Return

It is no secret that for the past 9 months I’ve been moping around missing Porto.  I returned this week for the EUSARF conference which was being held in Porto, Portugal.  EUSARF is held every two years and is the largest gathering of European researchers and policy/practice experts on child welfare.  I was part of a seminar on safety in residential care with colleagues from Australia Canada and the USA.

I’m pretty sure that as soon as my plane landed in Porto and my feet touched ground that I did not stop smiling for the first 24 hours.  Part of my happiness was revisiting old “haunts” such as the “cozy apartment” and the church, the laundromat (yes, I have fond memories of it) and the vegetarian buffet.  But the best was renewing friendships that I had made during my time in Porto.  As I was walking, I saw Sr Gato and Cao!  Sr. Gato is the older gentleman who feeds the colonies of cats in Paranhos.  As usual, he was walking with his bags of food with Cao following him. We discussed the new building being built in the former parking/home of the feral community of “torti-girl”, blackie and spokescat.  He said that two of the cats remained in the colony—tortie and spokescat (my names for them).  When I encountered the building I had a terrible sinking feeling that the cats were chased away by the construction, but feral cats in Porto can’t be intimidated by a building project!  Sure enough, they were there, looking for food from Sr. Gato and happy to have some tuna.

Another highlight was seeing Philomenia again.  Phil was the cleaning lady in the building where I was in Porto.  It can be lonely being a visiting scholar.  You do not have the routines of a regular schedule. On many days I would not talk to anyone but Phil. She would  come by to see me and cheer me up by doing a little dance or song.  One time she found my lost flash drive.  She was always smiling and just seeing her made me feel less alone.  At first she did not recognize me but then the realization that I was the “Americana” dawned and there hugs and kisses Portuguese style.

Remarkably many things were the same—Sr. Gato, the cats, the women in the coffee shop, and vegetarian buffet, Alphonse who cut my hair and Phil—to the point that I felt as though I had left the stream of Porto and entered again at the same point.  However, Porto is changing.  The building and renovations are occurring at an amazing pace :  Cranes dot the landscape.   Moreover the tourism  machine continues at an even more frenzied pace.  the volume of tourists almost obstructs the sidewalks in parts of the city.

Tourism has certainly helped the economy in Portugal.  Porto was a city in need of revitalization.  Tourism has given it new life.  But it has also driven up housing prices and made it impossible for students to find affordable housing.  Families are forced to move and have difficulty finding housing that is affordable and in reasonable proximity to their jobs and schools.  The irony is that the very thing that makes Portugal so attractive to tourists—the kindness and sincerity of its citizens, reasonable costs and feeling as though you are getting a glimpse of the real Portugal—is exactly what is at risk. Without some limits on the commodification of Porto, then it will become a shallow imitation of the “second city” of Portugal.

The best part of returning is renewing friendships. I visited with Katia and her family who gave me a ride to Lisbon and fed me and let me stay so that I could meet with my colleagues at the University of Lisbon.  I was driven to the airport by my good friend Patricia. This was because the trains were on strike!  Elsa and Daria let me stay in their gorgeous apartment overlooking the Douro river and held a dinner party for me so that I could catch up with Pedro and Ana.  Catarinia met me for coffee and then forced me to eat the most delicious croissants in the world at a coffee shop in Foz.  Ana prepared my favorite dinners and I danced with Vincente in her living room.  At the conference I was able to renew my friendships with colleagues from all over the world—people who had helped me while on my Fulbright.  I made new acquaintances  in Sr Bruno and Ze in the café where I took my morning coffee. (I am feeling as though food is playing a part in these friendships).  Seeing students that I taught last year or collaborated with was such a pleasure.

In Portugal I am my best self.  I am not sure why this is difficult to maintain this in my USA world, and while I tried that last time to keep my sense of adventure and mojo, it fell flat.  Travel forces me to confront things that make me uncomfortable and pushes me to listen in a different way.  My challenge in returning home is to find some way to keep returning to Porto, even if it is only in my head.