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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Kayaking and York

At the risk of sounding repetitive, it has been another great week in Europe! My classes are picking up a bit and I’m really glad that I got such a head start on my papers. Last Thursday I celebrated Bonfire day (Guy Fawkes Day) with my flatmates and our friends. The celebrations associated with Guy Fawkes Day seem to be very similar to those associated with American Independence Day. There were bonfires and fireworks all around the city and the celebration lasted a few days. We went for a long walk around Preston and surrounding cities watching fireworks as we walked.

Friday morning I went into the laboratory to observe my Ecology professor conduct research on earthworms. It was really interest to see the results and progress of decades of research. My professor is one of the leading earthworm researchers in the world. He taught me a lot about the various species and showed me some earthworms that were far larger than what I had seen in the United States. He told me about ways that earthworms divide into new species and that upon reintroduction can sometimes merge two species into one. Humynkind too may have at one point become multiple species and then became merged back together. I’m really interested in the study of speciesism which addresses the normative tendency of humynkind to place humans above other species. If humyns were at one point divided into two different species it seems evident to me that the barrier between a humyn and another species is very small.

I spent most of the weekend on a kayak trip with the University of Central Lancashire Kayak Club of which I am a part. We camped in Hexham, England and kayaked the Tyne River most notably through Warden’s Gorge. It was really cold outside but the trip was one of the most fun weekends I have had since I’ve been in Europe. On the second day the water levels were kind of low and there were hundreds of huge rocks to dodge. This weekend was the first time that I had kayaked rapids which was a great experience. I was so scared during parts of the trip! I swam once: I got pinned on a rock and then pulled myself off it and got stuck on another rock with a fellow teammate. She flipped my boat over and I went through part of the rapids upside down until I caught myself on a rock and waited for help; the adrenaline rush was amazing. On the third day we kayaked the same stretch of the river, the water was much higher and the waves seemed enormous. The stretch seemed a lot easier and our coach explained that “we were just more experienced and better.” I made it all the way through the difficult parts of the river without swimming but then ran into a concrete wall and got sucked under a tree, it was embarrassing! I wouldn’t have had to swim if I had made a decision; sometimes making any decision is better than making no decision. At night our team hung out in the car park playing a game called “Tally Ho” and Hide and go Seek. It was a great weekend. I was really impressed by the camaraderie of the group and how kind all of the older members seemed to be. The team leadership did most of the work loading the trailer and van and the chairperson woke up first each morning to make breakfast for everyone. Someone was always offering to help me carry my kayak and there was a general spirit of working for the common good that I don’t always see in clubs in the United States. I’ve learned a lot about leadership from observing the leaders of the kayak club. My arms and legs are covered in bruises from the weekend. My flatmates were disgusted by the blue-nature of my upper arm. I’m kind of proud of the bruises, they show that I did something really cool this weekend. I’m so glad that I randomly decided to start kayaking. It is so impressive to me that people who have never before been in a kayak can just show up and join the kayak team and be given so much instruction and attention. The leadership of the kayak team is very selfless and funnels so much time into novice members of the team. Most of the really good kayakers want to someday be kayak instructors and I know that they will be good at their trade. I really respect the good kayakers on the team.

On Monday my friend Carlie Wardell and I went to York. I was much impressed by the city and its Roman and Viking ruins. We saw a humyn turd that had been preserved from the Viking days and an ancient Roman pillar. We toured the Jorvik Viking Center, the Castle, and saw the York Minster. We had a nice lunch in a local pub too and chatted about our upcoming trip to Greece. We learned that in the tower of the castle we toured 150 Jewish people had burned themselves to death 900 years ago so that they wouldn’t be tortured. It was eerie to see the burn marks on the concrete and imagine the thought process that led to those decisions, the experience foreshadowed for me how I’m sure I will feel while touring concentration camps later in the year.

One of my minor courses of study in the United States is “Womyn’s Studies” and I have enjoyed exploring gender through the perspective of another culture. Unlike the United States, Britain has equality in pay between the genders, equality in voter turnout, the NHS provides free birth control, and maternity leave is significantly longer. Womyn are treated so differently here than in the United States. I’ve seen so many examples of British womyn who challenge all gender standards. As awkward as it is to talk about people over a blog… my friend Charlotte is one of those womyn. Charlotte is gorgeous, a bright student of Outdoor Leadership, volunteered in Ghana, a killer kayaker, a great dancer, and a soldier. She tells me stories of telling off cheeky boys in the military and isn’t afraid to tell people where to go. She is one of those womyn who has conquered the world and seems to be good at everything. She is one of the people that I have met in England that I really hope to remain friends with for years to come. Womyn here seem to be able to participate in any field they choose and are respected for their contributions. In my experience, chivalry is present in England but is not a guise for lust as it sometimes is in the United States. Humyn relationships just seem a lot easier in the English social setting!

Tomorrow I head out to Madrid to participate in a program called “Pueblo Ingles” wherein I will foster intercultural communication between native English speakers and Spaniards in the international relations setting. It should be fun!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Norway, Sweden, and Manchester

“I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and
danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life” –Tolstoy

Life never seems to slow down! I spent the past weekend in Norway and in Sweden exploring two very eccentric cultures and beautiful landscapes. It was interesting to see how homogenous the population of Scandinavia seemed, locals explained to me that Norway is very resistant toward immigrants which helps to preserve the unique nature of the population. As I found in Holland, the native languages of Norway and Sweden seem to be dying as fluency in English becomes more and more necessary. While globalization enhances our ability to understand new cultures it also erodes the very presence of those cultures. While I would consider myself very much in favour of immigration it was interesting to see a community that has maintained its historic genealogy.

I toured the Resistance Museum housed within the National Castle. The Museum chronicles the efforts of Norway to resist German occupation and then to support the Allied cause during World War 2. I had never before realized what a significant role Norway had played in World War 2 history. It was shocking to see images of the Nazi flag flying over the city in which I had spent my weekend. I can’t imagine the bravery of the Norwegian people as they hoped and prayed that once again their country would be liberated. Since I have been in Britain I have developed a considerable amount of respect for the British military and especially their role in World War 2.

In Norway I also toured the Nobel Peace Museum which contained an exhibit equating Barack Obama to Martin Luther King Jr. I found a picture in the exhibit of Senator McCaskill with Obama which brought back fond memories. I’ve found a resounding sentiment of support for Obama throughout Europe. Though I have some personal disagreements with some of his policies, I am absolutely convinced that image of the United States abroad has significantly increased since the Obama administration. Though it is unsubstantiated evidence, friends who studied abroad during the Bush administration have told me of being treated far differently than is my experience and I think that a part of that is the Obama presidency. The United States is not the country that we were even one year ago.

From Oslo I took the train to Karlstad Sweden to visit my friend Liz who is studying through the same program of which I am a part in Sweden. Even though we are a part of the same program there were some major differences between our experiences. It was neat witnessing someone else’s experience while studying away. Liz lives with other international students who all get together each night for family dinner. I loved the communal spirit of the group. One night we had traditional German food and the following night made sushi together. I am very fascinated with communal living and would like to experience it someday. At night we shared travel stories and sang along to folk music on the guitar. I think my favourite four things to do are paint, canoe/kayak, play board games, and participate in sing-a-longs. I love the way that people come together over a guitar, I really wish that I were able to play.

On my second day in Sweden I went for a hike with some of Liz’s friends through the nearby woods. The views in the woods were lovely and I loved hearing the sound of the birds and woodpeckers, sounds that I don’t experience that often in Preston! On our hike we came across a village situated in the woods with signs of life but no people. We hopped the fence and explored a bit. We found some foot prints and even a house that was stocked with food but could not find any people. It was a bit scary.

It was really nice to have a chance to chat with Liz about the ways we have grown and changed since leaving Missouri. I discovered things about her that we had in common and developed a connection with her of which I wasn’t previously aware. We discussed ways that being abroad has helped us shed new light on concerns or issues that we felt we had in the United States. Travel and distance really are the best medicines. I am happier than I ever realized was possible in England. I feel in control of my life and have matured since my arrival. I don’t think I am the same person that I was over the summer, returning to Missouri will be very challenging and the relationships that I have there will not be the same.

I spent the first part of this weekend visiting my friends Roni and Guy Samuels in Manchester. On Friday night I had Sabbath dinner with their family. It was very interesting to see people operate within a different religious setting and also to see the setup of their kitchen with separate areas for dishes that hold meat and cheese. Roni and Guy’s grandfather is a Holocaust survivor and I was on the edge of my seat as he accounted for some of his experiences in the camps. I have always wanted to meet a Holocaust survivor and am lucky to have had the opportunity. We played many games of Backgammon and Othello and spent Halloween morning playing a very intense game of Risk. Guy and Roni were formidable opponents. In the afternoon we visited a friend of Roni’s for a birthday party and went to a nightclub to celebrate Halloween. I wore a cheeky Uncle Sam costume.

A friend loaned me a copy of the book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer which has become one of my favourite books. The lead character, Chris, leaves his Emory education and wealthy family behind as he explores the wilderness of Alaska. In some ways I kind of feel like Chris; I am alone in a sense exploring a land previously unknown to me, and I have a fixed place to live but am also a nomad. I am struggling between so many different choices for what to do this summer and in general how to live my life. I have found a way to study abroad next year in Mexico and in China and am very interested in the possibility yet the chance also frightens me. I explained my fears to Liz in Sweden and she retorted “if you’re going to let a fear of not having friends in Springfield stop you then you’re not the person I thought you were.” She’s right. Life just seems to be a game of infinite opportunities of which I must select a choice and be happy with the opportunity cost. The future is very bright, I will be happy in whichever direction I choose to tread. Below are some quotes from the book that stuck a note for me:

*”He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight. “-James Joyce
*”It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found. God it’s great to be alive! Thank you. Thank you.” –Chris
*”The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched” –Thoreau
*”But for some reason incomprehensible to me you wanted to bolt for home as quickly as possible, right back to the same situation which you see day after day after day. I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover. Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon.’ –Chris
*”It may, after all, be the bad habit of creative talents to invest themselves in pathological extremes that yield remarkable insights but no durable way of life for those who cannot translate their psychic wounds into significant art or thought” –Theodor Roszak
*”The physical domain of the country had its counterpart in me. The trails I made led outward into the hills and swamps, but they led inward also. And from the study of things underfoot, and from reading and thinking, come a kind of exploration, myself and the land. In times the two became one in my mind. “ –John Haines
*”I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor- such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps- what more can the heart of a man desire?” –Tolstoy
*”There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times. “ –Annie Dillard