April 25, 2010

TSS: Snapshots in Diversity: Special Series- NYMETH


In honor of Cultural Diversity Month this month I asked a few bloggers to share about their cultures. One of these bloggers was the awesome Ana (Nymeth) of Things Mean a Lot. If you don't know Ana, you should. She is a kind, funny, and intelligent person with great taste in books and a quirky writing style that I love. Thank you, Ana, for sharing about your culture!

~It goes without saying that culture is all around us – and this means that one’s own culture is often very to describe unless we are given the chance to temporarily step outside it. When someone asks me about Portuguese culture, I tend to draw a blank, simply because I’m too immersed in it to be able to portray it accurately. I’ve lived abroad before, but only for periods of about six months, which wasn’t enough for me to gain much insight. This was something that crossed my mind as I read Aarti’s excellent guest post for this series last week: the fact that she’s well-versed in two cultures makes her more aware of them both. That’s not the case with me, which is why I’ll probably not be able to tell you as much. Apologies in advance!

A simply example: I never knew my culture had a mostly conservative dress code until I lived in the UK and realised that actually, I quite like wearing skirts shorter than knee-length. This might seem completely obvious from the outside, but for me it was very easy to mistake my environment’s punitive response to women who wear short skirts for a personal preference for longer ones. I should note, however, that I live in a small city in the north, and that this might not be true of Portuguese culture as a whole.

When I think of culture, I think more of smaller and more concrete things like cuisine, traditions, rites or general habits than I do of personality traits. This might be another consequence of lack of distance, but it also has to do with my belief that culture is only one of the many forces that shape us. I’m quite shy and reserved, for example, and I know that Portuguese people are reputedly effusive. But I’m far from an oddity among my family and friends. Possibly this general belief has to do with the fact that we greet even casual acquaintances with two kisses, one on each cheek. But in our cultural context, the gesture isn’t at all intimate. I do it often, and I don’t think much of it even though I’m generally shy – this is because for me, doing it doesn’t mean I’m stepping out of my reserve.

A common belief about my culture is that we’re inclined to be “nostalgic”, whatever that means. This is an image that Portuguese people are as likely to perpetuate as anyone else, but I could never quite grasp what is generally meant by it, even though entire philosophical tracts have been written on the subject. On a related note, I hate the myth that the word “saudade” is untranslatable and exists in no other language, as if its meaning was something completely ineffable. In fact, the word exists in German (sehnsucht) and if English had the noun “missage”, it would exist too. It doesn’t; but the verb “to miss” gets the idea across just fine. Of course, words are never exactly the same in different languages, but in this particular case, the meaning is not that far removed.

The things I value the most about my culture are much more practical and concrete than a general feeling of nostalgia. They’re the things I miss when I travel; the habits I don’t see myself changing even if I fulfil my ambition of living in different parts of the world. For example, we have late-night habits. We eat dinner between 8 and 9:30pm; we only use the word “evening” from 8pm onwards (“7 in the afternoon”, “8 in the evening”); we’re not likely to go to bed before midnight; and evening entertainments, such as concerts or cinema sessions, rarely start before 9:30pm.

Then there’s the food, to which I’m quite attached: yes, we do eat a lot of codfish, and yes, most people like olive oil. And we have bread with nearly every meal, and those custard tarts sprinkled with cinnamon you might have heard of really are that delicious. Finally, there are the celebrations. Unlike most of the population, I’m not Catholic, but my family still takes part in many of them for their cultural and social significance. Christmas means the world to me – and when we say “Christmas”, we often mean “Christmas Eve”, which is perhaps more important than Christmas Day itself. The tree never comes down before the sixth of January, though the Feast of Epiphany is not as big as it once was. On Easter, people spread flowers on the ground outside their doors, put food on the table, and open their houses to the local priest and to their neighbours. And around midsummer, different cities have different feasts in honour of local Saints. In my city, people go out into the streets and stay out all night – they eat, they sit around bonfires, and they hit each other on the head with plastic hammers and rub leek sprouts on the noses of perfect strangers who have the misfortune of walking by. I kid you not. But please don’t ask me how it all began.

Thank you again, Ana, for sharing about Portuguese culture with us. When I first heard the word saudade, I fell completely in like with it. I really connect it (rightly or not) with my father, my childhood, and with my pre-fibro body and life. These are things I feel nostalgia for that are gone forever and are no longer attainable to me. I like your descriptions of the different celebrations, such as the Feast of Epiphany. I grew up Protestant but it wasn't until I became Catholic that I had any idea what significance Epiphany had or ever celebrated it in any way. I don't know how I would feel about getting hit on the head with a plastic hammer, though, hmmm...lol

Snapshots in Diversity (c) is a special series running on Lost in Books through the end of April. Please be sure to bookmark the blog so you can catch the next wonderfully interesting personal essay/interview.

23 comments:

  1. I really like the different ways each person is participating in this series. I appreciate that Ana is only willing to talk about her own experiences in her culture. Because, really, who of us has the stereotypical experience of our own culture?

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  2. Thank you so much for having me, Rebecca!

    And Kristen, that's exactly what I thought. It can be hard to see from the inside the most common traits that others see from the outside.

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  3. Cultural differences are so fascinating. I really never thought about my own culture until I lived away from it, so I do know what you mean, Ana. My Italian half of the family greets each other with two kisses, but it would definitely be too intimate for anyone else. Interesting!

    Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

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  4. Very interesting post, Ana! I feel I got to know you a little better. And like Kirsten, I like how you approached the subject of Portugeze culture through your own experiences of it.

    And can I say that the festivities and the food sound amazing? I imagine it to have such a "warm" atmosphere, which I think the Dutch could learn a lot from!

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  5. How can you go wrong in a culture that loves bread! Thank you Ana for sharing your thoughts on Portugese culture, it's great to learn more through life experience.

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  6. I love the hammer and leek thing!! :D

    Oddly, my eating and sleeping habits have always changed where I live. In France I ate late in the evening (7ish) and went to bed late, even though I got up early, and I didn't eat anything from noon until 7 which is weird for me. But in the US, both in Wisconsin and in Texas, that is impossible for me. I go to bed by 10, eat dinner at 5:30 or 6, have a snack mid-afternoon, etc. In NYC, even though I was only there for a week, I got used to their culture of eating much later, eating less snacks, and staying up much later. My dad always says that on the east coast you stay up later, that was his experience between living in Texas vs. living in South Carolina. It makes me wonder how I'd react and adapt to living in Portugal or other places in the world.

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  7. I am familiar with saudade because I am a fan of the fado. To me, listening to music that incorporates that concept is the best way to understand it. It becomes so clear! (Also, for those more familiar with classical music, I think Fritz Kreisler shows that in his music.)

    But what I love the most about what you describe is the ritual with the hammers and leek sprouts. That sounds like the most fun ever! :--)

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  8. a great post ,living in a different culture is so eye opening ,i love portugal having been a couple times such a lovely country and people and know a bit about fado music and such ,great guest post

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  9. Great post, Ana! I agree that culture is very hard to define. You just live it, daily. And only realize what yours is when you leave it, I think.

    I have always been a person who eats later than other people, too. Well, later than Americans. I don't know how Amanda can eat dinner at 5:30pm and not be starving by 11pm ;-) But I am one of those who likes to eat almost constantly! In India, people eat later, too, so maybe that is more cultural overflow from there in my family. I also think maybe because Portugal has really nice weather (I think), it is nice to eat later when it's breezy and comfortable outside.

    I also love having bread or carbs of any sort with every meal!

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  10. I love this post! I'm always curious about cultures that stay up late like that - what time do they get up in the morning? Do they take naps?

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  11. Ana is one of my absolute favorite bloggers, and I enjoyed learning more about Portugal, especially holiday traditions. I have an 11-year-old son, and I can tell you that business of hitting people with hammers could get out of control REAL fast! :-)

    http://laughingstars.net/

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  12. Thank you for this series. Ana, thank you for sharing with us.

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  13. @Aarti - I'm asleep by 11! We only started eating so early when our kids were so little, and slowly we've been increasing the time to 6:30, but i doubt it'll ever be later than that. :)

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  14. Lovely post. I loved to learn all the little things about different culture. Funny, I also just realised a lot of things about the culture I'm from after I left the country and lived somewhere else.

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  15. Great post! I honestly know nothing about Portuguese culture, so I have no preconceptions about it.

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  16. Like Kathy, I wonder when you sleep if you eat and stay up so late into the night. That was the hardest thing about traveling in France for me. It helped us get into tourist spots, though, because we were often among the first people in line...

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  17. This series relating to cultural diversity is a really great idea! Ana's post was enjoyable to read and I'm glad to learn more about the Portuguese. :)

    True, we should actually get to know about other cultures as it can help us grow as a person as well as widen our world views.

    Looking forward to the next post!

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  18. Thank you both - Rebecca & Ana - for sharing this with us. What a wonderful community we have!

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  19. This was so fun to read. Thank you Ana for sharing your thoughts. I think I'd do just great in Portugal. Being from Mexico we also have very late night habits. When I go see my family in Mexico and one of my cousins tells me she's picking me up for dinner, I know I better have a snack around 6:00 because dinner won't be until 9:30 and later! :)

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  20. It can be hard to describe your culture to someonelse because you are so used to it. I'm glad that Nymeth stepped outside it for a minute and explained it to us.

    Portuguese culture sounds similar to Spanish/Latino culture. Between the language and the Catholic holidays. I know that Spaniards stay up way late, but they take midday naps (siestas).

    Haha I can't imagine having a leek sprout being rubbed on my nose!

    I need to move to Portuagl or Spain or another country where the people all stay up let. I'm at best at night, I think I'm also an insomniac :)

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  21. Such an interesting post! And I didn't know you were Portuguese. I think wherever you live, there will always be a part of you that will be culturally Portuguese, and how nice to practice some of it in another land.

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  22. I love this idea for a post and the opportunity to learn more about Portuguese culture. My mother was married to a Portuguese man before she married my father so I have two half sisters who are Portuguese. Growing up I had some exposure to the culture through them and when I was little I remember I always wanted to be Portuguese instead of Swiss German!

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  23. Rebecca, Thank you so much for this wonderful series this month! I absolutely love it and hope to see it continued in the future, whether it be next April or all year round!!!

    Ana, Thank you so much for your post! I am not very familiar with the Portugese culture, but have been fascinated with what I do know. We had a family friend that married a Portugese woman years ago and they would send me postcards from Portugal when they would go back to visit. I still have every single one!! I love going back, trying to interpret what they wrote (over time I've lost my ability to translate them, but I once knew what they all said!). Thanks again!! :)

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