Lost in translation


Once, on a street corner in Paris, I stopped a Parisian to ask for directions. Having tackled the Louvre and Notre Dame, I was eager to visit La Conciergerie -- the former royal palace turned prison where Marie Antoinette was held before her execution. But I couldn't make sense of my street map. "Excusez-moi, s'il vous plait ..." I began. "Où est ..." and here everything went completely haywire. Instead of completing my inquiry with "... La Conciergerie?" I asked instead "Où est le consierge?" (Where is the hotel attendant?) Bewildered, the man had his own question for me. He said in stilted but crisp English: "Why do you want him?" It took a surprisingly long time to comprehend my error and longer for me to stop laughing from embarrassment. Poor Marie Antoinette! What indignity! This stupid American thinks I was held captive by a hotel doorman!

I certainly meant well. My parents instilled in me a love of language and word play, as well as an appreciation for culturally diverse experiences. And I had gamely tried to recall my high school French while rifling through several dictionaries and phrase books; I was not going to be the "ugly American" who didn't even try to speak the native tongue. But if I could have opted to take my New York Regents exam strictly in "French accent" instead of grammar and vocab, I would have done decidedly better than I did. Something always seemed to get lost for me in translation.

I fear that this same phenomenon may be occurring in our attempts to express the importance of Town Meeting here in Brattleboro. Adopted a little over a half century ago, Brattleboro's Town Meeting is the only representative town meeting in Vermont. In all other towns, every eligible voter can attend town meeting and vote on town matters; in Brattleboro, although anyone may attend, only elected representatives vote. Any registered voter in Brattleboro can serve as a Town Meeting Representative. You wouldn't think it would be too difficult to collect the required 129 representatives, out of a list of 8,000 registered voters. But once again this year, we emerged from the elections on Vermont's Town Meeting Day with a severe deficit of representatives.

For some reason, perhaps many reasons, most residents do not feel compelled to spend their third Saturday in March hashing out the town and school budgets and their concomitant spending priorities. Town Meeting apparently does not grab people as immediate, relevant or droll. (Although inevitably someone does say something totally wacky during the course of the day. That can be fun.) Some friends and neighbors do like the representative town meeting system. I, myself, always smirk a bit when I hear someone proudly declare, "Brattleboro is the only town in Vermont with this unique system of government." (Is that "unique" like "interesting" -- in the way visitors comment on your "interesting" choice of paint color in the hallway? It seemed like a good idea at the time ...)

Some argue that all residents should still be allowed to attend and vote at town meeting; others believe that we should convert entirely to Australian ballot; and more than a few say that we should have switched to a mayoralty a long time ago. A strong case can be made for each of these options, but, here's the thing: This is the system we've got -- now and for the foreseeable future. The painstaking, thorough, multi-year Charter Review process came and went; we still have Representative Town Meeting.

Many of us shake our heads and ask, "Why don't more young people care enough to get involved and become Town Meeting Representatives?" Perhaps, like my linguistic mishap in Paris, we are asking the wrong question. Maybe this style of town meeting has run its course. The Millennials have a very different relationship to information, news and political involvement. This could very well translate into a new, not-yet-conceived model for citizen interaction.

According to the Pew Research 2013 Internet Project, an astounding 90 percent of 18 to 29 year olds use social networking sites; almost two-thirds of these young people access and load social networking information from their smart phones. And their use of social networking sites is not limited to connecting with friends and family. Pew Research from October 2012 indicates that younger users are much more politically engaged online than older users. They are more likely to "post links to political material, encourage others to take political action, belong to a political group on a social networking site, follow elected officials on social media, and ... promote political material others have posted." We often mischaracterize them as "disconnected," but they are simply "differently connected."

When I first moved to Vermont, the Town Meeting photos in the newspaper, taken at meetings from across our county, were of attendees knitting while listening to the proceedings. These folks remained engaged while unabashedly multi-tasking. There is little difference between knitting and purling, and sitting and posting; we just perceive one as more virtuous. Perhaps we are now shifting from Knitter World to Twitter World.

To that end, I will be "tweeting" for the very first time ever -- from Town Meeting. I have put aside my own hesitation and bewilderment and set up a Twitter account. Admittedly, I am still trying to figure out just how it works. But I hope to have it sorted out by Town Meeting. By tweeting about Town Meeting I will attempt to start a new conversation about civic engagement -- one aimed directly at our politically-minded young Brattleborians.

Here's hoping this conversation isn't lost in translation.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.


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