before adding the veg stock, mushroom liquor and sweetcorn.
  6. Give it a good stir, bring to a simmer and cook for ten minutes.
  7. Remove from the heat, fish out the bay leaf and blend with a plunge blender.  If using a goblet blender, allow to cool first.
  8. Return to a low heat and stir through the double cream.
  9. Add the lemon juice and season to taste.
  10. Heat through, but do not boil.  Serve with crusty bread and some decent cheese.

Note: The soup won’t be completely smooth, which I quite like.  If you want something with fewer bits, try using creamed sweetcorn instead of kernels.

The life theologic – New year, real you

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As a species, we seem to love any opportunity to reminisce and evaluate ourselves.  At the start of each new year we sit down and think about what we’ve done in the past 12 months and try to come up with ways of doing things better in the year to come. Impossible resolutions are fine, because who keeps them anyway?  And surely it’s the thought that counts, right?  We want to be better, even if we don’t manage to achieve it, and that’s the important part, the desire to change and improve.  To be healthier, to learn a new language or spend more time visiting our grandparents.  The spirit is willing, even if the flesh is weak.

Looking back over the last year, I’ve realised that I only wrote nine blog posts.  Nine. That’s not even one per month!  There have been so many posts that I’ve planned, or even written in my head, but that never came into being.

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I meant to write about the magical moment on the 29th of May, in Naples, when I first bit into a sfogliatella and fell in love.  About how I searched high and low for these delicious little pastries in the UK, and almost resorted to baking them myself, even though the pastry requires 2 days and a pasta machine in order to make.

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Then there were the stories of the people I met in Tunis, who were so apologetic about the tragedy at the Bardello museum and spent so long explaining what it really means to be Tunisian, and how the terrorist mentality just does not fit with the Tunisian outlook on life.

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Or the incredible tapas I found at El Tapeo de Cervantes in Malaga, that completely changed both my perception of what tapas should be, and my hatred of dining alone. When food is that good, who cares about the company, or lack thereof?

There have been so many things that I have seen or done or thought this year that I wanted to share, and yet have not.

Thinking about it, I always had the same excuse – I was too busy.  It wasn’t even that I was too busy doing things I love.  I was just too busy, too exhausted by the change of pace that comes when you swap mission for a 9 to 5.  Too busy filling my time with meaningless busyness to stop and think, let alone to write.  What has life come to, when you find yourself too caught up in the day-to-day, to take the time to do the things that make your life worthwhile?

As this new year begins, I don’t want to create a new me.  I don’t want to make resolutions I have no intention of keeping.  I don’t believe that just wanting to be better is enough.  In fact I have no desire to be “better”, especially if the idea of “better” comes from some idealised vision of what the perfect person should be, or how they should behave.

This year, I want to be more like me.  The real me that lies underneath all of the expectation and hype.  The one that God created and loves and values, despite it all.  The one that feels happiest going out wearing jeans that are full of holes, even if everyone else has dressed up.  The one that loves to take the time to write about something she cares about, even if no one else ever reads it.  The one that sings happy songs about peanut butter while she makes her breakfast.  And definitely the one that thinks that playing human hungry, hungry hippos is the most fun you can have on a skateboard.

This is a year to be brave … to be real, all the time, even when people are watching.

The life theologic – There is always more to learn

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Our church was recently visited by a team from Ellel Ministries, who ran a weekend looking at healing and forgiveness.  Having been a part of YWAM for the past 2 years, I was really looking forward to having a large, international team around for the weekend. Don’t get me wrong, Somerset is lovely, but somewhat homogenous, and I miss the diversity that I was surrounded by, both in London and during my time with YWAM. Anyway, apart from being excited by all the foreigners, I went into the weekend with two main preconceptions:  one, that as they were going to be talking about healing and deliverance, it was going to get weird, and two, that I would probably have heard it all before and could just sit back and observe the proceedings.  Basically, I was setting myself up for a weekend of people watching. (How often do we do that in church, on those Sundays when we’re tired and don’t feel like we can muster up the energy to have a proper conversation with God.)

Thankfully, not only did Ellel turn out to be the least weird and wacky ministry team I think I’ve ever experienced (my church is weirder on a weekly basis), but I also really enjoyed the teaching.  Yes, I had heard most of it before, but God still used that time to speak to me in a new way.  I love how He does that, even when we think we know better, or that we already know it all, He still manages to surprise and humble us.  This time it was in the form of a very simple exercise.  We were asked to draw a heart on a piece of paper, and to start writing in it things that God was revealing to us about the good things that He has placed in our hearts, and the things that are not so good. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, it is so much easier for most of us to fill that heart with the negative things that we feel about ourselves; the hidden sins and failures that plague our waking hours and act to drive a wedge between us and God.  There were plenty of negative things that I could have written in the heart, but from the moment we started the exercise I was bombarded with such a torrent of good things, that I soon ran out of space to put anything negative.  The more I wrote, the more they kept coming; things I would agree with and things that I couldn’t see in myself, and some things that were difficult for me to write down.  It was like God wanted to use that moment to show me how He sees my heart.  How, because of Jesus, He doesn’t see the bad things that I dwell upon.  He wanted to show me all of the things that He has placed in my heart and is working on growing and developing.  Some of them are still little seedlings, and some are fully fledged trees, but they are all there, whether I accept it or not.  It was an amazing experience.  It’s taken me a long time to learn how to deal with compliments, as they usually make me want to shrink into myself, and here I was, being complimented by God!  And yet, it didn’t make me want to cringe, it made me want to try and live up to the version of me that He sees.

I so easily relapse into dwelling on the bad, only to be reminded by God of the good, that this time I decided to take action.  I decided to record the things He said about me and turn them into something that I would want to look at.  I’m hoping that by looking at them everyday, they will help me to remember who I am, and to think about how God sees me, rather than how the rest of the world does.

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(The eagle-eyed among you will notice that mine is in the shape of Africa, not a heart. That’s for two reasons: one, because I love how Africa is pretty much heart shaped anyway, and two, because Africa is where my heart lies.)

The life artistic – When in Rome (and I mean actually in Rome)

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I often forget that this well known phrase comes with a second part, in which we are instructed to “do as the Romans do.”  I’m not sure that I managed this on my recent visit, as I didn’t meet or see a single Roman while staying in Rome.  Thousands of tourists, and plenty of people attempting to sell them things, but no true Romans.  It was as if the entire city were populated with visitors, and people that were just passing through.  The transience and short attention span of the crowds, the constant parry and riposte between tourist and hawker, and the emptiness of the back streets if you dared to wander away from the tourist trail, gave the entire city a sense of being one giant theme park.  I think that the queues to see the sights might have had something to do with it too …

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Time and again as I walked the streets, dodging raindrops, I would see people taking selfies beside beautiful buildings to prove to the world that they had seen Rome, and would wonder if they really had.  I certainly feel like I barely scratched the surface of the city during my visit.  So much of it felt window-dressed, a show put on to amuse visitors, a facade to hide the realities of what the city is really like and the problems it is facing. Historic squares were packed and bustling, but moving just one block away, the side streets were deserted.  Walking down them felt like sneaking backstage, as if this was the part of Rome that you weren’t supposed to see.  Not that they were unloved, or had the feeling of pure functionality that backstage areas often possess.  Quite the contrary. In fact I wish that all cities had side streets that were quite so beautiful.

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No, they just felt closed off, as if tourists were welcome to come and see the sights, and were certainly welcome to spend their money, but were not welcome to see anything more intimate than that.  Visiting had to be purely transactional – you were there to marvel at Rome, not to become acquainted with its people or its customs.  Visitors were a commodity to be exploited, not potential friends, yet to be made.

And yet, this begs the question of why we have allowed this closing-off to happen to what is arguably, one of the most beautiful and historically important cities on the planet?  Why have we turned it into a place of spectacle, where visitors work their way through a tick-list of monuments, but miss out on the heart of the city; its people?  And who’s fault is it anyway?  Are the people of Rome to be blamed for treating visitors as commodities, or are successive generations of tourists to blame for using and abusing the city, taking away with them cameras full of memories, and leaving behind piles of rubbish?

Personally, I feel that most of the blame lies on the sunburnt shoulders of the tourist, and is a problem that has been developing over centuries.  Tourists are consumers at heart, and so much of the time we chose to consume the sights, the food, the monuments, and overwhelmingly nowadays, the alcohol, of a nation that we visit.  How few of us visit a country with the intention of getting to know the people and their customs, even though they are the lifeblood of every nation?  I am to blame for this as much as anyone.  As an unashamed ancient history geek, I often overlook everything in the pursuit of getting to see an ancient monument.

But I have found that on every occasion in which I take the time to seek out the places less visited, to speak to the locals, to try the food that I can’t pronounce, and to learn about the country or city from those that live there, that I have gained the most.  It is only through attempting to understand a country through the eyes of a local that you can truly form an opinion of it, or truly appreciate it’s beauty or accomplishments.  The cycle of exploitation that exists between tourist and local is not an easy one to escape from, but it is worth trying to rise above.  Only by reaching out to people with an open and inquisitive mind can we learn to love them, and it is only by loving its people that we can truly claim to love a city.

I shall have to return for a longer stay and fight through the crowds of tourists, looking for locals not yet jaded by the transient hordes, because I really really want to be able to say that I love Rome.  Unfortunately, at the moment, I honestly cannot say that I do.

The life scientific – Role models

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Upon hearing the sad news of the death of legendary mathematician, John Nash, and his wife, Alicia, I was struck with an immediate desire to dig out ‘A Beautiful Mind’ from our stack of DVDs.  It seemed like a fitting tribute and celebration of the life of one of the greatest mathematical intellects of our time.  Settling down to start watching, I realised what an amazing thing it is to have a record of his life and works set down as a film, and an award-winning one at that.  It made me wonder if, without it, I would even know who he was?

One of the big struggles that I face in this world of instant celebrity and social media, is the fact that those we seem to celebrate the most are those that seem to have done the least that is worthy of praise.  Why is it that we admire the rich and famous, and what is it that they have actually done to become so in the first place?  Don’t get me wrong, sports stars and actors often have talent in spades, and some make excellent role models, but unfortunately, the majority of those thrust into the public eye are sadly lacking.  Where are the scientists and doctors, lawyers and philosophers, humanitarians and peace-keepers?  Why are there so few people of integrity and character in the limelight?

I know that fame is not for everyone, and that I would hate to be hounded by media if it were me, but I feel like we should at least make an effort to find role models that are worth following.

ten-Boom_CorriePeople like Corrie Ten Boom, who helped to hide hundreds of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland, and who later was able to meet and publicly forgive one of the guards that held her in a concentration camp.

Or Professor Molly Stevens of Imperial College, who managed to mix together the fields of biochemistry and engineering to pioneer ways of growing human bone to use for transplants.

amal-alamuddinOr Amal Clooney, who’s actor husband gets all of the attention, but who is a lawyer and activist, working in a field she is clearly gifted in, to bring about change in cases of human rights abuses and genocide.

It makes me wonder what the world would look like if those that did the most for mankind were the ones that we looked up to.  What would this world be like if kindness was rated higher than wealth, and serving the poor was given more prestige than a PhD?  I think it would be a world that I would like to live in.  I would certainly have more hope for it than I do for the current  generation.  We have allowed it to be raised on a diet of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, and will end up reaping the fruits of that decision.

The life artistic – Carpe jugulum

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I’ve got to admit that I was slightly apprehensive about travelling to Romania on my own. I blame a combination of studying Gothic literature at A-level and an overactive imagination.  I’ll admit to having compulsively checked the locks on all the windows before going to bed, because everyone knows the window is Dracula’s preferred mode of entry, but I’m pleased to say that apart from that nervous tick I not only survived the trip unscathed, but left with a new found respect for Romania.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself upon arrival, having travelled with one of the worse colds I’ve ever had, and wanted nothing more than to bury myself in my hotel room and pray that my ears unblocked themselves soon.  I was not, however, prepared for the journey from the airport into the centre of town, where I was to be staying that night.  As the bus negotiated the dense, rush hour traffic, the sheer beauty of the buildings and parklands that were passing by blew me away.  Vague memories of Bucharest being described as the ‘Paris of the East’ came floating back as we crawled past stately mansions decked out with balconies and turrets.  Needless to say, all, well, most feelings of illness and fatigue fell away (it was a nasty cold after all), and I was keen to go exploring.

For a while I just revelled in the wonderfully forgotten freedom of being able to walk the streets alone after dark.  Europe definitely has one up on South Africa in that respect. The old town has a buzz to it at night, with restaurants spilling out onto the streets and late night revellers sipping drinks inside painfully trendy bars.  The streets in this tiny district (it’s less than 1km²) are tangled enough for you to feel delightfully disorientated, without the risk of ever actually being lost. Crumbling buildings rub shoulders with those that have been beautifully restored, and every corner holds a surprise in terms of architecture, whether it be a 4-storey art nouveau apartment block or a 16th Century Orthodox Church, like the Old Court Church of St Anton pictured below.

WP_000586Hanul_lui_Manuc,_1841Of all the beautiful buildings I discovered on my wanderings, my favourite has to be Manuc’s Inn, a 19th Century caravanserai that occupies a whole block on the edge of the old town.  Having been rebuilt several times, it is currently being lovingly restored to it’s former glory, right down to the quirky wooden pavements that apparently used to cover the whole of the city.  I spent a glorious hour cocooned in the coffee shop located in a corner of the building, soaking up the spring sunshine and watching people pass by in the modern city square outside.  People watching here is fun.  I seemed to have stumbled upon one of the trendier locations, and saw a curious mixture of old ladies selling flowers, well-dressed business men, students chatting in groups, and young women dressed up to the nines in killer heels and bright red lipstick.  What I really liked was the idea that just by shifting my seat to the terrace, I could escape the modern world entirely and dream away as I gazed upon the interior of the old courtyard of the inn.

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If you ever come to Bucharest, I cannot recommend the free walking tours too highly. My guide was studying to be an architect, which was perfect for a city where you find so many different styles nestled together.  Wandering on my own was fun, but getting to hear the history behind my discoveries was even better.  It gave me a deeper understanding of the people I had watched go by, and of the lives they live in the city.

But, as anyone who has ever been to London will know, you can never judge a country based solely on its capital city.  Escaping from the bustle of Bucharest, I ventured into the beautiful countryside of Buzau County.  This is where I expected my rude awakening to occur.  The big city had been a surprise, but surely now I would find the Romania of my foggy childhood memories.  The one full of under-funded orphanages, where we send shoeboxes of toys every Christmas.

Thankfully, I was disappointed in this particular expectation.  I won’t deny that there is poverty there, but it seems far less raging than I had been led to believe.  Either that or I’ve become acclimatised to seeing a certain level of poverty from the last 18 months living in Southern Africa.  The villages were by no means wealthy, but every house had a patch of land that was bursting forth with what would become food for the summer.  It may just be the way I’m wired, but what I see as poverty in the city, in the countryside I see as simplicity.  To my mind, people were living as my grandparents may well have done when they were children.  Life was less complicated, and there were fewer things that they felt the need to acquire, but I’m not sure if they were any less well off because of that.

Lump me in with the French aristocracy of the 18th Century, who used to enjoy playing at being peasants, if you like, but I found the simplicity and beauty of the countryside refreshing.  Everywhere I looked the trees were in blossom, the sun was warming, and gentle hills rolled out, blending into the horizon, green and inviting.  Just being there you could feel the weariness dropping away.  All I wanted to do was go and get lost in one of the many patches of woodland that surrounded me.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay there forever and had to head back to Bucharest to continue my journeying.  My abiding memories of Romania will be of the wonderful warmth and hospitality I received from the locals, and of the slightly shabby beauty that I encountered everywhere I went.  It was a great reminder that something doesn’t have to be new and perfect in order to be beautiful; the beauty of character creates a striking impression that stays with you far longer than anything something clinically beautiful could produce.

The life theologic – A radical solution

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Working with an NGO that mainly deals with those most at risk for human trafficking, I’ve come to realise just how great the gender imbalance is when you look at the world.  Globally, a greater proportion of women and girls are trafficked than men or boys (70% as opposed to 30% according to the latest UN report on Trafficking in Persons).  This is a huge difference, considering there are slightly more men than women alive in the world today.  Looking deeper, you realise how bad the situation is.  Females are more likely to be aborted, killed as infants, refused treatment when sick, raped, beaten by their partners, and paid less for equal work, while being less likely to be educated or well fed, as well as being scarred by FGM in certain parts of the world!  That’s a horrifying list to look at, and it made me wonder why this is happening?  What is it about women that makes them deserving of this treatment?  Why is there so little love for women in the world? DTS Five (25) I count myself lucky to have grown up in a family and nation where women have equal rights to men.  I was never held back or marginalised because of my gender, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I was told I couldn’t do something because I was female.  Because of the encouraging environment, access to healthcare and education, and most importantly of all, love that I received at home, I was free to grow into the giftings God has given me and to achieve things considered impossible or at least pointless for a woman by much of the worlds population.  Because of the education I received, I know that biologically, there is no reason why women cannot obtain the same level of understanding of the world around them as men.  When given the same level of education, they are not deceived more easily than men.  So why are they treated in this way by so much of the world?  Why is a correct attitude seen as one in which it is considered pointless to educate a woman?  Was it just luck that determined that I should be allowed freedoms and rights that are denied to so many? I don’t believe so.  In Western countries, those founded on Christian principles anyway, the lot of women tends to be better, but there is still not true equality.  In the church we are guilty of preventing women from reaching their true potential by holding back those that would minister or teach others.  I don’t believe that this is Biblical, or that it reflects the true character or image of God.  Men and women were created from the same source, both in the image of God.  They were given the task of ruling the earth together. They were both present at the fall.  Don’t be fooled, Adam was there too when Eve took the fruit, and did nothing to stop her.  He then took it from her, having witnessed the previous exchange with the serpent.  They were both equally deceived.  And they have both been equally redeemed by Christ.  The early church, based on the example Christ set in His interactions with women, was hugely counter-cultural, with women leading churches and teaching.  Paul taught men to love their wives as themselves, something they had never had to do before, wives being considered property, rather than partners.  He also frequently gave direction and correction about women teaching, prophesying and leading, something that blatantly suggests that women were fulfilling these roles.  We were always intended to work together in fulfilling the Great Commission, but at the moment at least half of the work force is being held back!  Think how much more we would be able to do if more women were helped to grow in their talents and giftings? DTS Outreach  (82) If so much could be done within the church by a shift in the value we place on women, just how much could be done in other areas of life?  In so many cultures, women are raped and abused because they are not considered to be worth as much as a man.  Female babies are aborted or neglected because they are considered a liability and an expense.  We need to change the way the world perceives women.  We need to realise that, in God’s eyes, women and men are of equal value.  That we have been charged to look after this earth together.  Of course things are going to go wrong if you oppress half of the workforce!  We need to work together to build a future.  Globally, if we educated women to the same level as men, and gave them the same rights and access to services, we would have a much larger potential workforce.  More minds able to ponder the difficult questions in life.  More inventors coming up with solutions to alleviate poverty.  More researchers discovering cures for diseases.  Elevating the value of women to its rightful place could be an amazing solution to poverty, if we could just see past the blinkers of the past. In the end though, it doesn’t matter what we choose to do with our lives or with any new-found freedoms that we may gain.  It matters more that we are able to grow in the giftings we are given, whatever they may be, so that we can each do the thing we do best, to the benefit of all.  It doesn’t matter if we are led by a man or a woman, as long as they are living out their gifting.  We should all have the opportunity to excel in something, and to be proud of what we do.