Du Temps Perdue

My youth knocked on my door, gently and sweetly. It reappeared unexpectedly in the shape of the delightful article “The Atenas of Today and my Old Costa Rica” written by Oscar Alvarado Saborío, published in the November edition of ‘AtenasToday’, which is a free e-newsletter in English for present and future residents of Atenas. It is published by CATUCA –  Cámara de Turismo y Comercio de Atenas.
Sr. Saborío wrote a lovely essay about and to the people of Atenas, declaring his appreciation of their thoughtfulness and of our less hurried ways here. He was drawing parallels to earlier times in his life, looking back and reminiscing about past and present mores. He feels that some of the more mindful and considered conduct of his childhood can still be experienced here in our town. His words reminded me of my own childhood, the lost times of clear rules and unambiguous etiquette. I had to smile about his memories of youngsters yielding seats to their elders and who greeted whom, when, where and how. Using public transportation to school in the mornings, I too, jumped up, offering my seat to my history teacher, who traveled along the same route. And in those olden days of my obedient youth, no man, whether gentleman or rogue, would enter a dwelling without respectfully removing his hat. And no lady would leave the house without her gloves. I feel very strongly that these customs and courtesies are tools, helping to live in harmony within a community. Decorum, in its archaïc interpretations as ‘suitability to the requirements of a person, rank or occasion’, has always been a comfort to me, rather than a nuisance.
When I first arrived in Texas in 1977, I soon began to appreciate the courtesy with which women are treated in the Lone Star State. I never perceived it as condescending or belittling to be offered help or be addressed as ‘ma’am’. And many fierce, outspoken and super-powered Texas women like Henrietta King, Barbara Jordan, Sarah Horton Cockrell, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ann Richards, Bessie Coleman, Lady Bird Johnson, Mary Kay Ash, (or Bonnie Parker) are just a select few of an incredible number of down to earth, tough ladies with steel rods for backbones, that this super polite state produced. By comparison, upon returning to Germany for a visit four years later, I was dumbfounded by the prevalent rudeness and grumpiness, I experienced there. Meanwhile, my German friends were equally judgmental about our respectful Texan customs, which they felt to be superficial and artificial. 
It all boils down to regional culture and tradition, as well as time period. The different forms of respect within a community, appear to be subject to evolution like an organism. Customs continually change into different expressions over time, and they appear to change more rapidly now, than ever – or is it my own aging, which accelerates those perceptions? I’m certain only about the fact that ‘my’ decorum is clearly no longer recognized as part of a contemporary cultural expression. When once upon a time, yet during my lifetime, a missing corset beneath an outer garment was considered shocking, today, shockingly, the corset may be chosen to replace the outer garment altogether.

But whilst bathing in the soothing comfort of my own, righteous decorum, I have to acknowledge it’s unquestionable downsides, or even wrongness, as well. That includes a rigid class structure, many deadly prejudices and a great deal of intolerance toward anything different or foreign. Although I actively reject this loathsome behavior of frightened and closed minds, I’m equally loath to wholeheartedly embrace cultural expressions, which appear plain ridiculous to me. Oy vey, being of a fairly conservative mindset while aiming for laissez-faire is not easily accomplished! 

Young people, including young women in my family, are very outspoken in their demands to be respected for who they are, not what they look like. But how do you approach a person, if the packaging is a lie? Let’s not kid ourselves, as we look at someone, we label, we categorize. It may not be politically correct and many people will emphatically reject the accusation of profiling as outrages, yet it is a fact of life. Living beings scrutinize on sight – it’s a survival mechanism.

I would like to suggest for all of us to take Sr. Saborío’s observations to heart. Slow down and look the other person in the eyes. Before you judge too harshly, get to know that outrageous being, even if he/she/it or they frighten you a little. We learned that lesson many years ago when we left our son in the capable hands of a punk-goth, kohl-eyed, spiky-haired babysitter with the sweetest, most nurturing soul. It is difficult, but as human beings, we can choose to try.

Tranquilo, be cool!            

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