Friday, January 22, 2010
Stories from Spain for the leaders of New Jersey Educational programs
Yesterday I told some of my stories to the leaders of our NJ state education programs. I told them about how Joe and I made a pact to speak no English during our first year of marriage in Salamanca, Spain.
What normal person does this? Who thinks it’s a good idea to stop speaking one’s native language in order to learn a new one? Joe and I have always been a little “out of the box” which is better than saying “weird” although, we’ve been called it.
Here I was a newlywed on a journey to my new world. I had no clue what to expect. I missed my mom and dad as soon as the plane took off over the Atlantic Ocean. Getting married was one thing, but leaving absolutely everything was quite another. But, I was in love and love makes you do strange things.
You have to remember that this was 1978 and in that time, in ancient history, there were no cell phones or Internet connections home. A letter meant a striped tri-fold piece of tissue paper sent by airmail. You’d be squeezing your last word onto the edges hoping that it wouldn’t get torn off when the recipient opened it.
I like telling stories and this love has saved me as a teacher. In a classroom, it’s like we have this fire in the center with the students gathered around listening and taking their turns to talk and share. Together, we make a tribe.
Well, the tribe I walked into in the Spain of 1978 wasn’t the same one I’d left behind in New Jersey. Not only did people in Salamanca speak Spanish, but they ate odd food like chorizo and other more challenging items like tripa, made from the delectable innards of the Iberian swine. I need you to know that I went to Salamanca as a vegetarian, but that didn’t last long at all.
We moved into the Pension Macarena with Marisol and Pepe and the first meal that Pepe, our innkeeper, slammed down was Morcilla, a lovely little blood sausage. It looked small and brown and fried. My rule before going to Spain was to be totally open to the culture, but this item did not look edible! I played with my olive oil soaked egg and sopped up the yoke. Next I ate some bread and limp salad.
“Come la morcilla,” said Pepe, “es muy bueno - es del pueblo.” So, this morcilla stuff was right from the village. Hmm.
I obey and pick up my fork, pierce the crusty circle and pop it into my mouth. I taste garlic and a smooth texture in the middle of the crunchy edges. If I didn’t know what I was eating, I would have liked it a lot.
“Es bueno,” I say. “Good.”
Pepe grins and goes back into the kitchen to rattle pans. Saturnino, the pensioner, rips off a piece of bread and Jose Miguel, the bullfighter in training, nods and gestures with his hand for me to eat more.
Stories. Now, this little scene represents about five minutes of the four years Joe and I spent in Spain, back in its transition to democracy, but sometimes eating a bit of local food is the best way to enter into local culture. When I learned to eat with the Spaniards, the words came faster. Plus, if your mouth is full, you can’t be expected to talk!
Yesterday, the people who represent our higher education community seemed to like my stories and were open and excited about learning. I could tell that they have quite a few of their own, which I hope to hear one day.
Because when I hear a story, I want to hear more. What did you feel when you did that? Was it what you expected? Did you want to get out of there? Were you the happiest ever in your whole life? Why?
When I was small, I would sit down in the living room at my father’s knee and beg him for his stories. What did your apartment in Hell’s kitchen look like? Can you draw it for me? Where was the teapot? What was your exact routine when you came home from school? Who was there in your house? What did it smell like?
I would close my eyes tightly and see it all. I saw the bathtub where my grandfather brewed beer. I saw the metal teapot on the iron stove and the endless corridor with the boys’ bedrooms along it. I could hear my grandmother’s Irish accent as she shooed the boys into their bedrooms to change from their school clothes.
For me, cultures are just gathered stories and traditions. We people all make up our own words and we dress in special clothes that remind us of times gone by. We agree to honor the mysteries of the universe in our own way. I think if we see things that way, it makes everything a lot simpler to understand. It also makes us more curious to listen to each other.
Sometimes you don’t have to fly to travel far away.