Saturday, January 28, 2012

"How's it going?"

Here is a story of a little social experiment from 2007.  It made me reflect on my time living in Spain, the beautiful people that I met there, and what they have to teach us crazy Americans about living.

"In Washington DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, a man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After about four minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About four minutes later, the violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At six minutes, a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At ten minutes, a three-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent - without exception - forced their children to move on quickly.

At forty-five minutes: The musician played continuously. Only six people stopped and listened for a short while. About twenty gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

After one hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

If so, do we stop to appreciate it?

Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made…
How many other things are we missing as we rush through life?"


Here's a video of the footage at Metro Station. 

We're always running from one place to the next.  We end up letting the clock rule our days as we move through our often over-scheduled lives.  You may think I sound extreme, but I think this fosters what Blessed John Paul II called "the culture of death."  We're so wrapped up in our own lives, our own goals, that we're too busy to see or appreciate the beauty and dignity of the people around us. 

This made me think about my time studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain during my junior year of college.  

Salamanca's Plaza Mayor.  Here are the people, gathered to watch a concert as they eat, drink, and be merry.

When I arrived, I immediately noticed how much faster the Americans walked than the Spaniards.  Struck by this, I let my camera record my view as I walked from the Plaza Mayor to my home, and I walked at my usual pace.  It was Palm Sunday. 

As I rush by, I see the faces of the elderly among the infants and everyone in between.  They're all walking arm in arm, laughing and talking loudly with their wild arms, carrying their palms homeward where they'll have the midday meal as a family.  

"Domingo de Ramos" in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor (Palm Sunday)
Watching that video makes me sad.  Why was I in such a rush anyway?  Where was I hoping to go on a Sunday when everything was closed during the siesta hours?  

A few months after I took that video, my time in Spain was coming to an end and I was studying for my final exams at the local university.  I had become friends with one of the locals from one of my classes--Davíd.  After class, I asked him if he needed to make any photocopies for our upcoming exam.  He said he did but that he didn't have time to join me--he had to be somewhere in two hours.  Two hours?  What's the rush?  There's plenty that can get done in two hours!  

I laughed and told him I had never heard of a Spaniard being in a hurry.  I said it would only take him ten minutes to walk home in the small town of Salamanca, so I didn't understand why he was in such a rush.  He said that might be true if he were American.  I said I didn't understand.  He said he would inevitably run into all of his friends on our way to the photocopy machine, at the University buildings, and on his way home.  I asked him what the big deal was.  "Can't you just say that you're in a hurry, make your photocopies, and be on your way?"

Here came my lesson on Spanish culture.  "No, Catherine, I can't.  It doesn't work like that here.  If I see a friend, I am expected to have a real conversation.  You Americans are so strange.  You walk right by each other and say, 'Hey!  How's it going?' and you don't even stop or wait for the response.  You just keep on going.  If I see one of my friends, he or she will expect me to talk with them for more than a minute.  Anything less would be rude, and they would be offended.  Being in a hurry to get somewhere is no excuse.  So, imagine if I run into a lot of my friends, how much time that would mean it would take for me to get home."  I envisioned him exchanging the traditional kisses, having conversations with his friends having churros con chocolate in the café of the University building.  

Valor, the best spot for Spanish "hot chocolate" (think the consistency of a melted Hershey's bar!) and churros.
Man, those Spaniards know how to live. 

What Davíd said about us crazy Americans stung for the millisecond before I realized he was completely right.  I thought of all of the exchanges exactly like that that I had had with people on campus back in the United States.  Walking in front of the Union, on my way to and from class, running into each other off campus...  "How's it going?" was the new "Hi."  I don't even know how many times someone has asked me how I'm doing or how it's going, and I give my response to the air as they walk right on by.   

So, Davíd went on his way home, and I went to make my photocopies.  I continued on with my frenetic pace and arrived at the photocopy machine to find two chatty girls making copies together.  Did they not see me?  Hello?!  Couldn't they hurry up already?  C'mon, ladies!  Chop, chop!  I have places to go, and people to see...  

Wait, no I don't.  This is it.  This is exactly where I'm supposed to be as a student studying abroad.  Instead of looking at my watch and tapping my foot impatiently, I should be across the hall in the café with my classmates, eating those amazing churros and talking (borderline yelling like an authentic española) while I wait.  

No, I reasoned with myself.  If I do that, someone else will show up to make photocopies, and I'll have to wait another half an hour.  I better stay in line.   

Meanwhile, Davíd was leisurely making his way home, making time for all of the people he would see and the conversations he would have.  He built in time for these things.  He didn't see them as delays or inconveniences--they were welcome intermissions that he welcomed and looked forward to.  He probably even stopped at a café on his way home to have some tapas and a cerveza.  (After all, it's not polite to eat on the run in Spain.  I learned this the morning I walked to class as I ate a banana.  As my host mother told me, the proper thing to do is sit down to enjoy the meal.)     

I was the typical American, and Davíd was the typical Spaniard.  I was living to work.  He was working to live.

Davíd and his friends would have heard Joshua Bell playing that violin at Metro Station and probably would have stopped to listen.  I probably would have walked right past in my rush to make my train. 

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