Australian summer

A week ago we returned from a 4 day break in Port Macquarie, a town on the mid north coast of NSW which has been the location of many family holidays since my childhood. I’m looking at a few of the “snapshots” from that mini break and thinking about the joys and struggles of the Australian summer, things that I have known all my life, but which after 10 years living in the chilly north, have impacted me in a new way.

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Nobby Beach last Sunday morning

 

Bushfire

We arrived on a Wednesday evening to find this lovely stretch of coastline oddly dim, with a pall of smoke hanging over the town, and the smell of fire pervading everything. We soon discovered that a bushfire was raging a few miles north, around Crescent Head, another popular holiday destination, of which we also have happy memories. The beach showed the tell tale signs: the first day we sat on black burnt leaves blown from the fires out to sea and then washed back onto the beach. But in a few days the tides magically cleaned the debris away, the sand washed clean by nature. The smoke and the smell cleared the second night after a fall of rain, although there were still smouldering remains visible to the north when we left town four days later. Bushfires are the bane of the Australian summer. They impact us all, but none more deeply than those who have lost homes or loved ones many of whom struggle with the trauma for years.

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Looking north from Lake Cathie

Surf

The beach has been and is a source of endless fun and recreation for millions of Australians and tourists every summer. But it has its dangers, and deserves respect and caution. The day we arrived in Port we were greeted with the news of an 11 year old lost in the surf, caught in a rip, carried out to sea. He and his family had arrived in town that day and thought they would take a dip to cool off. But they chose an un-patrolled beach (no life savers) on an afternoon when the surf was rough and dangerous, and though the boy and his older brother were not out of their depth, the smaller lad was presumably knocked down by a wave, caught by the current, and disappeared. His frantic older brother tried to find and rescue him, to no avail. He raised the alarm and a search ensued, but he was gone, lost to the sea. The search continued for a week, but his body has not been found, claimed by the sea. A few days after the tragedy we were walking on the beach at Lake Cathie, a coastal village some miles south of Port, and a rescue helicopter flew over, low down, combing the coastline, searching to see if the currents had carried his body south. It was a chilling reminder, and like the smoke cast a shadow over our days away.

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Isak crossing Lake Cathie beach

Sun

Ours is a hot land. In Sweden people never use the word hot to describe the weather. It is never more than “warm.” But our summers here are hot, there is no other way to describe them. We wear sandals or flip flops (“thongs” is the Australian term) to protect our feet from being burned by the road when we go the beach. We smother our skin with sunscreen whenever we go swimming and it is noticeable that the older we get the less of our bodies we expose to the sun, and that’s not just because we have lost our youthful beauty – though there is that! Responsible parents make sure their kids are not just smeared with sunscreen, but have long sleeved shirts and hats when they are in the water. By my age, our skin is showing the ravages of many Australian summers, and we cover up.

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Forgot the hat

Coast

The Australian coastline is wild and beautiful, even in coastal cities like Sydney and Newcastle, where we live. It give us so much joy, and we have had, and continue to have, so many happy times there. Despite the sadness that tinged our mini-break, and the hazards that are part of every Australian summer, we loved our few days at Port Macquarie, walking the beaches, exploring the rocky headlands, surfing in the waves. Early last Sunday morning, before we packed up to head home, I walked down to Flynn’s Beach, just a few hundred metres from our Pacific Drive apartment. There was a camper van parked by the surf club building, clearly a rental vehicle, with its top up and the back door raised to reveal a little stove and fridge. The occupants had obviously spent the night there, sleeping to the endless music of waves breaking on the beach. I strolled past and realised by the conversation that the four young people eating their breakfast in the shade of the towering pines were European tourists, perhaps on their first trip to Australia. It made me happy to think that others from around the world can come here to enjoy the natural beauty of our seaside. I thought how wonderful it must be to experience all this for the first time. I silently wished them well on their journey north.

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Maria hits the surf
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Resurrecting the blog

I sit at home staring across Lake Macquarie; sails in the distance off Coal Point bend to the breeze. Billowing clouds soften a pale blue sky; far away on the southern horizon the colours blend into soft blue grey. Spinnakers in blue and red and black colour the expanse between Toronto on the western shore and Valentine to the east.

It is a year and a week since we walked off our flight from Sweden, one year since we came “home.” After a few months of wandering and wondering we found ourselves a house to rent on the shores of this lovely lake, an expanse of water that covers an area larger than Sydney Harbour. I found a job in a little lakeside community with the unlikely name of Toronto. Just recently Maria too started working in a suburb called Charlestown, between here and central Newcastle.

There are worse places to spend your days. My office at work has huge windows with sweeping views across the water. On Wednesday afternoons there is always a friendly race of grey sailed yachts tacking back and forth across the lake. It is beautiful when I arrive in the mornings while the day is young and fresh. It is even more stunning when the evening sun infuses with life the colours of lake and shore. A few times during the winter months I have witnessed a full moon rising over the lake in the darkness before I have left for home in the evening. Then the lake becomes a magical place.

But for all its wonder, our hearts have not come home. Newcastle is new to us, as is Lake Macquarie, and despite all the beautiful sights around us, we have spent a year struggling to find our feet in a society that feels extremely foreign, and often rather ugly, even for me, the most Australian among us. Missionaries returning home after years abroad often speak of the pain of re-entry, but such pain can await any expatriate returning to his or her land of origin. It can happen to anyone coming “home.” It has happened to us.

We are still in transition. We don’t fit here, not yet, and we wonder sometimes if we ever will. Some days are better than others, but after a year, we still long for our other home, in the cold north. We miss our friends, our town, our jobs, our church… we miss so much. Now as Spring comes to Australia, we find ourselves longing for the colours and chill of autumn in Scandinavia.

I have found it hard to write a blog during the year that is now past. It is hard to write of pain when the decision to come back was ours alone, and we think we should be feeling excitement and joy. We feel vaguely like failures.

Few understand. This sunny southland seems like a promised land to many of our Swedish friends, especially when the Nordic winter seems to drag on and on, the icy winds unwilling to release their grip. We have been there for many winters now and we know well the tedium of the seemingly endless cold. I have longed for Australia many times. So what are we complaining about? Surely we should be just basking in the warmth of the sunny south, not whinging.

For our new friends our complaints and grumbling are not welcome either. If we find things so irritating, why did we come? It is easier to stay silent. It is hard to embrace a city that so many of them think is perfect so many ways. So we can’t gush about how happy we are, because that would be dishonest, but at the same time we can’t whine about our pain and struggle, because people don’t know how to cope with that. So we live in our own little bubble, disconnected in many ways from both the world we left, and the world we have come to.

But I think now that the time has come for me to begin writing again. I like writing. I used to write stuff before the internet, but now I can share my thoughts with anyone who stumbles on this site. It will no doubt be sporadic, but if time for writing eludes me I will post a picture. I named this blog “snapshots and ramblings” after all, so maybe snaps will have to suffice sometimes.

When I write I want to try to be honest, but not too negative. I was talking to Madelene, a Swedish friend and colleague, a week or so back, and she challenged me to think of the good things, the things we can be thankful for. It is not a bad habit to get into, to look for the good, and be thankful. I needed to be reminded.

Perhaps I can begin with some pictures from around here. There is much to lift the spirits as I gaze out from our home, and when I sit in my office doing my job.

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Marmong Point and marina, from the hills behind our home.

 

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Looking south across Lake Macquarie, from Speers Point.

Angels in the darkness

At this time of year Sweden is engulfed in darkness. We all long for light. Candles burn in every window. Candles are a part of Swedish winter, and especially at Christmas.

Today I read the following article in the journal of the Swedish Medical Association, Läkartidningen. It brought tears to my eyes. This is an English translation, but the original article can be found here.

Like angels in the darkness

Mariko Yoshinaga Galvér
General Practice registrar, Uppsala, Sweden

My name is Mariko Yoshinaga Galvér and I am a GP registrar in a health centre in Uppsala. I came to Sweden twelve years ago from Japan, where I studied medicine.

I have never written before but I feel compelled to tell the story of something special that happened yesterday.

Yesterday I received a patient, an unaccompanied refugee child.

The referral that came with her said she was tired, and she had been booked in for a 45 minute appointment, with a telephone interpreter. I saw in the medical records that the child had experienced every imaginable horror in her homeland. I realised that this was going to be a challenging meeting and as I went out to the waiting room my steps were slow and deliberate.

The girl sat alone, looking tense. I discovered that she can speak Swedish, so we dispensed with the interpreter. Seated in my office she spoke slowly and calmly; I was amazed by her calmness. I examined her. I saw the scars on her little body.

For the first time in my life I thought of God, there in my office. I am not religious, I come from a Buddhist land, though I did marry in a Swedish church. But for the first time I thought of God and I prayed: please God, help her.

And then I heard children singing, quietly and calmly. We looked at each other, my patient and I, her glance confirming that I wasn’t just hallucinating.

We went out of the room. We saw many beautiful children, dressed in white, candles in their hands. Suddenly I remembered, today was Lucia and the children before us were the Lucia train. They looked just like angels in the darkness. The staff were happy and listened as the children sang. One of the nurses fetched a chair so that a mother bearing a child in her arms could sit and listen.

The angels looked us with their beautiful, beautiful smiles.

I am convinced that this girl will be happy here. Things like this don’t happen in Japan. Maybe they don’t happen in other countries either. She will be happy in Sweden.

I cycled home. And I began to cry as I thought about the day’s Lucia.

You know God, that I have also been happy here, in Sweden.

Happy Christmas!

Migration medicine

Earlier this week I attended an evening hosted by SYLF – Sweden’s Young Doctors’ Association – about migration, which is a hot topic of conversation in Sweden at the moment. Refugees are pouring into the country and people are wondering how this is going to work. There were three talks: the first given by a friend of ours about a clinic that has been set up for beggars in our city of Örebro, the so called Stefanus Clinic, the second given by registered nurse from our hospital who spoke of his experiences with Medicins sans Frontiérs in Libya, Syria and Liberia, and the last one by a representative of the Immigration Department here in Örebro.

In the talk by the Department of Immigration figures were quoted to give some feeling for the magnitude of the situation.There were 10,553 asylum seekers who arrived in Sweden last week, and of these, 2,942 were unaccompanied minors, the majority, it would seem, from Afghanistan. The number of asylum seekers was over 800 more than the previous week. The total number of asylum seekers for 2015 to 11 November was 134,883, already over 50,000 more than the number who arrived in the whole of 2014, when only 81,301 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden. The three biggest contributors were Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

These are mind boggling numbers. No-one, including the Immigration Department, has any idea how the country is going to absorb these people into the society. However, the Department is doing its best to provide shelter and food for everyone, a task which is becoming harder by the day. Here in Örebro the local council has resorted to using hotels to provide temporary accommodation for unaccompanied minors. But there are places all over the country, unused buildings, which are being turned into accommodation. There is talk of tent camps being erected, but Sweden is winter is not really a pleasant place to live in a tent. Voluntary organisations, including churches, are providing accommodation and various kinds of support to the refugees. There is a constant demand for people to teach Swedish.

There are many in the world who believe that Sweden is naïve in accepting so many foreigners into the country. There are predictions of a decline in the economy, and of the country being literally overrun by foreigners. There are groups in Sweden who are very unhappy about this and some potential refugee accommodations have been burnt down by Swedish protestors before refugees have moved in.

But as I cycled home I couldn’t help thinking of the Old Testament and how it encourages us to be kind to foreigners. Here is what it says:

In Leviticus 19:“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

And in Deuteronomy 24: Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

And in Ezekiel 47: You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.

Of course Jesus echoed these sentiments in his teaching too.

Matthew 25:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

I couldn’t help thinking of the words of God, so famously quoted by Eric Liddell, Scotland’s great olympic hero, from the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 2:30:

Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.

Sweden is a land of contradictions. It is a land where secularism appears to have triumphed, but is at the same time a land whose values are deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian worldview, as embarrassing as that might be to the unbelievers among us. Australia, my other home, has become known as a land that is tough on asylum seekers, infamous for “turning the boats around.” Some see this as a triumph of foreign policy. Others see it as an embarrassment. Sweden has become known as being a soft touch for refugees, one of the few countries in Europe that has refused to close its borders.

I can’t help thinking that Sweden, for all its noisy secularism, might have an approach that is closer to God’s heart than it cares to admit. However, it does not perform its acts of kindness in the name of the God of the Bible, but in its own name. Its kindness may have its roots in the Judeo-Christian ethic, but will that kindness prevail if Sweden refuses to acknowledge its real source, namely Jesus Christ and what he shows us of the Father. For ultimately that kindness will require self sacrifice, another aspect of God’s character that we humans find hard to adopt.

If we as a nation continue to perform acts of kindness, even though it costs us dearly, but we continue as a nation to turn our backs on God, will he honour us? If Sweden prevails without acknowledging God, will that be a triumph of secularism? Will Sweden triumph because of its Swedishness rather than its godliness? If we are godly in our behaviour, does it matter if we acknowledge God? What of the other secular countries in Europe that are taking an increasingly hard line against refugees and asylum seekers. Will they be the winners in this battle of humanitarianism?

I am a foreigner in Sweden myself, and I have been welcomed, as has my family. I understand the sentiment expressed in the Leviticus passage: Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I have experienced something of what it is to be a stranger in a strange land, and though it has been easier for me as an Australian, it has had its challenges. As I see the enormous influx of foreigners and strangers into our comfortable and secure society, even as I recognise the potential problems, how can I possibly look the other way? What will I do? And in whose name will I do it?

Autumn

Through the window
Through the window

Saturday morning. Crisp cold autumn. Fog blankets our little corner of Örebro. The sky above is clear but the blue is barely visible through the white mist. The fir trees that line the ridge that is known as Brickeberg, behind the houses of our suburb, and beyond which is forest, are ghostly outlines in the haze. The grass of our garden and the top of the hedge that separates it from the road are white with frost. A birch tree across the road is laden with golden leaves, but further away the world seems to dissolve into grey scale – black and white. The sun is shining somewhere beyond, trying to burn the mist away, pushing its brightness through the white veil, but still beyond reach, out there.

It is a long time since I have posted on this blog, almost a year. I have thought so many times about beginning to write again, but the longer it goes the harder it gets. It has been a difficult year for our family with many unwanted challenges, some of which remain unresolved. We still live in Sweden, but we think we will not be here much longer. As time draws on we feel the pull of the great southland, our other home, Australia.

It is a little over nine years since we left that hot dry continent and reestablished our lives here. The plan for a temporary sojourn of a few years did not give us time to achieve our goals. We stayed and stayed and despite a year’s respite in the warmth of those southern climes a few years back we found ourselves returning to this cold and dark but intensely beautiful land. Suddenly we began to feel that we had stayed too long, but we were somehow stuck. Extricating ourselves rom our Swedish life has not come easy, and it is far from accomplished. Sometimes we wonder whether it is smart, or even possible…

Our time here has been good and it has been bad. Which is perhaps a picture of life. We have made decisions that have turned out to be right and others that have turned out to be wrong. We rejoice for the successes and are sad for our failures. There are things that we would change if we could turn back time, but life can only be lived forward and so we can only try to avoid the same mistakes.

It is hard to be a family from two nations, two languages, two cultures. Our children are what are nowadays known as third culture kids. They are entering adulthood now and like us, their parents, wonder where they belong. They are not Swedish, they are not Australian. They belong to a third culture, and that is the identity and heritage we have given to them. They are not alone in this. There are millions of kids around the world who leave childhood and embark on life with the same burden, if that is what it is. They carry that idea of themselves for the rest of their lives. I know how that feels because I am one of them, a third culture kid. Sometimes I rejoice for the wonders that it let me experience. Sometimes I weep.

If things go according to plan this will be our last year in Sweden. It is painful to write that, and yet in some ways is a relief. If I am to post blogs in the months that remain they will be written in that context – of winding up, of closing down, of clearing out the debris of the past years. At present I feel no excitement about moving again, finding a new home, establishing new connections and relationships. But I trust that anticipation and excitement will come. It is a strange time.

I peer through the fog beyond our triple glazed windows. The sky is getting brighter and more colours emerge from the black and grey lines. Autumn has been lovely, with little rain and frequent blue skies. The temperature has slipped slowly down toward zero and frosts have really only arrived in the last week. Gloves and hats are pulled once more from storage and we reluctantly realise that winter is just around the corner. If it rains there will soon be ice on the roads and cycling will assume its winter challenge.

Will there be snow before Christmas this year, I wonder?

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Colours in autumn mist

South

Flying south
Flying south

A year after we arrived in Sweden I started working at a health centre on the other side of Örebro. The suburb in which we live is on the south eastern corner of the city and in my musings as I cycled to work every day I reflected on the fact that I was cycling north, away from the warmth and toward the polar regions. As the months slipped by autumn deepened into winter and I experienced for the first time real cold. I remember the novel feeling of icy raindrops hitting my eyes as I sped down the hill. The greyness of November days was swallowed up by the blackness of lengthening winter nights.

November must surely be the worst month of the year. It is cold and wet and overcast and once the leaves have gone there is little to relieve the grey drabness. Two things stand out in the greyness of November in Sweden. The first is Allahelgonsafton – All Saints Eve – when churchyards all over the country come to life with candlelight. On the Saturday of that weekend people visit the burial places of their ancestors, leaving a long burning candle on the grave. Since many people are no longer buried, but rather cremated, when they die, leaving no headstone to visit, there are memorial gardens in cemeteries and churchyards too and these become a veritable sea of flickering candlelight. As morbid as it sounds, it it the graveyards of Sweden that bring relief to the darkness of November.

The other thing that marks this month is the mid term break, the so called höstlov – autumn holiday. It is perhaps not much of a time for a holiday, so nowadays many travel abroad, southward to warmer climes – Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Canary Islands.

We stayed home however, and one afternoon took a stroll through our local forest – Markaskogen. Walking back toward home in the darkening afternoon we heard telltale sounds overhead and as our eyes were drawn upwards we caught a glimpse of migratory birds, their long necks straining forwards. They too head south at this time of the year, away from the cold drabness towards somewhere warmer and happier. Some, like the swans in this photo, go no further than Denmark, but others have the good sense to not stop until they have crossed the Mediterranean into Africa.

Heading south seems the smartest thing to do when November greyness threatens to drown us in its drudgery. Times like this we wonder why we live in this cold northern land and not in our other home, Australia, the Great Southland.