Monday, July 12, 2010

Europe 2010 - Salzburg - Day 5 of 12

I awoke in a swamp of stagnant hot air. The fan, a luxury in a room without air conditioning, seemed only to circulate the same stale funk. Rifling through my bag, I realized that I'd already worn through most of my clothes (I packed few, dreading the thought of checking luggage on an international flight). Thus it was time for a bit of laundry. I enjoyed the pure, honest labor of soaking my clothes in a soap-water filled sink, squeezing out the excess and hanging my stuff up to dry. The heat hung so heavily that I wondered if I'd gotten sick. Then I stepped outside and felt a temperature drop of at least 10 degrees. Somehow I'd have to find a way to fix the circulation in my room.

Lake behind Meierhof
My energy picked up in the morning meetings, with guests who spoke as persuasively about teaching methods as they did about their topics related to globalization. I was amazed to hear speakers who know, really know, how to engage an audience and draw even reticent participants into active learning. Merely saying, "Get up. Let's do something," isn't enough. The activity must be deeply connected to learning objectives and timed to provide opportunities for conversation and reflection. High from the experience, and still surely a bit silly from all those previous late nights, I committed to writing a report about my experiences to several folks on campus. It was a happy realization that I was learning something profound and worth sharing. I'd even finalized my post-Salzburg plans: I'd take a train to Vienna and sit in cafes all day, drinking coffee and writing brilliant things. I knew that nothing I'd produce would merit such superlatives. But I was hooked on the idea nonetheless. At once, Austria, Europe, the world seemed accessible to me.

Rear of the Schloss in afternoon
In the afternoon I toured the palace a bit more. We'd done a rousing introductory walk upon arrival but I enjoyed the opportunity to go at my own pace, studying the paintings closely and wishing that I knew more about mythology. So many of the works demanded some understanding of gods and their associated virtues and vices; each a course on living for good or ill. Our tour guide offered some hints, explaining at one point that we were looking at Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Only later would I learn that the figure was actually Athena. A small difference in letters; a large difference in meaning.

Schloss painting
I also began a habit that would last through the week: walking around the lake and communing with geese and ducks that make their homes nearby. Those geese proved to be more territorial than I anticipated, though. They'd waddle up with bold expectations that I'd brought them some lunch and hiss with displeasure (and a hint of menace) once they saw that I'd shown up empty-handed.

Righteously angry goose
Backing away from one especially tough customer I promised not to make the same mistake again. Circling the water's edge, I enjoyed the sight of guys lounging on the grass, fishing poles dipping into the lake. Bikers rolled by and parents pushed children in strollers. I wondered what it'd be like to live here. Through what complex portals must one pass to end up in a place like Salzburg, lakeside, living a quiet life of long walks and dappled light?

Returning to my theme group, despite my feelings of optimism that I might have turned a corner in understanding the emerging dynamic, I stumbled back into the same disquieting sense that I just can't work with large groups. Initially I was willing to follow the general consensus, but it didn't take long to lose my patience when the group seemed unwilling to stick to its shared commitments, when directions would give way to meanderings. Once more I felt confused and alone. Leaving the aura of laughter and connection I couldn't seem to join, I felt a heavy sadness.

Schloss chapel statue
Frustrated, I walked into town. How could I have isolated myself so rapidly from these people? I flashed back to a memory my mother shared with me once, a time when I was a kid watching other kids hurtle down a playground slide, one after the other, with nothing but bland repetition to show for their efforts. I knew there was a better way to play, a game that could transform the slide into something more than its obligatory use. I tried to teach the other kids my cool game, but no one wanted to follow my lead back then. Perhaps nothing had changed.

Schloss garden statue
Only when I returned to the Schloss did I commit to trying again, joining a smaller group of SJSU colleagues in relaxed conversation. They welcomed me genuinely and tolerated my introduction of an anxious and somewhat angry vibe to the chat, allowing me to process some of my feelings about the day. No one directly engaged my wayward comments; it almost felt that we all were speaking in our own directions at first. Yet in turns we settled into a convivial chat about our common love of teaching and our disdain for much of the bureaucratic silliness that passes for public life on our campus.

Library putto
Our gears meshed, almost imperceptibly, and we joined the same track of words. I felt better. I took from this moment a realization that I must learn and relearn. I can make a meaningful contribution to a group only when I cease trying to control its outcomes. Working alone I enjoy the freedom of pure self-direction. But the price of that freedom is solitude. Sometimes groups, for all their frustrations, are better. Tomorrow I'd try again. Returning to my room, I heard the chatter of rain drops. After days of growing heat when every break called for a shower back at the Meierhof, Salzburg summoned a thunderstorm so fierce that the walls shook and the lights flickered. Maybe the heatwave was breaking up after all.

Day 4 | Day 6

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