Being ill


Yesterday, as I was flat on the floor of my office because it was cool and not spinning, staring at the ceiling I thought “ I guess the nice cleaning person will find my dead body—she is really nice, I’m sorry to do that to her”. “How will Fulbright get my body home”?

Ok, a little dramatic, but being away from the familiar when you are sick is probably the first big challenge a traveler faces (aside from not being able to master the Portuguese skeleton key).   It is a reminder to me of how it is for freshman when the first cold hits in October, and to understanding and not being judgmental.  For me, it was nausea which I attributed to car sickness, followed by a sleepless night and then stomach problems (I will spare you), body aches and a massive headache.  A classic virus (despite my flu shot) profile.  I have no idea where I got this but I work in a university, I live in a home with a lot of people and I hang out with a 5 year old, so the possibilities were good that I would catch something soon.

My land-person, Carol, gave me some Brazilian tea which helped along with a side does of motherly sympathy which was greatly needed.   But nonetheless, I long for my bed, my cats and the sounds of my home. I had a fever-dream in which my daughter was about 10 again….it must be due to binge watching the Gilmore Girls while ill.  Perhaps I should switch to another show.  It filled me with a longing of saudade, the word for longing and melancholy when I woke up with a headache.

This will pass, hopefully quickly as I must be in Lisbon for Thursday and Friday at Fulbright!  But it is a reminder to me that  to simple acts of kindness can be lifesavers–a cup of tea, a concerned word from the barista when she notices that you don’t drink your coffee, a simple acknowledgement of our shared fragility.  thermometer


As I was settling into a routine at the University, the students were also starting school.  Unlike the United States, the academic year starts mid-September and continues after the first of the new year.  Last week I wrote about the traditional uniform worn by the returning students.  The other academic ritual is “Praxe” which is from the Greek praxis and describes student traditions in universities, primarily initiation rituals for the freshman.  Praxe is a tradition that dates to the 16th Century and is intended to reduce social inhibitions and to welcome the freshman into the University community.  It is organized by the students and they do skits and funny jokes to break down the barriers between cohorts of students and to encourage silliness and fun.   At least that is the intention.  But like all rituals, things can be taken too far and praxe can result in humiliation and violence and a violation of the code and values of the community.   In talking to graduates, some look fondly back at these days of silliness and belonging while others did not participate in praxe at all (it is voluntary but nonparticipation has social consequences). Some departments refuse to allow it all.

  I view this activity through the lens of our American University fraternities and sororities.  I’ve witnessed students doing a lot of silly things at the University of Pittsburgh in the name of becoming part of a group.  I think that it is a human and evolutionary aspect of humanity to belong; we form groups for safety and companionship and for being part of a collective—a pack.  But like all activities, things can go too far, and have in Portugal., as they have in the United States.

For the most part what I have witnessed is some silliness—running down empty sidewalks at 7:30 AM, a time no student, American or Portuguese, would willingly go out to run.  But I also witnessed something disturbing praxe activities this week .  One afternoon I watched students from one department kneeling on the cobblestones in a submissive position for more than 30 minutes wearing paper crowns and with senior students  in the uniform screaming at them to say “yes sir” repeatedly. This wasn’t the Weasley twins pulling pranks.   It was using power to humiliate and I’m not sure of the purpose other than to make one group feel superior over another for no reason other than the difference in the years that they entered the university.  These actions seem to set up a repeating cycle of humiliation and the desire to be the bully in the future.  Rituals have many purposes.  As Hobbs, the founder of a group approach wrote, rituals and ceremonies are important.  They provide continuity, a sense of belonging to something more than yourself.  They are a mechanism for older students to exercise compassion, inclusiveness and to model the values of the group.  But rituals can become twisted when people need to exercise power, often because they have experienced a sense of powerlessness.  It is student empowerment, but empowerment that is the opposite of what one would want in a community of scholars

If you want to build a community, give these intelligent students wicked problems to solve—how do engineers build water delivery systems so young women in Angola and Mozambique don’t have to spend hours a day getting water, and can go to school.  How can you convince students to not take up smoking—sounds like a great social marketing campaign for business students.  The possibilities for building communities are unlimited. But the changes will need to come from the student body.  I hope that the “anti-praxe” movement becomes the “alternative praxe movement” so that the next time I come back, I’ll see a different praxe occurring in Portugal. 

Cansado and Tuna


I think that the reason that I am such a terrible listener is that it is so darn hard! Exhausting really. It’s far easier to talk than to try to understand words, intent, meaning and context.  This week I stumbled around muttering “estou cansado”—I am tired.  That is the tense of “temporary” but I wondered if I should have made it the permanent tense, as it felt that way all the time.  A great deal of it is the language as I’m still at a toddler level of fluency, but also focusing intently and trying to respond when you are not sure what someone wants takes a lot of energy.  Maybe that is why we find ourselves so divided on so many issues.  Trying to understand what someone is telling you, feeling helpless and maybe afraid –perhaps fear and anxiety is at the root of our difficulties in understanding another’s culture and perspective.  Certainly I’ve felt those emotions this week:  “what do they want”?  “am I not giving it to them”  “what is this about” “why is this so hard”; “can’t we do it the American way”

I CAN’T UNDERSTAND YOU, WHERE IS THE STOP FOR THE BUS?” (that was late Friday, when I had a particularly bad moment).

I can see how it would make one want to either dismiss people as uninformed and ignorant or feel like an idiot. which is where I was often this week.

I started working this week at the University of Porto .  I’m squatting in Rosa’s office (she is emeritus faculty) and there is a lovely tree outside of the office and the ability to open the window to catch the breeze.  The students are returning and  senior students are mentoring the new students. They walk them around the building and explain –it is a nice model of orientation. The building is located in a campus with other schools such as medicine, engineering, dentistry etc.

The more senior students wear robes and formal attire.  It’s a bit “Harry Potter” in it is rumored that J.K. Rowling based the Hogwarts robes on this tradition.  She also wrote The Sorcerer’s Stone here in Porto.   However, everyone wears black. I’ve attached a photo.  When they gather in the courtyard in groups is is visually very dramatic and quite a contrast to the typical student attire.  I asked a young woman about the purpose and she said “it is to embody to the new students the honors and traditions and ethics of our school”.  She also complained that her shoes were hurting her feet.  They wear it this the first week and then periodically during the school year.  There are also musical groups (Tunas) for men and women.  They are similar to our student Capella groups but they sing with instruments and play traditional Portuguese music.

Check out this short article with photos if you are interested in learning more

I had lunch with a group of graduate students in education who are PhD candidates and post docs.  It was interesting to hear of their process (which is similar to our candidate process), and their dissertation topics.  One is focused on strategies for keeping high-risk immigrant children in school; another is looking at women on public assistance and their educational trajectories.   However, the outcome for PhD’s is rather grim in Portugal.  Many of them work as research assistants or jump from grant to grant.  This too is similar to us, but in the USA there is a far greater chance of finding an assistant faculty position or a position in government or research.  I don’t fully understand higher education in Portugal but my feeling after this lunch was that this is a terrible waste of human capital for this country if you have intelligent and passionate young persons who cannot fulfill their potential and use their ideas to help civil society.  Is that a uniquely American perspective on the value and purpose of higher education?

Entry 1: A tale of two cities

I arrived in Porto on Tuesday morning after unremarkable flights from Pittsburgh, DC, and Frankfort.  After some initial culture shock and jet-lag I’ve settled into my B&B.  It is in Paranhos, a municipality of Porto about 2.5 miles from the University of Porto, or 2 metro stops.  I’m the oldest “student” here in the flat, and the lone North American as everyone is from Brazil. The good news is that Brazilian Portuguese is what I was taught and is easier to understand, but the bad news is that I am not going to shake my Brazilian/Pittsburgh accent living with Brazilians.  For the most part I am doing OK with the language although I am at a toddler level with verbs and I have become adept at pantomime.  I try to channel Luana, my Portuguese I teacher in Hispanic Languages at the University of Pittsburgh who was great at using her body in communicating meaning.

I’ve been running and walking and learning the neighborhood and practicing my terrible Portuguese on the patient shop keepers of Paranhos. I’ve tried to master the art of getting a coffee WITH milk.  I’ve even managed to conquer the skeleton key and the six deadbolts on the flat door—keys and doors in Portugal require a YouTube video.   I have had some marvelous dinners with my friends Ana, Diogo and their family and went to a fantastic art show on the Foz do Duro (where the Duro river meets the Atlantic Ocean) which was held in a fort.  I’ve eaten three kinds of new fish, all of which still had the heads on.  I attended a conference with Rachel Fusco who was presenting and greatly enjoyed meeting Domestic Violence researchers from all over the world (note to self for the future—when sitting at dinner with the Irish, don’t let them keep filling your glass).

True to my “mission” of the Porto listening project, I’ve tried to listen and observe.  It’s been more than a decade since my last trip to Porto and it has changed in some dramatic ways.  Like Spain and Greece, Portugal experienced a fiscal crisis during the economic recession and it has taken some time to recover.  Part of the recovery has been the tourism industry:  Porto has a UNESCO site and is one of the loveliest cities in the Iberian Peninsula.  It is also quite reasonable in cost for a European city, with lower risk of terrorism, making it a popular destination.  I was amazed at the number of tourists when I visited the Centro this past week.  German, French and a lot of Brazilian Portuguese could be overheard and the streets and the riverfront was packed. There are boat cruises and helicopter rides and a ski lift thing that goes over the Duro River.  This was very different from what I remembered.  Porto was “a working city” e.g. Porto works, Lisbon plays and Braga prays was a common saying.  But now the work seems to be centering around tourism.  The Porto natives have an ambivalence about the changes.  It was important for the economic recovery but the city doesn’t feel the same to them, and the housing prices have been driven up due to apartments and rentals for tourism which has become a critical part of their economy.  People speak of the “real Porto” and there is still much to be seen, but the sentiment by some is that it is changing and that may not be such a good thing. It has made me think of Pittsburgh and our own recovery from steel to “eds and meds” and now technology.  Although tourism is not a major economic driver, Pittsburgh being identified on some of the “best places to live” lists has certainly led to changes in neighborhoods and gentrification with some questioning about the stratification of the city and surrounding neighborhoods.

I’ve attached some photos of the ribeira and the foz .

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