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 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
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.”