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Lessons in Portugal (Take a Coffee)
How the Portuguese Don't Subscribe to Urgency Culture
Today I was on a work call in front of my huge picture window when I heard a noise and looked up.
I’m in a corner unit and can see two streets from my office. The quant cobblestone side street that leads to shops and restaurants and the busy main street that runs as a jagged artery through the beautiful Portuguese city of Porto. A fickle city I am fortunate enough to call home.
The trash collectors were parked in front of the huge trash cans that span half a city block on the main road. They were blocking a lane. But they weren’t inside their vehicle or outside, attending to the trash. Instead they were sauntering leisurely across the busy three lane avenue that I live on.
Traffic stopped dutifully even though they were nowhere near a cross walk. I watched them, mesmerized by their confidence and determination.
Where are they going? I almost asked the person on my zoom call who couldn’t see what was suddenly distracting me.
And then, I burst out laughing as they entered the coffee shop across the street.
I paused from my zoom call, it was apparent I was distracted by my lack of eye to screen contact and then by my loud guffaw.
My writing coach looked at me quizzically.
“The trash men are blocking an entire lane of traffic so they can run across the street and have a coffee,” I said between chuckles. “I love this country.”
Name one large city in America where a worker can stop mid-morning without getting in trouble to have a coffee.
This is exactly how life can be lived outside a major US city, Singapore or Dubai. They don’t live by the same rules AKA urgency culture.
I only recently learned of this term when I saw the Whatsapp status of a new friend I met here in Portugal. It says something akin to: “I don’t subscribe to urgency culture, I’ll return your text when I can, if it’s urgent, call me.”
And that’s really it in a nutshell, isn’t it? Living somewhere other than a go, go, go; do, do, do; be more than you can be, every single second of every single day culture is changing for me. I’m learning to embrace this on a cellular level. It will take time of course but now in the mornings instead of jumping straight into work on my computer, I take one to two hours for a morning routine of meditation, a gratitude practice and yoga.
My yoga mat is always out on the far side of my office and on breaks I can walk over and do some stretching. A reset. A constant reminder of self-care and self-advocacy. Especially as a workaholic solopreneur. I have been known to work up to fifteen hours a day without breaking for lunch (or breakfast). But no more. And there are even studies about the efficiency and higher outputs of people who live balanced lives and work less. This is what I strive for now.
A quick word on the trash situation here in Portugal. Most places, even in the country were a friend of mine lives down in the Algarve, there are bins along the street. Instead of having solo trashcans they have community cans. They’re huge and you can find them every two blocks. There will be two large gray dumpster looking bins and three enormous recycle bins.
One for glass, another for plastic and aluminum and a third for paper. In Porto there is also a bin for organic food waste, it’s apparently a newer project and one I salute! But that also means you’re carrying your trash and recycling out regularly, down one to seven flights of stairs. The trash people come daily to empty it all. Efficient or necessary, I don’t know. Maybe a bit of both.
The North “vs” the South
I find it extremely interesting that there are such vast differences between people who live in the north versus those who live in the south. Usually it’s said that people in the south are nicer though no one can really tell you why. It’s even stated in broader terms. The Europeans are warmer than the Scandinavians. I’m not saying that this is true or that I buy into it, but it is what’s said. And no one can give a clear reason as to “why”. The most common explanation I’ve heard is the weather. Where it’s warmer, people are friendlier and where it’s colder, people are colder.
But in Portugal it’s different. Not only is it said in Porto that the people here in the north, where it’s definitely colder, are nicer but people in Lisbon will tell you the same. Years ago when I took Italian lessons from a Southern Italian she claimed people in the south of her country were nicer. But I have a friend in the North and he claims the opposite.
Not here. Here, Portuguese that live in Lisbon (mid-Portugal) will insist that people in Porto (northern Portugal) are nicer and the Portuguese in Porto will agree. I love trying to figure out the why of things. Before moving to Porto I spent about six weeks in Lisbon and while that is nowhere near long enough to get a true feel for a city, a culture or it’s people, especially without speaking the language, it was a good taste.
I adore Lisbon but I’m approaching it from an American tourist’s point of view. It’s absolutely gorgeous and while I was there it was warm. Most of the people I met were friendly and kind.
But people living there complain about it a lot and I listen. I spoke to two clothing store owners in depth, several cafe owners, people working in restaurants or sales. And most everyone complained of the fast paced life. They are tired, things are too expensive and theirs is a go, go, go mentality that I didn’t see when I spent a month in the Algarve (the southern peninsula of Portugal). I haven’t seen this type of urgency in Porto.
Thus, I have hypothesized that lifestyle in a city and maybe culturally as well is directly responsible for a person’s stress level, which can, in turn, have a lot to do with their level of happiness. High stress can diminish our capacity for empathy and kindness.
Yes, it can be this simple. Places where you have to work long hours to make ends meet like compact San Francisco, where I last lived, which is the most expensive area in California to live, versus spread out Los Angeles with it’s beaches and **lower prices. But high traffic!
In order to afford higher priced living, if you’re not part of the 3%, you have to work. A lot. And if you’re working a lot, you’re probably stressed and disgruntled.
Add a commute on top of that and it’s a recipe for distress, rage and even health issues. This can cause someone to feel like they’re perpetually on a hamster wheel; where you’re burdened by feeling trapped and unable to achieve forward momentum.
Is there a solution? Self care like meditation and yoga may work for some. Others may scream, “another thing to do?” and adding anything to a routine already bursting at the seams may be too much. Finding a less stressful job that pays more money? Always a nice thing if you can get it. Moving to another state, city, country? Not an option for everyone because of family, job or finances. Travel? You need resources and time for this.
I’m sorry that I don’t have a “one size fits all” answer for you. I can offer suggestions but what worked for me may not work for you.
When I found myself still treading water while living hand-to-mouth after working two full time jobs for forty years, my solution was to leave America.
Do I regret it even after all of the trials and tribulations, being uncomfortable, and feeling like a fish out of water?
Never. Not even for one single minute.
So while I can’t (and won’t) tell you what to do, I will insist that you do have healthy options, maybe even some you’ve never considered.
Maybe make a list, do some research and then make that decision and take the leap. If you hate it or it doesn’t work out, urgency culture will still be there, waiting for you to swim upstream again.
**I am, by no means, saying Los Angeles is a cheap place to live but compared to San Francisco and right over the golden gate bridge in Marin county, LA is more affordable.
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