Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sermon for Beechworth and Yackandandah May 08, 2016 - Exodus 1:8-22; Luke 4:14-21

Our readings today are not from the RCL passages set for this week, but rather are passages that we heard and studied at the Uniting Women Conference I attended in Adelaide last week. The theme of the conference was Sharing Stories of Hope, and it was great to have some meaty scholarly input from two very accomplished biblical scholars- Liz Boase (OT lecturer) and Vicky Balabanksi (NT lecturer) from the theological college in Adelaide. What I will share with you today will be some reflections from these two passages that came largely from Liz and Vicky, with some of my own thoughts thrown in for good measure.

The passage from Luke is the story of Jesus’ return to his home town of Nazareth, and his declaration in the synagogue, that he is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks. The take home message that I got from this passage at the conference was that God’s holiness is contagious, and can infect and change things that are unclean- not the other way round, as is so often stated/thought (that evil, or ‘uncleanness’ is contagious and can spoil things that are holy.) God’s holiness is stronger than that. This was a particularly exciting study, but I want to wait until a later time to fully unpack it for you (as we’ve been promised full texts from the biblical study presentations at a later date). Today I want to focus on the Old Testament reading.

After reading this passage from Exodus, it’s not hard to draw strong lines between the situation for the Israelites in Egypt, and our own society today. 

The Israelites were effectively a refugee community in Egypt; their ancestors having fled a very serious famine in their homeland, to find a friendly face in Joseph, and lots of food, in Egypt. And so, over the years, they multiplied and grew in numbers, and eventually, a new king, who hadn’t known Joseph, and all he did for Egypt back in the days of the famine, and so the new king started to feel threatened by the presence of the -now rather sizeable- Israelite community. He was worried about them rising up and causing trouble- even though there is no indication in the text that they were in any way disgruntled, or likely to rise up and cause trouble.

Pharaoh was motivated by fear and suspicion, and is seeking to eliminate the perceived threat. Sound familiar? This is a pattern that is common throughout history, and continues today (just look at how recent Australian governments have treated the ‘perceived threats’ of refugees to our country).

For the Israelites, first, Pharaoh tries to control their numbers, by oppressing them- making them work ridiculously hard, presumably thinking that this will slow down their breeding, and the growth of their population, but the plan backfired, and ‘the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread’ (v12)...and really, are we surprised at this? Imagine what life was like for the Israelites under that regime- they worked long, hard hours, had no other pleasure in life, so what else did Pharaoh expect them to do to seek some respite from the oppression they faced? (Imagine the reaction of a church full of 400 women at this point ...

So Pharaoh tried a different tack to control the Israelites. Because of the difference in gender roles in those days, males were seen to be more significant than females, so Pharaoh sought to kill all of the boy babies born to Israelite women, and thus control the population, and quash any potential uprising in that way. 

So the king becomes the bringer of death, demanding that the midwives go against everything they are trained for and stand for- in ordering them to kill any boy babies born to the Hebrew women. But the midwives Shiphrah and Puah were not having it. 

Are these names familiar to anyone? I was familiar with this story before the conference, but had never really taken note of the names of these two women, who have become heroines of the faith for me. So remember their names- SHIPHRAH and PUAH; because whilst the king chose to be the bringer of death, despite the risk to themselves (and it would have been a significant risk), Shiphrah and Puah chose to disobey the king and choose life, because they feared God. The Hebrew word translated at ‘fear’ here has nothing to do with being afraid as we would understand it, but rather ‘fear’ equates to ‘respect’ or ‘reverence’ and a kind of relationship.

Not only did Shiphrah and Puah disobey the king by NOT killing the male babies; when they were challenged about this, they dared to lie to this great and powerful king (and to top it all off, they didn’t just LIE, but told the most ridiculous rouse about the Hebrew women being more robust than the Egyptian women- AND the king believed them!)- all because Shiphrah and Puah feared God.

The theme of the Uniting Women conference was Sharing Stories of Hope. The story of Shiphrah and Puah’s courage and determination to choose life over death is a story of hope. Hope is a choice. These midwives chose hope over death, and thus became the embodiment of God’s reign, and the coming of God’s kingdom.

Like Shiphrah and Puah, we also live in a culture of fear and injustice. We see asylum seekers oppressed by our government, and forced to languish in death camps for outrageously long periods of time, rather than having their claims for asylum processed in a reasonable timeframe; our government has just introduced a federal budget that is not good news for the most vulnerable members of society; we live in a culture where victims are often blamed for the violence perpetrated against them (especially if they are women who are raped or experience domestic violence).

At the conference I heard how women in the Pacific Islands are not allowed to study theology and serve God and the church as ordained ministers- only the men are allowed; I heard from Tanya Hosch, (an indigenous woman who is highly educated, and articulate: working at the highest level to have indigenous people recognised in our country’s Constitution, through her work with Recognise)- that it is a common occurrence for her to be refused passage in taxis because she is aboriginal. The list of her achievements in the business world and community is extensive, and yet taxi drivers refuse to take her in their cabs because she is obviously not white.

We do indeed live in a culture of fear and injustice- but we also have the option to choose hope over fear. Like Shiphrah and Puah, we can go against the prevailing conditions and choose life and hope over death and despair. We might not think we can do much, but what we can do, can have a ripple effect. Because of Shiphrah and Puah’s refusal to kill the boy babies, one important boy- Moses- survived, and grew up to be a great leader of God’s people. I’m sure Shiphrah and Puah would never have dreamed that their actions could have had such a significant outcome. Like them, there are no doubt many things we can do that we might not realise the significance of at the time- like showing kindness to a stranger; choosing to ACT, rather than REACT, when someone might be trying to wind us up.

On the first night at the conference, we were all asked to take out our mobile phones and take a ‘selfie’, and to put that photo as the background/wallpaper on our phones, so we could see it often. (I made my selfie into my Facebook profile picture for the week). We were told “Look at yourself- you are the image-bearer of Christ. Never forget that.” On the final morning of the conference, we had Stuart McMillan (Ass President); three female moderators (Deidre Palmer- SA, and also Pres-elect; Myung Hwa Park- NSW/ACT; Thresi Mauboy - Northern Synod) and one female Ass General Sec- Colleen Geyer. Each of them was asked to share stories of where they saw hope in the church. I was particularly moved by some of the things said by Colleen Geyer, and I share some of her words with you: 

I want to challenge all of us to be truthful - with each other about what we're dealing with, about how we can encourage each other, be there for each other, about what we need and what God's Church needs, and what we think are the answers to these – even if they aren’t the comfortable answers, the easy answers. We've got some challenges, and there's going to be some changes. But let’s open up those doors and let God's light shine in on us. And I'd like to dare you - I'd like to dare you to be courageous bearers of hope. Let's hope the heck out of the Uniting Church! Let's let the hope of God through the example of the incarnated Christ overwhelm us and how we are the Uniting Church in Australia.... She finished with a blessing: 

May we draw courage from the past
Learn from the realities of the present
And be fearless as we face the future
I am so looking forward to being a fearless bearer of hope with all of you. 

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2016

I've been thinking about... friendship


I've been thinking.. (always scary)... friendship is an interesting thing. I suspect we've all had close friendships that we thought would last forever, but suddenly came a cropper (often for no discernible or predictable reason). I've certainly had a couple of those.

There are also those friendships that just kind of happen; they sneak up on you, and before you know it, you have this really great friend, and can't for the life of you remember (or figure out) how it happened, but are really glad it did. I have a few of those, too.

I am extremely blessed to have a number of friends who have been in my life for a loooong time, e.g. the small group who call me Carolyn, rather than Caro, have mostly known me for over 30 years (except, of course, Alan and Chantal, who just prefer to call me by my full name, because they like it better :-) )

When Mum was dying (the most difficult year of my life to date), I was surprised at how much support I received from friends who I hadn't previously considered to be all that close... but (at the risk of mixing clich├ęd metaphors) I guess it's true that when the chips are down, people show their true colours. So much so, that I now have an adopted family, that adds significantly to the attraction of Melbourne.

And then, there are the friends who have come into my life in more recent times. (Is it weird that my major temporal reference point these days seems to be things that happened 'Before Mum' or 'After Mum'?) Some of these newer friendships have become quite close; some have ebbed and flowed a bit (so that one friendship which was quite close for a while has eased off a bit - and that's ok). There are some friendships that have been in place for a while, but have recently started to become closer, which I'm finding enjoyable, but also a little curious. And other, much newer friendships that have the potential to become solid and special, and I look forward to seeing how these pan out.

When I was working for Fusion, I remember one of the things Mal Garvin used to say, when talking about the phenomenon of social isolation, was that most people can count the number of true friendships in their lives (and by this he meant 'the people who really know what life is like for me') on the fingers of one hand. 

If Mal was right, and this is indeed true, then I think I must have rather deformed hands, (with many more fingers than most people). So I guess the crux of this long ramble is to say that I feel extraordinarily blessed to have so many people in my life who know me so deeply, and yet still love me and want to hang out with me (and even allow their offspring to hang out with me, and call me 'Aunty' :-) 

Thank God for the blessing of deformed hands! :-)

Friday, December 20, 2013

The least of these...

Today has been an interesting day.

This morning I conducted the funeral of a woman who had been in care for most of her life (one of Beechworth's 'claims to fame' in the olden days was a mental asylum known as Mayday Hills, where many people spent far too much of their lives - eg women suffering from post-natal depression were often 'committed' to Mayday, and once inside, never got out.)

When the govt made sweeping changes to the way people with special needs were cared for, the residents of Mayday were sent out into group homes and similar places in the community, and this lady had been living in one of those units when she died. She had a daughter, who is also in care, and no other family to speak of, so the funeral was arranged through the public trustee. I liaised with some of her current and former carers in planning the funeral service, and was so impressed by the care they demonstrated for this woman, and the thoroughness with which they researched her story (the bits before their time), so that her life could be appropriately honoured in the eulogies they presented at the funeral.

A number of the other residents of the facility where this lady lived, and others around Beechworth, attended the funeral, along with current and former care staff, and families of the residents. It was a great service- with tears and laughter- as we remembered this woman who had been quite a character around the town of Beechworth in her day.

Afterwards, I went back to the home for some lunch with others who'd been at the funeral, and had a lovely time chatting with the daughter of this woman, and some of the others from the home where she had lived. The staff kept thanking me for coming, (and for the service, which they said had been a great celebration of a life).

It would have been so easy for this woman to have slipped through the cracks, to have noone to care for her at the end of her life (and as I prepared myself to plan this funeral, I was determined not to let her become another Eleanor Rigby). It was therefore a delight to see a congregation of almost 50 people who came to celebrate this woman's life; to remember her and say their goodbyes.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

God's Timing

First, apologies that I have neglected my blog for so long. Despite my last post being about my week in Paris, I am (unfortunately) not lost in France, but am home in Myrtleford, safe and sound, and still gradually getting up to speed in things relating to life, ministry and all that entails. I promise I will write more about the rest of my Big European Adventure sometime real soon now.

But for the moment, I want to reflect on God's timing.

Before I went to Sydney, my next door neighbours sold their house and moved, and a new, older, couple bought and moved in. I had intended to do the neighbourly thing, and pop over and introduce myself and invite them over for a meal or coffee or something, but for various reasons (I was back and forth to Sydney for a bit, and they were often away too), this just never happened. And then I went to Sydney, and didn't come home for almost a year.

A few weeks after I got home, I was at my mailbox, and a rather dapper, older gentleman was walking past, and said to me, "I believe we are neighbours." So we introduced ourselves and chatted a bit. We discussed my long-term absence, and why I'd been away, and he shared the news that his wife had died in August last year, not all that long after they'd moved in. He said he wasn't really sure what to do, as the house is quite large, and he feels like he's rattling around a bit in there on his own, but the effort of moving in took a lot of energy, and he's not sure he wants to move again in a hurry.

We promised to try to catch up properly, perhaps over a neighbourly coffee or meal sometime, but a couple of months have now passed, and that hasn't happened (largely because he's been a away for the last month or so).

This afternoon after I got home from my second aged care service, (and finally got my sheets and towels in off the line- gotta love this wet and wild winter weather) I decided to cut some of the lovely daffodils and jonquils from the garden for inside. 

As I was pottering in the garden, my neighbour was walking past, and stopped to say hello. I confessed that I'd forgotten his name (as my memory has been shocking lately), and he reminded me, and we chatted a bit about his time away. 

Then a memory struggled to the surface of my recalcitrant brain.

"How are you travelling? Didn't you say that your wife passed away in August of last year?"

"Yes, actually it was a year ago today."

And we chatted for a bit about that, and what he had done today to mark the anniversary.

I am rather blown away by the fact that in the three months or so that I've been home here in Myrtleford since returning from Sydney, I have only seen this man twice, but one of those times was today, a significant day for him.

God's timing certainly is interesting. (Or maybe I should become more deliberate about spending more time in the garden, to enhance my pastoral ministry ;-)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Caro's Big Adventure: A Week in Paris

What can one say about a week spent in the most romantic city in the world? *sigh*

I was very glad to have so much time in Paris this time, as I managed to do various standard touristy things, but also had time just to hang out, which was great.

After my first night in the city (an evening at the Moulin Rouge, and staying in the luxurious Radisson Blu Ambassador Hotel near the Paris Opera), I moved to my 'other' hotel, which would be my home for the rest of the week.

The Hotel du College de France, (Website here) on rue Thenard, in between the Boulevard Saint-Germain and rue des Ecoles, was obviously not the Radisson, but I actually enjoyed it much more. It was a smallish hotel, with six floors, with 3-5 rooms on each floor. I asked to book one of their superior rooms with balcony, but that was only available for the last four days of my stay, so for the first two nights, I was in a regular room, which was still ok, and comfortable enough. But my other room, when I moved into it, was not only much larger, it was on the top floor, and had a balcony that overlooked the rooftops of Paris, and even had a bit of a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The bathroom also had a great, deep, bathtub ( as did my first room), but also a bidet! Being the first time having this kind of amenity, I did a quick Google, to figure out how to use it, and by the end of my stay felt I was getting the hang of it.

The staff there were all lovely. M. Sadr, the receptionist, was lovely, and helped me with advice on the best ways to see Paris (eg that Paris L'Opentours -with the green buses-was a much better option of 'hop-on, hop-off' bus, than the CarsRouges-with the red buses; and that the Batobus was a bit overrated, and if I wanted to see sights from the river, I should just book a river cruise/tour). He also helped me to book an experience of the Eiffel Tower one evening, which involved being picked up from the hotel by a driver, conveyed to the Eiffel Tower for dinner in the restaurant, then a river cruise, and driven back to the hotel. Despite the rain, and the rowdy school group on the cruise, that was a lovely evening, and a great experience.

When I was out and about on the green buses, I saw a poster for a concert, 'Gospel Dream', on the Friday night at the church of Saint-Germain des Pres, and managed to get online to book a ticket through fnac (France's version of Ticketmaster etc), and M. Sadr printed it out for me. The concert was great; a group of nine women and four men, all black, singing a great repertoire of gospel songs and spirituals (and a rousing rendition of N'Kosi Sikelele Afrika :-) I bought some of their CDs, so will look forward to enjoying their music for a long time to come.

I also paid a return visit to Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, and enjoyed sitting quietly in the church for a longish time, after spending some Euros in the gift shop (which was closed when I was there on my last visit to Paris). But this time no entertaining adventures with street artists, but that was ok.

I decided not to go inside Notre Dame (or Sainte Chappelle- sorry Heather McK!), but the queues were too much to contemplate, and I did enjoy the inside of a few churches in Paris: Eglise Saint- Germain des Pres, Sacre Coeur and Saint-Severin, which was on the way back to my hotel from the bus stop near Notre Dame. All very old and beautiful inside, and I don't know that Notre Dame could really have added any more (apart from bragging rights that I'd been there). I also chose to enjoy the Louvre and Musee D'Orsay from the outside too. Maybe I'll go inside on another visit - gives me a reason to go back (as if I needed it!)

But I really did love just riding around the different parts of Paris on the tourist buses, which had informative commentary, and it was just great to be able to soak up the atmosphere on the second (and sometimes third) time round some of the places.

I had an interesting conversation with a homeless man at a bus stop in the city. I was waiting for a bus, and he engaged me in conversation, but when I explained that I couldn't understand him because I don't speak very good French, and that I was Australian, he got very excited. "Australien?! Kangarooooo!!"  I think I upset him when I said, "oui. Kangaroo. Et kangaroo c'est bon manger! Myam, myam!" (and made eating gestures). 

He was mortified. "Non!!"
"Oui!" I smiled back at him. Then my bus came, so I had to leave. ;-)

I met many interesting people around the town, and just loved it. So glad I spent more time there this time round, and am already looking forward to my next visit.

Here is a link to some photos that I took around Paris during that time.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Caro's Big Adventure: the End of the Cruise

They say all good things must come to an end, and so it was with my lovely Rhone river cruise.

After our day at Macon (and Cluny) we sailed up the Saone (actually, we entered the Saone from Lyon, where there is a confluence of Le Rhone and La Saone, as the Rhone is not navigable north of Lyon), and ended up in Chalon.

Our last night on board was rather special, with a farewell cocktail party and special dinner, followed by a revue-style crew show. The so-called 'hidden talents' of the crew were best kept hidden, methinks, but it was a fun and funny evening, followed by some exuberant dancing (and at one point, Vojtech came up to me and dragged me onto the dance floor with him... my fantasy was then complete. He was so delightful, managed to do his job well, make me feel special, but there were no professional boundaries crossed, it was just some innocent fun *sigh*).

The next morning, however, the languid luxury was over, as it was 'Bags Out' at 7am (Gahhhhh!!!!) Being the organised kind of girl that I am (stop laughing!), and determined to suck the experience dry for all it was worth, I got up early, and had my shower and was packed up all before 7am. I put my bag out, and then waited for my usual morning coffee, which I had ordered for 7:30am. 

Even though the price of the cruise included all tips and gratuities, I felt that there were a few staff on board to whom I wanted to say a special thank you (the kind of 'thankyou' that involved a sum of Euros in a little card). These included Vojtech my butler (of course); the lovely Igor, the sweet young waiter who I had so much fun with in talking about my preferences for wine; Daniel the receptionist, who had taken me on a grand shopping spree in the ship's gift shop, and been generally delightful every time I had contact with him (when we were discussing my planned assault on the gift shop, he said that he would help me try on any of the jewellery in the shop, and was sure that everything would look lovely on such a beautiful lady. I asked him, "Are you flirting with me Daniel?" to which he replied, "Oh no, because that is not allowed!"), and also to the lovely Beata, my cabin stewardess. Beata was one of the behind-the-scenes staff, but whenever I ran into her, she would always greet me warmly, with a big smile. If it was in the morning, she would say, "have a nice day" and if it was in my way to dinner, "Bon appetit!"

Anyway, so bags were out, my morning coffee, and final farewell to Vojtech was done (sigh), and I was ready to leave the ship. I was on one of the two buses heading for Paris (different people were doing different things at the end of the cruise), and at 9am we set out on our 4hour drive from Chalon to Paris.

My cruise concluded with a night in Paris at the Radisson Blu hotel, near the Opera Garnier, in the centre of the city. Very luxurious and nice, but I was glad to only be there one night. It was the kind of luxury hotel you could find anywhere in the world, so not very Parisian in my opinion. On the advice of Nicholas, our tour guide on the bus trip, I booked myself into dinner and show at the Moulin Rouge for that night, and had a great time.

The Moulin Rouge is a Paris icon, and I felt it was a great way to spend my first in night in Paris for this visit. I was on my own, and was seated opposite an American woman who was also alone, and we had a great time chatting over dinner and talking about all kinds of things. It turned out that it was her birthday, and she was in Paris for work, deciding to treat herself at the Moulin Rouge for her birthday.  So when the mandatory photographer came round I suggested we get a photo as a souvenir, and it would be my birthday present to her. So we did.

Ahh, but before the evening, there was the afternoon! The hotel was very close to Les Galeries Lafayette, a huge department store in the heart of Paris. I had decided I wanted to buy an overcoat, so dutifully wandered around all the women's fashion floors, becoming more and more dejected that they only seemed to cater for what I tend to call the SGNT set (ie skinny girls with no tits). After seeking out a particular designer whom I had been assured catered for larger sizes, I still had no success. I bought myself a new suitcase, to fit in all my extra purchases, and some perfume (L'eau D'Issey, which also included a great swag of free samples from the salesgirl), did the paperwork to claim back the VAT on my purchases, and then wandered back towards the hotel. But then I saw it- a women's clothing store advertising 'les grandes tailles' in the window- so I was in there like a shot.

The very nice saleswoman spoke no English, but I managed to convey what I 
wanted. She tried on a couple of rather glam coats (one of which had a price tag of around 3000€, which almost gave me a heart attack), and when I said to her, "non, trop cher" (too dear) she got one of the other women, who spoke English, to come and help. We eventually found a gorgeous black cape-like coat that is made of wool and cashmere, with fox fur collar and cuffs, and the cut means it fits ok, and was a price I was willing to pay (especially with more VAT refund- I mustn't forget to get all that paperwork stamped and posted when I'm leaving Heathrow).

So I wore this gorgeous garment on my outing to the Moulin Rouge. 
First night in Paris-resounding success! :-)

Caro's Big Adventure: Lyon and Macon

We spent all day in Lyon, with a general guided tour of the city (by bus) in the morning, and then a choice in the afternoon. I chose the silk shop option.

Lyon was an interesting city, probably the first out of the places we'd been to be significantly modern (either that, or we had just focused on the ancient, medieval parts of the previous towns we'd visited). I managed to take a lot of photos from the bus window, but unfortunately can't share them here due to foibles with the iPad not letting me access photos using Blogger :-( So you'll just have to imagine...
Addenda- Here are some pics around Lyon.

The silk tour involved a visit to a traditional silk workshop, where we were shown the workings of a hand loom, used for the very expensive fabrics (the girl said that the fabric she was working on would sell for around 2000€ per metre, and a full day's work at the loom for her, going like the proverbial clappers, would result in about 30cm of fabric produced, so that explains why it's so expensive. After that, we went across the road, for a talk about the history and logistics of silk production. Given that I think just about every Australian kid kept silk worms as pets, and got to observe their life cycles first hand, there wasn't really anything new in this for me, but it was good to sit down and listen for a bit. 

Then, there was shopping! There were some beautiful silk products in the gift shop, so once again I put that advice into action, and bought lots of presents for folks back home, but also something gorgeous for myself.

After this we went to view some 'silk painting', which in actual fact was the practice of silk screen printing onto silk scarves for the tourist trade. Our group was really too large to fit comfortably into the workshop, and my knees were killing me by this stage (and I had seen and done plenty of silk screen printing in my youth), so I sat myself down on a step at the back of the workshop and waited till it was time to leave. There was apparently a shop upstairs, but when I asked about it, one of the women in our group told me, "there are some scarves up there, but all very expensive, and NOTHING as nice as what I saw you buy at the last place!" So I didn't feel the need to go up the stairs :-)

Again, when we got back to the ship, I hung out in the lounge, writing post cards and relaxing. I think by this stage I had also discovered the quite comprehensive cocktail menu of the lounge bar (all included in the price of the cruise) and had started my quest to drink my way through it.

The next day we were in Macon, and I had some icky feelings, having seen the Peter Greenaway film, 'The Baby of Macon' some years ago, and feeling physically sick as a result (and those of you who know me well, know I have quite a strong stomach, so you can imagine what the film was like :-/ ). But we didn't stay in the town, and I was able to allay my collywobbles by taking a trip tithe monastic town of Cluny, where we got to explore what was once the biggest and most significant Abbey in France. (The Benedictine bits of my soul enjoyed this :-)

Again, we had plenty of time to explore the town after the formal tour of the Abbey. again, my knees were not up to much more walking, so I parked myself in the cafe, and enjoyed chatting to others in our group, and later hearing what some of the others got up to in the town (apparently there was a patisserie to die for... Probably a good thing I didn't find it)
And here are some pictures around Cluny.

Our group, that went to Cluny, was much smaller than the other, which went to the Beaujolais wine region... funny that... 

And thus ended Days 6 and 7... Nearly at the end!

Caro's Big Adventure: Viviers to Lyon

After our day in Avignon, we sailed overnight to Viviers, and so this day, we had a busy day. The morning held a walking tour of Viviers, a very old town, built on a big hill, boasting the smallest Cathedral in France. The town was gorgeous, but I found the walk, with a lot of uneven, cobbled ground, and steep climbs (although it was the coming down that I found worse than the going up), Allan bit stressful on my knees.

Our guide was again a local, and very well informed and informative about the local area. Our tour also included a half hour organ recital in the cathedral, featuring the cathedral organist, playing some well known pieces, as well as some lesser known French compositions. It was a lovely treat, and another unexpected delight, was to be greeted at the entrance of the cathedral by a very friendly, fluffy white cat (which I later learned belonged to the organist). As I sat on a low wall near the door, the cat came and nuzzled into me, rubbing against my hands, my pack pack and nuzzling into my side. Very cute :-)

We returned to the ship at 11am, and set sail immediately, so during lunch and the afternoon we were en route to Tournon. That evening was very special. We had the option of sharing a meal with a local family in Tournon, and I was part of a group of 8, mostly Australians, from the ship, who dined with Pierre and Genevieve. They had no English, and most of our group had no French, so it was pretty much up to me, and another woman (whose French was a bit better than mine) to act as translators. We walked from the ship to their home, which took about half an hour (my poor knees!), but this was because we dawdled, as P and G showed us significant things around the town along the way. Genevieve was very canny, and worked out that I and the other woman (whose name was also Genevieve) had some French, so she seated us close to her and Pierre, so we could act as translators of sorts. It was a great evening, and despite the language issues, we managed to communicate, and laugh, and sing and eat and drink together. They gave us their card, with email address on it, as we had taken some photos, and they wanted copies.

Back on the ship,  I relaxed in the lounge, with a hot Baileys coffee and my iPad, and emailed the photos to P and G straight away.

The next morning found us in Vienne. The weather wasn't great, the first day that it had actually rained, and I was glad that I had booked into the mini train tour of the town (although I still got a bit cold and wet). It was still a great adventure, and I was annoyed at some of the people who seemed to do nothing but complain and nit-pick the whole time. I was determined to have fun, and nothing dampened my spirits! :-)

Because of the cold conditions, the group decided to cut our tour short and go back to the warmth of the ship. Given my knees were still recovering from the previous day's assaults, I didn't complain about this, and enjoyed relaxing for the rest of the day. That afternoon, we cruised into Lyon, and it was great to be propped up on my bed, with my curtains open, watching the scenery as we sped along the river and came into port.

So, thus ended Days 4 and 5.

Caro's Big Adventure: Tarascon to Avignon and Uzes

We arrived at the ship in Tarascon on the afternoon of Day 1. We stayed there for the next day, allowing day trips to a choice of  either Les Baux or St-Remy. We offered such choices, my selection was often governed by the level of difficulty of the walking involved. Les Baux was in difficult terrain, so St-Remy it was. 

A great day, exploring the local area, wandering around the town, under the watchful eye of a nice local guide, and then a visit to the Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery, where Van Gogh had lived for a year as a patient in the mental asylum there. Sitting in the cloister of the old monastery, I could feel the sense of peace from many centuries of prayerful contemplation still present in the place. I commented to our guide that such a peaceful place really did make for a good venue for the care of patients with mental illness... and it would have been more successful, if only the 'treatment' modalities had been a little less inhumane.

Here are some photos of St-Remy, and the monastery where Van Gogh spent a year.

We remained in port at Tarascon that afternoon, and we were free to wander around the town at will, but I needed to pace myself, so relaxed on board. That evening I was invited to dine in the special upper class restaurant, and had a lovely meal, with far too much wine, starting with a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne. Those waiters sure were good at topping up the wine glasses. I ended up feeling a bit squiffy by the end of the night.

That evening, we set sail for Avignon, and during dinner, I experienced my first ever European river lock. Weird (and I could see the captain still sitting and socialising in the lounge... so WHO WAS DRIVING THE SHIP??!!!!) but all was well, and we came into Avignon later in the evening, and it was spectacular by night. The captain took us under the famous Pont d'Avignon, which was also pretty special.

The next morning, still feeling the effects of jet lag, I woke at 4am, and finally managed to get back to sleep, to be awakened by my butler, the lovely Vojtech, knocking on my door with my morning coffee.  I think I groaned incoherently at him, to which he replied, "don't worry, coffee will make it better. Here, let me pour it for you."

That day, there were choices to visit the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) in Avignon, or the small town of Uzes. I'd already been to both places on my last visit to the south of France, and so thought that Uzes could do with a second visit.  Tis option also included a visit to the Pont du Gard, which I didn't get to the last time I was in the region.

The tour guide was great, and we visited parts of the city I hadn't seen last time, and had plenty of free time for shopping, and hanging out in cafes...  as one does in France. I partnered up with Jenny and Tenelle, a mother and daughter from Aust, and they were impressed by my command of French as I took charge in ordering our coffee and hot chocolate from the cafe. We also did some shopping, bought some souvenirs for friends back home, and a lovely pair of silver earrings for myself. A good friend of Mum's told me before I left that if I saw anything I wanted in m y travels, I should buy it, as I don't know when or infill ever be back in that part of the world again. The earrings marked the start of my taking her advice very seriously.

Some pics of the Pont du Gard, and Uzes.

The afternoon was spent on board, with a bit of snoozage. And drinks in the lounge... And dinner... 

So this, dear reader, takes us to the end of Day three of the cruise.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Caro's Big Adventure: The Cruise REALLY Begins

So, on Easter Monday, mid-afternoon, we finally reached the MS Scenic Emerald, berthed in Tarascon sur Rhone. 

(Unfortunately, because I'm operating from my iPad, for some reason Blogger won't find the photos on my iPad, so it won't allow me to post photos here)

It was all very exciting. We were welcomed n board by the captain, and a host of the impressively uniformed crew, who all went running to collect our bags from the coach and load them on board the ship.

We were invited to gather in the lounge, where the Hotel Manager, one of the senior officers, welcomed us all, and told us how he would handle the check in process. I was among on of the first groups to be checked in, and once I got my room key, one of the staff carried my hand luggage for me, a young officer helped me down the stairs from Reception to deck 2, where mu cabin was, when he saw me struggling, and all the ladies were given a white rose as we left reception to head for our cabins (and in the cabin was a small vase, with water already in it, on the desk, ready to receive the rose). So right from the start there was a sense of luxury and attention to fine detail. I was gone...

As I looked around my cabin, reading the various notes that were on my bed, and in the portfolio on the desk, I saw the cards from the butler. I had been rather excited about the fact that all cabins had a personal butler service, and was looking forward to this level of ridiculous luxury that I had never before experienced. There was one general card, introducing the butler service, and listing what services were available through my butler. The other card had the name and phone number of my butler, Vojtech. As I was pondering these details, there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, Isaw a rather handsome young man, who introduced himself as Vojtech, my butler, and he enquired whether I had found the details of the services he would offer during the cruise. I assured him I had indeed found the cards, and his parting words to me were,"Don't hesitate to call me if you need anything, and I hope to see a lot of you during the cruise".

My cabin was quite generous in size. The bed was king sized, and had two single duvets on top of it, which is apparently quite common in Europe. The couples I spoke to said that they thought it was great to have their own duvets, so they could regulate their own sleeping temperature, and not have the covers stolen by their partner. I found it a bit weird the first couple of nights, but eventually got used to having to adjust the covers whenever I did a roll from one side of the bed to the other, as I often do. Considering that space is usually at a premium on board ships, I was surprised at how spacious the bedroom and bathroom both were. So all in all the accommodations were very comfortable. The rooms were serviced twice daily; firstly in the morning the beds were made, the towels changed, and a couple of days there were also very clever origami-styled towel animals left on the bed by the cabin stewardess. During the late afternoon port talk and dinner period, the room was serviced again, this time the beds were turned down, a chocolate left on the pillow, the curtains closed, lights turned on, and the mini bar and towels again replenished if needed.

The bathroom was supplied with L'Occitaine toiletries, so I was in heaven :-)

This season, for the first time, Scenic Cruises had an 'all inclusive' policy. This meant that all items in the minibar were included, as we're all the drinks in the lounge throughout the day, and it wasn't just the wine and beer at meals that was included, as had been the case in the past. I took the opportunity to work my way through the cocktail menu, and at various times enjoyed the likes of maitais, Brandy Alexander, Long Island Iced Tea, Rusty Nail, and every day had a 'cocktail of the day', and I was especially partial to one called a BBC (which contained Baileys, banana, coconut cream, and I'm not sure what else, all blended up with ice, to form a creamy banana smoothie with a kick).

Most of the crew were eastern European, mainly Ukrainian, Slovakian, Hungarian, with a few others (Spanish, French, German). They were all amazing. Professionally skilful in executing their jobs, but also really nice and friendly; able to have some playful interactions with the guests, without being too familiar or inappropriate. I fund this to be consistent across all of the crew (and other guests also commented on it to me), and it really made the cruise more enjoyable.

There was one young waiter called Igor (I kid you not), who was rather sweet, the first couple of meals, when he presented the wines (usually one red and one white), I commented to him that he would eventually learn it was pointless to show me any white wines, as I only drink red. Ever since I made that comment, we would have the conversation where I would say, "you don't have to ask me, do you?" And he would say,"You'll have the red, Ma'am?"

Towards the end of the cruise I said to Igor, "maybe one day I'll ask for white, just to mess with your mind," and he laughed. I discovered later, when talking to the restaurant manager (another of the senior officers), that Igor was indeed quite young, and this was his first cruise with Scenic. I also told him about my threat to mess with Igor's mind, and he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "If you do, let me know. I'd like to see his face when you say that."

There were also some lovely people on the cruise.  The nationality demographic was mostly Canadians, Aussies and English, with a few Americans, Irish and others thrown in. I enjoyed meeting some lovely people, and exchanged cards with some, in the hope of keeping in touch afterwards, so I guess time will tell on that one.

There were some people who had done many similar cruises before, and some were a bit nit-picky about some stuff, but as for me, I loved EVERYTHING, and just had a wonderful time.

I especially enjoyed the butler morning coffee service (which was effectively breakfast for me). Just imagine, as a single woman of a certain age, travelling alone, to wake up every morning to a handsome young man knocking on my door, with a smile on his face and coffee in his hands. It felt like I'd died and gone to heaven :-) 
(I should also mention that the ship had five butlers, who between them served all the cabins. Two of them were female, and I thought I'd hit the jackpot to score a very cute young man as my butler)

Caro's Big Adventure: the Cruise Begins!

So, Easter Sunday saw me arriving in Paris for a brief overnighter, before proceeding to Nice to meet up with the tour guide from Scenic. As a solo traveller, in a country where I know only a very little of the language, and am not overly familiar with the way things are done, I felt very proud of myself that I managed so well to get myself to the airport and onto my Air France flight from CDG to Nice.

Thanks to advice from friends, and my experience on my previous visit to France, I have two general rules:
1. I always try my best to speak French (even if it's really crappy French)  to anyone I meet for the first time
2. I always try to identify myself as Australian.

Therefore, my usual opening line tends to be:
"Bonjour. Je suis Australien, et je ne parle-pas tres bien francais. Parlez-vous anglais?"

This is usually met with one or more of the following:
1. A smile
2. Being cut off as soon as I say "Australien", with "English is ok"
3. A big smile and surprised expression, and "but your French is very good" (spoken either in English or French)
4.  An apologetic shake of the head, and some kind of indication that the person doesn't
speak English. (After which we battle on together as best we can, with my broken French and various sign language. This happened on my last visit, when I was in Aigues-Mort, and Alan had wandered off to look in another store, and I went into the Tabac to buy some postcards and stamps. The fact that the postcards I bought there -and the stamps- got home to Aust destinations eventually, meant we must have gotten it right, despite the lack of common language)

Anyway, back to the present. I managed to get from the hotel shuttle bus stop to the part of the airport I needed to get to. (Have I mentioned before that Charles de Gaulle airport is huge?) in the terminal 2F, I was then faced with many, many different check in and departure windows, and so I went up to the first official looking person I could see, and asked where I should check in, showing her my e-ticket. She didn't speak English, but was very helpful and pointed me to the right place. 

Then, the next achievement- automated check in using a kiosk thingy. I managed to check in and produce a boarding pass and luggage tag all by myself, and then got in the queue to drop my bag. This was the most fun part. As I was waiting at the head of the queue, there was a couple at the desk who seemed a bit dithery. They had their suitcase open, and were going through it, with stuff all over the floor, and at one point the guy behind the counter caught my eye, and I smiled at him, and he rolled his eyes rather comically. I think we shared a moment. 

When I got to the desk, he smiled at me, and I started my opening speech. He waved his hand and said, "in English?". I said, "yes, merci, but I try to speak French, because I think it's polite to at least try." We then had quite a pleasant little chat and a few laughs, whilst he did the paperwork he needed to do, and checked my passport (even for a domestic flight; I was surprised at this). When it was all done, I asked him, "so where do I go now?" and he smiled and directed me to the security gate.

The flight to Nice was quite pleasant. My seat was towards the rear of the plane, behind a curtain of sorts (in the cheap seats, I suspect), but I had no one next to me, and so was very comfortable (even the seatbelt was quite commodious, as on most domestic flights in Aust, generally I have to ask for an extender, or else it only just fits, and is a bit tight. But there were no problems, and I settled in for the flight. The in flight magazine was written in French and English, so I amused myself by reading the French bits, and trying to work out what they were saying, before looking at the English translations to see how ll I'd done. Interestingly, there were some bits that I'm certain where the English translations weren't totally accurate ( I think there was extra detail in the French bits that wasn't included in the English), so again I was feeling reasonably happy that my French is perhaps not as bad as I had thought. This was also a great exercise to improve my French, so it was good all round.

Upon arrival I was met by the Scenic Tours person, who was concerned that there were only about six of us on that flight, when there should have been something like 26. So she went running around trying to find out why Nd happened to the others. In the meantime, I got chatting to the rather nice Canadian couple who were sitting, waiting, with me. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, we eventually got on the coach, and were on our way to Taraascon, and the ship.