As I’ve mentioned before, I have come to embrace my status as an outsider here, to relish the perspective it gives me on the world. I enjoy watching people as through glass, seeing them going about their daily lives in a way that I can become familiar with and appreciate, but never join in. I’ve always felt that way to some extent, first as a quiet, bookish child and later as a gawky, insecure teenager. In my mid-twenties I finally stopped feeling less like an observer and more like an active participant in the world, but living here has reminded me of that feeling all over again.

After a few months of living on the outskirts of Portuguese society, I think I’ve finally become comfortable with my return to the outside perspective. No longer does my neck prickle so badly that I can’t relax and fall asleep at night. I’ve found a kind of release in being overwhelmed by it all, a freedom in the lack of understanding. I imagine it’s what a photographer must feel like, having a lens through which to process the world and at the same time keep it at arm’s — or lens’ — length.

Take yesterday’s walk, for example. I went from the gym, up to the park on the hill for a snack and some reading in the sunshine, and then on to my Portuguese lesson. I started out by taking a shortcut that leads from the gym, up a flight of stairs, and through a passageway to the next street up. (The hills here make for some very creative architectural quirks.)

When I emerged from the passageway, I saw a flock of old men gathered around a large, arching entranceway across the street. Curious, I looked at the plaque outside the door as I walked by, which told me that the building belonged to a social organization for the armed forces. As I understood it, this was a gathering of vets, all getting together to trade stories about the wars and reminisce about old times.

The Portuguese wars were very different from our own, but have left similar scars on the country’s psyche. We had a taxi driver a few weeks ago who told us that he’d been in Angola — don’t worry though, he assured us, he wasn’t crazy. I thought he was kidding, but after a conversation I had with my tutor last week, I think he was quite serious. She said that various members of her family had fought in the war there, since military service was mandatory in Portugal up until just a few years ago. According to her, people’s experiences there made them go crazy, or louco — the exact same word that the taxi driver had used. To hear that same description twice in as many weeks could not have been a coincidence, and to me implies a dark shadow lurking in the collective memory.

I studied the Angolan war pretty extensively in graduate school, but until getting here, it was just words on a paper. Now I see that its legacy here is very similar to that of Vietnam in America. Even though the locations and circumstances couldn’t have been more different, the scars are all there, the stigma, the disillusion. If I spoke better Portuguese, I would’ve gone up to some of these old men and found out more about where they’d been, what they’d seen. But I didn’t, so I couldn’t, and instead I moved on to the park, where I sat and enjoyed the sunshine for a while, watching the dogs and people.

When I continued on to class, I passed a white statue that sits on top of the hill opposite our flat. The statue faces a big hospital, and is dedicated to one particular doctor. We’ve never been able to figure out if the hospital is named after him, or what he did to merit such devotion, but that is kind of beside the point. What’s fascinating is that the statue has turned into a kind of shrine: all around its base, there are carved marble slabs inscribed with people’s prayers and messages to this man, thanking him for saving their lives or those of their loved ones. Pictures of said loved ones abound, some of them very old, and occasionally you’ll see candles or a hand-written message on a tile or piece of marble obviously scavenged from a building site. It all seems to be totally organic and unorganized, and we’ve never been able to fully understand this phenomenon.

As I passed this statue yesterday, I noticed a handful of women standing around it, mostly older, all in various poses of prayer or quiet contemplation. I stopped and watched them from across the street, totally entranced by their clear devotion to this statue and whatever it embodied for them. Having lived through a loved one’s illness myself, I can understand the need to externalize one’s pain and fear, and also the elation that comes when they show improvement, however fleeting. I can’t say that I ever felt the need to inscribe these feelings onto a marble slab, but who knows — perhaps that would’ve helped.

So in a fifteen minute walk, I saw two gatherings that were to my eyes quite foreign. For the Portuguese  though, these could be your standard afternoon activities: if you’re an old man, you go to the social club to shoot the shit and hang out with your buddies. If you’re an old woman, you go to this doctor’s shrine to pay your respects, give your thanks, or make your pleas. But of course! No doubt they would have found my trip to the gym equally as strange.

Slowly, I’m learning that sometimes it pays to be on the outside looking in. It certainly teaches you to open your eyes.

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