Thursday, March 16, 2006

Musical Milestones

Last Saturday, Husband and I had the rare opportunity to attend a concert at our local arts centre. It featured Cantabile, a male quartet, that does a lot of a capella singing.

I first saw the group perform on TV and was thrilled that they were going to perform at the Singapore Festival of Arts more than a decade ago.

I was then working for one of the 'Big Six' accounting firms as a change management consultant and could pretty much afford to attend any of the big-name foreign acts -- including the musical Evita and Placido Domingo -- being brought in by promoters aiming for the 'Yuppie' market.

Cantabile left a distinct mark on my musical landscape as I had one of their cassette tapes when I packed my one suitcase and headed to Amsterdam to begin my life as a full-time Christian worker.

From a habit of indiscriminate use of taxis in Singapore, I had to resort to cycling or taking the tram in Amsterdam. Instead of a fat wage package every month I made the transition to being given an allowance of 60 guilders a week.

I had to share a room with an American girl who's become a good friend. She surprised me one evening by coming home with a carpet that's been ditched by someone else. (Yes! It was left on the street on 'bin night'.) She shampooed the carpet, dried it and we became the proud owners of a carpet that helped to reduce the number of 'dust rabbits' in the room.

That one year spent as staff member of an Amsterdam Christian Youth Hostel was a period of learning: particularly on how to cope with the climate. Sometime I woke up so cold that it took me 10 minutes to dress, both because I was too frozen to move and that I had to layer it on.

Cycling to report for work at 7.30am or finishing work at 11.30pm was not that much fun in the freezing weather. I didn't know what hit me -- literally -- when caught in my first hail storm.

There was no TV. I learned most of what was happening in the world that year listening to BBC World Service on my little personal stereo/radio. There were no English-language newspapers apart from the American ones that sometimes got dropped off by travellers using our hostel.

But then I learned a lot more than others when, for example, trying to find accommodation for two Yugoslavian men only to find one reading a name on a slip of paper, "He's a Serb. No way am I sharing a flat with him." He spat on the ground and threw the piece of paper away. I come from a multicultural society that is thankfully still living in relative harmony.

Neither would I forget that tall clear-skinned Senagalese man who was obviously being controlled by a Dutch woman pimp. After he's stayed away from the hostel for the night, returning only in the early morning, he would go to his dormitory and come down for breakfast wearing an all-white outfit.

When the hostel was opened to non-hostel guests we often met and tried to minister to Dutch nationals who found our cafe a place of solace, and where they could find a listening ear from amongst the international all-Christian staff. Many had a history of mental illness, claiming to have suffered nervous breakdowns, who found it difficult to cope with city life in Amsterdam.

(This was a strange phenomenon for me, having just come from Singapore where I was used to working 70-80 hours a week when projects needed finishing 'on time, on budget'. Stress? What's that? Several of my ex-colleagues are still making pots of money, and still very single.)

So we had a regular from a former Dutch colony who found it too stressful to hold down a job, but found it not so stressful reading Sartre (!).

Then there was a woman who was gang-raped and only ventured out at night, feeling too ashamed to be seen in the day. She needed someone to listen to her woes.

The very positive side of working here was that people often returned kindness with kindness. One chap who learned that I did not even have money to buy stamps (before my papers came through from the relevant authority and therefore could not be paid) bought me some narcissus bulbs, knowing that those bulbs would have been a luxury for me.

When not at work we lived in the 'staff house'. One day I discovered that one of my co-workers owned a cassette player. I borrowed it and listened to Cantabile. Their music was with me when I was doing well professionally, and it cheered me up no end then when I was, by choice, living a rather more simple (but at the same time more fulfilled) life.

Last Saturday when I heard this group sing again, my circumstances have changed tremendously once again. Their music, or rather form of music-making, caused me to think again of those words by the Apostle Paul noted in the previous post: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. "

It was good to be reminded thus.

Back to Organic-Ally.

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