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T he feelings that come with being locked out are universal. First, the self-deprecation: How could I let this happen? Second: Well, what now? Third: Who can help me?

All these questions ran through my mind as I stood in the rain on my street deep in southern Brazil.

I am four months into a Fulbright grant, made possible by Arkansan Sen. J. William Fulbright. He started the program some 70 years ago to promote cultural exchange and peaceful relationships among nations through teaching and research at universities across the world.

As Fulbrighters, we are often told that we represent America abroad. Well, maybe not such a great representative, I thought as I waited for someone to open the gate to my apartment building. I felt more like a drowned rat than a cultural ambassador.

That morning, I had been invited to a churrasco, which is a traditional Brazilian barbecue. I was excited at the prospect of learning how to prepare the meat and curious how it would compare to our barbecue in the South. I arrived by taxi, and between my excitement and the fact that my hands were full of meat, I didn't notice that I left my purse--house keys inside--in the taxi.

The realization that I didn't have my purse dawned on me as I was walking to my university to teach a Saturday afternoon class. I called the taxi company but didn't hear back, so I taught my class.

I then decided the best plan was to return to my apartment. There were two people who could let me in--my next-door neighbor, with whom I share a patio, and a friend who lives upstairs and has my spare key. To my dismay, it turned out that both the neighbor and the friend were out of town. So I stood outside the building, night approaching, feeling very alone, wondering how I was going to solve this problem.

As a native Arkansan, I have high standards for hospitality. But the Brazilians might give us Southerners a run for our money.

As I stood outside, people entered and left the building. The first neighbor--a motherly woman named Roberta--gave me her phone number, offered to lend me money and let me sleep at her house. The second, an engineering student, offered me his own apartment keys. The third neighbor--a tall, long-haired man whom I call Rockstar because I can't pronounce his name--offered me his bedsheets so I could tie them together and let myself down onto my patio from the apartment above. When I rejected that plan, he offered to break down my door for me. The fourth neighbor brought me coffee. The fifth gave me a hug, and the sixth, Bianca, gave me the number of a chaveiro--a locksmith.

After four months in Porto Alegre, I would say that I speak Portuguese, but with some limitations. Couple a new language with talking over a static-prone phone, and it's a miracle the locksmith ever came. After a few minutes of miscommunication, I just ended up loudly repeating, "I need to open my door! I need to open my door!" followed by my address until he hung up and came over.

Once he arrived, he showed me all his tools and explained what he was going to do. I nodded along, understanding about half and thinking only of how close I was to entering. He asked me a question. I didn't understand the verb but answered "Sim!" with conviction. Yes! Please let me in. Bang, clank. The whole lock wrenched out and clattered to the floor.

Well, I guess that's what the verb "danificar" means. I won't forget that one.

An hour after the locksmith left, my taxi driver called to say that he had my purse and would deliver it to me. Though the irony of this happening an hour after I paid someone $50 to shatter my lock did not escape me, I was touched by his kindness and honesty.

The Fulbright program stresses the importance of cultural exchange and engagement with the host community. I don't know if being locked out was exactly what they had in mind when they awarded me the grant, but it stands out as one of my best experiences so far.

I met more of my neighbors than I have in three months. I saw a side of Brazilians that I had not fully experienced before. I learned that I am part of the community here and that I have good neighbors. I learned that the universal feeling of despair when locked out can lead to universal feelings of gratitude for acts of friendship and kindness.

I learned that if I get locked out in Brazil, someone will help me find a way in, or, at the very least, break down my door!


Lindsey Liles of Little Rock graduated with degrees in literature and biology from Sewanee, and a master's degree in literature from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She is currently completing an English language assistant Fulbright grant in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Editorial on 07/04/2019

Print Headline: LINDSEY LILES: Locked out

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