És filha dos missionários!" she exclaimed. "You're the daughter of the missionaries!" We were on the phone and I was joking about having come from Mars. Sou de Marte...
She should know who I am. I was two when E. began working for my mother in Leiria. She was eighteen. My baby Portuguese came from her, all the essential words and life lessons. When my German grandmother came to live with us, E. moved out of the room next to the kitchen and slept in the attic.
I returned to Portugal just as E. turned 80. She and her husband live on a leafy square in Lisbon, where neighborhood friends meet daily at a nearby café. Her memories of particular utensils in my mother's kitchen are vivid. She talks about holding my little brother at the window as he stared up at the night sky.
Daughter of the missionaries puts me in TCK territory—military brats, missionary kids, and diplomat children are defined as "Third Culture Kids," belonging neither to their parents' 'home culture' nor to the 'host cultures' of their childhood. They belong instead to a third realm known only to themselves—I'd love to go there, but haven't stumbled on it yet. Is it in Greenland or the Australian Outback? Maybe on the island of Atlantis? TCKs are said to have a passport culture that is at odds with who they really are, so perhaps I haven't yet found the correct visa.
What I do know is that the reasons I claimed for coming back here to my birth country have been upended—the pandemic, the healthcare system, my disability, my sorry communication skills during confinement—whatever my story, it needs rewriting.
In Leiria I grew up in two cultures. Neither had any patience with the other. Nemhuma das duas tinha paciência com a outra. Whatever was correct in one was incorrect in the other. My choice: be an angel or a demon. Escolha: ser anjo ou demônio. My dilemma: be both at the same time. Dilema: ser os dois ao mesmo tempo.
How does Brussels do it? North and south EU blends as badly as water and oil, recent Eastern Europe additions only heightening the instability. Ukraine is like shock therapy, weaving all threads together. We are Celts, Romans, Slavs and Greeks, fighting as we breathe.
This medley of cultures was present in our Leiria house, my German grandmother and American parents forever schooling the Portuguese neighbors and seminary students in piano, religion, Protestant church etiquette. Inside the house I swallowed emotion like a proper nordic child, while outside I met fire with Portuguese fire.
When I returned to retire and write my books, I split into two: yelling like that in English means you're ready to strangle somebody! But in Portuguese, hand-waving tirades are routine, from car directions to shopping choices. In fact, Portuguese friends don't even have a word for the animated ranting—I've asked.
I've seen expats surrender immediately to the yelling, having no idea what triggered their native listener. They lose the argument, but no matter—they're paying to live on in the sunny land. When I'm yelled at, though, I know exactly what is being said. There's an instant during which I could yell back—if I do, it feels like I'm out-of-control drunk—before I freeze. Too late, I'm now a foreigner in cultural quicksand, sinking fast.
Why am I being yelled at?
I know, it's a straight punch and I'm supposed to block. I was good at this in Taekwondo. You raise your block before the punch gets anywhere near your face...why can't I do this here?
I remain professionally calm in other languages, I can negotiate finances, dinners, sidewalk passage—but not in Portuguese. Bereft of karate belts and graduate degrees, leaning on my andarilho walker, I unravel fast.
In the hospital a few months ago, a nurse yelled at my MS leg for not moving quickly enough. Anda, anda! Move! The social worker yelled at me for not having private rehab lined up. Later at the public rehab, I was yelled at for a full half hour by the médica herself before I was allowed to explain that I could do only ambulatório sessions this time.
My cultures clash, age and disability merging with that powerless child from long ago.
By the way, younger Portuguese doctors and nurses don't do this. They're usually in urgent and overnight shifts now since the pandemic exodus. They're European kids, they've spent Erasmus semesters all over the continent. They love that I taught medical ethics and wish I could do this here.
Anda, anda, malandra!
Get going you rascal.
Maybe that stubborn leg will wake up one of these days and I'll glide smoothly into Indo-European sensibility, my superego finally tamed by id and ego...
24 JULY 2022