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Love Isn’t Blind

As we prepare to head home to the US of A for a few months, we are reflecting on our love affair with Portugal and it truly is, indeed a love affair. Low cost of living, beautiful places to see nearly everywhere you turn, an amazing Mediterranean meets organic rancher diet, wine regions across the country and incredibly welcoming people. It’s not unusual for a perfect stranger to give you a “Bom dia” in the morning and downright expected to reply with one if you throw one out their way.

For any other future American expats planning a Portuguese residency out there, there are, as with any relationship, a few cultural quirks.

1. The Portuguese Pick.
There is no sidewalk too large for a single couple to completely block the way, proceeding at a pace even the residents of an assisted living would consider leisurely. Throw in a couple of kids and you’ve got a full-on offensive line of an NFL team. There also is no “look both ways” before exiting a shop on to a sidewalk and typically this exit is followed by a complete standstill no matter what pedestrian traffic is headed one’s way. It isn’t meant to be difficult or offensive. It’s a little endearing and just an example of a slower pace of life, but be ready to slam on the foot brakes at a moment’s notice as you make your way around the cities and towns.

2. Beware the man in the white van.
If you rent a car, you’ll notice the white van. They are everywhere and they are in a hurry. The white van is 99% of the time the mark of a tradesman. You’ll see them in your rear view mirror screaming up behind you and if you’re lucky it’s in a passing zone so they will just sail past you without a pause. Otherwise, the white van and you will be bosom buddies until he (or she) can “safely” pass. Even the most obnoxious tailgater in the US can’t hold a candle to how close these guys will get riding at 70 or 90 kph on winding narrow roads. We joke that when the dealer sells the white van he hands out a protocol for driving which must be followed. Rule #1: Speed everywhere. Rule #2: Tailgate as closely as possible. Rule #3: If you break these rules, the van will be repossessed. Here’s a tip: don’t try to play their game, just pull over or slow down in a passing zone so they can get by. They’ll appreciate it and so will you.

3. Loja Chines.
When we’d forgotten our European adapter (we own like eight of them and brought zero) on our last trip, we were trying to explain to our realtor that we needed one. At the time, he had very broken English and exclaimed to us: “ah yes, I know exactly what you mean, we go to the Chinese”. Surely, we thought, he must not understand. The only thing with which we would associate such a sentence in the US would be a steaming bowl of Hot and Sour Soup and a good dollop of General Gau. Nope. Loja Chines (Chinese Shop) are everywhere and advertised as such. They sell, well, just about everything. Luggage, clothes, plumbing supplies, dishware, the aforementioned adapters, shower curtains, shoes…. you get the picture. So, if you’re missing something when you arrive, just find “the Chinese”.

4. The Portuguese Promise.
As Melissa wrote about in Yes, We Have Doubts, not all words translate directly. “Promise” and “Guarantee” appear to be two of those words. If someone is coming to deliver something or do work on your house the timeline offered is usually a guide, not a commitment. We aren’t talking about the cable guy who is supposed to come between 8am and noon and shows up at 3pm, we’re talking a completely different day or week. Difficult if you’re trying to plan a flight home, as we were, but kind of charming if you aren’t needing to leave anytime soon. Just be sure you’ve allowed enough wiggle room (i.e. 2-3 weeks) in your plans and you should be fine.

So, after two months of living in this not-so-foreign land, these are the quirks we’ve exposed in our love affair and we can’t wait to come back to find even more. Tchau!

A Seat in the Sky

By Melissa

I wrote the following in my journal right after arriving in Portugal:

“David and I have now been in Portugal for a little less than a week.  It is going very well but is not without its hiccups.  For starters, I wish we spoke at least some of the language.  Many of the people speak English and are gracious about doing so, but the fact that we’re not even trying to speak Portuguese makes me feel more like a tourist than someone trying to integrate into a community.  I knew before getting here that it was a goal to eventually learn the language, but now I feel like it needs to be a priority.  I also knew from trying to navigate the websites from Colorado that it wasn’t going to be a simple task to furnish our new place and man has that proven to be true.  We’re making progress but still don’t really know where to go to find stuff.  The bed we bought is weird and I can’t find spatulas or pots and pans anywhere.  There are no Pottery Barns or Williams Sonomas or Targets which is fantastic but we can’t seem to crack the code.  Where do they buy all these things?  In addition, we can’t really figure out how to get things delivered to our apartment.  I think Amazon would be a solution for some of this but right now we’re just trying to get our couch delivered which is turning out to be tricky.  We’ve also discovered, shall we say, quirks to our apartment.  The dishwasher is not hooked up or not even attached.  It comes completely out of the wall when we open the door.  The washer and dryer are also not connected and there doesn’t appear to be any drainage off the deck.  When we run the sink in the kitchen, it also runs in the bathroom which I think is kind of cute but David less so.  Finally, no vodka anywhere.  Seriously.”

I went on to say many wonderful things about the town of Cascias and the Portuguese people.  I read this now though and realize that you can never really prepare yourself for a life change this big.  We really did try.  But there is only so much you can learn about a place from afar.  I’m such a cautious person by nature that I lack experience at putting myself in truly foreign environments and my plan to research and prepare for every contingency failed utterly.  That said, we have now been here for almost two months and I’m happy to report that we’ve made tremendous progress.  It turns out that there are stores that sell things like pots and pans and a plumber helped us screw in the dishwasher and resolve all the other little quirks. 

David and I are preparing to head back to the US for a few months and I’m feeling really good about everything.  Our apartment is officially furnished. (However we are still waiting for delivery of the weird bed.  It’s weird btw because the mattress is like an inch thick on top of two box springs.  It’s this crazy Norwegian number.  I think we were just exhausted from trying to find anything.  Maybe it will be lifechangingly great.  I’ll report back).  I’m still struggling with the language but we’ve come up with a good plan to learn it and I’m excited to get cracking.  It’s definitely starting to feel more like home.  We have a little local bar that is dangerously great and are really learning the area. 

The comedian Louis CK (I know, I know) has a hilarious bit about how dramatically people complain about airline travel.  His point is that people are so focused on the small frustrations that they’ve totally lost the wonder of the experience.  He reminds us, “You’re in a seat in the sky.”  David and I have taken to saying that to each other when we run into the continuing challenges of adapting to a foreign country.   Currently, we are struggling with delivery and repair people that promise to deliver by very specific dates, then seem to lose all memory and urgency.  It is frustrating, but, we’re in a seat in the sky and really are appreciating the incredibleness of it all.

One final note- the lack of vodka has proven true.  You can find it but only in small quantities and be prepared to pay.  Fortunately, the wine is fantastic.

You bring the wishes, we supply the raisins

“We supply the raisins”, the email read. No explanation. Well phew, we won’t need to pack those, we thought.

For New Year’s we booked a small, rustic inn at the foot of Monsaraz in Portugal. Shortly thereafter, we received their offer to join the party they were having for, what turned out to be, mostly hotel guests. When we accepted, that’s what the email said in return: “we supply the raisins”.

So what do confused Americanos do when puzzled by a cryptic message such as this? Why hit the Google of course. Mystery solved. 12 raisins per person, one for each wish for each month of the new year.

So that’s where we found ourselves, wearing our green underwear (for health, as the Google told us of this tradition. White for peace, blue for luck, red for love, green for health, etc.) amongst a table of Portuguese at New Years dinner listening to live Spanish Flamenco music bidding Tchao to 2019 and Bom Ano to 2020. Nervously (not really) awaiting our first reading of wishes as the clock strikes each chime at midnight.

The evening began slowly. Very slowly. It was an all hands on deck affair for the small staff of the hotel. The meat and cheese plates were set out at seven, we arrived fashionably late around 7:45 to a nearly full room and waited at the bar (which no one in Portugal sits at, so it’s always free for us) sipping Alentejo wine and trying not to fill up on snacks in anticipation of a five course meal including cod au gratin, black pork and suckling pig with Caldo Verde (the national soup) at 1am (for the record, some of these plates never did appear, but we didn’t care, when in Rome or Monsaraz, as the case may be).

Around 10:00pm the band kicked in and the candles were lit. Still no invite to sit, with lots of watch looking (not just by us) we all continued to wait patiently. No one got upset, we were in this together and the staff were clearly scrambling to get it all done just right. Finally, at 10:30 we were all invited to sit for dinner. Relieved, we were nearly guaranteed to remain awake until soup time.

Google translate at the ready and phrase book in hand we sat, but the loveliness of the Portuguese people at our table prevented any embarrassment as they make it all too easy on you and spoke English to us all night (one day we will learn, but not being forced to do so is both great and makes us lazy, a challenge for yet another day in this new decade).

And then came the raisins. In a pile on a plate to be shared by the table. Grab and count we did and at the proper hour we began our wishing.

Perhaps we should have wished to come back here again next year. Bom Ano e Obrigado.

All I want is a scone, please

Who knew that buying bread could be so difficult. Three bakeries, three very different processes.

Over the past month, we’ve grown accustomed to and grown to love our weekly farmer’s market. Fresh vegetables, fish, meat, flowers and fresh baked bread and treats. Basic Portuguese is required. You’ve got to know your numbers and you’ve got to know the currency. But the bakeries: we’ve experienced the orderly, take a number system process, the free-for-all scrum and the hybrid.

Exhibit A: The orderly one: our normal bakery. It’s busy. It’s chaotic. It’s large. It’s well staffed. And, most importantly, it’s organized. Take a number, listen carefully and observe and be ready when it’s your turn and it works. Like clockwork, it works.

Exhibit B: The Hybrid. Last Saturday, we visited a small bakery with baked treats for breakfast. There was a queue. It was long, but it was working, until… Until they outsmarted themselves and put out their number taking device. “Do we need to take a number if we’re already in line?” one man asked (or we think that’s what he said). “No”, she replied (that part was clear). So stand we all did, in an orderly fashion, awaiting our turn, until…. An elderly man, freshly shaven, wearing a smart cap and scarf ripped his number, we’ll call it onze (eleven), just for fun, and marched to the front of the line. Chaos ensued. There was barking. There was complaining. There was protesting. What was an orderly crowd of Portuguese patiently waiting their turn converted into a frantic melee. To the credit of the staff, they ignored Onze as he rigidly held his place, clutching his number in feigned ignorance of his dastardly deed until it was his proper turn. It’s not like he didn’t recognize what he’d done. He knew just what he was doing as he marched forward to the ticket dispenser and selfishly and thieveshly ripped his ticket from the kiosk and cut the line.

Exhibit C: Chaos on Christmas Eve. On a special market day, we tried a new place. After buying bread at our usual place (The Orderly One) and scouting out The Hybrid, we decided to try a new one for our Christmas Day sweets. No process. No queue. No signage. No clear evidence the staff were paying attention to who’d been there for how long. Full chaos. We arrived, quickly assessed that we were about third or fourth in line and took our rightful place.

But before continuing, we must flash back to our arrival at the mercado. We’d been walking down, dragging our little bagged cart down to the market like we do, when we were abruptly cut off by a late middle-aged woman from our neighborhood (for the record, we’ve never seen her before, so this is based on from where she was walking), to cross an intersection. Literally sprinting across the intersection, she resumed her near-snails pace, setting a complete pick to prevent passage on the sidewalk until the next intersection when a spurt of energy struck and she sprinted before us on a “don’t walk” red man. “Let’s wait her out,” I said, “we’ll catch her before we get to the stairs.” The stairs being the ones leading down to the market. We waited for the “walk sign” green man and like some kind of psychic, we caught her at the top of the stairs so we could follow her glacierly slide down the steps to the entry of the mercado.

Back to Bakery C, the chaotic one. I was second for sure, or thought I was because I thought the two Portuguese people to my right were together (they weren’t), when the bakery clerk came to me. Motion to my right, I did, trying not to disrupt the order of things (which, for the record had been massively disrupted by three or four patrons before this moment), to the couple who weren’t a couple when at my back I feel the presence of something ominous. Turn to my left, and it was her! Ms. Snail. Ms. Glacier. Butting her way in front of the couple who’s not, a few other butters-in and little ole me. She started her long, complicated order and a new melee ensured to my right. Protest. Cries of foul. Complaints a yellow card should be issued. But like an experienced ref, the cries were ignored and no such card was issued. Desculpe (I’m sorry) the Snail says vehemently. She saw no sign, had no idea. Sure you didn’t, Snail. Sure. She knew exactly what she did.

So is this Snail or Onze’s fault? Sadly, no. Bakeries B and C, here’s the lesson: have a system, and follow it and everyone will behave.

In the end we got what we pointed to (which were delicious even if we don’t know what they’re called or how to say it) and have continued to learn our lessons for handling the market. And, we can’t wait to go back next week.

Understanding the sauna

Melissa doesn’t get the sauna. When we visit Scandinavia, you people have your work cut out for you. We have a great friend who planned to install one in his house and she just looked at him head scratchingly on many levels (why at all? why the expense? what is the impact on resale?… the list goes on). So there we found ourselves at a recent hotel with a spa, in the sauna.

How did we get there? Well, let’s start at check in. Because it was the off season, our hotel presented us with a coupon to the spa like it was one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. It advertised its thermal pool, sauna and steam bath. And it was the right price at free.

So after a long walk, we decided to enjoy the aforementioned spa and all of its accoutrements.

We hadn’t made a reservation, so the sauna needed time to warm up. After showing us to the changing rooms, off to initiate the hot rock heating process went the spa keeper. “While you wait, please feel free to enjoy the thermal pool”, she said, “but it’s cold today so it’s cold.” Frigid, more like. I guess freezing is a form of thermal.

Instead, we sipped cucumber water while we waited for the sauna to heat. Upon the announcement of its arrival at its proper temperature, the spa keeper informed us that it was ready, “the sauna is first, the steam bath second in the hall.” So we went to sit in the sauna. Melissa’s perplexedness only exacerbating with each passing minute.

“Let’s try the steam bath”, I said. So in we went, to what appeared to be a massive shower with no steam producing mechanism to be found. Back to the spa keeper I went, admitting defeat. “How do you operate the steam bath?” I asked, hopefully. “Oh, that doesn’t work”, she replied with no sense of irony at all, as though Allen Funt were lurking behind the towels about to descend upon us with a “Surprise, you’re on Candid Camera!”

So, after returning to the sauna for a few more minutes, we resigned ourselves to scratching this particular spa off of our list and returned to our clothes and returned our robes.

Upon hotel check out, we were asked if they could improve upon anything. We looked at each other, smirking internally and said: “nope, wouldn’t change a thing”, as we truly hope the next guest has an identically head scratching experience and a good enough sense of humor to laugh, rather than whine.

So Finland and Sweden, you’ve still got your work cut out for you to sell my wife on the benefits of the sauna

In search of good measures

As we acclimate to life in Portugal most things are easy, some things are hard.

Like simply finding a tape measure. OK, so its going to be in centimeters. No worries. So are all of the dimensions on everything for which you’d need to measure. But just finding one proved challenging. “Hardware store” does not translate on a Google search. So, we found ourselves in Lisbon, on other business, roaming the streets of the Mouraria, Santa Cruz and Chiado neighborhoods without a sign of a hammer, nail, screwdriver or tape measure to be found.

Happen upon a store I could only describe as a “shop of miscellania” near the Tagus river, we did. Melissa was done with our wanderings and ready to bag our search and call it a day. “Let’s just check this place out”, I said, ignoring her as I do when I’m on a mission, and forged ahead inside. The aisles were packed and crammed with snacks, cigarettes, dolls, toys, paint brushes and paint cans and boxes full of gadgets.

“Do you have measuring tapes?” I said to the Indian man behind the register. “Of course”, he says as if this were where all of the Portuguese bought their tape measures. He wandered back into a randomly organized aisle filled with paint cans, brushes, pipe fittings, cold sodas, nuts and chips. “Would you like 3 meters or 5 meters?” he asked. “10”, I replied, laying bare my naivete of the metric system for all to see. “Well we don’t have that.” he replied. “5 it is then. Sold”, procuring a tape as though we’d beelined here with purpose and intent.

But that’s not the most interesting part of this story, though a good seek and find magical quest tale is always riveting, the Holy Grail this was tape measure was not. We went on to have a great discussion with the aforementioned Indian man’s wife, who had assumed responsibility for the register while he dug through paint brushes and cans he wished I would purchase, beckoning from the back room all the while (was it possible we were the only customers of the afternoon? Pretty likely). She was interested to know from where we hailed and how we found our way into their shop. She regaled us with her stories of traveling the world, leaving India, moving to Africa (she Zambia, he Zanzibar), southeast Asia and London and landing in Portugal by mistake and as an afterthought when her father mentioned that they should stop here on their way home. And they stayed. Stayed for 27 years. Stayed to open this odd, random store by the marina on the river which sells nothing and everything you need all at the same time.

They stayed because the people of this country are welcoming unlike other places they had been and had lived. They stayed because of the warm climate. They stayed because many of his childhood friends live here. They stayed and they stay. They acclimated as we acclimate. And with our random encounter, they provided good measure for why we came.

Saying farewell

It’s not goodbye. It’s farewell.

Goodbye is so final. Farewell is a wish for return. It’s not permanent. It’s a transition. A passing phase. A new beginning. And that’s what this is.

It’s hard to imagine living in another country, as we sit here. Right here, right now. But that’s what we are doing. We don’t speak the language. We don’t know the customs or traditions and it all feels so… well, foreign.

The last few weeks have been consumed by goodbyes, well, farewells. Friends. Coworkers. Family. Sad and happy. Anxious and confused. Exciting and freeing. We will miss this life. We will miss our routine. We will miss our friends. We will miss our scene. And that’s why we go. To mix it up and see what’s out there. So farewell and be well. Until we meet again.

“Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul”.

– Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia