Friday 18 February 2011

Reforma agrária

Woman's costume authentic. Man alongside, perhaps not so authentic

For the >Language >Place blog carnival (still time to contribute to Edition 4), I find myself mining my very first blogposts from years ago, where place and language, the things that had formed and held me, figured large. This one is substantially rewritten - a bleaker mood, I think, than when I first recalled these things.

We rose at four. A hasty gulp of coffee with warm goat's milk (warm from the goat), as I fumbled into the strange costume that each day felt less strange: close-fitting, hand-sewn cotton leggings under a short skirt; long-sleeved cotton shirt; headscarf topped by a small bowler hat; sandals easy to slip off and stand, squelch barefoot in the shallow, muddy water of the rice fields. A big haul up into the back of a lorry, sway and chug at sunrise on rutted tracks to today's field.  My name there was Joana. They talked to me all day and at first I understood little, but I learned quickly, as you do in case of need. My boyfriend spoke Portuguese, but was rarely with me to interpret. Gender apartheid ruled in both farmwork and homelife. I've a lasting image of his backview disappearing on a tractor, on the pillion of a battered motorbike - an unfamiliar backview at that, for on day two they took him to the barber and I saw him for the first time with short hair.

The work was back-breaking. Hours bent double in fields of chickpeas, tomatoes, rice - the watery rice fields cooler, at least. Rows of women's bottoms, all sizes, raised to the sun. The bowler hats held tightly with elastic on inverted heads. Raucous, shouted conversation down the rows: words that began to have pattern and rhythm, then meaning, now mostly forgotten, for I've never been back to Portugal since that summer of 1978. We'd hitchhiked from the North of England to the Alentejo, volunteered our services on a communist-run co-operative farm. It was just four years since the Carnation Revolution. Watching events in North Africa and the Middle East, many recall the non-violent revolutions of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. Only a few have also recalled the end of Spain's and Portugal's dictatorships in the 1970s. This makes me feel old. Most commentators are so young.

That summer, ideals and alternatives still prevailed. For good or ill, it was all to be short-lived, the radical project soon abandoned, expropriated lands returned, though the Alentejo still votes Left, I believe. I'm not as sad about this as I might be. For it was also the summer of ideals shattering, of seeing how communism meant women bent double in the fields and men riding on tractors; after work, women bent double in the communal wash-house and men in the village bar; only one woman on the elected farm council. Alone in the barn at night, we rowed, me and my boyfriend. We looked at each other with new eyes, our youthful attempts at equality evanescing in the face of powerfully held communal values, drawn back so quickly into the separate tribes of our sexes.

The women were glad for the end of tyrannical government, they said, but no, their lives had not changed. They were tough women, had to be. Don't be soft!, the older women were forever telling the young ones. Não fica mole! (Was that the phrase? Most of that summer's Portuguese has faded). Those women's lives must have changed, in the decades that followed, in ways they couldn't imagine then - and neither could I. The flight to the cities, an end to illiteracy and a to particular, grinding, rural deprivation. And a good thing too, in almost every way. A 'soft' place in my heart remembers, though, milk warm from the goat and the silhouettes of bowler-hatted women against a dawn sky.

Portuguese goats came a few years after French cows. There are absolutely no more agricultural memories in store.


Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

This is all news to me, Jean - didn't know you had that experience of Portugal. Very interesting and welldescibed - wish you had some photos of that time and place too.

Parmanu said...

The mention of Alentejo brought back memories of a trip to Portugal in 2001. We crossed this region, and spent a day in that lovely city of Evora.

> The mini bowler hats held tightly with elastic on inverted heads.

What an image!

> Most commentators are so young.

So true, and it applies to other fields too. I remember thinking along similar lines in 2000, after the dot-com bubble burst - many of the pundits were too young to have experienced previous waves of a radical new technology.

Lucy said...

Somehow I missed this before.

Have you read Monica Ali's 'Alentejo Blue'?