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Hosting. Food. Memory. Now. Words by Xavier de Sousa.

[Image credit: Xavier de Sousa by David Pickens Photography]

POST Trailer 2019 from Foreign Actions on Vimeo.

Hosting is perhaps one of the biggest national traits in my native country, Portugal. It is something we do to show our culture, but also to show our sense of openness and community. Since we evolved from Europe’s longest running dictatorship in 1974, Portugal has somewhat established itself as a very welcoming and socialist-leaning country, with deep traditional working-class routes. Part of the act of ‘hosting’ for the Portuguese revolves around food and the dinner table as a way to ignite conversation, share knowledge, and make people comfortable enough to connect. Smells and taste have evocative effects on our brains, often if you come across a familiar smell, an image or memory will pop into your head, reminding you of a past event. And that is another big element of Portuguese culture: memory and the sentiment attached to the act of remembering. We even have a word for it: Saudade.

If you knock on my Grandma’s door in rural Portugal asking for directions, odds are you will be invited to come in and next thing you know, you have a whole feast of the best traditional food in front of you. She will sit at the table with you, eat with you and tell stories about her life, in between complaining that if you had given her more warning, she would have prepared something better and tastier. "Pppfff" she will argue "this has no taste, it was thrown together at the last minute, baah. I am so sorry". The food will of course, have plenty of taste. In fact, it will probably be one of the tastiest meals you will have ever eaten, prepared over many hours on the traditional fire-oven from early morning.

My Grandma’s laments over the food are a mere way to get you to start talking. The first thing she expects, even if she won’t admit it, is for you to tell her how good the food is. She will promptly tell you how she made it from scratch. Perhaps if she is having a good day, she will start by telling you where the food’s recipe comes from, its history, how the family has prepared it and served it and passed the recipe on from generation to generation. Generational pride, as much as a longing for a time when she feels our family’s rich but problematic history made sense. Maybe it doesn’t so much anymore. Or does it?

She will also imply that *her* version of the food is the best – but she will guide you throughout the conversation to a point where *you* will say it, rather than her. But by the time you get to that, you would have navigated through the history of my family, with various anecdotes that she will vividly play out to you around the dinner table. A lot of it is embellished, of course, but it is hard to know if it is an indictment of her own wishes of what her life could have been like, or the consequence of her generation’s biggest challenge: that of the breakdown of the Portuguese stronghold of its colonies across the world, of which she benefited from for a large part of her life.

It seems to be forgotten – or hidden – in history that Portugal was one of the West’s biggest Empires, predating the English or the French. From mid-1300s, Portugal took to the seas and along the way colonised regions that we now understand to be Brazil, Cabo Verde, Mozambique, Angola, Goa, Macau, etc., until 1974, when the rebels in the colonies and the military in Portugal worked together to overthrow the Government. Since then, however, Portugal has done very little to confront its history of colonialism. We hide it under the disguise of what the Government calls the ‘Age of Discoveries’ and turn a blind eye to its current influences on the way Portuguese people see themselves in the current social and political landscape.

History has vast ramifications not only on the systems we benefit from nowadays, but also on people’s understanding of their reality. When the mainstream public discourse started to change in the UK, around 2012, when UKIP was growing strong at the same time as the Britannia-centric national celebration of the Olympics, a bit of a sour taste started to grow in my mouth.  I started to understand that England wasn’t as an inviting country as it portrayed itself to be during the Tony Blair and Cool Britannia eras of the 90s and early 2000s, when Brit pop was championing Britishness and multiculturalism and openness was perceivably at the forefront of the UK’s brand. That type of branding employed around that time had tremendous effects on me: a queer young boy in rural Portugal looking for affirmation of what I could be.

It was around 2014 that the idea behind POST started to flourish in my head, as I kept seeing nationalistic, fascist rhetoric and actions were being employed by our Governments and the mainstream media. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ grew bigger, endless columns and TV panels were dedicated to it, portraying migrants as cockroaches, scum, scroungers and privilege-takers. In the meantime, thousands were drowning in the sea attempting to escape wars that we started in the first place, others were being called the N-word on the streets, or having their burkas ripped off their heads by white British men. And we, the EU migrants, were being warned that this was going to come our way too.

Make no mistake: all of these people, EU migrants included, have been talking and fighting this for a long time. No-one listened. We continue to wait.

It’s what is in this limbo, this vacuum, where everyone is talking about you and around you but in which you don’t have a voice, that I set out to explore with this show. I wanted us to theatricalise what ‘borders’ and ‘hosting’ could mean in a theatrical space, beyond the obvious notions of the ‘host’ and the separation between audience and stage. I wanted to blur the lines between the understanding of what cultural borders and personal borders might be whilst looking at our shared history. The theatre space and the theatrical narrative as a reflection of how a country portrays itself against the various nuances that exist within it.

For this, I looked back into my roots, the symbols of national identity that somewhat shaped my understanding of Portugal and with elements of what made me identify with the country in the first place: the traditional dances, the costumes, the food and its presentation, the act of hosting and welcoming to reflect on the composition of a country, its natives and migrant population. And perhaps most importantly, I wanted to do it from what you might call a migrant lens. Everyone who has experienced their home town from an outside perspective will know, at least somehow, what that means. Very succinctly, it is the ability to look at a place and culture both from a personal and emotional place, but also from an objective and more distant one, be that of your own will or imposed onto you.

So I figure that we, migrants, actually have a really great tool to which to combat the hostile environment we currently live under. The capacity to have outside perspective as well as an emotional one. And we should use it to our advantage. Because if we are to start a revolution, we might as well use what we already have: good food, our understanding of history and an unresolvable tie to the places and communities we call home.

Xavier de Sousa
18 - 22 March
at Battersea Arts Centre
Tickets and info: bac.org.uk

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