We first met at the Civil rights museum, both sides nervous but eager to accept and communicate. They were all strikingly good looking, and I was immediately struck by the impulse to correct my posture and extend my warmest smile. I had never before heard of a student exchange. Two schools swap students to meet, greet, and otherwise exchange ideas. I knew there would be writing. I knew there would be a reading in which I would be required to bare my soul to the world. And of course, there would be the ever-present conceptualization of space.
As we browsed the opening exhibit, I thanked the heavens that we had some external form of stimulation to discuss. Meeting people can be exhausting. As the exhibits led from domestic artifacts to a darker room of translucent portraits hung from the ceiling and foreboding against the backdrop of white-hooded, white-men, the tone deepened. I was weighed down by ancestral, white- guilt; I regretted bringing them here. They were unfamiliar with the South, and we chose to bring them here? In planning the itinerary, I tagged the Civil Rights Museum as a historic blurb before we got down to the business of literary conversation, but it was a gut-wrenching reminder of our cultural heritage, our shameful past, and the constant struggle for equality. I guess our visit to the Civil Rights Museum set the tone for honesty. We confessed the worst of our Southern culture before showing off our cuisine, our campus, and ourselves.
On the car ride home, one of the DePaul Students remarked that the Birmingham city and highway landscape was similar to his home in Cleveland, and his home in Chicago. “How quickly we homogenize” He said. It is true that cities across America are similar. The differences are in the details. How do you dress, where do you go at night, what do you feel when you are surrounded by people? There are city dwellers vs. suburbanites, East vs. West, North vs. South, and all the overlays that comprise a place. I cannot think of a better way to experience a city than by communing with the locals. Although I was not able to experience Chicago this way as of yet, the chance is not lost! Perhaps in August I’ll tag along with Katarina to Lollapalooza. I can look forward to more conversations of place, of space, and of beginnings within!
The exchange experience as done by Slashpine is one of the most genuine informal ways to learn about the heart of a city: its people. If it had a tourist-travel-pack modeled after it, I would recommend it. I had the opportunity to host four of the kindest people I have ever met, and for this, I am grateful.