VACATIONS, THE OTHER SIDE…

– Carlos M. Frota

As expats, our annual stay in the home country, normally during summer holidays, is a moment of reunion with family and friends. And also an opportunity to “feel” the  real country, how it is dealing with the major issues of the moment, how happy or unhappy people are under the pressure of the economy, politics,  and other circumstances.

More personally , summer vacations are also a moment of truth in confronting all the little and big miseries of the human condition… how loved ones are getting older, how some friends are suffering particular situations of distress, how impotent we are to help, because many situations are simply helpless.

Expats pay the heavy price of distance, the burden of being far away when something irreversible happens within the inner circle of family and close friends that we define as the little world where we express our deepest feelings of love and friendship.

From year to year, our usual places are apparently the same (the same houses, the same gardens, the same streets) but people are not exactly the same… time produces its effects, good and not so good.

Children (grandchildren…) become adolescents, starting to cross the long and sometimes perilous  path from infancy to adulthood. And when we try to rediscover the youngsters we were dealing with one year ago, they are different, sometimes almost unrecognizable! And not just physically! And one is obliged to (re)discover the new soul under the false appearance of the old person who exists no more!

Aged relatives one year before  suddenly appear really old, entering the phase of constant reminiscences that preludes their departure. And the prospect of loss (and of the suffering it entails) haunts our thoughts.

                                        **********

John is an old friend of mine, from high school. Life separated us but friendship was sufficiently strong in the past to justify a natural reunion.

Intelligent, cultivated, erudite, John was a little bit anarchic in the old days, rebellious to the teachers he considered mediocre and always ready to discover or invent  new ways to challenge them.

Adventurous, John spent a decade in the United States after university, where he got a complimentary  diploma in management, worked hard, earned good money and travelled a lot across the country.

“I renounced the idea of becoming rich to travel. I am lucky in doing business, but when I earned enough money to travel , I stopped what I was doing and moved to another region, another state.  My errancy was a process of permanent enrichment for me, knowing new people and places.

Now in his seventies, John asked me to visit him in the hospital, where he is dying of terminal cancer. And amid memories of the old times, he confessed his permanent quest of the meaning of life. Searching for God, not believing in God. Searching God, denying the existence of God. And his struggle didn’t end. Close to death, he continued to search, to ask questions, to wait for answers. And the   silence of the same God he was looking for was deafening.

In our conversation, I timidly emphasized my deep belief in the person of Jesus. I mentioned how good is His teaching to inspire our lives. How generous He is in welcoming us, despite our weaknesses and failures.

I didn’t convert my friend. But at least I suggested a way out , full of hope and reconciliation.

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Another friend, Joaquin, in his eighties, is experiencing the growing daily limitations due to a degenerative muscular disease. He is witnessing the inevitable decline of his health. Intelligent, he is absolutely aware that every day things are going worse, hopelessly worse.

And visiting him I remembered the old days when our lives were full of promise. Time passes so fast!

Children growing up, yesterday fragile creatures, suddenly they are adults, taking the direction of their lives, not consulting us about anything! Like we did in our time of choices! We only fully understand our old parents when we became old parents ourselves!                                        

What do we really learn from the other’s lives? How can their testimony enrich us, recognizing that despite the differences of itinerary, our choices are essentially the same…?

                                        **********

A granddaughter entering the novitiate, after brilliant studies at university! A big surprise for grandaddy,  but no surprise at all for her parents! Her vocation was an open secret, everybody knew her intent to embrace religious life.

And is she happy? – ask many friends. More than happy, she found her way. How mysterious is the personal revelation of one’s destiny!

Other three grandsons entering or  pursuing university. How often I think about the dangerous world their  generation are inheriting from us! Climate change worsening, because of the cupidity of short sighted interests. Economic inequality enlarging  the gap between the haves and have nots.  And so many dangers derived from new lethal technologies born in the cyber world and artificial intelligence. 

Are they, the younger generations, better prepared than ours to prevent the worst in so different domains? 

I am not optimistic…

                                        **********

In a Lisbon that is becoming ethnically more diverse, a brief conversation a few days ago at a friend’s luncheon with the restaurant employee from Bangladesh.

A brief dialogue, in hesitant Portuguese, interspersed with English words. But enough to imagine the picture of this young man and his circumstances.

It has recurring poverty in its homeland.  It is the luck (or rather bad luck) of those who, like him, seek better life in the many avenues of the world.

And, I asked, what about the situation for the Rohingya refugees who demand their country by the thousands?

They are not from there!  – answered promptly.  They have lived in (now) Myanmar for centuries!

And the authorities do not recognize them because they are culturally and religiously distinct.

But that human being before me epitomized  the fate of certain peoples.

I would say, rather: the tragic fate of certain peoples, unreservedly exposed to the fact that they were born in the “wrong” country at the wrong time.

I had previously had the same experience of Porto, as I said, with a recent refugee from Venezuela, who had managed to escape with his family from the widespread misery into which Hugo Chaves’s socialist revolution had become its “Maduro version.”

                                        **********

Summer vacations, this year, were in Portugal a time of intense political activity for political parties and sympathizers alike, preparing the next general elections which will take place October 6, in a few weeks time, then.

What is at stake? In general terms, two options for the country, recovering from the financial crises that plunged the Portuguese people in one of the most severe depressions of recent times.

One option is to deepen the redistribution of resources in favor of the most vulnerable segments of the population, the ones who suffered the most with the austerity imposed by the IMF and EU.

The other option is to paying more to diminish gradually our long term debt which is aggravating our situation vis a vis financial creditors in the long run. 

Left and Right are disputing the elections but nobody assumes the priority of reversing the trend of the last four years where social concerns prevailed over budget considerations..     

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