A summer in Tras-os-Montes

This summer is dedicated to fieldwork. This means that, as my desk is finally freed from accumulated essays written by the students, or articles I must read to revise that or this paper, I can now focus on feeling, listening, letting myself surprised by the people and events of Bragança’s neighbouring villages.

Spending time in the village with the ones present all year, and the summer visitors (often immigrants who come visit their families) is a new experience for me. As a matter of fact, during the PhD, I would usually get an appointment beforehand with a person within an institution, and take advantage of that day to wander around the city before and after the said appointment. It was usually a week day, and daylight. I would go back to my home at night. With the participants, the purpose of my visit was clear, usually stated on the phone or in a mail beforehand. And the impressions and observations I gathered in the city came as little shocks, from the comparison with the big city where I lived. The sense of “periphery” was rediscovered every time I hopped on the train and crossed the country to reach the border regions.

But this summer, I actually spend full days and nights in the village. I am there on weekends, and when people come back from work. It is far from a long immersion of months and months. But I feel different. I feel it gives me much more time to grasp the rythmn. The surprises do not come from the daily dislocation from the city to the small town. But from the differences in the interactions along time. My phone does not get any network. I am dependent on the two passages of the bus each day to get groceries.

I arrived on a Sunday. The village was lively: families were visiting, commuters were taking care of their gardens, children were playing around. On Monday, the life of the village as it is when people work resumed. The youngers leave in the morning, either by car or using the STUB bus that passes twice a day; the elderly water the plants, clean the thresholds; in the afternoon, with the heat, everyone hides inside; life comes back in the evening, with the fresh air, and people go around to visit their neighbours. I film in the village to get a sense of this rythmn.

In the morning and in the evening, I also talk to people. As much as I can, I sit outside, with a book, my phone, or my camera, so to say hi and hope that someone will talk to me. The fact that I am here for some days helps out. Some get curious, and after I explain what I do, they spread the message! Others come with new stories.

I thought to take advantage of this blog to make some sense of the stories I have heard and transcribed so far. Maybe it is still a bit rudimentary, and certainly subject to changes, but I guess an intermediary analysis can help me in the upcoming weeks.

First of all, are the ones who went abroad a long time ago, and came back after the carnation revolution in the late 1970s. They speak a story of survival: smuggling at the border during their teenagehood; going to France, Spain or Germany a salto to work for some years. With the money they made, they refurbished the family house, bought some animals or lands… in brief, their life is in Portugal.

The second “generic” story, is that of returnees that come for retirement, more recently, after an entire career abroad. They settle back in the house they have invested in during the last years. Kids and grandkids visit, and they go to visit them back in France or elsewhere often. They command another language, understand the other country’s culture (they can recognise actors and singers, and know the news).

And, the last story I encountered is that of the younger returnees, who want to start fresh. They come back with a project, usually entrepreneurship. But they tell how difficult it is to settle in their parents’ homeland. The lack of support, the resistance from the ones who remained, the difficulty to reintegrate networks… I also wonder why Bragança’s region, and not the centre?

There are also the ones who wish to return, some days, but don’t really know when and how.

Those various stories can co-exist in a family. Some who came back also saw their offspring go away, to the UK or to France for instance.

In the upcoming weeks, the flow of immigrants returning for the holiday should increase. I look forward to hearing new stories. I will also attend some of the village festivities: the smuggling route, organised with the Spanish village at the other side of the border; and the day celebrating the local protecting saint!

More to come…

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