Our world has been getting smaller and smaller the past few weeks, and inevitably we’re drawn to enlarge it. When we first began walking to places here in Setúbal (the Portuguese pronounce the name like “Shtewball”) every destination in town seemed like a major expedition. As we got more familiar with the area, they no longer took so long. It’s an interesting phenomenon, very Einsteinian; the first time you walk someplace, it takes 45 minutes to get there. After four or five trips, going exactly the same distance, it now takes 25 minutes. Go figure.
So, our horizons began to expand. We’d heard about Palmela, a little town a few km from Setúbal; and other places like Azeitou that’s supposed to offer the best wine and cheese in Portugal, so we began to study the bus routes. We were a bit skittish about taking this leap (so to speak). The burning question was – do you have to have exact change?
Turns out, you don’t. For that matter, the bus drivers here couldn’t be nicer in terms of making change, making sure you’re on the right bus, waiting for you to get your baggage on board. In short, customer service. On Portugal buses, little old ladies with shopping carts, dressed in shawls and severe dresses out of long ago, climb on board, start fishing for their money, chat in multi-decibel tones with the driver, waste several minutes of everyone’s time, and the driver just smiles brightly and chats back and puts up with it.
Imagine that on a bus in the States. The drivers there with sour expressions as if union rules forbid them from being nice or pretending they like their jobs and by damn they’re not going to. They’ve mastered that practiced surliness and are quick to display impatience if anyone holds up the line. Imagine a bus driver being cheerful; it just isn’t done where we’re from.
As a matter of fact, it’s the same in this country with the police. We walk by the main police station on our way to language lessons. The police always look cheerful. They smile and chat with civilians, appearing generally pleasant and relaxed. We passed by one taking time to explain in some depth to a tourist couple about how and where to avoid pickpockets.
Very unlike the sour expressions and tense attitudes of American police. Could be because they’re not being shot at all the time and haven’t been militarized to the same extent.
According to the Global Peace Initiative, Portugal is the fifth safest country in the world, after Iceland, Denmark, Austria and New Zealand. Not that they don’t have crime and occasions of violence. We were invited to lunch by two new-acquaintance couples; and, sitting at the table in the restaurant, one of the wives produced some kind of celebrity magazine for the other to read. She spent considerable time studying it in the middle of lunch, but then explained she was reading an article about a former friend who murdered two other women.
Still, this is a pretty peaceful place. As for crime, I’d rather have my pocket picked than be robbed at gunpoint. Anyway, the danger from pickpockets is overstated. It happens pretty much in large crowds like soccer games and subway rides during rush hour. You don’t actually have to clutch your wallet to your breast every time you go out on the streets.
Our first excursion by public transit was not to Palmela or another scenic destination, but to a place called Jumbo. Jumbo is a store. A really big store. Think a Wal-Mart and a Target Superstore butted up together. It’s the centerpiece of a shopping mall called Allegro, just outside of Shtewball. It’s a major destination, because one thing there’s a shortage of in this country is consumer products.
Portugal went through some really tough times in the twentieth century, and it hasn’t completely recovered yet. It was ruled from 1932 to 1974 by a fascist dictator, António Salazar, who deliberately cut Portugal off from the outside world. Not only did the country miss out on developing a modern consumer society, it didn’t even have enough food during the fifties and sixties. Sort of like North Korea today, where isolation has led to widespread poverty.
One effect of that time is that people in Portugal are short, particularly those of the generation that grew up during those years but also including many younger people who apparently inherited their genes. The women in particular are 4’ 8’’ or even less, the men often about 5’2”. If you meet someone taller, it often means their parents emigrated to other countries during this period to find work and a healthy diet.
During that time, out of a population of about 8,500,000 people, almost a million and a half left. People we meet of a certain age almost inevitably mention some number of decades they spent living in another country.
Portugal has been in the process of recovering since the dictatorship was overthrown in 1974, but that’s not much time for catchup in the grand scheme of things. One thing that’s had trouble getting off the ground is development of a consumer driven economy like the United States.
The gap has been filled to a great extent by the Chinese. Throughout the country, there are stores of varying sizes that sell consumer products of every type Every item in the store is made in China and the employees are almost entirely Chinese. The store names usually include the word “Hiper”, which I guess is one step up from “Super”; and the most ubiquitous chain is “Hiper China.”
The ships bringing in the stock for these stores are a common sight in the bay coming into Setúbal. They’re massive, far larger than standard container ships, comparable to the size of the floating cities the cruise lines have introduced in recent years.
There’s no more dramatic evidence than Hiper China of how that country has taken over the world’s manufacturing sector. They make the stuff, the rest of the world buys it. However, in the US when you buy a toaster or a flyswatter, while it may have a tag that says “Made in China”, the store is American owned. In Portugal the store is Chinese. They cut out the middle man; it’s all Chinese from production to point of sale.
There’s a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing about China taking over the world’s industries and putting American workers and those in other countries out of business. But let’s not forget they can do this because they pay their workers 25 cents an hour and fill the air in their cities full of coal dust. Good luck competing with that.
There’s certainly a lot of free enterprise in this country. Anyone who can think up a way to cop a spare euro by making something or selling something does so. From the guy who plays an upright piano on the sidewalk dressed in an eighteenth century costume complete with ruffles and wig like a failed audition for Hamilton; to the guys selling a couple of pots of razor clams they’ve waded into the river to scrape up when the tide goes out.
There’re the gypsy women in the park who all hawk the exact same shawl to ladies passing by; and the young guys who approach carrying a shopping bag with maybe a half dozen bottles of perfume and insist on asking you to look at each individual one, getting a hurt expression on their faces when you start to display impatience. Where they get these items to sell I don’t want to know.
Of the musical performers, my favorite is the Portuguese country western singer. You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to a guy with a guitar, a leather cowboy hat and several missing teeth singing off key in Portuguese about how he longs for the old homestead in Montemor-o-Novo.
There are also the self-styled parking lot attendants. In any parking lot or stretch of parking places on the street, there’s some guy waving people in to empty spaces. A driver can see the space perfectly well and is perfectly capable of getting into it unaided. Nevertheless, there’s always a guy gesturing to drivers where to park as if he’s the manager. In fact, he’s just a guy off the street who wandered by and saw nobody else was claiming that territory. As far as I can tell, the drivers all give him a coin when they get out of their cars. It’s a high-falootin kind of panhandling, pretending he’s doing something for your money.
Maybe they pay him to ward off bad luck, the kind where you come back to your car to find the windshield smashed. But no one seems particularly disturbed by this custom. Just one more eccentricity of Portugal.
Anyway, In the grand scheme of commerce, Jumbo is a big deal around here. People speak of it in hushed tones. Asked whether it’s possible to find a certain item in Setúbal, someone will whisper in a conspiratorial tone, “You can buy that at . . . Zhoomboo!”
And it is an impressive place, with rows of appliances stretching into the distance and an electronics department to rival any Best Buy store. The bacalhau section alone at Jumbo is the size of an American convenience store. Bacalhau, for the uninitiated, is dried salt cod. In the store, it’s piled high on tables in great white slabs that look like sheets of thick plastic. To cook a piece of bacalhau, you first have to soak it in water for at least 24 hours, changing the water three or four times in the process.
Bacalhau (The spelling varies slightly in different languages) fed the world for about a thousand years prior to the development of modern food preservation methods. It’s still a traditional food in the Caribbean and parts of Europe. I first ate it in Jamaica forty years ago; Barbara and I had it in Bermuda for breakfast at the hotel we stayed in on our honeymoon.
In Portugal, despite the abundance of fresh fish, bacalhau’s probably still the most common dinner table food. I’ve read there are more than a hundred recipes for how to serve it. The thing is, it tastes like shredded up cardboard that’s been soaked in old grease. People in this country must inherit a taste for it; I can’t figure any other reason why they would eat it.
Still, there’s no sane reason for people in Michigan to eat lutefisk either, but they do. There’s always someone worse off than you are.
Jumbo also has food you don’t find in the regular markets in town. Not just gourmet items and packaged foods not seen in the regular grocery stores, but also fresh produce grown in Portugal but not available in local markets.
Another consequence of the country’s stunted development is the lack of an adequate distribution system for even their own products. Vegetables grown in the Alentejo, Portugal’s major agricultural region, often don’t make it to all the other areas. Nor, of course, can they import massive quantities of produce from Chile and Mexico as the US does. When we found fresh Brussels sprouts and snowpeas at Jumbo, we snatched them up; but were disappointed that yet again there wasn’t a stalk of celery in sight.
In summary, our first big breakout from our new home town was a trip to a shopping mall, something Americans do about as often as scratching their noses. Mundane as it seems, there are cultural insights to be gleaned; and for us at the moment, it was a big deal.
After all, suppose you were traveling across the surface of Mars and came upon an American-style convenience store. Wouldn’t you be interested in stopping in?
OK, bad example. Next stop, the Castelo do Palmela.