Monday, 10 December 2018

'Good' Problems

Despite the gloom, sharp drop in temperature and the great indoors having more appeal come 5pm, I find myself busier as autumn makes way for winter in Strasbourg.  

The last weekend of November I spend in the delightful company of Coral, a fellow aspiring writer I met at a workshop earlier in the month. By some accident the event was over-subscribed but the ambiance was cordial. After the event, Coral and I remain in touch by email. Originally hailing from Tunisia, she’s currently based in Frankfurt after completing a master’s in civil engineering. She and I bond over our shared tendency towards idealism, artistic insecurities and linguistic travails.  We exchange excerpts of our work and give feedback.

Her openness and ready vulnerability is refreshing and speaks to my own instincts. She’s also a patient listener (always useful in the presence of yours truly). 

We meet up at one of my new favourite city haunts, Oh My Goodness! Café. Whilst ordering my smoothie, I notice the American barista is struggling with her French. All too familiar with that feeling, I switch to our shared first language.

Multi-lingual Coral has plenty of experience on that front too. Having studied and mastered several languages (enough to make forays into literature) she’s nonetheless humble about the journey. She describes her German as ‘moody’; some days she is fluent, others she struggles to make a grammatically correct sentence.  We pass a few agreeable hours before I head off to my next rendezvous with another polyglot; my Eastern European angel, Clara. I promised her a meal after her sage advice saved me a packet on my Taxe d’Habitation. I initially sense reluctance on her part but she reassures me she’s keen; just very busy. We settle on Lebanese at Le Tarbouche.  I love MENA cuisine and have wanted an excuse to check out the always buzzing eatery. Even self-confessed picky-eater Clara is a fan. I am not disappointed. The food is delicious, the portions generous and the price is nice.

(c) Banksy
Once the pleasantries and usual catch-up information has been exchanged, much of the evening is spent talking about my seemingly relentless infatuation for Bernard. I don’t intend to confess but I feel an almost perverse relief from doing so. She’s the only person I’ve told who has actually met him. She’s sympathetic, even if she can’t at first wholly understand my perspective on why we're not compatible in the long term.

I lament how much head-space such trivial matters take up in the scheme of the world's problems. Clara tells me to go easy on myself.

She advises I find a replacement. For my part, this rebound strategy isn't worth considering. Unlike Brexit, no deal is better than a bad deal. Clara is so used to being in a relationship, perhaps this is lost on her.  For one thing Bernard can’t be replaced. For another, it wouldn’t be fair on the third party. Moreover, by adding another romantic entanglement to the mix I’d only be kicking the problem down the road. Best to face the pain alone now, for delayed gratification later.

One thing is agreed; not seeing Bernard is bad, being around him is even worse (hard to avoid as colleagues) Friendship isn’t a realistic option, Clara observes. She’s right.

Talking to her about it simultaneously lightens and adds to the load. Nothing like unfulfilled longing to kick start the blues. As always, my sis bears the brunt of my drama. She spends the best part of four hours trying to talk sense into me on Skype the following week.

Given that we work for the same organisation, my resolve to avoid Bernard is routinely challenged. I take to demurring invitations for the elevenses with colleagues in the café when I know he’ll be about. Relief turns to panic when, after weeks of our paths not crossing, I see him twice in one day. Neither encounter is as smooth as I’d have liked. The second occasion, when I spot Bernard from afar, my attempt at a slick escape turns to farce thanks to a temperamental security system. I have no choice but to interact with him briefly, accompanied by a new younger, female lunching buddy.

But at least there’s no conversation. For the sake of peace of mind and until emotion catches up with reason, small talk is more than I can handle.

Besides, despite his apparently warm sentiments when he sees me, I get the distinct impression that Bernard wants to keep me at arm’s length too, consciously or otherwise. If it’s distance he wants, it is distance he’ll get.

Thank God for music. A most effective antidote to a broken-heart. 

Not surprisingly, the run up to Christmas is a hectic season for my group HRGS. (Ironically, the choir doesn’t have much of a Christmas repertoire to my great disappointment. Neither do they seem very enthused by the idea. Perhaps the French carol tradition pales in comparison to the Anglophone). It’s apparently also a fertile period for the choir. A number of the female members have given birth within weeks, if not days of each other.

From late November to mid-December, we perform shows on successive weekends in and around Strasbourg. It’s like a tour of the Alsace region. 

I lose half a weekend, panicking over learning a solo in South African Sotho that late one Friday night after practice the choir director, Kiasi informs me I should learn. He’s crafty. I wouldn’t put it past him to make me perform it that weekend. 

He feigns innocence when we next meet.

It was just for future reference.

Great. I’ve aged five years overnight for nothing.

From my limited experience of performing with the choir thus far, I have made the following observations. Our audiences are largely older and Caucasian. Clapping in the customary off-beat rhythm of American Gospel music poses a particular challenge. 

  Most of the new recruits have carefully avoided these musical outings. Long-time members I’ve never laid eyes on materialise at random intervals.  They are clearly so familiar with the repertoire, they don’t feel the need to be at every rehearsal. It’s nonetheless a great opportunity for me to become acquainted with some of them. And the French practice is most welcome. During one long car ride, I swap Strasbourg anecdotes with fellow-30 something from Brittany, Yvette. The choir is a godsend, I tell her.

I have to hand it to Kiasi (or Chief, as I call him). He maintains his gusto throughout each performance, regardless of the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) of the crowd. He’s particularly keen on audience participation. He often invites guests to join us on stage for the finale. It can get crowded and pleasantly messy.

 Chief has a favourite party peace in which he teaches spectators a simple song. He then divides the room into two sections for some friendly competition. If the mood takes him, he’ll even pounce on unsuspecting audience members to lead each section. On one occasion, he selects two couples from a large but notably subdued crowd. When one of the males opens his mouth, it’s only the context that gives it any semblance of a song. You’d think Kiasi was holding him at gunpoint from the rigid claps and morose expression. 

After that particular performance, I am looking forward to going home to redeem what’s left of my Sunday evening. I’m knackered, feeling the absence of my day of rest.  

So much for that. Before I know it, we’re ushered Last Supper-style by our zealous hosts into the Upper Room of the impressive church for some sweetmeats and beverages.

Meanwhile, I could sleep standing up. I really don’t have the brain space to make conversation in a second language. I struggle with small talk in French at the best of times.  Alas, there is no escape. We’re in an Alsatian village in the middle-of-nowhere. I don’t drive and my lift, the choir’s treasurer, is also obligated to stay for snacks. I sit in a corner in an apologetic sulk. I’m not hungry and don’t have the inclination to indulge in unnecessary calories.

I sneak off to find a quiet space and come across fellow soprano Michelle. We have an affinity. She lived in the UK whilst studying English. She’s thus a willing and supportive unofficial language coach. By the time we bump into each other fatigue has made me emotional. She understands. She was also tearful earlier. The combination of tiredness and being on the wrong end of Kiasi’s sometimes catty humour got the better of her.

I find a quiet space to give mum a follow-up to the birthday call that was cut short pre-performance. Hearing a familiar voice lifts my spirits.  

Hidden away in an empty church office, Mum is worried I’ll miss my ride. Not a chance. I hot step it when I hear voices. At last we head towards the car park. En route Kiasi stops to take a photo of the illuminated church clock. Co-director Evan doesn’t approve.

That’s White People s***, he mocks in English. I reprimand him playfully in French for stereotyping. 

In the car, I reflect on the evening with my fellow passengers. The consensus is that it’s the better of the two performances that weekend. I beg to differ. Saturday night’s gig at the choir’s home parish is characterised by bonhomie, a more gamely audience and impromptu cameos by cute tots. Tonight, the atmosphere has been tense, the crowd stiff, the choir thinner on the ground. The sopranos sang sharp and energy levels were lower. 

Back in Strasbourg, going home is another palaver. Trams are running a reduced service owing to  security issues. Given that Sunday transport to my neck of woods is about as regular as a solar eclipse without the added hassle, the journey back takes me 2 hours door to door.

But let me accentuate the positive for a change. I am singing on the regular, overcoming my aversion to performing as a result and sharing the Gospel through song. 

Choir-related busyness and travel upsets are good problems to have.

Monday, 26 November 2018


The autumn leaves haven’t all fallen and already Strasbourg is in festive mode.  Tasteful decorations have gone up. The giant tree stands unlit in Place Kleber and the stalls are setting up for the world famous Christmas Market.

The month has got off to a promising start. Thanks to the canny intervention of my colleague Clara, I receive some good news in the form of a 90% reduction in what would have otherwise been a substantial Taxe D’habitation bill (the French equivalent to Council Tax). Thank God for small miracles.

Meanwhile my cultural calendar is full to bursting, as tends to be the case this time of year. The Jazzdor festival takes place each November. The event has a special place in my heart. It was a welcome distraction from flat hunting a mere few weeks into my arrival in Strasbourg. It’s also where I met Jeanne, the first friend I made here. It is thus fitting that almost a year to the day, we attend a Jazzdor performance once again featuring her flatmate Annalise. It’s an unofficial anniversary.

Annalise’ trio is preceded by the abstract sounds of pianist Matthieu Mazué. Clearly inspired by Thelonius Monk (throwing in a cover of Monk’s Dream for good measure), Mazué’s style is characterised by choppy syncopation and elongated melodies twisted out of shape. My initial excitement turns to confusion when he introduces his interpretation of one of my favourite jazz standards Stella by Starlight. Save for the opening bars serving as a leitmotif, I wouldn’t recognise it.  It’s a suspenseful performance; a tension never to be resolved. This talented and incredibly dexterous musician has taken a notably subversive approach to his art.  Thus Annalise’ soulfully-inflected, equally agile performance is a healthy counterbalance. During the break, I reconnect with Jeanne and her mum, who is in town for the week.

That weekend I have signed up via Internations for a ‘free’ walking tour of Petite France, my favourite neck of the Strasbourg woods.  These multi-lingual Happy Tours are carried out by volunteers whose only payment is a freewill donation.  I opt for the French version for the practice.  Despite the sharp drop in temperature and harsh wind, our congenial guide, Rémy, cheerily recounts the history of Little France and its environs; from the Roman conquest to some of the quirky street names. The area has a more insalubrious history than I was aware. La Grand Rue for instance wasn’t always the cosmopolitan social hub it is now. Up until the regeneration effort in the 1960s, it was the City's underbelly. Most shocking of all is the sordid origin of the otherwise romantic-sounding appellation Little France. It dates back to the 15th century when the Alsace region was under German rule (well, the precursor to the unified Germany). French soldiers, ridden with syphilis after fighting and cavorting in Naples, were banished to the area to be treated at a dedicated hospice. It became an unofficial colony for what was facetiously nicknamed ‘The French Disease’ and thus referred to by the rest of the population as…Petite France

It’s an informative and enjoyable jaunt. It's also one more activity to keep future guests entertained.

On the way back from the tour, my tram is held up by solidarity protests taking place throughout France against fuel taxes and the rising cost of living.

It’s set to be a socially-conscious week ahead. The Organisation is hosting the World Forum for Democracy events.  The theme this year is gender equality. It’s surely no coincidence that the event overlaps with International Men’s Day as well as the World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse; both on 19 November. 

My group, the High Rock Gospel Singers, have been asked to perform as part of the opening ceremony. I mention it a few weeks beforehand to choir director, Kiasi, having been surprised to see us listed in the WFD programme. He is completely unaware. It’s not feasible anyway, he shrugs It’s a Monday morning.

Something clearly changes between then and the chaotic rehearsal we have the following week. Kiasi makes an announcement post-practice, inviting anyone who is available to sign up. It turns out one of the sopranos is also an events’ organiser and volunteered the services of HRGS á notre insu.

Kiasi must have reasoned it was best not to piss off The Organisation by being a no-show.

The performance falls on my day off. True, it’ll be odd performing at work. Apart from that I don’t have a bona fide excuse not to. Besides, I was going to be in the vicinity anyway. Not only do I plan to attend some of the inaugural events but my manager, Sophie will also be making an appearance for the first time since she went on maternity leave. She is performing with her husband, Marcel's percussion band as part of the day’s proceedings. The couple will be accompanied by their bouncing baby boy, Augustin. The team have collected a very respectable sum for the family’s gift, as well as organising a little get together to mark the occasion. Given that it was a difficult pregnancy and both mummy and baby have come through the other side safe and well, there is even more reason to celebrate.
That morning, on the way out to Le Chateau to meet the rest of the choir, I check my post box for a long awaited package. I spot instead another copy of the building regulations. The part about noise has been highlighted in the same aggressive orange, this time with a note attached. Apparently, this mystery neighbour objects to me cleaning my flat. On a Saturday. At noon. Fuming, I crumple the note and toss it in the nearest bin.

I arrive at Le Chateau a little flustered. Fastidious neighbours notwithstanding, Kiasi has taken his sweet time to confirm when and where we are meeting. I’ve already left the flat by the time I see his text. Thankfully I arrive long before show time. Being a Monday morning, there are a choice few of us. We have a surfeit of sopranos with just Élise holding the fort for the contraltos. Since we are only performing two numbers, one of which I actually know quite well, I alternate between soprano and alto to help balance the sound. Not that Élise really needs it. It’s a pretty slick affair if I must say so myself. Or so I think. When the video is made available, I note with anguish that I'm singing flat for most of the second number. The audience are more forgiving. Later that week, I am stopped by a guest during a lunch break to congratulate me on the group’s behalf.

HRGS @ the World Forum for Democracy
(c) Catherine Monflis

 I return home after the show to vent to sis on Skype about my implacable neighbour. That's followed by a whinge about the grammatical mistakes I made conversing to my fellow choristers. Perfectly bi-lingual Kiasi teases my London inflection. Evidently, too much of my self-worth is wrapped up on my linguistic progress. I hardly enjoy the learning process these days.

Sis shows me some well-needed tough love. 

I’m not going to indulge your pity-party. 

Amongst her usual nuggets of wisdom she implores me to be kind to myself. For the rest of the day, each time I think upon this simple statement, so difficult to practise, it reduces me to tears.

Back at Le Chateau several colleagues from my department and elsewhere have gathered in the freezing cold to watch Sophie and Marcel's group perform. Whistles are handed out and we are instructed to blow carnival style, in support of the launch of a campaign to tackle sexual abuse in sports.

I reunite with Sophie after the performance. I must confess that I am looking to angle my way out of Le Pot that has been organised back at the office. At least this way she knows I have come out to support her before I sneak off. It becomes apparent however, that I couldn’t execute my plan without it being perceived as anti-social.  It’s better to grin and bear it for Sophie’s sake. She seems genuinely pleased I came. Marcel is an urbane and cordial man. I would say charming but I believe he's more sincere than that. Little Augustin sleeps through the loud performance and most of the post-show festivities, despite being passed around. They make a lovely family.
The next couple of days are a whirlwind of WFD activities. As is often the case with these sorts of conferences, there are a number of overlapping sessions vying for my attention.  During the morning slot, one discussion stands out from the rest. I attend a stimulating roundtable about faith and feminism. The Abrahamic Three are well represented. I do wonder about the absence of other faith groups (as is vocalised by another attendee) and Protestant voices. But let me not be too sectarian.

The two Catholic speakers notably diverge. On one hand Hajnalka Juhász from the Hungarian Christian Democracy Party admits to a more conservative perspective; her essentialist views on ‘male’ and ‘female’ character traits for instance and not questioning male-dominated leadership.  Polish theologian Zuzanna Radzik on the other hand takes a thoroughly egalitarian approach. When asked if women can bring particular qualities to religious institutions, she replies that she doesn’t subscribe to the idea of inherently feminine attributes. It’s a matter of individual character and strengths. In that regards, she is a woman after my own heart. She reminds those in the church that the fight for equality has a biblical basis; not least in the Apostle Paul’s revolutionary (for the time) words in Galatians 3:28. This, she rightly asserts, is our starting point.

Buoyed by Radzik's comments, I add that the church in general needs to do more to reach men than offer them merely spiritualised male entitlement. In the end, it gives no respite from the inevitable disadvantages of the patriarchal system such as unrealistic masculine ideals.

 Later that afternoon I’m torn between interactive events about the fight against sexual exploitation and re-examining how masculinity is defined as a means of combatting violence against women. It’s a tough decision but I choose the latter. I have a presentiment that I’ll be riled up by one of the speakers at the sex trafficking discourse, who appears to belong to the school of thought that  propose solutions such as calling sexually-exploited women ‘sex workers’ and giving them ‘better working conditions’ as opposed to challenging and upending the skewed paradigm altogether. Phew. Mini-rant over. For now.

The Masculinities Re-examined discussion is a breath of fresh air, drawing speakers from within and beyond Europe’s borders, such as the UK’s Chris Green of the White Ribbon Campaign and India’s Harish Sadani from NGO Men Against Violence & Abuse (MAVA). (Alas, the French authorities denied Gambia’s Lamin S. Fatty a visa). Sadani is doing superb work in a country whose struggles with gender-based violence have caught the world’s attention in recent years.

I am heartened to meet other Christians at the event wholly committed to gender-equality and reconciliation of the sexes. When the moderator Simone Fillipini asks what a gender utopia would look like, one audacious interlocutor cries ‘Christian!’

Fillipini opens up to the floor for ideas on how to dissuade men from cashing in on the short term 'patriarchal dividend' as it is described by panellist Robert Franken. I suggest that the rate of suicide amongst men, with some recent high profile cases, makes this a public health issue. The immediate benefits of prescribed ideas of masculinity and patriarchy are oppressive in the long term.  I add that women also play a key role in dismantling the social conditioning we not only imbibe but perpetuate.

My contributions are apparently well received. Several men thank me post event. Thanks to this impromptu networking, my plans to rush back to the office fall by the wayside.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Blessings in Disguise

It’s been a while since the security situation around The Organisation became a bit hairy.  Back in late spring, some especially zealous demonstrators penetrated the grounds causing considerable damage to the façade. It took several months for it to be repaired.

On that occasion, HQ circulated messages putting everyone on high alert and advising staff to remain indoors. I happened to be on leave that day. I was apprised of the drama by colleagues on my return.

The first week of November, however, I catch the live show.  Just before my weekly French class, I pop across the road to return a library book at HQ, Le Chateau. On exiting my office building, The Magenta, I note the environs are crawling with heavily armed guards.

Yards away a sizeable crowd of Kurds have gathered. Someone is giving a rousing speech that is having the desired effect.

The usual missive warning us of possible disturbances is yet to be circulated.

‘Uh-oh’. Something tells me perhaps I should turn back. Not a chance. It’ll be my only opportunity to visit the library this week.

I receive a veiled reprimand from the elderly librarian about arriving so near to closing time.

She explains that it wouldn’t normally bother her except that news has spread of the demo.  Unfortunately, her rudimentary tech skills slow us down further when I try to check out a couple of new reads.  By the time I make it to the Chateau’s rear exit, it's crowded by colleagues. The security staff are panicky. They wave us away frantically. We’re effectively barricaded inside. A co-worker is having an agitated exchange with one of the security guards. There’s talk of an alternative exit that might still be available but I don’t know how to reach it. It’s taken me long enough to master only some of the Chateau’s labyrinthine structure.

Mince, alors!

I need to make this French class. It’s the first since the half-term break.

I notice that it’s hazy outside. I assume the morning mist has returned.

Someone mentions an explosion. We hear a loud noise. One of my interlocutors doesn’t seem fazed, perhaps assuming there’s a less ominous explanation.  That reassuring thought evaporates with the sight of a young man, face covered in a red bandana, throwing a volley of Lord-knows-what explosives outside the building.  

It’s just got real.

We uniformly give up on making a swift exit and disperse to other parts of the building. I see one of my fellow French students lunching nonchalantly with her colleagues. She kindly agrees to send a message on both mine and her behalf to the lesson organisers to inform them of our predicament. 

I still plan to make it for the last half-hour if I can.

I’m at a loss at what to do with myself when I come upon another former classmate, Agatha.  It’s been a while. We briefly reference the absurdity of the current situation before catching-up.  I barely notice her taciturn companion. She interrupts softly.

I’m your neighbour. I live directly opposite you.

It takes a few moments to register what she’s saying. I am trying to place her face.

I’ve passed you several times. I wanted to introduce myself before but…

I’m mortified. I know exactly who she is. I saw her only a few days ago with her husband and toddler.  I wouldn’t have trouble identifying her spouse and little one. There are precious few others familiar to me in my building. Yet she has always been a background figure.

I apologise profusely. She is gracious. She introduces herself.  Anna.  She relocated to France many moons ago from Croatia. 

The three of us pass an agreeable hour talking about our shared experience as Alsace-outsiders (Agatha is Austrian).  Anna listens sympathetically as I describe my rollercoaster experience with French.  I still struggle with small talk…

Don’t worry. It takes years. She admits.

I find it reassuring nonetheless. She obviously made enough progress to start a family with a Frenchman. There is hope.

Anna might have also solved the puzzle of the mystery neighbour who left the rather snide note in my post box about noise control.  I am surprised to learn it could be one of the few other neighbours I see on a regular basis and with whom I thought I otherwise had a good rapport.  Anna diplomatically references several complaints made since the couple first moved in.

It’s time to venture back outside. I bid farewell to my colleagues, pleased that by chaotic happenstance our paths crossed that afternoon.

I manage to make it for the last act of the class.  En route, I bump into my colleague and former office-mate, Claudia. I follow her back to the Magenta, via one of the less conspicuous entrances. The street is strewn with debris from the makeshift explosives. The protests are scheduled to take place all week. Thankfully, the next few days are notably calmer, notwithstanding the presence of armed police.

I have a busy schedule that weekend. On the Friday night I will be making my personal debut with the High Rock Gospel Singers at a charity gig. Neither of the choir directors are bothered that the newbies have scarcely had time to familiarise ourselves with the repertoire. I’ve been doing my best. Just as I seem to be getting handle on it, Kiasi or Evan will pluck something out of thin air.

Kiasi thinks it’ll be a good training for us. A baptism by fire.
I recall my first show with the choir. I hardly knew anything. It was quite an experience.

That morning, I wake up struggling with motivation. I wish I could say it was something less trivial than the latest emotional nadir regarding my stubborn infatuation for Bernard.  I saw him earlier in the week. He was flying out on holiday to Atlanta that evening. Midnight plane to Georgia. I don’t know why that should have made me maudlin.

Thus singing about the Good News of Jesus Christ to raise money for a children’s charity is just what I need to get things in perspective, as well as lighten my mood.

A respectable number of members have shown up for this performance, although I am yet to be in the same room with the choir in its entirety. Each Friday more unfamiliar faces emerge only to disappear again for weeks on end. The vast majority are long standing members. HRGS is blessed with several talented soloists. Rather dishearteningly, the attendance of the cream-of-the-crop has fallen off since their anniversary show in June. (In fairness, a few of them are heavily pregnant). Fellow soprano and Leona-Lewis lookalike, Claire has mentioned past schisms. A few strong soloists remain. Nevertheless, I observe that the honours have more frequently fallen to a shrill soprano with a over-generous helping of self-belief. It's all I can do not to wince through her solos.

Half the choir seems to be made up of jocular contralto defector Elisabeth (now soprano), her Haitian husband, Gilles and their unspecified number of children. I haven't bothered to count.  Each time I think I've seen them all, more appear.

Backstage, we pass the time before practice singing ABBA songs and. for those who dare, eating fruit and pastries. I’m happy to indulge in some Swedish pop but I’m not going to coat my larynx with sugar before a vocal performance.

I note several of the newcomers are missing. I can’t blame them. I might have ducked out myself save the part of me that wants to call Kiasi's bluff.

He goes through several numbers to warm-up.  He has a habit of stopping us mid-flow if we make a mistake, only to cry Next! in a melodramatic squeal for comic effect.

I would like to rehearse a song from start to finish, for a change.  I comment to a fellow soprano.

Don’t worry. Doing concerts is a good way to learn the material.

Come again? At this rate, it’s a miracle the rest of the group have memorised the entire multilingual repertoire.

Just before curtain call, we form a circle of prayer. Kiasi reminds us that the objective is to enjoy ourselves…and praise Jesus.

We mount the stage, dressed in signature black with purple (fellows) and puce (ladies) sashes. We have no idea of the precise set list or for how long we’ll be performing.  Never has the expression ‘flying by the seat of my trousers’ (if I wore them) been more apt.  Kiasi ditches some tunes for others that I didn’t even know were part of the repertoire. 

I have a couple of things working in my favour. Some of the material I have already sung in some form with previous groups or at church. Most of it is Anglophone and thus easier to blag if I don’t know. The original version of the finale Akhuna is a different kettle of fish, however. The melody is familiar. The Swahili lyrics and choreography not so much. Mais, ça va quand même.

We march triumphantly out in song, all the way backstage. A few of the veterans ask how I feel.

It was a mad, unpredictable adventure. I reply. 

 I am having the time of my life.

 I reflect on how much singing with a quality group makes a difference to the performing experience.  Whatever happens I know we sound good. I am more relaxed.  Most of the choir decide to hang around and listen to the talented ensemble of Jazz students that follow our act.  We have a whale of a time making up slinky choreography to their classy West Coast and Bossa Nova offerings. Giddy with post-show euphoria, Elise the contralto and I sing pop, disco and soul classics (some cheesier than others) on the commute home. We part company after a MJ medley.

How much sweeter are unexpected pleasures.

The same sentiments come to mind the next day when I volunteer to help out with my church’s iteration of Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit. It’s a staple of the calendar for my church back in London too. Not that I have ever attended. I have always been put off by the Forbes Magazine definition of success that seems to underpin the event. Fortune 500 meets Ted Talks with a bit of God thrown in. It doesn’t help that Willow’s Creek has not fared well in the light of the American church's own #MeToo awakening.

On the other hand, my Strasbourgeois church family appear to have a paucity of volunteers. I put myself forward. My loyalty is to them and not Bill Hybels. Besides, I can’t pretend I’m not a little curious to see what all the fuss is about. 

By the time my shift on the welcome team starts on the second day, the event is drawing to a close. The lobby heaves with activity during the breaks but there’s not much to do in between. I chat to colleagues, catch-up with Jeanne or read a current affairs magazine whilst half-listening to the talks. I shouldn’t be too closed-minded. Too bad I’ve missed most of what would have been of interest, such as a presentation by one of our very own female teaching pastors/therapist.

Towards the end of the shift, I strike up a bilingual conversation with fellow volunteer Stacee. She’s a baby-faced 23-year old who moved from California to Strasbourg with her Guadalupina mother and African-American father, not long before I arrived in the City. Amongst other topics we discuss culture shocks, improving our French, feeling excluded from the Alsatian clan, and being relationship novices. The event wraps up. Hundreds of guests disappear in a flash. The cleaning team take over. Stacee and I head downstairs to grab what’s left of the set lunch. Just before we part ways we swap numbers and have a long hug; something we’ve both missed living in these cheek-kissing parts.

'Good' Problems

Despite the gloom, sharp drop in temperature and the great indoors having more appeal come 5pm, I find myself busier as autumn makes...