My friend Sylwia and I do not have a shared spoken language. She has two languages, I have one… and between us we have three. Not exactly a straightforward start to a friendship. But here’s the thing… we have shared food together. There is something special about eating food with others. We met Sylwia for the first time across a table from each other and a couple of hours later Sylwia was entertaining Andrew and I in her home in Dresden, Germany, with more food! We would never have met if it hadn’t been for a particular set of circumstances in our own century and because of the connection between the stories of other people in a different century and of a different culture to each of our own. A complex recipe of religion, culture, academic study and being in the right place at the right time.
Sylwia is a very special person to us. Who could have guessed on the day in which we met, that less than 24 hours later I would be in hospital fighting for my life? On that first day and in the days and weeks that followed, while we were still in Germany, Sylwia took us both into her heart and Andrew into her home and her family. With our large and loving extended family hundreds of miles away, we were alone. Sylwia was my mother, my sister and my friend. A bond has been formed that is beyond words, so the fact we don’t have shared words to use probably doesn’t matter much!
In person our communication has been conducted in gestures, smiles, laughs and the odd experimental word in one of our own languages. Via the Internet we continue to communicate regularly in a way that is a constant wonder to me. We actually manage to keep up to date with the news by the means of all kinds of things (in written form with the help of electronic apps and translators, and in spoken form with the help of Claudia who translates between English and German and Polish for us, and in visual form – because a photo tells a thousand words!)
So where words fail we do have that first language that we did share… the food of an ordinary lunch across a table. I’ve always been keen on the idea of sharing food as part of our gathered together worshipping community. At our Avenues Church we always have food as part of our gathering. As a child I grew up in a family with a round dining table, and an approach to dining that meant there was always room for one more person. Around our family dinner table we caught up on the things that were happening in each other’s lives. We debated, we encouraged, we argued, we shared, we ate, we challenged each other, we welcomed others and we grew.
The opportunity of sharing food together, as a part of our Christian journey is not new. Jesus’ ministry begins at a feast. He turns water into wine at a wedding feast. The gospels record numerous other meals including the feeding of enormous crowds with a boy’s humble lunch, and smaller events like Jesus catching up with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Then there is that significant last meal shared with his closest friends and followers, his disciples. Who would have guessed after the last supper that the pattern of this meal would be repeated across centuries, across countries, across cultures?
While I was in hospital in Germany I was trying to think of a way that we could thank Sylwia and her family. What is the perfect gift that money does not buy? I wanted to find a gift that said ‘New Zealand’ and ‘grateful thanks’. I remembered that Annabel Langbein, Kiwi successful cook, cookbook writer and businesswoman had been to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the year New Zealand was guest country, and I was pretty sure her book, “The Free-Range Cook” (which I owned in English) had been translated into German. It was a start – a way to signal to Sylwia in a language that she spoke, the ‘language of cooking food’, to tell her that we were grateful and thankful to God that she had been there, at that time, in our lives. With the help of my tablet, I found that not only had Annabel Langbein’s book been translated into German, it was also available in Polish. Polish is Sylwia’s mother-tongue! From what I already knew of Sylwia, I knew she’d love the ‘grow your own’, ‘feed everyone’, ‘simple food’, feel to Annabel’s approach.
It took some weeks longer before I actually managed to navigate my way through the possibilities of ordering a book in the polish language and getting it to Sylwia, but finally it arrived to its destination.
So now we speak a new shared communication language. The language of ‘Annabel Langbein’ or maybe it is the ‘language of a common meal’ – across countries and time. Our regular skype conversations are conducted with our recipe books at hand, and page numbers to explain and show what we made last. It’s kind of like hospitality or the sharing of a common meal in the virtual world!
Last week at my work we had an international week. I was on bringing food on the ‘German’ day. a nod to my Polish-German friends that God had sent my way? Thanks to google translator I was able to ask for and receive a recipe for ‘the best apple pie in the world’ – ‘Szarlotka’. It is such a great feeling to send a ‘help’ message across to the other side of the world and get a message straight back with recipe as well as further instructions on the tricks to make it even better!
Simple entertaining as a daily part of life has been given a back seat in our culture today. While the café and restaurant culture has grown in NZ, and the age of the dinner party or the more relaxed, but still elaborate barbeque are typical hospitality events, the regular and simple act of dropping in to a friend for a cuppa, a biscuit and a chat is less frequent. Of necessity, our busy lives move even catching up for a coffee and a chat to the side-lines of daily life. They become scheduled activities, events in their own right, booked into our jam-packed calendars between other busy activities. They have to be arranged, rather than just happen. We still drink our coffee, we just do it on our own, sandwiching it between our own busy activities. We stand in queues, buy it in paper cups, drink it in our cars, on our own, in the traffic, listening to the radio, on the way to work. Even ordinary daily family dinners are disrupted and staggered events, with nights where there is sports practice for one person, a meeting or other evening activity for someone else, another person being home late from work while someone else is watching the news on tv for homework. Our time is sliced, diced and cut up into tiny portions, and having the space in our programme to leisurely share food together is treated as a luxury.
What would happen if we could find a way to strip all the frills and fancies of entertaining back, to just be ourselves, to keep things simple and uncluttered, casual and relaxed, to make the focus of the shared meal about ‘breaking bread together’, about the act of eating and drinking and talking together and about creating a common experience? If we recognised the language of the common meal to be about something else happening as well as food, to see it has a God-given opportunity to make connection, meeting each other’s needs, sharing each other’s burdens and joys? I think this might be an important part of living out our Christian life and faith. And I think that it can be the start of some amazing opportunities to share God’s love with others. It might be a way of listening to the voice of God, of receiving and giving, of bonding with each other and with Jesus Christ… something like communion.
(Photo credits: my Szarlotka, Sylwia & I, Annabel Langbein’s books in Polish & English, ‘my page 128’ and Sylwia’s page 67)