Sunday, February 27, 2011

A word from Europe

I worshipped in a tall, wooden church in Stockholm tonight. Do not ask how I got from Italy to Sweden. Long story. I am visiting a friend I met in Zambia and though he claims to be a part-time atheist and part-time agnostic, he likes going to church on occasion.

As I looked around the room I was surprised to see so many crucifixes (Jesus on the cross). The Church of Sweden is Protestant, descendents of the Lutherans, and usually crosses are empty in the Protestant church (symbolizing Jesus´victory over death). I did not understand the words of the priest, so I had time to notice such things. I love being in church and it felt good to be nestled in tightly between two good atheist friends and listen to the strength of the congregation as they spoke the liturgy in harmony.

The priest wore Converse shoes.

I learned yesterday that 1 in 5 Swedes are in a choir. That is a pretty impressive statistic. Clearly this is what fosters greatness like the gift that Sweden offered the world: ABBA. And Roxette. I think the first CD my sister ever bought was a Roxette album.

Stockholm is buried in snow. The sky has been dull much like the snow that is old and tired, but I cannot help but pause in awe at such an old, magnificent city. Tomorrow I plan to go to a traditional Swedish spa with a girlfriend and supposedly we must dip into a frozen lake in our birthday suits. Eeek!

I could use some thawing. Perhaps most of us Northern Hemisphere folk are feeling the same way.

As my friend Bill Smith reminds me, "No matter your winter, Spring will come." Yes, indeed.

Monday, February 7, 2011


We don’t have hill country in the United States. Just north of Rome is the province of Umbria, a region known for its lush valleys and slow pace of life. There are hints of spring everywhere. Bright green shoots are pushing through freshly tilled soil and the olive trees are stretching and yawning in their fields. The mountains are old, rounded and tamed by centuries of farming. The tops are crowned by magnificent walled cities that burn gold and pink in the evening light.

I have been told that one must attend to detail in this country. Notice the finely crafted sculptures, churches, arches, and fountains. Do not miss the extraordinary detail. Savor each exquisite bite of pasta al dente and feel the unique density of the bread as you move from region to region. Wander the serpentine streets and feel the smooth roundness of the archway you lean into as you wait in line for a cappuccino, but do not rest easy in your languid reverie for too long. It is Italy’s discordance that makes it truly great. Take a brief jaunt through Naples, the birthplace of pizza, for a new perspective. Gritty and piled high with garbage and lovers, the fresh insult of mafia-fueled exploitation and embezzlement trickles straight down to the port, peppering the romantic coastline with dirty diapers and empty bottles, waves and trash rhythmically lapping the shore.

Remnants of empire may be found at every turn, but Italy’s historic decadence diverges from its decadence today. Italy truly satiates the senses. At times the food is so exquisite you think you’ve never eaten such a fine morsel. Espresso in a cafĂ© off the expressway rivals the espresso found anywhere in the country. The countryside is almost painfully breathtaking, the people cheerful and warm, art and architecture so complex and wonderful that much beauty goes unnoticed by tourists and locals alike as we drape ourselves over ancient steps eating gelato while watching the clouds shift and hasten off the blue landscape above our heads. But flip on the television and watch an hour or two and you will find just as much foolery in life and politics as anywhere else in this blessed world.

This is going to be a good trip.