“Historians will tell you that the Segovia aqueduct was built two thousand years ago by the Romans,” Professor Rosa Stewart says during a slide show of her recent trip to Spain. Then she drops her voice to a dramatic whisper. “But the truth of the matter is, it was built by – the Devil.”
Rosa Stewart does not suffer from glossophobia, the fear of public speaking that ranks before death as the world’s most common phobia. Not by a long shot. In fact, the professor of Hispanic and Italian studies at the University of Victoria was the 10, 000th speaker at Speakers Bureau, a UVic group that brings together knowledgeable faculty, staff, graduate students and retirees to speak at schools, seniors groups and community centres.
“When I was in Ireland and kissed the Blarney Stone,” the mom of four says over tea in her Oak Bay home. “So the gift-of-the-gab has been given to me.”
Stewart is a world traveller, and she has a plethora of stories to share, complete with photos, containers of food, and a bag of curious oddities that she’s collected during her travels.
She says her travel talks can transport people to a moment in the past.
“The talk I did yesterday at the Gorge Hospital was on my trip to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland,” says Stewart. “One woman was a Wren in the British Air Force, and she was talking about the old planes like it was yesterday. It’s very moving for me to have these conversations with people. I get something back as well and I really love it.”
She goes on to recall how she ended that talk.
“I had them singing Molly Malone. Remember how that goes?”
With that, Stewart breaks into song; her voice is glorious:
In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
The Ohio born academic with deep roots in Mexico moved to Victoria in 1985, after she met her husband at a University of Michigan masters program. (“Those Canadians just sweep you off your feet!”) In 1988, she began teaching Spanish classes at UVic, and over the next 29 years, she introduced thousands of students to the language, all the while falling in love with life on the coast.
“It’s hokey to say this, but seriously, I’ve been blessed. I love my job. I love Victoria. I started to think about what I could do to give back to the community, and then I found the Speakers Bureau.”
With that, Stewart pulls out her sack of peculiar objects – a kind of grown-up show-and-tell that she presents at the end of her talks — and sets some tiny statuettes on her kitchen table.
“I got these at the Witches and Spells market in La Paz, Bolivia,” says Stewart with a grin. “You put the statues in your pocket when you need something. This one is for good luck, this one is for trouble at home, and this one,” she holds out one of the statues. “Well, if you’re having problems of the bedroom variety, you can try this one.”
Stewart plans to travel extensively in Europe this summer, stopping in Norway, Russia, Sweden and Denmark. Next fall she’ll probably regale listeners with tales of the Norse gods or Peter the Great, and she’ll surely have a new bag of curiosities to captivate the imagination.