Thursday, November 26, 2009

Spain and Thanksgiving

“Work like you don't need the money; dance like no one is watching; sing like no one is listening; love like you've never been hurt; and live life every day as if it were your last.” –Irish Proverb

I’ve spent the past week and a half in Spain volunteering with a programme entitled “Pubelo Ingles.” The programme is oriented around helping Spaniards who are already proficient in English to attain a greater level of fluency. Each day I met with different Spanish people who were business leaders, telecommunications personnel, and leaders of other fields and discussed idioms, phrasal verbs, and other fine points of the English language! The group was an interesting mix of Anglos and Spaniards of a wide variety of fields, backgrounds, and ages. I was considerably younger than the other participants. It was interesting to see how people who are so different can come together in a short amount of time such that those differences are insignificant. A few jokes were made about my age but beyond a few cultural references that I didn’t understand, I barely recognized that I was so young compared to my teammates.

I had an interesting journey to get to the village in which I volunteered. Long story short, I missed a plane and had to take the next plane the following day. At the last minute I had my thirteen year old sister book a hostel for me in Madrid such that I could depart the following morning on an eleven hour bus ride to the village of Cazorla. I got off the metro stop in the far south of Madrid and followed my sister’s directions for a walk of about an hour and a half. Eventually I arrived at my hostel that was supposedly in the city centre. I approached the desk and asked if the employee spoke English; he did not. I began speaking in Spanish when I was abruptly stopped, “No Espanol.” I motioned to ask what language he spoke and was directed to a sign with various African flags. Unfortunately, I don’t (yet) speak any tribal languages. When the employee asked where I was immigrating from I knew that this wasn’t an average hostel! He was surprised that I did not have papers from the Red Cross and explained that I was the first American, and only womyn, to be staying at this hostel. The hostel was a refugee camp for Somalis. The windows double-locked and there were dead bolts on the door of my single room so I wasn’t afraid. I spent the evening talking with the first Somalis I have ever met. The Somalis explained to me that the Red Cross allows them to come to Madrid for six months to escape their country but they are not able to work while in Madrid. The refugee camp has a dvd player and only three dvds which many of the refugees remained fixated upon for the duration of my stay. The refugees remain in the hostel for six months with nothing to do. I think that they were impressed with my knowledge of Somali politics. I was equally impressed with their stories of fleeing the Aided regime and watching their families be killed by Aided supporters. One of the men showed me scars on his arm from a time he had nearly been captured by Aided’s people. I asked about gun culture in Somalia, khat, and the United Nations and they had interesting stories to tell. I was so glad that I had studied Somalia with Dr. Rutherford at Missouri State University such that I could converse with these people. I was so glad to have been able to speak enough Spanish to convey my ideas and questions. Language truly does open doors. I wonder how many opportunities like this I have missed out on by not speaking the mother tongue.

The next morning I embarked on a long journey through the countryside of Spain. I had layovers in several villages and I got to see much of Spain through the windows of the coach. I saw one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life in the mountains of Jaen. On the coach it felt like I was riding through history- that I was a passive participant in my surroundings. I was able to observe Spain in a natural setting and not as a tourist.

I was really excited to arrive in Cazorla and to begin the programme. I had expected that my colleagues, both Anglo and Spaniard, would be very serious and stuffy but instead found a bunch of really folksy and fun people. I had expected to teach language using rote methods but instead found that the participants improved their English most through participation in casual dinner conversations, nights in the lounge, and theater. We didn’t conjugate verbs; but we did do skits advertising products such as “More than Viagra” and “Perfect Man Cream.” Unlike Spanish classes that I have taken at home where oral presentations are marked by competition and boredom, the Spanish students seemed to all want to improve together. I began to see learning language as something that is fun and allows the knower to have more material for jokes! Together the Anglos and Spaniards shared a lot of laughs and inside jokes. The group really came together as a family and I was very sad to leave my new friends. It was clear to me that there is something within us by virtue of being alive that brings us together and allows us to unify with all people regardless of race or background. I think if more people spent at least a week within a new culture we could create a world of greater understanding and unity. If we are to live in an industrialized world then I believe intercultural programmes are the only way the world can be sustained; we have to do something to weed out indifference.

The difficulty that I had saying goodbye to my colleagues at Pueblo Ingles foreshadowed to me how difficult it will be to say goodbye to England. Though I will always be an American, right now Preston feels like home to me. Every time I fly back into the United Kingdom and can see the lights of Liverpool below me I breathe a sigh of relief of being home. When I pass a “now entering Lancashire county” sign I get a warm tingly feeling inside. Its challenging to accept that most of the people I have come to love in Preston I will never see or even speak to again. I have a false illusion that Skype, Facebook, and snail mail will be enough to maintain relationships but I know that it wont. It is hard to imagine moving to Ghana in less than two months and having to start all over again. There are people I’ve met here that I will think about every day for years. Everyone I have interacted with has on some level left an indelible mark within me. As a result of my time in England when I return to the states I will be a better leader, debater, Model United Nations representative, and person. In my final three weeks in England I will continue to pretend that the relationships I have formed here will never have to come to a close- I think it is best that way.

On a less sad note, it has been especially interesting in my courses this year as students discuss the role of the American government in international affairs. Many of my course mates I feel make very broad generalizations about the actions of my government that have little evidentiary support. I’ve heard people say things like “American’s aren’t political active”, “No one protested Vietnam until five years after the war”, “American’s don’t care about health care”, and “American is full of religious fanatics.” Not only are all of these statements broad generalizations, they are also completely unfounded. I don’t care how much Noam Chomsky my colleagues think they have read, there were definitely protesters of the Vietnam War as soon as the draft was initiated. I am the first to admit the faults of my government, but when people make such evidentiary irresponsible claims I can’t help but be offended. Perhaps I am lost in a daze of patriotism, but these insults hurt just as much as if someone had said these things about my own mother. On the flip side, I struggle making conclusions in my British Politics course about the British Government. When asked to answer questions such as “Should monarchy be preserved in Britain?” I can’t help but realize that everyone else in the classroom has a tie to the queen that I will never feel. I believe that we can come to conclusions on each other’s governments, but we should be aware of the implications of the words that we use to describe our thoughts. I think I have become much more responsible in my speech in the past four months as I feel the critical gaze of my course mates as I place their leaders under the microscope.

Today my family and American friends celebrate Thanksgiving, one of the most important American holidays. I am somewhat opposed to the celebration of Thanksgiving as I feel it is rooted in American imperialism and celebrates the near extermination of a native population… but I do appreciate the chance to say thanks for the things that have blessed us in our lives. I’m thankful for the ability to wake up each day and create for myself exactly the life I want to lead, I’m thankful for the range of emotions that I have experienced this year and what I have learned from them, I’m thankful for my family and our journey through the American Southwest this summer, I’m thankful for every moment I’ve spent really alone and the travel stories I have from traveling alone that I will always laugh to myself about, I’m thankful for the apartment sisters (Jessica, Joslyn, Sahara, Erin, and I) and the adventures we had, I’m thankful for the times I played board games and shared a hotel room with Jarid and Anneli and the long conversations I had with Chris over the summer, I’m thankful for the people who may be oceans away but who still make an effort to stay in touch, I'm thanking for people like Hillary Clinton, Claire McCaskill, and Crystal who are making American politics better day by day, I’m thankful for the generosity of the leaders of the kayaking team to teach me to kayak, I’m thankful for every moment I’ve spent with Lawrence and the ways he has made me into a more actualized person, I’m thankful for nights with Charlotte and the ways she challenges my perceptions of the world, I’m thankful for everyone in Europe who has shared their world with me, I’m thankful for Katie, Stacey, Laura, Cat, Amy, and Amy who are some of the most fun people I’ve ever met, I’m thankful for Carlie who always seems to be able to give the best advice, and for Roni and every lunch we have made together, I’m thankful for the people I have met while traveling and the sunsets that I have been witness too, I’m thankful for every randomer who has been willing to engage in conversation with me and who has taught me something about the world that they experience, and most importantly I’m thankful that I have too many things for which to be thankful.

I have twenty days remaining in England of which I will spend time in Italy and Greece. I hope to spend the rest studying, writing papers, kayaking, swimming, and being with the people that I care about.

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