SINTRA SOJOURNEY: 29 June ’17

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. 

The Neighborhood

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, 1where 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. 

Transport Bazaar

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.

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Posted in Leisure travel freedom, Living abroad, road trip, writing

FAME: 4 June ’17

 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 IMG_0086 (Edited)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

With the two Suzanas at Casa da Baia

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.”  

Até logo.

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Call Of The Wild: 25 April ’17

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.  17When 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.

LEASHLESS

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.

10

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.14

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.

OUR NEIGHBORS

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?”

JULES INTRODUCED

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.

“Want food.”

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?”

“What’s Portugal?”

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”

“Different.”

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.

“Poop.”             16

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.

JULES OPINES

“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 15relationship 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.”

ANOTHER VIEW

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 8dogs 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.

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Toy Box: 5 Mar. ’17

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 pl20170305_130958ace.  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. 

20170304_133959“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.20170304_13412920170302_122152

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 20170305_131153triceratops 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.

Até logo.

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Cabo Espichel

We’re finally emerging from the physical and mental cavern that is winter.  In Portugal, winter is the rainy season.  For two months, our whole world sits under a somber gray blanket of rain.  Our sleep at night is disturbed by the pounding of water falling on the roof, sounding like it’ll crash through at any moment.

It’s nothing like where we came from; there’s no snow in Portugal except in one isolated area of highlands in the North, and the temperature never goes below the upper 40’s F/8-9 C.  Still, winter is winter and it’s designed to be unpleasant. 

Barbara detailed her experience a few weeks ago getting caught in a downpour when our friend Rita came to visit.  We’ve been caught out a couple of times like that when it took only a minute or so to become completely drenched and no apparel short of a deep sea submarine could keep the water out.  

This is a Mediterranean, that is semi-tropical, climate.  There’s nothing but rain for two months a year and then the sun comes out for the remaining ten.  Just in the past few days, the heavens have cleared and we return to the brightest sky we’ve known anywhere in the world.

We celebrated with the first opportunity we’ve had for an excursion.  That’s courtesy of Max, a young man we met on the Americans in Portugal website who also happens to live here in Setúbal.  He’s been in this country going on four years — came to wander around Europe for a few months and met a girl while passing through.  Now he’s got a three-year old daughter, in-laws in Azeitão and a thriving chiropracty practice. 

Max was horrified to learn we hadn’t spent more time outside of Setúbal exploring the surrounding countryside.  He announced that he loves introducing visitors to his favorite places and invited us to come along with him for a drive along the coast the following Sunday.

He took us on the national road through the Arrábida Natural Forest to Cabo Espichel, right where the Sado River empties into the ocean.  The view was spectacular.  We stood over a cliff a good 4000 feet dropping straight down to the water.  Like what seems everywhere in Portugal, the site is inhabited by a 17th century convent surrounded by conical chapels covered in tiles spread over the landscape.  The city of Lisbon was laid out before us to the North, the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean to the West and South.  It was one of those days when the sky seemed to suck up all the colors of the universe as the imprisoning grayness fell away.

We took a different route back home, along the top of the Serra da Arrábida , stopping to overlook the Convento do Arrábida, and enjoy a breathtaking view of Troia nestled in the river.  It’s no Rockies, but our ears popped on the way up.

Portugal is supposed to be a small country, about the size of Indiana in the USA.  It didn’t feel like that at the Cabo.  Rather, it felt like we could see the entire world from where we stood.  Given that, Max’s comment was striking.

“This is nothing,” he proclaimed. “The whole country looks like this.  This is just a drop in the bucket.”  We’re looking forward to exploring the rest of the bucket.

Conversely, if there’s anything that can top the beauty of the landscape, it’s the warmth and generosity of the people.  People like Max, a charming individual who chose to devote an entire Sunday to playing tour guide for a couple of yokels like us.  We keep running into such people.  Some of whom we’ve previously mentioned on this site, and a number of others overdue for citation. 

Kinda makes a body humble.

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Make new friends, but keep the old (ancient Brownie saying)

I love technology.  It makes my life better.  It has enabled our transition to life in Portugal beyond comprehension.  I can stay in touch with friends and family by text, audio or video.  I have unlimited sources of entertainment in the forms of shows, movies, music, books and newspapers.  I can file my income taxes and research how to renew my residency permit.  Recently, I even attended a class on how to design and prepare files for 3D printing – and then did it!  Every day, technology expands my world further and connects me to more people and information.

Of course, it can be so frustrating you just want to curl up in a corner, whimpering like a wounded puppy…will this page ever load? I’ve been shut out again? There is no button for that, dammit!  Nonetheless, in the great Excel spreadsheet of life, the pluses far outnumber the minuses, which leads me to this post.

In the year before our leap, both Wayne and I did a hefty amount of online research about visas, climates, what to pack, etc.  I discovered a FaceBook Page called Americans in Portugal.  It’s comprised of expats currently living in Portugal (some for ten years or more) and wannabes (as I was).  It is a healthy exchange of sincere questions and knowledgeable, practical answers.  The information I found there was instrumental in helping us navigate an assortment of  bureaucratic hurdles.  Now that we are living in Portugal, I try to contribute answers whenever I can.

We lived in Denver for 4 ½ years in an area called Washington Park.  Wayne and I often walked to a nearby area called Bonnie Brae for the great handmade ice cream.  It was about a mile away.

Before we left the US, Wayne had ordered some meds through his mail subscription service.  They didn’t arrive before we left and the plan was simply that his sister would mail them to us once they arrived.  Well, hold on there, girl scout!  That thar ain’t gonna happen no way no how.  You cannot ship prescription drugs out of the country via any carrier – USPS, FedEx, DHL – no, no.

Looking for a Plan B, I turned to the AmP page, inquiring as to how else we might get these drugs.  I got a response from a woman who was living in – of all places – Bonnie Brae, and would be arriving in Lisbon within 2 weeks!  No prob – she will pack them in her suitcase for us and bring them over.  She retrieved the meds from Wayne’s sister and did just that.

We met Rita and her dog, Jules, in Lisbon about a week after her arrival.  We walked around, had a great lunch (TG she likes red wine, too) and visited her apartment.  We made a new friend here in Portugal who just happened to have been our neighbor for 4 ½ years in Denver.

Rita has since come to visit us in Setúbal so that we could introduce her to our town by the river.  We enjoyed a tasty grilled fish lunch at our favorite restaurant (Baluarte da Avenida) and toured some points of interest.  A torrential downpour let loose as we were heading home and soaked us to the skin!  In a few weeks, she will be settling in Cascais, but we still plan on visiting the Arrábida together.  We are of the same generation, have similar interests and similar motives for being here. The AmP page didn’t just facilitate a drug exchange, it brought people (and dog) together.

Technology is good.

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MARIO BATTLES THE MACHINE: 6 Feb, ’17

As of a couple of weeks ago, Barbara and I are official members of the Portuguese Permanent Residents Club, with membership cards and everything.  At the risk of violating security, I’m going to reveal the Portuguese secret handshake, which is to kiss each other on both cheeks for women, and for men to, well, shake hands.  There’s also a secret password, which is to shout “Olá! Boa tarde!” at the top of one’s voice to everyone you pass on the street.  You don’t actually pronounce the “e” at the end of the word “tarde”; you get to the “d” and then kind of let your mouth flop open for the time it would take to pronounce the “e” if you were going to do it.  Which you’re not.

PAPER TRAIL

To get official status, we had to assemble approximately ten kilograms of paper attesting to various aspects of our existence.  Not surprisingly, the Portuguese government surprisingly wants assurance we have enough income to not be a drag on the economy, aren’t fugitives from justice in our own country, and are capable of walking across the street without stopping in the middle having forgotten where we were going and thus holding up traffic.

On the other hand, it’s questionable how much of the material we were required to provide really told them anything. For instance, we had to prove how long we’ve been here and that we came when we said we would on our original visa application, which we had to get in the USA before coming here so we could apply for a residency permit when we got here.  In other words, we had to get a permit to apply for a permit. Get it?

Anyway, you’d think the fact that we were standing there in person would be sufficient proof that we were actually in the country and had been here at least as long as it took to find our way to the office.  But no, Portugal wanted proof on paper.

There was also a place to check on the application form that we had demonstrated Portuguese language skills.  I get that one, but here again, we were standing there speaking English because we didn’t know a word of Portuguese.  At least, I don’t know a word of Portuguese.  We’ve been taking language lessons together but, so far, Barbara’s the only one of us to have benefited.  She’s picked up the language quite well, while I can only say two things in Portuguese – “Does anyone in this place speak English?” and “Antonio’s mother is a pineapple.”  If I don’t get a response from the first one, I go for the second.  It’s a real conversation starter.

Turns out, it didn’t matter.  It didn’t matter whether we could ask where the restroom is or how much our dinner cost or if this was the bus to Lisbon.  It only mattered that we had receipts from the language school we attend.  If we couldn’t speak the language, at least we had invested money in the local education system.  Had some skin in the game, so to speak.

Therefore, whenever the interviewer asked a question in Portuguese, Barbara answered it while I held the receipt up in front of my face like a talisman and muttered my two sentences.  I have no idea what anyone said in response but apparently it was acceptable to the government of Portugal.

One part of the application process that gives me a macabre kind of glee is the requirement for health insurance.  The regulations say you need coverage up to 30,000 euros, not for actual medical care but for repatriation of physical remains. That is to say, if you die while in the country, they want to know there’s money to ship your body back where you came from.

...and don't the cemeteries always have the best view?

See…the cemeteries are full!

Portugal must be afraid they don’t have enough room to dispose of all the dead bodies who pile upon their shores, so they want to make sure your former nationality will take your corpse back.  My question is, what happens if they don’t want you back?  After all, they have their own dead bodies to deal with, and they’re all people who didn’t try to go somewhere else.  Why should they bother with a cadaver of someone who insulted their own homeland by leaving it?

I wonder if there’s maybe a special insurance policy to have your carcass dumped overboard from one of the fishing boats that go out to sea every morning.  I bet the fishermen would go for a chance like that to make a little money on the side, or actually it would be over the side.  I don’t think a policy like that would need to be anything like €30,000.  There’d be plenty left over for your relatives to throw a really good party.

Anyway, we carried to the appointment a backpack of paper sufficient to keep a home furnace going for a winter evening, only to realize that, other than our passports and current bank statements, the substance of it all wasn’t really the point.  We could have carried a few reams of blank paper for all the interest anyone showed in it.

No, as it turns out, the point of the exercise is the exercise itself.  Or to put it more accurately, the obstacle course.  Or to put it even more accurately, the trial by endurance.  It seems the Portuguese government is sensitive about their residency.  They want to believe that you really, really care about them, that you love Portugal enough to go to that much trouble to convince them.

BUREAUCRACY CENTRO

Fortunately, we had already some warning of what to expect — when we opened a bank account, when we bought our internet plan, when we got the certificate from the city clerk verifying that we were living in the town.  Every aspect of life in Portugal, in the public sector or the private, is bureaucratized.  Whether you purchase utilities or apply for any license or certificate, be prepared to wait.  The key word to life in Portugal is “patience.”  The key action to being seen at all is “take a number.”

Our scheduled appointment for the interview was at 10:30 AM.  Understand however, that an appointment in Portugal is not an appointment for the interview itself; it is rather an appointment to begin waiting for the interview.  The process begins with trying to find the SEF office.  SEF is short for Serviço De Estrangeiros E Fronteiras, but everyone just calls it SEF for obvious reasons.  You’d think a department with such an impressive name would be housed in an equally impressive facility.  No such luck.

When we got to where it was supposed to be we found ourselves in front of what looked like an abandoned building.  There was no sign; the only way we guessed we were in the right place was the number of people going in and out.  The government seemed to be trying to hide the place, perhaps to test our powers of apperception. Or maybe they were ashamed of it.  They certainly had a right to be ashamed of it, considering what a dump the place was.

You know that color you sometimes see that’s actually a non-color?  If you remember it after seeing it, you think it was kind of a pink, but then you think about it again and this time you remember it as gray; and the next time it’s brown; but you’re never really certain what color it is?  Well, that’s the color of the SEF office.  It may have been an actual color at one time but certainly well before the office was commandeered to represent the people of Portugal.

Walking into the building we faced a waiting room crammed full of people who were, in fact, waiting.  The lucky ones had chairs, of which there was a shortage; the rest leaned against a long shelf built into the wall.  They all had a kind of vacant slack-jawed expression on their faces, suggesting they’d been there awhile.

When I use the word “we”, I’m including our dear friend Mario, husband of our real estate agent Paula.  Since we arrived in Portugal three months previously, Mario and Paula had devoted an heroic amount of time, the cumulative equivalent of several days, helping us get settled.  Never having laid eyes on us before and knowing nothing about us, they have nevertheless treated us like members of their family.

Besides finding us the apartment we’d stayed in since coming to Setúbal, they gave up a day of their lives to drive to Lisbon to pick us up so we wouldn’t have to wrestle our baggage on the train to get here.  Then Mario accompanied us on the aforementioned trips to the bank and Internet service offices.  Most recently, they both went with us to the local city clerk’s office, known as the Junta Freguesia, to vouch that we were residents of the city so we could get a certificate to that effect, which we needed for today’s interview.   Additionally, Paula and Mario have given us advice, helped us find services and provided us with critical items of information to help us find our way around.

Mario is a master at waiting.  Each of these trips took the better part of a work day, and he steadfastly stayed by our side through each of them.  He interpreted for us and guided us through the process each time; without his help we would never have survived up till now.  His assistance proved critical to getting us through this day.

Barbara and I were certainly the only Americans there that day, but there were a number of expatriates from other countries and spouses of Portuguese nationals seeking residency.  Several were from Serbia, Croatia and the Ukraine.  Now that Brexit is in the works, there’s also a wave of folks from the UK who want to remain in the European Union.  And always, there’s a steady stream of Brazilians coming in.

The majority of people that day were African, with the exception of one Chinese couple and their baby.  Like other Western European countries, Portugal’s history is closely intertwined with Africa.  Its former African colonies include Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and the islands of Sao Tome and Principe.

THE HISTORY PART

Herein lies a coin with a couple of sides.  It should be noted that Portugal pretty much invented African slavery some five hundred years ago.  They learned about slavery from the Arabs who invaded them in the 700’s.

The Portuguese were the first great European explorers and world colonizers.  In addition to Africa and South America, they established footholds in Macao on the Chinese subcontinent and Goa on the Indian.  The problem was that Portugal has always been a very small country.  Their ambition outstripped their ability to govern their colonies.  Supposedly, they adopted slavery from the Arabs because they didn’t have enough of their own people to develop their lands and operate their plantations.

Having perfected the practice of capturing, stealing, transporting and enslaving millions of human lives, they spread the disease to the rest of Europe and from there to the infant United States.  The former Portuguese colony of Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1888.  Students of the American Civil War know that, following the defeat of the Confederacy, a number of Southerners emigrated to Brazil and established  enclaves where they could once again live as slaveholders.  Their descendants, with American last names, still live there.

Observing the number of Africans that day in the SEF office, Mario related another side to Portuguese colonial history.  Portugal, also transported convicts to its colonies to work the plantations.  In time, they initiated a policy whereby when a convict married an African slave, both partners gained their freedom and Portuguese citizenship.  Moreover, people born in the former colonies are now and will continue to be, Portuguese citizens.

When we in North America talk about “Africans” we’re typically thinking about black faces.  In Portugal, however, we’ve met plenty of whites who consider themselves African.  These people are descended from the original European colonizers of those countries, born and brought up in Africa.  When the Salazar dictatorship finally folded in 1976, the government that followed liberated all those colonies in one dramatic measure.

The downside of that liberation was a period of chaos in which half a million European Africans were transported to Portugal leaving livelihoods, farms and homes behind. We’ve met several people our age who adamantly insist they’re African rather than Portuguese or European.  A deep sadness comes over their faces when they talk about  the homes they lost, and they speak wistfully about the beauty of their home country.

By the way, the first freely elected prime minister of Portugal, Mario Soares, recently died at age 92.  He was a leftist lawyer who defied the Salazar regime for many years, was imprisoned several times and was constantly in danger of his life during that period.  The day of his funeral was one of national mourning.

TRIAGEM

So, when we got to the SEF, we were given a number to be called, which turned out to be for only the first step in that day’s entertainment, triagem (same root as the medical term “triage”).  When our number was projected up on a screen after about an hour, a clerk reviewed our documents and fired off a series of questions.  The questions, in the great tradition of bureaucratic nonsense, turned out to be about things already answered on the documents themselves.  For example, on our financial statements, she asked whether the numbers were in dollars or euros.  With Mario’s assistance, we pointed out that the numbers with the symbol $ by them were in dollars and the ones with in euros. We were only able to deal with this because Mario was there to help.  If it hadn’t been for him, we’d have been left at the gate.  For our part, when we were called, we asked our usual question, “Você fala inglés?”, only to be met with a stony silence.

Consider, here we were in the official immigration office of the Portuguese government, charged with processing travelers from a host of foreign countries speaking several languages that don’t happen to be Portuguese, and the clerk didn’t speak English – or for that matter, French or Spanish or Ukrainian or Mandarin or any other language.

Mario was furious.  He muttered angrily about the absurdity of the situation and indignantly proclaimed about the clerk, “She doesn’t even speak good Portuguese!”  He proceeded into an imitation of her, caving his lips in and making sounds that ranged somewhere between a choking gargle and “vushvushvushvushv.”  He finished off by exclaiming in a loud voice, “I can’t understand her!”

THE LONG WAIT

Mario’s outburst did our hearts good by telling us we weren’t the only linguistically challenged people there.  However, we were a little concerned he was drawing too much attention to us.  After all, we were dealing with a bureaucracy and the cardinal rule of a bureaucracy is —

Rule # 1: DON’T STAND OUT IF YOU WANT TO SURVIVE!

We were presenting ourselves to the Portuguese government, throwing ourselves on its goodwill, assuring them we would be peaceful and upstanding citizens of the country; and the one person we had brought along to support our claim was turning into a  raging madman right before our eyes.

We slunk back into the waiting room, crouched on a bench in a corner and started speculating about whether we’d get to visit some other parts of Europe before the EU deported us back to the United States.  I’ve always wanted to see Malta; since it’s an island nation far away from the rest of the world maybe we could make it there before word of our humiliation reached them.  Then, of course, there’s Italy, where, if our experience living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the world’s second largest Italian city, is any indication, nobody would stop yelling at each other long enough to notice us.  That was probably as far as we could get before we were arrested, put in chains and shoved onto a prison scow heading for the Americas.

To our great relief, it must have been that the Triagem clerk followed another standing rule of bureaucracy –

Rule # 2: WHEN THEY START COMPLAINING, IGNORE THEM AND THEY WILL GO AWAY.

Any professional bureaucrat knows that if you don’t follow Rule # 2, you run the risk of violating Rule # 1; ergo, don’t do it.  I guess Mario knows it, too, just one more reason why he’s the guy to have on your side in this situation.

He handed us a second number slip with the number preceded by a “D”. The Triagem clerk had written “D” on our application, but we had no idea what it meant.  From Mario, we discovered that “D” signified the category of the desk where we were supposed to go next, and we had to take a number for that category and wait once again in line.

No one at Triagem had said a word about this.  If it hadn’t been for Mario, we would’ve sat there in that waiting room until they threw us out at the end of the day.  We could’ve  sat there until we shriveled up into nothing but our dried out carcasses and nobody would have mentioned anything about it.  Our desicated skeletons would become part of the décor, only noticed by small children, the only people in this day and age who pay attention to things that don’t make sense.

(Said in Portuguese)  “Mommy, why are those things taking up room on that bench?”

“Shhh. Just ignore them.  That’s what happens to Americans from eating too many Pop Tarts.”

Good thing we had our repatriation insurance. However, thanks to Mario, we had a number that entitled us to stay in the queue and hopefully get out alive.

So we waited.  And waited.

We assumed the same vacant expressions as those we saw when we first came in, and began watching the clock to see how long each person ahead of us took so we could guess when we’d be going in.  Around midday, it looked like we might make it in a half an hour or so, and be released in time to actually have some of our day left.

We waited another fifteen minutes.  It wouldn’t be long now.  More minutes passed.  We got ready to be called. But nobody called us.

Nothing was happening.  Somehow, things were stalled.  Just our luck the applicant ahead of us must’ve had some problem they were trying to resolve.  Still and all, it couldn’t be long now.

But it was. Suddenly we realized, They had all gone to lunch!

There were no replacements for the morning shift, nor any staggered lunch breaks so the office would continue doing its job.  The whole place stopped working. Nobody said anything, made any announcements, expressed any apologies to the people waiting.  We all just sat there while the bureaucrats went out for their daily dinner of grilled fish with wine.  If any of us left to get dinner for ourselves, there was a security guard there to make sure we lost our turn.

In this way, we endured, proving we were worthy of being interviewed by a funcionario of the Portuguese government.  And all this time, Mario, our hero, sat there with us as if to show us how waiting in Portugal is done properly.

We copied his every move.  When he sat back in his chair, we sat back.  When he sat up, we sat up.  When he shook his head in disgust, we shook our heads in disgust.

Then, after an hour or so, suddenly numbers appeared on the screen summoning people into the office.  A charge of electricity went through the room.  People sat up and blinked awake.

THE FINALE

Finally, after four hours waiting in the black hole of SEF, we were summoned to the inner cloister.  Because Barbara had the number ahead of me, they sat down with her and sent me out of the office, even though we were applying as a couple.  So, I waited another fifteen minutes, but by the time I was called, they had decided to input the same data for me as for her.

The good thing about when we were called in was that all the funcionarios, with a good dinner and plenty of vinho under their belts, were in very good moods, smiling and laughing at their own fallibilities, trying out their few word of English on us.  I didn’t ask Barbara for details of what they said to her – I didn’t want to know  – but we could have been international counterfeiters there to ruin the Portuguese economy, for all anyone cared by that time.  They stamped our applications, gave us forms to sign, stood us up in front of the photo machine, and sent us to wait to pay our application fee.

The interview took twenty minutes tops after four hours and fifteen minutes spent waiting.  It should be clear which part of the immigration process the government considered most important.  We had proven we could wait, which qualified us for Portuguese residency because any time in future we need to do anything official we’ll have to go through the same thing.

For us, all was forgiven, We had passed the test and were ready to get out of there. However, we had to wait a little longer while Mario went on another crusade.  It seems there’s supposed to be a system of priorities for being called for interviews.  I was actually supposed to have priority by virtue of being over 65.  Worse, Mario had spoken with several women who had small children there, one of whom was currently in the last couple of months of pregnancy, and they were definitely entitled to priority.superhero-page-0

He launched into a diatribe neither Barbara nor I could follow but was clearly taking the entire office staff and no doubt the entire Portuguese government to task for making those women wait in contravention of the law.  He was quite eloquent and entirely fearsome as a bastion of righteous indignation.

Barbara and I, not wanting to queer the deal we’d just made to be residents of the country, slipped out as quickly as we could so as not to have our status rescinded before we even made it out of the office.  We huddled outside until Mario, head held high, face shining with gallantry, sword flashing, bronze helmet capturing the sunlight, joined us proudly on the street. Indeed, he is a hero and a champion, and we are proud and grateful to know him.  I say again, we couldn’t have done it without him.

20170205_171156

Wayne wore a tie!

We received our residency cards in the mail a week later and almost immediately benefited by having them.  We went to our favorite restaurant , Baluarte da Avenida, and showed them to Michael the owner, a Portuguese citizen brought up in Canada before coming home.  When it came time to pay, I handed him my credit card.

“What, don’t you have cash?”  He’d never asked this before.

I must have looked confused.  He exclaimed with a broad smile on his face, “You’re Portuguese, now.  Locals get a 10% discount for cash.”

We made €2,50 off the deal.   It had all been worthwhile,

Every single time Michael has said, "you're gonna love it." , we have!

Celebrating at our favorite restaurant, Baluarte da Avenida with Michael and Mariano.

Até logo.

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Posted in Living abroad, travel without stuff, writing
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