They say the best things in life are free, and I think they’re referring to things like love, sunshine, and Fridays. Generally, I agree with “them,” whoever they are with the power to write timeless maxims, but I would propose that they add one more item to the list: Intercultural Focus Groups. Thousands of miles from the people I love, hours after the sun’s descent, and three whole days from Friday, I have happily sat in IFG on Tuesday nights all semester without forking over a single penny. Or euro penny, or however money works here.
And I mean, fine. One could argue that my parents already paid 3,116,131 euro pennies for me to study on the Tufts-Skidmore Spain program this semester, so maybe I’m slightly stretching the definition of free by applying it to IFG, but hey! I took Intro to Econ last fall, so I can assure you that at this point, tuition is a sunk cost. It’s enormous, but it’s done and dusted. IFG is just a cherry on top.
Actually, it’s more than a cherry. It’s several plastic sleeves of chocolate cookies (including gluten-free ones!) placed in white bowls on a long rectangular table in the program center’s cozy library, and it’s the people sitting around the table, too. To be frank, I’m not a big fan of chocolate, but I am a fan of the people sitting around the table. That’s why I keep returning to IFG. For the first several weeks of the semester, the program mandated that every student attend these meetings, and I understand why. We discussed the themes that dominated our days as we got acclimated to Spanish culture; we noted cultural differences big, bigger, and biggest (restaurants charging for water, people speaking very directly, and elevators not having door-closing buttons, respectively).
For what it’s worth (something like two euros), restaurants won’t charge for water if you’re careful. If you master the phrase “un vaso de agua, por favor,” you’ll be spared the indignation for paying for that most vital of fluids. Let me speak directly, though: no force on earth can spare you the agitation of waiting for a Spanish elevator to close.
The average wait time for the closing of a Spanish elevator is about four weeks, and conveniently enough, that’s how long it took for the program to feel confident that all of us students knew more about Spanish life than just paella and bullfighting. They gave us the go-ahead to spend Tuesday nights on our own, but the next week, as 7:10pm drew near, some inexplicable, irresistible force tugged me toward IFG. At the time, I called it procrastination on my literature homework. At this point, I can better name the force. I call it good conversation.
For me, the forces behind that force are two Tufts graduates from the recent past: Génesis García and Lucy Fell. The thing is, those might not be their real names. They might actually be superheroes – English teachers in local schools by day, IFG leaders by night. Admittedly, I’ve yet to see them wear capes; Génesis prefers oversized sweatshirts with leggings, and Lucy sports a soccer jacket, but they possess the extraordinary power to tackle tough topics with grace. In the most recent session, for example, we grappled with the weight of expectations; we compared how we had anticipated spending our semesters with how we have actually spent our semesters. In my case, I confessed that I had intended to speak not a lick of English here.
Little did I know that IFG sessions would be conducted exclusively in English, and littler did I know that I wouldn’t mind. Since the sessions became voluntary, attendance has dwindled to the point that now, a reliable cohort of some four or five students shows up for the weekly cookie/convo combo. I like the intimacy, though. When Lucy jokes about her teenage crushes that didn’t pan out, she makes us laugh without needing to raise her voice even a little. When Génesis replies that you can’t have a relationship with potential, it takes her but a moment to catch the eye of each of us in turn. There is truth in her words, and there is conviction on her face. We temporary philosophers nod in reflective appreciation, and when I say that my semester is better for having attended IFG, I mean it very seriously.
If the best things in life are free, then here’s some free advice. Based on what I learned in IFG this week, expectations can be unproductive. Sure, they give us the illusion of control by shedding some artificial light on future uncertainty, but inevitably, reality will diverge from the comfy figments of our imagination. Thus, future students of the Tufts-Skidmore Spain program, I leave you with this: Come to Madrid with few expectations, and more than anything, go to IFG.
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