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!

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.

“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.

Cansado and Tuna

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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 https://www.theapricity.com/forum/showthread.php?192078-Portuguese-students-(from-all-over-the-country)

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?