Forgotten Schools, Limited Vision

schoolWhile spending some days in Portugal this month I got to enjoy the beauty of spring in the small agricultural villages of my ancestors. Places where social and economic life has slowed down over the past few decades, as tens of thousands emigrate in search of steady income and a more certain future. Those that don’t leave the country, choose instead to move to bigger towns and cities where urban life may bring them the future their home town could not.  Despite the mass exodus, these villages remain standing, all be it with more empty houses and quiet streets than ever before.

Among the growing list of institutions and concepts of the small village that have been discarded over time is the iconic school house.  Built during the dictatorship as part of the plan that all Portuguese children should attend primary school (between 1940 and 1970), you can find this school in the heart of most any village.  Prominently located with its simple style, these traditional buildings are increasingly being abandoned in favor of centralized urban schools where the few remaining children in villages are sent. A more modern and cost-effective approach to education in an era where the government tries everything it can do to cut costs and services.

EscolaSomewhere in the plan to have modern centralized schools, the fate of the old fashioned school house never received much consideration. Locking them up and letting time or the elements wear them down seems to be the only idea being carried out.  This is despite a few exceptions where villages have found a way to re-purpose their school house as a community center.  Rare examples of some proactive thinking that will allow a main stay of the community to have new life. (assuming there is a community in the area still)

For the most part, in the villages where my ancestors grew up, the very school houses they sent their children to, lay empty and forgotten.  They don’t fit into the new Portugal (and world) where small and old has little value, while bigger and cheaper is considered the best path to take. And regardless of what photos are taken and what comments are made for a few corners of the internet, they will remain shuttered, a beautiful relic of a bygone era.

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Family That Doesn’t Recognize One Another

220 BCIn the conclusion of our last major podcast of the Arab Artists Series on Radio Open Source, I told my podcasting partner Chris Lydon that throughout our experience in North Africa, including in Egypt, I felt like I was amongst family. That statement was no exaggeration or attempt to prove to the world that I was comfortable in a place that is now so notorious for its difficulties; that was a statement directly from my heart.  It is also a statement that historically makes sense, as my heritage – Portuguese – is part of the larger story of the Mediterranean, where people, goods and culture have been circulating for over 2,000 years.

It is amazing to me, to recognize so many commonalities: in language, expressions, traditions, food, work, and attitudes that Portugal shares with Tunisia, or that Egypt shares with Portugal.  Though any student of history would laugh knowing full well that the story of this region has, at different periods, tied these cultures together in one way or another.

That is until this present era. The era of intolerance, apathy, and the sadly misguided belief that people around the world, especially those originating from the Mediterranean, share nothing in common with the people in Egypt. Lets set aside the shared desire for democracy and justice that is almost universal on this planet.  (though that alone should be enough)  Consider that many people on the modern day Iberian peninsula, in southern France, and  Italy in general,  may actually look at the media and see the struggle taking place in Cairo and Tunis, and conclude that they have no connection to these people or their issues.  Then consider again the amount of Americans, Canadians, decedents of immigrants now living throughout the globe, who’s ancestors came from this very region, yet today look and claim see no reason to care and no connection to that place and its people.

Somewhere, somehow, a mix of time, poor education, cowardice, and perhaps affluence, led people who surely believe themselves to be honest and good to the conclusion that whats going on over there has nothing to do with them.  They replaced what are very real and incredible connections from perhaps not all that long ago, with the story that they are a different people, who don’t think the same way or want the same things.

Me, I know what I know and I know what I felt.  A feeling that grew stronger everyday based on big and small conversations, gestures, and actions I will tell stories of for the rest of my life. A feeling that when I open a book and read the rich history of this region, is confirmed: I felt like I was amongst family, because when it comes to culture, history, and -yes- basic life wishes, I was among family. And if you really look at the history of this planet, there’s a good chance you’d notice that same connection.

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Hospitals and Senior Homes

I’ve spent the better part of this summer with senior citizens, especially those living in small town Portugal. They are the generation just barely hanging on, the same people who 20 years ago I would spend much of my summer with.  They were the farmers, the housewives, the seamstresses, and the factory workers. They raised children, they emigrated to countries where there was work and hope, and then they came home to live among their farms and friends for those golden years as they awaited visits from grandchildren and for life to carry on.

As decades flew by, these towns changed dramatically and perhaps the people did too.  Young people kept leaving, and old people kept getting older. The focus shifted to nearby cities and suddenly there were hardly any children in town.  The local school where my mother and so many other children studied, stands empty and closed as the regional government has decided there aren’t enough students. The ruins of houses I used to visit when I was a kid lay everywhere, with their collapsed roofs, broken windows and walls that have crumbled.  In the center of the village there are now only two buses per day to get you to the nearest towns, another sign of a culture that has embraced the car as the ONLY means of transportation, and a community that can hardly walk to the bus stop.

Some of the still mobile seniors still tend to their fields, watering their crops which is mostly just for home consumption.  Several middle aged farmers do the lion’s share of the work, growing pears and grapes, the inconsistent cash crops of the community. Their children go to school and vocational training, their interests lead them away from the farm, towards the much talked about better life that is assumed to exist beyond this dying town.  As days turn into weeks, another beloved member of the community passes away. Their land passes on to a child who lives far away. Their houses lay empty, some strong enough to resist the decay, others not so lucky.  Outside of town there are a few tourism projects that attract visitors with money; wine tourism, people seeking peace and quiet, and those who find the mountains and valleys of agricultural Portugal to be charming.  Inside of town, the mayor wonders out loud about what will happen to his shrinking population when the generation that built the town is completely gone, and then next generations have long moved away.

This story of one particular village that I have known all my life, repeats itself over and over in Portugal.  Cities get bigger. Villages die out.  The elderly disappear while the young follow the promise of a what some say is a better life. Ripe plums and peaches fall from abandoned groves to the point that it smells like wine in the afternoon heat. Down the main road a few minutes there’s a new giant super market chain store that has opened up, they’ve got a sale on peaches and plums.

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ctrp425 Back Roads and Highways of Life

Somewhere out in the country side of western Portugal, I’m driving around dodging goats and tractors while reflecting on life’s challenges when you exist across borders. Instead of the usual world news issues and under reported news this is a more traditional stream-of-conciousness podcast that some people out there may be able to relate to when it comes to old age, economic problems, small towns, and ch-ch-changes. Join me on the back roads and highways of Portugal’s loveliest pear and wine regions.

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