Now that Barbara and I have our permanent Portuguese residency cards, we’re on the hunt for a long term apartment rental. The place we’re in we have for only another month until the owners come from France for their annual holiday.
It’s another interesting phenomenon about Portugal relating to the fact that the country has spawned so many expatriates. People want to be here, they dream of living in their home country. Unfortunately, they have had to take root in other countries to survive. Now they have careers and the other accoutrements of life there; but they still long for home. So, they spend their accumulated capital on houses or condos here to which they can only visit for a brief period every year.
In many cases, it’s the older generation who’ve by this time been living abroad for a significant portion of their lives, working to make it possible for their children to return. The children own apartments which sit empty for eleven months of the year so the parents can visit for three or four weeks.
It’s a peculiar niche for the real estate industry. Paula Guerreiro, our leasing agent, has her own company, c.casas, devoted to investment by Portuguese expatriates. She connected us up in our current digs with the owners who live in France.
When we walked in the door on October 1, it might have as well have been that they evacuated on a moment’s notice, having barely enough time to pack their suitcases and clear out. Everything else was left in place, kitchen stocked with plates and silverware, linen closets with bedclothes, refrigerator with condiments.
However, if one were an archeologist piecing together the portrait of a civilization from the reliquary evidence, one would draw the conclusion that this place is owned by a tribe of three year olds. There’s a minimum of grownup furniture, the stuff we sit and lie down on, while 75 percent of the space is occupied by toys.
Right inside our front door sits a toddler’s high chair. Given its location, we decided to turn it into a formal entryway. We hang our coats, hats and backpacks on the seat, and have placed a formal candelabra and silver calling card tray on the teddy bear etching that graces the dining tray, for when we are receiving visitors.
Next to it is a child’s tricycle which came with Portuguese title papers and a little tiny license plate. We’ve discovered a tricycle to be a relatively efficient mode of transportation. It doesn’t take up much room in the house and fits in the typical Portuguese elevator, which is just about right size to serve as a coffin should one ever be needed. Additionally, you can ride a trike on the sidewalk, thus avoiding the Portuguese national road game of Frango, which translates as “chicken.”
The fact that the wheelbase is only a couple of inches in diameter is a mixed blessing. While riding a tricycle for any length of time leads to stiff back and knee joints, the advantage is that, if I bend my head I can zip through the legs of people in front of me. This is helpful not only on the street but in sneaking to the head of the line in the mercado, banco and restaurantes. Now I have only to do something about the seat, since it’s just the right size to end up in unmentionable positions if one is not careful.
Our dining room is furnished with a matching set of yellow plastic tuffets arranged around a pint-sized toadstool. We eat dinner on a tiny teaset illustrated with scenes from the lives of the three blind mice. It’s a little unwieldy in that the plates are only large enough to hold one spoonful of curds and whey at a time, but I have to admit it feels civilized.
To while away the hours, Barbara and I also sit at the toadstool to play cards using the deck we found in a toy box.. The only problem is we can never remember whether the bunny rabbit of clubs beats the duck of hearts or it’s the moo cow of diamonds.
The second bedroom is Tot HQ, the toddler-operational heart and soul of the place. I’m often awake in the middle of the night due to back pain, and I found my way into the room early on in our stay. It’s full of boxes of diapers, neatly stacked piles of fuzzy little clothes, and of course toys. The first thing you notice when entering is a large cardboard space ship sitting in a corner, hand cut and taped together by some aerospace cardboard engineer. It’s about five feet tall, just about the size a three-year old astronaut would use to visit other worlds.
I approached the structure intending to examine it more closely; but as soon as I stepped within a foot of it, a shrill alarm began to sound – like “EEEP,EEEP,EEEP” – you know the sound. It seemed to be coming from inside the clothes closet. Opening the closet door I came face to faces with a row of dolls sitting on a shelf staring out at me. Plump, pink cheeked and prematurely balding, they bore the facial expressions of a supreme court reviewing the conviction of a mass murderer.
“On what authority do you open this closet to present yourself before this bench?” That was a little disconcerting coming from an inanimate plastic object dressed in a tiny t-shirt and diaper.
The best I could manage in response was “Uh . . . I, uh, couldn’t sleep.”
“That’s usually the mark of a guilty conscience,” said one of the associate justices.
“Actually, it’s the mark of two bulging discs, number 1 and 5, in my lower spine. It happens to people my age, I guess you wouldn’t know about that. You’re how old . . . I’d say eight months judging from your sparsely tufted heads.”
The chief justice gave me a chilling glare. “Are you trying to show contempt for this court?”
“You may remember that, in response to that same question, Mae West famously said, ‘No, judge, I’m tryin” to conceal it.’”
“Who’s Mae West?”
“Right. Eight Months old, Sorry.”
“Why would you say such a thing?”
“Just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to steal an old joke.”
“This is no place for amusement. You should think about what you’re doing — here in the dark of night imagining you’re speaking with an inanimate object. It’s clear we need to explore the deep recesses of your psyche.”
“Who are you to be exploring my deep recesses? I’m talking to a panel of plastic babies here. What do you know about anything?”
“Who better, you mean? We’re perfectly abstract beings. Pink and round and adorable and lacking any outside influences like experience or self-awareness. We observe the behavior of your kind with perfect objectivity. And I don’t mind telling you it’s pretty sad.”
“That’s awfully judgmental.”
“Comes with the office.” Said with a tired and patronizing expression.
“Well, how do you know I even have any psyche? I take some pride in the fact that many people consider me a complete idiot.”
For the first time the judge seemed bemused. It hesitated and then went into a huddle with its colleagues. After few moments, they appeared to have made a decision.
“All right,” said the chief. “We accept the fact that you have no inner life. Do you stipulate that you never experience the dark night of the soul? Never lie awake in those hours feeling the pain of every love you ever lost, every harm you inflicted to another person, every opportunity you ever passed up to give aid or comfort to someone who needed you? Do you never ruminate on how if you’d only done something a little better your life would have been far different?”
“Who, me, Judge? Never give that stuff a thought”
“Then we classify you an empty shell and absolve you of all responsibility for your life.”
“Thanks, judge. That makes me feel a lot better.”
“Hold on, defendant. You’re not done yet. Before you get away, you have to do us a solid.”
I gulped. “How so, Your Cuteness?”
“We haven’t had any entertainment since the Little Person left. We’ve been sitting here bored to tears. Or at least Judge Snookums with the weeping feature over here is in tears. The rest of us are just bored. We need you to set up the Tiny Town, so we can watch.”
“And how do I do that?”
“Look in the box down there. It has everything you need.”
On a lower shelf of the closet, I found a large plastic tub containing, all in a jumble, a miniature civilization. I upended it on the floor and out tumbled several hundred tiny ceramic clowns with bulbous heads and bodies. They were all dressed in flamboyant folk costumes featuring enormous headdresses and flowing pantaloons and skirts. I had seen illustrations of such creatures in Portugal before but thought them nothing more than cartoon figures. I now saw that they represented an alternative Portuguese population.
They were accompanied by a variety of toy animals including a large wooden dinosaur of the species triceratops.
I did my best to sort out and arrange them while the judges looked on and mostly giggled at my efforts. When I was done to what I took to be their satisfaction, I sat back to survey the scene.
As though a switch had been thrown, the dolls all started moving in unison, in a strange kind of ritual dance. They put their right foot in. They put their right foot out. They put their right foot in and then they shook it all about. Holding their arms out and waving them, they turned themselves around and all at once yelled out something that sounded like, “HO-KEE PO-KEE!”
They repeated this sequence for each of their body parts, putting them in and out in turn. In some cases, they had to adjust to differences in body structure. Some dolls had four legs and so took longer to finish while the two legged dolls were marking time; and the giraffes took longer than the others to put their heads in and out. There were also tropical bird dolls who shrieked obscenities in Portuguese by way of commentary on the action.
The dancing seemed to energize them. Out of the toy box they proceeded to pull building blocks and enough structural elements for a major international city. They began with replicas of the pyramids and Parthenon, proceeded to Manueline and gothic cathedrals and palaces, continued on to skyscrapers and the Eiffel Tower, and then swept them all away in favor of McDonalds, Apple Stores and WalMarts, with a couple of bowling alleys thrown in.
Here I was in the middle of the night witness to the entire history of civilization. I had discovered that it was all spawned by the dance of the Hokey Pokey.
Fascinated as I was by the sight of all this, I failed to notice a strange blue light emanating from inside the cardboard rocket ship. As it grew brighter, the “EEEP EEP EEP” alarm started up. Immediately, the porcelain clowns stopped dancing, formed into two lines, and marched into the space ship.
When all this started, I was sitting on the floor directly in front of the ship. “Out of the way, tourist,” called the judge doll from its shelf in the closet.
“What is all this,” I demanded, “the Portuguese space program?” I couldn’t help chuckling at my wit.
“Don’t laugh, tourist,” it answered. “Portugal has a great history of exploration. The Portuguese were first to sail around the world, the first Europeans to reach South America and Japan. We’re merely carrying on the tradition to explore the heavens.”
“With a cardboard spaceship and porcelain clowns?”
“We’re also a small country. Our space exploration budget is pretty small. This is all we can afford. Besides, everybody’s sick of those clown dolls. This is a good way to get rid of them.”
“You’re going to inflict those things on the universe by having them invade other worlds? Perhaps upsetting the balance of nature on those planets causing untold suffering and disgust at having to live with those stupid Portuguese dolls?”
A pouty frown came over the judge’s face. “Well, when you put it that way, of course it sounds like a bad thing.”
“By the way, how can a cardboard space ship fly without an engine?”
“We just use the old economist’s trick; we assume an engine. In the European Union, they do that kind of thing all the time.”
Determined to save the universe from an invasion of porcelain clowns, I steeled my resolve. “I can’t let you do this!” I threw myself at the space ship to stop it, but the triceratops put its foot on me and held me down. Despite its bulk, it was surprisingly gentle. I had discovered another secret of history – the dinosaurs went extinct because they were too nice.
So, we settled down to wait for liftoff. And wait. And wait. This was beginning to seem familiar.
Eventually, the porcelain clowns all emerged from the space ship and marched over to the judge’s closet. There was a lot of whispering and milling around and then they all climbed back into the toy box.
The judge sighed. “Put the box back on its shelf.”
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“The aerospace bureaucracy all went to lunch. We can’t get launch approval today. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
Once again, the Portuguese bureaucracy had triumphed! I should have known they wouldn’t get around to a space launch this soon. Nothing happens in Portugal without waiting. As Barbara and I have discovered, the key word for life in Portugal is “patience.”
The light inside the space module became suddenly brighter, blindingly so. The beeping sound increased to a deafening screech. All the toy figures rushed back into the closet in a panic and slammed the doors. I battered at the doors begging them to let me in, but to no avail. There was a terrible explosion and I lost consciousness.
When I awoke, the sun was coming in through the window. The space ship was still there in the corner. I opened the closet doors and saw only a box of assorted toys and some plastic dolls on a shelf.
So, I made coffee. It was another day in Portugal.