An American Perspective on Faith in Europe

Browsing Posts published by David Olson

From Punjab to Southall: Learning to be a Sikh in London

By David Olson

Welcome to West London
A small group of boys and girls sit cross-legged beside an open window and bow their heads. Men wrap lengths of orange or blue fabric around the boys’ heads to make turbans. It’s Friday night at the Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in Southall, a suburb west of London. The men are teaching the youths to tie and knot a turban properly. Because Sikhs don’t cut their hair — hair is regarded as a gift from God — the turban keeps it in place. It’s also a symbol of Sikh identity.

Preserving one’s identity is important in a town as multicultural as Southall. The streets here buzz with conversations in languages from Europe and Asia, underscored by the hiss of air brakes on double-decker buses and the strident wail of police cruisers. At High Street and South Road an open-front store called A Bollywood Corner sells CDs and DVDs of Indian entertainment. Next door is a food shop, Chhapara Bhog, with “Pure Vegetarian” under its name. Across the street, signs at The Three Horseshoes pub proclaim “Welcome to a Traditional Free House” and “Pool and Darts Played Here.” The words, in elaborate silver cursive, mostly go unnoticed by passersby in turbans or hijab headscarves, white caftans or colorful saris, jackets and ties or blouses and skirts. continue reading…

But it’s oh so nice to come back home.

That’s what Ol’ Blue Eyes said, and I agree. My homebody spirit and my curious mind make for an interesting match. I enjoy wandering about because I never feel I fit in, whatever the place. But when I get comfortable, I move like a big fat barnacle. Which is how I will move once I get back to the apartment. And sleep in my own bed. Cook in my own kitchen. Share rooms with the wife and not three roommates. Live out of a closet and not a suitcase, so I can show all my colors. continue reading…

We’re in the final few days of the trip, and the walls are closing in. There isn’t enough time to find and report a story, there aren’t enough sources willing to talk, there isn’t enough money for trains and buses.

And then there’s the bad news: The girls’ flat was burglarized, and all the laptops, plus some assorted electronics and a passport, were stolen. Maybe it was an inside job. All the details are fishy. We’re all disturbed by the crime. This town, this town. continue reading…

Today we Cronkite Euro pros went to the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall, a West London suburb with a large population of Sikhs. A gurdwara is a place of worship, a Sikh temple.

The temple is new, built in 2003 with funds from Sikhs in the area. It’s a modest building in comparison with the Gothic and Victorian churches scattered across London. The architecture is different, and I heard singing in Punjabi rather than Latin, but the feeling that this was a holy place and one for worship was clear. continue reading…

Politics in Belfast aren’t as clear-cut as in an American city. Multiple ideologies hold sway, and sectarian tension is common. Followers of the four main groups live in neighborhoods sprinkled throughout the city. Subtle signals, such as lampposts painted with the colors of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, inform passersby which passion hold sway.

Loyalist: Loyalists, or Ulster Unionists, are mostly Protestants who believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom. They strongly oppose uniting with the Republic of Ireland. Some Loyalist groups resort to violence. Some Ulster Unionists believe the province of Ulster should be independent.

Nationalist: Nationalists lean toward uniting Ireland and putting it first by nonviolent means. In Northern Ireland the term denotes a Catholic who favors a united, independent Ireland.

Republican: Republicans think all of Ireland should be an independent country, with no influence by the United Kingdom. Some Republican factions believe it’s acceptable to use violence as well as political means to achieve independence.

Unionist: Most Protestants in Northern Ireland believe strengthening the ties between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland is more important than a united Ireland. Unionists aren’t as extreme in their beliefs as Loyalists and don’t support violence.

Replacing Prejudice with Performance

By David Olson

Belfast is a city divided. It is divided by the visible — by walls and gates and razor wire. It is also divided by the invisible — by curfews and religious hatreds and political tensions.

The city center forms a neutral zone where both Protestants and Catholics can shop, eat and go to the movies. Three- and four-story brick buildings, with bars on most of the windows, line the narrow side streets. On Gordon Street the buildings are nondescript, save for one with a juggler painted in vibrant colors on its front wall and doors. He’s juggling balls rather than holding a rifle. continue reading…

I discovered it all because I left the window open.

Early this evening I heard what sounded like a parade passing by our student residence. I leaned out the window and saw a Roman street with Sunday traffic. Curious, I went outside and followed the music.

Up the street, standing in ranks outside the church at the intersection, was an orchestra-sized group of men playing a variety of horns and drums. They wore uniforms of black pants and ties and short-sleeved white shirts. They stood in place while passersby watched. No one was dressed up; it couldn’t be a wedding or a funeral. I went back inside. continue reading…

This post title is French for “Memories of Ireland.” Oscar Wilde wrote many poems in French, so this is my attempt at Irish-based multiculturalism.

My strongest impressions of Ireland are the hills and woods outside Dublin. especially at Glendalough in County Wicklow. It was here, in the eighth century, that St. Kevin established a monastic settlement in a place called “Valley of the Two Lakes” in Irish. The imposing hills and mountains surrounding the valley, and the trees clinging to the sheer hillsides, appealed to me. I felt comfortable here, in this quite green wilderness away from the cities. I felt I could settle beneath a lean-to up in those hills, tend to a shrine and pass the days in solitude and contemplation. I think I was an anchorite in a past life.

I was impressed by the early missionaries to Ireland the more I learned about them. The task was never an easy one: converting the locals and defeating the pagan beliefs, trying to eke out an existence among these ancient woods and mountains, places so strong with myth and superstition embedded in the mist-shrouded valleys. And then the invasions by Vikings, and civil wars. And now centuries later the place still stands, albeit in ruin, but with enough pieces surviving to tell the story of what happened here.

I could appreciate the enormity of this distant history and its impact, still being felt down the centuries, surrounded by green ferny woods and severe-looking hills carved out by glaciers ages ago. It was my kind of place.

Some gurus of Buddhism and other Asian religions say we die each night when we go to sleep, and are reborn into a new life in the morning. Who we were 24 hours ago is not who we are today. Some gurus say death and rebirth occur with each breath. We live so many lives, each different from the last.

If that’s the case, then I’ve experienced rebirth this weekend. My old story angle on Buddhism in Ireland is dead and gone, but certainly not for lack of trying. Instead, Richard and I are putting together stories on the Belfast Community Circus, which focuses on teaching local youth to learn skills and self-confidence rather than religious dogma and prejudice. While everything wrong happened with the first story, everything good is happening with this one. We have plenty of interviews, information, sound bites and quotes to work with. The minimum requirements on story length and sources do not worry me. We even have good photos to work with. Before we had nothing, but today we have plenty to work with.

It sounds paranoid, but it’s sound advice: Have a Plan A, and then a Plan B and a Plan C. Perhaps even more than that. A story idea might look fine on paper, but it’s best to expect things to go differently the moment you walk out the door to go report. That has been my experience so far.

My plan was to cover the experience of being a Buddhist in Ireland. The idea had plenty of directions I could pick and follow, and the reception by the rest of the group was good. Richard teamed up with me once we were in Dublin, and having a teammate is a comfort. We found three Buddhist centers in the City Center, which was convenient. I emailed all three before the trip, but only one responded.  My contact liked the idea and was willing to be interviewed once I was in town. Since then his availability has gotten more and more inconvenient based on my schedule and deadlines, and visits to the centers were fruitless because they were closed and no one around. The bus ride back to the hotel was just as frustrating.  We were certainly schooled in Dublin’s public transportation.

So now we’re trawling for a new story. I’m glad I brought my St. Jude medal with me. As a perennial pessimist, I find it amusing that there’s a patron saint for lost causes. St. Jude, get me through!