My wife and I lived in Scotland for a couple of years. And, in many ways, making the transition to Scotland was much easier than moving to a place like Papua New Guinea. The language and culture of Scotland are similar enough to America that we could navigate through society fairly easily.
One thing we noticed, though, is that when two cultures are rather similar, it really makes the differences stand out. You have a nice breakfast with bacon, eggs, and toast, all things that any American would be quick comfortable eating, and then they hit you with some smoked haddock, which will stay with you all day long…and then some. You get the hang of driving on the other side of the road, and then you run across a road sign you’ve never seen before. (It took me a long time to figure out what the “no parking” sign was trying to tell me.)
When something seems mostly familiar, the differences really stand out.
That’s been my experience this week. In many ways, the summer camp that we’re helping with in Slovakia is just like the many camps I’ve attended in America. And that’s not surprising given that my church in America has a long-standing partnership with this one. We’ve been helping with camps here for years, and many of the Slovak leaders have interned at my church for as long as a year. So the games, the format of the evening program, the small groups, the free time, these all feel like home.
And, as I discussed in my last post, the students here face the same challenges as early adolescents everywhere. So even new students are old friends.
But the similarities just make the differences stand out that much more.
What do I mean? Here are six differences between a Slovakian summer camp and one in America. Or, to be more accurate, here are six differences between this Slovakian summer camp and the ones I’ve attended in America.
1. Would you like some potatoes with your potatoes?
Whenever you travel in a new country you expect to eat some interesting food. That’s part of the fun. But when you mix the novelty of foreign food with the notoriously cooky cuisine of a summer camp, that’s a recipe for gastrointestinal goulash. I won’t take time to list the creative cooking we’ve seen so far, but I would like to get a picture of some of the American faces every time they bring out a plate filled with some kind of potatoes!
2. Summer camp? There’s an app for that.
When I started youth ministry, the big challenge was to make sure that no one had slipped a Walkman into their luggage. And nothing really changes. Students like technology and they’ll always bring along whatever gadgets are popular at the time. So I wasn’t surprised to see quite a few smartphones mixed in with the students this week. What did surprise me is that the Slovak leaders were just fine with the students having them. So during free time, you’ll see quite a few students scattered around the main lounge (the best place to get a decent wifi signal) playing games and chatting on Facebook.
From what I can see, though, there is one important difference in how they’re using the technology. One of the main reasons we always banned technology from camps and trips is because of the way it isolated students from each other. Slip your headphones on, and you might as well have stayed at home. But this seems different. I’ve seen very few headphones (I’m sure they keep them in their rooms). Instead, the students use their smartphones in small groups, talking constantly as they play their games. So I’m not sure that it’s any less social than playing basketball or swimming.
3. A new twist on the “open door” policy.
Compared to Europeans, Americans are prudes. We’re much more sensitive to sexuality. Walking around town our first few days, I immediately noticed the difference. I haven’t seen so many “short shorts” and tight tank tops since The Dukes of Hazzard went off the air. And visiting the high school camp during swim time last week, it was clear that the “no bikinis” rule doesn’t apply here. (But could we at least consider a “no speedos” rule? Please?) So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a similarly relaxed approach to accommodations. But I was anyway.
During my time in youth ministry, I’ve seen kids dropped on their heads, pushed through windows (twice), stranded in Mexico (long story), and otherwise battered, bruised, and endangered in countless ways. But we’d never give middle school boys and girls rooms right next to each other. And if we were forced to for some reason, we certainly wouldn’t let them freely move in and out of each other’s rooms, sometimes even closing the door (gasp!). But that’s obviously something they’re not as concerned with here. I’ve even had to explain to a couple that they really need to knock before entering the room that my family is in. I’m all about transparency and authenticity with students, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
4. “Tubing” at summer camp.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into our room was the television perched on the desk in the corner. A television? At summer camp? That seemed a little odd, but I assumed it was probably just something we had because we were leaders. Nope. All the rooms have them. And the kids use them. I hear that several of them watched Hot Shots! Part Duex the first night. Others preferred Two and a Half Men and NCIS. Of course, I suppose if they didn’t have TVs in their rooms, they’d just watch movies on their smartphones anyway. (Update: That’s exactly what a few of them did last night. This time it was Scary Movie IV.)
We unplugged ours and moved it onto the floor so we could use the desk. As a bonus, it gives us another “table” for clothes and stuff.
5. A wizard is never late.
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf declares, “A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” That is the perfect line for understanding the Slovokian approach to schedules. Americans are used to running a pretty tight ship at camps. Games start at 10:00 and run for precisely ninety minutes. That gives you thirty minutes to clean up before lunch begins at noon. And so it goes. Be on time, or you’ll miss out. Slovaks, on the other hand, are all about flexibility and relaxation. They can spend hours just “hanging out.” (If I tried that with American middle schoolers, I’d go crazy from having to hear “I’m bored” all the time. Not here. We do have a schedule for our camp, and I consult it regularly. I’m not sure why. I can’t quite seem to break the habit of thinking that the schedule should have something to do with when we actually do things. I realize now how silly that is.
6. It’s independence day.
Americans pride themselves on their freedom and independence. And then we monitor everything the students do at summer camp. As a matter of fact, the first thing you’ll do at most camps is go over a long list of rules, making it clear that violators will be prosecuted (in some creative “campy” kind of way). There’s plenty of freedom at summer camp, as long as you do the right things at the right time in the right way.
Here there’s a rather more relaxed approach to supervision. I don’t think we’ve given the students any rules at all. (To be fair, they may have done it in Slovak and I just missed it.) There’s less of an expectation that students will participate in games, crafts, and other activities, though small group times and evening meetings are required. And during free time, the students are left more or less on their own. The leaders try to use this time for some one-on-one conversations, which can be linguistically challenging for us Americans. Otherwise, the students have the run of the place. And most surprisingly, almost all of the students are in rooms without leaders. The leaders are right down the hall, of course. But I’m still not used to middle schoolers having rooms to themselves. Especially with the “open door” policy!
To illustrate this more relaxed approach, we spent about an hour yesterday launching water balloons at the metal roof of the lodge we’re staying in. And no one said a thing. Well, somewhat more accurately, no one inside the lodge said anything. We yelled every time we scored a good hit. I have a hard time imagining anything like that going over very well in America.
Is It Worse, Better, or Just Different?
There are other differences I could mention, including a few that I’ll just keep to myself. And these are all things that we would probably do differently in America. But we don’t make the rules here. This isn’t our country or even our camp. We’re just here to help in any way we can.
And I’ve been trying to reflect on which of these are just different, or possibly even better. Obviously, the food is just different. And is it really that big of a deal to run a “tight ship” with the schedule? It’s a camp after all. Can’t we relax just a bit? And as long as they don’t have headphones on, is a smartphone always a problem? Used socially, they’re actually better for the camp experience than having a student go off and read a book somewhere. And I’ve always thought that we had too many rules at camp, though I know it’s because we need to be so careful about lawsuits in America.
But a couple of these fall into a different category. I’d banish the TVs without hesitation. And I’ll never be comfortable with the open door policy (especially when they close the door!).
Still, it’s interesting to see how they do things in a different place. It gives me a chance to think about how we do ministry and whether our approach really makes as much sense as we think it does.