I was about fourteen years old when a Norwegian girl came to study in my school, in Venezuela, for a year. I always wondered why, among all the Latin American countries, she had chosen Venezuela (very patriotic, right?); but I never really asked her. She was nice, friendly, and worked really hard to improve her Spanish. By then, my English was so bad that I used to memorize –word by word – my presentations for English class; so even though the Norwegian girl spoke English fluently, we talked in Spanish. Our conversations were very slow, and after a while, I thought that I didn’t have the patience to teach her Spanish and become her friend. I figured that there were enough people in the school and someone would have the patience that I lacked. She didn’t finish her year in Venezuela for many reasons, but apparently one of them was the fact that she felt very homesick and lonely. Back then, I didn’t really care to think about it.
Little I knew that, two years later, I would be studying at an international high school in Italy despite the fact that my English was so poor; and four years later –still struggling to master the language – I would study at a university in the United States of America. Had I known all that, I would have never been indifferent or impatient towards that Norwegian girl in Venezuela. Because now I know how hard it is to live in a place that you can’t call home, with a language that is not yours and doesn’t allow you to show others who you really are. I wouldn’t be indifferent because now I know what it feels like to deal with inpatient people who don’t want to understand you, as well as kind-hearted people who have the patience to listen and understand who you are despite your accent and recurrent “what did you say?”
I’ve been remembering this story a lot lately, because people keep on asking me what I’ve learnt after all these years of studying and traveling. I think that I’ve learnt that if I had the chance to meet someone like that Norwegian girl again, I wouldn’t be indifferent and I would be more patient. I wouldn’t look at her with annoyance because she’s wasting my time. In fact, it wouldn’t be about “me” anymore. I would admire her determination, help her, and try to discover that courageous girl who decided to come to such an unusual country. I’ve changed a lot, and it took me a long time to understand these changes. I’ve changed because, in the past six years, I’ve been sometimes mistreated and other times well received. And even though I want to believe that first-hand experience is not necessary for these kinds of changes, in my case, it was.
I wonder if the same idea applies when it comes to understanding and helping societies different than our own. My Ukrainian friend just sent to me a short documentary about the Ukrainian political chaos and, despite the fact that I am far from understanding Ukraine, every time I see a broken parliament, centralized institutions and state leaders whose political decisions undermine the possibilities of entire societies, I understand. I understand because I lived for a long time in a place like that, an authoritarian –almost failed– state that constraints me from afar (e.g. Cadivi). It might take me longer to understand the details of Ukraine’s political institutions, but I understand –to a big extent – the frustrations of being a citizen in a place like that. Cadivi (currency-exchange constraints) is to me what the Ukrainian passport is for my friend Darya. And today –despite the long distance that separates our bodies– I feel unusually close to her.
Here is the short documentary about Ukraine (2012)