What These Beds Have Seen

When I arrived at the former monastery, roughly ten days ago, I knew by the unkempt and run down buildings, it would not be a pretty sight inside. Despite the numerous buildings that made up the compound, most were locked up and seemingly out of use for several decades.  Only one building, just beyond the chapel, looked like it was still in use, as families with young children huddled around the visitors entrance, telling stories and discussing who their children resemble.  All the adults have the same concerned, uncomfortable look on their faces, as if to say – I can’t wait until they day I don’t have to come to this place anymore. 

HandsThe old sign reads Pulmonology C and as I walk down the odd smelling hallway I notice that in fact it isn’t a hallway. If I jump I can see over the temporary walls into the makeshift rooms that have been created from what is one massive room where I can imagine some 25 years ago everyone was just thrown in all together. Not that much has changed, I estimate, only now there are 6 beds to a room, each room with its own thin 2 meter high walls that allow every hacking cough, fart, or moan to be heard by everyone in the entire wing.

As I walk into my grandfather’s room, I quickly glance at the 5 other beds and their occupants; a young man sitting in hospital pajamas reading the newspaper casually next to his bed. An old man looking quite sick, reaching to over to grab a glass of water, a middle aged man wearing a breathing tube under his nose fast asleep, an older gentleman wearing reading glasses sitting up in bed eating a yogurt, and a charming little old man who has fallen sleep while sitting in a comfy chair next to his bed.  And there among the very sick and the not so sick, lay my grandfather, 92 years old, fighting what is certain to be his last battle against pneumonia and a body that is starting to shut down on him. Without his glasses, his teeth, and his loud greeting- I hardly recognize him.  But as I approach he greets me, making a quiet little joke about how more days in this place and his beard will be just as long as mine.

The next few days this became a ritual. Take the long drive to the old hospital and sit with grandpa. Tell him stories about what vegetables we have managed to grow in his garden and who called to send him kisses and wish him a speedy recovery.  Eventually it would be jello time, the only thing my grandfather seemed to take pleasure in – “It refreshes me”, he would say, as he slurped down another spoon of the trembling red treat, which would usually be followed by a coughing fit.  Day after day my mother and I would do this, and with each passing day he would speak less, open his eyes less, and eventually lose interest in the refreshing afternoon snack.

In just one week in such a place, you notice everything going on in the rooms and beds all around.  Who seems to be getting better. Who gets lots of visitors. Who screams and moans in pain in such a coarse voice that you find yourself running outside to escape that horrible sound every 30 minutes. And above all, you notice who disappears and why.

Hospital“The man who was sitting up in his bed yesterday breathing heavily with the machine hooked up to him, where did he go?” I asked a nurse.  “Where do you think he went?” the man answers me in very matter of fact “use your brain” tone.  The man who had been in the corner bed for only three days had held court on his first day, sitting in a chair not attached to any machines as numerous visitors came to chat with him.  By the third day he was in bed with an oxygen mask, not chatting to anyone and only his daughter and son-in-law by his side.  That night, he died.

This story happened three more times that first week. One was an pale looking old man I had helped to reach his water. The next day, his bed was empty, clean sheets awaiting the next patient. I didn’t need to ask the nurse, I could tell by everyone’s behavior what had happened. By the fifth day the gentleman with the reading glasses, who had so often been walking the halls in his slippers and often seemed concern about the well being of my grandfather, he was now in bed with an oxygen mask. His pajama top was opened, revealing his bare chest pumping in an out like it was out of control.  He sat in bed for hours, it looked as though any minute he would finally get a handle on breathing, but that minute never came.  As I said goodbye to him that day, I smiled and wished him a better day tomorrow. He answered with a stale look in his eyes and gave me the thumbs down.  Again I shouted to him and put my fist in the air, “you can do this, I wish you strength!” Still breathing heavily he shook his head no – pointed to himself and then pointed solemnly towards the ground like things would only be getting worse.  The next day his bed was empty, the nurse was busy gathering some of his personal items in a bag.

Strangely enough the weakest looking person in the room is the one who is still there, my grandfather.  Everyday he is a little less there, and every day a new person takes up whatever empty bed there is.  The charming old man who often fell asleep in his chair was sent home.  On his way out, still wearing hospital pajamas with his dress shoes, he mumbled best wishes and good health to all as he ran towards the exit. My grandfather, now heavily medicated and rarely lucid, did not even notice. Maybe its for the best, as he told me on his first day in the pulmonology wing, “I this place mark, you either get better or you go crazy.”

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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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