What I did on my winter sabbatical

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Back when I was a youngster, every September, almost without fail, we would get the same writing assignment.

The 30 or so students at Malcolm Public, a one-room rural school covering eight grades, would take out their pencils and a clean piece of lined paper and write a full page on “what I did on my summer vacation.”

The earlier grades, not yet encumbered by the restrictions of literacy, were allowed to use their full creativity and draw pictures. Of course, we were all farm kids, so even the term “vacation” needed to be taken in context.

We all had to work, at least part of the summer, but it was a vacation from school. I kind of wish I could read some of the essays we wrote back then. I’m sure they seemed quite different from the ones written today. This was before people carted their families off to Disneyplanet (and even before Canada’s Wonderland was finished).

It likely seemed pretty tame — we helped with the chores, baled hay, fixed fences, went swimming in the creek, caught fish and frogs with our bare hands, visited relatives and friends, camped in the woods in the next township over. It was another world. But that practice of taking time to reflect on periods of time spent outside of one’s usual activities has stuck with me.

Back then we were students, and a couple of months every year we had a sabbatical from our studies. It was expected that we would not come back less intelligent or having forgotten all of the important things.

It was hoped that we’d returned refreshed, with a chance to have tried out some of our new knowledge. So, in the back of my mind during the trip we took this winter, I was occasionally thinking about what I might write if I had an assignment like the ones that Mrs. Krauter used to give us back at Malcolm Public School.

I hoped that, by the end of the time away, I would have come up with something half profound or even insightfully reflective. I’m still waiting. And I’m already back walking the spring sidewalks of Corner Brook, with its familiar little piles of dirt on the sides of the street.

Maybe the best I can do is to give you a list of 10 things that I miss already about South America:

1) One of the big things is that I miss the street life, the colour, the noise and the chaos. People spend a considerable portion of their lives on the streets and cafes and plazas. These are places that are welcoming and comfortable for meeting and talking and strolling — unlike North American malls and plazas that are designed for cars rather than for people. Of course, a prime reason why people are on the streets (and why it is a site of so much commerce) is economic, and the need to make money however one can. The social welfare system throughout South America does not provide enough to survive, so people need to sell pens or sports socks or passport covers or pirated DVDs or whatever they can to make up the difference. But aside from that, “Americalatino” certainly holds a different view of the role of public spaces in one’s life — they are places to meet people, to talk, to walk, to shop, to be social.

2) I miss speaking Spanish, or at least attempting to speak Spanish. It is a lovely language. I realize that it would make more sense for me to work on my French, given Canada’s culture. Indeed, I feel guilty about not being able to speak French better, and there is nothing more edifying than good old Anglo guilt. But I’m sorry, I like the sound of Spanish. Speaking it, I felt like a poet. A clumsy poet, yes, but still a charmer of sounds. We’ve talked about starting a Spanish club here, which would be a social time conducted in Spanish. Let me know (en espagnol) if you’re interested.

3) I miss the way that people are comfortable with affection. People (of all gender and generational compositions) walk hand in hand or arm in arm. A very common greeting is with a kiss (where your right cheeks touch and you make a soft kissing sound). I delighted to see burly bus drivers or truckers meeting each other with the kiss on the cheek. It just seemed so darn healthy.

4) I miss the attitude of being less demanding regarding material things. They have less stuff and don’t demand or expect lots of stuff. They keep a car running a longer time, use clothes until they wear out. Shortly after returning I was in a store and overheard a child demanding “buy me a toy, Nan, right now,” as he threw some item out of the shopping cart in protest over his privation. “I guess I’m back in North America,” I thought to myself.

5) I miss the mixture of passion regarding political and social issues at the same time as there is a sense of tranquility — to accept that we’ll all get there eventually.

6) I miss the sunshine. I assume that I don’t really need to explain that in great detail. Sure, sometimes it was a bit intense. But regular sunshine can do wonders for the soul. There is no surprise that northern latitudes, where the sun is more of a stranger for many months of the year, are also the sites of origin of dour trains of thought like psychoanalysis, Presbyterianism and existentialism.

7) I miss the dogs. They wandered the streets in their own world, which only sometimes intersected with the human world. You could sit by a sidewalk and watch either the human dramas or the dog dramas … kind of like a multiplex theatre. They were also incredibly well-behaved, despite most of them being street dogs. Unlike here, they didn’t yap at you or jump up on you with muddy feet (as their “owner” says reassuring things like, “he’s harmless, just friendly”). I wonder if such dog owners would let their kids act the same way — yapping and putting their muddy feet on people. I don’t really want to find out.

8) I miss the plazas. Don’t think for a moment I’m talking about the kinds of places that we call “plazas” here. We’ve taken a perfectly good word for an open public green space in the middle of a developed area and made it to mean a collection of chain stores beside a huge paved parking lot. Some towns and cities had an urban planning policy of having a plaza (or a plazalita — a smaller version of a plaza, with just one statue) every six blocks. It made the place much more pleasant.

9) I kind of miss the anonymity of being a stranger. Mary and I realized that we’d become accustomed to living in places where nobody knew us. It results in a particular mindset. Here at home, it takes forever to shop for groceries since I’m always stopping to talk to people. And I cherish that. But it just takes some getting used to again.

10) I miss the natural surroundings, the culture and the food. I feel like I should mention these, since they are the vital stuff of tourism promotion. But to be honest, I have access to as much beauty (rugged and tamed) within a couple of hours of my home here as I’ve seen most anywhere else. We are clearly not without culture (no human group is), and armed with a good set of recipes and some creative shopping, one is able to recreate just about any world cuisine you can shake a pudding mould at.

In travelling, there is a temptation of wanting to bring the best qualities of some other place home with you. At the same time, there is a sense of appreciation for the blessings of one’s home that have gone unrecognized until a prolonged absence. I certainly missed things about this place while I was away. But that would be a different column.

Having a sabbatical is a true privilege, a luxury even, to be honest. So if I cannot come back as a better teacher and researcher, and shucks, basically a better person, then it was a waste of time. But others — my students, my colleagues, my community — will have to decide whether that has been accomplished. I do know that I’ve come back with armloads (and memory sticks) full of examples that will bore classes and stop conversations for months to come. I have new sensitivities to issues and questions I’d not thought about before.

I have come back both harder to live with (I’m more inspired to speak out on issues and ignore the ignorant) but also easier to live with (relax, be tranquil, enjoy the diversity of the human family).

And finally, I have returned with a newly reinforced fascination regarding the many ways that humans make their way in this world, and the meanings that they bring to that life. Muchos gracias. Hasta luego Americalatino.

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  • Robert T. Koveleskie
    January 18, 2013 - 05:38

    I enjoyed your article very much. Thank you.