Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Living Abroad and Values to Live By

Along the Rio Piracicaba
My husband, Jeff and I arrived in Brazil on March 2. We are here for two months while Jeff, who is a part time visiting professor at the University of São Paulo, works with Brazilian colleagues to complete a five-year research project measuring carbon flux in the lower Amazon River.

Rapids on the RIo Piracicaba
Living abroad is different than traveling as a tourist. Its benefits are subtler but no less rewarding. Although I’ve traveled to Brazil many times, the distance between our hometown of Seattle and the town we are living in never gets shorter. Piracicaba is a former colonial town of about 400,000 people built on the banks of the Piracicaba River. It is in upstate São Paulo and about a 2-hour drive from the giant metropolis of the city of São Paulo. Surrounded by rich sugar cane fields, it is a world apart. Its prosperity is based on the region’s agriculture but the town is also home to a university and several manufacturing plants.

During the years of living here, we’ve usually rented an apartment near the university but this year we rented a small house on the eastern edge of town. The house is one of about 20 homes in a gated development – the tidy homes run along a single, dead end street. The community consists mostly of young families. On weekends, children are everywhere, biking on the street, playing kickball in the grassy open areas, swinging on the swings in the community playground and generally goofing around with each other. When Jeff and I returned from a friend’s house late Saturday night, a group of parents were sitting at plastic picnic tables at the street end while their kids played in the dark. The scene reminded me of my childhood in the 1950’s, when us kids played late into summer evenings while our parents sat outside, eating, drinking and talking together. It is a pleasure to observe a similar scene in 2018. Such informal street games are uncommon in contemporary urban United States – unusual in my neighborhood in Seattle – although Halloween night is an exception. I love seeing kids running free, playing outside in the open air. In our increasingly structured society, I rarely see kids just running or biking along neighborhood streets. Too often, the freedom I experienced growing up in a small Canadian town doesn’t exist for kids growing up today. For my part, that is too bad. It may be far fetched, but I believe that being part of an open and inclusive community and engaging in physical activity are factors that can help children develop positive life values and a habit of life long exercise.

A few weeks before our trip, my brother closed and distributed to us (we are a close knit sibling group of six adults) the remaining funds in a final bank account that had belonged to our parents both of whom died quite a few years ago. He wrote to us that he was grateful to our parents not just for the money, but for the British World War II era values they taught us. Our parents were English and we had immigrated to Canada in 1955, then to the United States nine years later. In response, my older sister specified what she believes those values to be. In no particular order, here is her list.
  • ·      Honesty
  • ·      The importance of hard work
  • ·      Respect for other people
  • ·      Charity
  • ·      Modesty
  • ·      Gratitude
  • ·      Maintaining one's health
  • ·      The importance of a good education
  • ·      Self-respect
  • ·      The Golden Rule (treat other people as you would like them to treat you)

Her list struck me as accurate, and worthy of living by regardless of where and at what time in history you live. I agree with my sister. These are the values our parents taught us and that my siblings and I have tried to live by. As good fortune and good sense would have it, all six of us married men and women who share these values. All of us have tried to bring up our children to share these values as well. It’s a good list for sure, as relevant in Brazil as in the United States, Great Britain (where this sister lives) and perhaps globally. Curiously, living according to such values seems less common today in our wild and unpredictable world.

My Writing Station
One of the things I enjoy, as a retired woman living abroad, is the simplicity of my life. The sheer freedom inherent in living in a house that has only one or two objects is lovely. I’m enjoying an almost empty space at my writing station – a single orchid and an M. C. Escher print are my companions.

I enjoy having more free time. I love my endless activities in my stateside life – especially taking care of my grandson – that is my favorite pastime since becoming a grandmother nine months ago. I miss this activity terribly in Brazil. However my days in Seattle are full of many things: writing groups and writing classes; volunteer work; gardening; walking, biking and exercising at my YMCA; cultural events and myriad social interactions with my large extended family and wide circle of friends. Here, in Brazil apart from the daily routines of cooking, cleaning, laundry and exercising at a local gym, my days are largely unstructured. With greater free time I am able to live a more contemplative life – more time to think, write, read and take long walks – I am always trying to achieve my FitBit goal of 10,000 steps/day. 

Neon Tetras at the Aquarium by the river
On Sunday my husband and I walked around the riverfront trail – a 5-mile stint and good for more than 12,000 steps. During our walk we visited a small local aquarium and saw tiny neon tetras that reminded me of the home aquarium my son had as a child.  Yesterday, I had time to finish a wonderful book. Rather than waiting until the evening, I read the book’s last pages while drinking my morning coffee in the small, enclosed garden behind our rented house. It felt like a luxury to read a book in the morning – and much more rewarding than reading the online news or checking my email.

Beyond my garden wall

In my opinion, the book in question is one of the great novels of the 20th century. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez is a story of love and old age. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it – especially if you are over 50. Márquez is worth reading. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was a prolific and skilled writer. I am humbled by his skills. Although perhaps audacious to presume to write a poem after reading such a brilliant author, I wrote in gratitude to a great man. Enjoy and don’t forget to take a walk today – that is part of maintaining one’s health and self-respect.

Love in the Time of Cholera,
Dois Córregos, Piracicaba, Brazil

Early morning.
The dove calls from afar.
Her mournful cry
Fills the morning air.
The sun warms my skin.
Bougainvillea creeps over the wall.
Its fuchsia blossoms
Drift in the soft breeze.
Three Papagayos squawk,
Stark silhouettes
Against the bright blue sky.
I sit, drinking my coffee,
At a small plastic table,
And burrow down deep,
Lost in the pages
Of the book I love.

We leave for Rio on Saturday for the last month of our sojourn in Brazil. I look forward to continuing my contemplative freedom in that marvelous city.
Found along the banks of the river

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