Unschooling Europe, Unschooling Culture

The whole story of their adventure, how it started and why they went together, on their own, at ages 18 and 19 with no adult or group planning and supervision, can be read in their own contemporaneous words by clicking here and going back to the earliest post first, then reading forward chronologically.

But I think now it really started long before that, with the young women they were becoming, how they were thinking and feeling and engaging ideas and culture (and each other) on intellectually meaningful plains, refusing to settle for cultural crap and idiot answers to Life’s big questions. They unschooled Europe because they unschooled themselves first. Something like that.

So here, again in their own words, is how Favorite Daughter and her friend Kiki came to Unschool Europe. (Hint: there’s no curriculum or instruction for this, and no standardized test to measure it!)


“French Cultural Project”
Sunday, November 16, 2008

I had to have a cultural experience for my French class, so I decided to have a fictional conversation with Kiki (based, of course, upon things we've said before). I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out, because it's very narrative, and stands on its own as an essay, so I wanted to share.

Kiki was a little surprised when I called her for a lunch date, because our next scheduled “girls’ afternoon out,” is next Friday, when she’s dragging me to give blood again. Kiki loves giving blood with a fervor that can only be felt by a pre-med bio-chemistry major with a latent sense of civic responsibility.

“Keeks,” I said, “I want to see you. We need to catch up, and it’s a complete coincidence that my French cultural experience paper is due on Monday.”

“I’m your cultural experience?” she sounded both flattered and delighted, which was my intention. “You are constantly my cultural experience,” I said. We met at Chili’s, our traditional haunt, and, at my request, proceeded to discuss French and American culture, with an emphasis on what overlaps and what doesn’t.

Among all my friends, Kiki is the most qualified to have a metaphysical discussion about culture, especially if that culture is Francophone. She is an ex-patriot while still actively American, a European trapped in North American skin. Her family hails from Belgium, and even though her bilingual mother and grandmother live here, she still has a handful of uncles, aunts, and cousins living in Fayt-le-Franc.

“They had to drag me out of there kicking and screaming the last time I visited,” she tells me.

Kiki was born in Chattahoochee, excelled in the American school system, and to all outward appearances seems like a perfectly ordinary American girl. Talk to her for a few minutes, though, and you start to forget she’s lived here for almost twenty years. She’s fluent in French, and she once mocked me for spelling the word realized with a “z” (“and you’re an English major!”), which led to a mutual discovery that she spells words as though she were British. She lives and dies with the results of the World Cup and Le Tour de France – perhaps her one true strain of American-ness comes out in her adoration of Lance Armstrong.

“Oh, I know a golden cultural moment,” she tells me now, “Do you remember that time you got confused about the difference between football and soccer?”

“Yes,” I sighed, “but I don’t understand why the story is known as the time I got confused. This is my country, you know.”

Whoever got confused, she’s right about the story. I think it almost perfectly crystallizes our cultural differences.

“Hey, Mer,” she prodded me in the lobby of a fancy hotel, “check out those hot football players.” I immediately looked at the TV in the bar, broadcasting the Miami game, marveling at her eyesight. “No, no, no, no,” she scolded, rolling her eyes and pointing at the team of uniformed soccer players standing a few feet away.

“Ok, two can play at that game, soccer girl,” I challenge as the waitress refills our drinks and gives me a funny look.
“What about that time you asked me who John Adams was?”

“I still don’t know why that bothered you so much.”

I hadn’t known why it bothered me so much, either, at first. It was a simple question, asked in one of Kiki’s most un-American moments: “Mom and I have been having a debate, and perhaps you can settle it,” she’d said, and, expecting something literary, my area of expertise, I asked her what was on her mind.

“Who was John Adams?” came the question, almost stopping my heart. “Mom keeps saying he was the first postmaster general of the U.S., but I’m pretty sure that’s wrong.”

A yawning abyss opened before me, and time seemed to slow. Who was John Adams? He was my all-time favorite founding father, for starters. He was a lawyer, a farmer, a revolutionary, a brave and honest man, a patriot. He was loud, he was principled, he was disliked, he was a framer of the constitution. I finally settled on the answer that I would have given had I been on a game show: “He was the second president of the United States.”

This did not seem nearly adequate. I wanted to grab Kiki, to keep her there indefinitely, until I could properly articulate everything this dead man, this name, meant to me. But part of me knew that I would never do it in a lifetime. There was no way to communicate all the paradigms and knowledge of a people, of my people, in mere words. It is something that must be lived.

I know that Kiki feels the same frustration with me sometimes, usually for language reasons. I often ask her to tell me the story of her grand-mère, a woman made of steel who fled Belgium during WWII and somehow wound up walking barefoot through a Middle Eastern desert. It is our quiet ambition to someday write a bestseller based upon her bizarre experiences, and the title would be a phrase that Kiki cannot quite translate.

“In English, the closest I can get it is something like, ‘Muslims work in mysterious ways,’” she told me, “But, man, that isn’t quite right. It’s so much better in the French. So much more beautiful.” She looks at me, and I shrug, free and unburdened with the complexity that plagues the bilingual.

This is why Kiki and I work so well together: we make one another proud of our heritages. Not because each of us feels that hers is superior in comparison, but because in teaching someone about your culture, you experience it in a truer, fresher way than you could have by yourself.

“I remember the moment we really became friends,” I tell her now.

“Well, that’s one of us. Enlighten me.”

We were in a hotel room, on a trip with a larger group, thrown together as roommates by random assignment. Kiki, trying to be nice, pulled out a CD to play as we got ready to go out, and I got my first taste of Edith Piaf. Hers was a strangely enchanting music, not technically proficient or classically beautiful, but nonetheless compelling and rich.

“I like this,” I remember saying, “What is it?” Here, Kiki had a John Adams moment as she tripped all over herself to explain a beloved national icon. “My grandmother says that her voice is the sound of Paris,” was the phrase that stuck with me.

The next day, it was time to put on music again, and Kiki politely deferred to me.

“Kiki,” I said, “Put Edith on again.”

In that moment, our eyes met, cultures overlapped, and a friendship was formed, one that I feel truly privileged to be a part of.

4 responses

5 08 2009
Seeds of Unschooling Europe Planted In Culture Curiosity « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Unschooling Europe, Unschooling Culture […]

17 01 2010
Who Cares About Haiti? « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Unschooling Europe, Unschooling Culture […]

11 02 2010
Favorite Daughter’s Upcoming Musical Coverage « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Unschooling Europe, Unschooling Culture […]

15 09 2010

Given current events, maybe I should’ve subtitled this post, “Muslims work in mysterious ways.” Snook would be famous! 😉

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