Barbara and are doing our best to be good expats. We’re determined to experience the culture of Portugal and learn as much about the people as we can. We also enjoy meeting other expats like ourselves and sharing experiences. I recently had a chat with Jules, one of our newest acquaintances, to get her take on what she’s seeing and hearing.
Jules is traveling with our friend Rita, the lady who lived a mile away from us in Denver but we never met until coming to Portugal. Rita and Jules first met some time ago in Missouri and currently share a place in Cascais, a beach town about 45 minutes from Lisbon.
Jules is a two year-old yellow Labrador Retriever weighing about 65 pounds. When Rita suggested the two of them visit Portugal together, Jules jumped at the chance. Since Jules has a unique connection with at least one segment of the population, those who can lick themselves in places we wouldn’t dream of, she has a lot of insights to offer.
Dogs are ubiquitous here in Setubal. Seeing them on leashes is more the exception than the rule. Not that there aren’t leash laws; there are, just as there are laws requiring owners to clean up after their dogs or face a 1000 euro fine. It’s just that nobody pays any attention to them.
The Portuguese take a kind of national pride in ignoring rules they consider trivial or stupid. They see no reason to make a big fuss over dogs who they consider capable of taking care of themselves. Additionally, in a country this close to the edge of poverty, the police have neither the manpower nor the budgets to arrest people for not keeping their animals on leashes.
It’s not that they don’t care about their animals. To its credit, Portugal passed animal cruelty laws a few years ago which they do take very seriously. Violators can get up to a year in prison. In addition, there are organizations devoted to raising money to feed and care for the strays inhabiting the narrow back alleys and travessas of the less picturesque neighborhoods. However, I’m not sure how successful they are or how they can organize relief efforts among canines. It’s not as if the dogs all know where the social service agencies are located.
Another phenomenon here we find notable is a population of perfectly groomed, manicured, presumably flea-less animals who all have collars. They sport that air of entitlement typically found among members of the upper socioeconomic strata however many legs they have. Their owners are apparently content to allow them a measure of independence.
Left to their own devices, they’ve developed their own civilization. In the US dogs are pretty much docile and dependent. If an American dog gets off leash, it wanders around aimlessly, not knowing what to do with itself. In Portugal, the dogs have a sense of purpose, a confidence and a social structure.
The dogs in Setubal are urban-savvy. Walking down the streets, they pass by at a rapid clip, appearing for all the world to be late for a meeting. At one of the major intersections in town, they behave just like humans. They wait at the curb for the light to change before crossing the street, then trot calmly across on their way to wherever they’re going. As they cross, they acknowledge with a nod any of their kind passing the other way.
Just like the rest of us, there’s always somebody trying to beat the light. The dog will stop at the curb, look around to see if cars are coming and, if not, hurry on across. Sometimes, one of them will misjudge the traffic. A car will appear suddenly at the intersection and turn quickly, himself or herself also trying to beat the light. The dog will get a few steps out into the street, then back up quickly and wait for another shot.
At night the dogs get together for community sings. From all over town, packs of them assemble to howl, yip and bark. Then they retire for the night. The next morning, when their owners, often businesses who, I suppose, keep them to deter break-ins, let them out, they announce the beginning of their day with all the excitement of a kindergarten class let out for recess. Whether at night or in the morning, I can tell exactly what time it is with the same certainty provided by church bells or particularly obnoxious clocks.
The apartment we’ve inhabited these past six months is one in a row of five buildings, and we have a balcony on each side so that we look out on another building both ways. Each of these two building has an apartment with a resident dog let out on the balcony in the morning who then spends most of its day watching over its corner of the world. The personalities of the two couldn’t be more distinct.
On one side lives a big, muscular white creature who thinks it’s the town marshall. It’s constantly barking orders at the local human residents, imperiously reminding them to close the front door or take out the garbage, announcing that it’s time for its owner to come home because it’s going off duty. Strangers happening by are challenged as to their business in the complex and to be prepared to show ID. Only when its owner does indeed get home does it let down its guard and turn over the duty.
It’s always listening for foreign sounds, so we’ve gotten in the habit of standing on our balcony whistling to it. Out in the air overlooking our building, we can get a pretty piercing whistle going. The dog, hearing this, varies between looking around suspiciously to determine the source of the sound and holding its nose up when located to listen to the signal.
On the other side is a hairy black and white thing who comes out every day, jumps up on a table and spreads out to observe the passing parade. This one spends its time smelling the smells and watching the sights quietly and serenely like a small town resident who observes everything that goes on in the community from a porch swing.
In that regard, we discover, it takes after its owner. She comes out a couple times a day, often in her bathrobe. Sits next to the table, takes the dog on her lap and proceeds to chat with it. In a chirpy voice, she talks to it about the weather, what’s going on that day, points out passersby, including cars, pedestrians and the ships currently moored in the harbor.
She points and gestures and waves to show it what she’s talking about, and it follows her gaze with interest, although we can’t tell if that’s genuine or feigned. Obviously, it’s got a pretty sweet deal there, and, if all it has to do to maintain it is pretend to be interested in her chatter, it’s a small price to pay.
Barbara has jumped on the bandwagon with this dog. She’s taken to standing on our balcony calling to it across the way. The dog displays actual interest in what she’s saying; its ears perk up and it stares at her. Frequently during these interchanges, however, it looks around as if to ask, “Do I really have to do this?”
Cataloging all these observations, I was excited by the opportunity to discuss them with Jules. It took a while to arrange for us to get together, understandably so because her presence is in considerable demand. It’s not often one gets the chance to sit down and share insights on Portugal with a resident American dog. Jules has been busy fielding interview requests from Pata De Impressao, the online Portuguese magazine whose title translates to PawPrint, and appearing as guest host on SPCA’s Rolling In The Dirt With the Stars International.
I caught up with Jules in the midst of her busy day sniffing fire hydrants and trying to catch flies in her mouth. I asked Jules for her initial impressions of being in Portugal.
OK, so I saw how this interview was going to go. “Leeave it,” I said in a commanding tone, pointing my finger at her. She relaxed slightly and made a low rumbling noise in her throat. I tried again.
“What do you think of Portugal now that you’ve been here a few weeks?”
I saw we were going to have to get down to a more basic level. “Have you noticed anything different lately than it was before”
This was a little hard to interpret so I chose to take it as assent and pursue some elaboration.
“What’s new to you these days?”
“Smells like fish.”
I should mention I’ve taken some liberties editing our discussion, but purely to help my readers’ understanding, not to mislead or distort anything. Specifically, my use of the word “fish” in the above is the best interpretation I can come up with for a kind of low rumbling throat-clearing sort of noise that Jules makes.
She employs that sound to convey a variety of meanings, just as humans do. For example, I myself am likely when Barbara asks me a question to answer “mmmh,” by which I might mean “I’ll get right on pursuing that endeavor” or “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea” or “I wasn’t actually listening to what you said, but I’m not going to admit it because I don’t want to get in trouble.” In this case, I’m pretty sure Jules meant to say “fish.” I’ll try to clarify things like this as I go in the interests of candor.
“What would you say has impressed you the most about Portugal since you’ve been here?”
Jules furrowed her brow and her lips parted slightly before she answered.
I don’t suppose this needs any clarification. Jules is something of an expert on poop. Just as the Aleut dialects of the Arctic regions have several names for snow, dogs have a variety of sounds to refer to poop. Jules went on at some length elaborating on the subject, about the different types and characteristics of each found in Portugal, smells, taste, texture and color. However, I’ll save further discussion for another time so as not to burden the reader with an excess of detail.
Changing the subject I said, “So far you’ve seen a good bit of the country. You’ve spent time in Lisbon, taken a driving tour of the Alentejo region, and you’re spending the next few months in the resort city of Cascais. How would you compare those places?”
Jules is not particularly well educated in geography, so it took a little sorting out for her to know what I was talking about. In her defense, quite a number of humans share this educational vacancy – I was asked on several occasions prior to coming to Europe where Portugal is. When she was able to make the distinction, Jules made it clear she was no fan of Lisbon.
“Crowded. People keep stepping where I want to go. Big moving houses scare me. No place to get out of the way.”
It was pretty clear what she meant. Having spent a couple of days with Jules in Lisbon, I was struck by how nervous she was making her way through the narrow winding city streets. These are a feature of most Portuguese towns but the streets of Lisbon are exceptionally crowded. It can be difficult to make one’s way through the masses of people, and Jules was quite anxious the whole time. In particular, she visibly cowered whenever one of the old Lisbon trolleys came by. Imagine a San Francisco cable car trying to make its way through the aisles of a grocery store. They always look like they’re about to topple over and crush a few dozen passersby.
“Good garbage, though,” Jules conceded. I had to agree, there certainly was a lot of organic matter aging in the heat in the gutters. No self-respecting dog would pass up the opportunity to stick its nose in some of that stuff. I guess you have to take the bad with the good.
In contrast, Jules much preferred her experience in the Alentejo region. She accompanied Rita on a driving tour, who had rented a car for the occasion. The Alentejo is the rural agricultural area of Portugal, famed for its rustic countryside and picturesque aldeias, or villages. Jules expressed her pleasure at the memory of the journey by thrusting her snout up in the air, displaying her best doggie smile and flapping her tongue about. This apparently mimicked the posture she assumed while driving with Rita, sticking her head out the car window and leaning into the wind.
“Lots to smell,” she indicated. “Food yum yum slurp slurp.”
At this point in the interview I was still getting the hang of interpreting Jules’ native dialect. That’s why my translation makes her sound like the Faithful Indian Companion in a 1950’s Western. In truth, in her own way, Jules is far more eloquent than many humans. Thus, in paragraphs that follow, I will attempt a more expansive interpretation. The reader can judge for himself/herself which is more accurate.
“I have noticed,” I said, “a certain independent attitude among canines here that I hadn’t observed in the place we came from. What are your thoughts?”
She sniffed the air and made a kind of slurping noise. I’m not sure if this was intended as an editorial comment or she just enjoyed swallowing her phlegm.
“The point you may be missing,” she began, “is the cause and effect interplay. The relationship between four legged and two legged beings is somewhat different on this side of the world. Where I come from, the conjunction between them is more inclusive. I disagree with your implication that those who smell like me have suspended their freedom for a supercilious adherence to the norms of the Two Foots. I would say rather that we have chosen to inculcate ourselves into the pack and recognize them as leaders. We do this in the interests of exercising greater socio-cultural impact.
“What you posit as individual freedom and personal determinism is a response to the absence of stabilizing norms. My kind in this place are often the victims of a not so benign neglect. Many with whom I have come in contact express envy for my relationship with my pack leader. Some are never taken for walks, for example. There is also a regressive gender bias here.
Males are rarely nullified and wander around with their thingies dangling out. Females are expected to take responsibility for population control on their own. I am continually forced to fight off males who jump on my back and try to hump me. Why, I ask you, should I have to deal with this annoyance simply because their pack leaders don’t want to spend the money to make them leave us alone?
“In addition, since males are in a semi-continual state of excitation, they are forever getting into fights. If the packs here are to ever assimilate in any meaningful way into society, this brutish behavior must be brought to an end.
“What we are talking about is the classic dichotomy between liberty and license – that is, liberty involves the addition of personal responsibility. The pack is the primary structure of a civilized society. Taking the pack away and forcing us to manage on our own is inherently destructive because it violates our very instincts.
“What you interpret as some romanticized notion of Ayn Randish individualism in is in fact a display of your own ignorance.”
Being lectured about ethics by a Labrador Retriever is a truly humiliating experience. It made me question my entire shallow cheapjack perspective on life in Portugal, and wonder if I shouldn’t be writing about things like sectarian conflict or the refugee crisis or the potential breakup of the European Union.
But then I thought . . . NAAHHH!
Besides which, in conversation with Rita, AKA Jules’ pack leader, she revealed that Jules isn’t quite the exemplar of purity she pretends to be. Since coming to Portugal, she’s become pretty bad about obeying Rita’s commands and very lax about running off on her own without permission. She also fights her leash, taking it in her jaws and trying to rip it out of Rita’s hands.
She’s even gotten in a couple of fights with a neighbor dog named Oui. Oui’s owner is a devotee of the Cesar Millan system of dog training. He’s offered to work with Jules, but Rita says she doesn’t need Jules to be a perfect dog.
I asked Jules about her fights with Oui, but she would only say, “Oui lick my butt.” Her only comment about the Millan school was to show her teeth and mutter “Fascist.” I gather she shares the criticism of many experts in the field of animal training about Millan’s authoritarian – some use the word cruel – methods.
In summary, there must be some attraction to the independent behavior of Portuguese dogs even among canine intellectuals like Jules. On reflection, that’s not too different from humans. Aren’t most of our lifestyle decisions a balancing act between security and freedom?
Parenthetically, Rita and Jules have recently been in counseling about their personal relationship, and decided they need to have some time away from each other. Jules is now spending a couple of days a week at a doggie daycare spa.
I’ll be checking in periodically with Jules to see how she’s adjusting to life in Portugal. As a matter of fact, Barbara and I plan to stay at Rita’s place in Cascais next month when she goes back to Colorado for a week. We’ll have a chance for some in-depth discussion with Jules, and we’re looking forward to what we can learn from her.