That was the beginning of many beautiful friendships.
In June, I was invited to join twenty-four students and two colleagues (social studies teacher, Taborri Bruhl, and aforementioned Patricia Alonso), for Rutland High School’s travel to Pont de Suert to complete the loop of our brand new international exchange program. Our welcome in Spain was much grander than the modest late-night reception in Vermont. Our hosts had taken their final exams in advance, so they could be excused from school to meet us at the Barcelona airport—banner in hands—and to whisk us off in an air-conditioned tour bus for a beachfront lunch of paella and a revitalizing dip in the Mediterranean Sea.
On the first morning we visited the high school, and in small groups RHS students cycled through classrooms offering presentations about our school and Vermont to those who had not been able to visit us the previous fall. It was interesting to see what our presenters chose to highlight: Ben & Jerry’s, maple products, Raider football and our version of the “Shake it off” video (demonstrating our school spirit) were frequent inclusions. Afterward our students teamed up with their hosts and headed off on a scavenger hunt in order to get acquainted with the village and to practice communicating. They had to walk to various agencies and record the answers of the employees to specific prompts or visit certain landmarks and fill in answers based on their observations at those sites. Theoretically, the Americans were supposed to be asking all the questions, but the learning curve was too steep for the first day and the Spanish students pitched in to expedite the process. The Americans got their bearings while discovering the library, the old and new churches, the municipal center, the youth center and the immigration center…and they stopped at a local market to stock up on water. Water was the source of some anxiety—especially in the heat and with the exertion of the outdoor activities that we undertook. Many were apprehensive about drinking water to which they were not accustomed, despite the local reassurances that it was perfectly fine. As chaperones we were on alert for signs of dehydration throughout the trip.
Communication, in general, was a zigging and zagging experience. Our students did get braver and better at expressing themselves in Spanish as the hours and days passed. Oddly enough, however, Spanish was not only a second language for the Americans but it was also the second language for most of the residents of Pont de Suert. Catalan, the co-official language of the region, was the first and preferred language of most of the families and merchants.
Back in Vermont, before I had met our “intercambio” counterparts, I had wondered about the practicality of setting up an exchange with folks whose first language wasn’t even one that we taught at RHS. Yet while hiking, kayaking, dancing, cooking, eating, laughing, playing and traveling with these folks, while seamlessly navigating from one language to another, I was convinced of the merits of reaching for this connection.
My host father, Pere, spoke Catalan, Spanish and was eager to practice his English. His wife Pilar, spoke Spanish, had learned Catalan when she moved to Pont de Suert and had studied French as a second language in school. Their son and daughter spoke Catalan and were learning Spanish in school. I have studied and taught both French and Spanish but could only make inferences from written Catalan. When it was spoken, I could only understand if the utterances were heavily supported by obvious gestures. Our conversations were rich, collaborative, sometimes redundant (as portions were retranslated to others) and driven by the genuine desire to understand and be understood. We collectively reached for whatever language would serve our particular thought and urgency of the moment. Often sentences would have no linguistic integrity and would start in one language and conclude in another. Much information (and probably some misinformation) was transmitted but we weren’t actively conscious of how much. And my time spent with my family was warm and intimate as a result of the insatiable desire to communicate and to know one another—no matter the challenges.
This talent was not exclusive to my host family either. Whether we were at the school or on our outings to the national park and to a beautiful gorge, we were surrounded by polyglots. Our companions were versed in English, French, Spanish, Catalan, German, Italian and even in some of the more obscure heritage languages of the region. Their proficiency with languages was impressive and humbling.
- Water was not something to take for granted.
- It was much lighter for much longer in the evening. (It turns out that Spain changed from its “natural” solar time zone according to its longitudinal position to the Central European time zone during WW II to align with German occupied Europe and it has remained so since. Some say that this has contributed to Spain’s unusual late meals and sleep schedules.)
- Screens were very rare on exterior windows and doors.
- Classrooms were almost all identical and functional but unadorned.
- The gymnasium was very small and there were no organized school sports.
- “Just another ten minutes” would describe things that would often take many multiples of that.
- The meals were very meat-centric in this region.
- The meals were not a light or as spaced out as had been represented (perhaps due to our presence as guests?
- Youth gatherings took place in public venues or even in the streets rather in private dwellings, which tended to be smaller and not able to accommodate groups.
- The churches were relatively empty. There were not as many practicing Catholics as there once were.
- The roads were scary by American standards, twisting and narrow with steep drop-offs, carved into the mountains
- Outsiders viewed American culture as crime-filled and plagued with gun violence. This observation came up frequently in conversation and was a big fear that our hosts had about traveling to the US. (Even as we tried to reassure them that they would be safe, some of the highlighted US news that we encountered while we were away dealt with armed escaped prisoners and another separate fatal shooting back at home.
- Crossing the border from Spain to France for a day trip was a non-event. Former check points were circumvented with new paving and stood like relics on abandoned lanes. There was no requirement for even a stop, a nod or conversation on the highways over the mountain, even for us as non-European Union passengers. Nada. Nothing. No one noticed. No one cared. Once we were in the EU, we were in. The only evidence that we had passed from one country to another was the change in the guard rail system. (This is a poignant contrast to our own lines at the Vermont/ Canadian border as well as to the news reports of desperate refugees from war-torn regions outside of the EU being thwarted from gaining access to some European countries.)
As night falls they build bonfires with which to ignite large, heavy wooded torches that were made or purchased for the occasion. Participants then perch the torches over their shoulders (fully engulfed in flames emitting impressive heat) and carry them, winding along the mountain path in the dark, guided by the light of the torch in front of them and by the sound of massive cow bells that some of the celebrants wear. They are urged to keep the distance consistent and tight between carriers. Many wear padding in their clothing to protect them from both the weight and heat of the torches. Some wear special protective head gear to keep their hair from singing from the sparks. Viewers get to watch what appears to be a twinkling, undulating serpent sliding down the hillside. This year’s festival saw some 300 people on the descent.
Each village in the region boasts that its festival is the best. Some celebrate on the eve of St. John the Baptist; others on the night of. Therefore, visitors can have multiple experiences. In Pont de Suert, I participated in an early evening version for the children…
Remembering this ritual from a couple of months out now is easier than approaching it in real time as a member of the team of chaperones. When the trip was organized, we were aware of the festival and agreed that it would be an interesting experience to incorporate into our visit. In theory, from afar, we were imagining our group watching it, as temporary, honorary members of the community…as engaged on-lookers. When we became immersed in the culture, however, it became clear that both Americans and Spaniards were eager to expand the participation. As chaperones, nevertheless, there were important questions to be answered:
- Did the rewards outweigh the risks (of possible injury to persons or property)?
- Did our students understand the meaning and purpose of the tradition enough to enter into it with respect or were they merely seeking a thrill disconnected to the custom?
- Would they be displacing another member of the host family by participating?
- Would it create an additional expense for the family?
- Would there be drinking as a part of the evening?
- Were they fit enough to carry the enormous flaming torches the entire way? (Most of the adults, who were inviting participation, had practiced this since they were very young.)
- If we declined the invitation, would it be considered rude?
- Had we adequately described the nature of the event to the parents in the States during our transatlantic communiqués with them when requesting their explicit permission to let their children participate?
- Wasn’t opening yourself up to new experiences part of the philosophy and adventure of travel?
- Might we prevent them from a creating the memory of a lifetime by being too careful?
And they were worthy of our trust.