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.
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.
In an effort to save money and increase productivity, Portugal is getting rid of some holidays that people don’t really celebrate anymore. Among the obsolete days of non-work, the day the nation dumped the monarchy and became a republic, October 5th, 1910. More than 100 years since that significant moment in history, no one alive remembers it, and few are the voices that think its worth hanging on to as a holiday.
Here in the Netherlands, this past Friday was Remembrance day, which includes the 2 minutes of silence which takes place every May the 4th in memoriam of all the victims of WWII (though more recently it has been expanded to include victims of all military conflicts, its still more famous for WWII victims). A friend’s grandfather, who lived through the occupation of the country and the war that caused so much pain and destruction, finds the 2 minutes of silence un-necessary – after all, he lived through it. But WWII is much more recent and much more significant in the lives of present day people in the Netherlands that the establishment of the republic is for today’s Portuguese. The reasons probably seem obvious.
But it occurs to me that 100 years from now, WWII remembrance day may also get put aside for economic or social purposes. At some point enough time passes that these significant moments that some lived through and others know all-to-well from stories and history books, even these seemingly vital rituals will not be seen the same way. This is not to say it is a good or bad development, these moments in history and the holidays dedicated to them, can fade over time. It is, if anything, just an odd characteristic of us as a species. We may record history, but over time, to some degree, it becomes natural to forget.
Imagine that. The era will come where WWII is referred to in the same far-off spirit as today we look at the war of 1812 or the wars during Roman times. September 11th will no longer be remembered as it is today, nothing special will take place at the sight of the World Trade Center, life – like time – just keep moving along.
Today marks the 38th anniversary of one of the most inspiring and peaceful revolutions of the 20th century – The Portuguese Carnation Revolution. It was the 25th of April, 1974 when unlikely groups of low ranking soldiers from around the country disobeyed orders and took members of the brutal dictatorial regime prisoner. The soldiers had carried out and seen horrible acts during brutal colonial wars pursued by the Portuguese fascist state. The country itself was drained of its resources and had become a place characterized by poverty and a constant fear of being arrested, tortured or killed by the authorities. Despite failed revolution attempts before the 25th, the low ranking officers along with regular people throughout the country, took to the streets, daring to march, speak out for human rights, and defy their government. A gamble that risked everything, but paid off – concepts like social justice, equality, democracy, and peace, seemed to win a wave of victories that day and in the days following. A level of success that few countries have ever known in the wake of revolution, then and now.
Having not been alive in 1974, yet still being surrounded throughout my life by people who were involved or who witnessed this unique moment in history, my understanding of the carnation revolution is shaped by the stories. And as we all know, stories can be inspiring, and yes – even exaggerated at times. But from all the stories I have ever heard of the 25 of April, what I am most left with is a profound awe and jealously for what people in those days lived through. Awe for obvious reasons; the massive challenge and tremendous risk these soldiers and ordinary people undertook. The outpouring of love and care for one another in the streets, despite all the fear and pain that had so recently been a reality. Jealously; to never have lived in such a fantastic moment of action and initiative. To see and be a part of a movement that ended wars, experience the rebirth of freedom of expression, shaking free of the economic and political structures that held the country hostage for decades.
These days we point to the arab spring as a source of possible inspiration, though even the immediate future for those nations remains cloudy. Some of us talk about occupy like the beginning of something significant, that could bring real change to a situation that is screaming out to be addressed. One day both of these may be looked back on as the verified beginnings of something great. But right now I would put them on historical probation, pending future developments and historical analysis. Overall I would say the 21st century (so far) is marked more by taking two steps back for every one step forward towards peace, love, and understanding. Perhaps there was a hopeful but cautious independent journalist back in the 70’s who observed the same thing.
Portugal in 1974 remains an era I wish I could have lived through. An era where things actually changed and you could see them change and run down the list of successes and of course failures. In the years and decades that would follow, some hopes and promises never came true. Others have been eroded by new economic and political waves. Portugal now finds itself with a laundry list of problems that make it hard to cheer or sing about the goals of the past. But if we talk about significant moments in history, where the forces of open mindedness and social justice won the day and got to put policies into practice on a real scale- for me its April 25th, 1974 that wins every time. What a fantastic time it must have been.