I’m Switching to Medium!

A photo of Rowan Walrath playing in colorful leaves.

While I appreciate everyone who has followed this blog over the years, I have to cave: Medium is a better platform for blogging right now. Therefore, I am transitioning! All my old posts will still be here, but everything else will be at my page on Medium.

See you there!

Confessions of a Non-gym-goer

An image of Rowan Walrath's knees, the left one with a strip of black kinesiology tape on it.

It always comes as a surprise.

It starts with a sudden burst of motivation. “I’m going to do this,” I say to myself. “I’m going to get up tomorrow morning and go to the gym.” And the next morning—well, afternoon—I do. I get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on foundation and lipstick for some reason, don the appropriate clothes and shoes, and set off to the Marino Center across campus.

It comes in the form of a deep breath. As I walk past the Au Bon Pain and into the building that houses our actually-pretty-nice three-story gym, I have to brace myself. I’m wearing my kinesiology tape; that should help. I forgot to bring a water bottle; crap. Oh well. Game time anyway.

I trade my Husky Card for a lock and key so I can safely store my heavy winter coat and the track pants (old Highstepper pants from high school) I’m wearing over my shorts. I look down at the black tape over my knee. I chose black over beige a few years ago because I wanted it to stand out more. “Look at me,” it says for me. “I have a minor disability and I’m wearing this as a goddamn badge of honor. I need this tape so my kneecap doesn’t literally drift away, slicing through muscles and ligaments as it goes, and I’m still a rock star.”

In reality, I shouldn’t need the tape. My muscles should be strong enough to essentially hold my kneecap in place. I should be doing physical therapy at least three times a week. I’m lucky, though, if I make the time to do a couple of the smaller exercises once a month in my own room. I haven’t been to the gym in maybe a year.

I start with an elliptical machine, and that’s when it comes as a surprise. The pain. The weakness. The struggle. It shouldn’t be particularly startling, considering that I’ve barely worked out since I graduated high school. But I have another problem: I still think of myself as a dancer, the girl who reached her peak physically at TWHS, the girl who could do ballet and drill team for upward of 20 hours a week and not feel tired going up the stairs.

I’m totally not her anymore. Far from it: I can only do two, maybe three flights of stairs at a time; my knee gives out anytime I try to run (which I largely don’t anymore—it’s too high-impact a sport); I have to switch the positions of my legs every 30 minutes or so when I’m at my desk before the bad knee starts to smart. Even when I’m sitting, the pain sneaks up on me.

I didn’t avoid the gym for a year so I could write a sad story about my minor disability. I recognize that this is a really, really serious problem, and if my old physical therapist found this and read it, she’d probably slap me. If I don’t do my physical therapy as often as I should be doing it, bad things will happen. As in, I’ll need a knee replacement before I’m 40. As in, I might end up in a wheelchair when I reach semi-old age. These things scare me, but somehow, they haven’t spurred me into a regular exercise routine yet.

Today, the elliptical machine is hard. I spend five and a half minutes on it, as I’m supposed to in order to begin my workout—it gets my bad knee nice and warmed up—and my quads were killing me. Weak. The leg press is difficult, too. I start at 90 pounds. “This should be fine,” I think. “I used to do at least 115 pounds, so going down to 90 seems reasonable.” I’m wrong. Almost immediately, I have to shift the weight down to 70. I do 15 reps: An okay amount, but not super-great for someone who used to do 25 to 30 at a minimum of 115 pounds before doing other leg machines.

But, as I continually remind myself, I’m not that girl anymore.

I end with an homage to my former self. After doing some leg exercises on the floor, I do a full dancer’s stretch and a couple of high kicks. I leave the gym when my knee starts to feel like jelly, knowing I have to walk home normally. I wouldn’t allow myself to limp. That, at least, is something I’ve gotten much better about.

I have very little sympathy for people who don’t go to the gym because they don’t feel like it, and I have even less sympathy for myself. But now is not the time to beat myself up; my body, over time, will do that on its own. I’ve managed to start writing on a more regular basis. I can start taking care of my body on a regular basis as well.

“Our bodies are our lives; we will make time,” my future gym buddy says when I tell her about my fears. “We live in them. We need to keep them healthy.”

What I’ve Learned From Old People

An image of Rowan Walrath standing with her grandmother, Sandy Walrath.

Or, an open letter to my grandma, Sandy Walrath.

But this story doesn’t start with her. It actually starts today, with a man named Joseph, the security guard at my doctor’s office. I make sure to talk to him every time I see him. He’s a lovely person; he always asks me how I’m doing, and this December, he gave me a holiday card: “Because you seem like the kind of person who would appreciate it,” he said.

Today, I mentioned that I had recently visited San Francisco.

“Oh,” Joseph said, “I actually grew up in the Bay Area.”

Joseph told me how he’d essentially spent his life moving east: A childhood in California, twelve years in Chicago, and now, his senior years in Boston. He made it sound like as you go from the West Coast to the East Coast, things get worse—more violence, more racial divisions, more discrimination. Bad stuff. I highly doubt that’s true, all things considered (bad stuff is happening all over the US), but it’s still interesting to think about the cultures of different areas. I only know about Houston and Boston. I don’t even know about all of Texas or all of Massachusetts. I dream of (and plan on) living in New York, but I don’t have much knowledge of that city yet, either. I’m going to have to start talking to people who’ve lived there forever as soon as I move, or I’m going to be lost.

Joseph left me with this advice: It’s important to have both academic smarts and street smarts. You have to know what’s going on in the literary world—literally, what you can read about—and the world right outside your door and hopefully beyond. That is what will give you a well-rounded perspective.

The second person in this story is Lea DeLaria, a loud, 57-year-old butch lesbian best known for playing Big Boo on Orange Is the New Black. I had the pleasure of attending a lecture/stand-up comedy show/mini jazz concert she gave at Northeastern last week.

Lea was abrasive. She was honest. She said some things that were not totally politically correct. But at the end of the day, she knows more than me. Much more. She lived in San Francisco, she lived in New York at the times of the big queer movements. At the lecture, she told us about the evolution of language, from “homosexual” to “gay” to “gay and lesbian” (with the advent of 1970s feminism) to “LGBT” to “LGBTQIPA+” (current) to “queer” (also current, but whose use is an intracommunity issue).

She told us about her queer idol, whose name escapes me, and it made me realize that I don’t know anything about queer history. Like, hardly anything at all. And I had better start reading, or even better, talking to some older queer folks who can tell me about this vibrant community.

And finally, this letter reaches its addressee, my grandma.

My grandma is one of my all-time favorite people. She only very recently—like, last week—reached the milestone of putting a book down before finishing it. She becomes totally immersed in anything she watches, from Annie to The Music Man. She drops nuggets of wisdom like “The value you place on yourself is entirely within you. Remember that.” She supports me in everything I do. And I love her entirely.

She also happens to be the most accessible old person in my life, and, for some strange reason, we’ve stopped writing letters to each other.

Grandma, this is for you. I received your Valentine’s Day card, which I promptly stored safely away with my other treasured items, including many letters from you over the years. And I’d like to begin writing you again. I have a lot to learn from you, and I want you to be included in my life as much as possible from halfway across the country.

And to everyone who isn’t Sandy Walrath: Don’t just respect your elders, talk to them. Bridge that generation gap. Learn from them. They’re interesting people—so interesting that my goal in life is to be a Little Old Lady.

As a very important person in my life once wrote on Facebook, and which can be applied to pretty much anything in life, “‘Learn your history.’ A lot of social justice movements are iterative and move in steps. What’s bad now may have been the best option at the time. If we only see the parts we’ve been around for, we risk misunderstanding those who are older than us.”

The Best Things in the World

The Boston skyline as seen from Dorchester.

Whenever I am in a writing mood but have no ideas regarding what I should actually write about, I tend to look to my friend Isha for inspiration. Today, after not having a real conversation with her in weeks, I greeted her with a command: “Ask me a lot of questions in rapid succession.” And, like the true MVP she is, Isha obliged.

“Write about all the best things in the world,” she told me. “Food, wine, skylines, laughter.”

I’ll oblige. After all, I really don’t want to waste my writing mood.

Food

Food is delicious. Food is hard. Food is extremely difficult to cook for one person, which is why I end up making a bunch of Knorr Pasta Sides with Starkist tuna mixed in and frozen vegetables I’ve heated up in the microwave. When I cook for one, I cook mostly a lot of bullshit casseroles. In this solo scenario, I see food not as a love, but as a necessity, a grating chore that takes too long and doesn’t result in much good except a semi-full stomach and, I guess, nutrients.

Food, like most things, is better when shared. When I cook for two, oh, I am a goddess in the kitchen. I am the chef you thought I’d never be when you told me that no, onion powder and pepper are not really enough to season chicken well. I’ve since learned: Adobo is a staple, thyme is great, fresh rosemary makes for perfect poultry. I’ve also learned that chicken is literally always better marinated, and grilled is better than pan-cooked, even on our tiny countertop grill/panini press. I’ve memorized recipes for spring minestrone, homemade tomato sauce, roasted vegetables with pasta and cheese and breadcrumbs. I’ve made countless delicious meals, both as a chef and a sous chef, and I’ve loved turning necessity into adventure.

Wine

Want to hear my unrefined-white-girl secret?

I hate red wine.

That’s not completely true. I love mulled wine, but I’m not sure it counts as wine after you’ve added cider and honey and cloves and oranges. I also love sangria, but it sort of falls into the same category.

Prosecco is my weakness, although I once–excruciatingly–had to describe it as “bubbly moscato.” It’s so much better than bubbly moscato. It’s divine, it’s a cloud in a glass, it’s an accompaniment to both lunch and dinner in Italy, it’s stumbling toward an Uber because we drank an entire bottle before our reservation (a terrible idea), it’s New Year’s Eve with my mom by the fire. Every bubble contains a liquid-golden memory.

Skylines

If this were a listicle, I would write my definitive ranking of skylines here. I don’t actually have much against listicles except for the fact that they serve as yet another form of clickbait, but there’s enough stigma surrounding them that I refuse to write one myself.

Even though I chose very willingly to move from Houston to Boston, I like Houston’s skyline better. I like seeing that building that looks like it’s made of stairs up to the sky; I like the way the city looks different but equally satisfying from different directions. I like recalling that feeling of adventure from when I was younger and we would drive up to Houston, the closest big city: we were going to the Zoo Boo, or to my dad’s office, or to MacBeth in Hermann Park.

Boston’s skyline, by contrast, is sparse. There’s the John Hancock building that’s no longer called the John Hancock building, there’s the Prudential Tower, there’s that little building with the spire whose name no one seems to know, and that’s it. Downtown, the skyline is nicer but less definitively Boston. I’m not sure it counts for much.

New York isn’t a skyline so much as a jumble, a mishmash of tall buildings, both hulking and spindly, making up the conglomerate masterpiece that defines the city. It’s a mess. I’m in love with New York City and all its utter insanity.

Chicago’s skyline I can’t remember well. The day we were supposed to be able to see 50 miles in any direction from 103 stories up, it was foggy. (Of course.) I do remember seeing the city’s bent reflection in the Bean and across the water from outside the observatory. That was almost as breathtaking as the water of Lake Michigan was clear.

San Francisco doesn’t have a skyline, really: it has a hill-line. Colorful little houses and apartments and office buildings all stacked on top of each other, trying to maintain their uprightness even as the steep slopes of the streets try to fell them, their colors and contrast with the beautiful Pacific Ocean reminding me of an American Venice. The Transamerica Pyramid stands out as a sharp point above all of them. I will always have mixed feelings about San Francisco, but it’s the most beautiful American city I’ve ever seen.

Laughter

I’ve been told throughout my life that I laugh too loudly. I have what my family calls “the Walrath ba-ha-ha,” a startling, full sound that every Walrath has inherited, whether by blood or by marriage. It has echoed throughout houses, in movie theaters, through dorm room walls, into the sky. When I’m with my family, it’s received by more laughter–it’s contagious. When I’m in public, it’s usually received by a sharp but well-meaning “shh!” from my friends.

I don’t care. I love my Walrath ba-ha-ha and all the joy that comes with it. I love being too loud, because unless I mean to be heard, my voice is usually fairly quiet. I love that my laugh is part of me and my family, and I hope it’ll be part of my legacy as well.

Nineteen

An elaborate sandcastle on a beach in Valencia, Spain at night.

Adapted from a writing exercise for my Creative Nonfiction class.

It was hot. So hot that the three-Euro bottle of white wine my roommate and I had bought at a convenience store on our way here had practically begun to boil, heated by the sand. Hot enough that my phone eventually died right in the middle of playing French pop songs, which I was only listening to because they reminded me of the person I still had one hell of a lingering crush on. I was about halfway through Mika’s “Comme un soleil” when my iPhone 5 (which held all my music but not my international SIM card, which was in my old 4S) stopped to inform me that it was about to overheat.

Lauren—the aforementioned roommate—and I had decided to visit the Mediterranean shore smack in the middle of the day, when the sun (a) had already heated the whole world with its rays and (b) wouldn’t be leaving for another ten hours. But it was my birthday, a.k.a. cause for a low-key beach celebration. With wine. Which was a big deal, because you can’t get that in the States on your nineteenth birthday, and Lauren and I, oddly enough, hadn’t had much to drink in the two weeks we’d spent in Spain.

So we slathered our pale bodies with 50 SPF sunscreen and headed from our colegio to the outskirts of Valencia, making sure to stop at a convenience store along the way. We set up on the populated shore, maybe twenty feet from the turquoise waves, with cheap Disney towels we’d bought at a Chinese grocery store near the Centre d’Idiomes where our classes were held. We laid out happily—and promptly realized we had no means of opening the wine.

The first attempt involved the use of Lauren’s sunglasses: We dug the handle into the soft cork and attempted to twist it out. The sunglasses summarily broke.

Unbeknownst to us, about twenty feet away, a large Spanish dude had been watching our struggle. As soon as the sunglasses met their fate, he began to approach us. He struck quite a figure when we finally noticed him: sunshine-bronze skin, a semi-large belly blocking the sun, appropriate-for-the-beach-lazy stubble, and, in one hand, a pocketknife.

Why was he holding a knife? We didn’t know. And we couldn’t ask him, considering that our Spanish had hardly progressed beyond the level of two high school students. Seeing that we were clearly Americans (the “stupid” is implied), the man declined to even attempt to speak to us in the national language. He communicated solely through hand gestures instead. This, plus the knife, made for a mildly intimidating situation at best.

Silently, Lauren and I decided to comply with whatever this Spaniard’s motives were. He pointed to the wine. We handed it over. He stabbed the cork repeatedly until it sank into the bottle, floating defeatedly atop the white liquid. After a couple graciases, we proceeded to drink around the cork. Our Spanish white knight, not as threatening as originally thought, left as suddenly as he came.

So we drank. We listened to music. We took turns laying out and splashing about in the cold Mediterranean Sea, my favorite body of water, which melted upward until it was indistinguishable from the bright hot sky. The sand practically boiled our toes, and it boiled our wine. Neither I nor Lauren, miraculously, got sunburnt.

And I turned nineteen.

#GAAD

For someone so pumped about accessibility to information, you’d think I would have chosen to learn programming.

In reality, I work with content. I talk a lot about the importance of accessibility, as well as how digital solutions can help us, but I don’t actually know how to implement said digital solutions. I’m a writer and an editor, not a coder – or at least nothing beyond a baby web developer, which doesn’t necessarily help me in my Accessibility Crusade.

But today is a good day for my Crusade. It’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which means that my yelling is useful. There are a lot of issues in the way we present our information. Technology is changing that where it can: there are teams working on closed captioning – Amara, for example, is a subtitle editor that makes it easy to caption and translate video. It also hosts volunteer localization and accessibility communities, and it offers professional tools and services for subtitles. A lot of videos, even New York Times news videos, aren’t automatically made with captions.

Information is the key to education, whether that education is happening via news outlets or TV or formal education institutions. In regard to the latter, there are separate schools, for example, for blind students. This is often fine because it ensures that their education caters to their needs, but it makes me concerned about the quality of their educational materials because they have less access to many. A great deal of companies print a certain percentage of books in Braille, but that’s kind of a bare minimum, and there’s no way of ensuring that the best materials are the ones that are made accessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t require anything beyond signage to be printed in Braille, so there’s no entity to ensure that information is made available to blind users.

It’s not just physical things barring accessibility, though. I recently read an article that was meant to teach English grammar and vocabulary, but the subject of the article was the differences between males and females. All of the information was deeply entrenched in gender roles, which is damaging to individuals who don’t fit in such traditional boxes. Those people will either read the article and feel less like people for it or disregard it entirely and consequently not learn the grammar and vocabulary it’s meant to teach. Both problems inherently make that information less accessible.

Digital solutions are meant to overcome physical barriers, because they can incorporate different types of media easily, like alternate text for images or heightened color contrasts. There’s a much more comprehensive list here. Those fixes come with tech, but there needs to be a human side as well, someone to talk about the issues that need solving and get really angry and loud about how much of the Internet, how much educational material, how much information is not made available to users with disabilities. Around 10 percent of the world’s population, or 650 million people, live with a disability. They are the world’s largest minority. That’s way too many people to discount when we’re considering how we present information to the world.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  • Talk about this stuff. Facebook, Twitter (#GAAD), email, dinner conversation.
  • If you’re not disabled, start considering the people who are!
  • If you’re a developer, consider implementing things in your code starting with the suggestions on the GAAD website.

The News, Editing Night

Imagine New York City.

Imagine it like that scene in The Great Gatsby (not the book, the movie, which, for all its horrid lack of the cynicism that defined Fitzgerald’s novel, was an excellently designed film). The one with the trumpeter playing, the music winding through the streets, the whole city in a drunken July daze.

There’s a trumpeter now, somewhere on the other side of the road, their music seeping through from another life, their window to these windows. We can hear it flowing through the collective atmosphere.

It’s 11:30 p.m. here. Soon it will be midnight and then 1 and then maybe 2. My keys are militarized—there was an assault on this avenue only six days ago.

I’m writing on deadline and editing, too, because this paper has to go to press for distribution tomorrow, and it goes online tonight.

It’s 11:31 p.m. and I’m typing on two different computers in a room without air conditioning. There’s a fridge in the corner of the office that isn’t even plugged in because we can’t afford electricity. Maria made the mistake of opening it once.

A fly just landed on my hand. There are three here.

We could have a comfortable, air-conditioned office on campus, but then we would lose all of our journalistic integrity. How could we possibly be watchdogs for the very institution that’s funding us?

Our office is comfortable, though. Dark brown floors and dark brown squishy office chairs and old stacks of papers once hot off the press now sinking into dark brown corners.

It’s comfortable enough that our news editor usually sleeps here. His home is too far away to justify returning to after working until 5 a.m. (or later).

There is glamour in this life.

I’ve been drinking nothing but Diet Coke for 10 hours and my eyes are glazing over and my head is starting to throb with the heat of the glaring screens in front of me.

But I’m working on the newspaper. I’m pitching my entire section and I’m taking tips from outside sources and I’m talking to interesting people every day of every week and I’m turning conversations into sentences and I’m turning sentences into better sentences that have impeccable grammar and are perfectly readable.

“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” Henry Anatole Grunwald.

There is glamour here.

 

RSWanderer: Travelsick

Originally published on Aug. 8, 2014 at RSWanderer, a travel blog on Woodlands Online detailing my experiences during a one-month study abroad program in Spain.

If you ever find yourself in Madrid, I would highly recommend booking a hotel room with a balcony if at all possible. If you do, you’ll step out onto it during the day and look down at the stereotypically noisy, busy street; you’ll admire the Spanish architecture that lines the sidewalks; you’ll flop your head back on your shoulders to behold the enormously turquoise sky. You might even be able to capture a panoramic shot like the one above.

And the night before you leave, you’ll lean over that same balcony and feel the city surround you. The lights and sounds will fill your ears and eyes and heart. You’ll take a deep, satisfied breath of the mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and cigarette smoke to which you’ve become so accustomed. You’ll want to go back to Valencia and consume immense amounts of paella and lie out on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. You’ll want to venture out into the sidewalks and plazas of Madrid to find the beautifully hand-crafted knife that you wish you had thought to search for earlier. You’ll want to dress up a little more again to match the high fashion of the Spaniards who have managed to make you feel underdressed for the past month. You’ll want to hear more stories from Little Old Ladies and bilingual Spanish high school students in retirement homes and in bars. You’ll dream of returning to Madrid within the next few years, maybe even to work there for six months. You’ll dread the idea of murmuring “Adios, España” under your breath as you board an Airbus 321 Transcontinental to Philadelphia. You’ll try with all your might to take in the city around you before it’s only a memory preserved in cerebral tissue and Facebook photographs. You’ll want to stay, to stay, to stay.

If you find yourself in Madrid, I would recommend caution: the city will make you travelsick.

RSWanderer: Little Old Lady Theory

Originally published on July 29, 2014 at RSWanderer, a travel blog on Woodlands Online detailing my experiences during a one-month study abroad program in Spain.

We spend our whole lives in Little Old Lady training. (Or Little Old Man training, or whatever–feel free to change the gender in your mind to accommodate yourself.) We age, and as we do, we collect experience that not only shapes who we will be at 70 or 80 or 90 years old but that will also serve as stories that we can force on our grandkids and neighbors and caretakers. People have intrinsic value, but Little Old Ladies possibly even more so, because they are so full of time and life. They and their experiences are invaluable. Becoming a Little Old Lady is not only a natural part of life; it is also the culmination of everything you have done and been up to that point.

In my head, this is who I will be as a Little Old Lady:

Pictured: women of the Red Hat Society.

These are members of the Red Hat Society, a social organization originally formed for ladies age 50 and older that has since opened up to women of all ages. Their mission is to gather women of all walks of life who wish to find comedic relief in each day. Those women are exactly who I aspire to be: women who age with grace, who remain social, who go out in society with gaudy red and purple hats and coats and feather boas because at that point, who cares about how much attention they’re attracting to themselves? They may as well have fun.

In Valencia, my roommate and I have volunteered not with hermanitas, but rather at L’acollida, a nursing home about 30 minutes on foot away from the Colegio Mayor. The residents at L’acollida, however, are ostensibly not members of the Red Hat Society. Instead of gallivanting about in red and purple outfits, they spend their time in a repurposed apartment complete with a kitchen, two general living rooms, bedrooms and a few offices. Many suffer from dementia and related disorders. Some walk around slowly or spend most of their time in chairs in la sala multiusos. Some are in wheelchairs or on bed rest, unable to move, speak or eat by themselves. Our service, therefore, has consisted of three things: taking walks with the residents, leading what is essentially a Sit N Fit workout and, finally, helping with dinner.

The Little Old Ladies (again, feel free to change the gender in your mind; I will refer to everyone as a Little Old Lady because that is how I conceptualize my theory) were all very different. This was apparent from our first activity, taking small walks (paseitos). I escorted one woman out onto the small patio, to which she reacted with plaintive murmurs: “It’s so cold out here… I am so cold… Can we please go back inside…” Another talked about her personal experience with aging: “I used to be able to do so many things. Now, I can barely walk.” However, she was still quite happy to have someone to talk to.

I believe in the importance of social interactions, whether you are teaching a preschool child, socializing a traumatized dog or helping an elderly person maintain their psychological and social health. I actually almost created an argument with a classmate yesterday as to what comprises useful service. Interpersonal communication is just as important as if not more important than what one might consider traditional service, i.e. helping the service partner out by cooking, clearing plates, washing dishes, etc. In walking and talking with Little Old Ladies, I am doing important work whose value is not diminished by the fact that some may not consider it traditional service.

Social interactions continued during our Sit N Fit workout. Because our training at L’acollida was minimal, my roommate and I had forgotten most of the exercises that the nurse had briefly gone over with us. Thankfully, two women were more than happy to help us out. They could have easily sat back and declined to engage with the squirrelly American volunteers or made fun of us for being underprepared, but they boosted us instead: “Oh, we do this exercise as well! Like this, con las manos—arriba, abajo. And this one, con los pies—tapa, tapa, tapa.” It was wonderful to see these two fabulous women engage with us, not only physically (as was the main point of the exercises) but also socially. They were like a much nicer version of Statler and Waldorf, excited at the opportunity to comment on other people but not quite as derogatory as the balcony-bound Muppets.

Our last task was to help with dinner. I have to be completely honest. This portion of the evening was very difficult. We were assigned to help some of the residents who were more disabled; that is, people who were no longer able to feed themselves.

This was not in our training. This would not even have been mentioned to us had it not been for some of our classmates who had volunteered at L’acollida the day prior.

Three of the residents had to be spoon-fed. The nurse we were working with, an amicable young woman named Lydia, took care of one woman whose name I never learned. She had short, wisp-white hair and no teeth, and she periodically let out unintelligible cries. I was paired with a dark-haired woman named Maruja, who I was warned had many “manías”—similar to compulsions—and would stop every few minutes to clean her hands and chin thoroughly with a paper napkin. At first, I fed Maruja slowly, offering her moderately sized spoonsful of green soup bit by bit. Lydia, however, took one look at what I was doing and instructed me to speed up, keep shoveling it in, over and over and over. I did. Maruja couldn’t indulge her manía higienica until after she had finished both the green soup and a small cup of white, flavorless yogurt.

Successfully done with Maruja, I glanced over to where my roommate was sitting. She was attempting to feed another woman, Lucía, with very little success. Lucía was extremely physically disabled. She couldn’t move herself: I’ve never seen her out of a wheelchair, she couldn’t participate in our Sit N Fit routine, and when I put on her bib, I tried to move her hands so that they were resting on top of rather than under it. There was no muscle in her arms whatsoever. It had all appeared to have completely degenerated. Additionally, she only had three teeth.

Lucía, like my brother at age three, didn’t want to eat. But negotiating with her was nothing like negotiating with a picky toddler. Instead of “Okay, listen, kid, you need to get over yourself and eat your peas,” she had to be pleaded with, “Lucía, you need to eat. You need to.”

As my roommate was making no progress with her, I took on the task of negotiating. The pain on Lucía’s face as I force-fed her was indescribable. She couldn’t even talk, but she still had to open her mouth so that I could pour soup, bit by bit, onto her tongue. Against her will. Over and over and over. At one point, I paused to wipe her chin, which was a mistake. I had to start over with the negotiations: “Open your mouth, Lucía, you have to eat, open your mouth, open your mouth.”

I did finally finish but not without a great deal of convincing. A couple times, I had to convince her to swallow. Lucía did not want to eat. Either it was very painful or she had no interest in taking care of herself anymore. Possibly both.

A large portion of the American population sees the elderly as a burden, more a drain on society than a boon. We continually have to argue that simply because people are less capable than they once were does not mean that they are any less human. That day, I wanted to argue with Lucía, to convince her of her own worth. I wanted to let her know that it was important that she take care of herself not for my benefit, but for her own. That she had intrinsic value as a person. I wanted to convince all of the Little Old Ladies at L’acollida of this. I wanted to let them know how important they were in their own right and as role models for younger generations. I wanted them to feel worthy of eating, worthy of existing.

Lucía and the other residents might not have been as capable as they would have liked to be. They may not wear red hats or go out on the town with their friends. But they all still qualify as Little Old Ladies. They have more than earned that title. To be a Little Old Lady is simply to live a full life, to exist, to have formed your own personal history throughout the years. Little Old Ladies are full of life, whether they appear to be or not, simply because they have a grand collection of their own lived experiences inside them. .

I originally created this Spain blog to act as a “window to the world,” to allow residents of The Woodlands to experience something beyond the outer reaches of “The Bubble.” In being here, though, I’ve discovered that simply traveling does not comprise a means to a wider worldview. Instead, people comprise that. People are a window to the world, and serving them allows you to develop that window for yourself.

If you want to get out of The Bubble, simply talk to people. Go out in your community and have extensive conversations with Little Old Ladies. Hear their stories. Visit them. Exercise with them. They deserve your presence and your company, and you have so much to gain by being with them. By listening to their experiences, you can live those same lives secondhand. You can increase your own perspective and capacity for empathy.

I’ve said before that I was raised with an idea of service, and I will continue to argue the importance of human interaction. The first time I talked one-on-one with a Little Old Lady, I was about ten years old. I was certain that I had found the meaning of life. Now, I regularly exchange letters with my grandmother, and I love to hear about her experiences, both past and present, and to understand her perspective.

Service at L’acollida may have presented some challenges, but it also presented me with another opportunity to increase my perspective. I love talking to Little Old Ladies, with or without red hats, and I cannot wait to become one.

RSWanderer: Multilingual Conversations

Originally published on July 15, 2014 at RSWanderer, a travel blog on Woodlands Online detailing my experiences during a one-month study abroad program in Spain.

They started at Northeastern University. I hadn’t yet really gotten to know the people who have since become some of my closest friends, and we all needed to practice our various languages before entering college-level language courses.

The first one was quatrilingual. A somewhat messy conversation that was a mix of English, Spanish, French and American Sign Language. I spoke Spanish with bits of English; she spoke French with bits of English and began to teach me ASL, most of which I promptly forgot.

These conversations continued throughout the year, and we moved beyond the two of us to incorporate more people. One friend spoke Spanish and Italian; she wanted to practice the language before studying in Italy this summer. Another spoke German and was currently in one of Northeastern’s language classes.

At this point, we were up to four people and five languages, six if you count English, so talking to each other was interesting. There was a lot of gesturing (including actual ASL) involved to communicate effectively. The Spanish and Italian components could understand one another fairly well; the French required some deciphering of pronunciation; the German was moderately easy to understand if you were actually listening for the cognates.

Multilingual conversations were one of my favorite parts of my first year at Northeastern. Everyone involved plans to continue throughout the years, too, until we all have a basic understanding of Spanish, Italian, German and ASL as well as how languages interact.

So what does this have to do with this blog?

In Spain, most of my conversations have been multilingual. Bilingual, to be specific: English and Spanish. In Madrid, which people spoke English and which people spoke Spanish varied based on who we were talking to. At one restaurant, our waitress asked us if we would prefer English or Spanish, to which we replied, “Español, por favor,” and she gladly obliged. At a couple of other restaurants, we would speak in Spanish, and the waiters would speak in English and even bring us English menus. That was a little insulting. I was usually automatically spoken to in English because of my strawberry blonde hair and blue-green eyes. In the eyes of the Spaniards, I was probably just another American tourist who didn’t know any Spanish at all (“It’s like heteronormativity, but with languages!” I commented, a joke which I’m pretty sure was lost on my audience at the time).

In Valencia, it’s a different situation entirely. In class, of course, we aren’t allowed to speak any English at all. It would undermine the objective of the course. But the atmosphere of the class actually carries out onto the streets. Here, there is no sympathy for English-speaking tourists. Speak Spanish, or learn it quickly—that is what I’ve learned so far. Thankfully, my Spanish skills are good enough to be able to hold a conversation. I’ve actually come a long way in a few days (the word for Sunday is “domingo”).

But whereas multilingual conversations might be lost in the streets of Valencia, they are prevalent in one place: our residence, Colegio Mayor Ausias March. At the moment, there are 32 Americans from Northeastern, a group of about the same size from Washington State University and about 200 Italian high schoolers. The Italians are all fluent in Spanish, and they speak very fast and with Italian accents, which was very overwhelming the day we arrived. The few we’ve spoken to, we’ve conversed with in mostly Spanish.

There are various residents from other countries, too. Tonight, a 28-year old Ecuadorian joined our dinner table for one of the best multilingual conversations I’ve had in Spain.

“You speak English?” was his first question.

“Ah, un poquito español.”

“Ah, un poquito.”

And after that, we talked in a glorious conglomeration of English and Spanish, everyone at the table (there were three of us) switching almost seamlessly back and forth between the two languages. We talked about our hometowns, what we were studying, how old we were, the differences between Valencia and Madrid, different global perceptions of age. If I didn’t know a word in Spanish, I could just switch to English for a little while before transitioning back language of my temporarily adopted country.

It was fantastic. Multilingual conversations break down so many barriers at once. They eradicate linguistic barriers immediately, and they help diminish cultural barriers as well. At the same time, though, they allow us to appreciate other people’s as well as our own origins. And they are, as established in those first conversations at Northeastern, an excellent way to practice speaking different languages.

English may be the world’s lingua franca, but multilingualism es mejor.