Thursday, January 28, 2010


You know how sometimes a seemingly tiny act has huge repercussions? But it's hard to know just when the first, the very first action took place. Maybe it doesn't matter, since life seems to be circular or spiral. Whatever it is, it isn't a straight line with a clear beginning and end.

Something like this happened to me recently. One of the seemingly trivial things was a visit to my Becky, my godchild, one of whose many fears is a near panic attack at the thought of traveling on public transportation the many kilometers between her and me to come for a visit. I tried my desensitization program on her, but it just didn't work - she wouldn't come. When I finylly went to visit Becky a few months ago, she shared all that is near and dear to her with me, introducing me to her boyfriend and her pets. Just as I was about to leave, she said, "Noreen, I bought a dog book. Would you like to see it?" I commented that I had always wanted a dog, but that I couldn't have one because of my allergies. She said,"Oh, no, there are new breeds just for people with allergies. Look in the back of the book - you'll see." I looked, and fell in love with a schnoodle, a crossbreed of schnauzer and poodle. I went home and talked to Peter about it

We looked at pictures of schnoodles in the internet and videos of schnoodles in YouTube. But there were no schnoodles being bred in Germany, it seemed. I mentioned all this to my friend Denise, who has a cute little dog not that different in appearance from a schnoodle - a Havanese, named Jule.

"We're going to mate our Jule with another Havanese. If it works and she has puppies, would you like me to let you know?" I took a deep breath and said yes.

I've had to say a lot of yeses along the way, each of them after discussion with Peter. This was not that easy, because neither Peter nor I has ever had a dog - except the one he had for two days and his mother gave away because - surprise! - it peed all over the house. Our son Jon is 23 years old, basically gone from home, and now we're thinking of something on the order of a baby? Yes - because our house is too quiet. And because we had the suspicion that there was another important whole aspect of life we were missing out on.

Jule did conceive and deliver five cute little Havanese puppies. I had already forgotten my yes when I got a phone call from Denise.

"Wanna come and see your new puppy? I have him all picked out for you. We even have a name - Toffee, because he is the color of Toffifee candy."

Peter and I went to see him and fell in love with Toffee. His eyes were still shut, but he was a beautiful silky brown ball that throbbed warm life.

Before we were allowed to take him home (we had to wait eight long weeks - eight weeks to make up our minds for sure), we went out to a pet store and bought a kennel, a harness, a cushion, dried cow's ears! - and some dog food. We had to ask for help at every step of the way. We felt like new parents! We had other essential dog things like toys and a soft blanket from my other goddaughter, Sarah - her Christmas present to me.

We woke up the morning we were to bring him home, wondering about how Toffee would change our lives. Denise and her children shed a few tears as they saw Toffee and us leave, carrying the kennel with its precious cargo.

We started on our five-kilometer journey, Peter driving more carefully than he had ever driven, except perhaps the day we brought our son home from the hospital. Before we were even halfway home, Toffee threw up all over his new soft blanket in his kennel. He was either terrified or car sick! I learned my first new fact about dogs - they hate vomit. So our precious little puppy began to push the vomit off his blanket with his cute white paws, all the way through the bars of his kennel, onto my jacket. My first activity as a dog owner was to clean up the vomit and to launder the blanket.

We've had him for a week and a half now. I don't mind (usually) the many times he pees on the floor. He almost always chooses the hard laminated flooring, saving the carpet for his play area. He has only pooped once inside our apartment. Toffy is a smart dog! We have to carry him downstairs in our arms each time we think it's time to do a job. He coos audibly as he is carried. Then he shivers, sometimes violently, as he does his jobs on the snowy ground. He has learned that if he runs to the door, he will soon be warm again. So, up we walk the stairs, our little prince perched in Peter's or my arms, until we reach the apartment. Even before we reach it, he struggles to get down and tears into the living room or kitchen to consume some of the liquid he has just released.

We are besotted with him. Many hours have gone into playing. He likes hardtack! When we break a piece of it off for him to eat, he carries it in his mouth, storming onto his cushion, which he sometimes misses in his eagerness, sliding off onto the rug. But then onto the cushion he goes again, fighting the hardtack as though he had just caught a baby lion as prey. Cuddling is even nicer.

So what avalanche was released when I heard about the possibity of having a pet, even though I have allergies? Well, I don't sneeze or wheeze from Toffee. He's smooth as silk. He has been the catalyst in bringing two people to speak to each other, when they were previously not on speaking terms. He brought Becky to me - she braved public transportation to be able to see him. Now she's considering going back into therapy. Peter and I get all excited by little things like poops outdoors, the things he learns, and we melt from his big, round, curious button eyes.

Training him leaves us with as many questions as answers. He answers to "come" - sometimes, and to "sit". And that's about it. He is sweet as a bag of toffee, but he is still an unknown entity, someone who also loves to bite and pretend we're some kind of enemy. Just what kind of enemy and how far he would go with us, we don't know. So we've enrolled him in a dog school. Next week Toffee will be a student. We hope he graduates with honors. He will definitely graduate with one honor - he has won our hearts.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Church, Italian Style

When I saw the two of them lying on the floor right in front of me, I thought, there must be a message here, maybe even a sermon.
For the past two years, my husband Peter has been assisting an Italian Protestant church that meets in Cologne. These years have been rocky, fraught with conflict between a few of the members, and uncertainty. The reason Peter was asked to help this church is that he is the district leader (sort of like a bishop or chaplain) of all the churches of our denomination in Cologne, and that he speaks fluent Italian. He is also an excellent mediator, and he managed to help them navigate some pretty rough waters.
Sometimes Pasquale, the pastor, has phoned him about church matters. In the beginning, if I answered the phone, I invariably heard a rush of unintelligible Italian. I thought Pasquale didn’t speak any German. But, over the years, either his German has improved, or Pasquale has learned that I really don’t speak Italian. Stella, his wife, has always understood my Italian deficiency. Each time Peter visits their home, he returns with an armful of Italian food. In the beginning, I was so awed by her generosity, I phoned her to thank her. We managed in a pidgin-German with mixed tenses to have absolutely clear communication.
Even though I don’t speak the language, I’m learning quite a bit through Peter’s work with the Italians.
Lesson one: generosity
I can’t tell you how many times Peter has come home loaded down with food. I believe I have called to thank Stella twice. I made chocolate chip cookies which I instructed Peter to give her as thanks. He returned home with a tray of lasagna. This Christmas I decided to bake a present for them: I baked four kinds of American and German Christmas cookies, packed them in the lasagna form we had received from them, covered it in plastic wrap and put a Christmasy ribbon around it. Peter and I walked over to their house to deliver it to them personally. About a week later, we returned from a shopping excursion, only to see their car parked in the driveway – they were waiting for us to come home. They had an Italian Christmas cake for us, and an invitation to the inaugural service in the building they are now meeting in. They assumed we would both attend and that Peter would deliver the sermon.
Lesson two: know your priorities
Peter didn’t have time to preach the sermon. He had two other sermons to deliver that weekend. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to attend the service. I don’t speak any Italian – how was I to endure two hours of what would sound like gobbledygook? We are finding out that these Italians come from a different culture than our own, and we don’t always know what their rules are. This can be to our advantage. Besides, they are living in Germany, not we in Italy, so we figure they have to fit into our ways somewhat, too. So Peter decided to simply say no. He would not preach, but he would speak a greeting to the church. I did the thing I do when I’m not sure about something – I had a look inside my soul and tried out the feeling of being there. I played my imagination game, looking to see whether I could imagine being there to be a good thing, also for me. I could. I imagined myself sitting there in the service, meditating and praying for whatever would pop into my mind in the next two hours.
Lesson three: be flexible
The afternoon of the service arrived, cold and snowy. Blizzards for all of Germany were forecasted, but we live within walking distance of the new location of the Italian church, so we bundled up and trudged over there. When we walked into the warmth of the building, we were accosted by hugs from Pasquale and Stella. Stella walked us down to the very front of the church and pointed to seats in the front row, where we were to sit. I had imagined sitting somewhere near the back. As soon as we sat down, I saw that my plan of meditation and prayer was also not going to work. A woman walked over to us and sat down next to me, announcing that she would translate the entire service for me.
So I smiled, agreeing to be talked to for two hours.
The service began. A woman stood on a stage, guitar in hand, and began singing. What a beautiful voice she had! She sang melodies familiar to me, but all in her beautiful lyrical Italian. The woman next to me had a song book, so I could half-way pronounce the words and sing along. Sometimes the songs were even sung in German. I was moved by the music, which sounded much more beautiful to me in Italian than in English or German.
Various people began to speak, among them my husband. It seemed that they were all talking about hardship – about how difficult it has been for this church, but how good it is that they stuck the cold winter out. Now spring was here, he said.
Lesson three: perseverance
That’s when I saw them. First, one was buzzing around me, around us. A big, fat fly, flying on an icy cold January day. It was sort of amusing, seeing a fly buzzing around on a winter’s day. But I wished I had a fly swatter, because it was also annoying. It rested on the floor, in front of me. Before long, another fly joined it, also resting next to the first one. How sweet – mated flies!
Having decided to meditate before it was announced that everything would be translated for me, I easily fell into a contemplative mood, watching the flies on the floor. What were they doing there? Were they there for a purpose other than annoying us? Was there anything good about flies, anyway? The answer stared me in the face, as I continued to gaze at them. Flies are not very highly regarded by the human or any other race. When we are in conflict with someone else, we tend to not regard the other person very highly either, or they us. But – if we stick it out – wow! We will survive. And good things will happen if we let God into the situation. That’s what happened with the Italian church. And also with the flies. They stuck out the cold winter, somehow, miraculously. They were survivors! And now here they were, teaching me a lesson on not giving up.
Lesson four: blessings come in ways we don’t expect
The service was over. Stella took us all on a tour of the building, which is really attractive, functional, and has lots of space for their needs. It’s even a miracle that they can meet there – the “landlords”, who own the building, are of another Protestant denomination who once dropped out of the inter-church union we belong to because our (and the Italian) denomination were in it. There were theological differences they couldn’t accept. But now, here they were, opening their doors to these people! Unbelievable.
As we were munching on things like arancini and pizza, I walked up to the woman who had played the guitar and sung, complimenting her singing (she spoke German). She told me she wished there had been another instrument there, but no one else in the church could play an instrument. I joked, “I could have joined you at the piano.”
“You play the piano?”
“Could you give my daughters lessons? They are looking for a teacher.”
I said yes. In the past few months, I have done a lot of imagining about how I could use my talents with the younger generation in Germany. I see myself leading a choir or a musical group. Already I “work” once in a while with a couple of girls – we get together and I help them with their homework, and we bake American cookies. But I’ve been thinking about expanding this. I called the local high school to see if they would like me to start an English club. No real interest – my proposal is too novel for them, it seems. I haven’t given up on the choir/musical group idea, but it seems, when I’m not looking and say yes to some things I hadn’t expected to do, other things come my way. Now I will be giving piano lessons to three Italian girls who speak German.
I’ll see if they’re interested in joining a choir. But if not, and nothing comes of my other efforts…I am learning to be flexible.
Lesson five: reach out
I can say buon giorno, buona sera, prego, and the names of a few Italian foods like lasagna and spaghetti Bolognese. I sat across from a woman I assumed would speak German because she was young, but she couldn’t. So we “talked” about lasagna and Italian food. Eventually, Santina, the singer/guitarist, came over and translated, and we had a very deep conversation. But it started out with lasagna. These Italians are so gracious and generous, they gave us a doggy bag to give Jon, our son, who didn’t attend.
Stella packed a carrier bag for us, full of pizza, arancini, mini stuffed pizza rolls, tiramisu, birthday cake (it was Santina’s daughter’s birthday), and ricotta-filled cannoli. Our entire family ate for two days from this.
I went to the Italian church service to be polite, but I did imagine good things happening. None of what I imagined happened, but I left with three new piano students and a bag full of delicious Italian food. Oh – and I’ve learned a new word – grazie.