Despair on the Express Bus

Her body suddenly pushed up against me as she took her place in the empty seat and the gentle nudge made me open my eyes.

I’ve grown accustomed to spending some of my morning and afternoon commute, eyes closed, in prayerful thought about the people and tasks of the day ahead – or the day behind. The discipline inevitably breaks down on the homeward journey as I fall into a light sleep, enjoying fleeting and outrageously strange dreams, my ears still somehow attuned to the call of the approaching stops. The mornings, though, are different: alert from breakfast and a good night of sleep, I can focus.

Her partner, or friend, had taken the sideways seat ahead of us and, once settled, they continued their conversation. I closed my eyes again and leaned further into the window.

A heavy West London accent. Rough, crude, bad grammar and diction. Uneducated and poor, was my guess. But also sad and desperate. The timbre of her voice, the tremble of emotion, was impossible to ignore.

She reviewed an abusive and broken relationship, a needy child, an unfinished education and chronic unemployment. She was already deeply in debt. How was she going to make it to the end of September?

I thought of my own daughters, of a similar age. How would I feel if they were dealing with these pressures? How is it that I and my family have been so blessed?

“Maybe I can find something near Sophie’s school,” she continued, “drop her off before work; some place I can walk to from home.” A pause followed, as they both took in what she just said.

“Who am I kiddin’? Who’s going to hire me anyway?”

There was a long silence, the hum of the bus filling the void.

A tear crept to the edge of my eye, threatening to run down my cheek.

“Are you alright?” said a man’s voice, hesitating, timid. It was her friend.

I started, opening my eyes again, embarrassed that my emotion had caught me out.

But no. He was looking at her, concern flooding his face as she sat silently sobbing into her hands.


To Madrid, for a stamp.

“No sir, that won’t be a problem,” said the heavily accented Dutch voice on the other end of a dim, crackling telephone line.  In the 1980’s calling anywhere from Ceuta, one of the two Spanish enclaves on the North African coast, was always problematic, even if it was only to Madrid.

“With our centralized computer system you do not need to have the machtiging actually stamped in the passport; you can just take the reference number with you when you visit the vreemdelingendienst in Amsterdam.”  It was a visa officer at the Dutch embassy on the other end of the line, explaining to me that Renata’s provisional residence visa, with the impossible-sounding name of machtiging tot voorlopig verblijf, had been granted and we could now confidently book our airline tickets.

Our eighteen months of Moroccan Arabic language study had come to a close and, with our infant daughter – born at the Cruz Roja hospital on Monte Hacho, one of the ancient Pillars of Hercules – we were headed back to an exciting new project in Amsterdam.  Two weeks later, our few possessions crammed into a pair of old, red vinyl suitcases that seemed to miraculously expand no matter how much we fed them, we boarded the Iberia Airlines flight from Malaga.  We had purchased return tickets because they were cheaper than one-way; the second leg would go unused.

Or so we thought.

A few days after our arrival I caught a tram to Waterlooplein in Amsterdam, to the local headquarters of the Vreemdelingendienst, to comply with the within-8-days-after-entry registration requirement.  I pushed the three passports across the table to a disinterested middle-aged immigration officer:  USA, Canada, and another newly minted American one for our daughter, recently secured at the US Consulate in Fuengirola.

“Oh, and I have this too,” I said, sliding toward him a piece of paper bearing the number of Renata’s MVV.  Americans could get their residency papers after they arrived; Canadians needed the permission granted beforehand.

“Where’s the stamp?” queried the officer, ignoring my note and leafing expertly through Renata’s Canadian passport.

“The embassy in Madrid said we didn’t need it,” I replied confidently, “Said all you needed was the dossier number.  You can check on your computer that it has been granted.”  I was happy, proud even, to be the harbinger of the dawning age of computers.

“No stamp; no registration,” he said flatly, sliding the passports back toward me.  “You have five days to get the stamp.”

“You’re joking, right?  Are you telling me I have to go to Madrid just to have the embassy put a stamp in her passport?  Why can’t you check your computer?”

“No stamp; no registration,” he repeated.  And with that I was excused.

It must have been May 25th when I arrived back in Malaga because I remember watching the European Cup final on the tiny TV at a seedy Malaga hotel before turning in for a fitful night’s sleep in a hot and windowless room.  PSV Eindhoven beat Benfica on penalties; a month later the Dutch national side would win the European Championship with a magical performance by Marco van Basten; it was a good year to be a Dutch soccer fan.

The next morning I hopped an Iberia commuter flight from Malaga to Madrid.  It was a 727, probably the last time I ever flew on one, and it was full to capacity.  Nearly everyone was smoking.


At Madrid Barajas I grabbed a cab and gave the driver the address of the Embajada de los Países Bajos.  On arrival I took the elevator, found the office and was relieved that there was no one else waiting in line for services.  I explained the situation to the clerk behind the counter, gave her Renata’s registration number, watched her get out a large rubber stamp and whack it down on a page in the passport, and within ten minutes was downstairs again hailing a cab back to the airport.

The easiest way home now was a direct flight from Madrid to Amsterdam.  But because I had not been sure of how things would go at the embassy, I had not booked a ticket.  I ended up buying a business class ticket, on the spot, from the KLM desk.  It was exorbitantly expensive, downright abusive really, but I had grown weary of the whole project and just wanted to get home.

It was one of the most memorable flights I have ever had, worth every peseta.  A high pressure weather system had moved in across all of Western Europe and the sky was crystal clear during the entire flight.  With a map on my lap and a wonderful view I was able to plot our northeast-bound journey, watching the clearly visible landmarks and cities move by slowly below me.  It was enthralling.

Back in Amsterdam, ahead of my five day deadline, I slid the Canadian passport across the desk to the now slightly bemused immigration officer.

He duly completed the registration, stamping a page-filling visa on the page opposite of the stamp I received in Madrid, and then flipping the document back to me.

“Did you have a nice trip?”  he inquired wryly, with only the hint of a smile.

“Yes, I did,” I returned, equally dry, not wanting to give him an ounce of pleasure.  “I did indeed.”

Journal entry, 29 July 2016

For more than a few years I have kept a journal.  As I sat down to write this blog about my present visit to Amsterdam I realized I had no more to share than what I had already written in my journal this morning.  And so, gentle reader: for one time only, my journal.

Friday, 29 July 2016

So, here I am again.  Back in the HEMA café restaurant overlooking the Stadsplein of Amstelveen.  Back with my coffee and double chocolate muffin, my journal and my thoughts.

It has now been five-and-a-half years since we lived around the corner and this was a weekly ritual more important to my well-being than perhaps any other of that time.  I wonder how many journal pages I filled in this place.  Many.

The intervening years have been far too rich, stressful, complicated and beautiful to review now.  All I can say is I am glad for it all and am a better person for it.

Holland!  What a wonderful country and society.  Sure, it has its own challenges and weaknesses, but being here is like visiting a little bit of the Garden that Adam & Eve managed to preserve for themselves.  I love the orderliness, the purposeful city planning, the way people are so comfortable with their bodies (and others’ bodies), the physical exercise built into living, the way men and women relate as equals, the no-bullshit-straightforwardness.  God didn’t give the Dutch much, but they’ve taken their meagre inheritance and worked it wisely.

The reason for our being here at this time is the occasion of Sarah & Evan visiting Miriam & Thomas, so giving us the opportunity of seeing them all – and their adorable children! – all at the same time.  H & S have left us their home (they are away in the UK), so we have all the comforts we need – plus peace and quiet when the adorableness of all those kids wears thin.

This is my kind of holiday.  No crazy Costa, no uncomfortable endless camping trip, no expensive mega-city.  Just the refreshment of a new environment and a long string of small pleasures to enjoy at my leisure.

And the neatest thing is that in the few moments when I actually do think about work I don’t have that “Oh shit, I’ve got to get back soon” feeling, but rather an anticipation and happiness about all there is that awaits me.  I have become that rare person who loves their work, whose personal circumstances are overwhelmingly positive, whose health is good, and who wants more of the same.  (Sure we still carry some $ debt for all that went on in the past few years, but I feel we are the Real 1% – not wealthy in monetary terms, but rich beyond reason in the things that really matter.  We must not lose sight of using our position to bless others too.)

As fate would have it, the two weeks of my holiday have corresponded with the two weeks of Republican, then Democratic, conventions.  So, not having to wake up early for work, I’ve been watching my fair share of the proceedings in the (for us) late night.  At the end of the Republican convention the abiding sentiment was Fear.  Fear of each other, fear of politicians, fear of Forces Beyond Our Control.   And the solution?  Give power to a self-absorbed Reality TV star who has never given a day in his life to public service.  A week later, following the Democratic convention, the feeling is the reverse: fear is replaced by hope, pessimism by optimism, exclusion with inclusion, and individualism by the promise of a better society.  Two visions of America are on offer and I will most definitely go with the one based on Hope.

Well, the day beckons.  It’s market day in Amstelveen so I better get out, buy some cheese and a real loempia, and complete my fill of this tour of the Netherlands.


This was our family’s Christmas greeting at the end of last year; for some reason I didn’t think to post it here.  It features all of our kids and grand-kids (Lucas has been born since) and was filmed in three different countries.  Even though I’m late I will post it anyway, to make it part of my blog record…enjoy!

White Stone

As I write, Eva, one of my daughters, is at the doctor’s office with her partner, Matt, getting their first view of the new life forming in her womb.  If all goes well, this little child – to be born in the summer of 2015 – has every chance of living into the next century.  And he or she will bear a name which has yet to be determined.

Naming a child can be a precarious undertaking, running the gauntlet of familial expectations and traditions, cultural and linguistic considerations, and the good sense – or the lack thereof – of the parents.  For two of my four daughters, had they been sons, we had chosen the name “Abraham”.  Which at first thought might strike one as perhaps overly-biblical but not otherwise problematic.  Until one takes into account that we were living in Amsterdam at the time and the name would inevitably have been shorted to “Bram”.  “Bram Adan” would surely have been a constant source of cheer during the annual fast in our predominantly Muslim neighbourhood but methinks the teasing would have been unbearable.

Yesterday, nearly four years after leaving the Netherlands, I had another moment of homesickness for that good land.  Eva and I were driving back to Abbotsford, listening to a CD of Dutch pop music, when the song below came on.  Zelfs je naam is mooi (“Even your name is beautiful”) is a touching love song and as we sang along I started to mist-up a bit.  Suddenly Eva interrupted and recounted how a friend in high school once told her about having dinner with the artist at his home.  “Wait, wait!” Eva stopped him, “is his partner’s name Julia?”.  “Yes,” said her friend, puzzled, “how did you know?”  Eva had picked up on a clever aspect of the song: the name which is so beautiful and of which the artist sings so tenderly is never actually mentioned in all the song’s verses but, if one listens carefully, is the final word the singer says as the music is coming to an end.

There was a brief time, following my ordination as a priest, when – as I was able –  I would say the name of each communicant as they knelt before me to receive the sacrament.  I gave up this practice fairly quickly; I discovered that my familiarity with the individual threatened to turn a moment of ineffable holiness and intimacy into one that was mundane and ordinary. How could I be so sure that the name which this person’s parents had given them only a few years before was a true reflection of the identity they bore before God as they knelt to touch the veil of eternity?  Most likely it was not.  Doesn’t John’s Revelation say something about our secret name, written on a white stone, known only to the divine?

Now Matt and Eva have just come by, breathless at the door, bringing me a hint of December air in their clothing and in their hands an ultrasound image of their wee child.  They are so excited and awed by the wonder of it all.  The tears well up again, my voice cracks, I give Eva a hug; Matt looks aside, careful not to intrude in a father-daughter moment.

Welcome, child; be sure of this: God knows your name.

Advice to my daughters: Serve

I didn’t know what to do next.  As a young adult, having just completed my first round of post-secondary education, I had reached one of the first transitions in life where it was really up to me to decide the way forward.  What was I going to do with the education I had just acquired?  Was I to continue further down the same general path of learning or strike out into something completely different?  Should I look for a full-time job, or combine work with more schooling?  These sorts of questions occupied my mind for weeks.

Confiding in an older friend, I was given some of the best wisdom I have ever received: “Find someone whose vision and work resonates with you, and commit yourself to serving them.  Just serve, and learn.”

And that is exactly what I did, several times over, well into my own career.  I looked around and identified leaders whom I thought I could learn from and joined their team.  Did I always agree with them?  No, of course not.  But I did my best to remain loyal, trustworthy and faithful in my service.  And from each one I have learned – slowly – many valuable lessons about leadership and finding ways to “put legs” on ideas.

One of the temptations in life is believing that having a theoretical framework is actually possessing knowledge.  It isn’t.  The education one gets from books and the classroom is at once wonderful, interesting, challenging, and a privilege.  Yet it is not knowledge until it is mingled with experience.  Anyone can regurgitate the ideas they pick up, partially processing and restating what has already been said by others.  But the world is not so much in need of more vacuous commentators as it is of those who will roll up their sleeves and get to work serving others.

Wasn’t this the basic complaint Jesus had about the Pharisees?  They had plenty of ideas about godliness, but no experience of it.  Jesus could “teach as one with authority” because he had genuine personal experience backing up what he said.  (I find some politicians to be fine examples of modern-day Pharisees: self-proclaimed experts on social justice, finances, foreign relations, or whatever, without ever having served the poor, run a business, or lived overseas.)

As a young adult one of the greatest challenges is acquiring experience.  I would suggest that the best way to look at it is not in terms of “finding a job”, but rather “finding whom to serve”.  It may be that this will be at your place of employment, but it could be otherwise.  Find a mentor and a vision you can give yourself to, someone who is building something worthy and who could use a dependable assistant.

And when the time comes when you feel you have learned all that you can or will from this person, gracefully bow out and look for a new mentor.  No servant is greater than his master; you can only learn as much from someone as they themselves know.

“Waiter, there’s a….”

A couple of days ago we went out to dinner with friends who used to live in Amsterdam but who moved to Toronto two years ago.  They are back for a short visit and we met up at a family restaurant that serves traditional Dutch fare.  The place was packed and as we entered we scuttled around a guidebook-toting, toddler-clinging young American family being turned away because they had not made reservations.

Thankful for my friend’s foresight to have called ahead we took our places, seven of us around an old rustic table, the two men seated at one end.  We placed our orders, clinked the wine glasses and had a lovely evening of catching up, until…

“Oh, that’s not so nice,” said my friend across from me.

“What?”  I asked, the problem not immediately obvious.

“That!” he replied, pointing with his knife at an almost empty plate of calf’s liver and onion.

I took a look and there, revealed now that the food was mostly gone, was a sauce-drenched housefly struggling laboriously step-by-step across his plate, straining for the dry freedom of the plate’s edge like a miniature B-movie monster emerging from the Hollywood tar-pits.

I stared at his plate in fascination.  My brain overcame the wine and fired-up a few long-dormant neurons, ones I was surprised to find still in existence, let alone operational.  The first made a connection to Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s short play, “The Fate of a Cockroach” and the other to  Friedrich Nietzsche’s only quotable quote: “…the essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is …that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

(In the fly’s case, “…which, hopefully, makes life possible“.)

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”  I’ve seen it often enough in films and comics, but had never witnessed this event in real life.

The waitress came and whisked away the plate with its offending creature small and wonderful, and then returned to ask whether she could bring a new plate of liver, or any other plate on the menu, free of charge.  But my friend’s mood had change.  Glum and subdued, he declined, muttering that he didn’t feel like eating anymore.

Alarmed at seeing an opportunity for free food so easily slipping away, I quickly sprang in the breach and demanded of the girl that she bring us another bottle of wine, on the house.  That was pushing our luck, but after checking with the proprietor, she came back triumphantly swinging a bottle of decent red.  Still, I noticed, my friend’s evening had been irreparably damaged, and he never quite returned to his pre-fly enthusiasm.

Yesterday I received an email from someone I haven’t seen or heard from in a couple of years, explaining a recent transition he has made in life and work.  In his note he gives extensive space to glowingly praise another mutual friend, and recall their work together.  It just so happens that this third person, about whom he speaks so highly, is someone I also worked closely with but with whom I ended up having difficulties.  Our partnership took a wrong turn.

“Isn’t it odd,” I mused at the dinner table, “how two people can experience the same – third – person in such different ways, and yet that person is just being who they are?”

To which my teenage daughter Eva added her high school wisdom, “Of course!  Everyone has friends, even the ones who are jerks to you.  They aren’t bad people, they just aren’t good ones for you.”

The dinner experience was fine before the fly emerged on the plate.  If my friend had munched it down unknowingly with a bit of liver and onion, the whole evening would have been good.  And even though he did notice, in the end one has to accept that any dish, like any life experience, has the potential to end in disappointment.  Cherish what is good; get over what isn’t.