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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“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!