Our home is not old in comparison with the abundance of truly, really old buildings that you will find throughout Turkey and that is without considering the few ancient buildings that are still standing. Our home is probably just under a hundred years in existence.

We believe it was constructed during the French Mandate (1923 – 1946). That was the time after the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire and before this area was joined to the Turkish Republic.

The administration by the French was a mixed bag as most colonial powers are inclined to be.

French rule was oppressive and they tended to accentuate the natural racial and religious divisions within their mandated territory – they adhered to the British maxim of ‘divide and rule’. They imposed the French Franc as the currency of the territory, but the Franc was administered according to the needs of France and without regard to the needs of the Mandate Territories.

On the positive side, the French championed modern town planning, civil engineering projects, schools, hospitals and so on.

But overall, the French were more interested in administering their Mandated territories, today what is the Lebanon, Syria and the Turkish province of Hatay, according to their own socio-economic priorities and, as always, with a view to their rivalry with the British.

Within society there was a lot of unrest and discontent with the dominating control exercised by the foreign power.

But, it was also in this time that the much appreciated, large, green, treed, central park was constructed in Antakya. The French also constructed some fine, stone buildings including a small parliament building for the newly minted Republic of Hatay (established on 7 September 1938 and dissolved when merged with to Turkey in 23 July 1939). The independent Republic of Hatay had existed for about ten months.

It was in this time that we believe that our house was constructed.

It was built with a mixture of old and new building methodologies and materials. The outer walls, are old school, built of rough, field stone with mortared outer faces with rock-rubble in-fill and built to 60 to 70 centimetres thick. For the roof, they used heavy steel ‘I’ beams to support a reinforced flat concrete roof.

The homes built at this time were built in the traditional configuration with high ceilings and laid out around a central courtyard with all the rooms opening into the courtyard. If you desired to go from one room to another, this would entail a trip to the courtyard to make the connection.

In summer time that would be no problem – but in winter, in the drizzling rain, it was less than desirable to have to go outside to go to the kitchen, or toilet or bedroom via the dark, damp, cold, breezy courtyard.

It appears that our large house was built in conjunction with the neighbouring house, and together it was a corporate home to a large, extended family.

At some time in the life of the building, it seems that family relationships hit the buffers, which resulted in a wall being erected between the houses. It was not a planned wall nor a bearing wall.

When we first moved in we were doing some renovations in the kitchen and discovered that the dividing wall was no more than a single brick wide. When we vigorously attacked the wall to remove the plaster on our side… we also unknowingly and unintentionally, knocked the plaster off the opposite side of the wall.

The neighbour complained – wouldn’t you?

In the end we accidentally poked a hole in the wall and then discovered its depths – or lack thereof. We replastered their side as well as our own.

Anyway, back to the history and development of the building. After the construction of this rather flimsy dividing wall, and at a later date, someone decided to extend the back wing of the building by utilising and extending the building out and into the courtyard. Doing this consumed approximately one third of the courtyard. When we compare our courtyard with our neighbours, it is clear that when our home was initially constructed, the courtyard was of rather generous proportions. As a result, there was sufficient space to give some area to a room and still leave a reasonably sized courtyard.

The extension was constructed with more modern columns and beams and they poured a concrete extension to the flat roof. In this manner they joined all the rooms on the wing on the back side of the courtyard under one roof.

Thus this newly created single, long, rectangular room, running the length of the old wing, meant that no longer were people required to go into the courtyard to communicate from room to room. No more traipsing through the rain carrying the evening meal to the dining room, no more dreading the midnight stroll, no more cooling the house in winter as someone must exit to go to another room.

Of course, the two rooms on the opposite side of the courtyard still required a courtyard stroll to access. The main access to the property is via the front street and by means of a corridor which bisected the two rooms. So one would enter the property and then cross the courtyard to enter the extended wing at the back of the courtyard.

Interestingly, this meant that the newly created room had both doors to the pre-existing rooms, but also windows, for formerly they looked into the courtyard; now they looked either into the new room, or from opposite perspective, into the former rooms.

It was rather strange.

Hence, it was in this unplanned manner, that our home has historically grown and been extended. These changes occurred organically, without planning – simply answering the needs of the occupants at that time.

Which brings me to our corridor. Our corridor is a johnny-come-lately, joining the oldest part of the house with the first addition which consisted of the kitchen, bathroom, toilet and finally with the last addition, the added-on extension that consumed part of the courtyard.

As is in keeping with its origins, it is a bit odd.

Firstly, it isn’t straight. Well, full disclosure, the whole house is a collection of odd angles – nothing, anywhere, is straight: the plot that the property is built on may, possibly, have a 90º angle – somewhere, but truly, everything is skew-whiff. The corridor is just one more example of this household trait.

Secondly, the corridor is of different levels: the lowest level is at the door to/from the courtyard – this was the level of the added-on room. The higher level, a mini-step of about two centimetres, goes from where the former courtyard door was but is now situated one third the way down the corridor. This early section of the corridor goes towards the back of the house and joined the old, original wing with the later addition of the kitchen, bathroom and toilet.

The multi-level dimension does not end there.

The kitchen, bathroom and side room are all higher than the corridor.

So, someone coming into our home, would begin at one level, and then, one third the way down the corridor would have to negotiate the mid-corridor lift of about two centimetres. Proceeding down the corridor, wherever they would desire to go, it would involve another mini-step of something like three centimetres to gain entry to one of those rooms.

We have noticed that many of our visitors have been stumbled, literally, by the mid-corridor change in height.

For us, it became so much a part of our life, that we negotiated it, often without even being cognisant of it. As we ceased being aware of it, it quietly morphed into becoming part of the wallpaper, so to speak.

However, when the workmen put in the pipes for the central heating system, they had to trench across the floor at the lowest level of the corridor.

Thus, right at the entrance from the courtyard into the house, the tiles were broken up to enable the placement of the central heating piping, this provided an opportunity to retile that first third of the corridor, from the door to the mini-step. We could correct the stumbling block, we could remove the needless and unhelpful little step.

Because there was no way we could get the same style of floor tiles, this meant that we would be utilising a different floor tile pattern. Therefore, we needed a logical point to change from the newer tiles to the former – we did not want to retile the whole corridor. Logically, breaking where the corridor already changes direction and width and height would also provide a reasonable visual break for the tile work.

So, this we arranged to have this done.

The tiler came late in the day, after completing a full days work in a town some 40 odd kilometres out of Antakya. He arrived and immediately flew at the task. He put extra gunk at the end where the mini-step was and then gradually brought the tiles down to the old level by the front door. I had failed to purchase the required ‘extra’ gunk, and so he had to be creative with what building materials we had lying about to beef up the amount of gunk to be able to complete the job.

The finished product looks good. The tile are a wood-effect design that actually doesn’t look bad. The tiles are also non-slip; and they really, honestly do deliver on being non-slip. That is an added, unplanned bonus.

The new tile work looks good.

Well, of course, if the grout lines had been lined up it would have looked a lot better. But, at the end of the day, it was short notice, he was already committed to other work and, hence, it was done quickly. Understandably the chap was tired. The tile work covers the offending scar where the central heating pipes entered the floor, and is well laid, there is no discord between the tiles creating mini-stumbling points.

And most importantly, there is no mini-step now.

That is great!

But, as I walk the corridor two things strike me.

First off, I am consciously aware that I am ‘going up’ when I walk from the front of the house towards the back, and when I return towards the front of the house, I am ever cognisant that I am walking ‘down’ the corridor. It is very slight, maybe two centimetres difference over the course of a metre, but my legs or feet or whatever, faithfully report the change to me.

The other thing I notice is it seems the step had been programmed into my walking. I sub-consciously anticipate the step, ready to automatically make adjustments for it – now I am aware of the absence of the mini-step. On coming to the former height change, I hesitate, not stumble, but my attention is drawn to the ‘missing’ mini-step.

I am sure any visitors we have will not miss it. Hopefully they will not even be aware that there was a mini tripping-step there.

But for a week, coming and going, I was aware of the missing step. My mind could be elsewhere, but when coming to the location of the former tripping-step, I was suddenly aware of that it wasn’t there. Over a week later, I’m still cognisant of its absence.

Oh, one other thing I noticed: on walking the transition from the mini-ramp to the rest of the corridor, I feel the change from ramp to flat. No, I do not think that will be a tripping hazard… at least I hope not.

This is an example of muscle memory, a ‘learned’ and then ingrained pattern of walking the corridor. This enabled me to negotiate the mini-step day or night or on a midnight stroll – in pitch darkness – and all subconsciously, flawlessly and effortlessly.

I had become both unaware of the step and unaware of my body coping, silently, with it.

It causes me to wonder, “What else in my life have I made accommodations for, and silently deal with subconsciously?”

There may be areas of compromise, of, er, ‘adjustment’ that maybe should not be. Yes, it may make life easier, but I’m called to doing that which is ‘right’ and not that which is ‘easiest’.

I think I will have to ponder this …

(written October 2012)

We live in the old part of Antakya – a city with ancient roots. However, having acknowledged the age of the city, it must be confessed that the old part of town is merely old and not truly ancient. This city has seen more than its fair share of the power and devastation caused by earthquakes. As a result, the city has been built, lived in, shaken, destroyed and rebuilt innumerable times throughout its long history.

And so the reason the visible part of this ancient city is merely old, that the majority of the buildings are probably in the hundreds of years in age, is mute testament to the result of the most recent powerful earthquake that occurred in 1822.

But this is predicated upon the reality that the ancient city has been fully destroyed multiple times in ancient times and therefore not much has been left as a visible heritage for subsequent generations to appreciate. In the years: 114, 342, 458, 525, 528, 565 and 587 the city was hit by repeated earthquakes and looking just at the sixth century (the 500’s) there were four significant earthquakes with an estimated total of 380,000 deaths – the first earthquake in that series alone claiming an estimated quarter of a million lives. Hence there is not a lot from ancient times, that is anything built prior to 600 AD, that was still standing even at that time.

Today, there are some notable buildings which are of a size and status that they were repaired after the last great ‘quake – but they are few and far between. Taking a strolling tour of the narrow lanes and byways of the old quarter and the observant will notice that there are a number of buildings with fine, finished stone courses in the lower reaches – often changing to a field stone construction to complete the wall to height. This mix of quality and dare I say, shoddy or primitive building methods, draws a line between the old, durable and astonishingly well-built parts and the more slap-dash workmanship exhibited in the more modern elements.

Underlying this all is the awareness that the ancient city is never very far away, mere meters beneath our feet.

Recently the local Council commenced a project to build a cable car system to take tourists from the old city to the top of the hill that rises along one side of the city.

This is a great and grand project which, initially, forged ahead with great speed and vigor.

Then it came time to construct the base station in the heart of the old quarter. The first step was to demolish the old, dilapatated shelters that were occupying the site and then to excavate the foundations for the base station. Compulsory purchase and the demolition of the old homes was accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. Then, according to a new policy in Turkey, before any excavation could commence, the archaeologists were sent in to ensure that no valuable archaeology would be destroyed in the process of building the base station.

It didn’t take long, nor did they have to go more than just under the level of the old, dilapidated structures that formerly occupied the site to discover much archeology in situ. As the soil was painstakingly removed, first walls came to light, then floors, then, as the work progressed, deeper levels. As they dug down, the intricate ceramic water pipes of the ancient sewer and water systems came to light. The work continued and deeper levels were uncovered.

Often the changing levels representing the effects of an earthquake and the rebuilding efforts. These form natural devastation levels. In the aftermath of an earthquake, it is much easier to pull out useable stone from the destruction, level the site somewhat and build on top. The archaeology demonstrates this. Sometimes later walls plough through earlier structures. Sometimes there is a distinct layer of rubble laying between levels. This also means that the city slowly rises above its previous levels, resulting in the ancient, normal street level of the city now being found multiple meters beneath our feet.

As the archaeologists went down, they travelled back in time. Wells came to light, here and there, some smaller and others larger. Then, down about two and half meters or so then came across a fine mosaic – still in its original location. This mosaic was installed in the dining room of a house, not centuries ago, but millennia ago. When I first caught a glimpse of it, peering over the protective fence as I am wont to do, I was not impressed.

Don’t get me wrong, the workmanship of this ancient mosaic is outstanding. It was the motif that was chosen for this dining room that I didn’t appreciate.

It shows a skeleton reclining at table with the fine food about.

Is it reminding the diners of the transience of life?

Or is it a comment of the meaninglessness of the things we take as so important?

Is it an ancient way of saying, “Dead men walking?”

I do not know.

But, for me personally, I do not relish the notion of eating a fine feast with a smiling skeleton staring up at me from the floor.

It was not the only mosaic found in this site. And remember, this site was not selected because people thought there was archaeology of merit buried there, but was opened up, basically at random, in the old quarter, to facilitate this modern conveyance of a cable car.

This random discovery reinforces the fact that the old city, or the shadow of the glory of the old city and the marvels of the ancient world and its workmanship are not far away, but are lying just beneath our feet.

In the course of this dig, they went down a total of about 3½ , maybe 4 metres and in doing so went back some two thousand and four hundred years in time.

One wonders what would be uncovered if ancient Antioch was not abiding under a living, modern city and hence there was the ability to take a large segment and do careful, modern archaeology – as in Ephesus. I wonder, would the remains of the ancient main thoroughfare, one of the first streets in the ancient Roman world to have street lighting, the street upon which the Apostles Paul and Peter would have strolled, come to light?

Anyways, it has been decided by the powers that be, that they will (somehow) build the base station over and above the now exposed archaeology. They will construct the base station so that it straddles over and with carefully situated piercing insert supports amongst the archaeology so uncovered and thusly creating an ‘open air’ museum of what was found, and yet, finally, having the base station for the now many year delayed cable car project.

This project has provided a glimpse of what lies hidden from sight, under our feet.  Most of what is above ground, however,  in the old quarter, is not ancient.

It is true that there may very well be ancient cut stones forming part of the construction of these ‘modern’ structures. As one wanders the lanes of the old quarter it is not uncommon to see a random column sitting upright and sticking out of the floor, in the street, beside a building, in a courtyard or even forming part of a grave beside a mosque, all mute testament to former splendour and the wonders of the ancient world.

Now our own house, for example, like many, is maybe a little under a hundred years of age – the result of a bit of a building ‘boom’ when France was the protecting power and had dominion over the province of Hatay in the aftermath of World War I.

It was during this time that the Central Park, now a pivotal focal point for the population, was constructed on the banks of the Asi River (ancient Orontos River). The French prepared the province to become an independent Republic, and constructed a number of fine stone buildings, a small Parliament, a mansion for the leader, and other governmental buildings. These were all made of fine, fitted stone and although not large in size are impressive structures even today.  The resultant republic was very short lived as its first act was to hold a referendum with the result that the Republic of Hatay became part of the the Turkish Republic.

Many houses were built at that time in a mixture of old and newer construction methods. Everything was built without regard for whatever may be ‘down below’. The construction was undertaken utilising old and tried construction methods.

As has been done for centuries, you begin by creating thick rough stone outer walls. These walls are comfortably 70 centimetres in depth. Fine cut stone – most likely made to order but some may have been scavenged from the detritus of the ancient city, were used to create a feature wall and often, fine stone was used around some windows and, almost obligatory, around the main door.

One of the distinctives of the French period is the use of rather large, impressive steel I-beams to span that space between the thick walls. These I-beams form the main supporting structure for a flat, poured concrete roof. In their day, the construction technique called for the use of reinforcing steel bar. However, now, nigh on a hundred years hence, it is observed that this steel has been subject to the cancer of rust and over time the integrity of the concrete is somewhat compromised. This is universally true for all the buildings constructed at that time.

The ceilings are high, the interior height of the average room is 3½ metres. This creates a space which tends to be cooler in summer. Again, in a nod to the old building principles, in various places in the thick outer walls, cupboards were built in to hold the bedding and other things, which, traditionally, were stored in the daytime in the cupboards, brought out for the night and returned in the morning – rooms being multifunctional, day room in the daytime and bedroom at night.

It seems, as well, that there was no understanding of what a ‘damp proof’ course is and so these stone walls are directly connected to the foundation and hence to the soil. The result is capillary action which draws moisture up from below creating a chronic problem with damp and mould in these substantial outer walls.

The old quarter is noted for its narrow and twisty lanes. Often the houses are constructed so close together that the roofs overlap above the ‘lanes’. In summer you are granted a shady relief from the relentless summer sun. In winter, the runoff may mean there is no dry place to walk as the water is forced to flow in the narrow pathway. Throughout the old quarter there are innumerable cul-de-sacs which come to an abrupt end.  In this warren of streets, half streets, lanes and byways, even some of the ‘through roads’ that exist can be reduced to just over a meter in width.

In the old quarter, many of the houses are legitimately old – but at the same time, all of the houses, those two hundred or possibly older and the newer ones, well, they all look old.

As has been observed, some have exquisitely cut stone foundations that speak of a more prosperous time when houses were made from dressed stone, finely fitted together, from foundation to cap stone. For some, that ‘prosperous’ time may have been hundreds of years previously, for the wealthy have always be able to build in quality. Some of the dressed foundational sections speak of a durability and resilience that is bordering on the thousands of years.

Most of the houses have rough, uncut or roughly cut stone walls speaking of a time when there were not the resources, or the skill, or the desire to make meticulously cut stones precisely fitting together.

This is most graphically exposed when you see a combination, the lower courses of the building made of fine dressed stone, well-fitting even today, and the upper courses are composed of the rough cut and uncut stone.

It is incongruous to say the least.

As believers and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have slowly tried to improve our home. By small, daily sacrifices, we were able to make incremental improvements that both improve the over-all health of the building and the comfort of those who abide therein.

It really isn’t rocket science. You do what is in your strength to do. At the very least you clean, scrape and make neat. You attack the mould and seek to expunge it – it isn’t easy and may not even be possible, but you aim to overcome it.

Over time we would purchase a pot of paint and then paint. At another time, when possible, we contracted to install a sun roof. When we have been enabled, we had the floor of the terrace tiled. Thusly, and in many, little, often incremental ways, we have made our home stand out in the neighbourhood.

Let me add that I am not referring to the exterior – it still, er, rather fits in as far as the neighbourhood goes – but the interior, the inner courtyard, the terrace, the living areas, these have been slowly improved and our neighbours, when they visit or come to drink tea are aware of the changes made.

The improvements have been the result of little money and a lot of effort. The on-going priority of scrapping together the funds for a bag of ready-mix plaster or a pot of paint, the result of mini-sacrifices, but slowly making a difference.

In Turkish there is a saying “damyla damyla göl olur” or by interpretation, “drop by drop a lake is formed”.

With the plaster or paint in hand and doing the labour ourselves to splash it on the walls we were able to make a cleaner, neater and more pleasant environment for all.

In the years since we began our residence, and, slowly, month by month, year by year, the changes have been wrought. We have been observed and, at the same time, we have observed that some of our neighbours have improved their housing as well.

Is this a response to our example?

Or have their situations improved sufficiently that they are able to do the things they have wished to do for a long time?

This I can not discern.

But some neighbours have put up protective roofs to make up for the invariable leaks that develop in old flat roofed homes. Others have plastered, covering up the decades of decay and presenting a pleasant, smooth, finish. And still others have painted.

All in all, a general improvement.

Let me clearly declare that I am not claiming credit for any of this general improvement… just observing the changes…

Having said that, what we have done over the first five years we lived here has been perceived by our neighbours. In seeing the gradual improvement, some may have been encouraged and others, possibly challenged and/or inspired to make a change in their own homes. But, whilst that may or may not be true, it is evident from some comments heard that not all people have responded positivity.

Indeed, some, unintentionally have let slip feelings of jealousy and envy.

For some individuals, it seems, in the past, they have been satisfied to live in a decaying house, with cracks in the plaster, peeling paint and wet, damp or mouldy patches due to winter rains and a leaking roof. When everyone is in the same situation, then inertia and entropy settle in, and nothing changes… Well, nothing changes for the better, the house continue to deteriorate until either the occupants move, the building becomes uninhabitable or it collapses about them.

Then we come along… raising dust and noise as we cut, saw, break, mend, pour, build, tile, plaster, paint and otherwise slowly change our ‘normal dilapated’ home into a pleasant, clean, healthy and modern home.

I believe that some people have been quietly encouraged, and it is evident that others have been bitterly displeased. It was in this framework that we noticed that in front of our front door there has been a collection of trash, drink tins, cigarette packages, crisps packages, general litter and worse of all, cigarette butts found on a regular basis.

Ugly, unsanitary – ugh – cigarette butts.

Since my youth, growing up in a home of smokers, I have been put off by ash-trays, and butt-ends and all the smell and half-smoked bits that end up being all over the place…

Now we – all the occupants of our home – do not imbibe in the smoking habit. So, the most natural question arises: from whence do these cigarette butts come?

Now our neighbour, two doors up, is a widow on a very limited income. She and her children live in a very dilapidated house – the windows leak, the door appears to be falling off it’s hinges, the plaster is missing from some walls and the small, rough stone core walls appear to be in danger of tumbling into the room. When it rains the roof leaks. When there is an abundance of rain, the street overflows with run-off, and, on occasion, the surplus rainwater has ‘run-off’ and into and through their home.

They have little money, and they do not seem able to take a wee bit of their merge resources to improve their home. But they do have the resources to smoke. Smokers tell me that there is comfort in smoking and that they receive a physical benefit from imbibing in the habit.

I will take their word for it.

Nevertheless, it is not a cheap habit to sustain.

Our observation was they would smoke in front of their house – the street in the front of their house doubles as their front garden. It would be the most natural of actions, when the cigarettes are exhausted to toss their used cigarette butts into the street. In this scenario the unintended consequence would be for the wind to encourage said refuse to move down the street and, ultimately, come to rest at our front door.

But why come to rest at our front door?

Why stop the journey part way down the street?

Why not continue on down the road?

Why does a collection of cigarette butts joined with an assortment of other trash congregate and wait patiently just outside our front door?

A conundrum.

But the observation of our eyes, and the application of logic and common sense drew us to one hypothesis.  In fact, we were so convinced of this hypothesis that it was our neighbour intentionally or, more likely, unintentionally that was the source of this detritus that we, nicely, asked the lady to be more careful with her discards.

She profusely proclaimed her innocence in this matter.

I’m afraid we did not share a high level of confidence in her declarations of innocence.

Now, we have a good relationship with the family and there is no trace of animosity or hostility on any side. Nevertheless, the cigarette butts are found outside our front door.

Then the day arrived.

It was unplanned, and occurred, basically, at random.

Several from our home were out on the street – going about their business when everyone noticed a soft drink tin rolling down the middle of the street, driven by the wind. Our street is lower in the centre, concave, which acts like one common gutter to take the rain water, down the centre of the street to the storm drain.

This disused drink tin was merrily, and remarkably quickly, tinkling its way down the centre of the street following the concave and being driven by the wind. All was as you would expect it to be, although the speed was a bit of a surprise…the wind is strong in Antakya.

The tin tumbled and tinkled until it arrived parallel to our front door…

And there it stopped…

And there it stopped!

The tin, just stopped in the centre of the street.

The wind was still blowing. Gravity was still calling it to continue down the street. And yet, it stopped.

This disused drinks tin then proceeded to turn 90º towards our front door and then recommenced it’s travel, proceeding now at right angles to its former course and up the concave of the street towards our front door…

Uphill……

Now, our front door does not open directly on to the courtyard, but to a long corridor that leads to our courtyard. We hadn’t really noticed before, but this configuration results in a funnelling effect – drawing the air, I suppose like a chimney, and in a profoundly counter-intuitive direction.

In summer, there is a strong, blowing breeze that caresses in the city, flowing from the sea towards the interior – roughly southwest to northeast, in keeping with the terrain and shape of the valley. Throughout the long summer months this is a constant and it flows consistently from one direction. The trees on the mountainside all lean in mute testimony to the power and consistency of the wind. The whole forest leans up the valley at an astonishingly acute angle.

However, here in the city, at street level, with the myriad of buildings, the wind can be twisted about and it flows ‘down’ our street. As we observed, when the breeze gets to our house, to our front door, the corridor acts as a funnel, and strongly draws the wind in towards the courtyard (completely and diametrically opposite to the normal direction of the wind).

As we witnessed, it was in this manner that all sorts of the discards of daily life, were consistently finding their way to our front door.

Without a doubt, our smoking neighbour has ignorantly and unintentionally contributed to the accumulation of cigarette butts, but she was not the source of the problem, just a contributor, a minor player.

It was all so easy. The evidence of our eyes, the daily collection of assorted mess at our front door. Every time you opened the door to leave, at each point when we came back to our home, there was this mess to greet us…

We saw the ‘evidence’ and, in trying to understand how and why, we ‘reasoned’ and ‘thought’ and used ‘logic’.  In the end we had come to an ‘understanding’ of the problem and once this was ‘determined’ then the ‘solution’ was clear.

The only problem is, we were completely wrong.

I guess that is one reason why we read the admonition about the dangers of judging – even when all the evidence before our eyes declares only one logical conclusion…

36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Luke 6:36-38

New International Version (NIV)

(first written July 2009)

Faith.

We live by faith – but then, so does everyone. In these bumpy economic times even people with so-called ‘secure’ jobs realise that we all are living by faith.

Sometimes we actively exercise that faith; sometimes we use our faith in a bold and stretching forward way; sometimes we are much more passive in our application of faith. If the truth be told, I tend towards the more passive end.

In the year of our Lord, 2008, by God’s grace, we entered into a housing project here in Antakya – one property which was to accommodate both ourselves and the elder and his family. I guess for me it was not just a ‘bold and stretching’ step of faith but a step beyond anything I had ever done or even seriously considered doing.

Personal confession time, in the past I have refrained from embarking on various projects as I didn’t have the faith to even begin them. Over the years I have witnessed other believers who have boldly struck out and done great things, God providing the wisdom, grace, direction, discipline or whatever was necessary to bring the task to fruition.

Notwithstanding, I’ve have exhibited more limited ambitions, more limited plans and hence, I have exercised more limited faith.

But in the case of this housing project, I was caught up and carried along by the faith of the elder and his wife and the project was summarily begun.

Initially the property (as acquired) had adequate accommodation for one family, it was in need of updating, but it was fully useable in its purchased state. But our plans and expectations were that by the end of one year, it was to modified, extended, expanded and otherwise transformed to be able to accommodate two families.

I had no idea how it could happen and on some occasions, I considered what the consequences were and how we would deal with the situation if it failed to be completed on time.

On the dark days I would rehearse the list of all that was needed to be done within the year and the mounting requirements would be overwhelming. And yes, on the ‘dark days’ somewhat depressing. In times like that, so much for faith. But faith does not exclude doubt – but ultimately overcomes it.

The task was both simple and complex. It was simple in that we needed to create accommodation for either us or the elder and family to live in and by July of 2009 – one year to the month from when we purchased the property. Conversely, it was complex in that there was so much to do to make an additional habitable accommodation.

Was my faith up to the task?

Frankly….er, well, no….

But we had commenced the task, it had begun….

And so, beginning in the summer of 2008, under the unforgiving, blistering Antakya sun, the old walls of a primitive single room on the flat roof were torn down. Other various low level tasks of preparation were accomplished; the water tanks were dismantled and removed – and in doing so we inadvertently undermined the supports holding up the vigorous and productive grape vine which subsequently collapsed and tried to take me out in the process. In the end the grape vine was propped up until the grapes were ready for harvest and once collected, the vine was consigned to the role of fire wood. We built end walls where our property abutted the neighbours – so two block walls were constructed.

However encouraging as all we had accomplished was, with the weeks, and then the months passing, it was patently evident, how little had actually been achieved compared to the totality of all that needed to be done.

In the autumn, we, jointly, and led by the elder, took a major step of faith and contracted to have a roof installed under which, in the fullness of time the proposed flat could be constructed. It was important that the roof go on before the winter rains and so a brother graciously loaned the funds to facilitate the construction of the roof.

Please note I am describing the construction of the roof – there are no walls, no interior walls and no exterior walls save the two end walls where our property adjoins our neighbours. The roof would be constructed where it belonged, steel posts strategically positioned to hold it up. The end walls would act as anchor points – the ridge of the roof resting on these walls. Mind you, the one wall was such that the builder immediately put a steel post running up the wall to provide additional support – not a great confidence builder – mind you, the steel support did introduce a new level of confidence.

Thusly the roof was duly constructed, the flat and prone-to-leaking roof over the lower flat now protected from the winter rains and summer sun. It took some time to reimburse the brother for the funds to build the roof and time continued to tick relentlessly onward. And we departed for our annual sojourn in the UK – three months would pass with no activity whatsoever. The elder and family actually temporarily moved in to our flat at this time as our flat was easier and cheaper to heat than their wonderful, but large modern flat.

It is noteworthy to acknowledge how funny it is how time keeps marching on whether we have time for it or not. The deadline did not and could not be altered – it was fixed as the elder and his family were in rented accommodation and when the contract terminated, it was, well, over. Here many flats are let on an annual basis – you pay a year’s rent in advance.

When we finally returned from the UK in January, there were just six months left to complete all the tasks that needed to be accomplished. In reality, all we had was a roof and a very roughed-in bathroom. All that had been done was great, but there remained so very much more to do.

Ahh…

I sat down and reflected on the task: exterior walls, interior walls, ceilings, insulation, electrics, windows, doors, plumbing, kitchen cabinets, flooring, plastering, painting… and every day that passed brought us one day closer to the time when the elder and his family would have to leave their rental accommodation and move….

Whew…

I’ve always been a sort of “jack of all trades and a master of none” (actually “a jack of some trades and a master of none”) – basically I’ll have a go at a practical task, and try to do it, being a practically minded kind of individual. And so, if I can not afford to hire someone, I would have a go and try to do it myself.  It is something that I’ve enjoyed doing over the years.

So, we ordered Ytong blocks for the exterior walls. Ytong is described as ‘gas concrete blocks’, the blocks are formed in uniform dimensions – in the case of the exterior walls, the blocks were 60 cm long, 25 cm high (standard) and 20 cm wide (this is a variable, you can order in a variety of widths).

The blocks are white, and as gas concrete, they resemble, vaguely, the interior of an Aero chocolate bar – many minute little bubbles. Or you could say that Ytong resembles pumice stone, light with little bubbles all through it. This results in the blocks being reasonably light, easy to work and you can even cut them to size using a normal hand wood saw although there are specialist saws which can stand up to the rigours of (basically) cutting through concrete. An added advantage is the blocks are self insulating, to a degree, and sound insulating, again, to a degree. But in this climate, every little bit helps.

On the negative side, the blocks can absorb water, somewhat like a sponge and in that case they become quite heavy and difficult to cut.

But, by and large, Ytong is a great boon to a novice builder like me for if you get the bottom course level and true, it is very easy to maintain the rest of the wall in that vein.

In this manner I was able to construct the outside walls. I even attempted to plaster the outside as I built the walls. I endeavoured to do this as I built them as we had no ladder long enough to reach the finished product and hence I would be unable to plaster them after they were constructed. Plastering was more than cosmetic as I needed to seal the blocks so they would not absorb rainwater.

Truth be told, I wasn’t overly successful as it was quite a reach, and sometimes my reach was not quite up to the task. But, in the end, there was a form of plaster covering the exterior walls. At the very least, maybe no attractive on close inspection, but the walls were sealed.

We contracted the ceiling work out as beyond the skill set of this ‘jack of many trades’ – that was a trade too far.

The ceiling was to be a suspended sheet-rock (gypsum) ceiling and the chap who had agreed to do it said he couldn’t commence the task until the electrics were in (understand room lights – once the ceiling is up there would be no way to retrofit wiring in the no-access loft.

However, the electrician said he couldn’t do the electrics until the interior walls were constructed – how else will you know where the room lights go, without first building the room divisions.

And so, guided by events and circumstances, I pressed on and ordered a different width (narrower) Ytong block for the interior walls. We had the luxury of laying out the walls in the cavernous space and see, before laying the first block, the layout and size of the rooms. Mind you, one row of blocks on the floor does not really communicate what the room will be like when the walls are full height.

Duly laid out, the blocks were delivered to the flat – that is delivered to the street in front of the main door. First we needed to hand carry all the blocks off the street and into the courtyard. Then we rigged a rope and pully system to lift the Ytong blocks up to the first floor – and we had all the blocks for the interior walls to lift.  That was a lot of blocks. The elder was loading the blocks and pulling them up – I was on the receiving end, getting the blocks and unloading them upstairs.

There were a lot of blocks.

At one point the elder came and suggested that I put the blocks scattered about the floor space to enable them to dry out because this being winter they had been rained on which makes them heavier, harder to work and they really needed to be dried out before construction.

Poor chap. My blood sugar was low, I was hungry, I was tired and it was all I could physically do to unload the blocks and place them relatively near to where I was receiving them. And so I told him “no”, not now, not possible – albeit not in a very gracious or kind manner. He didn’t suggest it twice. Not proud of that.

Later, after lunch, I returned and man-handled all the blocks, as he suggested, around the interior near where they would ultimately but used for walls and in such a manner that they could dry out. It really was a good and reasonable suggestion.

Laying the first course correctly, the subsequent courses rose straight and true – Ytong is a delight to work with. You lay a thin coat of ‘glue’ or so it is called in Turkish, a concrete based mixture. Applied correctly, the block is held securely in place by the suction of the thin coat of glue – it took me a prodigious amount of time to learn how to properly apply the glue. When blocks needed to be modified, a hand saw was all that was required to make very precise cuts and hence the walls fit beautifully together.

Slowly the walls rose to just beyond ceiling height and the rooms thusly divided came into being. The time had come to rough in the electrics.

As a ‘Jack of many trades’, I set about roughing in the electrics, not the important work of connecting it all up, just running the wires where they needed to go from where they needed to come from. So, to carry the power from where the circuit box would eventually being to the rooms I ran electrical conduit through the loft space to all the various rooms and where the ceiling lights would be.

Now my limited construction experience was with wood frame construction and in such construction you lay the wires in the interior of the walls. Here the practice is to lay conduit in the walls and then fish wires through subsequently. I was unaware of that and so, using a wood working router, I routered channels in the Ytong block to lay the wires ‘in’ the walls. I fitted boxes for the wall plugs, switches and such. I made junction boxes where the wires would be connected and distributed.

Once all this was roughed-in, then, and only then the ceiling man came in and created a metal frame partly resting on the newly constructed interior walls and partly hanging from the roof trusses on which to affix the sheet-rock/gypsum.

We had stipulated insulation and he brought many bails of insulation.

Now here there developed a problem between the chap building the ceiling and myself.

I can read.

I can read Turkish.

I can read English.

In both languages and in the most unambiguous of language declared that the insulation was for use in lagging water tanks and was not to be used as a general insulation, full stop.

I said to him, “This is inappropriate”.

He replied, “It is what I always use and no one has complained.”

This was an impasse.

In the end I agreed to pay the difference between the cheap and inappropriate insulation and the stuff that I had used in the past, that was proper insulation. And being the correct material for the task, it cost more than the other insulation.

In this manner the ceiling was installed and proper insulation put in place.

We now had exterior and interior walls, roughed-in electrics and a ceiling.

Absolutely phenomenal improvement – not yet a flat, but promising…. real progress…

But we still required windows and doors. Windows and doors are big ticket items and they are kind of necessary. Without windows and doors, well it really would not be habitable. In any case, the chap who would make and install the windows and doors agreed to do so with no money down and with no stipulated monthly instalments. There was no contract, or written agreement – we agreed the price verbally, what we will ultimately pay and it was so.

Finally, the house is closed in and weather tight. It is still not a habitable flat – there is no flooring, no kitchen cabinets, no paint on the walls – oh and the electrics are only roughed in, no functional electrics, no plumbing. Still much to do.

In the autumn, before we went to the UK, I had tiled the bathroom – it was my first experience in tiling. At the time the plan was that T. and I were to live upstairs and hence I was tiling “our bathroom”. What that meant was if I made a dog’s breakfast of it, it would be us who had to live with it. At the end of my first foray into tiling I will confess that while the walls are fine, the floor is appalling. A “have a go” attitude does not always result in success.

And so when it came time to tile the floors of the rest of the budding flat, I was not keen to do it – let the reader understand. As labour goes, I am cheap (free) but this is only valid if the work that is done is accomplished to an acceptable level. The elder was keen that I do the floors (free labour) and I was determined, even desperate, not to do the floors (the bathroom floor being a constant reminder that floors are beyond my skill set).

Sometimes faith enables us to be able to do something.

Sometimes faith results in the Lord providing someone to do something.

Praise the Lord He provided someone to lay the tiles – a true master tiler – and for a very modest fee. He did the whole flat, expertly, and in one day.

I watched, amazed, at the time, effort and techniques employed – well beyond my skill set.

The tiles for the flat were 40 cm by 40 cm and there was a multitude required for the flat (around 600 tiles). I observed that he hit every tile a minimum of thirty times.

I counted.

Hm, that works out to at least 30 hits per tile times 600 tiles which equates to 18,000 thumps with a rubber mallet – in one day.

But, before he laid a single tile he found the centre line of the flat, not an easy task when the footprint of the flat is anything except square.

I think the word to describe the footprint of the flat would be trapezoidal.

Then from that determined centre line all the tiles in the flat were laid from the line outwards, through all the rooms to the exterior walls. Smooth, flat, a fantastic, wonderful job.

Now, as we had decided that the upper flat was more appropriate for the elder and his family, he would be living with the excellent floor in the flat and the rather less than excellent floor that I laid in the bathroom. Well, when I did my foray into tiling it was never my intention for it to be the disaster it was. We all leave a legacy.

The man who built and installed the doors and windows now installed a full bespoke kitchen on the same financial terms.

In the beginning, my faith struggled to begin to believe this housing project could be done. The depth and breath of the task was too great for me. The lack of financial resources inhibited my ability to see a way forward.

Frankly, simply and realistically, it was impossible.

However, a month before (!) the deadline of July, all the walls were painted, all the floors laid, all windows, doors, ceiling, wiring, plumbing, well, everything in fact was completed. The 90 square metre flat was ready for the elder and his family to move in to.

Another personal confession:  the new flat was much, much smaller than the elder’s rental flat and I wondered if it would be difficult for them to leave the brand new, modern, expansive flat. I think it would have been difficult for some. But no, without the slightest qualm, hesitation or second thought, they enthusiastically embraced the smaller flat and have never looked back.

The flat is a testament to the grace and goodness of God – not the result of my ’faith, but a testament of the grace of God. This was more a ‘faith-building exercise’ for me than a ‘faith exercise’.

God is good.

God is gracious.

(first written 23 May 2009)

The workmen are hungry; it is time for the midday meal.

Here in this part of Turkey, and in 2009, it was still the expectation and practice for the person for whom the work is being done, to provide tea breaks and the midday meal.

As the time draws nigh for the midday meal, I leave the house, turn left and walk in a basically westwards direction being careful to walk wherever the shadows are. The sun is powerful and it makes its presence emphatically known. Hence, during the long summer months and whenever possible, I walk wherever the shadows are lurking.

After a block the street comes to a ‘T’ junction.  A ‘T’ junction that is if you are driving a car. But as I’m walking and as it transpires, there is a very narrow street carrying on roughly straight ahead; I choose this route.

Initially the narrow street is about two meters wide, concrete and not a lot of shade. The house to the right is a grand old house with high ceilings, high windows and in its’ prime was a fine example of a small, elegant house. However, it’s well past its prime and now only a shadow of its former beauty remains, more mocking what it formerly was, rather than a statement of what, no doubt, it once was.

After the house the road widens and there, in the middle of the now wider street, is a small domed shrine, roughly three metres by three metres with a small porched entrance – these in this region are somewhat ubiquitous and are locally known as a ‘ziyaret’ which generally is a tomb of some religious ‘good person’ or ‘saint’ to which the followers of the Alevi sect of Islam resort to pray, burn incense and make sacrifices, sometimes blood sacrifices.

Alevi are basically followers of Ali – who they believe should have succeeded Muhammed. They are also known as Shi’its and Alewites. No doubt there are distinctives and differences between these various named groups, but they all hold Ali in high esteem.

The ‘good person / saint’ is not necessarily an Alevi, for example here in the city there is a large mosque and half way up the mountain behind the city there is a shrine/ziyaret to Neccar Habib, who was, evidently, a Christian living in ancient Antioch (Antakya is the modern descendant of that city and rests on the ruins of its ancient predecessors), who lived and was martyred at about the time of the Acts of the Apostles.

Skirting around the shrine the road narrows again and we squeeze by the houses on the left and right, living, as it were, cheek by jowl. The upper floors stick out creating deep shadows. Here the sun’s rays can not penetrate except, possibly, for the briefest of moments when the sun passes directly overhead.

This street most often offers a welcome sanctuary from the sun.

I gratefully walk in the cool shade. The road continues to narrow until we come to another ‘T’ junction and the road is less than a meter wide – you would have difficulty with a scooter or motorcycle coming down this road.

I turn left and carry on in the shade past more houses that have seen better days but are still wholly and fully occupied. After another cross street – if it be correct to call these small pathways streets – I come to a main-ish road, a full three plus meters wide. I turn right and after five meters I come to the butcher shop.

The window of the butcher shop is the glass front of the cooler and there hanging is a slab of meat – lamb, I suppose. As I enter the building I notice that the floor is tiled as are the walls which are tiled from floor to ceiling.

That looks good.

On the floor is sawdust, placed there to absorb the blood and other bits that fall to the floor.

Uh, noted…

The owner slowly rises from his chair – he is awake today – he was sitting there sound asleep yesterday. Not really surprising if you spend every waking hour at work – inevitably, some of those hours will cease to be waking, besides, this is summer and it is hot – very hot.

In any event, he rises and moves ponderously towards the large counter. The counter is made of huge blocks of wood glued together forming a massive chopping block.

He has a wad of cotton gauze over his right eye, nominally held on by a piece of tape that looks like it may be ready to surrender and let the gauze go wherever it may and at any moment.

I order 200 grams of meat for each of the workers and ask for ‘Kağıt Kebab’, which by translation means Paper Kebab. It gets its name from the fact that the meat is put onto wax paper and then put in an oven to be cooked.

The man acknowledges the order, turns to a large meat grinder sitting opposite the chopping block. There is a mass of ground meat hanging from the end of the grinder.

He grabs the meat and tosses it on the scale. After adjusting the amount of meat he slings it onto one end of the chopping block.

He then takes some green stuff – maybe parsley, but then maybe not, in any event it is green stuff – and he takes some tomatoes and gives them to a boy, about ten year old and sends him to wash them.

Ah, there is no running water in the shop – no sink, no tap, no water, nope.

The boy takes the greens and the tomatoes and crosses the street to a public street-side tap. Here he proceeds to wash, or should I say ‘rinse’, the greens and the tomatoes in a plastic carrier bag (kind of fill the bag and pour out the water kind of rinsing) and then brings them back to the shop.

The boy, as I mentioned, all of ten I suspect, then proceeds to chop the greens. He takes a  razor sharp knife that is almost as long as his arm and rocks it backwards and forwards over the greens and hence chops them into a finer and finer mass of green. The tomatoes are quartered and then added to the mix and rocked with the knife until they become a red mass which, mixed with the greens results in a red-green conglomeration.

The one-eyed man takes over the final rocking / chopping of the greens and reds. Placing the knife aside, he adds the meat to this mix and begins to knead the mixture together with his bare hands. After a while of kneading he reaches forth his hand into a container and sprinkles salt and some red spice – maybe red pepper – into the mix.

More kneading and then the wax paper. He separates the meat into balls, his eye determining equal division to make the necessary portions. Each ball has its own piece of wax paper. He flattens the ball with his hands until he forms it into a circle.

Once all the portions have been so prepared, he calls the child and sends him with all the wax paper, loaded with the flattened red-green meat, to the local bread factory – where the ovens are wood fired and baking-hot. Together with the meat, and additional whole tomatoes and some long green peppers they are roasted in the oven.

Once fully cooked, the meat comes back to the butcher, who divides up the tomatoes and peppers between the portions. He then sets each cooked portion of meat on flat bread (fresh from the bakery), and it is now ready for me to take back to the workmen.

I return from whence I came, following the same path, and arrive back at our home, the work site. The workmen wash their hands and with the extra flat bread we have provided they tuck into their midday repast. A large multi litre bottle of the ubiquitous Coca Cola is poured out to accompany the meal.

This is truly “breaking bread” as the workmen tear off a piece of the underlying bread and use that as a scoop to bring some of the meat to their mouths. The extra bread is broken into handy spoon sized pieces to bring meat, tomato, pepper,  juices or whatever on its final journey to the mouth.

When the meal is consumed, we bring out the tea – no meal is complete without the obligatory tea.

Tea, in Turkey is prepared in a two pot system, one pot sitting on top on the other – the top pot holds deeply steeped tea and the bottom pot is boiling water. The tea will be consumed in small, tulip-shaped clear glass glasses.

One man takes responsibility for the pouring ceremony. First he pours some water from the bottom pot which is extremely hot as it was fully boiling just prior to coming to the table. In order to preheat the glasses, he pours the hot water from one glass to another. This both preheats the glasses, and as this is a construction site, if any debris or foreign matter has inadvertently fallen in the glasses, it will be washed away. I suppose it also acts as a final cleaning as there is no guarantee how well the glasses were cleaned after their last use. The water which has passed from glass to glass for preheating is then discarded with a swirl and a swish onto the floor.

With the glasses now pre-heated, the pourer pours a measure of hot concentrated tea from the top pot and then dilutes it with the hot water from the bottom pot. There is a specific colour that the pourer is aiming for. In Turkish it is called ‘tavşan kanı’ or ‘rabbit’s blood’ in English – not what it will taste like, but a description of the colour it should be when properly mixed.  Personally, I haven’t the foggiest notion as to what colour rabbit’s blood is… unless it is the colour of Turkish tea that is…

Once the desired colour is attained the glass is given to a workman who then adds sugar according to his own palate. Some add half a cube, one cube, and some two, three, four or more cubes of sugar into the tiny glass.

Once everyone has their cup of scalding tea, sugared according to their desires, they sit and chat, those who smoke are lighting up. It is a calm, resting environment.

Did I mention the pre-heating and hot tea and hot water?

The small, glass, tulip shaped, tea glasses offer a fantastic heat transfer medium. When you grasp the tea glass with your thumb and forefinger around the rim and lift it to your mouth, you are treated to a very distinct and unmistakable understanding as to how hot the tea really is.  On my first attempt, many years ago, the glass never made it to my lips as I put it down hastily exclaiming loudly because of my burning fingers.

It takes a while to develop both the callouses and stoicism to sit, like a Turk, holding your wee tea glass in your hand between sips, as if it were a room temperature glass.

When the tea is consumed, being small glasses, this can mean multiple refillings and the cigarettes have been duly rendered into smoke, the men rise to recommence the labour of the day.

(written July 2011)

Recently a small project arose in the home we share with the elder and his family. My tasking was to build a simple wall of Ytong blocks , do some electrical work and to plaster it. Nothing demanding – simple tasks.  (If you are wondering what Ytong is, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ytong )

Ytong is an easy material to work with – the blocks are all of uniform dimensions and exact measurements; the building of a wall is like assembling Lego blocks. Making a straight, level wall is quite simple. You can cut the blocks with a hand saw, shave it with a rendering tool and even use a wood rasp on it. If you wish to embed electrical cables, you can scour out a channel with a normal router. It insulates; it sound-proofs; it is mould resistant; it is wonderful.  If it isn’t clear, I like Ytong.

Plastering, well, that is a bit more complicated.

Now, I’ve never studied the art or science of plastering, however, a few years ago we had a master plasterer do some work.

When he was a child he was sent out to learn a trade – and the trade he was sent to and learned was plastering. Not his chosen field, nor a job he enjoys – especially as he has an allergic reaction against plaster on his hands. But it is his trade and he has learned it well. Many use the title of “master plasterer” but few are… In his case, he is a “master”.

When he arrived I was there show him what needed to be done and to answer any questions he might have. Then, I remained and watched his technique.

Initially he would load a large amount of plaster – often simply referred to as ‘mud’ on to a hawk. Now a hawk is like a large serving tray with a handle below. With the hawk fully laden he would quickly apply the plaster with a gauging trowel (the pointy one) casting great lumps on to the wall. With a finishing trowel (rectangular shape), he would, in quick graceful strokes, trowel the plaster smooth and if there were deficiencies, he would apply more plaster to those precise spots – sometimes with plaster on the finishing trowel and sometimes by flinging a lump of plaster to a more distant but deficient place with the gauging trowel.

Then he would smooth it with the finishing trowel and to ensure it was level he would take a long, straight piece of wood and drawing the wood across the surface of the wall, he would scrape the tops off the hills and reveal the valleys between. The valleys now identified could be filled in. When he had completed this stage he would employ the float with which he would ‘fine-tune’ the plaster, adding, smoothing, removing and otherwise rendering the plaster to a uniform level and smoothness.

At this stage, with the plaster applied and levelled he would wait. From time to time he would come and touch the wall to gauge the state of the plaster to see if it was ready for the next step.

Not only did he know what to do – but when to do it.

After much touching and testing, he would take a sponge, load it with the ‘right amount of water’ and apply the sponge to the wall in circular, almost scrubbing-like motions. Working the whole surface, rinsing clean the sponge and attacking the wall he worked the plaster until it was fully flattened and smooth. Waiting some more until the final sponging, he would render the surface polished and blemish free ready for painting.

I observed it all.

I saw every step and every function.

And when he left and a new bit of plastering was required I grabbed the same tools and set to work.

This is when the reality of “seeing” and “doing” and the differences therein became blatantly and painfully apparent.

That which he did (with his twenty plus years of experience) with seemingly effortless grace eluded me. He would take the pointy trowel with a lump of plaster on the end and with invariable accuracy, fling it off the end of the trowel to the spot requiring a bit more “mud”.

I could barely keep the lump of plaster on the end of the trowel, and when I did achieve the flinging action it was anyone’s guess where the plaster would end up. Most often, on the floor behind me, sliding off as I positioned the trowel. When I did hit the wall, it rarely came anywhere near my intended target. Occasionally, not sure how I achieve it, it would end up on my face – the latest example just two days ago where it landed square on my nose and mouth (plaster doesn’t taste very nice).

When I had the wall somewhat covered in plaster – I knew it was time to touch and wait; but, I had no idea what I waiting for or what I was ‘touching’ for. How would I know when it is ready?

So I touched and waited and after the passage of some time, I attacked the wall with the sponge.

It was plastered – nothing like what the Master Plasterer had done – but it was plastered.

Then we had another big piece to do and we brought the master plasterer back. Again another opportunity to watch the master – to observe his technique, to see what I had missed, to comprehend what I had seen but not understood, to realise what I had forgotten.

And when he left – the next little bit that needed some plaster was again my victim.

Over the many months, I’ve learned more, I’m still a novice at plastering and I still leave lumpy and uneven walls behind.

Rarely is the fault the wall – well, actually, it is never the fault of the wall, but my, er, I hesitate to identify it as a technique, but my modus operandi that produces my, ah, irregular, ‘artistic’ shall I say, finish. But with exposure to the master plasterer and actual experience, I am getting better.

I need both. I need to see the master at work. To take the hours and watch, not casually, but actively, at what he is doing and how he is doing it. Then, getting my hands dirty (literally) and working with the plaster and wall and the tools and taking that which I have seen and try and replicate it – sometimes eating plaster in the process. To truly learn requires doing.

The apostle Paul writing: “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:9 – a conditional promise – the “God of peace will be with you” is tied to the “do” of the things which you learned and received and heard and saw in the life and teaching of Paul.

This is how we learn. It is also how we teach, not just with fine words, but by example.

 

(written August 2007)

The solution was simplicity itself. I couldn’t change my basic working position and I couldn’t in any way limit the amount of moisture pouring off my face nor could I abandon the task. But, to end the unceasing stream of liquid that kept streaking my glasses and at times pooling into mini-lakes on the lenses, totally obscuring my vision, the answer was uncomplicated. I simply removed my glasses – half blind is better than totally blind.

One aspect of Antakya (Antioch on the Orontes river) – which most likely was a factor in the founding of the city and its prosperity in ancient times – is an almost constant breeze that blows up the valley from the sea during the hot summer months. The trees all have a distinctive lean to the north east (on the mountain the angle of the trees caused by the wind is greater than 45°). When the temperature strays into the mid and upper 30’s (mid and upper 90’s for those who ‘feel’ in Fahrenheit), this breeze doesn’t just make it tolerable, but actually it could be described as ‘pleasant’.

The down side is the breeze doesn’t always, um, breeze.

This day it wasn’t ‘breezing,’ with the result that we felt the temperature regardless of F° or C° and we were, uh, perspiring freely.

The task itself was straightforward and unsophisticated. The Turkish elder and his family had been living in a rented flat which was built many years ago utilising sea sand. Sea sand is abundant, looks and feels like non-sea sand – but it has it’s own unique characteristic – the salt weakens concrete over time. As time passed, so the strength of the concrete erodes and this year, in addition to the constant rain of small white particles that needed to be cleaned up every day, large parts of the ceiling began falling down. This was not plaster, mind, but large chucks of concrete – the stuff of which the ceiling is made  and when it parted company with the remainder of the ceiling, the rusty reinforcement bars were left exposed – naked testament to the sickness within. It was time to move.

By God’s grace they were able to move into Antakya proper – formerly they lived in a village eight kilometres out of town. This was very close to where he works, but not close to the meeting room and the fellowship.

The new rented flat is a step of faith for them – but with their income any flat would be a step of faith.

Their new flat has just been built. For them great excitement – for me the excitement was somewhat diminished:  I know new-builds have their own teething problems and as a matter of fact, I was dealing with one of them.

Fully, freshly, newly painted the flat is; maybe not the colours you or I would choose, rather bright and in-your-face but vibrantly painted and clean nonetheless.

Er, that is to say, the walls were clean. It seems a life ‘constant’ is that some painters focus on where they are applying the paint without regard to where the paint may actually be going…. and my task was uncomplicated – sit on the floor, scrap and scrub with a view to remove, eradicate and obliterate all the spots and spatters that decorated the ceramic floor tiles.

In the past I have noted that in the odd foray into the task of covering a wall surface with some coloured emulsion that wet paint cleans up with amazingly little effort and very quickly, although I must admit that when I ‘paint’ I am loath to stop the splashing of paint in order to clean up my frequent and liberal spills. Now, as I knelt on the floor, slowly scrapping the small and not so small coloured testament to the painter, I learned two things.

The first is, for some paint types, you scrap it off and if you do not physically remove it from the floor, it will settle and re-attach itself in a new resting place.

Wonderful!

After spending hours, literally crawling around on the floor bathed in my own personal shower of perspiration I find the objects of the exercise have survived the ordeal and are happily nestled on the floor in new locations. This does not naturally nor automatically bring a smile to my face. The second time the spots scrap off easily – but again, if not physically removed, they will contentedly find a new home and from thence again taunt and defy.

The other thing that I learned, er, well, learned again, as I think I’ve had this lesson before, was the job of cleaning up from the incidental splashes  and spills is easy to do when the paint is first spilled, splattered or sprayed.  However, it becomes a huge, laborious, strenuous and massive job once some time has passed.

Additionally, wet paint cleaned up immediately, leaves no scar on the surface, but with the best will and careful attention, cleaning up the paint that had been give time to settle and bond and integrate required much more effort and sharp metal tools which left scratches, scraps and otherwise disfigure the floor.  In my diligent efforts to remove every trace of the spotted testament, much effort and strenuous labour was required and the result was somewhat marred by the inevitable scratches and blemishes that resulted.

Ah, with life’s lessons there are many applications. When preparing video, it is said you should aim to “shoot to edit”. In other words, shoot so that the material requires no editing. How many hours have I spent trying to ‘fix’ a moment of inattention, an oversight in preparation be it video or audio that isn’t what it should be. Sometimes a simple task, one that ‘should’ take five minutes has required ten hours of labour to make right – and not really be ‘right’, just ‘best as’ at the end of it all.

Ah, ah, and in my walk with the Lord to clean up the spatters, spills and sprays when I stumble and do not live up to my High Calling, or I have a ‘weakness of the flesh’, or ‘I make a mistake, or as the Bible simply describes it, I sin, well, when they are fresh they are relatively easy to deal with – although repentance never feels easy – and before permanent scars and blemishes develop.  But if I delay, let time pass, then it is much more difficult to deal with, sometimes it takes vigorous effort, sometimes it leaves scars and blemishes which live on as lasting reminders of my failings – sometimes the innocent are marred because of my failing especially when I allow them to fester.

This too, seems to be a recurring lesson for me.

(written June 2015)

There is a line from one of the Star Trek series where the Klingon character is wont to say “today is a good day to die”.

What a dumb thing to say.

One of the defining characteristics of the human race is we cling to life. The exceptions of those who succumb to depression and suicide not withstanding.

But, still, I liked the phrase “today is a good day to….”

Yesterday was, I found, just such a day where I could use the phrase.

We are trying to sell the flat in Istanbul, and after a year of fruitless effort, I determined, in spite of what people kept advising me, that I would do some ‘tarting’ up of the flat.

So, I engaged a shop to replace the laminate flooring upstairs that was damaged in a unique flood from the terrace some years back. I also engaged a painter to redo the paint in the back three bedrooms – the walls had begun to peel and the ceiling had suffered due to rain water leaking through from the terrace above.

We had done some work to fix the terrace and we had high hopes that it would do the trick. Alas, our hopes were dashed, but I still had a degree of hope that all our efforts and expense would have had an effect on the leak and, at the very least, it would have diminished.

The painter seemed like a good, knowledgeable chap and worked diligently, if a bit slowly.  To be fair,  repairing the peeling paint and taking measures to ensure that the problem would not, hopefully, reoccur has proven to be time consuming. We had limited time available, and so timing and the amount of time required was paramount.

The peeling walls were proving to be a stubborn nut to crack with no obvious cause for the phenomenon. At times, after cleaning, applying some special compound to fix the wall, plaster, then a base coat and finally the finish coat, the new paint would exhibit small defects which, in time, would once again peel.

So the painter started over in those places, right back to the base and redid the whole process. Sometimes he had to repeat the procedure a couple of times.

But, he was winning. It was eating up valuable time, but he was winning.

We had two days of rain, the first had bouts of intense but short lived downpours and on the second day, on-off short drizzles. Certainly nothing noteworthy.

Then the painter called me.

I didn’t want to go. Men, often we either live in denial, or we prefer ignorance. I didn’t want to hear what the painter had to say….

But I answered the call and went.

“Climb the ladder” said he, and up I went.

There, next to the coving, a wee dark spot. I extended my finger, touched the spot and the drop of water transferred to me. My finger also penetrated the plaster which hadn’t even begun to consider the possibility of setting.

This was a set back.

This was bad news.

This was an insurmountable problem – there is no quick fix.

Here it was, the perfect opportunity to say:  “Today is a good day to say ‘God is good'”.

Often we make such declarations when things go good, when things turn out right or nice or the way we desire. It naturally tumbles off our lips when things go well.

But God is always good.

When things go the way we wish, or all things come together, or a dream is realised, yes God is good, and yes it is most appropriate to so declare that God is good in those situations. But, God is always good.

God is always good.

God is always loving.

God is always “working all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose”. Always.

But, when things do not turn out right, when our dreams lies shattered at our feet – never to rise again, when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, when people disappoint, when health sputters and sometimes fails, when we feel very alone in this world, then, yes, then it is a good time to declare, “God is good”.

Because He is, He always is.

And so with the potential sale price of the flat being lowered relentlessly, with the costs of essential repairs and remedial cosmetic work mounting and with the now self-declared water leak thwarting our decorative endeavours, this is a prime time to remember, to meditate on and to declare that “God is good”.

Because He is.

Today, in this set of circumstances, is a good day to proclaim that God is good.

(written June 2004)

“Swiiiish, swiiish,” the sandpaper sang as I brought my arm down and across the wall in a wide sweeping motion. The air was littered with fine white particles dancing in the light and drifting lazily towards the floor.

With each stroke of my arm, another cloud of fine white dust was released to join the previous stroke on its relentless pursuit of a final resting place. The wall was looking fine, very fine indeed.

I was pleased. I stopped sanding. The empty coffee jar that was my make-shift sanding block was not the most efficient, but it was doing the job. I readjusted the sandpaper I had wrapped around the jar and ran my fingers over the wall. Yes, it was feeling fine and looking very fine indeed.

I thought I would soon be finished and then after a quick coat or two of paint the job would be in the bag – done, completed, finished, out-of-the-way, finito.

Once the wall was done, then the ‘store-room’ would be completed and I could finally organise my space and get down to the ‘real’ work.

I don’t know why I did it. I certainly didn’t feel the need to do it. There was more than sufficient light and I could see quite clearly. Indeed the wall looked good and the drifting mist of plaster dust was certainly evident in the air. Nevertheless, after working for a bit and being quite pleased with the results, I flipped the switch, turning on the light on the wall.

And then…

And there in the abundance of light, a multitude of flaws, lumps, bumps, lines and a myriad of other defects exploded into sight. A sigh slipped from my lips. This job was going to take more time than I had thought and initially believed.

Tightening the sandpaper wrapped around my coffee jar, I again tackled the wall with a new found sense of purpose. I would sand, and fill, and sand again, and, when truly prepared, paint this wall, and, yes, “tick” it will be done – but not as soon as I had envisaged. A set back, not major, more an inconvenience and yet it had its impact on the task.

This is life. Nothing, so it seems, ever goes to plan. This is important. When we undertake a task, allowing for the unseen, the stumbles, the unexpected provides a means to adjust and cope and, well, life happens.

Sometimes people lament and say that what is taught in school doesn’t actually prepare us for life. I disagree.

At school I learned how to read, I still do it. I often do it for pleasure. Reading opens many doors and I can find encouragement, instruction, enlightenment and humour.  Reading was good thing to learn.

I consider myself numerate. Not every one is. I can do basic mathematics and whilst I do not begin to understand trigonometry or physics I can handle money, and plan and build various projects. Numeracy was also a positive thing to learn.

Then there was a class that tried to explain electricity to me. Now, I never really got it and even recently I was reading an article that was trying to explain the wonder of moving electrons – but I still don’t get it. What I did get was an understanding of wiring – how to connect wires and switches and plugs to the mains and make it work. I know nothing compared to an electrician and I am ignorant of the building code for wiring – but in a pinch, I can wire things together and they will work. Electricity was a good thing to learn.

Well I remember, being one of three boys in a class full of girls learning to type. It wasn’t consider ‘manly’ in those days but learning to type has set me free so when I write, my mind is on what I am tying to say and not on how to find the keys on the keyboard. Liberating. Typing was a great thing to learn.

At some point I was in a class that introduced us to the art of welding. There were many of us, the theory was explained and we all had a go at it. We didn’t do much – but we were exposed to the wonders of using an arc welder.

Labour used to be cheap here – and in some ways it still is. But if you are short of the readies, even cheap can be out of reach. Hence I’ve learned to put my hand to painting, laying Ytong blocks, tiling, wiring, plumbing, plastering, oh, and yes, welding.

The welding job I was charged to do was non load bearing steel to form a frame for some plastic windows to be installed. We aren’t talking rocket science, initially less than a dozen places needing welding. A competent welder could do the task in an hour or so and all would be straight and true.

I had understood that my friend and I had agreed to call a plumber we know – who is also a welder – to come and do the deed. We would provide the grunt labour and he would do the delicate work on the cheap. Ah, it seems I did not understand…

We had the steel cut and delivered, and whilst I was awaiting the call for the plumber, I got the ‘call’ to weld it together.  It seems that I am cheaper than ‘on the cheap’.

Now one or two lessons some forty five years ago is not a lot to be getting on with.

I have been told that a single spot weld is very strong and how hard can it be? To the professional welder, nothing is simpler.

And so welding rod in my hand I began. Weld, weld, weld, smoke pouring away, sparks flying every which way, molten steel dripping – all is looking good. After the smoke had cleared, and as I have observed, proper welders will hammer and scrape and clean the weld, and so too did I.

When all the dross was removed, when it was clear, not a single spot weld – nothing is holding. Much was twisted and gnarled lumps of melted metal were clumped together or imitating a congealed lump of unspeakable, but therer was not a single weld binding the two pieces of metal together. All the welding, sparking, smoking and dripping had been in vain.

Trail and error – learn by doing – perseverance, dogged determination whatever you want to call that tenacity of spirit or just plain stubbornness is required.

The first stage was to assemble the outer frame – after a fashion, done. The second stage was to fit it into place. Now welding the frame in the courtyard I was standing on the ground and the welds were on the floor. Now the frame was in place and I had to weld the top of the frame to some overhead steel. Now I am below and the welding is above.

Let the reader pause and imagine.

To weld you have to ‘complete the circuit’. That is you have to provide a path from the welder through one lead to the electrode and when in near contact with the metal, the current flows back to the welder via the other lead which is attached to the metal frame somewhere. Where the electricity leaves the electrode it flies through the air, or arcs through the air (hence an arc welder) and the result is you get great heat, hot enough to melt metal – this is the business end of welding. The other lead provides the completion of the path back to the welder. You have to have a complete path for the electricity to do it’s thing.

I learned a couple of new things. As I am a novice at welding, sometimes the electrode sticks to the metal, melting and forming a bond with the metal. This is not good. So I try to pull the electrode away and break the connection. Now, for a solid piece of metal, that some times works. But sometime not. When it doesn’t work, I disconnect the electrode from the handle, grab the electrode pry it off the metal and reposition it in the handle.

Now I learned that if I sit on the metal frame, and if the weather is hot (and it is) and I am perspiring (and I was), that when I grab the electrode and attempt to put it in the handle that I can complete the circuit using my hand and bottom. That was a valuable thing to learn, but not fun.

Welding above your head has some additional challenges. Molten globs of metal tend to fall downwards – I’ve noticed this. Now workmen wear steel toed boots. As I don’t have steel toed sandals, I learned that the little bits of red hot metal tends to go right though my protective socks. Another of those unpleasant lessons.

With the welding above, there is a veritable shower of sparks, smoke and burning globules of dross or molten steel cascading down in a relentless stream. If there is no breeze, all falls basically straight down and you can keep out of the way. Ah, but there is a breeze and a strong one at that everything goes but one way.

The best place to be is up wind – but that would place me on the other side of the wall and there is a significant drop to the courtyard below. The worst place to be is downwind – where there is actually a place to stand and do the task.

It is in this rather necessary but undesirable placement that I attempted the remaining welds, above my head, trying to weld where the need is, in a way that actually binds the metal together.

I press on, the welding rod burning away, sparks and smoke swarming and ever so often the very distinct smell of burning hair. It is either my hair or my beard – something hot landing where I do not wish and singeing it’s way through.

I guess that is the clue that of all the things I learned in school, maybe welding just wasn’t one of them.

Normally I would not consider myself a wimp. I may not be Tarzan or some other he-man, but I consider myself a ‘man’ if you know what I mean.

We had special guests coming. When I say ‘we’, I mean our house partners were having guests and as we share the courtyard and terrace their guests are in part ‘our’ guests.

Therefore we, that is the wife and I, were working on sprucing up the communal areas; you know the normal, cleaning and painting that sort of thing – nothing clever or challenging.

Okay, painting the top of the stairwell, precariously perched on very little, over a three metre plus drop to the concrete, was a bit challenging. I suppose the painting on the roof over the stairs was also a challenge having to step in the right place the forfeit being a rather dramatic descent four plus metres to the concrete below. I did rather well on the roof until I tried to leave the tricky bit for the more substantial roof when the solid, firm, trustworthy substantial roof gave way under my manly weight and my foot plunged through with a violent impact on the less substantial roof which didn’t break. Okay, it was dented and unhappy with me, but it didn’t break unlike the substantial roof, the edge of which was clearly broken. The paint in my hand had a nice flight and landed on the substantial roof – well, it needed painting anyway.

I walked on the substantial roof with far more delicacy and respect – if it let me down once, it could do it again. Maybe tip-toeing on the substantial roof wasn’t very manly – and although crashing through the roof with splintered roofing material and paint flying every which way may have looked a manly thing to do, I wished to refrain.

Some of the painting required standing on a… well the Turkish word is ‘eşek’ which means ‘donkey’, but I wasn’t standing on a donkey per se, it was a large (and heavy) plank of wood. At one end it rested on our tall ladder, near the top, and at the other at the top of our number two ladder. The plank is long and in the middle, in its former life in the house, there were two large nails driven into it, now there are only holes – splintered and gaping holes. Not the most comforting thing when you are standing in the middle, two meters off the cement floor, painting and the action of painting is causing a bouncing motion.

“Hmm,” says I, “will this action encourage the eşek to part company in the middle….”

Everything was going well. I painted. I plastered. I fitted a light and a switch in the wood store and another one under the opposite stairs.

The problem came with the cleaning. Now I am not saying this to get out of cleaning. Cleaning is good – there is a certain satisfaction of starting with a mess and cluttered area and ending with a clean and orderly space. The problem is you need to use the broom.

Now it doesn’t sound like a challenge does it?

Only a wimp would have trouble with a wee broom.

But there you have it. I grabbed the broom to commence sweeping and the pain was immediately apparent. I thought it would pass. It didn’t. I wanted to let go of the broom. I did.

The broom is not special. It is a normal, cheap, standard broom with a plastic head and plastic bristles. The handle is made up of a light weight, hollow metal tube. It was left in the courtyard – awaiting the time I would use it.

Lying there, minding it’s own business, doing nothing clever, enjoying the sun, soaking up the rays, tanning if you will.

It was the ‘soaking up of the rays’ that was causing my discomfort. The handle was, well, too hot to handle. I didn’t think I was a wimp, but I can’t hold a broom!

Wow!

So I decided to move the ladder so as to be ready to clean under where it stood when the broom, now sequestered in the shade should cool off somewhat and the handle become handleable. I walk over to the tall ladder – and it is tall. I grasp the ladder in two hands. Or should I say, I grasp the aluminium ladder that has been basking in the sun with my two hands.

I didn’t take it far. It, too, had been ‘soaking up the rays’. It, too, had a way of communicating with my hands that was hard to ignore. Very hard to ignore. It too was too hot to handle.

Okay, maybe I am a wimp.