Learning to Listen—What I Learned from My Fulbright Experience In Portugal

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I entered my career in the Academy with a drive to study ways to help to improve the care of children in out-of-home placement in the United States. Over the course of my 25 years in (and out) of the Academy, my focus transitioned to the “outcomes” of out-of-home “treatment” for maltreated children and away from the maltreated children who drove me to this line of work in the first place and their rights that they had as human beings to a safe, nurturing, and loving home. Before I left for my Fulbright experience in Porto Portugal in September 2017, I had stopped taking the time to listen and reflect, and this was negatively impacting my research. I was no longer focused on the process and listening to the experiences for children and staff.

I realized that my perspective was being narrowed by my context of large datasets and secondary data and that I needed to go to another country and look at the situation of residential care with “new glasses” if I was to be of any use to children and their families here in the United States.  My best chance of doing this was through a Fulbright.  But I had doubts.  While I was proud of the body and the quality of my research scholarship and teaching, I knew that it was a “small” career with a small “c” in the perspective of the Academy.  A “big career” in the Academy is often one that is driven by the quantity of papers and grants that one is able to produce, and not the way in which that scholarly activity changes the world. Therefore, my surprise, delight and anxiety of being awarded a Fulbright to Portugal were equal in measure.

To be successful in achieving Fulbright’s mission, and the goal of my research and teaching, I had to re-learn how to listen and not be so quick with answers and solutions.  This later part would be easy as my Portuguese was at a toddler level of fluency and not up to speaking in complex sentences!  Consequently, I had to read body language, listen very carefully and observe and ask simple questions. This would prove to be particularly important in understanding why institutional care is utilized in Portugal at a much higher rate than any other Western European nation.  According to the 2016 report authored by Instituto da Segurança Social, 62% of children were in long term residential care (institutional, group homes), 26% were in temporary small group home care (also institutional) which is approximately 88% of all children in out-of-home care who have been referred for reasons of maltreatment.  In contrast, only 3% were in foster care.

Being in Portugal for an extended period and observing and interviewing helped me to understand that this is a complex situation not given to simple solutions.  Culturally, there is a religious history of institutions, and a strong tradition of family. There is no history of people being “paid” to make children family members.  In addition, working in a group home or institution is a career. People can spend their lives in this work which is the case in the United States in only a small handful of model organizations.  On political and economic levels, the government is neither structured for nor is there a history of ‘risk taking’ for financing innovative practices to develop alternatives to long-term residential care for children.

More importantly, during my time in Portugal I changed my view about residential care.  Initially I had a negative view of residential homes.  But I came to appreciate how these were homes, even if they did not look like a typical home.   Even the language used in Portugal is different.  At first, when translating written interviews, I back translated the Portuguese term for care “Casa de acolhimento” a “residential” when the literal translation is “Welcome house”.  After talking to staff and observing homes, I had an “ah ha” moment in which I realized that my translation was wrong and the literal meaning of welcoming homes should be used.  Because this idea of “welcoming” and “home” was very much the model of care.  I witnessed a much more attachment/affectional style of working with children and it has helped me to think about how a social learning model which also includes structure and affection can be implemented in the United States.  Now that I have returned to my “welcoming home” in United States I want to do some more thinking and listening to people in residential care so that I can continue to develop my ideas.

Teaching also broadened my perspective.  Up until now I had placed my research area within child welfare measurement and evaluation, but being asked to teach about my research in the context of human rights forced me to broaden my thinking.   I began to read and think more deeply about human rights, specifically child rights in the EU, and about the right to a home when you have left your family and your home behind in another country.   I concluded that the right to have a place that you feel is “home” is a universal right, and as this is controversial considering the world-wide refugee crisis, that my contribution may be to create a measure that preserves youth voice but provides empirical data to support living in the most home-like and least restrictive setting.

As an instructor, I was impressed by how much the students enjoyed learning about theory and their passion for promoting human rights.  I was in awe of how well my colleagues managed their teaching and research loads.  I appreciated how the doctoral students made it a mission for me to NOT eat my lunch at my desk working, and to learn to love salted codfish, and included me in their social plans for the weekends.

Finally, it is impossible to describe the utter sincerity and generosity of the Portuguese.  I think that is Portugal’s greatest natural resource.  I hope to continue my work in Portugal in some way, and share my experiences with faculty at my university and other academic institutions, encouraging them to explore the great opportunities a Fulbright grant has to offer.

Celebrating the In-Between Spaces

 

Placeholder ImageI once wrote a manuscript about in-between spaces.  For example, adolescence is an in-between space, as you move from childhood to adulthood, neither fully one or the other.  Transgendered persons experience this in-between-ness as do many multi-racial persons.  It can literally also mean being in a “space” e.g. a hotel room or an airplane or airport between what you left behind and what you are going to.  Sociologists call this a “liminal space” or on the cusp of being in a place, symbolically or in reality.

I’m in a liminal space now, occupying a hotel room near Toronto’s Pearson Airport, watching the snow fall.  I feel as though the liminality began when I left the “cozy apartment” and booked a hotel near the Porto airport, to fly to Lisbon, where the plane to Toronto was delayed for 3 hours, resulting in a lost connection to Pittsburgh (and hopefully not lost luggage).  I had to stay overnight in Toronto to wait for another flight, this being winter in Toronto, with bad weather and of course, the holiday when everyone is trying to get “home” from the in-between spaces.

While I would love to get back home as soon as  possible, I’ve decided  to tolerate the in-between.  The past four months were intense with a real immersion in Northern Portugal and the University Communities, as well as travel to lecture and to collect data in other countries.  I understand and speak another language now.  I think differently about my work and myself.  The in-between gives me time to become “Mary Beth” again, mother, wife, crazy cat lady, and think about what the next “space” will be and how I am going to make that happen.  I used to mentally scoff when people talked about “transformational  experiences” but this Fulbright has changed how I view the world, my research and teaching.  I’m not the same person who left Pittsburgh on September 7:  I think of my work and the world in much larger ways now, and I like the kind of person that I’ve become—(one who will jump on a plane to Munich not knowing how she will get to Austria and grab a ride in a van with people driving through the alps to reach her destination in time to teach).

 

I’m just hoping that the in-between doesn’t last too long—I would like to be home for Christmas.

Planes, trains, taxis, bikes, vans and “trems”.

 

I’m back “home” in Porto after a week working in Lisbon and in Innsbruck Austria.

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The Christmas Market, Innsbruck
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Marques de Pombal Circle dressed for christmas in Lisboa
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The Christmas Market

 

I was at the school of social work and social policy) at the University of Lisbon and then at MCI Innsbruck. Last week was a succession of trains, metros, plans, taxis, vans and bikes.

The trip to Innsbruck was like a Wes Anderson movie.  Austrian Airlines cancelled the Frankfurt to Innsbruck leg, leaving a group of stranded strangers who for one reason or another needed to get to Innsbruck Thursday night. There were the two beautiful and friendly young women from Sweden who won a radio contest to meet Ed Sheeran and watch a private concert in a resort in the Alps. An older gentile couple from France needed to be at a conference.  Four middle-aged guys from Denmark had a long ski weekend planned.  Then there was a highly anxious and excitable 40-something man from Spain in a suit, with a small black carry-on and not a word of English in his vocabulary.  In fact, the only word that he could say was “trem”.  I’m not sure if that is train or just “trem”.

The short story is that I finally arrived at Innsbruck @2am  after shouting in desperation to the line of people at Lufthansa  check in line “does anyone speak Spanish” (there was) and he helped me to get my highly anxious and confused Spaniard –who attached himself to me at the gate like a heat seeking missile– into a cab to a hotel. J and M, the two Swedish girls who won the trip joined me on a flight to Munich Germany, closer to the border, and then got me stowed onto their van ride.  Klaus the taciturn Tyrolean drove the three of us and some other sleepy people through the mountains in pouring rain and we all arrived safely.

Today I saw my Spanish friend at the Innsbruck airport at 6am.  He saw me and said “Trem”.

Honestly– I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

 

I had a great experience at both Universities, although the two cities could not be more different.  Lisbon is warm and Mediterranean, with the Tagus river meeting the Atlantic under a brilliant blue sky.  It is said that the light is magical in Lisbon.  From my viewpoint at the University I could see the iconic 25th of April bridge across the Tagus.  I love Lisbon and I will miss this beautiful city of trams, tiles, bridges and the Atlantic.

Innsbruck is in a valley surrounded by the snowy alps and divided by the Inn river. The snow when it falls at night resembles the Swarovski crystals produced in the city.  The old city looks like an illustration that you would see in a children’s book.  Biking around the city I saw dozens of people with fir trees strapped to their cars.  The Christmas markets are an event of unabashed consumerism fueled by alcoholic punch, lots of bread products and singing Italians, Germans and Austrians all surrounded by fir trees, fires and twinkling lights.  I finally got some of the “Christmas spirit” during my short stay.

I’m wrapping my work up here this week and saying goodbye to old and new friends. Then home.

My Porto Running Life

Although trail running is very popular in Portugal, I’ve not been able to run trails since I’m in the city without a car. But I’ve made the most of running in the city, trying to learn different neighborhoods through running the sidewalks.  Some of the neighborhoods that I’ve run are my neighborhood of the University of Porto in the north of the city, the ocean neighborhood of Foz, the neighborhood of Boavista (beautiful view), the “subway” route into centro Porto and my favorite route of all, along the Douro river to the Atlantic through the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. While running I’ve watched the everyday life of this city:  old men reading their paper and students drinking coffee and talking in cafes, older women washing lobbies and front steps, parents taking their children to school and shopkeepers opening for the day.  Probably the best running discovery was the washing tanks in Afurada, Gaia along with the crazy gypsy flea market on Saturdays. https://portoalities.com/en/afurada-the-magic-fishermen-village-just-across-porto/  I could run this route every day and never tire of the views and the activity along the river and the ocean.  Seeing older women dressed head to toe in black (including black crew socks) washing their front steps or grilling sardines makes me feel as though run into an entirely different world.

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While I’ve never connected with a running group, I have been able to observe the running life in Porto.  There are community-based running clubs, usually tied to a neighborhood e.g. Gaia, Porto and Salgueiros have running clubs.  These clubs are evident during road races.  I’ve run two races here:  the Porto marathon 15 K and the Paranhos 10K.

 

 

My observations are only based on these two races, so I don’t want to make any generalizations but I have identified some differences.  American runners like gear—water vests/bladders, belts, headlamps for night running and reflective gear, water proof gear…we like stuff.  Portuguese runners are minimalists for road races.  They generally are not carrying water but wait until the water stops where you get full bottles of water.  Americans look like they are preparing to scale Mt Everest relative to their Portuguese colleagues.  PortaJohns are at the start of the race and bring Kleenex.  If you feel the need, there are plenty of good bushes along the route.  There are no pacers and the corrals are chaotic with everyone jostling each other.  I’ve watched several runners drink espresso right before a race and finish the coffee with a cigarette.  But despite the minimalist caffeinated approach, these are some of the most efficient and fast runners that I’ve ever witnessed.

I look forward to running with the Steel City Road Runners in January, but it has been fun to observe this specific community in my adopted city.

The Cats of Paranhos Porto

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spokes-cat looking for me

I’ve been observing the companion animals and their owners here in Porto.  Dogs are quite popular although there is no leash law (or if there is, no one pays attention to it).  As a result you see dogs in the street, and I’m not sure if they are out for a stroll or are actually homeless.  People don’t pick up after their dogs which is surprising and has made running a bit like an obstacle race.  In rural areas the problem is dogs being chained. There is a petition being circulated to stop this practice but while that will help I think that it is about changing attitudes.  I once went to a farm market in a rural area and was horrified to see a skeletal dog chained not 15 feet away from where everyone was parking for the market.  I don’t know if this was so “normal” that no one noted it, but I still have flashbacks to that and wonder what I could have done to help that poor animal. Yet, here in the city, I see perfectly coiffed small dogs with little jackets, well-fed and obviously loved.  I see dogs on the subway, dogs waiting outside of stores and banks for their owners; however, I do not see service dogs.

Porto is similar to Istanbul in its relationship with street cats.  While they are not as celebrated as in Istanbul, there is a neutral to warm co-existence with them.   As far as I can tell, they are not treated hatefully as they are in the United States:  no one is sending posts with “come get these cats or I’m going to poison them”.  I see feeding stations, including some with two levels and a view—what the Portuguese would call a T2 flat!  But there are a lot of street cats in Porto, and that is the case because trap, neuter and release does not seem to be a common intervention for reducing the population.  I see male cats with their parts intact and only a few cats with “ear tips” which indicate that they have been neutered.  While this co-existence may work for now, as tourism increases and cats lose their spaces to flats and hotels, I can see this changing, and not for the better for cats.

I have a group of feral cats that I share with Senhor Gato.  I don’t know his name, so this is my name for him.  I guess his age to be about 70.  Senhor G has an old dog, which I named “Gato-Cao” or cat dog. He looks like a mix of collie and corgi and has a wonky eye and lists to the right when he walks.   Senhor G and GC walk together with GC about 10 steps behind and unleashed.  Senhor G is always carrying two large plastic bags of food, one in each hand.  One bag is filled with dry cat food and the other with leftover table food.  The two of them make the daily rounds of feral communities:  the community that I feed is clearly one of his favorites.

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Cat-dog

We “converse” although his accent is totally incomprehensible to me.  The conversation sounds like “Os Gatos…(a stream of vowels and sounds)  a few words that I recognize like “menina” or “comida” or “peixe” then he smiles from ear to ear.  It is a nice moment between two people who communicate via a shared love of street cats.  He fills their bowls with dry food and gives them some table food and then he he is off, GC listing behind him as they walk off to the next feeding station.

There is a regular gang of 4 with an occasional 5th.  The first is “spokescat”.

This is a black neutered cat with a white patch on the chest.  I call him/her spokescat because this cat kept nagging me as I walked past each day on my way to the University. “HELLOOOO…. Do you have any food in those bags by chance?”  He (I assume it is a he) was the front-man for the community, and he is the reason that I started feeding them.  From eating my food and Senhor Gato’s food he is getting a bit portly but that doesn’t stop him from nagging me anytime he sees me walking by his lair.

Then there is Blackie, who is, as you guessed, Black.  Blackie is the most reserved and dignified of the group, not asking for food and not fond of human contact.  He/she is the food snob of the group.  If it is not tuna or fresh fish, then Blackie is not interested.  Here he is waiting for better food.

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Tortie-girl is a cheeky petite female (tortoise shell cats are always female).  She waits for me and then runs to greet me.  She likes to sniff my lunch box and will tolerate some petting.  She will eat anything.   She is probably the “cat most likely to be snuck into my luggage”.

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tortie-girl

Tiger is a striped orange and brown and black Tabby.  I think Tiger was a house cat at one point because he/she is very friendly in a way that ferals are typically not.  Tiger is also a food snob like Blackie, preferring fresh fish to cat food, but will eat the cat food if nothing better is forthcoming.  Here is a photo of Tiger compromising by eating cat food.

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Tiger

Finally, a fifth cat joins the gang periodically.  This is a very shy and feral brown tabby.  I don’t know much about this cat since he/she generally hides and only eats if I put the food under the car.  I have no photo of brown tabby.

I honestly will miss these guys when I return home, and also  the duo of Senhor Gato and his dog.    I know that that Senhor Gato will take care of them but over time I’ve come to learn their different personalities and I have a lot of fondness for them and their food quirks.  But my two foodie cats await me at home, so I will leave them here, where they belong and where they will be taken care of by my friends.