Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Converts Crossing the Gap of Misunderstanding (for MuslimGirl)

I'm delighted to share my first article for MuslimGirl.net with you.  The site is dedicated to promoting young muslim women's voices so that they are no longer considered to be at the fringe of society but right smack in the middle of it. Their aim is to create awareness of the Qur'an's message of gender equality and 'pave the way towards a world in which every woman can raise her head without fear of being attacked for her gender or beliefs.' I'm incredibly excited to be involved with such wonderful writers, artists, and activists. 

Here's a snippet from my first article: Converts Crossing the Gap of Misunderstanding
"Converts are in a unique position to clarify misconceptions. They have crossed the invisible frontier between two faiths and have experienced both in a very real sense. They know all too well the criticisms hurled at each religion. No doubt they’ve asked themselves the same probing questions as they patrolled the in-between spaces. Interrogating their faith in the illuminating darkness of the night."

For more, head on over to
MuslimGirl.netIf you haven't come across the site before, I've cherry picked some of my favourite aritcles which caught my eye recently:

Amani on Muslim Girls and Alcohol
Laila Alawa on ‘Side Entrance,’ a Topic that has been Silenced for Too Long
Ainee Fatima: The New Pakistani Cartoon The Burqa Avenger: Denying The Western Gaze 

Previous Post: Fennel, Hobs, and German Espionage: Tea Culture in Italy

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Tea Culture In Italy

Given the large collection of tea which was stuffed into my rucksack as I boarded a plane from Stansted to Bologna last week, it would be fair to surmise that I have somewhat of an obsession with tea.

All week I've been handing out teabags as gifts to students, awarding them as prizes, or using them as visual aids in class. I also used the occasion to check my students' knowledge of vocabulary and verb tenses by asking them to narrate my actions as I prepared a cup of tea during a class.

Despite living in the land of the iconic espresso, it's time to address the question, how does the humble cup of tea feature in Italian culture? If indeed, at all.

When do Italians drink tea?

There's a wide-spread belief that no self-respecting Italian would willingly choose tea over coffee unless there's a sound reason for it. Perhaps your workplace has hot water facilities but no coffee machine (indeed "you should get a coffee machine" is a commonly overheard remark at my workplace) or you're feeling unwell somehow and therefore unable to drink coffee for health reasons. These are both acceptable conditions for choosing tea over coffee.

In Italy, tea is commonly associated with sickness. For this reason, tea is a homeopathic concoction usually consumed at home rather than when you're out and about. It's main role is relaxation rather than perking people up and so camomille occupies a large proportion of the tea aisle in all its physical forms: powders, soluble tablets, syrups, and loose dried flowers.

Tea is inextricably related to the digestion of the Italian nation. Half the minimalist tea sections in Italian supermarkets are aimed at the digestive system. In particular, the shelves are lined with locally produced fennel teas. And just a sidestep away from the anise-flavoured teas, you can find rows of detox tisanes, weightloss blends, and green teas which are becoming increasingly popular among the health conscious.

As a side note, pay attention to ingredients if you're not a fan of fennel, anise, or liquorice. You'll find this flavour in practically everything: sweets, ice creams, biscuits, pizza, salads, and chewing gum. There have been so many times when I've begun nonchalantly nibbling on slice of onion only to find that it's actually a hefty piece of fennel!

Which teas can you find? 

When I ask Italians which black teas they drink,  they usually refer me to Twinings English Breakfast, Liptons or Prince of Wales tea. Neither teas are what I'd consider everyday brews along the lines of Tetleys, PG tips or good old Yorkshire tea.

Other tea brands usually have English sounding names like 'Lord Nelson' but these are more often than not they are German products masquerading as English ones. These black teas are rather weak and rarely merit the title of black. They would more accurately be described as beige. Then again, without milk they are often more bitter than an English cuppa.

How do Italians make tea? 

In Italy, the stove is king. So much so that small apartments often forego an oven. All is you need is pasta anyway, right?

The stove is used for preparing espresso and for boiling water for hot drinks. Kettles are not considered essential household items here unlike in the UK where it's the first item students smuggle into their halls of residence. Kettles are available in shops but few people have them or if they do, they rarely use it for tea.

In fact, I sent my husband out to buy a teapot this week and he came back with a whistling kettle for the stove because it had been given the name 'teiera' in Italian which is the same name given to teapots!

How do Italians serve tea? 

Italians usually serve cups full of hot water with a choice of tea bags and a slice of lemon on the side. But to a British mind, black tea with lemon sounds incredibly bitter as we're used to balancing tea with sweet dairy. Without that counterbalance, one could argue that Italians are actually more die-hard when it comes to tea. An English person would most likely turn their nose up at straight black tea or say it was disgusting.

Does your country have a strong tea culture?
What varieties are available? 
How is the tea served? 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Scottish Harvest and Community Celebration | Judy Hamilton

To round off this week's Harvest series, Judy Hamilton from Fife (@judyinfife) has kindly agreed to share her experience of traditional Harvest festivities in Scotland and explain how her local community comes together to rediscover the value of fresh local produce.

How do you celebrate Harvest?

I have always attended traditional services. I love to sing hymns like "We plough the fields and scatter" and "Bringing in the sheaves". The children used to parade a harvest basket of fruit at that time. The fruit and veg was distributed to what our church call the "shut-ins" (!), elderly people in the community. This year, we have been asked to bring tinned or dried goods and these will be distributed through food parcels at the foodbank.  

How does your country celebrate Harvest? Are there any local traditions?

One 'Fife' tradition is to place a piece of coal on the altar, as this is a former mining area and this tradition celebrates what comes from the ground. We also have a Wheatsheaf made of unleavened bread. (I'm not sure of this tradition). Maybe it's just "because we've always done it." 

Do you celebrate Harvest in a religious context? Are there any special traditions you enjoy?

My church is the Salvation Army and the celebration of harvest is very traditional. From the Old Testament invocation to bring your first-fruits before The Lord." At Sunday school today, I spoke to the children about how seeds grow into lovely food for us to eat, through God's provision. We thank God - And remind children how we have a responsibility to look after the earth, and to share what we have.

How does you local community celebrate Harvest?

Last week we had a Harvest Food Festival day at a local Family centre which has allotments (looked after by the Dad's project). We were joined by 'celebrity' chef Christopher Trotter, Fife's Food Ambassador. He did interactive cookery demonstrations showing how to make cheap soups, parsnip & apple, beetroot, and a broth using various chard, onions, potatoes, carrots etc and only adding stock (bouillon?) and turmeric.

Chef Christopher met up with parents in the morning and went to the allotments, giving advice on what to pick and assisted in selecting produce. There were beetroots, parsnips, onions which were already picked and drying, potatoes, leeks, and windfall (free) apples. 

There was also the opportunity for kids to make and eat fruit kebabs and an interactive table, where you could make crumble using fresh fruit and fresh fruit smoothies. A stall from Sustainable Fish was there to encourage children to eat oily fish, with easy recipes that you could try there and then.

So, it was really a celebration of local, cheap food and a learning experience for families to try easy recipes together. That was a new experience for me, but felt like a true "Harvest Celebration" with all the community coming together and learning about the food that's on our doorstep.

Previous Posts: Harvest in Rural England and Thanksgiving in Canada and Harvest in a Tin?

Monday, 14 October 2013

Harvest in Rural England and Thanksgiving in Canada | Alastair McCollum

Following on from last week's article Harvest in A Tin? I'm very pleased to be sharing several interviews based on the theme of Harvest. Today, Alastair McCollum (@revdal) shares his experience of Harvest in a rural English setting which he also compares with Thanksgiving in Canada. 

How does your country celebrate Harvest? Are there any local traditions?

Where I am now (Canada) has a Thanksgiving Holiday, but not harvest, as such.  Unlike the USA, which remembers the early settlers and has a nationalist vibe (not that it's necessarily a bad thing to be proud of one's nation) Thanksgiving in Canada is much more about thinking about the bounty of nature and of working in harmony with one another and the world around.

In my last group of parishes I was in a rural context in England - there harvest was a key celebration in the Church and village year - where we had harvest festivals in every church, no matter how small the community, and indeed in every school. We also had other events such as harvest suppers and harvest lunches.

Do you celebrate Harvest in a religious context? Are there any special traditions you enjoy?

The Church here will celebrate thanksgiving, I have yet to experience that. In Rural England there are Harvest festivals in most Churches, even (in my past experience) in Churches which are no longer used regularly for worship. I have tended to use the Scriptures set for harvest by the lectionary of the Church of England, along with a version of what is called the 'Service of the Word' with special prayers.

I noticed in the past few years a move back to celebrating the farming community and the providers of our food and goods.  In very rural areas the farmers were invited to be an active part of the service, which included reading the Scripture lessons and/or prayers and talking about their lives as farmers within the service. 

This went hand in hand with the celebration at the start of summer, the Rogation festival, which also marked part of the agricultural year.  I should also say that I love the fact that the celebration of harvest is always an all age friendly service in the Churches I have served.

If you collect food/donations, are they going to a particular charity/project this year?

We are having a Thanksgiving 'underwear drive' here in Victoria, BC, with underpants and socks being collected for one of our local homeless charities. In England I noticed a move away from taking a harvest offering of (mainly) fresh produce and then distributing that to local people who might appreciate it, particularly the elderly, to a more practical offering. 

Churches would either auction off the goods brought and give the money to charity (often one associated with homelessness) or just ask for financial offerings to give away, or encourage parishioners to bring tinned/dried goods that could be passed on to homeless shelters or food banks.

Do you celebrate Harvest as a family?

Here we have been invited to a number of thanksgiving meals - the turkey, yams and pumpkin pie based celebrations which many would associate with Thanksgiving in North America. In England we used to go to at least one Harvest meal/event as well as attending Church and School services for Harvest.

Personally, what do you reflect on during Harvest? Does it have special meaning for you?

I would always take the idea of Thanksgiving as being at the heart of any marking of harvest - an acknowledgement of our riches, particularly in the West, and a reminder that we have a part in a just and equal sharing of all that God has given us.  

Though I have encouraged a local celebration, with local people involved, I have also tried to add a global perspective and a reminder that this world is interconnected, and that the wealth of some countries comes at the price of poverty in others. I have been very pleased by the materials produced by agencies such as Christian Aid and Tear Fund to mark harvest in the past few years and tried to include the idea of a 'Harvest of Justice' in my own preaching at Harvest.

Alastair McCullum is the rector of St. John the Divine in Victoria, BC. He has worked as a pastor in the UK and now lives in Canada. You can find him at @RevDal.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Harvest in a Tin?

The arrival of a fresh breeze and light drizzle in Bologna signalled the end of a blisteringly hot Italian Summer. The wardrobe's contents have been exchanged with those of the boxes under the bed, the oven has become the central focus of the home once more, offering tray after tray of roasted root vegetables, and at last the awkward period of playing chicken with the central heating is over!

I always loved Harvest weekend at church as a childThe choir would sing a merry little song about fluffy cauliflowers and sleeping broad beans and, if you were really lucky, you could eat the portion of celebration loaf which featured an edible mouse! 

The tables at the front would be draped in red cloth and covered in an assortment of fruit and vegetables which the congregation had brought in. Big fat marrows, plump squashes and, of course, several obligatory tins of pineapple chunks and cream of chicken soup were all lined up ready to be distributed to families in the community who needed a helping hand. 

 Bologna Fruit Stall (Photographer: Naomi Fines)

In an urban context, tinned food can seem cold, sterile and a far cry from the traditional image of a bountiful Harvest overflowing with ripe produce. Tinned goods never feel particularly special despite the fact that they are often specifically requested by charities because they are easily stored and distributed to those who need them.

In fact, several of the people I asked about Harvest this year responded that the festival didn't particularly resonate with them because they felt so removed from the rural origins of the festival. They also cited the  fact that most of us are no longer dependent on produce from within the local community. Instead, we're are surrounded by exotic fruits virtually all year round. We think nothing of eating oranges and bananas every day even though they've probably travelled more air miles than most of us travel in a whole year. It's incredibly difficult to feel thankful for something that we so often take for granted. 

Come to think of it, although these lyrics are sung joyfully in churches every year, how many of us have actually 'ploughed the fields and scattered the good seed on the land?' Most Harvest songs and readings tend to look back with nostalgia at the good old days and celebrate a lifestyle that most of us have never truly experienced. With that in mind, it's understandable that some people view Harvest as a bit of a nothing festival. Without a personal connection to the land and the food that grows within it, Harvest loses its heart and purpose. As a result, we struggle to relate our experience of the world with the descriptions we hear in song and scripture. 

Does that mean Harvest is outdated and should be done away with? Or are there ways in which we can celebrate Harvest in a meaningful way within a modern setting? 

Let me know your thoughts! 

★  ★  ★

Come back later this week when there'll be several interviews shedding light on Harvest in various contexts, looking at it from both rural and urban perspectives, and exploring traditions from Scotland, Canada, and various Christian denominations. 

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