Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Minor Miracle

Picture this: one hundred thirty teenagers, aged 15-18, from all over the world. From Greenland, New Zealand, Honduras, Hong Kong, Italy, the USA, the Faroe Islands, etc. all gathered at an agriculturally-oriented boarding school in the middle of rural Upper Austria for a week's introduction to Austrian culture, the German language, and each other.
It's a gathering like no other you can imagine- no drugs, no alcohol, but lots of singing, dancing, being silly, being young, having fun, and recognizing that people from countries you've barely heard of can become close friends within a few hours. I had the opportunity to spend this past week as one of the counselors at the AFS Austria arrival camp and it was a great time as one would expect.
For those who don't know, I myself was an AFS exchange student in Austria, starting ten years ago this month (gulp). Although I only stayed six months in contrast with most students who spend a whole year, it was truly one of the defining times of my life. It gave me fluency in German, the feeling of being at home in the world, my first girlfriend, two of my best friends to this day, and lots of great memories.
AFS, which formerly stood for "American Field Service" but now is just an acronym, was started by former ambulance volunteers of the two world wars who wanted to found an organization to help prevent another war. So the ambulance volunteers decided to set up the world's largest, oldest, and most respected student exchange program, which now has programs in about forty countries and is expanding its offerings in Africa, the Middle East, India, and China.
True to its volunteer origins, AFS is one of the world's largest organizations that works largely on a volunteer basis. Some 10,000 volunteers or so help provide support for the students, organize arrival, mid-stay, and departure camps, and do all sorts of other jobs. I've never been to an AFS meeting or camp where I didn't have a great time- the energy of the kids and volunteers is palpable and contagious. Feeling this energy led me to do things such as the Swedish frog dance, introduce a guy from Greenland to the pasttime of playing catch, yell out "Yeah Polka!", and participate in all sorts of "energizers" which basically involve acting like an idiot while having a great time.
Bottom line: if you're a cynic, if you're looking to renew your faith in humanity, if you want to see a minor miracle in action, become a part of AFS- volunteer, host a student, or if you're in your teens, consider taking part yourself. You and the world will never be the same.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Olympics in Austria

I'll preface this post by saying that I haven't watched a minute of NBC's Olympics coverage, I've heard the ratings have been great, and that in contrast with previous games, much more additional coverage is available online. Still, having grown up watching numerous Olympics in the USA, I'm pretty sure how the deal works- for every minute of actual sports, there's a minute of human interest stories and a minute of commercials. To some extent, this can only be expected. Not too many Americans, myself included spend more than three seconds following synchronized diving, competitive archery, and equestrian (to name just three sports) in the four years between Olympics. So a little bit of introduction may well be in order.
In Austria (and Germany, and Greece too) however, the emphasis is clearly on the sports themselves. In smaller countries, people tend to be more familiar with their Olympians, even if their success pales in comparison to certain American athletes. To wit, the Austrian swimmer Markus Rogan, who had a disappointing games and failed to win a gold, was an A list star in Austria coming into Beijing. Michael Phelps, on the other hand, though now being compared to the likes of Tiger Woods, Secretariat, and Babe Ruth (and rightfully so) was hardly a household name in the USA, despite having won 8 medals, six of them gold in Athens.
There's no right or wrong here- it may very well be that the approach that the European countries take in broadcasting the Olympics is what Europeans like best, while Americans need a little background info. And to be fair, with four major sports leagues compared to just one in most European countries, this is only to be expected. Still, however, it's sometimes nice just to sit back, relax, and enjoy the water polo or fencing- no human interest stories, few commercials, and a minimum of commentary. Pure Olympic sport is beautiful and worth watching in its own right, even without Bob Costas.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Two excellent decisions

To this day, I maintain that one of the best decisions I ever made was made when I was six. That was approximately the age when I decided I would be an exchange student when the time came. Since my mother had been an exchange student in Brazil and had kept up with her family, I was already a little bit indoctrinated. However, it was really something I was always convinced of, and never did I ever really doubt that it was something I wanted to do.
And so, during first semester of senior year of high school, when everyone was stressing out over getting into college and AP courses and all that, I left it all behind and set off for Vienna, and life has never been the same since. Mostly, for the better. I had the privilege of going abroad with AFS, the world's finest exchange student organization, due largely to its lengthy history and worldwide volunteer network. While there were plenty of challenging times while overseas, it was all worth it in the end, as I came back much more mature, fluent in German, and with more than twice as many friends as I had had before.
So, that was the first excellent decision. The second has been to return to Vienna and Europe ten years after. Living over here allows me to pursue life and my dreams at my own, sometimes sclerotic, sometimes manic pace. I have more freedom living here than I ever could in New York, including not only freedom from the rat race, but freedom from being judged by guys and girls- which is an inevitable facet of living in most places in the USA, and especially New York. And also, I have the freedom to do things like start a doctoral study for free, travel to foreign countries about once a week, and the freedom to go to awesome Europe-wide AFS conferences, like the one I attended in France this past week. Certainly the most fun I've had in months- just a terrific bunch of friendly AFS volunteers from all over Europe (and some from the Americas, Africa, and Asia too) and a great chance to network. I made some great connections about my dream of reviving AFS in Morocco. Clearly I could never do it by myself, but with a bunch of friendly, motivated AFS volunteers and staff to help out, why not? And that would not only be fun and a great experience, but would also help out in reaching out to an Arab country that the USA and Europe could certainly use better relations with. Stay tuned.