Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fence Building and other Life Lessons

     This week we have been fencing in the property in preparation for the arrival of the cows! Let me just say, that fence building does not suit my skill-set. The only thing worse then carrying forty pound bales of wire on my back across fields in the blazing sun is dropping them and ending up sitting in the middle of the hot field for forty-five minutes trying to undo a massive tangle of wire and ending up with the most hideous, bent, mess. Thank heavens that for me that this project has been much more valuable as a chance to learn about my adopted country than it has been about fence building, as I hope never to do it again! For this project we have two teams. Team Able-Bodied- Male is made up of Senhor Joao and his brother, both middle aged and used to hard, outdoor work. Then there's Team Amateur-and-the-Octogenarian which consists of me and the most wonderful old man, Senhor Salgado (lit. translation: Mister Salty.) 

Senhor Salgado
     If Mad Men makes you question our modern obsession with the consequences of smoking you should meet Salgado. He’s 85 without a hint of dementia, still working and still stops every forty minutes for a cigarette. He offered me one and I declined telling him that I don’t smoke, he asked me why not.  I don’t mind the frequent breaks even though my natural competitive spirit leaves me calculating just how much faster Team Able-Bodied-Male is working than we are, because I have a chance to look into the mind of man whose life experiences could really not be more different than my own. Salgado spent the majority of his life under the oppressive dictatorship of Salazar which fell in 1974. During this time choices were limited for everyone, and propaganda dictating the type of lifestyle that was expected of citizens was prominent. Most of the older folks will tell you that they were very careful about what they talked about in public, and certainly never questioned the regime out loud.

'God, Patriotism (lit. homeland), Family. The trilogy of National Education.'   A popular poster during the dictatorship.
      When I first saw this picture I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s it exactly, that’s what I want!’ Of course, minus the big cross on the table, but whatever, I could get past that. But then I took stock of the whole reality, I wouldn’t want that if I didn’t have a choice. In this world a woman could not leave the country alone without written and notarized permission of her husband or father (only if she wasn’t married.) Divorce was strictly illegal unless a man could prove his wife was incompetent and birth control wouldn’t be available until the early eighties. Every book sold on store shelves had to be pre-approved by the government and societal roles were not just regulated by culture, but by the government.

     I must admit that Salgado and I don’t understand each other terribly well. My Portuguese leaves a lot to be desired and with the compounded issues of many missing teeth and a rural accent on his part it can be much more difficult to understand him than folks in the city. That said, after just a week I feel I’m able to understand at least double what I could on the first day.  We are learning each other’s cadence, accent and vocabulary. The other day during a cigarette break Salgado looked at me seriously and said ‘Tudo que eu conheceu, morreu.’ It sounds nice in Portuguese because it rhymes, but literally means, All that I knew is dead. I was shocked, not sure what to say- what a heavy statement. But then he looked away and looked back and me with his glassy blue eyes and big smile ‘But you know, I like this new world. When I was boy you couldn’t watch girls go swimming, now I can turn on the TV and see Brazilian girls dancing around in their underwear! It’s better for women and for men, I think.’  So in some ways Salgado is very much involved in the ‘new world’ but he regularly astonishes me with what he doesn’t know. Recently he asked, ‘So, the money is different where you come from, no?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘We use the dollar.’ He pondered this for a moment.
‘So, what do you use here?’ He finally asked.
     At this point I’m convinced that Salgado has survived sixty years of heavy smoking, a life of farming (though two fingers didn’t survive that,) and the massive cultural changes of the last forty years by simply never giving up his curiosity. I try to ask as many questions as I can manage about the old days, but just as he can’t quite grasp how I got from the other side of the ocean to be living here in the middle of nowhere, I can’t quite understand how the world could have been so different just fifty years ago and  how people survived it, physically and emotionally. We’re both lacking perspective and we’re both enjoying the chance to gain a little each day, even if it means getting lapped around the field by Team Able-Bodied-Male.

***Senhor Salgado passed away in his sleep at the end of October and was buried on Nov. 1, 2012- All Saints Day. Rest in Peace Salgado.***

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