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From Jason – Tales from the Tour – Language Lessons

October 17, 2018

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It became a bit of a cheeky running joke amidst our traveling troupe that started over our first hotel breakfast together. It was apparently apparent enough that I had spent the evening of my first full day in Poland burning ye olde midnight fires and drinking the old midnight potions, for as I plopped myself down last at the table Christopher inquired as to what sort of shenanigans I had succeeded in sashaying into. When I replied “actually it was really cool– I was up all night participating in language lessons,” it was perfectly understandable to see the group break out into wry smiles and hear CS’s sparkly-eyed snarky response of “riiiiiiight…language lessons.”

And though it evolved into our daily nudge-nudge, wink-wink over coffee and sausages that I’d stayed out all night again performing my diplomatic duties by engaging in wordplay until dawn (especially the morning I announced that I’d been sharing tongue-twisters with the Italians: “riiiiiight….tongue-twisters) the truth is that this is indeed exactly (well, mostly) what I was doing while huddled around the nightly bonfires: teaching and being taught language.

These language lesson sessions lead me to a few profound realizations that I have come to recognize as the greatest gifts I was given in Goleniów– gifts I am now obliged to give you.

First, allow me to describe a typical language lesson. The setting is pretty much what you might imagine at this point: after midnight festival revelers unconcerned with the tick-tick-ticking of time feeding the fire, passing the Polish beer and vodka, and laughing as much as possible. (A footnote of sorts on that laughter: I was informed one evening that amongst our early morning mob I was being referred to as “the American with the explosive laughter who stays up all night.” A true diplomatic badge of honor to be sure. You’re welcome, America.).

Within this setting English was indeed the common ground everyone communicated from, but the levels of mastery (or lack-thereof) of the language varied. There were many pauses in conversations in which someone would stop for clarification of a certain phrase, ask for the meaning of something you just said, or describe a concept they wanted to communicate like “um, what is the word you use to say [insert foreign word/phrase and English clues about the subject matter at hand, a brief volley of potential words, joyous acceptance of appropriate word, repeat of phrase with correct words now in place].” Most nights there were as many questions being tossed around as there were statements.

Feelings of fascination, delight, and community pervaded these occasions as we guided each other into deeper understandings of each other’s language and cultural experiences. One particular afternoon, I was honored to share such a language lesson (and music sharing) session with a woman who invited me to lunch so that she and her daughter could practice their English. We found ourselves on a bar veranda overlooking the Ina river writing words and pronunciations on paper in-between taking turns showing each other our favorite bands via YouTube videos. This appetite for learning and sharing was a wildfire that seemed to engulf the entire festival.

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These things lead me to Profound Realization #1: here in the USA, we’re struggling with poignant (and regretfully heated) discussions about immigration and walls and borders and what it means to be an American and whether “if you come here you should speak the language” and a whole bevy of subjects that seem to separate and alienate us from each other more and more. Within those debates there are many among us who honorably spread our well-meaning humanist hashtags like #unity #onelove #respectforall and #oneworld, but what occurred to me is that it is not enough to just THINK correctly or accept that getting along with everyone is a good idea. It’s not enough to change our Facebook avatar to say we support the maligned group du jour. It’s not enough to simply care. The experience I had over and over is that what it takes to heal and solve these issues is a GENUINE DESIRE to want to reach out and understand another person and “the other side,” and also (as it was described to me one evening) to have a genuine desire to simply accurately BE UNDERSTOOD. Every night the success of our good vibes, camaraderie, and establishing new lifelong relationships hinged upon people who genuinely wanted to make sure they understood each other’s words and therefore their culture, history, and viewpoints.

And as it turned out EVERYONE wanted to understand each other. It was a vision to me of how things can be. And it was so easy! Basking in this new reality I began to feel a creeping depression as I realized I would have to leave this place at some point and return to America where the current cultural modus operandi is too often one of “I don’t want to consider your side—you are wrong, and here’s the ways I am right, and since you’re the ‘bad’ guys I would be justified in violence against you so here’s a paragraph in ALL CAPS that lets you know I think you’re an idiot and I hope you and your kind fade from the cultural landscape.” In Poland it was “let’s work to talk and understand each other and discover how all of our many differences make a beautiful rich cultural HUMAN MOSAIC.”

Here’s one such general moment: I was sitting by the fire next to a West German woman and we were having a conversation with a Pole seated on her other side. In casual conversation we were all guiding each other just fine through the three language barriers, but as the night wore on and the beer loosened lips we dove into deeper conversations of political and philosophical natures. In order to debate subjects that required much more specific language (filibuster, korsarz, obstruieren) much of the conversation became powered by translations the two ladies researched on their phones in attempts to tackle these tougher topics. We were able to intellectualize and discuss the state of the world (oppression, unterdrückung, ucisk), the nature of power and political systems (amendment, poprawka, Änderung) and the histories of nations (millennia, tysiąclecia, jahrtausende) because that genuine desire to foster deeper understanding lead us to take the time to utilize the available technology, compare phone translations, and TALK deeply to each other.

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That notion of “advanced” language vs. “simple” language lead me to Profound Realization #2, and it’s akin to a notion that we in musical circles call “the KISS principle” (Keep It Simple, Stupid). On one hand there is absolutely great value in mastering your own language in order to speak and write in as educated a manner as possible and push the intelligence of the species forward; I myself lean towards my English Major roots and often patrol social media as one of those “grammar Nazis” who can be found commenting “it’s ‘THEY’RE’ not ‘THERE,’” but when gathered with people from all corners of the globe (6 of the 7 continents were represented at the festival including nearly every European nation) what I discovered was that it was the use of SIMPLIFIED language that allowed us to all communicate and create community. Often I would find myself consciously not using our so-called “big words” and purposely using LESS and SMALLER words to boil things down to their pure meaning. As an artist who tends to let the flowery verbosity flow (I mean, just look at this blog!) this notion of the immense power of simple (even “uneducated”) language was a revelation to me. In the proverbial end it’s the meaning that matters…not how “educated” you say it.

A further revelation in this realm was the discovery that many people in Poland had taught themselves English by watching American cartoons and reading our children’s books (the folks I met universally disdained “the Queen’s English,” and instead of adhering to their school book curriculum many honed their language skills by watching Hollywood movies). All of these things gave me a new understanding of the rich value of speaking simple elementary English (this blog, of course, is not my best example of that concept, ha!), and so the lesson I pass on is that if approached by someone struggling with the language DO THE SAME. Keep It Simple, Stupid. There’s a sweet spot somewhere in our 2nd Grade grammar books and children’s literature that allows us to be better international diplomats.

And finally, Profound Realization #3: floating above all these words (either simple or complex) and all these conversations is a pure form of language that crosses ALL borders and peoples—MUSIC. On one side of the magic of music lies the nightly concerts where we all communicated through the joy of dancing together, chanting along to songs, or simply standing side-by-side in awe of a sublime melody. On the other side of this musical wizardry was the jam sessions. Many were the daily opportunities I had to work with international musicians, and often were the moments (especially with local native Poles) in which I could not SPEAK with a musician to ask for clarification of a musical passage, but I could COMMUNICATE through music. We couldn’t “talk,” but a musician could strum a chord for me to hunt for the matching tones on my piano. We would then share smiles and proceed to play songs and write beautiful stories together using notes for words and riffs for sentences through the language of music.

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Many times in my musical life I’ve uttered such platitudes as “music can save the world.” It’s been a lofty notion that FELT right but was really little more than some barely-thought-out inspirational meme fodder. In Poland I saw it in action. I saw joy and love and the absolute destruction of prejudices as people reveled in the power of music.

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And I’ll end with this exclamation point. It’s not a profound realization but rather a validation of a long held belief. There’s something very important to be said for that other universal language: LOVE. I imagine that at the core of all these lessons was LOVE. Love for each other fueling the trust and the desire and the PATIENCE to fulfill genuine communication and understanding; love for each other and love of music fueling our rehearsals, jam sessions, and performances–including the desire to spread that love outward by playing properly and presenting the audience with a great show in the shared love of group experiences; love of humanity at large which was the desire at the heart of the festival to do the work that betters the planet and humanity, and to keep that fire in our hearts to fuel our future artistic endeavors; and then, of course, just good old-fashioned romantic love dancing in the fire’s flames and fueling various exploits…but that love and that desire is a whole other “language lesson” blog J

Keep talking, my friends. Continue to reach out and share your positions, your politics, and your passions, but let’s not view those beliefs as a battalion at the front lines of an intellectual battle we must win. Let’s instead see them as word ambassadors seeking information who open the door to our homes where all the other languages and viewpoints can come in for dinner and discussion. Have the patience to listen, for when you do you find the end result is usually a smile and the realization that the differences are tiny and often meaningless before the reality that we’re vastly more similar than we are different. That’s my language lesson. Na zdrowie!

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