Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Learning from Barbara

Barbara, Daddy and friends Photo: Nadejda Loumbeva

The quick read
In April 2012, LEAD Europe Cohort 16 Fellows and friends set up home in a villa on the edge of Sintra, an historic town near Lisbon. Matias, our host, provided the local knowledge and took us to beautiful places. We lived in an eco-friendly, creatively decorated hostel, with a huge marble kitchen table at its heart. Everything about the building encouraged communal living, including the toilets that had no doors. We had no agenda, and no formal roles and responsibilities. Things emerged. No-one got food poisoning. We are planning the next reunion already.

In Sintra we talked, cooked, ate, drank, and walked. We visited palaces and gardens. Frank told us about the history of Sintra. Pedro sang for us at supper. Our biggest challenge was decision-making. Matias, our leader by common consent, tried to help us make up our minds. One evening when his wife called to ask when we were going to eat, Matias said “Things are taking a little time. When you have 20 people with 20 opinions...” In Sintra, which is a small town and easy to navigate, we acted as if we had some intention to live independently. Some adventurous souls even went to a restaurant without any help. When we decamped to Lisbon, however, we became entirely dependent on Matias. “What can we see? How do we get there? How do we pay for the tram?”

Accepting oneself and other people
The person who made the biggest impression on me was Ralph’s daughter, Barbara, aged 3. Barbara showed me, aged 50 something, how to be. Barbara shared her bedroom with 5 snoring men most graciously. She got on with her sleeping, waking, washing, and dressing routines without a trace of self consciousness. The men complained about the snoring, the beds, and the toilets. I worried about fitting in, about being older in a younger group, and most of all I worried about getting caught in the toilet with no doors. Barbara just was.

Barbara navigated our cosmopolitan community with aplomb. She spoke fluent German and French. While Barbara was comfortable with adults she hardly knew, she was obviously delighted when Matias’ young daughter appeared. “C’est  ma copine”, she announced. When Barbara was pleased with me, she licked my hand. When I was annoying, Barbara gave me imaginary ‘coups de marteau’.

Gender Neutral
Barbara insisted on keeping her rag and her doll with her at all times. When I asked Barbara if her doll was a girl or a boy she told me firmly that it was neither a girl nor a boy. “C’est un bebe”.

Giving and receiving help
Barbara’s biggest day was on the Sunday when we went to the beach. Barbara had two falls, one on the cliff path when she got a bruise, and one in the sea when a wave knocked her over. When a child falls and cries, I freeze. I don’t know what to do or how to help. When she fell, Barbara was shocked and tearful. She had signs of bruising on her knee. After a while she recovered.

Barbara’s second fall happened when we were paddling in the sea. The waves seemed quite gentle. A few of us were knee deep in the water. Barbara was somewhere behind us. Then a larger wave came. I turned and Barbara was floating face down in the water. She didn’t get up. It took longer than I expected for 3 or 4 of us to run through the waves to pick her out of the water. 

Barbara’s clothes were soaked. Fortunately Ralph, her father, was carrying a complete change in his bag. One minute I was thinking how quickly a family outing could turn into something else. The next I was watching a protective team of adults getting Barbara out of her wet things, drying her, and dressing her. Barbara accepted the towelling and changing exercise as if she were Marilyn Monroe between takes. Her face was beatific. When Barbara fell into the water, we didn’t have any difficulty making decisions. We acted as a team.

Learning from Barbara
What I learned from Barbara was how to be myself in a group where previously I had been a leader. Being a leader can be a good way to hide. In Sintra, I was part of the group, and I felt OK. We were living in a different place, and people took on different roles. Cooks, food shoppers, and dish washers were self selecting. We managed the transition from single rooms in catered accommodation to shared rooms and self catering. We found purpose in being together without a schedule. I slept better in a room with 4 snoring men and a 3 year old girl than I do by myself at home. Barbara showed me how to cope with a toilet with no doors.