By John Howard Wolf , Contributor (*)
— “Why did you do it”, my neighbors, friends and locals ask me when they would have done just the opposite. You left America, a country where “the streets are paved in gold, where everyone is rich” they say. The question is legitimate and not always easy to answer. Not everything in life is a result of reasoned planning. And now, after practically 35 years of continued residency between Algarve and Lisbon, the question still lingers, and the answer is complicated.
Where to put your finger down and say “this is why I did it” and that I have no regrets? But that would not be entirely true. Where I was born in Philadelphia in 1937, and elsewhere in the United States, Portugal is practically unknown, the language and culture not much taught. Oh, yes, people have heard of the Algarve — isn’t Madrid the Capital? — It doesn’t even get much attention along with the growing interest in Spanish, Latinos, Brazil, picanha rump steak, caipirinhas, and Carnival. So why did I do it!
At a certain stage in my life, still single, I was a professor of Spanish at, yes, Kalamazoo College in Michigan. No one had ever heard of that place either, except in the song, “I’ve got a gal in Kalamazoo.” I was fortunate enough to be awarded a study grant to go to the Canary Islands where the famous Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós was born and on whom I was planning to do my doctorate. But, on passing through Lisboa on the beginning of the journey, I met the woman who would become my wife (1966), married within two months, passing miraculously through immigration procedures in London in a short time, to be back in Kalamazoo for the summer term.
When we met, I asked her to recommend Portuguese poetry, and still in my possession and cherished, is my initiation to Pessoa’s Álvaro de Campos in the Ática edition, and I suppose from that moment on I became hooked with “preciso de verdade e da aspirina” [I need truth and aspirin], and that approach to life, and never letting go, culminating in my photo series on the Book of Disquiet  . This is the beginning of the story up until the present. What’s missing is the interim, and an attempt to answer the palpitating question – why?
My wife was a kindergarten teacher [educadora de infância] and social worker in the Santa Casa da Misericórdia in Lisbon. A former colleague of hers from the Algarve region of Silves had a piece of land with a ruin of a windmill that she thought might serve, once repaired, as a summer home. One thing after another happened.
We were always involved in community activities (language, music, dance, theatre in free time activities), and with a high degree of success with the children. However, we were systematically hassled by local teachers and cultural agents, and there came the moment we needed to have our own place.
Shortly after leaving the British adventure, we almost spontaneously, among locals and some foreign residents, legally established an educational and cultural cooperative, and acquired an historic Quinta in disrepair [with a monograph that traces families back to the 14th century; Arabic chards in abundance in the ground; 17th-19th century tiles; and some research indicating that the brother of Inês de Castro, Fernando Ruiz de Castro, probably lived there in an earlier construction].
So, from about the 1980s, until the present, we ran an official Portuguese kindergarten and primary school with locally and fully qualified teachers and staff. The pedagogy was our own combining also a bit of Paulo Freire, Freinet, Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky, and not forgetting João de Deus. The former winery, respecting its original construction, became our Centro Cultural, drama, music, lectures and practicums.
Since our arrival in 1977, our rich experience in Portugal was to take place in a County under communist leadership of which we had not been aware of initially. Cooperatives were treated hostilely by former fascist administrators and great poverty, illiteracy minor crime, drugs and unwanted pregnancies prevailed.
So, what had been conceived simply as the establishment of a school in a depressed region (and country), turned out to be a case of rural development, socially, politically and culturally engaged, and an eye-opening experience. It led to research, congresses, talks and publications, in almost all of the Portuguese Schools of Education, prizes from the Ministry of Education, and my giving of papers in Tokyo, Krakow, Budapest, Madrid, U.K., France and other countries while, at the same time, being almost completely ignored in Portugal, and never funded by them (all of the above at our initiative and cost).
In an anguishing effort to register my PhD thesis in Portugal, for integrating myself professionally, the process was delayed more than ten years, with a refusal at the end, for the thesis not being “appropriate” for a literature department. They recommended that I submit it to a Communications faculty, where I had no background or training. A very narrow view of academic freedom and understanding. Later, with a former professor friend, through a kind of connection, it was done in a weekend.
This leads me now, in the next section, to point out some of the obstacles to living and working in this country, even today, and not exclusively due to the current economic and political crisis.
Portugal’s peaceful coup, not really a Revolution, in 1974, formally ended fascism and opened the door to Democracy, which has been neither completely nor satisfactorily assimilated nor integrated yet. Most Portuguese would agree with me. It does not automatically jump off the printed page (of the Constitution, laws, executive orders, regulations) and appear in daily life in practice and relationships among people. This does not mean that there have not been some giant steps forward since then.
Where to put your finger down and say, the problems began here or there? This is not possible without first recognizing some underlying causes of the present lethargy that are not usually taken into consideration. They lie in the cultural, philosophic, historical sphere, and have only been treated by thinkers and intellectuals such as Eduardo Lourenço, José Gil and Gilherme Oliveira Martins, among others, and previously by Antero de Quental and others. One other notable historian of Portugal, Charles Boxer, British, was persona non grata until after the death of Salazar. These figures are not readily accessible or even read by the people.
It would be very difficult to ascertain exactly when, but it became evident after the voyages of discovery and before the modern period — misoneism — meaning the closing in on itself and the rejection of anything and everything new and innovative — took hold in Portugal. It has been identified by some major thinkers, I am not completely original in pointing it out. It is not my purpose nor is this the place to examine it more closely, but it manifests itself in every area of the national life, from agriculture, religion, and even to the dinner table.
Another problem is the lack of self-consciousness, an awareness of the image that is projected of the country and of individuals. Many are simply not aware of how they are seen or perceived, they do not view themselves from the outside. This then manifests itself in a lack of a sense of irony, and finally leads to a certain lack of sense of humor, the ability to laugh at oneself, to admit error, this is very important. It could be called humility in other words, not to be confused with reverence.
And then there is the problem brought up by Camões, envy, on which The Lusiadas ends. Most Luso-Americans will have noticed that their neighbors in the United States, for example, participate in their successes and happiness in an empathetic way, they are joyful with them, rarely exhibiting envy.
And finally, in my understanding, after extensive reading and research, since the beginning of recorded Portuguese history, there has been a systematic lack of respect for and attention given to the average man-in-the-street, the povo. This stands out to an Americano–Luso who is accustomed to recognizing and praising [louvando] talent wherever it pops up. My experience is that, on praising a person for his talent, he often thinks you are pulling his leg so unaccustomed he is to it, demonstrating that he has lost self-esteem and pride.
The Luso-Americans will understand perfectly what I am talking about, and will not be offended because, among other things, they have been respected and elevated abroad, especially in the United States, where they are dearly loved and valued as people, workers, professionals and as citizens. They have developed an additional perspective on themselves. Foreigners abroad may not fully realize the conditions and constraints under which many Portuguese have been treated in their home country, and continue to struggle.
Now, I am approaching the reason I was asked to write this piece in the first place, a first and recent visit to the Azores which left me astounded and amazed, and which relates to everything I have said previously.
I frequently say, partly in jest, that I should be named something like Roving Ambassador of Portugal Abroad. And with all modesty, one former teacher of our school said that I am more patriotic than most Portuguese people. Yes, I am. Because I praise to the heavens its virtues when I find them, not nationalistically but patriotically, there is a big difference.
I have a distinct feeling, for example, and in all due respect, that the metropolis does not always fully respect autonomous provinces like the Azores, and interior regions. In the same way, many aspects of life, things simple, pure, honest and humble, even rustic, are not valued by the city people and even governments of continental Portugal. Since many centuries back, vanity, connections, ostentation and certain disrespect for the average man-in-the-street, the common people has reigned, people who, in fact, are not at all common.
On this first visit to the Azores we went only to Horta and Madalena. These, I can say now, are jewels that I should have known about before. Not necessarily the preferred destination of culture-vultures and mass tourism. The culture that we find all around us here and there is spiritual and ephemeral. And so, like deep-sea divers, we must come up for air slowly from murky depths, after leaving the metropolis, so as not to have painful cramps. And people, who come from world capitals “to do” the Azores, will normally miss its essence. Sit down, I would say, take a breath, look about you, don’t rush off to make “conquests.”
This is not to say that we didn’t “tour.” But that we did it in close touch with the spirit, scenery and with the people, not tour guides. So, a taxi driver recommended that we go to a small café of a friend where, earlier in the day, he would ask her to begin to prepare us a caldo de peixe specialty [fish with broth] for the evening that left us flabbergasted. Other locals met on the road, on different days, guided us to places to eat, extra rooms built on to their homes where we only rubbed elbows with Luso-Americans on holiday conquering homesickness [matando saudades] with their joviality and American Flag t-shirts.
A fisherman led us to one of the most picturesque natural swimming pools set among lava boulders, where there was no one else, and where he was going to fish. Picnic areas along the many steps down to the sea and elsewhere, barbecues with wood already cut and waiting for the next guest, and in the middle of the way up, a shower with fresh water. We never saw a tourist, but it was prepared.
We tasted Pico red wines that would make a Frenchman beg for more. At morning buffet breakfast at our hotel, the staff did not check to see if we were authentic guests. We saw impeccable white and clean houses everywhere, with no mold or discoloring, manicured gardens, and hortensia-lined roads even up to the tops of mountain peaks in wilderness areas. No litter, graffiti, loud noise, pushing and shoving, no billboards, no fast food. I could go on.
There exists a peace that doesn´t have a price, available to everyone who is open to it. Like Pico, you must be patient, because like a modest woman, she only reveals her secrets to the persistent and respectful lover.
Why is it, I ask rhetorically, that many Portuguese live and work abroad (especially in the US) and are highly esteemed, distinguished, promoted and elevated to the highest levels, there are many examples. Why are those same persons, forced to abandon their country of origin, not as simple an answer as you might expect.
There is still floating about the country as a whole the sensation of being exploited, I have not really understood this fully, or why it still persists. There is also a fear of being surpassed, bettered, that hangs over many of the people, fear, I think, of being humiliated and made to feel little, lowered in estimation.
In strong terms, bear with me, in the earlier history of the United States, especially in the southern states, the white slave owners kept the blacks down, for fear of being overwhelmed by their desire for achievement and upward mobility. The country that keeps down or holds back its own people for long or even short periods of time does not truly merit being called democratic or even meritocratic. Whoever holds back positive contributions to the national life from nationals, including foreigners, including myself, is involved in the castration of the country, at great costs to progress and fulfillment.
The US is and has been always a country of constant waves of immigration. The so-called frontier spirit is made and enhanced by each new generation of immigrants. While initially there may be some resistance and on occasion, because of a lack of employment some tensions may grow, over the centuries the US has been enriched by immigration and in fact wouldn’t exist as we know it without it.
My (our) specific case in point, of emigration from the United States to immigration in Portugal, has interesting points of comparison and contrast with the Luso-American case. One changes countries when there exists a desire for change, the changes desired can be quite different.
It’s not a question of “my dog is better than your dog,” as a publicity spot on American TV formerly exhibited, nor that Benfica is better than Porto in the futebol world, nor even of political parties whose rivalries often simulate one’s dogs and clubs — rather, it should get at the basic reason and rationale behind the particular preferences and choices — value judgments aside.
As in the many cases of Portuguese emigration, not only to the US but to diverse countries, I would hope that my (our) contributions to Portugal will turn out to be enriching for both parties, enlarging perspectives and understandings.
[60 BxW photographs with sections of text in English and Portuguese, analytical essay, taken in and around Pessoa’s hangouts on the Rua dos Douradores in downtown (Baixa) in the years 2000, exhibited in the Casa Fernando Pessoa 2007-2008, and in the gallery/bookshop near the Sé (Main Church in Lisboa), Fabula Urbis, in 2011, and awaiting publication].