Plus ça change, plus cest la même chose.
Roughly translated, thats French for The more things change, the more they remain the same.
In 2010, my daughter Alexa, then a freshman at Chapel Hill High School, played host to a French-speaking Belgian student at our home. My daughter had participated in a European exchange to France and Belgium the previous year, facilitated both by progressive teachers and administrators and a generous European Union grant, and it was our time to repay the favor by hosting Juline Verjans, a student from the Saint-Benoit / Saint-Servais School in Liege.
Along the way, Smith Middle School administrators, teachers, and chaperones employed recreation as a tool early and throughout the Belgian students visit. They enjoyed communal games and activities during a weekend away among visiting and hosting students to the YMCA Blue Ridge retreat center at Black Mountain near Asheville.
Two years hence, were again hosting another Belgian guest, one of a group of students, teachers, and chaperones arriving just over a week ago. In both cases, the Belgians fledgling understanding of English, and the Americans rudimentary practice of French posed inherent challenges, to say nothing of cultural differences. This much hasnt changed. In both instances, we, as host families, teachers, and organizers have resorted to other common languages to forge a meeting of minds: food, music, shopping, recreation and sports.
Activities and sports create a more relaxed environment where kids can be kids, said Robin McMahon, Smith Middle School French teacher and organizer of the American Exchange with Belgian counterpart Jean-Claude Labeye. They can laugh, and they can use their language skills to communicate on a more comfortable level. Sometimes, its easier to use actions to express what they want to say.
Vive La Difference
What has changed is that, this year, we are hosting a Belgian boy Robin Bigaranya.
Two years ago, sport was most certainly a formidable and universal tool in the creation of a language where words failed both males and females among us, and it was immediately evident that athletics was a language our female guest spoke fluently, being one of the premiere tennis players among Belgian youth. But more in tune with how the males interacted this time around, it was evident that while recreation and physicality facilitated communication among the young women, it was of absolute, paramount importance among the young men.
Having hosted both a male and female now, distinct differences were apparent. The American and Belgian girls chatted each other up; boys sized each other up.
Over the past week, it has become clear that boys were a little less eager to talk but all the more eager to try throwing an oddly-shaped leather ball theyd never set their hands upon before, or to throw down a hotdog and root-root-root for the home team, or take to a basketball court themselves.
Eleven and Counting
The current exchange taking place through this Friday, April 13 is the eleventh between Smith Middle School and the Saint-Benoit / Saint-Servais School in Liege, Belgium. Smith students visited Liege in 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2011; Belgians have visited Chapel Hill in 2003, 2006, 2008, 2010, and again this year.
Since 2007, Smith Middle has been awarded three grants from the European Union which have provided full or partial funding for travel abroad for over 20 teachers and 90 students, professional development, and community events such as Europe Day and a Euro-zone at a Global Connections event at Smith.
This year the grant provided funding for the students, their Belgian guests, teachers, and chaperones to visit Williamsburg, Virginia and the historic Jamestown colony on Monday and Tuesday of this week.
Hitting to All Fields
Understanding the importance of recreation in galvanizing the bonds between newfound friends, exchange organizers scheduled a trip for hosts and guests to see a UNC baseball game at Boshamer the evening of the Belgians first full day in North Carolina.
Even after a late start and very long rendition of a pastime which the Americans admittedly said was hard to explain and weary Belgians said was hard to understand, all agreed on the importance of such an event for a clearer insight into a new culture.
For me, it went long, Belgian student Martin Cajot said, smiling, so I think its better that we have to go together in (social) groups
but sports in the USA are different than the sports in Belgium. Its easier to speak through sports, because we teach another culture.
Sport is a universal language, Labeye agreed.
Hosts would certainly be remiss if, in Chapel Hill, the play and common understanding of basketball was not employed to forge stronger bonds of communication, especially given the sports universal, worldwide appeal beyond Tobacco Road.
Chapel Hill High School ninth grader Hugh Kelley, who is hosting a Belgian this week, said he and other hosts and guests alike met on the first full day of the visitors stay at Chapel Hills Homestead Park basketball courts for a pick-up game.
Its an easier way to communicate, Kelley explained. Everyone knows what to do, like with basketball, and if someone doesnt know, you just teach them. Baseballs a little bit harder, but with basketball theres not even much talking involved: you just play. Its like communicating without conversation.
Similarly, my son Harrison introduced his guest a huge NBA fan to the courts at the Chapel Hill / Carrboro YMCA where the Robins skills with a basketball were reportedly quite evident.
Not surprisingly, a high point on the following days four-hour tour of the UNC campus was a visit to the UNC Mens Basketball Museum in the Ernie Williamson Athletics Center, near the Dean E. Smith Activities Center. The visit culminated in an impromptu photo opportunity with Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams.
It was interesting listening to the kids explain to each other in the UNC basketball museum the history of basketball and its importance in Chapel Hill, remarked Jean-Claude Labeyes sister Nicole, who is visiting the U.S. for the first time.
Perhaps, as the Bard said, the plays the thing
In a country where we even assign point systems and win-lose structures to leisure activities like the throwing of Frisbees, sport for sports sake speaks well of the higher ideal at work. Where we allow sports and recreation to burst spontaneously into improvised pick-up games and free, unchoreographed activity, it blossoms like brilliant patches of wildflowers.
Its playing together, and that helps to form friendships where the kids are less self-conscious about failing, McMahon said. Learning a new language and culture, its important not to be afraid to fail and then to learn from it.
A Lesson Learned
In his book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, author Stanley Weintraub told of the miraculous cease-fire that occurred during the early winter of 1914 on the cold, muddy battlefields of Belgium.
Spontaneously, enlightened British and French soldiers left their trenches and offered to German soldiers handshakes, food and candy from care packages, and the challenge of a friendly soccer game.
According to the official war diary of a Saxon regiment, British and German soldiers kicked around a soccer ball supplied by a Scottish soldier. "This developed into a regulation match with caps laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter.
The game ended 3-2 for (Germany)."
Think about it. If a seemingly insignificant game almost a century ago might yield such a legendary legacy of peace and understanding among supposedly sworn enemies, imagine what might someday bloom from the seeds of fair play sewn this week among friends.
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