A few years ago I was invited to stay for a week or so with my friends, a married couple living abroad. Now pay attention, please. The wife spoke Polish and French, but not English. Her husband spoke French and English, but not Polish. I spoke Polish and English, but not French. Effectively the three of us did not share a common language. Despite this apparently insurmountable language barrier, we had a really good time together. It was challenging, but it made our time together even more special and precious. One of the unexpected outcomes of that visit was that I realised how poor my English was. Subsequently, a year later, I landed at Aberdeen Airport, determined to improve my English. The very next morning I went to a shop in Aberdeen to buy a mobile phone. Despite having an undoubtedly Polish surname on her lapel badge, the young shop assistant spoke to me in a local language of which I could understand not a single word. After I’d bought a mobile – my purchase was completed successfully thanks to my ability to point at things with my fingers rather than to my language skills – I left the shop feeling rather depressed: only afterwards did I hear about Doric. My plan to improve my English had misfired; I realised then that I could only hope to improve my Scottish. And I love it!
Before my arrival in Scotland I had assumed that the Poles and the Scots are rather similar, apart from their incompatible electric sockets, driving on the wrong side of the road and men wearing skirts. After my arrival I discovered that we really are different! And I found this fascinating and extremely enriching. I’ve learnt to drink and appreciate good single malt whisky and I love haggis, while my Scottish friends love Polish sausages and the cold meats which I’ve introduced to them. What I’ve found great about this country is how accommodating, open and accepting it is to people of different historical, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Nobody has ever expressed, even indirectly, any hostility towards me because of my nationality. Quite the opposite: I’ve been asked many times about my country, and every time such interest shown has seemed to be genuine. Paradoxically, such an attitude makes reaching out to other people, different from ourselves, a fascinating – though sometimes challenging – experience.
A wee while ago we listened to a biblical passage taken from the 1st Letter to the Corinthians, where St Paul speaks about differing gifts, skills and talents given to different members of the same community. The gifts are freely offered by God, and no one can claim to have any rights to specific ones. We shouldn’t allow these gifts to make us into boastful, pompous numpties, but use them to serve others as well as we can. For St Paul those gifts, no matter how great, are fruitless without selfless love behind them.
Then we listened to the story of a master who divided his estate between three of his servants. Each servant was in charge of just one part: but the parts weren’t divided equally. While the first two servants made a profit from what was given to them, the last one did nothing with his share. Perhaps he spent his time resenting the other two who were given more than he was. Unlike him, we can appreciate those who are talented, skilled and gifted, and be inspired to challenge and develop ourselves. When a friend of mine told me a few months ago that she’d started playing the clarsach, I decided to try playing the piano again. This is not a competition, it’s an inspiration.
Here we are at Speyfest doing exactly that: by our very presence we express our appreciation for the wide variety of talents, skills and gifts of the artists performing both on and off the stage. I’m pretty sure we can take such an attitude with us out of this place and be similarly appreciative in everyday life, where it can be more challenging. Do you remember those friends of mine I mentioned at the beginning? Recently they have invited me to visit them again. We still don’t have a common language between us, so I’m going to pay them a visit.