In the end I did take another mental health morning yesterday, and stayed at home to work while Gabe went off to wait in line for another 2 hours (and that was with an appointment!) to pick up his permanent resident card. So three months and four hours of queuing later, he is finally officially a resident of Portugal. Hooray!

Getting the same status with my E.U. passport, by the way, took about an hour, most of which was spent trying to find the right building and then waiting in line once we were there. The actual process itself took less than ten minutes. There are definite benefits to having that pretty red British passport — living here would’ve been a lot more hassle for us both if I weren’t a dual citizen.

During my Portuguese lesson later that afternoon, however, I was also given cause to be extremely grateful for my lovely blue American passport. You would think that living in America and living in an E.U. country would be much the same, or at least I thought so before coming here. I’m quickly finding out that that was a mistaken assumption.

First, we discussed the subject of sexual harassment in universities, which came up when I mentioned that Gabe is a professor. My tutor immediately asked — as many people do — if I had been his student. I always have to laugh at this, because the thought of me taking any kind of engineering class is quite simply hilarious. If that had been the case, the sole reason a romantic spark would’ve been struck between us would have been because I spent so much time bugging him for explanations as to what the hell all this cryptic nonsense meant.

Regardless, apparently sexual harassment is a big problem here, and my fellow student said it was the same in Greece. They both agreed that there is nothing a student can do if a teacher is sexually harassing them, which was a completely alien concept to me. I said we have the completely opposite experience — there is an extremely heightened awareness of sexual harassment in American society, from the university level on down to childcare, where the workers aren’t allowed to touch the children for fear of being sued. My tutor was shocked to hear of the litigious society we live in, and I had to agree that sometimes it can be taken a little far. But really, would I rather live in that society or one where a professor can fail a student for resisting his overtures?

We then started discussing the age at which one is considered a legal, consenting adult. As with most European countries, both Portugal and Greece consider you an adult at 18, one worthy of drinking, driving, voting, killing, partaking in sexual activity, or doing just about anything else. It’s all the same.

I explained that in the States, we have tiers: you can drive at 16; vote, enlist, and be tried as an adult at 18; and drink at 21. My tutor was so shocked by this that she actually wrote it down. She took notes on what I was saying! To her, it was a totally foreign concept that you could drive but not vote, or enlist in the army but not drink. (Not to mention drink, drive, and die for your country but not rent a car. But I didn’t go there.)

To me, of course, all this was just fact. It doesn’t make any sense, and while I was growing up the stretch between driving and voting, or voting and drinking, seemed to take for…ev…er. But that’s just the way it is, and we all go through it. We all drive before we’re legally allowed to, we all drink before we’re allowed to, and we complain about all of it in between. It’s almost a rite of passage to be denied these rights. For the Europeans though, this strange hierarchy of ages made absolutely no sense, and when seen from their perspective, I kind of had to agree.

Next it was my turn to have my mind blown, once again. We then talked about learning how to drive and getting your license. Both my tutor and the Greek guy said that the entire experience here in Europe is expensive, difficult, and corrupt. In Portugal, for example, the driver’s education courses, which are only offered through private companies, cost anywhere from 500 to 1000 euros (read: $750 to $1500!)

Once you’ve done that, the test itself is extremely hard to pass, with many trick questions — subtle technicalities about the official name for a zebra crossing, for example, or what weight of truck can go on a certain kind of road. You can miss three questions out of thirty, and then you fail.

Unless… ready for it? Unless you pay! If you bribe the person offering the test, you don’t even have to take it to pass. No wonder the drivers here are all bat-shit crazy — most of them don’t have a valid driver’s license!

As an admittedly rather sheltered American, the whole concept of this driver’s ed mafia was completely shocking to me. Much more so was the matter of fact way that my tutor described it — and the Greek agreed! As if it were just a fact of life that you had to bribe people to get your driver’s license. When I told Gabe about it later on, he just nodded and said, “Oh yeah, that’s how it was in Brazil” — again, as if it were just a fact of life. Wow.

So on the side of my red passport we have blatant, commonly acknowledged corruption and sexual harassment with no recourse. On the side of my blue passport, we have a paranoid, litigious society that allows people to drive before they can drink or vote. Which is better? Hard to tell.

I can say that the most telling part of the whole conversation was the shocked reactions on both sides. We each revealed aspects of our respective societies that we take for granted, but appear very strange when taken out of context. Ultimately, that is why we are living here, and why I am taking these lessons — to see things in a different context.

For a visual illustration of today’s lessons, here are two videos about cultural differences that my tutor sent us after class. They are about Italians, but as she said, the same pertains to the Portuguese:

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