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Mar Português – Fernando Pessoa

When I wrote about my Portuguese teacher from high school, I forgot to mention something for which I was thankful and that I actually talked about in my letter to her: Fernando Pessoa and my first contact with Portuguese poetry.

When you learn a new language, you do not necessarily think of poetry as convenient literature, and you want to reserve it for when you are much more confident with your language abilities. Yet our professor introduced us to some of Fernando Pessoa’s poems. Pessoa is a central, important, and talented European writer, yet he was never mentioned in any of my high school classes. Two of his works really made an impression on me: Mar Português, and O Tejo, written under one of his pseudonyms (Alberto Caeiro).

Mar Portugês is actually what made me think of writing to my Portuguese teacher. When I first arrived in Lisbon for my new job, I saw this poem on top of a taxi cab and it just brought back a whole lot of feelings and memories in mind, from when I was a teenager dreaming of some day living in this historical country, that once dominated the sea. Some dreams do come true. Photo by Louids

Here is an English translation of the original text by João Manuel Mimoso, though I’m not sure it really does justice to the original version:

Portuguese Sea

Oh salty sea, so much of your salt
Is tears of Portugal!
Because we crossed you, so many mothers wept,
So many sons prayed in vain!
So many brides remained unmarried
That you might be ours, oh sea!

Was it worthwhile? All is worthwhile
When the spirit is not small.
He who wants to go beyond the Cape
Has to go beyond pain.
God to the sea peril and abyss has given
But it was in it that He mirrored heaven.

Little Moments of Pleasure on the Way to Work

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that is so deeply part of your being that you, that you can’t even conceive of your life without it. Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless”. – Paul Bowles

Magsx left a comment on a post from last week saying that it would be hard to beat my (still current) ride to work, and I have to thank her a lot for reminding me of that. I still agree that riding a boat is pretty awesome but I’ve gotten used to this “routine” and often forget to look out of the window to simply enjoy the scenery.

So last Friday, in the spirit of this quote from Paul Bowles, I took the time to take a few photos to share with you. I hope you enjoy these!

Sunrise from the lake

Birds sleeping together  in the morning

Someone relaxing at lunchtime

Snow capped mountains in the distance

Clear waters… but cold!

Fishermen’s nets

Cute swan

A carousel waiting for summer

Sunset on the port

The other side of the lake, after sunset

To be honest, I am falling a little behind on my goal of writing letters, which is why I’m delaying the posts on letters for a little while 😉

So Many People Deserve Gratitude

“Can you believe someone climbed a tree in Morocco, picked a date off it, put it in a truck, drove it all the way to the dock, and then sailed it all the way across the Atlantic ocean, and then put it in another truck, and drove that all the way to a tiny grocery store just outside our house so that they can sell it to us for 25 cents?”

You may recognize this quote from Neil Pasricha’s talk at TEDX that I already talked about earlier this month. It just illustrates perfectly what I want to talk about today.

Last Christmas at home we had a white Christmas. It snowed almost nonstop on the 24th and 25th of December. During our Christmas dinner, my cousin’s boyfriend, who is a firefighter, had to leave for an emergency. And as we were driving to church the night of the 24th, we crossed the snowplow on the road. And I realized something: so many people had actually been working while I was enjoying my holidays. Doctors, surgeons, firefighters, policemen, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, and so many others were not spending Christmas with their families because they were allowing many of us to have a safe and pleasant time. They all would have deserved a thank-you note.

Someone I do not know cleaned this road
so people like us could use it!

And not only them, but every day, you interact with people who help to make your day a little better. The cashier at your grocery store who indicates you where you can find the lemon juice (why is it in the hard liquors’ aisle anyway?), the person on the street who helps you when you’re lost, your doctor who gives you the right medicine, the security agent who watches over your car in the parking lot… You’re most certainly one of these awesome people too, for someone.

Even people whom you have no interactions with do things that make your days better, like that person Neil talks about (he was actually quoting his dad FYI). Someone wrote the cooking book you’re using. Someone cleaned up the street in front of your house this morning.  A teacher is educating your children, etc. The list is infinite!

So today, why not take some time to be thankful for these strangers’ help? Even if it’s just a quick thought, it helps to feel better, you’ll notice it!

Syndical Break

You may know from the letter to my employer that I just resigned last week. We agreed with my employer that I would stay until the report I’m working on is finished, and after I’ll be free to go. This means that I’m having a little more work nowadays as I am trying to finish this report for the beginning of next week, and I’m allowing myself a lot fewer WordPress breaks, even out of the office.

All this to say that I might take a little more time responding to comments and interacting in blogs I like to read. I have however some articles that are scheduled to be automatically published in the next few days, so feel free to come check up on what’s new here!

Just takin’ a little break…

Also, I am not making a lot of progress in the letters, and as it takes me a little more time to write portraits of people than regular articles, and I do not want to rush either the letters or the blog posts, so I’m going to delay letters 11 12 and 13 just a little bit.

And to leave you, here’s what made me smile today:

As I was walking back to the office after picking up a sandwich for lunch, I passed by a very young girl and her brother. When they saw me coming, they stood up and the little girl said: “Good afternoon sir, would you like some flowers or some grass that smells good?”

Three things here:

  1. It’s winter here in Switzerland, so she might have stolen those flowers from her parents’ house, which only makes the situation even cuter.
  2. If it is not option 1 then we might be facing some blatant display of child labour, but I’ll discard that as she was not selling the flowers.
  3. Children are awesome. They can approach each other and strangers without wondering if what they say will not sound awkward; and that’s something I would just love to be able to do but somehow un-learned. (At her age, I was giving earthworms to cars that stopped by, a little less cute and a little more boy-ish). Don’t you ever wish sometimes that human interactions were a little less complex?


Here’s part of my ride to work by the way:

Little boat brings us from France to Switzerland,

The Response to the Letters so Far

As promised in the first post, I’ll briefly talk about responses I get to the letters I send once in a while. So here it is:

Letter 1: Nonnie. No response yet. I am not worried though, Nonnie is the one who wrote to me in the first place to tell me she loved me.

Letter 2: Sarah. There’s already a post about it. We keep in touch.

Letter 3: My brother. When I came home for Christmas I asked him if he had received the letter and he said “Oh yes. It was such a nice letter, really”. Great!

Letter 4: Lucette. My parents actually told me that she found the post card beautiful and that she was very touched. When I went to her house she also added that it was a very pretty card and the first one she had from Portugal.

Letter 5: To the post office employees. I haven’t had the courage to post it. Next Christmas I’ll write a better one and actually post that one.

Letter 6:  Erin and David. I received a nice message on facebook from Erin. They really appreciated the letter and pictures and send lots of love from South Africa. What’s nice is that I was afraid that sending them a letter might scare them considering that we’d not known each other for that long, but it didn’t and was just a nice gesture.

Letter 7: My Portuguese teacher from high school. We have an exchange student from Texas who goes to the same high school I used to. So I left her the letter. She gave it to her Portuguese teacher on a Monday and received the reply on Tuesday. It is a very nice Christmas card, with two pages. My teacher says she remembers me well, wishes me to take advantage of travelling to Portugal, and says she was very surprised and appreciated it a lot. Great.

Maybe I’ll have a full mailbox someday…
Photo by Louids

That’s about it for the responses. I really find it nice that people respond positively and that some took the time to write back. It is not as scary now as it first was, especially considering that nobody got scared by what I was doing and thought I was a psychopath in the making.

On a more personal level it feels really good to send the letters. It also gives me a sense of accomplishment (it doesn’t take much I know). I tend to be more appreciative of the people in my life and more grateful for the little acts of kindness I notice every day. I’m also learning to show people I appreciate their company (but there’s a learning curve to that, I still have a long way to go), which seems to improve my relationships in general. Finally I’m also learning to see myself in a more positive light: I can do good things!

Thanks for reading 🙂

Letter 10: To My Employer

“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” Steve Jobs.

This is probably the reason why I chose to quit my job. Now I know that my resignation letter is addressed to persons that were not on my original list, that they are probably not the ones who would care the most, and that a letter to say “I quit” may not qualify as a proper thank-you letter, but I’ll just say that blogum meus, regulae meae, which in some parallel universe is latin for “my blog, my rules”.

I mentioned in a previous post that my job was not the most enjoyable aspect of my life, but even with Steve Jobs’ wise words in mind it is easy to get stuck in a status quo and not take any action to change the way things are. This was my case for the past few months. On one side there was the safe aspect of a sure job, with promises of a wealthy lifestyle in the near future, no financial stress, a “neat and conventional” life. On the other side though there was many reasons for me to want to quit. This blog being all about showing gratitude and lessons learned, I’ll only cite the main two ones:

  1. Compared to a few months ago, I know what I want out of life and what I want to become. But knowing that and not acting upon it is exactly the same as not knowing what to do.
  2. I’ll never be old and wise if I weren’t young and crazy.

There are times when a change of perspective
is needed at work. Photo by Louids.

1. What I really want out of life

What I want to do is go back to university and do research around microfinance and corporate social responsibility, all the while travelling and taking any opportunity to explore every bit of this awesome planet. There are many pros and cons to this, and I’ll admit that not having this extra-money from my job will sting a little bit when I’ll have to decide between doing a fun activity or being able to buy food, but I reckon I’ll be a happy student now that I know that I’ll be studying with a purpose. I want to make a difference, and my current job will not allow me to do so.

It took over seven months for me to figure this out. I knew something was missing when I was at work. Maybe it was a sense of purpose or a meaning to what I was doing. Then the other day I looked at the CEO, who is one of the happiest persons in Switzerland, enjoys his job, has a lot of fun, and loves his life, and I thought: “Even if I were at the top of this company, at the very place the CEO is in right now, would I enjoy my life as much as he does? Very unlikely”. Suddenly the perspective of a very stable future with this job, a big house in the countryside and a dog seemed much less attractive.

2. Being young and crazy

NOTE: I refer to being young as a feeling rather than an age: I know some 50 something who have younger minds than me for example.

Me being young and crazy

The right thing to do, the thing that most grown ups would have done, was to hold on to the job at least until fall when university starts again. But I know a lot of people, some of whom are sane, and some who are crazy, and I tend to take as role models the latter rather than the former. So I decided to quit and take a working holiday visa to Australia. I’m really excited about this: it has been a dream of mine for quite some time and my former roommate is going to be there too.

I realize that this is not the easiest option, nor the less risky one. I’m going to have to challenge myself more than if I just stuck to the world I know, but I believe that we grow the most when we’re out of our comfort zone and that the more risk we take the greater the rewards. Robin Sharma‘s father used to tell him “Robin, it’s risky out there on a limb, but that’s where all the fruit is”. So I apologize in advance to my future self for the troubles he’ll have to go through but I want him to grow (and I want him to remember this quote from Bear Grylls: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, covered in scars, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming, “Woo Hoo! what a ride!”)

For the record, quitting was the most stressful experience of 2011 so far. I initially wanted to quit on Monday last week, and finally got around to doing it on Friday at 6:15 PM. The letter is straight to the point, but I did include a sentence “thanking my employer and colleagues for the experience and learning opportunity they provided me”. Nothing extraordinary, but that was to respect the spirit of this blog. I will however mention that I will not miss coffee machine talks such as this one:

“- I took a plane from Miami this morning, and since it’s already 9 AM in Shanghai I thought I’d come to the office first. I have slept three hours in the past two days
– Three hours that’s a lot! I usually sleep once a week, in the train”.

On a related note, check out this great article by Waitingforastart: “Show Up For Yourself”. I think it is such an amazing coincidence that we blogged about relatively close topics on the same week.

How about you? Any experiences of changes in professional careers? Going back to school after work? Having the feeling of discovering your “calling”?

PS: I paraphrased sentences from The Big Bang Theory, Mark Twain and Robin Sharma in this post. Just rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

Ennio’s Story: Why We Cannot Make Excuses for not Trying to Be Better

I’m having a hard time giving letter 10 to the person it is addressed to, and since I only want to write the blog post after I’ve done it, I’m going to publish a short story today instead.

Sometimes you know or meet someone whose story gives you hope in the ability of men to do good things even in adverse circumstances. Ennio’s story is just that, which is why I wanted to share it with you.

Ennio is my brother’s best friend (so much so that his girlfriend says that if he leaves her it will be to marry Ennio), so I’ve known him long enough to tell his story. His life started out pretty normally, in a small village of the French Alps with his brother and parents. Then his mother left them and they’ve never heard of her since. We all have different relationships with our parents but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty rough for a kid to be abandoned by his mom.

Ennio and my brother, “Ain’t no mountain high enough”

With his mom gone, Ennio’s trials started. His father was either working or out drinking, so Ennio and his brother went through primary school mostly without support. Then his father remarried and went away for months at a time, leaving the two brothers alone through crucial periods of middle school. At this age I could only make yogurt cake so cooking must have taken a bit of motivation from them.

I know this starts to look like a Charles Dickens story even more because Ennio also had to work since he was 11. But working is actually what really helped him. His boss, Boileau, was not always easy on him but that’s how he made his apprenticeship and learned a job. That’s also how he paid for school, because at 16 he had to move out of his father’s house. Now he and his former boss are really good friends and he is forever grateful that he helped him when times were rough.

There are several very humbling aspects in Ennio’s story. First, as Randy Pausch said: “You cannot change the hands you are dealt, just how you play the hands”. I have seen many cases of children growing up in unfavorable environments and who became either violent or depressed. Ennio instead is one of the cases of such a kid showing resilience and hanging on to the right people to help him (teachers, Boileau, etc.), because the people you spend the most time with influence you a lot. It also shows that this kid is really good at heart, never complaining about his situation or chaotic way to adulthood, but instead enjoying his situation as it is and making the best effort to create himself a better future.

The view from the top of a mountain is even better
when you’ve suffered to get there

Another nice element of this story is that even though he could have just dropped out of school and got a job, Ennio still worked part time to pay for school with his own money, because he saw education as a way to improve his condition. I have complained many times about a class being too hard and homework being unpleasant, perhaps I should have looked to people like him, who know education is a privilege we’re getting.

Finally, Ennio could have been in my letters too. A couple of summers ago Ennio and my brother wanted to go on vacation in Southern France. I was the only one with a driver’s licence, so they invited both my girlfriend and me to spend the holidays with them. I didn’t think that they were both paying for the apartment we occupied. They never mentioned once that they had just treated us to a free vacation, I found that because our mom told me. I felt a bit bad for never thanking them properly, while they were very thankful for me driving them. So the next time I see Ennio, I’ll definitely do something nice for him.

How about you, do you have people like that in your life, who overcame several hardships and now seem to do fine? Please share those stories, they can only inspire us!