“RING IN THE CHRIST” 2006 TOUR – ITALY, GREECE and BULGARIA
Southminster Ringer tours are always a journey of music, exploration, excitement, mystery, humor, and lots of faith. We make our plans and contact our hosts, but we are never truly sure what surprises await us upon arrival. Flexibility and patience are the keys to travel with the Southminster Ringers and so many doors were opened for us this summer. We had a chance to share our music with over 2000 people in the course of 18 concerts in 19 days.
After a few airport adventures (lost and found passport, missing boarding pass, too short a time in Munich to go through border controls and make the next flight - but they held the plane and administered a tongue-lashing) we arrived in Venice, and our driver, Dimitrus, was ready for us. We headed immediately to Padua, a small town between Venice and Ravenna, to find performance foam at a small upholstery shop. (Taking our own foam would have incurred horrendous "oversize" charges from Lufthansa!) Dennis Looney (our Mt. Lebanon source of Italian information – he knew the Italian word for "foam") warned us that the shop would close at 12:30 and not reopen until 2:30 (lunch, siesta, etc…) and we were fortunate to arrive at 12:20, find our foam, and watch the shop close around us. This closing is a daily event in ALL businesses in Italy, they take their lunch breaks seriously!
Our first night in Ravenna allowed us to adjust to the time, the heat, and life as a family of 24. The time adjustment was fairly quick for most of us, and an afternoon in the Adriatic certainly helped us adjust to the heat. Family life required more creativity. New roommates, rumors of snoring or talking in their sleep, and bathroom floods were handled gracefully (usually). Unhosted meals gave some an opportunity to be creative in the kitchen and we were all pleasantly surprised. When faced with meals later in the trip, we knew who to ask!
DIRECTIONS and NAVIGATION
We were slightly unprepared for the navigational needs for this trip. Accustomed in the past to drivers who had great maps and an amazing ability to find anything, we encountered a new method of finding a destination: 1) aim for the correct town, 2) stop and ask once we were totally lost and 3) follow the leader. Our driver was Greek and spoke no Italian, but that never stopped him from asking the first person he saw. Someone always came to our rescue and we were amazed at how folks would then either get on the bus and lead us there, or jump in their car (or motorcycle) and lead us. The method seems a little shaky to us, but it truly never failed. The Italians were always able to take the time to help us find our way. Life in Italy was NEVER rushed.
In Rome we were able to explore the riches of the Vatican (with Dr. Liz Lev), the history of Ancient Rome (with Dr. Lori-Ann Touchette), and concerts with the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. These lovely sisters have a beautiful facility and we were thrilled to share in their international conference with sisters from Poland, Pittsburgh, and Rome. We look forward to sharing music with the Pittsburgh sisters at Christmastime and with the Polish sisters on Tour 2008.
SISTERS OF THE HOLY FAMILY OF NAZARETH
The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth arrived in Nowogrodek in 1929 at the invitation of the Servant of God, Bishop Zygmunt Lozinski, to assume the responsibility of caring for the Fara and for the education of children. As a community, the Sisters became and integral part of the life in Nowogrodek and served the multicultural residents of the town. Open to the needs of the people in time of peace, they gave themselves still more completely during the occupation, by encouraging, helping, praying and empathizing with families who were coping with oppression, imprisonment, and murder. The Sisters invested great effort in preparing for the religious services held in the Fara. Hence, liturgical prayer became a haven of hope for the people living amid the overpowering darkness of Evil.
Terror, associated with the German occupation of Nowogrodek, began
in 1942 with the extermination of the Jews, and was followed by a
surge of arrests of the Polish people, then the indiscriminate
slaughter of 60 persons, including two priests. A similar situation
was repeated on July 18, 1943, when more than 120 members of
families were arrested and were destined to be executed. Aware of
this tragic situation, the Sisters unanimously expressed their
desire to offer their lives in sacrifice for the imprisoned family
members. Sister Stella, in the name of the community, shared the
Sisters' prayer and decision with Father Zienkiewicz, their chaplain
and rector of the Fara, saying: My God, if sacrifice of
life is needed, accept it from us and spare those who have families.
We are even praying for this intention.
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION - ROME
Public transportation was the best way to navigate Rome from our small hotel in Vitinia, and we became masters of the system. The train came to Vitinia and whisked us to the end of Line B of the Rome Metro. After a switch to Line A, we were in the heart of Rome and close to everything. We used this system with ease, except when Line A closed early for construction, leaving us to find an alternative ride to the nearest Line B terminal. This became a desperate situation one night as we searched for a taxi and found out that the drivers were striking. (Not uncommon as they were on strike again when we were in Greece and yet again after we returned home. These statistics lead us to wonder if it might be more news-worthy to simply report on the rare occasions when they do work?!?) We dashed for a bus to Line B, only to realize we had no idea which bus would get us there (and ALL of Italy was glued to the final moments of the World Cup Semi-Finals). The only alternative was to walk/run to the terminal before the line shut down for the night. We made it!
When we got to the end of Line B, we ran to our Vitinia train - - only to find the gates closed and the train wasn't going anywhere! Oops. After a few attempts at plans B, C and D, we finally called Michael Wright (who was just getting off a plane in Spain... really!) and he directed us to a bus that "might" stop in Vitinia - if we reminded the driver at the right time. We found it, we took it, we reminded the driver at the right time (with some helpful assistance from the locals), and we made it home at long last!
WORLD CUP SOCCER
Another highlight of Italy was our immersion in World Cup Soccer Mania. We watched on a big screen in a public square in Florence and on a much smaller screen in Rome, but always, the enthusiasm was contagious. We missed watching the final match in Italy, but watched and celebrated with the more subdued and less enthusiastic Greeks in Athens.
BARI / FERRY
Now to Bari for our ferry to Greece. We had only a couple of hours in this lovely town, and most chose to sit and eat. A couple took the opportunity to explore this delightful town with a cathedral, a fortress and St. Nicolas's final resting place. The town wasn't large, it took only about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other, but it exuded charm and history. The ferry was almost uneventful and we had a chance to rest well and make it to Greece ready to explore.
Voula, our guide for Corinth, met us at the ferry and directed us to a rest stop where we spent a few hours waiting for the bus to be fixed (smoke isn't fun on a long trip). She gave us a wonderful glimpse into the history and culture of Corinth and we were fortunate to have someone so helpful to guide us through the site.
We stayed at the Greek Bible Institute outside Athens and settled in for 5 days. Saturday, we swam in the Aegean Sea with our Harding University (Athens Campus) hosts, we joined them for dinner before playing a concert. Sunday was busy! Worship at the First Evangelical Church of Athens (with headphones for English translations) at 11:00, a 1:30 concert for the Bulgarian Church of Christ and a 4:00 concert (fortunately in the same place) for the Russian Church of Christ. Thankfully, they had sandwiches for us between services so that we didn't wither away.
Visiting the Acropolis was amazing, but so were our upcoming concerts. Monday we traveled to a summer youth camp sponsored by the First Evangelical Church of Athens to share a meal and music with 145 campers and 35 adults (and some visitors). On Tuesday, we found our way back to First Evangelical where we disrupted traffic slightly as we rang on the sidewalk near their church. Since there were no complaints about our music, we were able to continue performing even though we had no "official" permit to be there.
It was summer, so obtaining a permit was tricky, if not impossible. First, you had to apply to the correct office, and no one seemed to know which office was correct. If, by some miracle, you found the correct office, you had to hope that the permit person wasn't vacationing - and wasn't planning a vacation before the process was completed (and it could take days or weeks to complete). Our hosts never made it through the whole process, although they really did try!
Was there a penalty for no permit? Maybe yes, maybe no. If someone (anyone!) complained, the police would make you move immediately. If no one complained, but the policeman was a little "out of sorts" that day, they could shut down the performance. If no one complained AND the police were having a good day, no problem!
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION – ATHENS
We gave our bus driver a day off to have the bus checked over and to give the driver a day with his family. After our great experience with public transportation in Rome, we thought we were ready for Athens. Since we were pretty far out of town, we needed to get a bus to the metro stop. Tickets for the bus were available only at the local kiosk – and they were out of tickets that day, except for 10 student tickets that I took immediately. After checking with our hosts at the Bible Institute we learned that the kiosk regularly ran out of tickets, but getting on a bus with no ticket could get you a hefty fine (if they bothered to check). The natives solve the problem by carrying several tickets with them and we were able to round up another 12 tickets from various locals.
The bus was fine, but the metro was REALLY nice. We were reaping the benefits of the 2004 Olympic Games when the Greeks put forth every effort to make their beautiful country a modern and convenient country. What a great transportation system now – rumor has it that things were very different only a couple of years ago!
GREEK BIBLE INSTITUTE and OPERATION GIDEON
Before leaving the Bible Institute, we had time to help some of their summer missionaries get packages together with New Testaments to be distributed on the Greek islands. There were about 30,000 to be stuffed and we helped the work progress much faster than they had anticipated! The 260 Operation Gideon team members had a very successful mission this summer and reached 40 islands with their packages.
A Backgammon Tournament ("Tavli" in Greek) seems a strange reason for ringing, but when planning Southminster Ringer trips, no opportunity is overlooked or underrated. We arrived in Larissa (about 3 hours north of Athens) on Wednesday and went to work immediately. We performed in two public parks in the evening, once again with no "official permit", but again, no complaints. We all brushed up on our backgammon skills for the rest of the evening (or learned one or two of the 3 forms of Tavli they were playing) and we headed to our hosts homes by 12:30 a.m. (Seemed late to us, but they weren't really expecting us before 1:00!)
On Thursday we shared meals and worship with our hosts and another mission team from Georgia before performing at a local psychiatric center. Our music was truly appreciated by the patients, the doctors and the staff. I occasionally had to remind the ringers to follow my direction rather than some of the audience directors, but it was an unforgettable experience for all of us. The evening arrived and we were scheduled to play for the closing ceremonies of the Tavli Tournament. We performed a little earlier in the evening (9:00) and then hoped to get to our homes a little earlier than the previous evening. Gyros were ordered, delivered, and we arrived at our homes between 12:30 and 1:30. Who needs rest?
Larissa provided us an opportunity to help the local evangelical church reach out to the surrounding city. The Southminster Ringers were the first group to be allowed by the Greek Orthodox Church to perform publicly with the Evangelical Church sponsorship. Understanding the delicate balancing act the Evangelicals must maintain in an Orthodox country is difficult for those of us who enjoy religious freedom and take it for granted. We were thrilled to help break down some of the barriers.
Border crossings are usually a mystery, and crossing from Greece (an EU country) to Bulgaria (almost EU, but not quite yet) was no exception. We allowed lots of time - - good thing! Our passports were stamped rather efficiently, we were inspected fairly quickly, but the bus seemed to need some special papers that we didn't have. They wanted proof that we weren't stealing the bus. (?!?) Appropriate papers were finally faxed from Athens and we were on our way.
We were welcomed warmly in Blagoevgrad and they seemed thrilled that we wanted to visit the area. We stayed at the American University dorms and performed at the city's beautiful Cultural Center. From our home in Blagoevgrad, we took a short outing to the nearby Rila Monastery, nestled at the base of the Rila Mountains.
Our last Sunday was a whirlwind of activity beginning with an early departure from Blagoevgrad for a 10:30 worship service in the Sofia Evangelical Church. The congregation appreciated our musical contributions (although they had forgotten that we were coming that Sunday) and we appreciated the assistance of their members in translating and guiding us around Sofia.
With only the name of the church (First Baptist) and the name of the pastor (Tedi Oprenov) we asked our morning hosts for an address. They gave us a street name and an approximate location and we thought we were in good shape for our evening concert, but we dressed ahead of time just in case. Several of us pounded the pavement from one end of the street to the other. No sign of a church anywhere, no sign of an English-speaking native, and we were at a loss for the Bulgarian words for either "church" or "Baptist". The situation looked bleak.
One more visit to the map and Essi noted that there was a small section of the same street on the other side of a large park. We piled back onto the bus, crossed town and found a street near the park. (The bus wouldn't fit down this part of the street - and we already had too much experience moving cars out of the way!) I turned the corner and there were lots of people in the street waiting for a handbell concert! We were welcomed with open arms at 6:27 for our 6:30 concert.
We may have started a bit late, but few audiences were as enthusiastic. The Baptist Church has handbells, but hasn't used them for over a year. The audience was appreciative, interested and we were in the right place at the right time. We hope to help them get ringing once again!
The journey back to Mt. Lebanon was fairly uneventful. We made it through customs, passport controls and three flights, and our luggage arrived on the next flight only a few hours after we did. While we are back where we started, we have some incredible memories of people, places, and experiences that will always be with us. The joy of sharing our music with so many who had never heard bells was a fulfilling experience for all of us. How soon can we return?