Vignettes of life in Portugal

A funny thing happened yesterday. I’d had a very lazy morning, reading in bed, and had barely bothered to get dressed – grubby jeans, an even grubbier cardigan, Crocs and unbrushed hair. I was outside, sitting on the wall, chatting to my daughter on the phone when Pickle started barking and I saw a large car coming down the drive alongside my garden. It parked outside my house and four people – complete strangers – got out and walked towards me, seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that I was on the phone.

“Boa tarde, Alice,” they called out. (I didn’t have the heart to correct them.) One of the men approached me, pointed at (presumably) his wife and said, “Ola! Primo da Silvina,” which I understood – she was the cousin of Silvina, one of an elderly couple who own a house near mine but live elsewhere.* I mumbled an apology to my daughter, disconnected the call and greeted the strangers. Then they all started staring at their phones while I stood there feeling decidedly awkward. Eventually, one of them thrust a phone at me, on which they’d used Google Translate to prove that ‘primo da Silvina’ meant ‘Silvina’s cousin’. “Sim, sim,” I said, “entendes. I understand. Primo da Silvina. Silvina’s cousin.”

Next a phone was pressed to my ear. “Minha filha. Falas ingles,” the wife said. My daughter. She speaks English.

“Ola? Hello? Ah hello Alice. My mother is cousin of Silvina. She wants you to have some things. They have brought them for you. You understand?” And then the call disconnected.

So I started thanking these people I didn’t know for gifts I hadn’t yet received and didn’t really want, which was a bit strange. One of the men had noticed the bits of pottery I find on dog walks and put in the crevasses in the stone wall, and he was pointing at each bit and saying, “Gosto. Gosto.” I like. I like. A woman had seized on Bobcat and had picked him up despite his protestations. Then the other man whipped out an enormous iPad and started showing me photos of vases and clocks and furniture. “English table. English chairs. English,” he kept saying. Okay. Right …

Finally he got tired of showing me his photos and produced from his car a huge box that rattled. “E para ti,” he said, “it’s for you.” He put it on the doorstep and I thanked him for whatever it might be. The other man was still pointing at bits of pottery in the wall while the women were back staring at their phones. The first man called them and lined them up in front of the car, then indicated for me to stand next to them. In my grubby jeans, grubbier cardigan, Crocs and unbrushed hair. “Photo!” he said, and took a snap with his enormous iPad. Then he handed it to me, took my place in the line and indicated for me to take a photo of them, which I did.

Then they all got into the car, amid cries of “Adeus!” and “Tchau!” and off they went, leaving me the …  ummm … proud owner of a selection of mismatched plates, tiny glass bowls, and random cutlery and utensils. Hmmm!

 

*  Primo – cousin – is one of the first words I learnt here in Portugal. In a rural area where there may be only three or four families living in a village, it often seems everyone is a primo of everyone else!

 


 

Portugal is a country of simpatico people and muitos acts of kindness, but sometimes that generosity goes too far. I came close to swinging for someone last week because they were just being too kind …

It was a horrible wet morning but I needed to go to town for a few bits and pieces. My car was outside the house for a change – I usually leave it at the top of the village – and my part-time neighbour spotted me leaving and asked if he could come, and I didn’t really think I could say no. So off we set for town, and I said I needed to go to the Minipreco (supermarket), the market, the multibanco (cash machine) and the farmacia. I stopped for petrol on the way, which he offered to pay for, but when I turned him down he said he respected my decision. (!) When we arrived at the supermarket I grabbed a basket on wheels and he took it off me, despite my protestations, and insisted on pushing it for me as he followed me round the shop, all the time commenting on what I was buying and making suggestions for what I should be buying. Grrr #1. I got flustered and ended up forgetting half of what I wanted. Anyway, then he followed me into town and waited outside the pharmacy while I went to get some money – except he actually went into the chemist and took a ticket for me, even though I only needed to buy cat flea treatment and didn’t need a consultation. Grrr #2.

Once I’d got what I needed, he said he was going to the bank so I wandered off to the café. I normally have a coffee and cake and stop for a while to take advantage of the free wifi and watch the world go by. But I’d no sooner bitten into my brohina when my neighbour sat next to me, refused an offer of coffee, and then stared at me as I ate and drank. Grrr #3. I felt so uncomfortable I ended up rushing and leaving very quickly.

Time to go home, thank goodness. Or so I thought. “I need to go to the Chinese shop, is possible?” he asked. I sighed and turned back towards the discount store – a huge warehouse that sells everything you could possibly want, and lots you never knew existed, all in technicolour plastic. When we arrived, he wandered off and I decided as I was there anyway I might as well buy some tennis balls for Pickle, as we seem to lose them regularly. I arrived in the pet aisle only to find my neighbour about to buy a dog harness – for MY DOG! Final straw. Thanks but no thanks, I said. “But is more comfortable than her collar,” he said. “Please, I buy it for you. For Pickle. Is good.”

“Nao precisar, nao precisar!” I exclaimed. No need, no need. “She is hardly ever on the lead. Her collar is fine!” He carried on asking and eventually I walked off in a strop… Grrr #4!

I didn’t speak on the drive home, while he kept up a running commentary of who his favourite film stars are: “Elvis Presley ….. Ava Gardner …. Jane Fonda ….. Robert Redford …. And Omar Sharif, meu favorito…” I merely gritted my teeth.

When we arrived back, I took my shopping indoors and shut the door. But five minutes later there was a knock. Guess who … “Chocolate for you, Alison – and crackers. And olive oil, let me top up your bottle. And honey. And ….”

So kind, but too much. Just too much. So it was with a sigh of relief that I received the news two days later that he was returning to Lisbon for a while.

 


 

I had to chuckle though, on a previous trip to the market with my neighbour. We were approaching a village called Picha, where I needed to stop to get petrol, and as we got closer he started giggling. I asked him what was funny and he said “Picha!” and laughed even harder. Then he pointed at his crotch, and at mine. Thinking he was about to come out with something inappropriate, I asked what he meant. “Picha. Is name for … what do you call it in Ingles? Pen-is!” Seems he’s not the only one who giggles like a kid at Picha – the sign for the village is covered in stickers, mostly from visiting bikers. And curiously, the next village is called Venda da Gaita – gaita meaning bagpipe and apparently being another slang word for penis. Whoever named these villages obviously had a very puerile sense of humour!

picha

 


 

A funny story for you. One sunny morning I decided to do some hand washing as I had a good chance of it drying on the line. I picked some underwear, a bra and a couple of T-shirts out of the washing bag and put them on the table while I boiled the kettle and found the washing liquid. Once I was ready I turned to the pile and my bra – my bright purple bra – had disappeared! Pickle was outside, looking angelic, but I know her too well.  “Oh, Pickle, you naughty dog,” I said. “What have you done with it?” She ran off and I followed in hot pursuit, but there was no sign of the bra. I walked up the drive, down the passageway one side of the house, up the other side and round the garden, all the places I know she tends to take things, but no bra was in sight. Then I spotted her on the roof of a small building behind mine, accessible by some stone steps. “Pickle,” I warned, as I climbed up the steps. I leant forwards to see if my bra was on the roof and managed to lean into an innocuous-looking but deadly cactus, which skewered me with vicious hair-thin spikes that penetrated my trousers. Owwwwww! I spent the next hour pulling spines out of my hands and legs, and worrying that my bra was somewhere in the village, just lying in wait for the postman to find …

And then I went into the bedroom and looked behind a box I keep my shoes in, and there, of course, was my bra.

 


 

I’ve talked about how the Portuguese smother me with kindness and I can honestly say I’ve not met one unlikeable person here – until today. And of course they had to be British. I was in the market and accidently asked for something in English. “Aw!” the woman next to me said. “You’re English too, innit! Nice ta meet ya! Ooh, what’s your tattoo? Ooh, that’s nice, innit!” Warning bells were sounding but we had a chat and she invited me to meet her for coffee at 12, at a different café to the one I usually go to. “The coffee’s much better there, mate, innit!” she explained. Hmmm. Anyway, having had my relaxed coffee and cake treat disturbed by my neighbour last week, I decided to go to my usual café first, and then meet her. Apart from anything, they have free wifi and there were some things on Netflix I wanted to download. So I had my coffee and a pasteis de nata, did what I needed to do and walked round the corner to meet her. Should have trusted my instincts – she was ghastly! I asked her how long she’d been in Portugal and she said, “Too long, I ‘ate it here!” and then proceeded to complain about how all the Portuguese people were stupid/fat/unreliable/thick/annoying etc.  So why on earth do you live here, if you hate it so much, I asked. “I’ve got a ‘ouse but I only come here now and then. Just ‘cos I think I ought to, and then I get ‘ere and realise ‘ow much I ‘ate it. Finkin’ I might go and live in the ‘Ebrides or summink.” (Hebrideans, be warned!) I made the coffee engagement as brief as possible but as I left she said, “Bin nice meetin’ ya, I’ll look out for ya next market day.” Great, I think I might try a different market next week! (And for what it’s worth, the coffee was no better or worse than at my favourite café!)

 


 

Fortunately, my faith in humanity was restored on the way home. I had to stop the car as there was a van parked ahead with the door open, blocking my way. The driver came over to close it, and then came and talked to me. It took ages to work out what he was saying but eventually I realised he was the postman, and he was checking I’d received a parcel he’d left in my car for me last week! How lovely that he recognised me and / or my car and thought to ask!

 


 

One afternoon I set off down the path to get some water from the mountain stream when a male voice called my name. I thought it was my neighbour back from Lisbon (he comes and goes) but it was a man from the next village, who I’ve played pool with a few times – including as a doubles team in a tournament at the village festa. (We lost. First round. To a pair of kids. Sheesh.) Anyway, Helder and I had a chat – he speaks a little more English than I speak Portuguese, though I’m getting better, slowly – and he invited me over to his village to play pool at the weekend. So Saturday I went and we played and I beat him 4-3 (though admittedly only because he decided to show off with the last ball in the last game, and left me with an easy pot). I then watched him and his mother, his aunt and uncle play Sueca, a card game similar to Whist – not that I’ve ever played Whist. I kept thinking I’d worked out the rules and then someone would win a hand and I didn’t understand why … anyway, I went home and discovered there’s a trump suit, and suddenly it all made sense! I downloaded an app of the game and played it for hours, until I was comfortable with the odd order of the cards (unlike in Whist, in Sueca you only play with 40 cards, and the winning order is Ace, Seven, King, Jack, Queen).

Next day I went back to the village and asked if I could join in the game. As I was dealt my hand they all smiled at me knowingly … but the smiles soon turned to looks of disbelief and then approval as they realised that I did actually understand the game! (It’s not that complicated … but I guess with me being English and it being a Portuguese game, I couldn’t possibly get it.) In fact, in one game my partner and I actually won all 120 points, effectively winning a rubber in one go. It was great fun and I’ve been back a few times since to join in the game.

I’ve even been to lunch there; Helder invited me and my neighbour to lunch with his mother and him and it was delicious – bacalhau (salted cod) with potatoes and onion, AND roast turkey with roast sweet potatoes, all soaked and bathed and drizzled in olive oil. Very tasty, but not so good for the figure! But I can honestly say it was the tastiest turkey I’ve ever had.

man in treeA very kind man – but also a crazy man! One day, I took my neighbour with me and as we were leaving, Helder insisted that we go with him as he had something to show us. Turns out it was a seat – of sorts – he had constructed up a tree, so he can sit there at night with his gun and watch for wild pigs! And he demonstrated the seat, and how he ties rope around himself so he can’t fall out if he dozes off, and how he has another piece of rope tied to the gun in case he drops it. All very well planned. Though when I asked what he’d do if I stole the ladder, he had no answer. Mwahaha!

(Whenever we travelled by train to Norfolk for family holiday,s my dad used to make corny jokes about one station we stopped at, Manningtree. Well, Dad, I think I’ve found him!)

 


 

Finally, talking of wild pigs, I was walking Pickle round the village one evening, and I heard a noise in the field below us. Pickle went crazy – fortunately she was on the lead – and there was a definite snuffling and snorting and grunting and rustling coming from not very far away! There’s evidence of wild pigs all over the village – and I think I came very close to encountering one. And another night I drove home after dusk and almost hit not one but two large deer who were just wandering along the road just above the village. I think I will be staying indoors after dark from now on!

 

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