on long names: the struggle is real.

Today is the wrong day to cross me. I woke up a whole 15 minutes before my alarm went off (what a waste of much needed sleep), and then I checked my phone to find that it was -18 degrees outside (Celsius, because ain’t nobody got time for Fahrenheit when you’re from Europe). Trying to remain positive, I stopped to get some coffee which I then proceeded to spill not on my bag, but in it (thank god I was carrying my iPad in my hand). At this point I am a pissed off, cold and grumpy little Portuguese individual, ready to smite anyone who so much as looks as me the wrong way.

And then the real problems start. A few weeks ago I lost my insurance card somewhere, and so after multiple unanswered emails to the insurance company, I decided to give them an angry call. Insurance company proceeds to tell me that my ID number does not exist in their system. Swell. They refer me to another number which I call, only to be put on hold for a grand total of 22 minutes, to finally be told my name is nowhere to be found in their records. Again, swell. They then kindly remind me that my name is much too long, and why didn’t I consider shortening it to make everyone’s lives easier, since I mean, it is just sooo complicated to read an extra three names.

Which leads me to my first point. Why is it that people here find it so hard to understand that where I’m from, we honor both the mother and the father when we give children their names? It so happens that both my parents had two last names…is this really so hard to understand? A few months ago I had to get a Social Security Number so I could get a job on campus, and I kid you not, they cut off the last part of my name. They weren’t even smart enough to cut it off after a whole name, they just chopped one in half. Which then led to a series of problems, one of them being that it did not match my passport, and therefore it could not be the same person. “It simply does not fit on the card. They had to chop it off” I tried telling them a million times. “Well, how do we know that this is the same person on your passport, that you’re not stealing anyone’s identity?”. And deep inside I’m thinking…. I wish I knew how to steal someone’s identity, because I’d steal yours and buy myself a nice relaxing trip to a fancy spa somewhere to unwind after all the stress you put me through.

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My thoughts precisely.

I went to the Office of International Programs to request a verification letter from them today, and it took them a whole 10 minutes to find my folder. Because “oh I’m not sure what name we filed you under. Why do you have so many names? I would be so mad at your parents if I was you” they said, assumingly as a joke. Well, the joke gets old real quick. In fact it got old almost five years ago when I got here.

It’s always been incredibly difficult for me to get anything document related done in the US. One time at the Social Security office, the lady stared at me for 5 minutes and said “Well, we can’t fit your name. I don’t know how to put it in the system”, then proceeded to call her supervisor who stared at the screen, then back at me, then back at the screen. “Foreigners can have such long names. Just cut the end off” she said. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of how I went from being Leonor Maria de Sa Machado Ribeiro Gomes to Leonor Maria de Sa Machado Rib. No really, feel free to chop off half of my identity.

I’m almost tempted to marry someone with a last name like Smith so I can have a kid and name them something like John Smith. But of course that would be boring, plus I plan on giving my children my last name as well as their father’s. So if you’re reading this kids, I apologize in advance. Your life may be hell, but at least you’ll be interesting. And culturally diverse. And all that fun stuff.

So, to the people who roll their eyes at my long name…. Keep rolling. Maybe someday you’ll find a brain back there.

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on South Africa: a love/ hate relationship…

Over Christmas break I did some traveling. First to Portugal, and then to Cape Town in South Africa. Oh the perks of living the turtle life! For further clarification, read definition below.

Turtle Life. Definition: living like a turtle, carrying your house on your back wherever you go.

We used to live in Angola, and so I’ve been to Cape Town a few times before. I was younger then, and even though I noticed things, I left as blissfully ignorant as I had arrived. But this time was different.

The trip itself was wonderful. We saw the whole city from a helicopter, visited huge malls and beautiful attractions. We  snapped the typical pictures on top of Table Mountain, holding our arms out to look like we were floating on clouds. We went to the Cape of Good Hope feeling all giddy with excitement because heck, the Portuguese sailed past it for the first time ever! Woo! Go Portugal! We even snapped an uber touristy picture of us holding the Portuguese flag behind the Cape of Good Hope sign.

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D’awwwww we’re so cute.

We visited several high end restaurants, some of them in Camps Bay and others in more remote areas, made up of large properties filled with vineyards where you could spend an afternoon wine tasting and eating delicious food. And then it struck me: why was it that we saw no white waiters anywhere? I could count on one hand the amount of white servers we had. No more than three. And we ate out every single day, lunch and dinner.

I figured it may just be me, so I reserved judgement until I had seen a little more of what the city had to offer. Then on the day after new year’s eve, the 1st of January, every restaurant and business in Camps Bay (the neighborhood where we were staying) suddenly closed. The beaches were busier than ever, you could barely see the sand. But yet all the businesses were closed… Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to be open on one of the busiest days of the year?

Later that day we finally got some clarification. Eunice, a lady hired by the landlord to come and clean our house every day, told us that the reason the businesses closed was because all the people from the “locations” came out to the beach on January 1st.  I was intrigued as to what she meant by “locations”, so I asked. Apparently, the more rural areas around Cape Town where there townships are located are called “locations”.

And then it dawned on me. I probably could have counted the amount of white people on the beach that day with one hand. Any other day it was the other way around. But that day specifically, it seemed the tables had been turned, and so all the businesses were closed.

This was only one of the many things I noticed. The social disparity in South Africa is not only seen…it is also felt. Things that hadn’t bothered me before started to make me uneasy. It was uncomfortable to see very few black people in positions of power. It was uncomfortable to walk into places where there were only white people.

Back when apartheid was in full swing in South Africa, the government decided to categorize South Africans using four categories: black, colored, Indian/ Asian and white. These distinctions were based on looks alone, and so people were labelled as being one of the four categories, making that their sole defining quality. These categories naturally divided people. I mean, how could they not?

According to an annual survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), “43.5% of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race. Little more than a quarter (27.4%) interact with a person of another race always or often on ordinary weekdays, while 25.9% do so sometimes.”

What… I mean, what?! The numbers are crazy. Almost half the population rarely or never speaks to someone of another race… Yet the country seems to function. How is it that South Africa is one of the most developed (if not the most developed) African countries, but still faces such primitive racial problems?

I am not by any means saying that this is the case with everyone. Younger generations are slowly changing the standard… But the differences are so obvious that it makes it almost impossible to not wander about how South Africa has thrived, considering the kind of social unbalance that it has faced for years.

I love Cape Town. I love the beaches, and the people, and the city itself. I love the summery attitude, the great food and the even better wine. But I also hate it. I hate it because it has made me realize I am only a spectator, and that the problems South Africa faces are way out of my reach. There is nothing I can do but feel uncomfortable, and try to somehow mend years and years of racial disparity. Obviously I’ll never solve it, but a girl can dream, right?

why I’ll never trade Merry Christmas for Happy Holidays…

‘Tis the season for being broke! No but really, my bank account has seen better days. If only I could crochet, or sew, or something useful that would allow me to make all my gifts… Alas, I cannot, and even if I could I think my family would only pretend to enjoy my so called “talent”, and would proceed to stuff the wonky scarves and plate holders in the nearest top shelf of a closet.

I’m not too worried about offending someone with my sub par knitting abilities. What I worried about (even if it was just for a minute) was if I would offend someone by wishing them a Merry Christmas.

A little bit of background: I am from Portugal, and like most Portuguese people I’m Catholic. We celebrate Christmas, we go to church (some of us should really go more, cough cough) and we open presents on the 24th of December at midnight. Never before have I had to worry about wishing someone a Merry Christmas….until I moved to the US.

I have friends from pretty much every ethnic and religious background. The other day, I said Merry Christmas to one of them and they very bluntly (and quite rudely) pointed out that they are Jewish and do not celebrate Christmas, and that it’s easier to say Happy Holidays instead.

I felt really bad for about a minute… and then I realized: why should I wish someone Happy Holidays, when I celebrate Christmas, and always have? It may sound selfish, but stay with me. I respect any and all religions and traditions. I respect their customs and their beliefs, and several times I’ve been to synagogue with Jewish friends, and prayed in Quaker meeting houses. So why should I feel bad that I am sharing my beliefs with someone?

If someone said Happy Hanukkah to me, I would smile back and respond with a “happy hanukkah to you too!”. Joyous Kwanzaa? Hey, whatever floats your boat! Joyous Kwanzaa to everybody! If it works for you then it works for me.

But to change the way in which I celebrate this time of the year to appease everyone else’s preferences… Well, that I just won’t do. There are too many instances in my life where I try to please everyone, and I’m determined to not make this one of them.

That being said, I think everyone celebrates the holidays differently, and that should be appreciated rather than scrutinized. I don’t care what religion you are and how you choose to spend these next couple of days. What matters is that you spend time with family and realize how fortunate you are to have certain people in your life. Oh, and desserts too.

So don’t be afraid to say Merry Christmas :)

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on large, confusing families (and why they are wonderful)…

Growing up, I sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a simple little family. Everything seemed so much easier when there was only one set of parents to consider, and maybe a sibling or two from those same parents, thrown in with a dog and a goldfish that would eventually die and be flushed down the toilet, or buried in the backyard with a little cross made of matchsticks over its little grave (even goldfish deserve proper burial rites).

I never experienced that side of things, but here’s what I did grow up with…

I have siblings, who have siblings that are not my siblings (say whaaaaat?). I have a step mom and a step dad, who have kids that are not my siblings, but one is a sister to my sister. I have a brother from a different dad, and a sister from a different mom. And they both have brothers and sisters that are not related to me.

Christmas and New Year’s were always split between two different places, sometimes with the families of my sibling’s other siblings (say that three times fast!), that were not at all related to me. To top everything off, I live in the US, both my parents live in different continents, my brother’s dad lives in Africa, and my step dad has a thing for spending months at sea.

Also, we all have different last names even though we are related. “Family surname? What’s that? You mean to tell me some families have just ONE surname?!”

Confused yet?

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Looks about right.

It’s so incredibly hard to explain to someone how we make things work, unless they’re in a similar situation. So many conversations go like this:

“You’re going home for Christmas to see your parents?”
“To see my dad, then I’m spending new year’s with my mom”
“That’s neat that you get to spend New Year’s with your little sister!”
“No, I get to spend that with my brother, but I get to spend Christmas with her”
“Oh, are they not related to you?”
“No, they are. Just not to each other”
“So they’re related to your mother but now your father?”
“One to my mother and one to my– you know what, never mind”

I have to admit sometimes I just don’t have the patience to go into it, even though I know it’s unfair of me to expect people to understand right off the bat.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my family, it’s that more people, while it may be more confusing, just means you get that much more love. There are no half-brothers or half-sisters, everyone is related in their own way. We may never find a time when we’re all in the same country at once, but on the few occasions that we do, it’s just that much more meaningful.

Right now, we are spread out all over the world. We cover the United States, Africa, South America, and Europe. And I have no doubt there will be someone off to Asia eventually.

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Hey look, I managed to locate everybody!

So yes, it may be confusing and sometimes even annoying, but I would not trade my family for anything. I would not trade my sibling’s siblings, or my step parents’ kids, for anyone else in the world. I would not change a single thing, except that it would be nice to see everyone more often. That being said, I’ll leave you with a little wisdom:

“The lack of emotional security of our American young people is due, I believe, to their isolation from the larger family unit. No two people – no mere father and mother – as I have often said, are enough to provide emotional security for a child. He needs to feel himself one in a world of kinfolk, persons of variety in age and temperament, and yet allied to himself by an indissoluble bond which he cannot break if he could, for nature has welded him into it before he was born.” Pearl S. Buck

on the freedom to be ignorant…

I have to admit this post was inspired by a friend, who put into words something I’ve been trying to explain for a long time.

He said: “The freedom to be ignorant is one of the most prized American rights”

We’re all ignorant. To say that we’re not would be completely inaccurate. Not because we’re not smart, or book clever, or know a lot about a specific issue. Nope, we’re all ignorant because we know close to nothing in the grand scheme of things. And admitting that, while it might make us feel small, is the first step to fighting ignorance.

You’ll always have people who think they know everything. I actually think life would be a little dull without them. But it’s the people who know nothing–and refuse to learn–that really bother me. I’ve witnessed this several times, particularly when talking about geography or politics. It’s okay to not know where a country is…up until very recently, I didn’t know what the Ural Mountains were, and I definitely could not place them on a map. But I got curious, and now I can.

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The Ural Mountains. They look like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie!

But a lot people couldn’t care less. They won’t know where something is, and their argument for not knowing will be something along the lines of “Oh it doesn’t matter. Why do I need to know that? It’s not like I’m ever going to travel there.”

How do they know what the future holds? The world is not only filled with ignoramuses….It’s filled with psychic ignoramuses!

We have all sorts of technology at our fingertips. Smart phones, laptops, libraries filled with books… The information is out there for those who want it. And it’s not like you have to read through piles of old books to find things, either. A simple google search will turn up thousands of results on whatever you’re looking for.

So why do people choose to remain “blissfully” ignorant of things?

Knowledge is power. The more we know, the more we can accomplish. Why would someone not be curious about the world we live in? I don’t ever plan on traveling to the Ural Mountains, but I can’t predict the future, and I’m sure as hell not going to let someone make me feel as if knowing that little bit of information is pointless. Somehow, society has found a way to deem certain pieces of information useless. As if there is some higher power that decides what is useful to us, and what never will be.

Where is the curiosity to go further than just whatever they teach you at school, or in college? We let professors impart their opinions on us, and sometimes we adopt them without so much as a second thought.

Today I learned that the 57 on the Heinz ketchup bottle represents the number of varieties of pickles the company once had. Is this useless information? To some, probably. I never knew what the 57 stood for, and now I do. And that, I think, makes me a little bit of a better person.

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on snowy pittsburgh, and some wonderful friends..

I knew when I moved to PA that winters would be harsh…but every year I act absolutely perplexed when there’s more than an inch of snow on the ground. I mean, what the heck is this supposed to be…the arctic?! Perhaps the frustration is somewhat fueled by the fact that i live in a room that used to be an attic, and there is absolutely no heat up there. The only thing this weather is good for, besides laying in bed in five sweatshirts while feeling sorry for yourself, is snowboarding. That and pictures.

So obviously I couldn’t resist going out in the snow with the Instax today. Nothing a good old Polaroid can’t fix. Pittsburgh isn’t a particularly beautiful city in the winter, mostly because it’s so grey and dreary. Unless it snows, in which case it looks like something out of a Sundance film. That being said, enjoy some shots from today:

ImageThe alley by my house

ImagePop of color in the Southside.

ImageDowntown, shot from Duquesne’s campus. I apologize for the possible ghost apparition on the left side (I kid, I kid).

Now for the wonderful friends section. This lovely lady right here, also known as Thing 1, looks THIS good during finals week. Give the rest of us a chance, won’t ya? Forever inseparable, this picture was snapped by Thing 2. You can’t have one without the other!

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Thing 1.

And lastly… I had to share this one, because it warmed my heart. My friend Harry from Ireland had never seen a Polaroid before… EVER! So I snapped a picture of him and even wrote the date on it, old school style. The picture below is of him holding it (please note the ridiculously excited smile on his face).

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 5.13.56 PMHarry the Irishman.

It’ the little things, people. The little things!

on why final exams aren’t the end of the world…

“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”
Theodore Rubin

‘Tis the season for stress. Everyone’s pulling all nighters, drowning in caffeine, and eating enough junk food to feed a small nation. This is the closest thing to the zombie apocalypse we will ever experience. No one sleeps, as if not sleeping will help them get better grades. It’s a phenomenon, really. This happens every single semester without fail, but still people act like it’s the end of the world.

I got a call from one of my friends last night. It went something like this: “I’m going to fail. Oh my god I don’t know what to do, I’m going to fail and end up working as a cashier somewhere for the rest of my life. OH MY GOD.” (cue dramatic music).

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanI know, I know it’s cliché. I just had to.

Well, what do you do? Final exams aren’t like leap years. They don’t happen every four years, they happen twice a year and they are almost 100% guaranteed, unless something really bad happens (and if they’ve cancelled final exams, there is a chance you may be dead. Because whatever was that bad surely killed everyone).

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And this one just for fun, because we all wish we sounded like Harry Potter once in a while.

But every semester we have to hear about how hard us college kids have it, and poor us because we have so many exams, and oh gosh we’re never going to make it.

Truth is…Failing one exam won’t kill you. Failing one class, in the grand scheme of things, is nothing. Do you remember all those instances in high school when you thought you had a really difficult problem, or were stuck in an awkward situation? Well, think back to all of those. How many of them even compare to the “problems” you have now? Chances are most seem pointless, and you probably wouldn’t even consider them problems now.

Failure will make you a better person. The way you bounce back from it defines you.

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If the devil ever wrote a book….this is it.

I’m not saying I’m an apologist for being lazy. God knows I’ve done enough 16th century Spanish reading today to fill a whole library. It just seems that, for the most part, we make problems where there are none. Four years in college means you will go through final exams 8 times. By the time you’re a junior, you should be a seasoned veteran!

So, chin up. It’s really not the end of the world.

on this ungodly weather, polaroids, and coffee shops…

It’s really, really cold outside. A lovely -6 degrees Celsius. But of course that’s useless here, and when I tell someone it’s -6, they don’t believe me. Because it is, in fact, about 21 degrees outside. There are only a handful of countries that use Fahrenheit, Belize being one of them (for the sake of randomness, I’m assuming). But that’s a discussion for another day, preferably when I am too cold to get out of bed and decide to have a major bitch fest about the weather in Pennsylvania. Now that would be a post worth reading.

I woke up this morning and decided, like most college students on a Sunday, that I had done absolutely nothing worthy during weekend. Hadn’t picked up a single book (except for fun, because there are still people who read for fun), and with exams coming up, I probably should have. If only International Law doctrines were as delightfully written as Anna Karenina…

Determined to brave the snow and get some work done, I packed up my things and walked over to Delanie’s in the Southside. I recently acquired one of those nifty Fuji Instax cameras, so I decided to bring it along for its first ever winter walk. Apart from having frozen fingers, it was a successful endeavor. (Excuse my poor attempt at taking pictures of the pictures… Ain’t nobody got time for a scanner).

image(6)One of my lovely friends who agreed to brave the weather with me.

image(5)The abominable snow woman….AKA me. I even have the body language going for me. Always in character. Always.

Back to Delanie’s… Amazing coffee, enough said. Friendly baristas. Cozy atmosphere. Perfect to get work done. Except instead of doing that, I’m sitting here writing this post. Perhaps it wasn’t the brightest idea to start a blog the week before exams….?

Anyway, everyone stay cozy, double up your socks, and pour some Bailey’s in your hot chocolate.

: )

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on napkins…

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Two of my good friends and I went out to a mexican place for lunch today. The food was absolutely delicious. The nachos could’ve fed a small village, and the queso was perfect. Top all of that with home made tortilla chips….BLISS.

But the food wasn’t even the best part. My two friends, let’s call them Thing 1 and Thing 2, promptly placed their napkins on their laps as soon as we sat down. (Cue expression of surprise).

Now, I have nothing against people’s table manners here…Except that I do. I have everything against their table manners, because most people don’t have any. Plain and simple. And unfortunately, I’ve been caught up in the whole thing.

I peel shrimp with a fork and knife. I’m that person. As far as holding cutlery goes, I’ve never really understood why the majority holds a fork with their right hand, and keeps the knife out of the equation (unless it’s like, super resilient steak). I’ve seen people push food with their left hand onto their forks, instead of using a knife. Why…just why? Knifes were invented for a reason. To cut things….and help push them onto your fork. So you don’t have to look like a cave person pushing food with your hands. Right…?

When i was growing up, every time I held my fork with one hand and let the other rest on my lap, I got yelled at. Something along the lines of “Did you lose your arm in the war?”, “No…”, “Well then, hold your knife.”

Sadly enough, I’ve given in to some of this. Sometimes I don’t use my knife at all…And I’ve developed a tendency to consider almost everything finger food. Such is the life of an expat who’s been Americanized. (Sorry, mom).

My point is, thanks Thing 1 and Thing 2. You’ve reminded me I need to start prioritizing certain things again. Oh, and the company wasn’t so bad either.

lots and lots of snow.

It’s been snowing in Pittsburgh for the last couple of hours. The Southside, which usually has about as much charm as a dry cactus, looks like something out of a Disney movie.

I’ll post a little bit of everything on this blog. The title came to me after listening to Bruce Springsteen’s hit, “Born in the USA”. Except…I wasn’t. But I’ve been here for four years and I’m starting to feel much too Americanized for my own good. So, come along as I chronicle my last year and a half in the US, and a few other travels in between.

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