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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The Promise of Employment

It is a formula that we decided decades ago makes sense and should therefore work. It is a recipe that for many people in the past decades, has worked to provide a decent life and what people often refer to as security as they look to the future. – You go to school, you do your training, and when you’re finished there will be a job for you somewhere, and it will be a job you want.

Nowadays this formula is less solid than it has ever been. There aren’t many jobs to go around, yet many are still doing the training and the degrees under the assumption that the old deal will still be honored.  As they come out and find the world is not quite what they thought, there is anger, frustration, and sadness across the board. Then come the protests and the campaigns, some speeches from politicians and average citizens, a few policies to try and re-animate that old connection between job training and job. Underneath all the activities and discussions there is a basic principle that remains, in this world as we have built it, you should be able to get an education which also prepares you for a career that once you’re met some set requirements, you can pursue.  After all, how else is it supposed to work?

The hardline voices in the wilderness will say — there are no guarantees in life. A statement that is easy to confirm.

But getting back to that old deal that we’re still trying to revive, here in Portugal one can observe the living breathing collapse and aftermath of that socio-educational correlation.  People young and old with degrees in social work, primary and secondary education, and a long list of other studies, find themselves either in the never-ending spiral of unemployment and job training, or the very common – working retail in a shopping mall. You might have the skills and training to help people in need or teach, but nowadays where you’re needed is selling iPods at the nearest strip mall.  Are these jobs terrible? No, not for everyone. But what happens when you’ve got a country full of social workers and educators selling jeans and flipping burgers? When people’s lives get placed on hold as they wait for that possible real job they trained and prepared for. When they decide not to have any children and to live at home forever to save something from their minuscule pay check?

The discussion is not new. It even finds its way into political discussions regularly these days. But the underlying principle should also be subject to scrutiny. Why believe in the formula anymore? There is not just one way to learn. There is not just one way to make a living. Hoping and working to repair a once functional system is perhaps a noble goal that bears the occasional fruit. But what about teaching each other to break out of the pattern. That if they continue to just wait for something to happen, instead of making something happen, they could be waiting for the rest of their unfulfilled lives.

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