immigrant |noun| a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence
Ms. Merriam-Webster looks like a hastily rolled sleeping bag – in paisley print. I suspect her dress may actually be made from a recycled sleeping bag on account of the crisp whooshing sounds it makes as it crosses the meeting room. Her tiny feet scuttling beneath it. As my trusty online dictionary (www.merriam-webster.com), Ms. Merriam-Webster has been the unofficial patron of this blog with all of its rediscovered definitions. Enormous round eye-glasses keep sliding down her nose as if ski season it were. An attached gold chain stands guard for their final plummet, which never quite happens. A stodgy finger pushes them back up their slope where they hover over her single-stitch eyes – too tiny to hold any palpable expression, although I’m fairly certain the wrinkles around them show the intent of a smile. The hyphenated name may have been the result of circumstance, but the yellowed ivory pipe (chipped though it is on the rim) is all pomp. It protrudes from her pursed lips like a fountain spout – lifting smoke instead of dropping water. The turning of a collapsible silver ashtray in her hands tells me the ritual is about to begin.
Who knew websites could pour themselves into bodies at whim like that? They need only be sick of their 2-dimensional existence. (Perhaps it’s the reverse process shown here: when I pour my 3-dimensional existence into the flat expanding blogosphere.) Some websites translate beautifully into a carnal form. (I hope this very blog will be one of them should it be bestowed the good fortune of publication.) For Ms. Merriam-Webster, the result is distractingly quirky. But should I proceed with caution? Perhaps this is a carefully tailored strategy to lure me from the seriousness of my pursuit. Abroad I have been many things: a diplomat’s daughter, a radio intern, a volunteer with an African-based project, an Erasmus student, an employee on a one-year stint, but now I am looking for a status beyond all that.
“You are looking for a word, are you?”
“Yes, Ms. Webster. I was thinking of the word ‘immigrant’.”
“Very well. That is a very important word. State your case.” Puff, puff, puff.
“As you know, I’m Portuguese.”
“A native or inhabitant of the Republic of Portugal.”
I wonder if she’s going to keep doing that: defining everything as I go.
“Yes. The country. It’s going through a period of economic turmoil just now. Bailout targets and what not. And I’m at a bit of a crossroads in my career.”
“Now, do you mean the place of intersection of two or more roads or a crucial point especially where a decision must be made?”
“The figurative sense.”
“I see – proceed.”
“Like my forefathers before me, I could do with more opportunity and immigration is on my mind.”
She lets out a chuckle and a cloud of smoke. “‘Forefathers’ – such a splendid word! Expressive and a delight to enunciate. Like a feather across the lips.”
I’m silent just long enough to wonder if she is listening to anything I say.
“As you know, the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s saw a wave of so-called less skilled immigration from the interior of Portugal to countries like France, the U.S., Canada and then Germany and Switzerland. Now, there’s a growing wave of qualified young urbanites to places like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique. I’ve been away from the motherland for 2 years already and I’d like official recognition, if that’s all right.” I very cautiously spell out, “But I need you to say the word.”
“Not so fast. ” She taps the contents of the spent pipe into the ashtray and begins re-stuffing it. “An immigrant is one who comes to a country to take-up permanent residence. It seems to me your previous two years lack the essential quality of permanence.”
Now I am the one puff, puff, puffing.
“London,” she says, “always had a finish line, as did Leicester, Milan and Neuchâtel. You were in fact not an immigrant in any of these places.”
“Than what have I been for the last two years? What am I now?”
Puff. “In limbo.” Puff, puff.
Roughly 3% of the general population and 12% of the foreign population in Switzerland is Portuguese, making it the third largest immigrant community in the country. But I don’t need the Swiss Federal Statistical Office to tell me that. A stroll around Neuchâtel suffices. My mother tongue, peppered with heavy regional accents, can be heard all over town. Actually, this blissful sound has met my ears on most of the Swiss excursions I’ve shared on this blog – from Geneva to Interlaken to Gruyères.
But being a Portuguese immigrant in this country is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Yes, supermarkets, cleaning companies and repair shops are full of my countrymen. But so are more qualified positions. My brother, for instance, is Portuguese by birth, Swiss banker by trade. The local coordinator of Luis’ FIFA Master is a smart dynamic young compatriot who has lived in Switzerland all his life. And Luis has not had much trouble meeting Portuguese immigrants behind desks at sports federations like FIFA, UEFA and the IOC.
My forays into Swissdom have been interspersed with all manner of Lusitanian symbols: a Sagres beer Mini Cooper on the highway, stacks of Sumol soda at the Coop supermarket, Portuguese flags paired with Benfica symbols like salt and pepper. Unfortunately, I was well aware even before arriving here that the local f-word tended to be ‘foreigner’, rather than the usual ‘forced unlawful carnal knowledge’. The latter expletive, however, would have been an uncouth but forgivable reaction to a 2012 interview with the coordinator of the Swiss Forum for the Study of Migration at Neuchâtel University (an Italian immigrant herself) when she said of the Portuguese community that “they are people who generally do not make many demands and who know their place.”(1). And what place is that, might I ask?
Thankfully and so far, my personal experience with the Swiss regarding my nationality has been far more pleasant. It’s online that I’ve found the doozies at the root of the country’s bad reputation (Helvetia Out of Order). So although it is obvious to most of us, the Swiss apparently need to be reminded that ‘immigrant’ is not a four-letter word.
The FIFA Masterees followed in the footsteps of previous editions by making the sports pub Café du Cerf their local watering hole (even though only a minority of the class ever learned to pronounce the name correctly). On a particularly busy night, there was a bit of tension with a neighboring table of university guys over an issue as trivial as chairs. One of them heard Luis’ holler to me in Portuguese from across the bar and said to his friend in very audible French “Did you hear? She’s Portuguese.” Had this guy seriously just slung a pejorative gibe at me? Despite my irritation, I just wanted to let it go. But days later the incident was still re-playing itself in my mind. Weeks later, Luis and I were back at Café du Cerf watching Benfica play Fenerbahçe in the Europa League semi-final. With Luis’ bright red Benfica jersey, there was no doubt who we were rooting for. And then the two boys from the chair incident came in. They eyed us and sat down at another table watching the game. Given the match and our geographic location, certain letters began to line-up in my head: m-e-a-c-u-l-p-a. These guys hadn’t been discriminating against the Portuguese. They were Portuguese. I’d inadvertently proven the maxim that prejudices are rarely one-sided. Although utterly useless in my hands, I’ve seen Benfica used umpty times as a conversation starter to great effect. Soon enough, there we were: the four of us around a table talking about how these guys had been born in Switzerland, had always lived here, but did not have citizenship. And yet how they felt out of place in Portugal where their thickly accented but grammatically correct Portuguese marked them instantly as immigrants. Ironically, they were in limbo – just like me.
Benfica ended-up being the gateway to many of our interactions with the local Portuguese community. Ah, sport and its unifying abilities! It was because of the last match of the national championship (in which Benfica was a contender for the title) that we ended up having dinner at a Portuguese restaurant in Interlaken, during the hiking trip I wrote about a few months back (The Air Up There). It was definitely rowdier than I’m used to, but welcoming and heart-filling. During these last days in Neuchâtel, a Spanish FIFA Master alumni remembered Luis was a diehard fan and invited us to the Benfica-Bordeaux friendly in Nyon. My football attention span has always been short, but I was utterly hopeless that day. And who could blame me. The people-watching was prime: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author meets the grassroots of football. The beer-bellied, raucous, occasionally toothless caricatures, decked from head to toe in Benfica paraphernalia, were just begging to be given a character to pour themselves into. Perhaps they’ll end-up peaking through the lines of a future story like a nosy neighbor peering from behind the blinds.
And then faster than anyone could have imagined, the FIFA Master graduation came round. And with it, the end of this year’s adventure. If for Luis it has been about the first steps in a new career, for me it has been about stories: writing them, reading them and listening to them. When you spend a large hunk of time with the same group of people, you sometimes get the privilege of hearing their stories. Nothing more personal can be given. And if you’re lucky, as time goes by, the stories are pulled out from deeper within their life. When an exchange like that takes place, a bridge is built that is not easily burned. It can be re-visited even further on and I hope to find these people there someday. As for me, some of my own stories have been shared here in this blog. If you have taken them in, we too have built a bridge that I hope you will revisit.
As for graduation celebrations, we ended-up by the lake watching the night fade into a new day. The last revelers said their goodbyes and were off for a few hours of sleep before catching planes, trains and automobiles. Alone with Luis (and Botox), we looked up to find an enormous red disc making its way up into the sky. I’d never seen a sunrise quite like it and felt comforted by the beauty of the world. It felt like a gift.
For a few days, we’ll road trip across Europe again. It’ll give us time to make the interior transition that comes with the physical one. As readers, we’ve all experienced the irritation of an open-ended story. Some consider it poor writing, but I hope I’ll be forgiven for it. Luis’ and my next port of call is still coming into focus, which means I cannot give you a clear ending to the story that began last September (My personal lexicon). We must be patient. It is an ending that will also be a birth of something new and the time for that birth has not come yet. It’s ironic that I basically have the same questions now as when I began this blog (is writing my vocation? where will this take me? can this be a passion and a career?). But there is no failure or frustration in that. The difference from the beginning to the end is the stories throughout. And, going back to Robert Frost from my first post back in September, that has made all the difference.