Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Last Update

Hello from the United States.

I've been home for a week and a half now, and realizing that I never got to the end of my time in Spain, I figured I should get the last bit out.

My last week in Madrid was a bit crazy.  My internship had a conference that we had been preparing for the vast majority of my time there.  It was to discuss responses to alleged biological weapons attacks, as was done in conjunction with the Council of the European Union (that's sort of the EU equivalent of the Senate, but unelected with multiple configurations) and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs in Geneva.  The fact that three different bodies, all with very distinct operating procedures, were working on one project meant that it was absurdly difficult to organize and assign tasks.  Fortunately, we were only in charge of the local logistics, like hotel, food, and venue, but that didn't stop us from having more than a few conflicts, especially with the people in Geneva.  While it was infuriating at the time, it was an interesting experience in cultural differences.  My coworkers were surprisingly laid back about the whole affair, which unnerved me, but ended up being the best choice considering that, at the last minute, the roof of our conference room collapsed at the first restaurant made impossible demands.

My chief role at the conference was to be the lead English speaker for our organization.  Although the director, Vicente, spoke English reasonably well, he was often occupied with other things and did not know the logistical aspect.  The other real employee, Sandra, spoke in partial sentences in what sounded like a Russian accent, though she seemed to understand it well.  The other intern, Dona, made a good effort, but was largely limited to asking people how they were, smiling agreeably, and then promising that the next time they met, she would speak much better.  They left me to sorting out problems and concerns, which was surprisingly enjoyable.

The sessions were somewhat interesting, but tended to have a bit too much disarmament jargon for me.  Unlike other fields, technical diplomatic jargon tends to use common phrases, like "capacity building", but uses them to imply specific scenarios.  To listen it without knowing the context, it sounds like people are purposefully using the vaguest terms possible, but in reality, they are hashing out particular arrangements.  As a result, people tend to have arguments over wordings that seem semantic, put actually convey a great deal of meaning.  For instance, I heard one discussion over whether the conference title should have been "alleged use" or "alleged misuse", since the biological agents could be used potentially in peaceful ways, which was obscured by "use".  "Misuse", however, implied that it was know whether the outbreak was caused by peaceful or non-peaceful uses, which is usually not the case.  No resolution was reached, but all parties agreed that "alleged" was poorly chosen in that it was too accusatory.

Given that biological disarmament isn't my field, one of the best parts for me was the meals.  Given that the conference was supposed to reflect well on the Spanish Presidency of the Council (which rotates every half-year), we were tasked with giving the delegates a favorable impression of Spanish culture, a large part of which is food and wine-based.  All the meals were in places I had never been to, and were quite good, but the best part was that the participants were all very social and usually interesting.  I got to discuss Finnish polka, Nick Clegg, the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles, and host of other things.  It was the most English I has spoken in a long time.  We even gave a short tour of the La Latina neighborhood.  Overall, everyone told me that the host logistics were among the best they had seen.

My last few days in Madrid were a bit of a whirlwind, as though the city wanted to remind me that I had a good time.  After recovering from the conference, I had two more nights to get some final things and see the sights one last time.  On my penultimate night, I decided that I would give the discos in Chueca one last shot.  I hadn't been since shortly after I started my internship, when I realized how much I enjoyed sleeping at night rather than staying out until sunrise, especially on weeknights.  I was afraid I had last contact with the friends I had made there, but one of them called as I was getting off the bus, and by time I left, I had run into three of them.  No one was mad at me for disappearing for two months and demanding a last hurrah.  They didn't even argue when I decided to go back before they turned the lights on.  My last night, one of the American delegates from the conference took me out to Botín, which is supposedly the oldest restaurant in the world.  We had a really good time and when we finished eating a traditional musical group came up to play.  One of the guys was from my econ class, and though we had never talked before, he came over to say hello, talk about the class, and exchange information.  It almost made me feel like I knew a lot of people, even if that is completely untrue.

So, now I'm back in the states.  I've been spending two weeks in New Jersey before I head up to Providence to work on my preliminary thesis reading, begin planning for next year, and try to find something else productive to do.  Being back in the U.S. has been fantastic.  Other than seeing so many people I know, I've missed the convenience, the friendliness, and the informality of American life.  At the risk of sounding like I've become deeply conservative (as many have accused me recently), this is really an extraordinary country.  The fact that many Americans define themselves not by a common history or ethnicity, but by a commitment to shared ideals is really remarkable after a semester in Spain.  On a more practical scale, I love that the waitress is nice to me, that the drug store has hundreds of varieties of men's stick deodorant instead of one or two, and that it is socially acceptable to not just sit and talk in a coffee shop, but also to read or take a cup to drink while walking.  As much as the politics of the early to mid 2000's made "freedom" a polarizing word, it is a concept that is embraced by daily American society in a way is both profound and mundane.

So far, I've had no serious incidents of reintegration shock.  It's a little weird not speaking to service people in Spanish and whenever I walk by someone talking in a Latin American dialect, I always think how strange it sounds.  My dreams have been increasingly in Spanish, though I'm not quite sure why.  Though I've gotten a little wistful at some videos from a Spanish friend on Facebook, I'm not quite up to missing my time abroad.  I'm sure it will happen, but right now I'm just enjoying rediscovering my home.

Given what I've seen on other study abroad blogs, this is the point where I'm supposed to say something profound about how my experience abroad changed me.  This is where I get a bit lost.  In my mind, one of the most profound parts of living in Spain was how banal it could when I wasn't traveling or doing something "cultural".  It sometimes seems like the assumption in going abroad in the U.S. is that it will be exotic: things will be weird and new and exciting and you will gain some sort of insight from living in a strange land.  I think this is largely because we as a society travel so little.  In Erasmus, the European study abroad system, the assumption is that one studies abroad because it's a nice break that looks good on your resume.  You'll meet some cool people, see some interesting places, and go to some good parties.  There's really no underlying assumption of immersion, because it's not seen all that differently from an American going to "immerse" themself in the culture of California.  While it may be easy to say that the Europeans are just more similar to one another, that often isn't the case.

While I've tried, especially in this blog, to focus on new cultural experiences, the truth of the matter is that life in Spain is just a life.  There's nothing magical or romantic about it; it's just different.  In some ways, the experience was really defined by focusing on the cultural aspects, and I could write a similar blog about my life in the States.  In many ways, I think this was the most important note I've taken from my trip.  It taught be to be on guard against exoticism and realize the role that culture plays in everyone's life.

In conclusion, I want to thank whoever has been reading this blog for doing so.  I really enjoyed the experience of writing it, and I hope that you were able to share in some of the fun I was having.  It was a great experience for me (both the trip and writing about it).

Hasta luego.

2 comments:

  1. It's been great reading your blog, and I see that your observations will probably be very similar to mine when I go home. I still have three weeks before I touch down in the States again, and I have to say that I am looking forward to the moment so so so much. I know that there's a lot here I will miss, but at this point, I think I'm ready to be done "adventuring" and just...go back to the things I always took for granted and will now discover anew. Gotta love America.

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