At the beginning of the program, we watched a TED talk that explored the idea of locality. The author, Taiye Selasi, suggested that rather than ask other people “Where at you from?” a better, more accurate question would be to ask, “Where are you a local?” According to Selasi, your locality is the place or places in which you carry out rituals, have and form relationships, and are not do not feel restricted.
At first, to many of us American students this was a difficult concept. Unlike the author of the TED talk who had a diverse upbringing that spanned almost 40 years between Africa, Europe, and the Americas, most of us have lived in a few American cities for about half of her lifetime.
The idea of locality quickly became a joke, and I heard quips like “I walked from the program center to the bakery to get a brownie this afternoon without using a map; does that make me a local?” Or “When I fell down, I said madre mia instead of oh my god; that means I’m a local, right?” Though I am as guilty as anyone of joking about this, I’ve begun in the past few weeks to think much more deeply about what it would require for me to feel as local here in Madrid as I feel in St. Louis and the Boston area.
I thought especially hard about this during a quick day trip to Salamanca with some friends from my program. We took this bus there and back, which gave me 3 hours each way alone in the front row after a seating mix-up caused by a glitchy website. Something about staring out the windshield of the bus put me in a contemplative mood as we drove by miles and miles of the (very dry) Spanish countryside.
This was the fifth time that I had been out of the city in the same direction, and as we left Madrid I realized that I recognized where we were. Similarly, on the way back into the city, I recognized the silver arching overpasses that one encounters about 20 minutes into the suburbs. I’m a very visual person, so recognizing the landmarks around me is a way that I differentiate a place I consider “home” from one where I don’t. But unlike the characteristic feeling of home that I always get driving on I-93 to Tufts or flying over downtown St. Louis, I didn’t get the same feeling last week. Though it certainly felt like a more familiar drive than the previous time, it didn’t quite feel like coming home.
Obviously, I’ve been living in Madrid a significantly shorter time than either Boston or St. Louis, but I wondered, if I drove this route everyday for a week would I feel local? What about every weekend? Every month? To me, locality isn’t just something that will organically develop over time; it’s something that requires deliberate effort. You must connect with the culture, and therefore connect with the people who create that culture. This requires an acknowledgement and respect for their history, the formation of routines, and the creation of relationships to people and places.
This is difficult because our often-biased ideas about how people should live are derived from our own lives in the context of our own cultures, and can prevent us from fully engaging with and absorbing the culture in which we presently live. In order to truly become local, we must simultaneously challenge ourselves to let go of these prejudices and participate in the culture in which we hope to become local to by challenging those around us. Though tough, I believe that actively taking steps (no matter how small) to become a local will not only speed up the process, but also make the process more enjoyable. And I’m certain we’ll learn more this way: which after all is why we’re here.