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Over the weekend, I finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which last I checked was on the bestseller list for most of a year. I enjoyed it a great deal, dispelling many of my preconceptions about bestsellers.

I mentioned this to a girlfriend of mine on Friday afternoon, as I know she is not only literarily inclined but also hails from the South, as her charming touch of an accent can attest. As I suspected, she had not only read it but led a book group in discussing it, and had plenty of things to say on the subject.

Her main response seemed not to be to the book, but rather to other peoples’ reactions to it. Specifically, Californians’ reactions. She said she had had to defend her home territory vehemently, as everyone’s immediate response was, “Wow, the South was so racist!” And what, we’ve never had racism here in California?

As Californians, or rather as denizens of the Bay Area, I think we tend to have a slightly holier than thou attitude to the rest of the country. No matter where you live, it’s easy to judge the South for their racist attitudes, especially when fictionalized. But that lets the rest of us get off the hook a little too easily. Just because we didn’t grow up with Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms does not mean we’re somehow immune to racism.

I for one grew up in a largely Hispanic area, and had bilingual Spanish/English schooling until fifth grade. After that, I went to schools progressively further north of where I started, ending up at my university up at the very top of the county. There I had a total of one black friend, who liked to joke that he and the dark, dark African guy at our college were their token effort at “diversity.” Now, even though I live not thirty miles from where I grew up answering to the name “Soe” because I knew so many Spanish speakers, I am shocked to see such a large Hispanic population when I go back to that same town.

Yeah, real progressive.

Even so, I never realized how racist I am until we moved to Portugal. There, the population is overwhelmingly African or Brazilian, with people of all colors on every city block and square. It took me a while to identify why I got nervous when walking by myself in certain areas. At first I assumed it to be a part of my general discomfort with living in another country, but after some time, I realized that it was because I’m just not used to being around people with dark skin.

Until Lisbon, I had never lived anywhere other than white or Hispanic areas. I had never confronted the fact that the difference in skin colors made me uncomfortable, simply because it was just that: different. Given that I went to two of the more progressive, even radical universities in the world, I was ashamed to find this latent racism lurking in my liberally-educated Californian heart.

So you see, it’s all too easy to cast the first stone, especially in hindsight. It’s too easy to condemn the South for their racist ways, for their inhumanity, their degradation and ignorance. But who among us has not been racist at some point or another? It’s a fundamental human impulse to be uncomfortable with that which is Other, different, not like us. True, some of us can recognize and resist this impulse, while others throughout history have institutionalized it in order to oppress other human beings who are, in reality, just like us.

But to my mind, ignoring that response, damning it in others while pretending it’s not there in ourselves, is very much not a part of the solution. By elevating ourselves above those who we perceive as racist, we are perpetuating the very same problem.

From my reading, that was one of the points Stockett was trying to get across in her book. She is not trying to show us how terrible these people are, but rather the opposite. As despicable as some of the characters may seem, they are all just people, living in a society that prescribes them certain roles to fill, as women, as whites, as servants, as husbands, as children.

When it comes down to it, aren’t we all?

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We had a pretty regular day yesterday, if you can call any day here “regular.” Something about going about your every day life surrounded by crumbling old buildings and red terra cotta roofs, or passing restaurants with window displays full of gaping fish mouths, or seeing entire cured pigs for sale at the deli counter makes such a thing seem impossible. And yet, we try.

We both worked yesterday, although again, the definition of that term is a loose one here. For Gabe, work means going in to uni around 11:30, settling in and chatting with his colleagues for a bit, then going for a two hour lunch and coffee break, working for a few hours in the afternoon, chatting some more, then coming home.

For me, work involves setting up the external monitor and keyboard after Gabe leaves for uni, as this physical transition to working mode helps me focus. It’s like saying, “Now I am in my office,” even if I am actually still in my pajamas. I then spend an hour or so catching up on email and work that came in over the weekend, reading a couple articles about books or publishing, and checking Facebook a few hundred times.

I get up to make lunch, hang up the laundry, unload the dishwasher, and check out what the restoration guy is working on across the street. Right now he’s replacing the tail and horns on a large, mottled brown ceramic bull, and has been sharpening the new horns with sandpaper for days. As he showed us last week, the bull is actually a large decanter for alcohol, with a spigot on the bottom and a hole in the top to refill it. Very clever in their drinking, these Portuguese.

Yesterday I had the additional bonus of watching his wife sitting on the doorstep with their grandson, feeding the pigeons in the street. Not sure who was more entertained by this exercise — the little boy or me.

Next came more work, a snack, and then a quick trip to the gym before picking up some groceries at the corner store on my way home. The lady there was watching The Daily Show on her little TV, and despite our total lack of a language in common, we both laughed as Jon Stewart interviewed his latest victim, er, guest. Some things transcend all boundaries.

Back home for a couple more hours of work, this time on the phone, as by then the West Coast was starting to wake up. After finishing my calls, I went out again, this time with the intention of meeting Gabe on his way home from uni so that we could do yet more grocery shopping. Here, no day is complete without visiting at least two different stores, because inevitably there was something you forgot or couldn’t find or couldn’t carry at the first.

At this point, our routine deviated from the norm in a most pleasant and unexpected manner. Gabe had walked home with his colleague, J, who lives at the top of the Torel park opposite our house. In fact I can see his flat as I write this — hi J! We all met up at the top of the park, and when we reached J’s house, he invited us in for some wine. Well, why not? Grocery shopping can wait. Wine cannot.

So passed a lovely hour or so on the balcony of J’s flat, drinking excellent red wine, eating cheese and crackers, and watching the sun set over the city. I was enchanted by a whole new panorama of neighbors to spy on, including a pregnant lady who was standing out on her balcony next door. I counted at least five cats wandering in and out of her flat, one of whom spent quite a while sitting contentedly in one of the planters on the railing. There was also a saggy-faced Sharpei puppy in the house below, who noticed us watching him and intently returned our attention, his eyes peeking out from under their fat furry rolls of skin.

The last vestiges of light didn’t leave the sky until almost 7:30 — spring is definitely on its way. (Also evidenced by the sunshine that woke me up before 7 this morning. We don’t start Daylight Savings here for another two weeks. Grumble.)

Much later and tipsier than planned, we finally made it to the store, where all three of us did our shopping very cheerfully and mostly without incident (although I did get slightly carried away with the apples. Oh well.) Gabe and I tripped our way home and ate a late dinner before falling into bed. Not quite the evening we’d planned, but vastly more enjoyable.

As I said, life here is anything but routine, even on the most regular of days.

******

On a related note, I recently discovered a book about Lisbon that you really should be reading instead of messing about with my blog. The author also lived here for a year, and many of  his adventures are eerily similar to our own. I am portioning out his stories one at a time, reading them before bed, laughing over his all too familiar mishaps and reading the funniest bits out loud to Gabe. There are a lot of funny bits. Great book.

Um yeah, posting twice in a day — unheard of. But I find myself suddenly indisposed, aka sick, which started as a scratchy throat when I woke up this morning and descended rapidly into a stuffy head and an aching body. I guess at least it’s happened now instead of the day before we leave — this way if I get a lot of rest and stuff myself full of echinacea for the next few days, I have a chance to fight it off before things get crazy at the weekend. Hopefully.

So since I am once again stuck at home today, and now I can’t even focus well enough to work, I will write. Again. Especially because being sick today has given me a chance to spend more quality time with a dear friend of mine, one whom I haven’t mentioned to you yet, and I think might be feeling a little slighted:

That’s right, it’s my Kindle, which has been my constant companion over the past four months. I read it for fun, I read it for work. I read it at the gym, in bed, at cafes, at Gabe’s university, on the plane… pretty much everywhere I go. It is quite simply wonderful.

As many of you know, I’m a voracious and omnivorous reader. I usually have at least 2 if not 3 books going at once, a habit usually enabled, er, fed by my mother’s expansive lending library. This summer, when faced with the sudden withdrawal of that  library and the price of buying books in English while abroad (which I discovered about five years ago while laid out with a cold in Budapest), suddenly an e-reader looked incredibly appealing.

Conveniently enough, my chosen profession also depends to a large extent on reading. My boss, slavedriver that she is, decided that in order to further our mutual success, she would very kindly buy me said e-reader. What a deal! It arrived, shiny and new, about two weeks before we moved, so I didn’t really have time to play with it until we boarded the plane for London.

At first I found it awkward and off-putting to read. Instead of curling up with a good book and feeling the pages fly beneath my fingers, I had to push the silly little button far too often to be able to truly get caught up in the story. The screen was too dark to read in anything but the brightest direct light, and really, it just wasn’t the same.

Out of sheer necessity though I have kept going with it. And now I am hooked. I read articles almost every day denouncing e-readers and how they’ll be the end of the publishing business, they don’t make much sense for any but the most avid readers or travelers (ahem), you can’t lend out your books, etc.

But really, when you’re living half way across the world and books in English are both scarce and expensive to come by, how can you beat having your favorite author’s new novel literally at the push of a button? Due to this ease of purchase, I have now bought more books in the past 4 months than in the past ten years. How will that kill the publishing industry exactly? Not clear.

The best part is that I am reading things I never would’ve dreamed of buying in a bookstore. If I stumble across an interesting topic, I immediately go to the Kindle store and look for any books they might have on it. Certain patterns have arisen, and I have surprised myself by buying — and reading — far more non-fiction than I have since finishing my master’s degree, as well as a great deal of historical fiction.

I can also work on my Kindle, which is fabulous. I can read and edit manuscripts without printing the entire thing off, and I can take notes and underline in books without feeling like I’m destroying them. True, it does slow down a bit when I get past the hundredth or so footnote (you should’ve seen my college textbooks!), but that’s not a big problem.

Basically, if there was any possible way for me to become a more avid reader, this was it. I now have samples from at least five or ten new books waiting to be read, probably at least one or two of which I will buy. I’m halfway through one historical novel (Wolf Hall), and I have both a free sci-fi book and an electronic “box set” of three fantasy novels awaiting our plane flight next week. And, just in case I get bored, I just bought the Atlantic Monthly‘s 150th anniversary compilation, and also a book of interviews with travel writers.

I’m saving the fantasy novels for the plane, but I’m reading the rest more or less simultaneously. That would be difficult to do with physical books, but now, I can just sit down and say, Which story do I feel like continuing right now? Which world do I want to inhabit tonight? That of Henry VIII, or that of Bill Bryson? It’s amazing.

Yes, my Kindle might be enabling an addiction. But in this case, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. So to the donor of this wonderful addition to my life: thank you. It has quite literally been a life line to me during our year abroad.

And now… I’m going to take my stuffy head and go read.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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