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.

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.

 

 

Home to Porto

House Cat Returns to Porto from Germany…briefly.

The Grimm brothers, authors of fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, could only have come from a country like Germany.  German culture is deeply rooted in the forests and from my window of the train, as the sun was rising I saw the forests of these tales from my childhood.  The brothers lived in Kassel and did much of their writing while working as librarians in the city. The landscape was also strangely familiar to me:  rolling hills and farms between piney forests.  No wonder so many Germans settled in Pennsylvania.  It must have felt a lot like home.

However, I was not able to visit the beautiful forests because my time at the University of Kassel was a blur of  work activity.  I taught two classes and a seminar, and I saw three residential programs for youth and interviewed staff at these programs.  The students that I taught were bright and engaged in their studies in social work.  I did get a brief tour of the city from Juri, Franzi and Sigrid, my hosts for the week as we went to visit programs.  Juri, a native of Kassel, explained that 90% Kassel was destroyed by  the RAF and the US Air Force because it was an important manufacturing center of German tanks and airplanes.  The photos of the city around the turn of the century and then after the bombing show the extent to which the city was obliterated.

Although most of the town was rebuilt post-war, the style was more utilitarian than romantic.  Nonetheless, it is a lovely city with a great tram system, a city center and a University.

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The University of Kassel began in 1971, so it is a relatively “new” University for Germany.  One architect scathingly called the design “smurf village” but I think that it is a complement. The cobbled diagonal though campus, the tiled roofs and brick village are rather smurf-like but charming and cozy. and a little confusing.  One day when I could not find my way though the campus to the department of social work, I considered using bread crumbs.

Being this far north in Germany, the darkness lifts slowly and starts around 4pm, so the bright lights of the café and the library were welcoming as you walk into the campus.

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After taking a taxi, two trains and two planes, I touched down in Porto late afternoon on Thursday.  It is strange how Porto feels like “home”.

Next week:  Lisbon!

House Cat en route

As I have mentioned, I have two cats—Maggie and Chip and they are very different.  Maggie can’t be bothered to run away. If she gets outside, she just plops down on the sidewalk in the sun or grazes in the grass.  She likes being outside–she just doesn’t go far. Mr. Chips is a different kind of cat.  He looks for every opportunity to run outside.  He’s jumped out windows, escaped from the garage, and I swear one time I saw him tying bedsheets into a rope.  He is fast and more than once I’ve chased him through the neighborhood in my  robe and slippers, screaming “I’m going to turn you into ear-muffs if I catch you” (I would not, but it feels good to yell that).

 

I’m like Maggie.  But today I am in the airport en-route to Kassel Germany via Frankfort. I’d be happy to stay in my “cozy apartment”  (that is how it is advertised) find my sun spot and watch TV and follow my little routine, but I told myself when I accepted this Fulbright that this was the time in my life to say “yes” to opportunities.  My colleague Sigrid James, formerly from the USA but now living back in her home country, extended an invitation for me to teach and to view some residential programs in Germany.  Sigrid is one of the experts in out-of-home care  and a friend, and I’ve very happy to spend time with her and her colleagues at University of Kassel. I teach two classes and a seminar and visit three programs to make contacts and collect data, one of which is a center for unaccompanied refugees.  The University of Pittsburgh University Center for International Studies funded my travel and support of this research.

My time here has helped me to think about the potential my research has for extending an understanding of “home” beyond the rather limited academic path that I’ve taken with it.

Although Portugal does not have a lot of refugees, it has a group of involved researchers at my university, who have been studying how the refugee experience impacts education.  I also personally have thought a lot about home and what makes something restrictive or not, just from my own experiences of living in several kinds of places in Porto.  So, this house cat is on her way.

 

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Maria/Mary Beth

 

In the past two months I’ve created another life, and to some degree, another persona here in Porto.  It is my way of dealing with the separation from my family and home and friends.  I try to not think much about home and I do it by existing in a state of semi-denial.  My watch is on Portuguese time and in the 24 hour format.  I try not to skype or face time because it is too difficult for me—email, whatapp, messaging works best at keeping the wall up. Seeing faces makes me very homesick.  I try to not think about what they could be doing or what time it is in Pittsburgh.  I live here in this place and in this place people only know me as I present now.  Since I can’t speak fluently, people don’t really know me as Mary.  Here they know me as the Portuguese version of Mary, which is Maria.

Maria is browner than Mary and her hair is shorter and she weighs a little less.  She knows how to de-bone a fish and knows the ingredients that go into a dish called “old clothes”.  She eats cabbage and Brussels sprouts and drinks wine when she cooks her dinner.  She cooks.  She knows what a cooked pig’s ear looks like but draws the line at tripe. She waits in line for food.  She can harvest olives.  Her TV obsession is “Australian Master Chef”.   As you can tell, Maria is interested in food.

Maria is always being asked directions or for the time.  She walks everywhere and takes the steps rather than the escalator.  She likes to walk the city and look at doors and the faces of people and at families.  She says good morning/afternoon and night and hello to everyone even though her accent is strange. She goes to the Church of Paranhos daily to sit and think.  She knits.  Maria can go 48 hours without talking to anyone other than her posse of feral cats.

Maria/Mary Beth worlds came together when my long -suffering and patient Portuguese teacher realized that his aunt was working with me at the University.  He asked her– “do you know Mary Beth”? and she replied, “who is that??”  They finally figured out that Mary Beth was Maria but it made me think about this duality.  Here they only know what they see and who is presented to them and the information that Mary Beth can share in her limited way.

It’s an interesting duality.  We will see how Maria develops and what remains when Mary Beth returns.

When small becomes global

In the spirit of the “listening project” this week’s post is about the story of PICKPOCKET®” and small business in Porto.

I spend endless hours searching for the perfect work bag.  It has to be large but I do not want to look like a bag lady.  I need wide handles and reinforcements to manage the weight of a laptop and student papers and books.  I like a pop of color and style.  I also don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars.  I usually end up with a bag that I tolerate rather than love.

That is, until I ran into André & Teo  at the market in Porto.  They create individualized bags and backpacks and wallets using locally sourced leathers and methods that they learned from elder artisans.  I am now the owner of a hip and functional work bag that didn’t break my budget and was personalized to my needs.  I feel as though I am carrying a piece of art throughout the day and that makes me happy.

When I picked up the bag I asked Teo to tell me the story of Pickpocket.  In many ways it is a story of the new model of Portuguese business.

When Teo was growing up in the 1990’s, Portugal experienced a building and economic bubble that burst.  The entry into the EU and the infusion of money led to an expansion in business and construction that could not be sustained.  When  this economic bubble burst, the process of recovery influenced the younger generation who lived through it to re-imagine the idea of sustainability and economic success.  Rather than go “big”, Andre and Teo made a conscious decision to go “small” and focus on quality and using historically authentic Portuguese methods, and collaborate to with other artists in a sustainable way.  They survived the most recent economic crisis and as Teo writes:

A thought about scale and growth:

Our reality is a bit more complex. Regarding our scale, (although small) it allows us to touch different markets, in a ‘’cirurgical’’ way, for example: in Germany and Spain we have like- minded collaborators that sell our products.  We are open for this kind of collaborations.

As a brand, we sell to an audience that is tired of “massification”, and has a desire to know where things are coming from, and how they are made. So, we end up, like you said supplying niche markets, but not just for the Portuguese reality, we also are supplying a global market.  And this is the point where we see our growth potential and expansion.

 This is not the land of Walmart. While I appreciate the scale of large business with its convenience and efficiency, I’ve come to appreciate how this model of “small” has advantages for the quality of life and the quality of the product, and how small can be global without “massification”.

I now have a beautiful and functional work bag (in University of Pittsburgh colors)  and a new acquaintance in Porto.  Now to find the perfect lined raincoat…..

If you are interested in learning more about their business model and products, this is the website https://pickpocketbags.netIMG-0133

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!