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I look out of my window; the sun is shining, the grass is regreening after winter, snowdrops, crocus and daffodils are all blooming simultaneously, birds are singing and spring is definitely on the way. The village is quiet and peaceful. Already, the first lock-down of the Covid pandemic is four years in the past; a global catastrophe which we have survived and many of us hoped would herald the dawn of a new, interconnected, co-operative, global community.

Yet, where do we find ourselves now? Russia and Ukraine are slogging out a multinational war by proxy and Israel is tasting what it is like to be the oppressors in its infliction of genocide upon the Palestinian people, while the rest of us struggle with our feelings of fear, impotence, sadness and horror. Worse, the sabre-rattling is spreading and the drums of all-out war are beginning to reverberate around the globe.

How do we deal with this? You and I, sitting in our safe cosy homes, what can we do to combat the fear, violence and misery?

I feel that the key word here is ‘fear’. We tend to fear what we do not know. Humanity has always reacted to the unknown with suspicion and blind aggression. However, there is a world of difference between personal ignorance and fear and the global woes generated by commerce and national governments for their own nefarious purposes.

When I was a child, I travelled quite a lot with my mother who was keen for me to learn about other peoples, places and cultures. Even as a young child, I loved writing letters and kept in touch with any children (and sometimes adults!) that I came across on my travels. Once I entered my teens I joined a penfriend organisation and developed relationships with other youngsters  around the world.

My personal connections completely coloured my perspective of and feelings for other nations. I first noticed this when watching the Eurovision Song Contest. I was more interested in the entries of other countries and didn’t care so much about how well the U.K. did so long as my pal’s countries were receiving recognition and appreciation too. It was no longer France but Jacqueline’s people, not Italy, but Domenico and his friends.

I developed friendships all across Europe into Eastern Europe, Greece, Turkey, North and South America, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. It was huge fun and the whole family would wait with baited breath for the morning post to arrive and the next instalment of juvenile news from abroad.

By my mid teens, some of my penfriends were coming to stay with us in the school holidays and by the time I was in my late teens, it was not unusual to find boys and girls from several different nations sitting around our table. As these also covered widely disparate cultures and religions, my poor mother was sometimes hard put to accommodate and feed everyone without causing a minor diplomatic incident. Trust had to be worked at.

“Mummy! Julie has bacon for breakfast… did you cook my eggs in the same pan?”
“Now, Mehmet, you know I would never do such a thing,” my mother would reply patiently as she produced two separate frying pans from the kitchen.

Wenche from Norway was like a sister to me… Harsha from Sri Lanka was the peacemaker in everything… Kathleen from America thought that English boys were ‘perfectly obnoxious’ in their ‘good manners’ which she viewed as patronising and anti-feminist… but we all got on together and laughed and learned about each other – my slightly harassed father used to refer to us as the ‘United Nations’.

Amusingly, everyone referred to my parents as ‘Mummy’, and ‘Daddy’, and when we paid return visits, as many other people (especially in the East) found the ‘J’ of Joan difficult to get their tongues around, my mother was startled to discover that everyone else referred to her as ‘Mummy’ too! Even in my late forties, I would still take phone calls when the caller asked how ‘Mummy’ was, or receive letters where the writer asked if  ‘Daddy’ was still playing his drums in the dance band.

As I grew older I joined a larger penfriend community which for a single very reasonable fee offered sixteen potential penfriends in countries, ages and interests of my choice. (International Pen Friends https://www.ipfworld.com/index.html) Inevitably, more serious questions arose in our correspondence, especially when I began writing to a meteorologist in former East Germany who wished to improve his English… but I ended up marrying him so we obviously got that right!

The way I see it now, we have options.

One: that we reach out in any way possible and befriend/make a relationship with someone from another country(s). In this case, familiarity potentially breeds mutual fondness, knowledge, trust and support. It suddenly becomes personal and is no longer ‘me’ and ‘them’ but ‘us’.

Two: in our modern multicultural, multi-gender society, we strive to get to know our neighbours… the people who breath the same air, drink the same water, walk the same roads and sleep only metres away from us. They are our local community and by wider definition, their people and country/place of origin become ours, too. I have a very dear Nigerian friend living a mile away in the next village – now every Nigerian I see is a part of her, and her land and people are dear to me and matter because of my friendship and love for her. My heart goes out to her – and to them – I have ‘adopted’ them… and that relationship sticks.

Similarly, some of my neighbours come from other parts of the U.K. which I know nothing about, but I have ‘adopted’ them as well and they are also dear to me now. Having said that, I no less value and appreciate my next-door-neighbour who was born and bred in this valley, or the people up the road who also hale from the town where I was born.

I feel that I am in the right place here in Wales for this to be understood – a society where first names are always used rather than surnames and titles, everyone is seen as equal, and community connection is of paramount importance, only topped by the sacred act of hospitality to strangers… For, of course, once someone has lived with you, (no matter how briefly), eaten at your table, laughed with you, possibly shared their concerns and commiserated with you too, they are no longer strangers but also members of your wider family, and their people are no longer ‘aliens’ or ‘strangers’ either but extended family, brothers and sisters of your new-found family member. So our ‘family’ grows.

Yes, family members frequently disagree or fall out, but if they have also shared the good times and genuine friendship and respect has been previously developed, it makes it easier to find one’s way back to talking and sorting out the problems. You certainly stand a much better chance than if you have to deal with a total stranger, with no comprehension of their culture, their thoughts and feelings or perspective on life.

For the bottom line is that we are all connected, all one with each other and all a part of our planet Earth, we simply express our perception of life as befits our geographical area and the way we have developed in it. This need not lead to division and descension but can, instead, enrich the vitality, vibrancy and texture of our shared lives. The key words here are equality and love.

Think about it. Who is in your extended family? How do you interact with them? How might you bring these disparate members closer together? How might you reach out further afield?

Just my own thoughts on a sunny February afternoon… and I would love to hear your own thoughts and opinions, for we too, are connected and I care what you think and feel.

With my love.