Thursday, April 8, 2010

Indians and Americans could learn a thing or two

Have you heard the sound of silence? Do you remember the last time you ate lunch on a weekday day pretending you were on vacation? Have your thoughts ever been as still as the lilies growing in an old pond? Have you ever been able to detach your brain from your body, I am not talking about meditation classes, and just let go?

I don’t think I have ever completely learnt to relax in the European sense of the way. I am in southwest Portugal for a writer’s residency. And this past week has been a learning experience on so many levels.

The residency, a UNESCO landmark, is so secluded that everything around here feels like a metaphor. It’s sprawling and lush green. There are hills, not mountains. And I love hills, hate the mountains. You have horses, pigs, cows and the regular dog and cats as part of the entourage. The dog is a linguist. She understands my instructions in Hindi. The directors told me that a Norwegian student spoke with the dog in his language, and she seemed to respond.

The place that hosts us residents is an old, Spanish/Portuguese house from one of those Antonio Banderas movies. Each room comes with its own equipped kitchen, including but not limited to sandwich bags and a wine bottle opener, and a little patio with table and chair. And of course, an attached bathroom.

There is no Internet access in the bedrooms. When I first found out, I was devastated. See, I am part of two cultures that birth and nurture technologies. I live in a country that is constantly connected. Almost all my friends, acquaintances, and network, back in the States, are glued to their PDAs 24/7. I didn’t appreciate the Wi-Fi free Zen bedroom. Dude, planning to check my emails is not a concept I am used to. My iPhone is my savior for everything. And here I met people with no Facebook accounts. These are extremely successful artists and equally good human beings. And they have managed to live a happy personal and professional life without social media. I blurted “wow” a few times and then shut up. Anyway, with my New York attitude, friendly but borderline “You can’t be serious,” I settled into the place.

Attitudes are so flimsy. They change when it suits them. As I ate my lunch on the first day staring at the expanse of green and then my dinner watching the sunset, I began to appreciate no connectivity in my room. Staying connected can be rather draining for the brain. Not to forget, it’s a hurdle in the path of creativity. Here, I check my emails when I am on a break. The outside world isn’t a distraction. This way, my mind and soul get the time to absorb my surroundings and allows it to creep into my subconscious. I am getting a lot of work done, and the Portuguese landscape is dominant in my current project. Also, the common area is where we artists hang out. Residencies are not just about doing your own work; it’s also about learning from and interacting with others. Last night, I learnt a few Angolan dance moves.

From day one, I was bowled over by the hospitality of the residency directors and the unrestrained warmth of my fellow residents, majority of whom got here before I did. I arrived on Easter and of course in a Catholic country like Portugal, grocery stores were closed. So, very generously, my residency directors turned their kitchen into Seven Eleven for me.

The same day, a group of us went sight seeing. One of the directors was our tour guide. I was surprised but liked the casualness of the day where people weren’t overtly politically correct, the way they are in the US, all the time. People understood the sincerity of the conversationalists.

The next day, the director drove me to the grocery store. The locals were gracious and courteous. Like a stereotypical “rude” tourist, I, unintentionally, said “thank you” and “no problem” in Spanish instead of Portuguese. Hall of shame. Anyway, I did a little meat dance for the produce lady: “Want cluck-cluck or oink-oink. No moo.” Funny how arts seeks no language. She understood what I meant. Shoppers in the store helped me pick out wines within my budget.

I have become friends with avid walkers. We go for long walks to the old mill and the train tracks that lead you to a river and a debilitating house. I will post some pictures once I am back in the US.

I like the balanced informality of the European culture. People here aren’t all that “space-conscious.” In India,  you grow up with warm and fuzzy but in-your-face love. In America, it's the other extreme. On one of our walks, I happened to mention in passing that I really like Portuguese coffee. But that I won’t get to drink it until Friday - that is when I go grocery shopping again. There is a coffee shop inside the store that sells delicious pastries, savories, and coffee. My Portuguese fellow resident promptly offered to make me some of the local specialty today.

We had our first potluck dinner on Tuesday evening. It went on way past midnight. The evening attended by ten people brought seven: nationalities, cuisines, and experiences to the dining table. Wine and conversation overflowed. There is something to be said about spending time with artists of different nationalities versus artists from different cities within the same country.

But this amazing experience reminded me how as an Indian living in America (both workaholic countries), I don’t know how to live without an agenda on hand. Maybe India and America are doing well because people are driven. But at what cost, you can’t help but wonder.

In New York, people eat lunch at their desks. Over summer, even if they go out to catch some sun, it’s for a maximum of 30 minutes. In India, returning home from work after 9 p.m. is the norm. At the residencies in the US, I noticed that lunchtime was about catching up on emails or the news, not for sunbathing or staring into space. The walk, or a run, or social hour are always welcomed but accommodated in the busy schedule. They don’t drive the day.

At my current residency, my fellow residents took a few days to settle in and explore the place. See what the winds and their mood told them. But the robotic Indian and American in me functions differently. I continue to have fun, but work is my priority. My mission. And I make no bones about admitting that.

The other day, I was talking to one of my directors about the work I have completed so far. I might have some good news on that so fingers crossed. Anyway, my director was thrilled to hear about my piece. She said that I was very hard working. But after being exposed to the European lifestyle for the past week and knowing life is too short, I wonder if the Indian and American way of living life is really a compliment or a curse. We are so focused on our tomorrow that today slips by us.


More until next time, 



Copyright © 04. 08.2010


“The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.” ~ Aristotle

1 comment:

P said...

Very well said, we are too focused on tomorrow to enjoy today. That workaholic mindset is what is burning me out. I am a workaholic for things that do not give me that great feeling inside. Sure you may be a workaholic to your writing but at least it is what you want to do, it's your passion so it's not so much work as it is you doing what you enjoy. There's a difference there.