Alcala de Henares: Meeting of Hearts, Minds & Languages

A close encounter resulting from bridging language barriers!

My colleague Veronica and I were in beautiful Alcala de Henares, Spain, 45 minutes from Madrid by train and the oldest University town in the world,  built in the 1500s based on the vision of the brilliant Cardinal Jiminez de Cisneros .  We were there to meet and listen to scholars from around the world doing work on interpretation in conflict zones!  Veronica had been invited to present on “Overcoming the Language Barrier in Providing Services to Internationally Trafficked Persons“.  It served as a fitting culmination of MCIS’ year-long project developing the training on addressing human trafficking for the Ministry of the Attorney General for Ontario, that she had led.  I was along to meet up with academic friends and to learn from new and cutting edge developments in the field.  There were many interesting conversations and learnings about the field of interpretation.

However the most touching and enduring learning on the importance of bridging language barriers came from an experience that occurred outside the conference venue!

It all started in the cafeteria at lunch time when the waiter pointed to a middle aged man at another table who wanted to buy us coffee when he had heard we were from Canada.  We were surprised and charmed.  He was a regular guy in his late 50s with glasses, grey hair and a stocky form.  Nothing remarkable.  Then the waiter brought over this man’s folder and pointed to a newspaper clipping.  Two killed in a landslide in Alberta, Canada.  One of them his daughter.  Just two weeks ago.   What heartbreak!  We approached him and realized he did not speak any English and we likewise Spanish.  So we beseeched a beautiful young Spanish interpreter Doris, also attending the conference, to help us and through her, offered our condolences.  He reciprocated by inviting us on a tour of his city where he has been a policeman for 36 years!  So at 8:30 p.m at the end of the day’s conference proceedings, we met him on the grounds of the well-lit University, with our young volunteer interpreter.

Thus started an enchanted evening with him taking us on a walking tour of this historic city.  He regaled us with stories of the place’s history and peoples who had occupied it – the Muslims, Jews and Christians showing us how the quarters that had housed them were clearly demarcated with symbols, the menorah, the crescent moon and the cross!  We were awestruck by the architecture of those spaces and tenements, the summer and winter palaces, both museums now, the ancient courtyards and squares.  We took pictures everywhere including beside the sculptures of the magnificent Cervantes, commemorated to this day with a literary prize in his name, handed out later this month to a writer of a Spanish work, by the King Juan Carlos on the premises of this very University.  I remembered fondly excerpts from the classic Don Quixote that I had read as a child and realized happily that I was in the place where that great work had been authored.

Our friend Angel interspersed his tour with titbits about his deceased daughter.  That she had been employed as an engineer and had just moved to Canada 5 months ago to work in the oil and gas industry.   That she had previously worked as a tour guide in this very town and he felt closer to her as he took us around and played our guide.

Our tour included a peek inside the Town Hall and Council Chamber, not open to the public, and a viewing of exquisite paintings that those walls had on display!  It included many little titbits that only a son of that soil would know so intimately

Time flew by and we realized we were hungry because it was past 10 p.m.  We were then feted with a delicious Spanish meal at a local haunt, where we were welcomed like house guests.  After a quick exchange between our guide and the restaurant chef, the beautiful waitress piled our table with an exquisite array of local dishes – salads, croquettes, egg preparations, bread, cheese and the freshest olives I have ever tasted.  It was a communal meal where we shared everything, digging in with our forks!

As we sat there utterly content after our delicious meal, our friend drew out a woman’s wallet to pay for the meal and placed on our table the IDs and credit cards of a beautiful young woman who no longer had any need for them.  We listened as he showed us her equestrian pictures on his smart phone and as he, with considerable restraint, whispered in a quiet voice that he had just buried her, less than a week ago, last Saturday.

It was close to midnight when he dropped us off at our hotel, offering to take us to other sites over the next couple of days and to the airport, on Sunday!

And of course, he made us promise we would come back with our families and give him a call!  We would not have to worry about a thing, he assured us!  We thanked him profusely for his kindness and generosity and he responded, “it’s you I have to thank for this privilege.”  Of course I couldn’t understand why!

We went to bed with sadness in our hearts but overwhelmed with the beauty of the place and the sheer experience of profound humanity that had pervaded that evening!  All of which had been made possible only because we had beautiful Doris by our side acting as his voice and ours!



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