Volunteer Team Four: Report From Portugal


Monday, Sept. 29
Bom Dia! We had our first breakfast at the hotel before we set out for our various assignments. Scott and I had a walk of ten minutes or so to our school. In our first class, three girls were selected to show us around the school. One, who came from Mexico, had a good command of English. Perhaps being bi-lingual already made it easier to pick up another language. When we returned to class, we found that they were learning about choosing foods from a menu. Maria asked us the name of a food she described and drew on the board—sort of a pasty with one side scalloped and the whole deep-fried. It didn’t look like anything either Scott or I was familiar with.

After this class, we went to the cafeteria for lunch—We came back to school to a most interesting 5th year English class. It started out with an open discussion of the roles of parent and child, and led into the responsibilities of parenthood. Then our teacher gave each pupil a slip of paper with a problem a parent might face—“Your teen-age daughter is pregnant”—“Your son was caught smoking a joint”—“Your child wants to drop out of school”—and the student had to tell the class how he/she would handle it. In all the classes the students were very interested in the American presidential campaign, and wanted to know who we favored. They were overwhelmingly Obama fans.

On our way home after school, we found a group of our teammates enjoying afternoon tea at an outdoor café near our hotel, and joined them. Later, we had a discussion on the goals for our team. Paula came in to inquire how our first day at school had gone. Everything was great until we turned on the TV. Most of us were quite disturbed by the news on CNN of the failure of the congressional bailout, and the plunge of the stock market. Boa Noite!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008
It’s Tuesday of our first week in Beja and most of the team members are already familiar with their schools, assignments, and schedules. Michele and Paula have worked hard building this young partnership with Beja while the City’s (and the country’s) educational system has been dealing with its own challenges brought on by some new and controversial changes. In the classroom however, the students and the volunteers focus on the task at hand – improving conversational English and gaining a better understanding of each other and our cultures.

Loretta, Eileen and I arrived at Mario Beirao Middle School at 10 a.m. and they were quickly whisked away to teach an 8th Grade class. My 9th Grade class began at 10:50 and we spent the full 45 minute period discussing all aspects of the United States and its similarities and differences to Portugal.

After class, an excited student came up to me to say she had recently visited Mexico. I was pleased to have this additional conversation with her — but I was even more thrilled several hours later when we recognized each other as we were passing on the sidewalk in a different part of Beja. Her face immediately lit up and she said, “Hello!” as her friendly smile welcomed me to her community. This small but significant gesture, from a 9th Grade Portuguese girl on a narrow cobblestone sidewalk 3000 miles from my home, will stay with me long after the trip is over.

This evening at dinner, Michele finally got her broccoli, we identified SOME of the delicious seafood we were eating, and Brian provided a wonderful spontaneous tableside serenade at Susie’s urging (and Eileen’s embarrassment)!

As the night air finally began to cool, a Port wine nightcap and some interesting conversation with teammates at an outside café was certainly a fitting end to another great day.

Wednesday, October 1
A new month has begun. Things seem to be going better. Some of the glitches have been worked out or worked around. The Volunteers are becoming more comfortable with their assignments.

In the morning, we heard about a possible teacher strike. No one reported cancelled classes. However, Eileen and Susan both went up to the castle in their free time and it was closed because of a strike! Several folks have taken advantage of the Lavandaria and it is reported that the owner speaks French – a help to those who “nao falo portugues”.

Late morning found Dennis, Beau and me in a vocational class with Ines. These are young adults studying Information Technology. We asked where they were born and most were from Beja, but there were also several from Cape Verde and one young man from Ukraine. We invited the students to return for tutoring at 17:15 and several said they would. We were talking to some of the students in the hallway after class when students from another class joined us. Beau and Dennis’ enthusiasm enticed one of these students to join 5 of the class at the tutoring session. We thought 6 a nice turn out for an afterschool class and we were able to encourage 1:1 some of the more shy students.

Friday, October 3, 2008
One week of teaching has gone by in a flash. Beja continues to reveal itself as a beautiful city inhabited by warm and friendly people. Loretta and Scott walked this afternoon to the super, supermarket in the shopping center to see Beja’s interpretation of the American Dream. Huge food market with a very interesting meat and produce department–you can just about buy anything there.

Once again, TGIF. Much excitement is generated by the team in planning for the weekend. Going to the ancient city of Evora is planned already (thanks to Helen), along with the possibility of going to the south coast. Since we’re a “trusting, tolerant, patient and flexible team, ” whatever plans are implemented will result in a lot of fun. A Haiku is offered:

Be that as it may
Language can be difficult
For us to convey

Saturday October 4
After breakfast, we were off for a day of sight seeing. Roy and Suzie stayed behind in Beja to tour the city while the rest of us boarded a bus bound for Evora. Thanks to Helen with the assistance of Hugo, the desk clerk arranged the bus and a tour guide in Evora. Our first stop was the villa Romano Pisoes; Roman bath ruins located a short distance from Beja. We marveled that thousands of years ago people walked on those same mosaic tiles. We also were fascinated by the snails that covered the stalks of grass surrounding the ruins. A couple of motorcyclists stopped as we were leaving to check out the ruins as a possible stop for an upcoming trip for their motorcycling group. We traveled through scenic fields of cork and olive trees and arrived at the Esperao Winery which was surrounded by hectares of grapevines, according to Ruth much larger than the vineyards in California.

We arrived in Evora in time for lunch. Evora is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. We met Maria our tour guide after lunch. Maria grew up in Evora, studied tourism in Lisbon, and now gives Evora city tours. She guided us through the Church of St Francis with its Chapel of Bones, the Cathedral, and the Temple of Diana. The grounds around the Temple offered a panoramic view of the Roman aqueduct and the surrounding countryside. The walk back to the bus through the narrow streets gave time to window shop and purchase postcards and purses made from cork.

It was a sleepy bus ride back to Beja. We ate at the Restaurante Churrasqueira where we feasted on plates of salad, pork chops, salmon, sole, and grilled chicken. After dinner, some retired to their rooms while others gathered at a local café for port and dessert.

More to come soon!!

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