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  • Writer's pictureJoia

Today's rhaps is on ... the Giving Cultures

Largo do Gato Preto, Leiria

I’ve noticed lately that when a Portuguese person offers to help you, the resulting contract is quite different than when help is offered in the English-speaking cultures. Help is a miserly business in the more northern and combative countries. The very minimum is spared, along with the expectation that you, the receiver, will be the one guiding the process of assistance by keeping it as small and inconsequential as possible. In this way the giver will be appropriately accommodated and allowed to retain an independent and unsullied existence fully separate from your potential neediness.

After fifty plus years in the United States, I was good at this. I took the crumbs and dutifully followed them along the proffered path, asking delicate questions at every turn so as not to offend the helper. I never learned how to have a mentor. I wanted one, so many times! I was unworthy of anyone's time and attention. Unconditional love? No. Not within my evangelical family anyway. It was my job to make their lives meaningful and comfortable. Even my mother, who was beautiful and had to be protected. Husbands? No, neither of them. Yes, they would occasionally consider my needs…when convenient. Stop crying. I’m going out, I can’t babysit. Even the woman I fell in love with was accustomed to being accommodated by the Other. On a couple of occasions she did actually follow me all the way to where I was, leaving me astounded, unaccustomed to the intimacy of this kind of attention. Nevertheless remaining alone is the only home that makes sense, especially now with chronic symptom negotiation. The price of accommodating someone's needs is so high and the chance of being understood so low, keeping the illusion of togetherness unaffordably out of reach.

So when I arrived back in Portugal I questioned the citizenship lawyers and customs bureaucrats frequently, albeit meekly, and was perplexed by an increasing unwillingness to help me. I needed to know exactly which forms to fill out and which offices to go to in order to obtain the right documents and seals and signatures. Why are you now withdrawing support?

It took me a while to figure out that when a Portuguese friend or professional or even a neighbor or acquaintance offers help, you are expected to give up control. They’ve got it. What they are saying is: I got your back. You can relax now. Your life is now in my hands. I am honoring your trust in me by taking over. I will now fix the situation for you.

Wow! Now breathe.

While amazing to experience, though, it's also difficult to endure when you’ve been trained not to give up control. As an underdog in a bully culture, it was my job to carefully and continuously assess the requirements of those in charge. I probably experienced this as a child, but as an adult? No, not this kind of ajuda.

When a Portuguese friend offers to pick you up and take you somewhere, you are in their hands for the duration of the visit. It is lovely and comforting…it is a gift. As such, you are also accepting your role as inert receiver in the situation. You don’t know how long you will be out and exactly where all the bathrooms are, but they will be taking care of you until they return you safely home. If they offer to take you somewhere, your personal GPS is now no longer required. Just shut up now. If they are fixing something for you, your contributing information about wall screws or toilet lids or washing machine doors is not appreciated. Control freaks beware! So for me, having spent a lifetime managing other people’s needs, this was going to be a challenge.

Here's the trick: in this country you need to be very conscious of when you are accepting help and only accept the offer when you are willing to make a contract which involves giving up some part of your control. It is likewise completely acceptable not to accept help in these circumstances. When paying for a service, such as for legal or bureaucratic help, the lines drawn are clearer, but the important thing is to remember what is offered: expertise. It is therefore not your job to second-guess every move. You don’t like the results? Go somewhere else next time. But don’t insult the professional you have just hired by offering to help them help you. They will see it as bullying, presuming to know their business better than they do.

So…a few lessons learned in my new/old culture. I know I fall through the cracks. I don’t fit in comfortably here any more than there. I must depend on pure compassion to cross the man-made boundaries, rely on some goodness that doesn't recognize latitude and longitude. I guess I'm with you, Blanche DuBois, riding the Streetcar Named Desire ... depending on the kindness of strangers.

28 OCTOBER 2018

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