Thursday, April 29, 2004

The strangest things happen when you live abroad. In Bolivia I once found myself at a high-school graduation in a tiny village, the only gringo for miles around looking even more out of place in combat trousers and jeans; a contrast to the locals who were all in best outfits. And yesterday I found myself judging a public-speaking competition.

Given that my only experience of public speaking was a comical attempt at compering a monthly variety night (although I did get better over the two years we ran it) I’m not quite sure what qualified me to be asked to judge. But asked I was, and I happily accepted.

It was part of a global competition for teenagers, the idea to bring them closer together through the world’s lingua franca, English. I have huge respect for these young people, speaking in public in a foreign language. The topic was “The Borderless World” and, if the contestants are anything to go by, the orgaiser's utopia of physical borders broken down by cultural exchange is well on its way to been achieved; a Philipine native singing the praises of dual-nationality and a Romanian girl pleading for increased tolerance to immigrants are testimony to that. I’m just glad the other judges agreed with me that there was no way the half-Canadian, half-Italian guy could win after arguing that the way to spread love and understanding throughout the world was via the doctrine of Catholicism.

The eventual winner was a Hungarian girl who took the very brave decision to argue that US cultural output was a force for good in the world, citing – even braver! – McDonald’s as a model of sensitivity to local custom and suggesting that many cultures are guilty of mis-understanding American motives. As crazy a thesis as that sounds, her case was genuinely compelling, which surely reflects well on both the content of her argument – which drew upon a wide range of sources and used several real-world examples – and her delivery.

Her prize would be a trip to London to represent Italy at the International finals. However as she doesn’t hold an Italian passport she can’t take that up; the runner-up, an Italian, will take her place. Fortuanately Hungary aren’t entering so she can probably attend under her native flag, as long as the money can be found to take her there. If she were my daughter, I’d happily pay.

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