Confessions from the Mid-Year Conference

Like many of the Fulbrights from Santander, I woke up between 6:30 and 7:00 on Wednesday morning and boarded the bus at 8:00 for Zaragoza. I stayed awake and listened to Bob Dylan. It was placid. The earth was dryer and dryer and coming from Santander we rose up and saw mesas and little dark green bushes. It all reminded me of that scene in The Three Amigos where Dusty, Lucky and Ned are stranded in the desert and Dusty’s canteen is the only one with water. The city was warm and clear and sunny.

After a quick shower I went downstairs for lunch. Eric saw me walk in. «Erick,» he said. We embraced and sat down at a table with the Andorran Fulbrights. It was a good lunch of paella and something I forgot, followed by cake, with wine and discussion of our trips, our exploits in Hungary and France, and the movie I had just seen: L’Argent by Robert Bresson. In retrospect, I see how comical it was; such a dark film brought to light in the handsome and happy atmosphere of the lunch salón. The mid year meeting would end better than that flick.

It really started at around 17:55, in the Sala Paraninfo of the Rectorado de la Universidad de Zaragoza. I do not intend to disregard the quality of the talk that officially opened the first 55 minutes of conference. I only mean to highlight the inspiration that I felt with rector Manuel José López Pérez’s final words. He concluded with a bit on José Martí, the Cuban-born Spanish writer and revolutionary, who, having spent time in the United States and Zaragoza, embodied (unintentionally) the founding principle of the Fulbright program: «To increase mutual understanding between people of the United States and of other countries.» I don’t remember the exact words he used, but he said that Martí stressed that independence must be sought from the Spanish Empire, but that the people should remain united; no matter what happens in the political realm, cultural ties are invaluable. It pumped me with the same euphoria I felt when I had first come to Spain. It all came back to that. I understood why it was so essential to have a mid-year meeting: to be reminded of the goals of the program and to be re-energized, ready to make our Fulbright year as successful as possible.

We boarded a bus the next morning to another building of the University. It was another sunny day. I quickly regretted bringing my sweater. The first discussion session was an evaluation of our work. I sat with the some other ETAs in a little circle, my hotel roomy was there, and so was Wendy, my fellow santanderina. It quickly became apparent that despite all being ETAs, we had quite different experiences. Yet our obstacles and concerns unified us. Some of us were entirely dedicated to Global Classrooms (Model UN, basically), while others had not worked with that program all year. Yet all of us had to deal with adapting ourselves to the Spanish classroom. I remember a passionate discussion of how to never give up on that kid who just really doesn’t care but clearly doesn’t have a good home life. The camaraderie was palpable. It seemed quite short; I didn’t want it to end. I think I even said something along those lines, disguising it as a joke. We parted ways.

We walked to yet another building. This one boasted softer seats and a nice wooden presenters’ table with black microphones. Nine went. The topics transcended all of time and the breadth of human knowledge. I remember lots of laughter during Michael Shashoua’s The Economy and Banking Sector of Spain. «Germany has an open bar and Greece is an alcoholic.» Two days later David Shumway would say that the presenters did a fabulous job condensing the content of their research in a mere span of seven minutes, being informative, comprehensible and entertaining. It is for that reason that Maya Kroth’s presentation was so memorable. She is a graduate researcher in Sevilla and Barcelona, studying the siesta. I remember in one part of her presentation she talked about Salvador Dalí and how he would take short naps holding a key over a plate, just dipping into sleep before waking to a metallic clatter so as to access a new level of creativity. Interesting stuff.

We all went our separate ways to find lunch. I was with a group that shared a variety of raciones. We spoke about dogs and other things. One fellow was from Yale. Yale? Harold Bloom? Yep. (Oh, Harold Bloom, Harold Bloom.) It was interesting to hear each person’s story, where they came from and where they went to school. All of these little anecdotes, even stuff as trivial as someone’s afternoon stroll in central park, were memorable and important. I thought of how little images and stories and smells and whathaveyous somehow form someone’s life experience. Like that movie Dreams. My father put a blue hat on me, he gave me a German name.

That evening everyone looked good, suited up and smelly. We were in a big room with tables for a cocktail reception. I remember seeing some folk from Barcelona, where they showed me pictures from orientation. I did not remember those pictures. It felt strange, like I was spying on myself. We all seemed to have changed a bit since then. Most speak better Spanish, some look more confident, and some have even lost weight. For me, I’m more patient. I looked up and around and saw professor Nico Larco. I made a point to talk to him. During the apertura he had said that if we have trouble making a decision to just make a decision, even though way leads on to way it is best to not let your vacillation slow things down to inactivity. What a nice guy. I could see myself hiking or kayaking with him. I was in a suit, twirling my red wine in a glass, and then I was thinking about another movie I had seen and how I had to discuss it with Eric.

The next day was just as productive, just as memorable. It was structured similarly, with a debate session in the morning, followed by presentations and then capped off by a tour. The debate was different, though. The moderator in my group was Sonsoles Valdivia, an exbecaria from Spain. The conversation was focused on cultural differences and how we have adapted. Gillian made an astute observation: when we move somewhere different we are always faced with a degree of inconvenience that we must overcome. Most of our inconveniences, from what I gathered, seemed to concern fully immersing ourselves in our environments with the amount of time we’ve had. We had all met varying degrees of success, but our overall sentiment was that Spanish society is more difficult to become one with, especially when our time is a mere nine months. Camaraderie yet again.

I remember talking with Eric after the final presentations. We were both fired up and feeling intellectual so we made our way back to my room to spend 10 minutes listening to the soundtrack from Drive and doing pushups. The conversations we had had with the other Fulbrights really pushed us. Even the ones that didn’t concern the scholarship, the ones about our past and all the funny stories from childhood or college, and all the comical trips we’d taken on the weekends. It all felt like an exercise in how to make the most of a truly remarkable experience. He kept telling me how inspired he was. «More so than two weeks in Eastern Europe.» Yep.

I recall Nico Larco also saying during the apertura that he wakes up some mornings and is perplexed by the fact that he gets to do this. He’s right: all of this just seems so unreal and it is a blessing not to be taken for granted. Professor Arnoldo Valle-Levinson gave us a Mark Twain quote, also during the apertura: «Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.» To be quite honest, rather than feeling inspired, it instilled me with a sense of urgency, urgency to aprovechar the time that remains. Yet that urgency was not alone; it was grouped with a sense of camaraderie, gratefulness, and reassurance, and this group was not a clustered combination, rather a harmonious unity of sentiments that still pushes me to seize the day and the remaining time I have. We brought nothing and nothing shall we take. I now know that part of the justification for a Mid-Year conference was to knock us out of our groves with inspiring realizations and companionship. If that is the only thing I remember from the conference it shall suffice.