Tag Archives: Languages

Travel at the Speed of Thought

For the past few days, I was reminded that, even close to home, one can immerse oneself in cultures that seem very different from one’s own. In this case, I’m not referring to an ethnic culture. In our everyday life, we encounter cultures built around occupations, or interests, or dispositions. Often they have their own specialized languages – sometimes we call them “jargon.”

Visiting such a culture can create an experience very similar to visiting a foreign land: our curiosity is piqued; we have to pay attention to a language we may understand only slightly; we’re trying to understand how they “do things here.” Just like visiting a new place, this can bring presence, aliveness, and excitement.

Can you travel into this young man's thoughts?  Try it!

Can you travel into this man’s world? Try it!

I hope to be able to write about my recent “trip” before long, but I have not yet processed its many inputs, so it will have to wait. But there are many ways to travel.

I was reminded of an exercise I did a few years ago. I was shown a random photo of an elderly woman standing in front of her barn, and instructed to put myself in her mind. It was a fascinating exercise, and I felt as if I’d traveled to another time and place.

If you want to give it a try, grab a photo somewhere, or use this one.  Don’t think about it too much.  Just do it. Let me know how it goes.

Meanwhile, here’s what the elderly woman was thinking…

Remembrance Day

Shutter’s broken outside the guest room, Jim. Heard it banging away in the gale last night. Guess you’ll have to take a look if it’s fair tomorrow.

Oh, what am I saying! You’ve been gone these six years now. Won’t likely be doing any more fixing for me, I suppose. If I can’t do anything with it, I’ll have to give Pat a call and see if her Roger can come over with his toolbox.

Haven’t seen so much of Pat and Roger lately. I figure they’ve got other things to attend to. Roger’s fixing up that back bedroom so there’ll be more room at Christmas. You know, they’ve got seven grandkids now. The youngest came just last Spring – cute as a little garden mouse he is. Bit of a handful already, if you ask me. Must have known that when they named him after our Tommy.

Damn! Just spilled tea leaves all over. Let me get a broom and set things right…

He would have been fifty the other night. Our Tommy fifty! Can you believe it, Jim? He would have married that nice girl Selena when he got back. There’d be grandkids. Maybe great-grandkids, cute as that little garden-mouse grandson of Pat’s: a house-full of happiness to keep the memories in their proper place.

I sometimes can’t believe I ever turned fifty myself. But I remember the day like I could smell it. You came in the door with that parcel all wrapped up, and told me we were going to the city for the weekend. Surprised me completely, you did, booking that fancy hotel room down by the river. And it was a beautiful sweater you gave me, even if it was the warmest night of the year. I used to feel you next to my skin when I was wearing it.

But that was a long time ago. I found that sweater in the bottom drawer after you’d gone, when I was cleaning up. I didn’t want to get rid of it, but I figured the memory needed to move on. Besides, it didn’t fit any more.

Some memories won’t move on, though, Jim. Not that I haven’t tried to make them. You remember that crazy song about American Pie that Tommy used to play on the record player all the time? He used to dance around the room – called it dancing, anyway – and sing about Chevies and levees and something about a day for dying. A catchy sort of tune, I guess, though it sure went on. Sometimes, when it gets real quiet here of an evening, I swear I can still hear it playing in the other room.

Got a letter from Pat’s boy Alec the other day. He was going on about some Christmas truce back in World War One. Said for four months, the soldiers on both sides refused to fight. Found they had more in common with each other than with their commanders. Alec wondered how it would have been if he and the other boys had refused to fight. Made me real mad to read that. I didn’t want to write back to him for days.

He’s a good boy, though, Jim. Just wants a future for those little nephews of his.

Alec came back from the War kind of all turned around, you know? Didn’t smile so much – laughed a bit louder than he used to. Started hanging around with those peace groups. I know you thought he was disloyal. God’s sake, maybe we both blamed him for coming back at all!

Wait a minute! I’m so distracted tonight I forgot to plug in the kettle. There! Got it. Now where was I? Oh, yes.

Jim, this is going to be hard. You won’t like it, but you’ve just got to hear me out.

I think Alec’s right, Jim. It wasn’t right what happened. Wasn’t right that Tommy’s life got used up that way. He wasn’t just a means to some do-gooder’s dreams. He was a living, breathing boy of 19, with a whole damn life ahead of him! He never got a chance to move on past 19. He just got stuck there for me. I aged, we aged – and we had to move on. But Tommy couldn’t go with us. I guess that’s what a life stolen from you feels like. All that time, we were growing and changing and tasting life. And Tommy was still singing about American Pie.

What’s that, Jim? Yes, it’s just a little water in my eye. You know, he would have been fifty the other night.

There, see what you’ve made me do! I’ve gone and put too much water in teapot again.

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Travel, Allophilia, and World Peace

From time to time, I ask myself “What is this thing about travel? It’s a lot of hard work, and usually costs more than staying home. So why do we do it?”

The answer usually isn’t long in coming: I’ve enjoyed and profited by the different perspective that meeting other cultures provides. Travel is one of my favourite activities for satisfying my incessant curiosity. It engages me fully: most of the time when I’m visiting some place new, I find myself solidly in the present moment. And in every culture I’ve visited, I’ve found some aspect I like better than my own.

Similarly, learning other languages has let me see where my own language constrains my view of reality. Knowing different ways of thinking gives a certain freedom from one’s own unconscious inherited biases. Plus you get a whole new set of proverbs.

Hiroshima destroyed

Destructed Hiroshima with autograph of “Enola Gay” Bomber pilot Paul Tibbets

Recently, I got to thinking about the connection between international travel and world peace: “See the world, while helping to prevent World War III!”

A possible WWIII had been one of my personal bugbears since watching – in my teen years – a 1960s documentary depicting the horrors of an atomic attack. With the war in Vietnam heating up, it didn’t seem so far-fetched. The decades that followed offered little indication that wars were going out of style: the Cambodian civil war, the Iran-Iraq War, the Rwandan genocide, the Afghan conflicts, the war on Iraq, the Ugandan civil war punctuate a long list of lesser conflicts. Today there is conflict in the Ukraine, not to mention ISIS. The world’s nuclear missiles have yet to be mothballed.

Hiroshima injuries

Hiroshima, Japan. 1945-08. Hiroshima street scene after the dropping of the atomic bomb of 1945-08-06

Still, being anti-war brings a certain negativity to life. Is there more to peace than just the absence of war? I was pondering this recently and wondered if the growing discipline of positive psychology had been applied to this question.

An internet search for “world peace” together with “positive psychology” led me to discover a new word: “allophila.” The neologism was coined by Todd Pittinsky, the author of “Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” when he realized there was no word to describe the opposite of “prejudice” or “intolerance.” Tolerance, the absence of intolerance, was not really it. There had to be a word for more “positive attitudes of behaviors towards the members of another group.”

Us Plus Them

“Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” by Pittinsky

In Dr. Pittinsky’s research, it turns out that decreasing intolerance does not equate to increasing allophilia. Furthermore, high allophilia seems to be much better at guaranteeing peace than does mere tolerance. As we’ve seen recently in several world hotspots, political demagogues have been able to wipe out years of tolerance in short order, sending formerly peaceful societies into internecine warfare. Perhaps what was missing was a higher degree of allophilia, manifested in terms of curiosity, comfort, engagement, and even kinship, affection and enthusiasm for members of other groups.

What organizations, I wondered, were fostering curiosity, engagement or enthusiasm for other cultures?

The obvious first answer was the original hospitality exchange, Servas International. Founded in aftermath of WWII by an American conscientious objector, the mission of Servas is “to help build world peace, goodwill and understanding by providing opportunities for personal contacts among people of different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities.” Their system of “open door” directories made it “possible for people of various nations to make visits to each other’s homes.” Servas now has official UN status and boasts of about 20,000 hosts in about 100 countries. Cheryl and I have been among those opening their doors for the past two decades.

Servas International

Peace through cross cultural understanding

Lately, Servas has been facing some stiff competition from the new Internet hospitality exchanges such as Couchsurfing. The old paper-based organization is having trouble quickly adopting the new technologies used by Internet startups, and their membership is ageing. Travelership is down.

A debate is ongoing about whether these new Internet exchanges represent the same peacebuilding ethic, or whether they’re just about cheap travel. Site names like GlobalFreeloaders and WarmShowers suggest the latter. Cheryl and I decided to join Couchsurfing as well as continue our Servas association. We have hosted and traveled with both organizations. In all cases, we try to adhere to the original vision of cultural interchange: hosts and guests interact like friends, often eating or cooking together. The Servas and Couchsurfing hosts we’ve stayed with have all done the same. It’s not just about accommodation: when we’re in that I-wanna-be-alone mood, we book a hotel or AirBnB.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Meanwhile, while Servas struggles to bring their 100 constituent national organizations into the Internet era, a Servas discussion group within the Couchsurfing site expresses two opposing views. The first tries to encourage Couchsurfers to adopt the more allophilic perspective of Servas. The second suggests this was never the intention, nor should it be. We hope the former view predominates – although we never discount the value of free accommodation.

And while travelers may view a hospitality exchange as merely a cheap way to travel, it’s hard to see what hosts get out of offering free room and board if it’s not the opportunity to connect with people from other lands and cultures. So perhaps the allophilic spirit is alive and well in the new Internet world.

Santiago de Cuba

Our boys jamming with a couple of local musicians in Santiago de Cuba (circa 2006)

Will it help? Is WWIII becoming less likely because of the humble hospitality exchange? Perhaps these words from the founder of Servas provide a clue.

“This story is not only about the beginning of Servas but the awakening of a mind on a slow overland trip from Norway to India. Confrontations with divergent cultures replaced my colored glasses with an often diamond clear vision. An ever deepening awareness from immersion in diverse ways of life shook up my ingrained assumptions. From shades of gray suddenly rainbow colors burst into my consciousness. Freed from the shackles of my upbringing and a classic American mentality I began to soar with the perspective of a global citizen. The human community emerged as a magic quilt of life styles and manners of thinking and living, a single tapestry of myriad designs unfolding before me.

“Shifting from a tourist absorbing scenic vistas to a traveler actively searching the central ideas of cultures happens gradually. At first the subtle thought/observation changes are unnoticeable. Then one discovers that a once passive and barely opened mind has blossomed into an inquisitive flower hungry for pollination. As I learned to listen with empathy, the most humble persons from distant corners of the globe became my mentors, pulling me into undreamed of chambers of thoughts and insights. I was no longer a touring observer looking in but a participant savoring many ways of life.”

Near Plitvice

Near Plitvice Park in Croatia, a 1990s war memorial stands guard over a bombed out home.

As I continue my investigation of this new concept, I have a question for you: which organizations are you aware of fostering world peace through intercultural allophilia?

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Question:

Which organizations foster world peace through intercultural allophilia? Please leave a comment below.

Keeping Travel Alive between Trips

A couple of friends remarked recently, “Haven’t seen much about travel at ‘No Pension, Will Travel.’  Sounds like no pension, no travel.

Yes, it’s true.  I’ve been writing about almost every other aspect of our journey these days.  Cheryl and I were lamenting that – as we are still both working – all of our vacation time is spoken for this year, and our first trip longer than a weekend isn’t until late June.  So how do we keep travel alive when we’re not traveling?

There’s the usual travel-related tasks such as budgeting for the next trip – a lot more exciting than paying for the last one!  Or trying to find the cheapest way from Rome to Rio.  (If you don’t let the shenanigans of the airline and other travel sites drive you crazy!)  Planning a vacation is often listed as one of the top ways to improve your mood.  We’ve discovered quite a few others.

Canoeing in Croatia's National Plitvice Park - photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Canoeing in Croatia’s National Plitvice Park – photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Most of our upcoming trips are with groups of various sizes.  Following our resolution made on our cycling trip in Provence, we pulled together an ad hoc group of 16 people for a week of cycling in Croatia.  This has given us lots of excuses to get together with fun-loving people and talk about the upcoming trip.  Half of the original group of 16 decided to add on another week of exploring Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, so we met at the coordinator’s home for spaghetti, wine, and a little bit of travel planning.  With eight people, we have enough to make a custom itinerary cost-effective.  In the next month or so, we hope to get all 16 together for dinner as some of us have yet to meet.

Arranging accommodation through services such as Servas, Couchsurfing and AirBnB has given us another way to start a trip months before liftoff.  Once we’ve booked something, we often find the host happy to talk about our upcoming visit, offering us information and ideas, as well as just getting to know each other a little.  Recently we’ve been chatting with Sara, our upcoming host in the old centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia this Fall.  Nothing like connecting with a real person to make it feel like you’re already there.  We also stay in loose touch with hosts we’ve had on earlier trips – to Paris, Avignon, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Tuscany, and the Italian Riviera.  Add Mexico and Columbia for those we’ve hosted here.  Often it’s just Facebook, but special connections warrant something more.

Slovenian Sunday Brunch - photo credit EatWith.com

Slovenian Sunday Brunch – photo credit EatWith.com

Learning something about the culture of the countries we’re going to visit is another way to savour an upcoming trip, one that can also amplify the experience when we’re there.  We’re hoping to visit the local Croatian cultural centre before we go – in our city, there seems to be a centre for almost every ethnicity you can imagine.  Something we’ve yet to try is EatWith.com, billed as “Dine in homes around the world! Meet amazing people, eat great food and enjoy unforgettable experiences!  Besides using them when we travel, we could also find an authentic Croatian meal right in our home town.

Perhaps the most significant cultural undertaking before a trip is to learn something of the language. As Rita Mae Brown observed, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.  I’m just starting my Croatian lessons, hoping I can achieve a working knowledge before we arrive in Dubrovnik.  Travel has been the main reason that I’ve learned several other languages since leaving high school, although there are other advantages.  Sure you can get by with English in most countries these days, but bear in mind the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.

In the meantime, my volunteer work as an immigrant mentor has led to a number of invitations to meals and parties among the local Chinese community.  Most recent was an invitation to a house party to welcome in the Chinese Year of the Horse on January 31.  Definitely a cultural

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

experience, even if we don’t yet have a trip to China in the planning stages.  Even if you don’t have any personal immigrant connections, check out the public festivals celebrated by immigrant communities in your area.

There are lots of other ways to travel between trips.  As members of Servas and Couchsurfing, we also host overseas visitors from time to time.  This Spring we have a special visit in the works.  Through dabbling in my family tree on the great collaborative genealogy site, WikiTree, I’ve made contact with hitherto unknown second and third cousins in England, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Australia and Brazil.  Our current challenge is to choose between invitations to several countries.  A cousin from Brazil plans to visit us this year, and Cheryl and I are already making tentative plans to visit my new extended family in Florianópolis in the next couple of years.  It would be great stopover en route to learning tango in Buenos Aires.

If you keep your eyes open, there are lots of opportunities to experience the world within easy commuting distance.  In most cities, there are frequent “world music” concerts to expose you to new sounds.  I’ve been greatly enjoying my first attempts to learn Latin Funk Dance.  I’m pretty much off balance for the entire hour every week, but just think of all the new synapses I’m creating.  And with that Latin beat, I could be back in the main square of Santiago de Cuba.

Being “off balance” is a lot of what good travel is about.  As a dear friend recently reminded me in her post, “Out of the Blue”, travel “rattles our carefully-designed world view.”  If you have any doubts, check out one of the many Internet lists on how travel makes you a better person.  The truth is, however, that we don’t have to travel at all to live in “vacation mode.”

A Tree Drum - photo credit, Drumming & Health

A Tree Drum – photo credit, Drumming & Health

I was reminded of this the other day when I discovered an opportunity to join a “drumming circle” and bring along as many friends as I could muster.  The opportunity to join a drumming master, schooled for months in western Africa, and experiment with call-response rhythms on djenbe and other drums sounds like a great new experience.  I jumped at the chance, and invited 25 of my friends along too.  I was sure that they’d all leap at the chance to experience something new.  Yet, as the excuses started to dribble in – “I have to go skiing the weekend following.” – “I’ve got to do my tax return.” – Really!? – I began to realize that not everyone saw the value in jumping in to brand new experiences.  It’s a pity.  The evening was magical, and those who showed up were excited to invite others to a future event.

I think this points to the real way to keep travel alive even when you’re not traveling:  bring that attitude of open-mindedness, that stance of being perpetually a little “off balance”, to everything you do.  I collected some of the markers of my own travel attitude in a “vacation mode” posting a few years back: “Do only one good thing every day…  Talk to people for no reason…  Live with less material stuff…  Go outside even when the weather isn’t cooperating…  Spend time with friends and family that you enjoy being with…  Have sex any time of the day…”  You get the picture.

Under a Full Moon - photo credit, Meetup.com

Under a Full Moon – photo credit, Meetup.com

So, what can you do today in that spirit of exploring a brand new place you’ve never been before?  How can you rekindle that wide-eyed curiosity in familiar surroundings?  When you start to look, there’s no shortage of opportunities.  On Valentine’s evening, Cheryl and I joined a small group for a snowshoe hike under the full moon.  Snowshoeing is a fairly new activity for us, and this was the first time we’d ever been out after dark.  It was magical.  And, yes, it was romantic too.

What are you taking on in vacation mode?  How do you keep the travel spirit alive between trips?

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Learning Languages for Fun, Travel & the Fountain of Youth

Apart from his native English ability, Paul’s profile lists professional working proficiency in Portuguese and German, limited proficiency in Spanish, and elementary in French and Italian.  Here he hints at how he acquired these other languages and why he doesn’t intend to stop there. Do you speak a second language?  Why not? According to Science Daily, “The majority of people in the world learn to speak more than one language during their lifetime.”  However, I don’t think native-born North Americans are pulling their weight.

English: A USSR stamp, 70th Birth Anniversary ...

English: A USSR stamp, 70th Birth Anniversary of Nelson Mandela. Date of issue: 18th July 1988. Designer: B. Ilyukhin. Michel catalogue number: 5853. 10 K. multicoloured. Portrait of Nelson Mandela (fighter for freedom of Africa). Русский: Марка СССР Н. Мандела (1988, ЦФА №5971). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning other languages – even just a nodding acquaintance – makes travel so much more rewarding.  Opening a conversation with a few words of the native language transforms us from tourist to traveler in the ears of the person we’re addressing.  According to a Czech proverb, “You live a new life for every new language you speak.”  Learning other languages may even be the key to peace and reconciliation.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart” – Nelson Mandela

At my age, I’m often tempted to say, “I’m too old for this.  Our sensitive period for language learning goes downhill after age seven!  On top of that, my hearing is going, and even understanding English is getting harder!”  You look at initiatives like “Fluent in 3 Months” or “Fluent Every Year” and say, “Yeah, but, those are young folks!” If that’s your excuse, perhaps it’s time to set it aside.  There may even be more at stake than getting around Paris, Venice, or Dubrovnik.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Every year, new studies come out showing that learning a second language is one of the best ways known to reduce or postpone age-related cognitive decline – even Alzheimer’s.  A recent study in Toronto suggests that learning a second language can delay the symptoms of that brain-wasting disease for years.  Lead neuroscientist, Dr. Schweizer, said that a second language appears to delay the onset of symptoms by four or five years.  “This is fantastic,” he said, adding that no existing medicine is that effective.  Perhaps only social dancing has a stronger effect, but not every senior is able to take up dancing. There’s also good news on the other side of the equation.  New research in neuroplasticity is showing that the brain continues to develop throughout our entire lives.  Books like Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself” offer remarkable and inspirational stories about this phenomenon.  While we seniors may have to adapt the way we use our brains in order to learn new languages, such adaptation is possible, and science continues to understand it better.  This excellent if lengthy article, “Memory Problems in Seniors and Learning a New Language”, offers some surprising advice based on recent research.

“How a child learned this was from hearing and using the constructions thousands of times before ever beginning their formal education.  The child associates images with the words and phrases – he can use grammar correctly because he heard and repeated correct grammar over and over again!  What an adult does, most unfortunately, is not associate images with words and phrases in which correct grammar and vocabulary is learned, but rather tries to remember words and phrases in the foreign language as an association with words and phrases in his native language.  He is constantly, and erroneously, associating the foreign language with his native one.  This short-circuits the second language learning!

This emphasis on how children learn language is a key one, especially now that we know that we retain a considerable amount of the child’s neuroplasticity all our lives.  Not only does learning a second language keep us young, but also it may be necessary to “think young” in order to learn that language.

Practicing German with Swiss cyclists in Brisighella, Italy

Practicing German with Swiss cyclists in Brisighella, Italy

I’ve taken that one step further.  From my own experience, I’ve concluded that to learn another language most efficiently, you need to become as much like a child as possible.  In a blog post a few years ago, I recounted my experience learning my first foreign language in my early twenties.  The principles I distilled pretty much sum up the way a young child comes at learning their first language.

  • Put something at stake that’s more important than looking good.
  • Cut off all escape routes.
  • Stop trying to translate everything.  Learn how to think in others’ terms.
  • Trust the “music of the language.”  Don’t let the words get in the way.
  • Unleash your natural mimic
  • Relax and have fun!  Enjoy the game!

Perhaps the reason we adults have trouble learning new languages has nothing to do with our ability to act like children.  Maybe it has more to do with our willingness.  It’s just not cool! Others are saying much the same thing.  A new initiative, called Velocity Language Learning, has adult participants wearing funny hats and playing silly games as part of their strategy for getting them back into that childlike state of wonder and learning.

The cofounder of Velocity Learning models a hat

The cofounder of Velocity Learning models a hat

There are so many Internet resources for learning languages, it’s overwhelming.  I listed a few in my earlier piece on “The Language Lab of Life.”  I’ll list a few more links at the end of this article.  My advice is to use those that give you the greatest freedom and incentive to free your inner child – and set her about learning that next language the way she learned her first.  She didn’t engage endless vocabulary drills, or consult translation dictionaries and grammar texts.  Instead, she was born into the pool, and it was sink or swim – and if she was lucky, the adults around her paid more attention to what she was trying to say than how many mistakes she made along the way. So, throw yourself in the pool.  Go join a Meetup for your target language, or try an ESL one or polyglot one where you may find others willing to trade their language for English conversation.  Leave a comment on this post and let us know what you’re doing, or what’s working for learning your new language.

Our AirBnB hosts in Paris helped our French!

Our AirBnB hosts in Paris helped our French!

My own project for the coming year is to move my Italian to the next level for a return trip to Italy.  Some elementary Croatian would also be helpful for the bike tour we’re doing out of Dubrovnik on that same trip.  Beyond that, who knows?  To paraphrase Sandra Martz, “When I am deaf, I shall learn Sign Language.” A few more resources:

I fear that projects like SIGMO or Google Translate will reduce the incentive to learn other languages.  What will keep us young then?