We have all heard the idiom advising that 'actions speak louder than words'. It is generally believed that what someone does is more important than what someone says.
Often, that's the case, but I discovered recently just how important words can be.
In early November, Perry and I spent a week volunteering at the Diverbo language program in La Alberca, Spain, where we (and twenty-three other English speakers from the USA, England, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Australia and South Africa) had the privilege of helping twenty-seven Spaniards improve their English. It was something we had been looking forward to since we first began planning our trip, and it exceeded our expectations.
It wasn't just fun and games though, it was an intense week with a schedule that felt like work at times. The days were packed with 1:1 conversations and group activities, while the nights were filled with Spanish-style partying. I wasn't getting very much sleep, and in the midst of all this, I came down with a really bad cold. Then, the U.S. presidential election outcome.
Despite these personal moments of feeling sick, tired and discouraged, it was one of the best weeks of my life.
At the end of seven days, I found myself floating around in a euphoric state of love and gratitude- the kind of high experienced when you start out doing something good for others, but, inevitably, you, the giver, becomes the receiver.
Those who know me, even casually, are aware that I am talkative. I've had the gift (curse?) of gab since I uttered my first word at eleven months of age. My baby book says it was 'puppy'.
The past year has been an interesting experiment and before we left, I wondered how my verbose ways would fare on the road with only Perry as my constant chat companion. Would I spontaneously combust without adequate outlets for my effusiveness? Would Perry run screaming into the night from one too many voluble discussions?
Luckily, neither happened. My verbal long-windedness has been greatly reduced but merely replaced by the expansive lot of words I crank out on this blog.
While I enjoy writing, it will never fully take the place of talking. Perry, with his enviable combination of high-brow intelligence and low-brow humor, has always been my preferred conversation partner, but there have been times that I have missed the spirited discussions I used to have with close friends. Yes, there is Skype, but face to face is just different.
With Diverbo, I found the ideal volunteer activity to satisfy me.
We boarded a bus in Madrid for the three hour drive to La Alberca, located in Castille and Leon province, near Salamanca and the border of Portugal. Advised to sit with a Spanish person and make introductions, I greeted a cheerful young lawyer from Malaga who was there to fine-tune her English for her job. That first visit was a light-hearted exchange about travel and work, punctuated by bursts of laughter. In the course of an hour, we were having the easy conversation of old friends, complete with inside jokes.
After a quick stop for coffee at the midway point, I then sat with a successful entrepreneur with an adventurous spirit and a penchant for philosophy. He joined the program just a few days prior, after a chance meeting with a friend at a coffee shop who pointedly challenged the depth of his English proficiency. He indulged my incessant curiosity about Spain's unique regional vs. national dynamic. It was like having my own personal history teacher and tour guide rolled into one.
In a three hour bus ride, I knew this program was about to make up for conversational lost time.
The Best Medicine
I'm sure you have heard how laughter has a way of transcending language and breaking down barriers. But, in Spain, it is the way of life.
The Spanish approach to problem solving is with humor, and it's one of the main reasons I love the the country and people. They know how to diffuse a tense situation with a self-deprecating comment or a cheeky joke and this group delivered in spades.
There were equal parts tongue-in-cheek inside jokes (Lights of Cuenca, anyone?) as well as bawdy, slapstick humor during our nightly stage performances made funnier by starring normally serious people.
However, it was during one-on-ones that I had the biggest laughs. I admit I was initially drawn to the funny people as I find it easy to bond with the socially confident types. There were moments it felt like a night at the comedy club and my sides ached from laughing so hard, especially one evening when I had three back-to-back 1:1's where we revealed our (minor) brushes with the law.
We'll save those stories for another day.
But not all funny types are laugh-out-loud hilarious. I found conversation partners that finely sliced their intellectual commentary with a razor sharp wit that left me gobsmacked, especially considering they had to mentally translate from Spanish to English! I can barely do it in my own native tongue.
There were definitely a lot of big thinkers in the group and I looked forward to my one-on-one talks for a daily boost of knowledge. On topics as diverse as travel, geography, politics, philosophy and wine, I was drinking from a firehose of new thoughts and ideas.
With a week together, it didn't take long to get beyond the superficial 'tell me what you do' type-questions and many sessions took a profound direction. While there was definitely a lot of humorous commentary, it was often mixed with touching revelations. Most people didn't know another soul there, and I found it incredibly brave that someone would leave their family for a week just to improve their English. Several people had endured incredible adversity to be there and their stories touched me deeply.
I was amazed at both the openness of the language as well as the deepness of listening. What is it about the presence of strangers that leads to such honest conversation?
In the end, I think we all just want to be heard, whatever the language.
In chemistry and in relationships, opposites attract. And that same yin and yang brought us together at the language camp, too, from the serious work during the day to the light-hearted partying at night.
It seems unlikely that in a room with so much diversity of heritage, personality, and ideology that we could become so close, so quickly. Sure, the mutual commitment to help each other have a successful week was a factor. So were the wine-fueled outings like our day trip to the village of La Alberca.
But, as strange as it sounds, I think simply spending time with strangers made the biggest difference. There is a trust that stems from the company of those who do not hold preconceived notions of who we are. Our words stand on their own, unsullied by past mistakes and personal labels.
Perry and I have had to learn new ways of communicating over these past months. Frequently, gestures and a few broken words of the local language were needed, but we always got the job done. Our week volunteering in Spain, however, showed me how fast strangers can become family when we are heard and understood.
Actions speak loudly, but words can quietly change the world.