The choice of subject for the last post reflecting on things for which I am grateful was delayed by what my German friends sometimes call die Qual der Wahl, the agony of choice. As I grumble my way through the daily routine, feel the sore muscles from last Saturday's hunt with the dogs in the mountainous terrain of an enormous Eucalyptus forest plantation and the mild indigestion burn from one too many spicy calzones for lunch I am not particularly conscious of gratitude. What I do notice, however, is a relaxed optimism about a very unknown future in a country and a culture that will take me several decades at least to understand in the depth I wish to. There are days when the decision to leave Germany might seem as daft as some of my German friends considered it, particularly on days when I have to have anything to do with monolingual medical office personnel in Évora, who do not understand that faster repetition of what I did not understand the first time will not lead to quicker understanding. There are more than a few things missing in my present life, which I used to take for granted; sometimes hot water for washing and fire for cooking are among them when I fail to understand the trick for connecting a new tank of butane to supply my water heater and stove. But although friends in the UK and elsewhere have often expressed great admiration for the quality of public utilities, water pressure and bathroom fixtures in Germany, I find less satisfaction in these than in the feeling that I am among reasonable people of good will who treat others with good, basic respect. If the state of household technology is sometimes not much above that of a primitive campsite, at least I am camping with people I would be pleased to call friends.
Coming to Portugal was a choice. A good one I think; many of the choices in my life have certainly been less good or at least less satisfying, but they were mine to make, and I am grateful for the control over my own life which enables me to make a very wide range of choices and act on them. One of the greatest difficulties I have with German, Germany and German cultures comes down to a single word: muß. Or "muss" after the not-so-new spelling reform. Must. Some days it seems to be part of every spoken sentence in that language. When I used to hear that word too much, sometimes I would reply acidly that to live I must breathe, eat and drink, and some day I must die. Everything else is optional. Until they go abroad for a while or make the acquaintance of many people from other cultures, a great number of Germans seemed to feel that there was really only one way to do anything. Former neighbors of mine in rural Brandenburg certainly felt that way about feeding chickens, a task which must occur on a regular schedule at specific times of the day and always include boiled potatoes. Without those potatoes the best quality poultry feed will fail to meet a chicken's fundamental nutritional requirements.
I think it's a sad life for those who feel their choices are determined by others. Made with the finest cloth and decorated with masterful embroidery, a straightjacket is still an article of clothing of no good use to one wearing it with a healthy mind. The sick, crazy ones may indeed derive benefits from the straightjacket of social or political convention, but I prefer to let my own free will make the final decision after evaluating the consequences of action by my own standards.
Even in risk-averse cultures like that found in Germany, there is some acknowledgement that success often has many failures as its prerequisite, and many failures - or success - require many choices.
I am also grateful to have lived my life in political environments where the consequence of my choices are generally less critical than they might be more repressive, less stable parts of the world. But in these places the ones who often sacrifice themselves for things that I and my readers take for granted probably have a deeper understanding of why the exercise and defense of their rights of free choice are so important, perhaps more important than their lives.
As a freelance translator I have opportunities to exercise my free will with great scope in business, market my services or not and pursue my own visions of service and quality. And when the nattering nabobs of false positivism tell me I should be grateful for the chance to use Vaseline in my business relations with Linguistic Sausage Producers (LSPs), I gratefully exercise my free will and ignore this stupid advice and choose to associate myself with other service providers instead. You can choose to do the same, and I hope you do.
This is the last day of my written reflections of gratitude for the many blessings in a sometimes subjectively difficult life. I am grateful to my friend Teresa, a young veterinary behaviorist and fellow dog trainer, for the challenge to take the time to think in a more structured way about what constitutes the real wealth in my life. In the time I have lived in Portugal, becoming ever less a stranger in a strange land and more one discovering a heart's home, she and other friends have provided many occasions for such reflection. And in a poor region of the country, in an economically distressed city where I have often seen people dumpster diving for food or making complex life compromises to survive, much less thrive, I am often comforted by observing how Portuguese people respect their rights of choice and choose to live.
So on this seventh and last day of gratitude I choose to express mine for free will. Because I can.