For over ten years, I’ve had the following quote pinned above my working computer, because having found it gave me one of those moments of “Somebody gets it.”
“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. they may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”
— from The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham 1919
This visit to Portugal was easier than others in the past, partly because I realized — or rather felt, at a deep level — that I could never have stayed and lived there all these years. I don’t know if this feeling is true, mind you. I know I’d be a different person if I had. But the feeling is strong and unavoidable that I COULDN’T, that my odd corners would never fit in that round hole. This removes my feeling of guilt from having effectively abandoned the family on that end which, as mom and dad grow older, in turn makes it hard for me to render any help and assistance. (It would be different if I were a millionaire, but I’m not.)
It’s probably more so — the feeling I can’t fit in — in that it’s not a big difference. If I were a startlingly different appearance — say tentacles or pink polka dots — from the people there, or if I stuck out in some obvious, visible way, it would be easier, because I’d account for that and THEN fit in.
It’s more that my way of “being in the world” is too different in small, annoying ways. People rub me wrong or judge me wrongly and I, assuredly, also do so.
Perhaps it is nothing more than the result of having grown up mostly inside my head and in books, though I think that was rather the consequence of feeling out of place than the origin.
That quote above came to my mind a lot while I was in Portugal this time.
And because of that, at odd times, I found myself thinking of ways I felt welcome or relieved in the US that never worked in Portugal.
One of them, which I’ve mentioned here before, is the respect for private property that allows us to have unfenced yards and outdoor decorations. That was both weird and enthralling before I figured out the differences.
But another, superficially just as silly but in reality as important was this: my high school in the US was festooned with funny, self-mocking signs. The hall with math, physics and computers, for instance, had a hand-lettered sign entitling it “Nerd Alley.”
In Portugal — at least at the time — such a thing would not only be unbelievable, it would be incomprehensible, frowned upon and fought.
You see, from about the time I was old enough to go out alone, Mom complained I didn’t “hold myself up in my own dignity.” Since I was 12, this was incomprehensible, since I had NO dignity (and a twisty sense of humor.)
What mom meant was my inherited class, as a daughter of an educated middle-class family who was attending school beyond fourth grade, unlike the daughters of laborers, who had been sent into the mills at ten.
This was supposed to be a source of pride, which I upheld. I was supposed to internalize a sort of “do you know who I am?” which communicated itself to people who met me the first time.
I never did, partly because of those fine accomplishments, most weren’t even mine, except by chance. Surely I didn’t choose who birthed me nor how educated my ancestors were.
I never managed it, either, even when the accomplishments — such as entering college — were my own.
Mom was right, btw, for that place, that culture. Looking at it through an almost total stranger’s eyes, when I went back this time, I saw that if you don’t hold yourself up as being important, having a reason to be important, people there will walk all over you. If you’re not the “daughter of something” you’re no one and to be exploited and ignored. I just never got it, and was enough my own, solitary person, it didn’t seem to affect me much.
But I see now why the self-deprecating humor in high school; the lame jokes teachers and people in authority made about themselves were a relief. It felt more natural than holding myself up in false pride like armor. Armor is heavy and unwieldy.
It also, in terms of culture, prevents advancement. Part of what we dealt with, in hell-journey through Spain was the fact that every single bureaucrat, janitor, information booth lady, even the security guards/police of which Spain has a lot in surplus to requirements, was “holding him/herself up in their dignity.” Which meant not bending enough to try to understand what two people going through, who spoke no Spanish but only English and Portuguese might be asking or wanted.
It is also, I think, responsible for why Portugal remains largely stagnant while any Portuguese immigrant abroad seems to have a head start on excelling in their field (Yes, weirdly, I did too. The odds against even being published in the bad old days were overwhelming. And most literary careers last 3 books, not 30 something. And I’m not done yet. And in indie, maybe monetary success will come, too.)
You see in Portugal being seen to work excessively or at something dirty, or having enough humility to start again if a career goes bang would be demeaning. It would rob you of your dignity and leave you open to predation or at least social opprobrium. Some people still do it, but they’re rare and exceedingly strong-willed. Meanwhile the country, as a whole, lurches about with no innovation, no enterprise worth the name.
And from my glimpses of Spain, it might be worse there.
I understand why people think these things are genetic, but seriously, culture is enough to explain it. It’s just that very few people go behind the gears of the culture and see the little things that sabotage it. Or how difficult it can be to change, because those evil little mines in the culture field also protect the individual in the way the culture is, right now.
To me, as an American, it’s simply a relief to be able to laugh at myself and refuse the assumed dignity that can’t be dented.
Which is a good thing, since I’m basically starting again. Once more into the breach…
At least I’m doing it from home, and not a strange environment I don’t fully understand.
Americans are, in a way, above our own dignity. We don’t need to hold ourselves in false pride because as sovereigns of our land, we’re all as important as may be.
And the result is that we can work, get our hands dirty, and even laugh at ourselves, with no fear.
It’s a good (and fortuitous) thing.