From our balcony, we view a lovely pastoral scene of a stone farmhouse, occasional grazing sheep and a stone wall next to a stream. This area is designated for an extensive renovation into a city park containing two lakes. So, one recent morning…
From our balcony, we view a lovely pastoral scene of a stone farmhouse, occasional grazing sheep and a stone wall next to a stream. This area is designated for an extensive renovation into a city park containing two lakes. So, one recent morning…
It’s been several weeks now since we took a bus from Sintra to Cascais to stay with Jules, Rita’s traveling companion and President You-Know-Who’s personally appointed ambassador to the International Animal Kingdom. After being in Sintra, Cascais felt like clearing the sinuses, the chance to loosen the waist cincher after the formal dinner. Like when you were a child and your mother made you dress up to go to church, how you felt after it was over and got to change back into your regular clothes. I could go on like this but you get the idea.
Though it claims some of the same trappings as Sintra, Cascais is really just a friendly laid back beach town that manages to avoid Sintra’s pomposity and pretension. Where Sintra is Portugal Disney, Cascais is Portugal Lite, or maybe Portugal Jersey Shore for them as knows what that means. I gotta hand it to the Portuguese, they know a good thing when they see it. In Cascais, they’ve created a destination for people who want to visit a foreign country but don’t want it to be really foreign.
Nobody in Cascais speaks Portuguese. We spent a week there and I’m not sure we heard the native language more than a half-dozen times. The waiters and store keepers all speak German, English, French, Spanish and maybe even Italian; but I wonder if they remember how to speak Portuguese – maybe their mothers make them speak it at home.
In fact, we met a man named Bertie, or Birdie, I never found out which, a Portuguese native who moved to the US as a teen and lived there for several decades. He admits that, coming back to Portugal after all that time, he indeed had forgotten the language and it took him months to get it back. He still feels unequipped to use Portuguese in business settings.
For my part, after a week in Cascais, I forgot what little Portuguese I had learned up to then for want of practice. I just kept repeating “The turtle sleeps under the pillow,” the last thing I could remember from my lessons.
Mostly we heard a lot of British accents. I suspect some Brits may think of Cascais as part of the UK. Is it possible that when King Charles II of England married Catherine of Braganza 1662, this was already in his mind?
“This union will benefit our great country for centuries to come. Not only will it give us access to lots of sweet wines, but we will finally have a sandy beach for people to visit on weekends, instead of those filthy stretches of rock we have around here.”
Never having been to the UK, I can’t comment on it; but hearing all those people in Cascais speaking with English accents gave me a serious case of dislocation. To my American ear they all sound fake. They sound like they’re making it up, like when Americans imitate English accents to make fun of snobbishness. I couldn’t get used to the fact that people really talk like that.
On the other hand, I found the range of accents fascinating. I’ve read that the English are traditionally protective of local speech because it gives them a greater sense of place and home but costs less than a T-shirt with their home town name.
From listening to them in Cascais, it sure sounds like they have more different dialects than anywhere else. I can believe they’re able to tell from hearing someone where that person lives within a few kilometers. I’ve been watching BBC television programs most of my life, but I never heard some of these accents.
Coincidentally, I recently ran across a New Yorker reprint from a couple years ago stating that since the whole concept of tourism was invented by Thomas Cook in 1841, Brits have become the most touristy people in the world. Reportedly, upwards of 56 million of them go abroad every year, possibly to escape their own weather; and, the author comments, “I would wager that more of my countrymen have seen the inside of Faro Airport than have seen the inside of York Minster or Lincoln Cathedral.”
The piece also describes British travelers as pretty raucous and alcohol-fueled. At the time of the article, Croatia was the favorite destination for hordes of young Englishpersons whose idea of sightseeing was spilling out of bars on a round the clock basis. They were all said to be dressed in “Morphsuits”, which I gather are some kind of inflatable Halloween costume for so-called adults. I guess they’re inflatable to keep them from hurting themselves when they pass out.
This is all ironic since the aforementioned Thomas Cook started his travel business as an evangelical Christian missionary escorting groups to temperance rallies. In any case, all we saw in Cascais were nice, normal family groups and couples. The Brits were all very pleasant people — they just talked funny.
We met Birdie at the dogpark a couple of blocks from Rita’s apartment where the canines are let off leash to chase each other around, steal tennis balls from each other and wrestle to their hearts’ content. Jules is part of a gang of Labrador Retrievers who get together every day pretending to be the dominant breed, although none of the other dogs pay any attention to them.
The dog owners have their own club; they’re all very friendly, they know whose dog is whom and stand around chatting while the animals play. Sure enough, though, whenever we showed up, they switched mid-sentence into English.
Like Sintra, Cascais is chock full of tour bus loads marching along the boulevard; but here, at least, the boulevard is big enough to accommodate everyone. We saw a lot of Chinese and Japanese groups tromping around with cameras draped from straps around their necks.
Cascais has its share of public spaces, like the expansive municipal park with its private zoo and the Museu de Castro Guimares, which like a similar site in Sintra is an eccentric mansion owned by a nineteenth century industrialist and decorated by an Opera set designer. There’s also the Casa das Histórias which, despite its name, is an art gallery devoted to the work of Paula Rego, a contemporary Portuguese artist whose work has ranged from Surrealism to a style of feminist themed cartooning.
We highly recommend the Museu Do Mar, which is about the sea and Portugal’s fishing heritage. It also features the story of Don Carlos — not the reggae singer of that name but King Carlos I, who ruled the country from 1889 to 1908. Carlos was a devotee of oceanographic research who financed several expeditions to map the ocean floor and catalogue its multitude of organisms. He was also an excellent artist of sea life with a number of illustrations and paintings hanging in the museum. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by a couple of radicals while traveling through Lisbon in a carriage.
The beaches are conveniently located, or rather the town has located itself conveniently on the beaches, so you can walk the whole way from one end of town to the other and choose your piece of sand. The shoreline has several beautiful spots; but the water, emptying out of the Tagus River after flowing past Lisbon, is polluted. Makes me nostalgic for the New Jersey shore, where the all-time favorite beach game is “Count the used hospital syringes washing up in the surf.”
If you want to go swimming near Lisbon, I strongly recommend our own Setúbal, where the water in the Sado estuary is clear and the river bottom golden. The guidebooks recommend sunbathing in Cascais instead of swimming, but the rocky cliffs are pretty spectacular places for clambering over, around and on.
A big draw is the Boca do Inferno, or Mouth of Hell, famous for its “thundering waves . . . carved a wide hole in the cliffs.” Of course, the thundering waves only occur in bad weather when you don’t want to be there anyway, so the mouth of hell is usually more of an irritable whisper. There’s also a plaque there commemorating the 1930 suicide of a well-known occultist, which turned out to be a hoax. I can’t think of many other natural wonders that commemorate fake suicides.
Overall, Cascais’ big advantage is convenience. For example, the restaurants are open from 11:00 AM to 2:00 AM straight through, unlike in Setúbal, aka Our Home Town, where they close from 4:00 – 7:00 PM, aka Our Usual Dinner Time. Because of the tourist trade, there are also a greater variety of restaurants. We ate some great Indian food for here for the first time since leaving the US and also enjoyed a terrific South African place.
The whole area by the sea is lush and beautifully landscaped. As a matter of fact, we wandered through an open gate one day into a virtual Eden of a garden, assuming it had to be a public space, and toward a mansion we figured was a museum. Suddenly, a woman drives up behind us, parks by the building, gets out of her car carrying a bag of groceries, and starts screaming at us while waving the grocery bag threateningly. We think she was screaming in Portuguese but we didn’t wait around to verify that. Obviously having wandered into a private residence, we backed out at top speed while making apologetic gestures.
A 40-minute hike along the ocean brings one to Estoril, a resort area with luxury hotels, two golf courses right next to each other, and a casino in the center of town. I read that Estoril was a hotbed of activity for spies during WWII, due to Portugal’s neutrality; and that Ian Fleming used it as a model for his James Bond novel Casino Royale. In fact, the international character of Cascais and Estoril gives one a little of the feeling of a 50’s movie in which spies try to outwit each other and stab each other in back alleys.
Rita’s apartment is in Cascais’ old town, a nicely preserved enclave of narrow streets and two-to-three story buildings, surrounded by and hidden from the commercial district as though keeping itself a secret. It’s a great place for restaurants so removed from the tourist spots you have to hunt for them. On some streets every other building houses a restaurant, but they’re all unmarked in courtyards behind stone walls. Presumably, they thrive on their regular patrons; but for newbies like us, the way to find them is to wait for sundown and walk down the street. When the shadows start to lengthen they all suddenly turn on the lights to reveal themselves and are immediately filled with the sound of customers. They do nothing else to advertise. I can’t think how anyone knows about them other than word of mouth. This phenomenon is new to us; maybe it’s common elsewhere in Portugal, but we haven’t seen it in Setubal.
At night, the old town is a concert venue playing outside the bedroom window. Groups of drunks in a celebratory mood because their futbol team won; the father of a clan in a family gathering singing off key at the top of his lungs; couples pretending to casual conversation just a little too loudly on their way to consummate their trysts. Then, no sooner does the evening shift end and suddenly it’s 6:00 AM. Delivery trucks grinding through the narrow streets in first gear. Street sweepers with corn brooms coming down the street at dawn with a steady “Swoosh . . . swoosh . . . swoosh,” that you get to listen to as they make their way through the neighborhood. Restaurants emptying their garbage in the public bins on the corner. Chattering kids bursting out of their houses ready to take on the world. Birds, cats, dogs calling out to the sunrise . . . .
So, we’re lying in bed listening to all this and we hear the patter of paws padding around the apartment. Jules is definitely an early to bed early to rise kind of girl. Promptly at nine PM she disappears to her doggie bed, flops down and goes out like a light. Conversely, at six AM, we hear her telltale “PHOOSH!” announcing she’s in imminent need of a morning constitutional. If no one gets the hint, she starts licking bare toes.
The couple of nights Barbara and I slept in separate rooms because my back was acting up, we separately and simultaneously jumped out of bed and threw on our clothes in response to Jules’ announcement. Both times, we met in the hallway and looked blearily at each other to determine which of us had first taken possession of the leash. We each got our turns taking her for an early morning romp in the nearby dog park.
All in all, Rita’s neighborhood is a lively place, but the sound sleeper definitely has an edge.
We enjoyed our time in Cascais. If we decide to stay in Portugal permanently after our projected two-year trial period, it would be easy to settle there. It’s convenient and comfortable in that run-down beach town way. On the other hand, it feels a little like cheating — it doesn’t seem like Portugal. Our attitude has been that if we’re going to live in a country, we ought to embrace the language and culture of that country. In Cascais, I’m not sure we’ll keep that sense of place.
We could use it the way Rita does, as a jumping off place from which to explore the rest of the country. Besides, Portugal might change a lot in years to come. The country has staked its future on developing a tourism industry. Who knows but every major town in the country may turn into a Cascais, and that exotic foreign country feel may disappear. The world gets a little smaller every time we pass a McDonalds or read about the German supermarket chain Lidl opening 1000 stores in the USA.
Jules our favorite canine intellectual has a wealth of insight into these issues. However, after I wrote about her once before, she’s demanded prior approval of any future posts. I’m still waiting to hear her response to the latest one.
A couple weeks ago, we took a train to Lisbon and transferred to another for the half hour ride to Sintra. For those unfamiliar with Portugal, Sintra is a town on a mountain between Lisbon and the ocean, whose climate, greenery and convenient access made a popular place for Portuguese royalty to escape the summer heat and periodic epidemics of plague and cholera. It’s covered with palaces surrounded by spectacular gardens and crowned by the ruins of an eighth century Moorish castle.
Sintra is one of those destinations the travel guides insist you visit as part of your trip to Lisbon, as in “If you only have two days (or three or four) in Lisbon, you’re required by international law to get on a tour bus and go there.”
Barbara and I agree it’s worth a visit, but we can’t say our lives are any fuller or richer for having been there. Frankly, the magic of it was lost on us.
Perhaps the word “magic” comes to mind because it struck me as Portugal’s answer to the Magic Kingdom. As a matter of fact, Sintra can be considered archaeological evidence that civilization conceived of theme parks long before the technology existed to build them or Walt Disney dreamed of them under the influence of hallucinogens.
“Here’s my idea,” said Pharaoh Barnum&Bailey, “We’ve got all this desert property nobody is using. Let’s build something on it, something really spectacular people from all over the world will want to see. I saw this idea in Popular Papyrus the other day for something called a pyramid. It’s square at the bottom and comes to a point at the top.”
“Yeah, yeahhhh . . .” said the High Priest, dubiously,” I think I’ve got one of those in my kitchen. I use it for squashing oranges to make juice.”
“Right,” said the Pharaoh, “but here’s my idea. Let’s build a really big one! Like, as big as a house; heck, as big as a mountain! Let’s build a lot of them. We’ll call it the Valley of the Kings! People will want to see it, we’ll sell tickets to get in. They’ll need some place to stay, so we’ll build a hotel and restaurants and sell souvenirs. We’ll have events like camel races and elephant rides and boat trips down the Nile. The beauty part is, we’ll control the whole thing — we’ll call it a “monopoly.” We’ll make a fortune!”
The High Priest furrowed his brow. “Hmmm, I like the sound of that – “monopoly.” But do you really thing people will come?”
Are you kidding? People are starved for entertainment. There’s nothing like this in the world. What else do they have to do in their spare time except beat on logs with a stick? They’re all suckers, I tell ya, and there’s another one born every minute.”
“Right, Chief, it’s a great idea! Let’s do it!”
“How long do you think it’ll take to put it together?”
“Oh, I’d say a thousand years, give or take a couple of centuries.”
In case you’re wondering, the above is an actual transcription of some hieroglyphics found in Egypt a few years ago. It marks the beginning of the entertainment industry, the lineage of which can be traced directly from ancient times through the centuries all the way to Six Flags Over Planet Mars, which I understand is in the planning stages at Tesla Motors.
So, like the Pyramids and Rome and the kitchen cabinets you gave the guy the down payment to build six months ago that he still hasn’t delivered, Sintra wasn’t built in a day. The palaces were constructed at different times over Portugal’s history and represent successive building styles, royal dynasties and social eras. There are also a flotilla of elaborate mansions built mostly in the 1800’s by rich industrialists and merchants.
With all the landscaping it’s a hiker’s paradise. You could probably spend a couple months wandering through the forests and gardens. For the casual pedestrian, a word of caution – it’s all uphill. Barbara and I spent the better part of three days traversing the area, and by the end of it the entire back side of my body from my calves and hamstrings up to my neck was screaming in pain.
However, the main feature we took away from Sintra are the crowds. That thing that says you’re required to go there results in hordes of tourists being dumped out of yellow and red buses to follow some guy around for a day and then check it off their itineraries.
“Yeah, we went to this place with all these mansions, I forget the name of it, sort of like that movie star bus thing we went on in LA. I bought a T-shirt but I forget what happened to it. Pretty place, though.”
We piggy-backed a four-night stay there onto a trip to nearby Cacais, where our friend Rita has an apartment. We were on our way there to take care of her dog Jules, whom I’ve previously introduced, while she went back to Colorado for a week.
We stayed four nights at a delightful VRBO owned by a gracious lady by the name of Maria Dulce Texeira. The apartment was tiny, charming, full of flowers, located in the historic center of town but completely secluded on a narrow side street.
As we strolled for the first time out into town, we suddenly saw a wall of people marching resolutely in our direction. Any idea that they might make way for us to go through them dimmed as distance neared. The formation remained as steadfast as a regiment of redcoats advancing on the enemy, that enemy, I realized, being us.
The terrifying thing was to look upon their blank unseeing expressions, or rather lack of expression, as if they had been stripped of all humanity. Perhaps when they swiped their tour passes getting on the bus an electronic surge went through their bodies shutting down their brains. They resembled something between zombie movie extras and grazing herd animals. I half expected to see them nibbling the leaves of overhanging trees as they proceeded along their way.
We were forced into the street to avoid being trampled and then had to jump to avoid the onrushing taxis and rental cars. We are told that visitors renting autos at the Lisbon airport are routinely given “a special upgrade to a full-size vehicle at no extra charge!” resulting in lines of very un-European monster SUVs clogging the city.
The cheapest way to see the sights here are the city buses that run two routes from the town center. The Northern one hits three or four estates, including the biggest draws, the Castelo dos Moros (Castelo) and the Palacio Nacional da Pena (Pena). The Southern one goes to two other main draws, Montserrate Parque and the Quinta de Regaleira, as well as a couple also-rans.
We hit town on a Thursday and, after taking one look at the situation, did something right. That is, we took the Northern route to see the most popular attractions before the weekend. That way we missed the absolute worst of the Saturday crowds – although you wouldn’t know it by being there.
On Friday we visited the Castelo and Pena and some other place I can’t remember. Late that afternoon we went back to the Pena entrance to wait for the city bus, where we saw a long line of people already loading. It was pretty clear there wasn’t a big enough bus in the whole world to get us all on. Sure enough, it left and we settled down to wait for the next one.
Circling the bus stop like vultures waiting for a kill were the other kinds of transport Sintra offers – taxis, vans, the yellow and red guided tour buses, tuk-tuks (those funky electric vehicles that resemble golf carts except they travel on roads), even motorcycles you can rent to ride by yourself or on the rear seat behind the driver (a popular option for single women). The operators of these things stared at us like they’d just as soon eat us for lunch as go to the trouble of driving us anywhere.
Periodically, one of the drivers would walk down the line hawking space — “I have four seats available, five euros each,” or “Two seats available, leaving in five minutes,” or “Taxi service, ready to go,” or “Three bags full, get ém while they’re hot,” (OK, so maybe that was the popcorn guy, but you probably could have booked a ride on his cart if you wanted to).
Eventually, another bus showed up and the line started moving again. A man shouldered his way up to the front and started yelling at the driver; turns out his wife was pregnant and he got the two of them on first. Seeing this, some guys farther back in line started trying to convince their girlfriends to stuff whatever luggage they carried under their blouses. From the arguments, it seemed these efforts were putting a lot of relationships in jeopardy.
We were lucky with this bus, the next to last couple to crowd on. As the doors started to close, I heard a lot of angry noises in a variety of languages. I had visions of a mob running after us throwing rocks and setting things on fire. In response, the panicky driver started calling out “NEXT BUS FIVE MINUTES” over and over. The very frightened -looking ticket taker on the ground took up the mantra in a somewhat desperate voice, and, last I looked, the crowd had settled down to dissatisfied grumbling.
When we got back to town, we realized the trip had taken ten minutes. We could have walked there in less than thirty minutes. As it was, we had waited for the bus for over an hour. Oh, well.
On Saturday, we took the less traveled route and spent the morning walking in Montserrate Park, the partly formal, partly wild gardens of a nineteenth century mansion. In contrast with the day before, it was lovely, quiet and mostly empty, with flowers and plants from all over the world in full growth. This was the least Disneyish moment, the one we choose to remember from our trip to Sintra.
We also saw the Quinta De Regaleira, designed by an opera set designer for a Brazilian coffee mogul. The whole place is like a theatrical set, including a series of caves carved into the rock beneath the gardens. Walt couldn’t ask for more.
Real Estate Listings
The first of the three main attractions, the Castelo dos Moros, is the ruins of a 7th century Moorish castle set atop the mountain. It’s all stark stone block walls and towers with crenellations, not as well preserved as the castle at Palmela we visited a few months ago but with the same intent – to slaughter anyone who might try to evict these people who invaded the country from Africa and held onto the Southern part of it for about six hundred years. It’s perfect for spotting Christian armies or Viking raiders to prepare for holding them off. On the other hand, there’s nothing romantic or charming about this place nor anything to suggest an iota of comfort in the occupants’ lives.
In the Middle Ages up until the widespread use of cannons, siege warfare always favored the defenders. You could sit up in your castle for months while the besiegers threw rocks and shot arrows and maybe tried to dig under the walls without you noticing. Some sieges lasted years, but mostly the attackers eventually got tired of it and went home.
Given that fact, it’s kind of amazing that Afonso Henriques, the first official king of Portugal, managed to conquer this place and Palmela and most of the Moorish holdings in the 1100’s. The guy certainly deserves his place in history.
The highest point on the mountain is actually not the castle but a large stone cross set on the peak, called appropriately the Cruz Alta. But after we spent a couple hours climbing around the castle we were too worn out to go there. When we later mentioned this to our friend Rita Ochs, she said that when she was there, “We climbed up to the Cruz Alta and then we were too tired to go to the castle.” Gotta pick your poison, I guess.
The other big draw on this route, and perhaps the biggest attraction in Sintra, is the Palacio Nacional De Pena, commissioned by King Ferdinand II in the early 1800’s – and the royal residence up until a republic was declared in 1910. This is the one that looks most Disney Princess-like, and the guidebooks appropriately use words like “hedonistic” and “kitschy” to describe it.
It’s all room after room of lavish furniture and decorations that pretty well drained the entire Portuguese treasury. A lot of the stuff was produced by celebrity artisans of the period. I found particularly striking an entire room’s worth of large heavy cabinetry with hand carved jade fronts. The stuff is all beautiful, but what’s really striking is the excess.
No one living there could possibly appreciate it all – after awhile it just numbs the senses. These people spent enormous amounts of money on stuff nobody but they and their servants charged with cleaning the stuff would ever get to see. It’s all too much for one family; you wonder if they even knew what they had.
On Sunday, we visited the third big attraction, the Palacio Nacional de Sintra in the city center. It was the primary royal residence in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s also a lavish place, but in a different way than the Pena Palace. It’s not self-aggrandizing. The walls and ceilings are covered with the classic azulejos, the decorated tiles characteristic of Portugal. There’s a room with the coats of arms of 74 nobles families on the ceiling, and others with ceilings decorated symbolically in magpies and swans.
The paintings on the walls are mostly biblical scenes and portraits of important people, allies and distinguished honorees. The furniture is grand but severe, and most of the rooms include oratories, closets just big enough for the royal denizens to lock themselves into and kneel in prayer.
These three places suggest to me a timeline of history. The Castelo do Mouro is about conflict, the early struggle to establish a civilization and a country. The Palacio Nacional is about austerity, the responsibility of ruling a nation and representing its grandeur to the world.
The Palacio do Pena is about decadence and self-indulgence, about a privileged class who had long outlived their usefulness and lost contact with their people. To me, the place is creepy and reeks of decay.
It was from here that Amelia, the last queen of Portugal, fled to Brazil in 1910 after being dethroned in a revolution. Four years later came the start of World War I, the deaths of millions, when the old order was swept away and led to the fascist era, including one in Portugal. The Palacio do Pena is a prophetic vision of what was to happen – and why.
Puttin’ On the Glitz
So, if the rumors I’m trying to spread are correct, the Portuguese government is negotiating to name all the sights in Sintra after Disney attractions. Not that they’ve asked me, but I have a few suggestions. The Castelo do Mouro would be a good location for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, the Palacio Nacional for Prince Charming’s Palace and the Palacio do Pena the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The Quinta da Regaleira is perfect for Goofy’s Farm. Otherwise, there are plenty of vilas and mansions to house Mickey and Donald and Dumbo, the Little Mermaid and that Frozen girl, and on and on and on. There’s also a toy museum which would be perfect for the gift shop.
I fully applaud the people of Portugal for making their country a major cash receptacle for tourists from all over the world. It doesn’t bother me a bit that the restaurants in this town cost as much as in the United States and if you choose one for the view you’re guaranteed the food will be both mediocre and overpriced. More power to them; this country’s due for a boom.
Give Sintra its due, it is truly a beautiful place – the gardens, architecture, the artwork. There were a lot of things we didn’t get to, like a monastery with walls lined in cork and doorways built low so monks had to kneel to go through them. Nevertheless, having spent a long weekend here, it’ll be a while, if ever, before we feel obligated to come back.
On to Cascais. Até Logo.
Oh, the burdens of celebrityhoodednessdom. Barbara and I have come to discover this in the months we’ve been in Portugal. The constant attention, lack of privacy, need for the police to block off streets when we walk down them — it all gets exhausting after a while, not to mention takes up time that could be used for things like discovering new drugs to help people have fun, spray painting graffiti of American cartoon characters on 14th century palace walls and recreating Three Stooges routines in the park for bewildered passersby.
After all, we came to Portugal in the first place because we figured no one would recognize us here. Living in America had become one long round of people contacting us to tell us we’d been selected to participate in a $500,000 sweepstakes if we’d only enter our e-mail addresses, social security IDs and a credit card number. We just had to get away.
But now, apparently, we’re the representative Americans in Setúbal; word seems to have spread about our presence, especially since we recently moved from the touristy section of town by the river to a long-term rental in the center of the city.
Strictly speaking, we aren’t the only Americans in town. For example, there’s Max, the chiropractor from Maine married to Sol, a Portuguese lady, with a 3-year-old daughter (andboyissheahandful). We’ve heard of others and have run into a couple of visitors to looking the place over in consideration of settling here.
There are also a few Canadians, offspring of Portuguese citizens who emigrated in the ‘50s – ’70s when the country suffered the double whammy of a fascist dictatorship and widespread poverty, and who filtered back in the last few years.
Still, North Americans in Setúbal are a select group. Hearing English spoken here at all is a rarity. Portuguese people who aren’t familiar with English inevitably think we must be French or Russian. They’re just not used to hearing Americans.
I assume the other Americans in Setúbal have their own constituencies, but Barbara and I seem to have attracted a lot of attention. As a matter of fact, we were invited to the home of our landlords, Paula and Jorge, the other night, where we also met Paula’s sister Sofía. We were floored when Sofía happened to mention in passing, “You are famous here.” And she lives in Lisbon!
We don’t exactly know why she said that; maybe she was making it up. Or maybe Barbara and I are well known because we walk everywhere; we’re in the local consciousness because they see us every day. We’re the Street People From the United States, also known as “Americans who must have something wrong with them and are probably crazy because they don’t drive around in a big car.”
For the record, in Portuguese that’s Americanos que devem ter algo errado com eles e pode ser louco porque eles nao dirigem ao redor em um carro grande.
It seems to be amusing to the locals to greet us when we pass by, like visitors to a zoo who find it funny to press their faces between the bars of the gorilla cage. That, of course, is only funny if the gorillas don’t reach over and rip their faces off, but I don’t know what the Portuguese think we might do to them if enraged.
They’re in the habit of veering off their path when they see us, stepping over to chirp a cheery Boa Tarde and then running away giggling. I can just imagine them going home and announcing, “Hey honey, guess what? I saw those crazy foreigners in the park and I said hello to them!” This, followed by loud guffaws. It could be argued that Portuguese people are easily amused
Our new apartment is on the ninth floor of an enormous building, and everyone who lives here knows who we are. We suspect they were informed by Dona Filomena, the lady who takes care of maintaining the lobby with its lush indoor garden. However, what happens every time we get in the elevator with another resident, whether we’ve ever seen them or not, is that they inevitably reach over and press 9 for us.
While furnishing our apartment a few weeks ago, we took a bus up to buy some stuff at the Portuguese version of Home Depot and had the customer service desk call a taxi to ferry our purchases home. I could swear I overheard her telling the cab company, “Yeah, they’re the Americans who live on the ninth floor of the building.” The driver didn’t even ask where we wanted to go, just pulled up at the entrance to our building, and I don’t remember having given him an address.
On a not untypical day a couple weeks ago, we headed out through the park toward the river about a mile away. On the way, we passed the coffee shop next to our language school where we greeted our Portugues teacher Rita standing in the doorway copping a smoke between lessons; then the shoe shop owned by our landlord Paula, who, no matter how often we see her always greets us as though we’ve been separated for several years.
Next, we heard a familiar voice which turned out to be one of our real estate agents Maria calling to us from her car stopped at the intersection. Then we passed by the senior center we joined were we ran into Jorge, a fellow member and fadoista who sang a greeting to us in the middle of doing his vocal exercises.
Down by the river we passed one of our favorite restaurants, owned by one of those Portuguese Canadians who, ever since we got our residency permits gives us a 10% discount for paying cash because we’re “locals.” We ended up at the Casa De Baia, the visitor’s center in Setúbal, where we’re regular fixtures, asking for directions, drinking the best coffee in town and using their restrooms. We’ve become friends with pretty much everyone on the staff.
So much so that the tourist bureau has now solidified our celeb status by asking us to do a video interview about our experience in Setúbal. We did it a couple of weeks ago, and they’re in the process of editing it to put on their website and Facebook page and play as part of the continuous loop on the widescreen video in the main lobby of the building.
If we had any chance of remaining anonymous here, it’s gone forever. I expect that now we’ll start getting invitations to laundromat openings and funerals and the like.
In the interview itself they asked the usual questions about why we came to Portugal, what we think of it, what we’ve been doing with ourselves, how we like the food, etc. Of course, they were particularly interested in our take on Setúbal. As we told them, we wanted to find a place to live for a little while to really feel what the country is like as opposed to just looking at it from a tour bus. When we heard about Setúbal and read up on it in the guidebooks it seemed as good as any for the purpose.
Setúbal used to be one a major Portuguese industrial city, and the occasional smell from the one still-operational factory is a reminder of that. It’s also a major Portuguese seaports. We love hanging out down at the river watching the massive container ships sailing in, most commonly from China, Japan and Sicily. They keep the river channel well dredged, such that ships come through about thirty yards from shore. It almost feels like we could reach out and touch them.
The main interviewer (they were both named Suzana) commented that we don’t resemble their impression of Americans, and she acted like that was a good thing. The word she used to describe the perception was “large”, and when she said it she screwed her face up in a sour expression. We can’t be sure if she meant they believe Americans statuesque and beautiful while we’re short and dumpy, or grossly immense and fat while we’re trim and attractive. I prefer to believe the latter, considering the aforely-mentioned sour expression.
She also mentioned what may be a possible reason we’re so well known. They seem
to think we’re the only Americans around here who’ve tried to learn the language. The appreciate that we have that much respect for the country and its people. We’re told our approach is a rarity, that very few foreigners bother, including other Americans who have lived here.
I know for a fact we’re not the only ones, but I’m pretty sure we’re in the minority. I guess our approach to experiencing life in Portugal is working for us. We feel more comfortable every day with being here. We know our way around, sort of, we can communicate to a rudimentary extent, sort of, and we’re making friends.
A few months ago we ran across something online – I wish I could remember where – warning that the greatest danger of settling in a foreign country is the sense of isolation that leads to loneliness and depression. Not knowing the customs and behavioral norms and not being able to communicate with anyone gets to you. That was true in the early days, but we feel a less isolated every day.
Perhaps the main question they asked us in our interview was, what do we think of this country in which we’ve established residence? I thought of a lot of things, including the – the daily mass killings in America, the Manchester explosion targeting a bunch of innocent kids, the time we were in Paris during a terrorist incident when we woke up in the morning to see armed paratroopers lining the street outside our hotel.
I thought about all the people in Setúbal stopping us on the street to say hello and pushing the elevator button for us to make sure we get to the right floor. All the people like the two Paulas and two Jorges and Max and Mario who decide we need to see some sight in Portugal so they give up an afternoon or a Sunday to drive us there.
Then I answered.
“Portugal is a gentle country.”
Barbara and are doing our best to be good expats. We’re determined to experience the culture of Portugal and learn as much about the people as we can. We also enjoy meeting other expats like ourselves and sharing experiences. I recently had a chat with Jules, one of our newest acquaintances, to get her take on what she’s seeing and hearing.
Jules is traveling with our friend Rita, the lady who lived a mile away from us in Denver but we never met until coming to Portugal. Rita and Jules first met some time ago in Missouri and currently share a place in Cascais, a beach town about 45 minutes from Lisbon.
Jules is a two year-old yellow Labrador Retriever weighing about 65 pounds. When Rita suggested the two of them visit Portugal together, Jules jumped at the chance. Since Jules has a unique connection with at least one segment of the population, those who can lick themselves in places we wouldn’t dream of, she has a lot of insights to offer.
Dogs are ubiquitous here in Setubal. Seeing them on leashes is more the exception than the rule. Not that there aren’t leash laws; there are, just as there are laws requiring owners to clean up after their dogs or face a 1000 euro fine. It’s just that nobody pays any attention to them.
The Portuguese take a kind of national pride in ignoring rules they consider trivial or stupid. They see no reason to make a big fuss over dogs who they consider capable of taking care of themselves. Additionally, in a country this close to the edge of poverty, the police have neither the manpower nor the budgets to arrest people for not keeping their animals on leashes.
It’s not that they don’t care about their animals. To its credit, Portugal passed animal cruelty laws a few years ago which they do take very seriously. Violators can get up to a year in prison. In addition, there are organizations devoted to raising money to feed and care for the strays inhabiting the narrow back alleys and travessas of the less picturesque neighborhoods. However, I’m not sure how successful they are or how they can organize relief efforts among canines. It’s not as if the dogs all know where the social service agencies are located.
Another phenomenon here we find notable is a population of perfectly groomed, manicured, presumably flea-less animals who all have collars. They sport that air of entitlement typically found among members of the upper socioeconomic strata however many legs they have. Their owners are apparently content to allow them a measure of independence.
Left to their own devices, they’ve developed their own civilization. In the US dogs are pretty much docile and dependent. If an American dog gets off leash, it wanders around aimlessly, not knowing what to do with itself. In Portugal, the dogs have a sense of purpose, a confidence and a social structure.
The dogs in Setubal are urban-savvy. Walking down the streets, they pass by at a rapid clip, appearing for all the world to be late for a meeting. At one of the major intersections in town, they behave just like humans. They wait at the curb for the light to change before crossing the street, then trot calmly across on their way to wherever they’re going. As they cross, they acknowledge with a nod any of their kind passing the other way.
Just like the rest of us, there’s always somebody trying to beat the light. The dog will stop at the curb, look around to see if cars are coming and, if not, hurry on across. Sometimes, one of them will misjudge the traffic. A car will appear suddenly at the intersection and turn quickly, himself or herself also trying to beat the light. The dog will get a few steps out into the street, then back up quickly and wait for another shot.
At night the dogs get together for community sings. From all over town, packs of them assemble to howl, yip and bark. Then they retire for the night. The next morning, when their owners, often businesses who, I suppose, keep them to deter break-ins, let them out, they announce the beginning of their day with all the excitement of a kindergarten class let out for recess. Whether at night or in the morning, I can tell exactly what time it is with the same certainty provided by church bells or particularly obnoxious clocks.
The apartment we’ve inhabited these past six months is one in a row of five buildings, and we have a balcony on each side so that we look out on another building both ways. Each of these two building has an apartment with a resident dog let out on the balcony in the morning who then spends most of its day watching over its corner of the world. The personalities of the two couldn’t be more distinct.
On one side lives a big, muscular white creature who thinks it’s the town marshall. It’s constantly barking orders at the local human residents, imperiously reminding them to close the front door or take out the garbage, announcing that it’s time for its owner to come home because it’s going off duty. Strangers happening by are challenged as to their business in the complex and to be prepared to show ID. Only when its owner does indeed get home does it let down its guard and turn over the duty.
It’s always listening for foreign sounds, so we’ve gotten in the habit of standing on our balcony whistling to it. Out in the air overlooking our building, we can get a pretty piercing whistle going. The dog, hearing this, varies between looking around suspiciously to determine the source of the sound and holding its nose up when located to listen to the signal.
On the other side is a hairy black and white thing who comes out every day, jumps up on a table and spreads out to observe the passing parade. This one spends its time smelling the smells and watching the sights quietly and serenely like a small town resident who observes everything that goes on in the community from a porch swing.
In that regard, we discover, it takes after its owner. She comes out a couple times a day, often in her bathrobe. Sits next to the table, takes the dog on her lap and proceeds to chat with it. In a chirpy voice, she talks to it about the weather, what’s going on that day, points out passersby, including cars, pedestrians and the ships currently moored in the harbor.
She points and gestures and waves to show it what she’s talking about, and it follows her gaze with interest, although we can’t tell if that’s genuine or feigned. Obviously, it’s got a pretty sweet deal there, and, if all it has to do to maintain it is pretend to be interested in her chatter, it’s a small price to pay.
Barbara has jumped on the bandwagon with this dog. She’s taken to standing on our balcony calling to it across the way. The dog displays actual interest in what she’s saying; its ears perk up and it stares at her. Frequently during these interchanges, however, it looks around as if to ask, “Do I really have to do this?”
Cataloging all these observations, I was excited by the opportunity to discuss them with Jules. It took a while to arrange for us to get together, understandably so because her presence is in considerable demand. It’s not often one gets the chance to sit down and share insights on Portugal with a resident American dog. Jules has been busy fielding interview requests from Pata De Impressao, the online Portuguese magazine whose title translates to PawPrint, and appearing as guest host on SPCA’s Rolling In The Dirt With the Stars International.
I caught up with Jules in the midst of her busy day sniffing fire hydrants and trying to catch flies in her mouth. I asked Jules for her initial impressions of being in Portugal.
OK, so I saw how this interview was going to go. “Leeave it,” I said in a commanding tone, pointing my finger at her. She relaxed slightly and made a low rumbling noise in her throat. I tried again.
“What do you think of Portugal now that you’ve been here a few weeks?”
I saw we were going to have to get down to a more basic level. “Have you noticed anything different lately than it was before”
This was a little hard to interpret so I chose to take it as assent and pursue some elaboration.
“What’s new to you these days?”
“Smells like fish.”
I should mention I’ve taken some liberties editing our discussion, but purely to help my readers’ understanding, not to mislead or distort anything. Specifically, my use of the word “fish” in the above is the best interpretation I can come up with for a kind of low rumbling throat-clearing sort of noise that Jules makes.
She employs that sound to convey a variety of meanings, just as humans do. For example, I myself am likely when Barbara asks me a question to answer “mmmh,” by which I might mean “I’ll get right on pursuing that endeavor” or “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea” or “I wasn’t actually listening to what you said, but I’m not going to admit it because I don’t want to get in trouble.” In this case, I’m pretty sure Jules meant to say “fish.” I’ll try to clarify things like this as I go in the interests of candor.
“What would you say has impressed you the most about Portugal since you’ve been here?”
Jules furrowed her brow and her lips parted slightly before she answered.
I don’t suppose this needs any clarification. Jules is something of an expert on poop. Just as the Aleut dialects of the Arctic regions have several names for snow, dogs have a variety of sounds to refer to poop. Jules went on at some length elaborating on the subject, about the different types and characteristics of each found in Portugal, smells, taste, texture and color. However, I’ll save further discussion for another time so as not to burden the reader with an excess of detail.
Changing the subject I said, “So far you’ve seen a good bit of the country. You’ve spent time in Lisbon, taken a driving tour of the Alentejo region, and you’re spending the next few months in the resort city of Cascais. How would you compare those places?”
Jules is not particularly well educated in geography, so it took a little sorting out for her to know what I was talking about. In her defense, quite a number of humans share this educational vacancy – I was asked on several occasions prior to coming to Europe where Portugal is. When she was able to make the distinction, Jules made it clear she was no fan of Lisbon.
“Crowded. People keep stepping where I want to go. Big moving houses scare me. No place to get out of the way.”
It was pretty clear what she meant. Having spent a couple of days with Jules in Lisbon, I was struck by how nervous she was making her way through the narrow winding city streets. These are a feature of most Portuguese towns but the streets of Lisbon are exceptionally crowded. It can be difficult to make one’s way through the masses of people, and Jules was quite anxious the whole time. In particular, she visibly cowered whenever one of the old Lisbon trolleys came by. Imagine a San Francisco cable car trying to make its way through the aisles of a grocery store. They always look like they’re about to topple over and crush a few dozen passersby.
“Good garbage, though,” Jules conceded. I had to agree, there certainly was a lot of organic matter aging in the heat in the gutters. No self-respecting dog would pass up the opportunity to stick its nose in some of that stuff. I guess you have to take the bad with the good.
In contrast, Jules much preferred her experience in the Alentejo region. She accompanied Rita on a driving tour, who had rented a car for the occasion. The Alentejo is the rural agricultural area of Portugal, famed for its rustic countryside and picturesque aldeias, or villages. Jules expressed her pleasure at the memory of the journey by thrusting her snout up in the air, displaying her best doggie smile and flapping her tongue about. This apparently mimicked the posture she assumed while driving with Rita, sticking her head out the car window and leaning into the wind.
“Lots to smell,” she indicated. “Food yum yum slurp slurp.”
At this point in the interview I was still getting the hang of interpreting Jules’ native dialect. That’s why my translation makes her sound like the Faithful Indian Companion in a 1950’s Western. In truth, in her own way, Jules is far more eloquent than many humans. Thus, in paragraphs that follow, I will attempt a more expansive interpretation. The reader can judge for himself/herself which is more accurate.
“I have noticed,” I said, “a certain independent attitude among canines here that I hadn’t observed in the place we came from. What are your thoughts?”
She sniffed the air and made a kind of slurping noise. I’m not sure if this was intended as an editorial comment or she just enjoyed swallowing her phlegm.
“The point you may be missing,” she began, “is the cause and effect interplay. The relationship between four legged and two legged beings is somewhat different on this side of the world. Where I come from, the conjunction between them is more inclusive. I disagree with your implication that those who smell like me have suspended their freedom for a supercilious adherence to the norms of the Two Foots. I would say rather that we have chosen to inculcate ourselves into the pack and recognize them as leaders. We do this in the interests of exercising greater socio-cultural impact.
“What you posit as individual freedom and personal determinism is a response to the absence of stabilizing norms. My kind in this place are often the victims of a not so benign neglect. Many with whom I have come in contact express envy for my relationship with my pack leader. Some are never taken for walks, for example. There is also a regressive gender bias here.
Males are rarely nullified and wander around with their thingies dangling out. Females are expected to take responsibility for population control on their own. I am continually forced to fight off males who jump on my back and try to hump me. Why, I ask you, should I have to deal with this annoyance simply because their pack leaders don’t want to spend the money to make them leave us alone?
“In addition, since males are in a semi-continual state of excitation, they are forever getting into fights. If the packs here are to ever assimilate in any meaningful way into society, this brutish behavior must be brought to an end.
“What we are talking about is the classic dichotomy between liberty and license – that is, liberty involves the addition of personal responsibility. The pack is the primary structure of a civilized society. Taking the pack away and forcing us to manage on our own is inherently destructive because it violates our very instincts.
“What you interpret as some romanticized notion of Ayn Randish individualism in is in fact a display of your own ignorance.”
Being lectured about ethics by a Labrador Retriever is a truly humiliating experience. It made me question my entire shallow cheapjack perspective on life in Portugal, and wonder if I shouldn’t be writing about things like sectarian conflict or the refugee crisis or the potential breakup of the European Union.
But then I thought . . . NAAHHH!
Besides which, in conversation with Rita, AKA Jules’ pack leader, she revealed that Jules isn’t quite the exemplar of purity she pretends to be. Since coming to Portugal, she’s become pretty bad about obeying Rita’s commands and very lax about running off on her own without permission. She also fights her leash, taking it in her jaws and trying to rip it out of Rita’s hands.
She’s even gotten in a couple of fights with a neighbor dog named Oui. Oui’s owner is a devotee of the Cesar Millan system of dog training. He’s offered to work with Jules, but Rita says she doesn’t need Jules to be a perfect dog.
I asked Jules about her fights with Oui, but she would only say, “Oui lick my butt.” Her only comment about the Millan school was to show her teeth and mutter “Fascist.” I gather she shares the criticism of many experts in the field of animal training about Millan’s authoritarian – some use the word cruel – methods.
In summary, there must be some attraction to the independent behavior of Portuguese dogs even among canine intellectuals like Jules. On reflection, that’s not too different from humans. Aren’t most of our lifestyle decisions a balancing act between security and freedom?
Parenthetically, Rita and Jules have recently been in counseling about their personal relationship, and decided they need to have some time away from each other. Jules is now spending a couple of days a week at a doggie daycare spa.
I’ll be checking in periodically with Jules to see how she’s adjusting to life in Portugal. As a matter of fact, Barbara and I plan to stay at Rita’s place in Cascais next month when she goes back to Colorado for a week. We’ll have a chance for some in-depth discussion with Jules, and we’re looking forward to what we can learn from her.
Now that Barbara and I have our permanent Portuguese residency cards, we’re on the hunt for a long term apartment rental. The place we’re in we have for only another month until the owners come from France for their annual holiday.
It’s another interesting phenomenon about Portugal relating to the fact that the country has spawned so many expatriates. People want to be here, they dream of living in their home country. Unfortunately, they have had to take root in other countries to survive. Now they have careers and the other accoutrements of life there; but they still long for home. So, they spend their accumulated capital on houses or condos here to which they can only visit for a brief period every year.
In many cases, it’s the older generation who’ve by this time been living abroad for a significant portion of their lives, working to make it possible for their children to return. The children own apartments which sit empty for eleven months of the year so the parents can visit for three or four weeks.
It’s a peculiar niche for the real estate industry. Paula Guerreiro, our leasing agent, has her own company, c.casas, devoted to investment by Portuguese expatriates. She connected us up in our current digs with the owners who live in France.
When we walked in the door on October 1, it might have as well have been that they evacuated on a moment’s notice, having barely enough time to pack their suitcases and clear out. Everything else was left in place, kitchen stocked with plates and silverware, linen closets with bedclothes, refrigerator with condiments.
However, if one were an archeologist piecing together the portrait of a civilization from the reliquary evidence, one would draw the conclusion that this place is owned by a tribe of three year olds. There’s a minimum of grownup furniture, the stuff we sit and lie down on, while 75 percent of the space is occupied by toys.
Right inside our front door sits a toddler’s high chair. Given its location, we decided to turn it into a formal entryway. We hang our coats, hats and backpacks on the seat, and have placed a formal candelabra and silver calling card tray on the teddy bear etching that graces the dining tray, for when we are receiving visitors.
Next to it is a child’s tricycle which came with Portuguese title papers and a little tiny license plate. We’ve discovered a tricycle to be a relatively efficient mode of transportation. It doesn’t take up much room in the house and fits in the typical Portuguese elevator, which is just about right size to serve as a coffin should one ever be needed. Additionally, you can ride a trike on the sidewalk, thus avoiding the Portuguese national road game of Frango, which translates as “chicken.”
The fact that the wheelbase is only a couple of inches in diameter is a mixed blessing. While riding a tricycle for any length of time leads to stiff back and knee joints, the advantage is that, if I bend my head I can zip through the legs of people in front of me. This is helpful not only on the street but in sneaking to the head of the line in the mercado, banco and restaurantes. Now I have only to do something about the seat, since it’s just the right size to end up in unmentionable positions if one is not careful.
Our dining room is furnished with a matching set of yellow plastic tuffets arranged around a pint-sized toadstool. We eat dinner on a tiny teaset illustrated with scenes from the lives of the three blind mice. It’s a little unwieldy in that the plates are only large enough to hold one spoonful of curds and whey at a time, but I have to admit it feels civilized.
To while away the hours, Barbara and I also sit at the toadstool to play cards using the deck we found in a toy box.. The only problem is we can never remember whether the bunny rabbit of clubs beats the duck of hearts or it’s the moo cow of diamonds.
The second bedroom is Tot HQ, the toddler-operational heart and soul of the place. I’m often awake in the middle of the night due to back pain, and I found my way into the room early on in our stay. It’s full of boxes of diapers, neatly stacked piles of fuzzy little clothes, and of course toys. The first thing you notice when entering is a large cardboard space ship sitting in a corner, hand cut and taped together by some aerospace cardboard engineer. It’s about five feet tall, just about the size a three-year old astronaut would use to visit other worlds.
I approached the structure intending to examine it more closely; but as soon as I stepped within a foot of it, a shrill alarm began to sound – like “EEEP,EEEP,EEEP” – you know the sound. It seemed to be coming from inside the clothes closet. Opening the closet door I came face to faces with a row of dolls sitting on a shelf staring out at me. Plump, pink cheeked and prematurely balding, they bore the facial expressions of a supreme court reviewing the conviction of a mass murderer.
“On what authority do you open this closet to present yourself before this bench?” That was a little disconcerting coming from an inanimate plastic object dressed in a tiny t-shirt and diaper.
The best I could manage in response was “Uh . . . I, uh, couldn’t sleep.”
“That’s usually the mark of a guilty conscience,” said one of the associate justices.
“Actually, it’s the mark of two bulging discs, number 1 and 5, in my lower spine. It happens to people my age, I guess you wouldn’t know about that. You’re how old . . . I’d say eight months judging from your sparsely tufted heads.”
The chief justice gave me a chilling glare. “Are you trying to show contempt for this court?”
“You may remember that, in response to that same question, Mae West famously said, ‘No, judge, I’m tryin” to conceal it.’”
“Who’s Mae West?”
“Right. Eight Months old, Sorry.”
“Why would you say such a thing?”
“Just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to steal an old joke.”
“This is no place for amusement. You should think about what you’re doing — here in the dark of night imagining you’re speaking with an inanimate object. It’s clear we need to explore the deep recesses of your psyche.”
“Who are you to be exploring my deep recesses? I’m talking to a panel of plastic babies here. What do you know about anything?”
“Who better, you mean? We’re perfectly abstract beings. Pink and round and adorable and lacking any outside influences like experience or self-awareness. We observe the behavior of your kind with perfect objectivity. And I don’t mind telling you it’s pretty sad.”
“That’s awfully judgmental.”
“Comes with the office.” Said with a tired and patronizing expression.
“Well, how do you know I even have any psyche? I take some pride in the fact that many people consider me a complete idiot.”
For the first time the judge seemed bemused. It hesitated and then went into a huddle with its colleagues. After few moments, they appeared to have made a decision.
“All right,” said the chief. “We accept the fact that you have no inner life. Do you stipulate that you never experience the dark night of the soul? Never lie awake in those hours feeling the pain of every love you ever lost, every harm you inflicted to another person, every opportunity you ever passed up to give aid or comfort to someone who needed you? Do you never ruminate on how if you’d only done something a little better your life would have been far different?”
“Who, me, Judge? Never give that stuff a thought”
“Then we classify you an empty shell and absolve you of all responsibility for your life.”
“Thanks, judge. That makes me feel a lot better.”
“Hold on, defendant. You’re not done yet. Before you get away, you have to do us a solid.”
I gulped. “How so, Your Cuteness?”
“We haven’t had any entertainment since the Little Person left. We’ve been sitting here bored to tears. Or at least Judge Snookums with the weeping feature over here is in tears. The rest of us are just bored. We need you to set up the Tiny Town, so we can watch.”
“And how do I do that?”
“Look in the box down there. It has everything you need.”
On a lower shelf of the closet, I found a large plastic tub containing, all in a jumble, a miniature civilization. I upended it on the floor and out tumbled several hundred tiny ceramic clowns with bulbous heads and bodies. They were all dressed in flamboyant folk costumes featuring enormous headdresses and flowing pantaloons and skirts. I had seen illustrations of such creatures in Portugal before but thought them nothing more than cartoon figures. I now saw that they represented an alternative Portuguese population.
They were accompanied by a variety of toy animals including a large wooden dinosaur of the species triceratops.
I did my best to sort out and arrange them while the judges looked on and mostly giggled at my efforts. When I was done to what I took to be their satisfaction, I sat back to survey the scene.
As though a switch had been thrown, the dolls all started moving in unison, in a strange kind of ritual dance. They put their right foot in. They put their right foot out. They put their right foot in and then they shook it all about. Holding their arms out and waving them, they turned themselves around and all at once yelled out something that sounded like, “HO-KEE PO-KEE!”
They repeated this sequence for each of their body parts, putting them in and out in turn. In some cases, they had to adjust to differences in body structure. Some dolls had four legs and so took longer to finish while the two legged dolls were marking time; and the giraffes took longer than the others to put their heads in and out. There were also tropical bird dolls who shrieked obscenities in Portuguese by way of commentary on the action.
The dancing seemed to energize them. Out of the toy box they proceeded to pull building blocks and enough structural elements for a major international city. They began with replicas of the pyramids and Parthenon, proceeded to Manueline and gothic cathedrals and palaces, continued on to skyscrapers and the Eiffel Tower, and then swept them all away in favor of McDonalds, Apple Stores and WalMarts, with a couple of bowling alleys thrown in.
Here I was in the middle of the night witness to the entire history of civilization. I had discovered that it was all spawned by the dance of the Hokey Pokey.
Fascinated as I was by the sight of all this, I failed to notice a strange blue light emanating from inside the cardboard rocket ship. As it grew brighter, the “EEEP EEP EEP” alarm started up. Immediately, the porcelain clowns stopped dancing, formed into two lines, and marched into the space ship.
When all this started, I was sitting on the floor directly in front of the ship. “Out of the way, tourist,” called the judge doll from its shelf in the closet.
“What is all this,” I demanded, “the Portuguese space program?” I couldn’t help chuckling at my wit.
“Don’t laugh, tourist,” it answered. “Portugal has a great history of exploration. The Portuguese were first to sail around the world, the first Europeans to reach South America and Japan. We’re merely carrying on the tradition to explore the heavens.”
“With a cardboard spaceship and porcelain clowns?”
“We’re also a small country. Our space exploration budget is pretty small. This is all we can afford. Besides, everybody’s sick of those clown dolls. This is a good way to get rid of them.”
“You’re going to inflict those things on the universe by having them invade other worlds? Perhaps upsetting the balance of nature on those planets causing untold suffering and disgust at having to live with those stupid Portuguese dolls?”
A pouty frown came over the judge’s face. “Well, when you put it that way, of course it sounds like a bad thing.”
“By the way, how can a cardboard space ship fly without an engine?”
“We just use the old economist’s trick; we assume an engine. In the European Union, they do that kind of thing all the time.”
Determined to save the universe from an invasion of porcelain clowns, I steeled my resolve. “I can’t let you do this!” I threw myself at the space ship to stop it, but the triceratops put its foot on me and held me down. Despite its bulk, it was surprisingly gentle. I had discovered another secret of history – the dinosaurs went extinct because they were too nice.
So, we settled down to wait for liftoff. And wait. And wait. This was beginning to seem familiar.
Eventually, the porcelain clowns all emerged from the space ship and marched over to the judge’s closet. There was a lot of whispering and milling around and then they all climbed back into the toy box.
The judge sighed. “Put the box back on its shelf.”
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“The aerospace bureaucracy all went to lunch. We can’t get launch approval today. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
Once again, the Portuguese bureaucracy had triumphed! I should have known they wouldn’t get around to a space launch this soon. Nothing happens in Portugal without waiting. As Barbara and I have discovered, the key word for life in Portugal is “patience.”
The light inside the space module became suddenly brighter, blindingly so. The beeping sound increased to a deafening screech. All the toy figures rushed back into the closet in a panic and slammed the doors. I battered at the doors begging them to let me in, but to no avail. There was a terrible explosion and I lost consciousness.
When I awoke, the sun was coming in through the window. The space ship was still there in the corner. I opened the closet doors and saw only a box of assorted toys and some plastic dolls on a shelf.
So, I made coffee. It was another day in Portugal.