Casa Ronald McDonald Porto: listening to play

When I think about the work that I have done professionally and as a volunteer, I realize that “home” and “family” play a large role in the narrative of my life and research.  While I’d like to think of myself as an “explorer”, I’ve realized in my time here in Portugal that “house cat” would be a better adjective.  I’ve come to terms with this and embraced it.  I’ve created a space here in Porto until I can return home.

Which got me thinking about how difficult it must be for families to be away from all that is familiar when their children are here in Porto at the Centro Hospitalar de São João (CHSJ) e no Instituto Português de Oncologia (I.P.O.) do Porto. If I found it difficult to be away from home and all that is familiar and routine, how much harder is it for families undergoing a medical crisis of a seriously ill child?  Because it is the largest medical center in the north, families come from small rural areas and towns across the center and north of Portugal so that their children receive treatment.  As in the United States, the Ronald McDonald house offers a home away from home for these children and their families, and the Porto Ronald McDonald house is on the hospital campus.   I volunteer there on Mondays and it is usually the highlight of my week.

 

So, what do I do?  Sometimes I help with clerical tasks or with cleaning rooms or public spaces.  Each of the families has a room and a bathroom and they share kitchen and laundry facilities. They have their own pantries where they can store food and they cook their meals and eat as a family.  There is a large library which I usually end up rearranging and trying to suggest reading material, but my signs of “try this book “ were not a hit here.  Maybe that is an American thing–they called it the “american experiment”.

But the best volunteer days are those when I get to play with the kids.

Play is the work of children, whether they are healthy or undergoing treatment for cancer or another serious illness.  My job is to follow their lead and play.   I think that this is particularly important exterior rmdduring a health crisis. Playing with them is made easier by the fact that I speak like a 2 year old and that I can’t “direct” their play.  I lack the language to do it. As a result, I listen and observe and follow their lead. Sometimes I am a T-Rex, chasing them  around the play room. Sometimes I’m in the play cozinho with them as they direct me to make  a meal.   Sometimes I push them as they ride bikes and trucks. They tolerate my horrible Portuguese as I read board books to them (I do great with the books that have English/Portuguese words).  Sometimes they just want to sit on my lap and read or watch a video.

I feel that I’m really learning how to listen when I’m at the Ronald McDonald House.

If you would like to read more about the program in the United States and in Porto:

http://www.fundacaoronaldmcdonald.com/Default.aspxhttps:

http://www.rmhc.org/ronald-mcdonald-house

Estar com os azeites

While tumbling out of the tree that I had climbed to pick olives, I thought “this had better be the best damn olive oil ever”.

I have never given much thought to the bottles in the grocery store, nor the olives in my salad.  Truthfully, I had never given much thought to my food period:  I shopped in large markets, occasionally using a farmer’s market in the summer, but I had a very superficial understanding of food and food sources.  I didn’t spend much time  in the kitchen or “at the table” and I would never wait in line for a meal.  I really did not care what I ate and I never questioned my food sources. Food was a source of energy.

My Fulbright time in Portugal has certainly changed this attitude and behavior!  Partly due to the delicious food but also the importance of food to family life:  I have come to appreciate how food plays an important role in both nourishing the body and the heart.  I’ve also come to appreciate how food is created and processed is important for the future of the planet

This was reinforced by a weekend of harvesting olives at the Almeida family farm (Katia Almeida, Portugal Fulbright, 1999–Lusofona University).  Harvesting olives is hard work when you are a small farmer without machinery. We used a battery-powered “picker” but mostly it was climbing trees and  brushing them with combs.  After all the 100 trees are harvested, the olives will go to a local press.  We joked that this was the most expensive  olive oil with olives picked by people with advanced degrees, and that probably people in New York City would buy it! It was hard and dirty work but there was satisfaction in seeing the olives bagged and ready to go.

However, the best part of my experience was being part of a family and being at the table with them, speaking in both Portuguese and English.  My tendency to “eat and run” has been greatly changed by watching people laughing and sharing stories at the table.   I can understand why in a world full of “business” that it is important for families  to make the time to come together to create a meal and to share it.  This may not be a revelation to many of you, but to me, it was as I looked around the table at 3 generations.  I also realized that if you are a pig in Portugal, you are not going to be herding sheep like Babe the Pig–you are going to be eaten. However, there is no waste in the food–everything is eaten, and what we did not eat, the cat colony did. IMG_0304

 

“Putting on the English”

I’ve been adopted by a group of PhD and post-docs in education at the University of Porto.  They invite me to lunch because they find my habit of working and eating lunch alone vaguely troubling, and help me when I lose my keys or can’t manage doors.  They also tell me about cultural events such as the film festival this weekend on racism and advise me about food and shopping.  They correct my Portuguese and answer my questions about the academy in Portugal.  As a stranger in their country, I’m grateful for their help and guidance in my daily life in the University.  It has greatly eased my adjustment to a new University life.

I’ve been thinking about language this week, and they are what started me on this thinking path—so bear with me. The name of this blog is “portolistening” not “portotalking” because I knew that my “talking” was going to be limited.  This week I did notice that something happened in my aural comprehension in that I was no longer just hearing “nasal incomprehensible  sound, word, word, WORD THAT I RECOGNIZE, nasal vowel that I can’t recognize, word and nasal sound.”  I started to hear and string sentences in my brain, so that while there were still incomprehensible words and sounds I understood sentences rather than individual words.  That is not to imply that I can sit through an entire TV show or movie and understand, but I did notice a difference.   It felt like a breakthrough after more than a month of nodding and staring at people’s mouths.  I do find Brazilian Portuguese easier to comprehend because it is what I am used to hearing, and it is slower and less “closed”.  In the North, there is also a difference in diction that makes it harder—more closed vowels and a slurring of words and fast tempo.  Sometimes I wonder if they ever take breaths when talking!

I’ve experienced a tiny break-through, but speaking is still challenging for me due to my innate reluctance to show my limitations.  I’ve been speaking English fluently all my life—it is the outward manifestation of who I am.  Words are how I make my living, how I show how funny I am, it is how people know me, and here to not to be able to express in words fluently what is in my head has been challenging.  I don’t feel really “known” here.  Which leads to a book that I’m reading….

Trevor Noah’s book “Born a Crime:  Stories from a South African Childhood” is a great book on several levels—I highly recommend it.  Because he is “colored” or what we consider mixed race, he lived in an “in-between space”—not black, not white but colored, which is a category in South Africa but under Apartheid, illegal.  One way he turned this in-between space to his advantage was to learn all the languages that he could including Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, German, English.  He was a linguist chameleon and could move from group to group and no one could figure out what he way really, and he made that work to his advantage.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a natural talent for languages so I remain “English”.

So back to the students who adopted me and how language can be transcended to some degree.  This week one of the students talked about how he took his English committee member to a restaurant and had a great meal in a place where the food is often indifferent.  One of the other students commented that “they were putting on the English” which made me laugh out loud—and got us talking about these phrases which indicate something other than what direct translation would imply.    This URL gives you some idea of them but we discussed our common sayings which are often descriptive of a state of mind or a future activity or a warning.

https://www.behance.net/gallery/24478537/Portuguese-sayings-that-make-absolutely-no-sense

There are lots of commonalities although Portuguese to English translation would probably not make sense.  For example “swallow frogs” in Portuguese is the same as “take your lumps” in English—both mean accepting something unpleasant but direct translations make no sense to a non-English or a non-Portuguese speaker.   But perhaps these visual metaphors help us to get beyond “words” to feelings. We spent a lunch hour laughing about this in English, Portuguese and Romanian.

So, here is hoping that my language continues to improve.  I certainly hope so because for some reason everyone asks me for directions!

“Calma Americana”

Metro_do_Porto.svgThis week my subway pass had to be renewed for the month of October.  As I was fidgeting in line thinking of ways to make this process more efficient than a monthly queue, annoyed that the machine was malfunctioning, the transit officer said to me “Calma Americana”.

If someone had written this in a facebook or in an email, I would have been very annoyed, feeling that I was being patronized, and I would have fired back some response about how much time people waste in lines and wouldn’t the GNP for Portugal be higher if this time was spent in more productive ways”?  But instead, I laughed out loud because his tone, his face indicated that he understood the frustration that I was feeling but that all would be well.  I got to my place in line, renewed my pass and we exchanged pleasantries and social chit chat in Portuguese and English.

In the last month, the biggest adjustment for me has been adjusting to this—less “efficiency” and more social contact.  While Portugal has progressed exponentially in wireless access since my last visit here, at the same time, face-to-face and social contact remains the primary method of communication.  I finally realized that if someone was not responding to my emails, that I needed to “make a visit” or “take a coffee” or just show up at their door.  Through in this process I’ve learned about their research, family and passion for their work. It’s pushed me outside my typical way of working with people, but there is much more to gained in this process than just “work”.

Senator Fulbright was prescient when he established these awards.  He may not have envisioned the day when we would communicate virtually but he did realize the value of face-to-face exchanges and time spent in a place so that you could understand deeply the culture and the social norms. When I was at the Fulbright Portugal last week,  I realized the scope of the work of Fulbright to bring this mission to life:  it extends from preparing young Portuguese to apply to American colleges, college students to do exchanges in environmental sciences and social entrepreneurship for a summer to graduates spending a year in the US in graduate programs.  I also realized the other side of the exchange beyond scholars and specialists, which are the American college graduates who spend a year embedded in a University of Polytechnic in Portugal teaching language and culture.  The Portuguese watch Fox TV here and I am afraid that they think we are all crime and forensics and car chases! So these exchanges and communications are what the Senator had in mind—we are all cultural ambassadors, teaching and learning.

Commit to the Crossing

crosswalk

This week I traveled from Porto to Lisbon for my orientation at Fulbright and at the American Embassy.

I will write a longer blog about this experience.  It was an amazing two days.  I am so fortunate to be an American here in Portugal at this moment in time.

I wanted to describe about the light in Lisboa.  I don’t know why, but the light is different there from any other city that I have been in, including Porto, San Francisco and other cities similar in geography.  It may be the white tiled streets.  It may also be that pollution is not a problem in Lisboa as it is in similar sized cities.  I am not sure of the science behind it but the light is sparkling in Lisboa. That sounds Disneyesque but it is true.  The sunlight sparkles and there is no good way to capture this in prose or photo.  You must visit it to see it yourself. 

Finally, —Thankfully I am in a country where the Embassy security briefing focuses more on theft and crossing the street than terror attacks.  But crossing the street is a tricky business here.  Some years ago, pedestrians were getting hit so the government instituted a strict rule on cross walks and drivers stopping.  As a life-long jaywalker, I’ve had to adjust my behavior to crossing at the cross walks.  However, the embassy and Fulbright staff told me that “once you decide to cross at the cross walk, you must be fully committed”. What that means is that when the taxi coming at you at 60 miles per hour (because people drive fast here on streets), that once your feet leave the curb, YOU CANNOT STOP—YOU MUST COMMIT TO THE CROSSING.   You ignore the commands coming from the most ancient part of your brain telling you to haul yourself back up onto the sidewalk because that car will kill you.  You must stride confidently into the path of the speeding taxi and not pause because otherwise he will scream at you “Nao paragem”!!!!!  (don’t stop) as he breaks the car a nanosecond before hitting you because you paused mid-stride and hesitated, seeing your life flash before your eyes.

Perhaps it is a metaphor for my time in Porto.  Fully commit to the crossing.