Gary Garrison: Opinion: Conversing across the ocean

·4 min read

Jul. 3—In a small city in the north of Spain that I had never heard of, I rode to work with a man who spoke no English. He was a generation older than me, tall and solidly built. He had lived in Vitoria-Gasteiz his whole life, and he had worked at the school where I had just started as an English teacher as a jack-of-all-trades for longer than he could remember. He was kind and jovial and exactly the sort of person you want to befriend.

If, before arriving in Spain, I had studied Spanish with the tenacity I had intended, these car rides through the Basque hills would not have been so interesting. Because we could not communicate, and because Javi's patience knew no bounds, every day was a linguistic tango. Most days we would listen to Javi's English CDs. He repeated the carefully enunciated English, while I stumbled and stuttered over the splendorous, swift Spanish — it was all way beyond our grasp.

But, when the CDs weren't playing, we talked — no matter the fact that we could hardly talk at all. We talked about politics. We talked about history. We talked about ourselves. Every sentence was an exercise in creative communication. It was Spanglish for beginners. We phrased and rephrased. We substituted words. We used our hands. Occasionally, when all else had failed, I resorted to the translator on my phone. And always, by the time I got home, my head ached with exertion.

Still, despite the obstacles that complicated our conversations, we managed to communicate. Week after week, we got to know each other. I learned about Javi and Spain and Vitoria-Gasteiz, and, I like to imagine, Javi learned about me and the United States and Colorado.

I have been thinking a lot about Javi lately, because I've been thinking a lot about communication, about how to talk across divides, about how people from different worlds can learn from each other.

I have been thinking about these things, because I now have the great fortune of being the new opinion editor for the Daily Camera. Dan Mika introduced me in a generous profile last Sunday, and now it is my turn to say hello.

While I was not born in Colorado, and thus cannot claim a "native" sticker, I grew up here in the Rocky Mountains, went to college here, got married here. Then, like so many young Coloradans, I had an itch to see the world. I started slow: Arizona, Missouri, Minnesota. After that came China and Spain and all the wondrous joys of immersion in a new culture.

Now, it is my hope that these experiences will serve as a reliable guiding light. Because, more than ever, we are in need of a path toward careful, deliberate communication. The world we are living in continually redefines the meaning of unprecedented. Our rights are changing. The electoral process at the heart of our democracy is no longer trusted by the majority of one of our political parties. And our ability to combat climate change is being curtailed.

It feels like we are a nation divisible, with liberty and justice for some. Many of us — left, right and center — have confined ourselves to comfortable but insulated bubbles. The news we consume is often designed to comport with our beliefs, no matter the truth. The outcome is that we are unable to even converse with those across the aisle — though the aisle now feels more like an ocean.

How, then, do we communicate? How do we listen? How do we learn, once again, to empathize with one another? These questions are not novel. They are not revelatory. We have all heard them before. But they are questions that don't yet have answers, which makes them questions that still need asking.

It is my hope to use this space to ask these questions. To create a vibrant and diverse Opinion Page where everyone is welcome to speak. Where people — of all races, backgrounds, cultures, gender identities and sexual orientations — can have their voices heard. Where, together, we can do the dirty, difficult, headache-inducing work of communicating.

That said, it is not my intention to overhaul these pages, though there certainly will be changes. Some, like upcoming changes to the publication timeline for letters and endorsements for the midterm elections, will be relatively small. Others might be bigger. But all will strive toward creating an evermore inclusive, spirited and informative community dialogue.

Back in Spain, in that car on those rolling Basque roads, Javi and I spent a year trying to communicate. My Spanish got (marginally) better, his English improved, but we never had a normal, simple conversation. It was always work. But it was always worth it. I always learned something. And it all happened because he was patient.