Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hurried notes on god and football

I've carved enough space for four countries in my overcrowded heart: Australia (the country where I was born and spent my life until five years ago), England (where the remnants of my ancestors are lying about), France (my current home) and now, Portugal (H's country).

I've already talked in this blog about our trip around Portugal last summer.

I spent last Sunday in Little Portugal, in a suburb of Paris where H's parents live. There’s a little Portuguese bar right near the entrance to his parent's block of flats. A bar well-lit by the television and well-hung with the smells of well-oiled men and fish, and burnt coffee.

Portugal was a poor country - this has been changing steadily since it joined the EU - and a massive part of its population has migrated. Many of these immigrants live in France.

When I first met H. he played down his Portuguese origins. Although of course he did tell me that both his parents are Portuguese, it was uttered in an airy, offhand way, never taking on any solidity or any substance during our courting days. He presented himself in his French birth suit and with his heavy French accent there was no reason to doubt his Frenchicity.

Growing up in Paris it wasn't uncommon for him to be mocked for being Portuguese. Ahh to be Brazilian, now that was cool: samba, big hair and football stars; but Portugal was considered a nation of concierges, to be Portuguese was to clean boots, peel potatoes, to be a dirty-worker. I guess H sub-consciously played down his Portuguese roots because he was so accustomed to derision.

But I probed further, having just come out of a relationship with someone very French, I was keen to explore other terrains. I wanted the pauses in our conversations to be swept away by hot winds from the south and filled with images of blue and white tiled cities smoking in an orange heat.

Casa H, the television sits alight at one head of the table like a particularly loud and talkative guest, who speaks decibles higher than everyone else. The conversation around the table sways in and out of Portuguese and French, everyone nodding at me for confirmation, not realising that the conversation has moved to the Atlantic ocean and I’m flapping around unable to understand, pulling Portuguese vowels out of my ears, my throat parched by H’s father’s porto and his mother's bacalhau. His mother empties the contents of her jewellery box and her medicine cabinet on the table for me to admire and his father shows me his stocks in case of war: a dozen radios and a hundred clocks.

This Sunday the television was switched to the Portuguese station, the entire day devoted to Football and Fatima. It was the 13 May, when thousands upon thousands of people collide and unite in Fatima, the anniversary of the day when the Virgin Mary is believed to have first appeared to three shepherd children in this place. Every day is football day in Portugal.

The two things that make this country's heart beat. The spectacles of religion and football draw the crowds. We watched everyone standing around waiting for Mary to appear, or apparently the next best thing, the pope. But they were both no shows. Even though the pope had rsvped he failed to come to the party. Mary is a diva, so unpredictable.

But now for the football. And then news on the kidnapping in the Algarve. Which brings us back to football and god. Everyone is praying for the safe return of Madeleine. Portuguese footballers (little gods) are appearing on television and asking if anyone knows anything about her wherabouts, please report it.

It took me a while to decide god probably doesn’t exist (well at least not in any of the shapes given to him by religion), a bit longer than with santa clause. I still occasionally catch myself whispering a little prayer at night out of old habits and checking under my bed for apparitions.

I’m always surprised when friends or acquaintances who I didn't realise have those tendencies say “you’ll be in my prayers” or "i'll pray for you".

"Oh? Really? That's nice, makes me feel loved."

All these people praying. Pray away. It's a bit like, whatever works for you, tiger. If I could genuinely pray I’d probably be less scared of death and have less existential moments. But i'm enjoying coming to terms with acceptance of a limited existence and instead of giving thanks for the opportunity to live, I prefer to just feel thankful, which steers me into action in the here and now.