Oporto Me Oh My Oh: 10 Outobro ’17

There were hordes of people in Oporto.  I mean hordes.  Germans and Brits and French and Spanish and at least one Estonian, we know because she told us so in very good English; and I’m sure there were other nationalities I didn’t recognize.  Now I know what the Roman Empire looked like when the barbarians overran it.  Crowds and crowds of people wearing Bermuda shorts and helmets with horns sticking out, carrying battle axes in one hand and iPhones in the other to take pictures.

Lots of Americans were included, more than I imagined were ever in Portugal considering the number who asked me before we left the US where Portugal is.  Either they found it on a map somehow or they all got on the wrong plane thinking they were going to Hawaii and were dumped here by mistake.


Porto is a tale of two cities. The one tourists visit is plastered against the cliffs overlooking the Douro River.  Wherever you walk, you’re going straight up.  Even when you walk back down you’re going up; don’t ask me how it happens, I don’t know, but it’s true.  On one side of the river is Oporto, and on the other Vila Nova de Gaia which exists solely for the reason of selling port wine. 

To get from one side to the other you walk across a bridge.  To get to the bridge, pedestrians climb about 15 flights of rough, irregular stone steps dating back to the 12th century.  From the top, you can see young men on the upper bridge spans hanging out (literally) and diving into the water.  It’s sort of Portugal’s answer to the Acapulco cliff divers; but, in this case, I think they’re all searching for a way to get across the river besides climbing more steps. 


The riverfront along Vila Nova de Gaia is lined with the cellars of every major vintner of Port wine in existence.  There are names like Sandeman, Taylor, Cockburn, Graham’s and Croft’s, which I’ve seen on labels in the liquor store but never bought any because I didn’t know what the heck they were.  Well, they all make Port wine and they’re all British companies


Back in the 17th century England (they called it England back then, none of that Great Britain or UK stuff) went to war with France, it never occurring to them they might have a problem importing French wine.  They had to change to Portuguese wine instead, which in those days must have tasted somewhere between Gatorade and cleaning vinegar.  To keep it from spoiling on the ship over they laced it with brandy which stopped the fermentation process and kept it sweet.  They decided they like it that way and an accident of history was born. 

So now you visit the town for tastings of port, which you can do in any number of ways from a tour of the cellar to an elaborate dinner and show featuring non-stop pouring.  We chose the simplest way, sitting at a café and paying 25 euros for several glasses of different types of the stuff.  It tasted pretty good, a lot better than the version they bottle in the US, and helped us face the prospect of climbing up to the bridge to go back across the river.


The Douro part of Oporto is a closely packed area built over several centuries of the city’s existence.  Like most urban areas in Europe, the buildings have been gutted and renovated so many times it’s hard to tell where one rebuilding leaves off and the next one begins.  Even the most modern hotels and office buildings are constructed within the confines of structures going back hundreds of years. 

Looking at it from a distance — say, while sitting at a table in Vila Nova de Gaia drinking your third glass of port — the view is of a hodgepodge of buildings with traditional clay tile roofs leaning against each other all over the river bluffs.  At several points along the way there are sections of the original medieval stone walls of the city.  There’s a model of the old city in the Casa de Infante, a museum built over the ruins of an original Roman building and said to have more recently been the birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator.  For those whose European history is shaky, he’s the guy who invented Europe’s worldwide exploration to South America, India, Japan and Southeast Asia.

The model shows where the city walls were in the 12th century and then expanded in the fourteenth, as well as those enclosing the old Jewish ghetto.  It’s impressive to then go out and visit scraps of walls that still exist from the Middle Ages.


The other city in Oporto is laid out on the flat land to the North of the river reaching westward to the sea.  It’s a modern metropolis of wide boulevards and high rises which serves as Portugal’s industrial center.  With its ultra-modern architecture and palm trees lining the avenues, this part of Oporto looks like a city in South America. 


Oporto is defined by its six bridges spanning the Douro.  The oldest is the railroad bridge from the eighteen eighties designed  by students of Gustav Eiffel, he of the famous tower in Paris.  That’s the one you have to climb up to walk across.  Not to be outdone, a later one that looks quite similar was designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself. The newest is a modern suspension bridge that sits just inside the river mouth spilling into the Atlantic ocean. All told, Oporto’s bridges are the main transportation link between the Northern and Southern halves of the country.


A flotilla of tourist boats ply the river, the most popular one called the six-bridge tour because that’s how far it goes.  If you’d rather commit a full day to a river tour, you can take one up the Douro into the heartland; for that matter, there are hotel boats for multi-day trips as well.  The river is pretty much full of traffic all the time – boats of all dimensions, kayakers, seagulls, and even a misdirected German Shepherd guided to shore one day by the naval patrol.  Yet, it remains too narrow to accommodate the giant container ships we see on the Tagus River in Lisbon and our own Sado in Setubal.

Oporto’s got its share of buildings to see, including the old stock exchange, the Palacio da Bolsa, which is best known for its ballroom.  Barbara and I used to own a couple of Arthur Murray Dance studios.  I wish someone had suggested to me then the idea of combining chacha lessons and stock trading.  The commissions would have amounted to a lot more money than we made off dance classes.


There’s also the Crystal Palace, an arena the city fathers built as a hockey venue.  The rationale behind that is probably lost to history. Perhaps it was because there were so many people returning from decades of exile in Canada, where they went to escape the fascist Salazar regime.  Apparently though, the Portuguese-Canadians didn’t spend a lot of time learning to ice skate, because they never played any hockey at the Crystal Palace.  In fact, when you mention it to them, they usually respond by saying, “Eh?”  We enjoyed walking through the gardens past a festival of bookseller kiosks, but nobody was playing hockey.   

There’s a concert hall designed to look like a building in Barcelona, and a street designed to look like one in Paris.  Kind of suggests a lack of self-esteem on the part of the city planners.

Otherwise, there’s mostly a lot of churches, probably more churches here than there are cheese hats in Wisconsin.  Every street corner’s got a church full of statues and walls covered in gold.  All told, there’s probably enough gold to wipe out Portugal’s debt to the World Monetary Fund, which is saying something.

It’s all evidence of the Roman Catholic Church’s domination of Europe over the centuries; the churches are advertisements for its power and how it lorded over (pun intended) not only the people but even the kings and armies who ruled the individual nations.  I assume all these churches were built by rulers who wanted to get on the pope’s good side, whether God was involved in the deal or not.  It’s fun to imagine all the barons and baronets and dukelets and kinglets getting together in the Papal locker room to compare the size of their cathedrals.


Unlike in Southern Portugal with its fried cuttlefish and grilled sardines, we weren’t wild about the food.  Oporto’s main claims to fame are francesinhas and stewed tripe.  A francesinha is basically a croque monsieur, which in turn is basically a hopped up grilled cheese sandwich, and then they pour a spicy tomato sauce all over it.  It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t cross the Atlantic to have one. 

Tripe, which as any graduate student of animal husbandry knows is part of a cow’s stomach, became a delicacy here during one of the wars when the navy requisitioned all the city’s food supplies.  The only thing left to eat was the parts of the slaughtered animals the military were too intelligent to take with them.  Over time, people convinced themselves they liked the stuff, and the fiction has survived to the present day.  There are plenty of people here with excellent taste whose eyes roll back in their heads when they talk about how delicious it is. 

To our less sophisticated palates, tripe tastes – how can I put this delicately? – like a cow’s stall smells if you forget to clean it for a couple months.  It reminds me of a story from my childhood about a kid who made soup out of the cat’s litterbox and fed it to his little sister.  At the time, I thought the idea pretty funny; but I’m glad I never tried it, given my two sisters’ vast capacity for revenge. 

I suppose tripe could be made palatable smoked or maybe pickled.  Nevertheless, I’m not planning to touch it again unless the Portuguese navy invades our flat and empties out our refrigerator while at the same time closing all the grocery stores.  Maybe not even then.

Oporto is certainly a beautiful city.   When we told our Portuguese friends about visiting there, they reacted with something bordering on reverence — and with good reason.    It encapsulates the history and culture not only of Portugal but of European civilization in general as well as any place on the continent.  

It’s interesting, impressive, instructive.  It’s neither as decadent as Sintra with its catalog of lavish palaces nor as oppressively touristy, even if it is full of foreigners.  Still, we found it austere and a little formal.  I kept having the feeling that if I touched the wrong thing a security guard would materialize to make me pay for it. 

I guess Oporto’s a place you have to warm up to – or it to you.  We’ll definitely try it again some time to further develop our acquaintance.

Maybe it’s just that, as we pass the first anniversary of our residence in Portugal, we still feel like outsiders.  It’s not only about studying the language, eating  the food, hearing the unique style of music known as fado.  It’s about being part of the turbulent history and sharing the experience of growing up in this part of the world.

Actually, this is part of the reason we came here.  I think it makes us more human.  We come from a country of immigrants, yet for no particular reason immigrants have been hit with some animosity lately.  But that everyone could have the opportunity to feel the way we do  in Portugal.  It might help us be more tolerant.  

Até logo.


Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Leisure travel freedom, Living abroad, road trip, Uncategorized, writing

View from another’s shoes


I was young
Lively curious
Loving the outdoors
Because it nurtured me

I was young
Fragile brittle
Hating classes and books
Because they humiliated me

As more was expected
My Self became squashed
Tumbling ever deeper
Into “idiot” label abyss

Cell-defense, self-defense
I’ll bully, I’ll badger, I’ll blow hard
So you won’t know
So I can forget

When you strike back
It’s too harsh
I crumple, I’m crushed
I am laid open

I am a pile of tears and whimpers
In private
Convinced I’m not good enough

I’ll just be louder, meaner
I can scare it away
I’ll just deaden my senses
I can escape it

But it always survives
The hatred of me by me
It aches, it burns, it’s excruciating
I endure the life sentence
Of being in my own company

~Barbara Miller


Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Living abroad, writing

Skin Game


The skin separates from the onion
After losing moisture
And drying out
It breaks free, becoming papery thins
That scamper out the openings
Of their wire basket home
Floating weightlessly to the floor
When the breeze breezes through
They dance across my white tiles
Until the wind corrals them
By the room’s edge
A bother, a nuisance
It just adds to the dirty
What’s that internet?
Twenty uses for onion skins
I hear a snicker from the corner
~Barbara Miller
Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Living abroad, writing

Dog Days And Dog Poets: 31 Agosto ’17

Portugal recently celebrated the feast day for Saint Roche, the patron saint of dogs, which is one theory why this time of summer is called the dog days.  It’s certainly the slow time in Portugal.  Everything shuts down in August.  Our language school, swimming pool, restaurants, even the doctor’s office closes its doors.

The weather has been intensely hot and dry, such that wildfires have raged all over the country and more than 60 people have been killed.  Even the New York Times had an article a couple weeks ago about Portugal’s fires.  Seems the entire timber industry is given over to eucalyptus trees because they’re fast growing.  The problem is they’re full of oil so they burn easily.  Next time you pick up a vial of eucalyptus oil, think about it.


Not long ago we watched a fire just on the edge of town from our balcony.  A big famous luxury hotel had to be evacuated and a main highway out of town was closed.  One day we had to shut our windows because clouds of smoke drifted over the city from a fire up North.

July and August are also the holiday season in Europe, which in Portugal means the beaches and tourist towns are jammed with people.  We were cautioned about the crowds and so are waiting until next week for a trip up North to Oporto, Portugal’s second city.  The beaches are pretty much blanketed – pun intended – by sunbathers who stake out territories in the morning and keep them all day.

The question is, since we’ve heard so many people complain about the crowds and recommend staying home during the season, who are all the mobs of tourists out there?  My theory is the Europeans just trade countries – the British and French all come to Portugal, the Portuguese go to the UK and Spain, the Spanish to Germany, Germans to France and so on.

Even the government – heck, especially the government — shuts down in August.  Why is it you can never find a bureaucrat when you need one?  (Although we ran into the Setúbal mayor last weekend – at a fair.  Nice lady, even if she is a Communist.)

Which is why not very much has been going on lately.  We did spend an afternoon at Albarquél beach on the Sado River here in Setúbal with our friends Milu and Dave.  Unlike some other beaches in the Lisbon region, the water on the Sado is clear and clean – but it’s also freezing!

Back In Touch With Jules

Referencing the dog days takes me back earlier in the summer to our stay with Jules the
Labrador Retriever.  We got off to kind of a rocky start that week, and I guess I’m at fault
for that.

Like most in the public eye, Jules is skeptical about those who exploit her position for
personal gain.  Perhaps this is why she had become noticeably aloof from me when Barbara
and I were put in care of her while her companion Rita went to the US a couple months

I had previously interviewed Jules on her insights about Portugal, in which she criticized relationships in this country between the human and canine populations.  However, I failed to fact check it at the time, assuming Jules would not object to what I had written.

Boy, was I wrong.  This fact was painfully obvious upon meeting her again in Cascais.  Her greeting was noticeably frosty,

“Where ya’ been, bro?” Said with with a sour expression, pointing up 16the irony of the overly familiar greeting.

“You got me in a lot of trouble, you know.”  It seems criticism she leveled about a breakdown in Portugal of the pack structure so important to canines, had caused a lot of resentment in the park.  When some Portuguese dogs read translations of the post, she lost a lot of friends.


Ella the poodle

The tide turned when she was pressed into a confrontation with her old nemesis Ella, some kind of poodle mix and one of the fastest and strongest local animals.  Ella had a habit of stealing balls and frisbees from other dogs and she was usually able to outrun most of them in their races around the park.  She also tended to butt other dogs out of the way whenever she wanted.

The other dogs were unhappy to have such a bully in their midst.  She had taken advantage of the breakdown in pack organization to take over as leader but things weren’t going well (similar to recent events in the US involving the rise of a certain person whose name we won’t mention).

Finally, Jules had enough.  One day when Ella started pushing some of the other dogs
around, Jules jumped on her and, despite the fact the two are both females, started humping her.  This of course shamed Ella in the scents of the other dogs and left her an object of ridicule from then on.  The others were all so grateful that Jules was welcomed back in and became de facto leader of a group of other yellow Labs.

Pack Leader

The Lab Gab, as it’s dubbed informally, is an international caucus including British, French and German Labs along with Jules and the Portuguese.  After a few days of accompanying her to the nearby dog park where she spends her time interacting with the group, she began to open up about her recent activities. Whatever she pretends, Jules is way too sociable an animal to keep quiet for very long.

“What would you say,” I asked her, “is your main objective in organizing the Yellow Lab
group?  By the way, what do you call it – a caucus, a Lab Gab, a pack – what?”

“It’s my crew, bro.”

“Okay, your crew.  What’s the objective?”



“We like to sniff things.”

“What kind of things?”

“Oh, y’know, fire hydrants, each other’s crotches, important stuff like that. There’s a patch of sticky stuff up the street we sniff every time we go by there.”

I had noticed that patch while escorting her to the park for her morning meeting. It looked pretty disgusting, a long lasting remnant of something rotten that she not only sniffed every time we went by but insisted on licking until I had to fight her away from it with the leash.

“Why do you do all that licking?” I asked.

“So we know what things are.”

Changing the subject, I asked her what the group did at its meetings.

“We usually run across the lawn over that way.”  She tossed her head to indicate the

“Then what do you do?”

“We stop and run in the other direction.”

“Then what?”

“We jump up and down.  Then we wrestle.”

I’ve seen them wrestle.  One of them raises up its front legs and brings them down
on someone else, then they both fall down on the ground and roll around a while.  Then one of them forgets what they’re wrestling about and starts rolling back and forth on its back to scratch while waving its feet in the air.

“What would you say is the overarching goal of your group?”

“Chewing things.  Also, pooping.  And then chewing the poop.”

OK, so I didn’t get very far with this.  However, I later listened in to one of Jules’ daily
missives to her crew, and I’ve reproduced it here.  I had wondered why she refers to her lectures as “raps”.   It’s because, I discovered, that’s what they are:

“We all get together and we smell each other,
sister and brother find things to discover,
We run and we jump and we tussle and we bustle.
The dog who gets the ball ain’t the dawg with the muscle but the one with the hustle.

“We’re sniffin’, we’re riffin’, we’re smellin’ our world
Everything’s a mystery, it’s all a curiosity.
We nuzzle with our muzzles till we figure out the puzzles.

“We’re on the hunt for stuff to chew, it’s kind of like a job we do
It’s our nature to be driven, it’s how we know we’re livin’.
We don’t know what we’re learnin’ but our DNA is churnin’
It keeps our noses burnin’ whichever way we’re turnin’ but we never sort it out.

“When it’s time we be done with our play, we go off and break away,
Head for home down the alley way.
Where it smells familiar and we dine on paté
Then hit the hay (if I can use a cliché),
Lickin’ where we’re spayed till another day.


To anyone who doesn’t believe dogs can rap, I admit my chats with Jules are subject to some freedom of interpretation.  After all, talking with a dog, even purebred, involves a considerable amount of nonverbal communication.  In addition to barking, there’s a lot of whining, moaning, snorting, tail wagging, and crotch sniffing going on.

I believe, however, we’ve reached a level of understanding whereby I can interpret her
moods and body language.  For example, if she rears her head suddenly and one ear goes
out, she’s probably saying, “I wish you’d get out of my way so I can get to that stuff behind you.”   If she turns and looks over her shoulder then shakes her head a little, she’s saying, “Wait a minute while I snap at that fly biting my butt.”  If she puts her head on the ground facing forward and blinks her eyes, she’s saying, “Can we talk about this later, bro? It’s too hot and I can’t be bothered.”

If you want the literal transcription of what she said, here it is.  If you don’t like how I
translated it, well then, do it yourself:

Jules’ Rap Real

“Crrrh  phoof , scrishhh scrishhh, Yuuayyuahh!
(Scratch scratch) (head toss), GrrrOwwuh.
(head shake), pfuvhnuh, Raowwwuh, sniff.
GrrrOwwuh . . .  pufh! Sniff . . . Uh! Uh! Uh!
Farrrt! Scrinch, Yuff . (fire hydrant nuzzle)
pffpff  pffpff pffpff pffpff, (chew-spit) (tongue droop)

Schnuvvv! Scratch . . . , Thump, (bite flea) Yaoww!”

Jules The Literary Sensation

As a matter of fact, Jules recently revealed she’s developed a serious interest in writing poetry.  Apparently, she found in a gutter an old copy of the book Sonnets From the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the one with the famous poem “How Do I Love Thee?”  By the time Jules finished chewing it into little pieces she had ingested several of the poems and was hooked.

She has therefore started her own collection which she’s titled Sonnits For The Portugeese.  Get it?  “For The Portugeese?”  Well, I think it’s funny.  Anyway, here’s just one example of her work:

When light shines in my eyes, I wake to see it bouncing on my bed,
My ears flap winged flies away my head.
The holes behind my legs get full of poop
Anon it’s time for me to head on out the stoop.
I summon one with two legs less than me
To let it know it needs to let me free.
Around myself she puts that thing she calls a leesh
And out we go into the park where I can get relief.
I know the way, I go there every day
To where I poop and pee and run and play.
When there we turn and head on thru’ the grass
And trees, the place whereunto pass the members
Of my crew already there who bark at me
And call me late but lick me anyway.

The reader will note that Jules’ sonnet fails to maintain any of the traditional 14-line
sonnet rhyme schemes, neither the Petrarchan, Spencerian nor Shakespearian.  It starts off in Shakespearian iambic pentameter but then ends up int a monotonous A-B- A-B
repetition.  Still, it’s not bad for a Labrador Retriever.

Some may criticize Jules’ poetry as limited, since it’s mostly about chewing, smelling and pooping, but I disagree.  I mean, Elizabeth B. Browning only ever wrote about things like love and stuff, and everybody makes a big deal about her.

Ordinarily, Labs are more into social interaction than intellectual pursuits. Poodles make
the best poets because they combine the intelligence and refined sensitivity; but nobody
likes poodles because they’re so . . . well, y’know . . . “ARTSY”.  Border Collies make
talented writers, but instinctively they’re more into outdoor activities – it’s hard to keep
them chained to a desk.  There are a lot of Border Collies in the Cowboy Poets Association,  but I think that’s kind of a waste.

That’s why Jules is unusual in the canine universe for her literary talent. Barbara and I
have encouraged her to continue pursuing a writing career. We look forward to all the
insights she has to offer about the expat life in Portugal.

The August holiday and summer heat are finally at a close.  Barbara and I are
heading for Oporto, so we’ll see what’s happening in them there parts.

Até logo.                    IMG_0519

Editor’s Note: Our regular readers met Jules several posts ago when Wayne featured her with quotes and paraphrases. Jules was not entirely happy with the portrayal in those posts and has put her paw down to demand that only she be the one to write the posts that featurjulese her. After an extensive vet-ing process followed by negotiations involving kibble, bones (marrow in) and a slobbery ball, we here at xpat-whimz.blog are proud to announce an additional, if somewhat occasional, contributor, Jules. 
Disclaimer: Jules’ opinions are strictly her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors.



Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Living abroad, Uncategorized, writing

Chance Encounter

Last month, when my sister visited, we took a personal tour of the Arrábida natural park with Nuno Duarte.  He is very professional and also has a big heart.  This is his story of an encounter with an abandoned baby bird that he found at Lapa da Santa Margarida.

Chance Encounter


Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Living abroad, writing


IMG_0678 (Edited)

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…

no longer

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Living abroad, writing

a poetry aside

On a morning walk the other day, I commented on a scene we encountered.  Wayne said, “that’s very poetic, you should write that down.”  And so I did.  He helped me considerably as an editor and advisor.  I think I have some more coming.  Maybe there’s another writer in the family. Go figure.




Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Living abroad, writing
%d bloggers like this: