Strawmen

Trip Start Jun 10, 2008
1
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Finland  ,
Monday, August 4, 2008

Para ser grande, s inteiro: nada
Teu exagera ou exclui.
S todo em cada coisa. Pe quanto s
No mnimo que fazes.
Assim em cada lago a lua toda
Brilha, porque alta vive.

So I took the boat from Stockholm as June approached its end, and arrived in Helsinki with some idea of what I wanted - to settle down here for a while, find some work, find some place to live, but no clear idea on how to achieve those goals. I spent my first days in the city in Satu's house, who could host me until the weekend, then found out there were weekly Couch Surfing meetings on thursdays, and there met Linda, who agreed to host me for the weekend and would also turn out to be a good friend.
But then Marjaana came back on monday, and on her coming I went to pay her a visit, and we decided that she would host me for a few days then we would go together to Savonlinna, her home town, on the next weekend. So far I hadn't even began looking for work and I thought I would start after I came back from Savonlinna, but things went a little bit differently.
Marjaana lives in a rented room in Helsinki, and her landlords are Gabriel and Anita, a Spanish/Finnish couple who actually lives in Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria, but spends the northern summer months in this house in Helsinki. On my first day in that house, I went into their room to greet them, and as I talked (in Spanish) to Anita, who became quadriplegic in an accident, I started telling her about my intentions in Finland - that I was learning the language, that I had come hopefully to stay, that I was looking for work. Then she said she needed someone to help her around the house, and that the city would pay for this kind of assistance to her, and about 15 minutes into the conversation it became a sort of job interview, that went kind of like this:
 - You are not afraid of work, are you?
 - No.
 - And not afraid of women either?
 - Huh... no.
 - And not disgusted by old people?
 - Guess not.
 - Great! Then you can work for me.
 - When should I start?
 - Right away.
 - Ok.
And this is the tale of how I found my first job in Finland, of how I began working in Marjaana's house, of how I came back from Savonlinna before planned, and took over Marjaana's key and started living in her room, as she would spend the entire month away.

Before coming to Finland, Marjaana had told me about Anita, and I was all the time worrying about not knowing how to deal with handicapped people, especially when it is such a strong handicap... what should I say? How should I act? Pretending not to notice it is not very feasible, as it affects so thoroughly the person's life that she needs help to do everything... then one feels like he should help, but how and on what exactly? And most importantly, how to help without making it seem that I am pitying her? And then the same problem on conversation - is it worse to talk about something that might be so painful or is it worse to avoid the topic, even though it is obviously passing through my head (as it is so glaring that there could be no other way)?
Those problems ended up automagically disappearing (along with the housing and job problems), as when I began working for her I just had to wait for her to tell me exactly what I should do and then, as time passed... well, time tends to melt all awkwardness away.
Anyway, at first the job was not very easy and I was always in doubt whether I was helping or hindering her, I never knew exactly how to proceed, even though she was explaining everything to me. It didn't help either that my Spanish, in spite of being good enough for general conversation, was still lacking a lot of words of everyday home-usage. But it got better, and I started understanding her better, and things started to go well, and I understood that one of the most important things of this job was my presence, so that Gabriel would be free to go out as he pleased, and relieved of a part of the burden which is caring non-stop for a quadriplegic person.

A quadriplegic person... such a handicap has a way of drawing attention to it, of being (even involuntarily) referred to, of diminishing other aspects of the person's life, even. It is sometimes almost as if it redefined the person, just as his/her practical life has to be redefined. It seems to me to be easy to lose oneself in this redefinition process. People are forced to see themselves differently, they are treated differently and, when there is such a strong factor attracting attention, it might not be too hard to have it be the center of the redefinition, so that the handicap would end up consuming part of the personality; so that the person would become, so to speak, a strawman of his/her former self.
I take for example the afternoon concert I took Anita to watch in the Helsinki Esplanadi one day - it was by a group whose members were all on wheelchairs. They played terribly, at least in my opinion, still everybody was cheerfully applauding them, and I just couldn't shake off the thought that they were being applauded solely or at least a lot more just because of the fact they were on wheelchairs; the applause sounded to me very much like people saying 'poor guys, they are handicapped, but at least they are trying'. Of course I don't know much about them, and it is not that it's bad that they are trying and doing things, that they are trying to overcome their disability, but when people praise them in spite of their playing badly, when they are forming a group based only on the fact that they are all on wheelchairs, when they go on stage to present something to the public using their handicap as advertisement in the leaflets for the event, they are not acting normally within  their reduced limits, which should be their aim, they are just (at least in this situation) playing the social role of the handicapped person - they are becoming strawmen and thus losing something of themselves.
On the other hand, I take Anita's example: in the beginning it was sometimes aggravating for me that she would demand things to be on what I considered an exceedingly high level of order. I would move something from one place to another at her request and she would tell me to move it just half a centimeter more; I would do something she asked in one way and she would tell me to do it some other way ( but which would produce the same effect); but later, when she would talk about her day, she never said that I did things for her, she always said that she did them, and I ceased to be annoyed after I understood that controling how things went in small detail was part of her way of not being lost, of putting her personal mark in whatever was done around her, of remaining herself in spite of her overwhelming disability. And she never mentions her handicap, at least not to use it as an excuse for anything, she never hides behind it. these are just small examples, but I think they illustrate rather well her struggle not to accept any limitations imposed on her life by her handicap when she can avoid them. She does a great job at that, and one can see she is always smiling, always happy. I am really grateful I got the chance to participate a bit in her life, that I got the chance to give her a small hand in this struggle and that I got the chance to learn from her as much as I have learned.
One day, talking about her, she said: 'No es que me guste estar as, pero si me queda vida que vivir, hay que vivirla bien.'
Si, que hay!
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Comments

marja
marja on

Superbly philosophical
That's it. It's undeniable that you have a strong philosophical vein and besides that you are able to convey your thoughts to others(unfortunately there are many people mainly in the academic spheres who consider that the more inscrutable language the better...). And, as you're a traveller - at least for the time being - we can have as coronary this (in)sight of Helsinki landscape.

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