If I had a euro for every time someone asked me “Why are you in Portugal?” I wouldn’t be so far up the financial creek as I am now.
You have to imagine the incredulity in the way the Portuguese say it. “You’re Australian? What are you doing here?” And I really don’t know how to answer, as it’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. You see, after 18 months of living in a ruined old house in the Portuguese countryside, I’m beginning to feel that the honeymoon is over.
1. The weather
When you decide to chuck in your career, sell up and run away to your “Place in the Sun”, first make sure there is some sun. Your personal utopia should have weather at least as good as you have at home. For an Australian this is a tricky proposition. I have no gripes with summer in Portugal: this summer was relentlessly sunny and hot enough to fry an egg on the car bonnet, just as it should be.…but the winter is tragic. OK, the snow was pretty for a second but six months of cold and it getting dark at 4pm… it’s just not acceptable. When my sister in Sydney starts complaining because it’s 14 degrees and freezing, well I just want to book a flight home immediately.
The Poms who live here whinge (all 50 thousand of them, all at once, it gets quite noisy sometimes) about how much they miss a decent curry. Poor chaps. I miss Indian food too, and Thai, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, North-Western Chinese, Turkish, Indonesian, Spanish… and hamburgers with beetroot. There’s nothing wrong with Portuguese food, but SBS Food Safari it ain’t. Speaking of which, I miss World News. I miss any news. The only two Australian news items to reach us recently were the thirsty bushfire koala (may she rest in peace), and an election poll that claimed that more Australian women would prefer to have sex with Kevin Rudd than John Howard. Wow, hmmm…press releases with legs…
I never properly credited Australia for having a civilized, advanced society before. Honestly, sometimes Portugal makes Australia seem positively Swedish in it’s modernity. It’s like the seventies here. They are still trying to encourage people to wear seatbelts in Portugal. Recycling is new. Pregnant women smoke. Cholesterol? Would you like some butter with that? This wild & crazy lifestyle is, of course, killing them. Portugal has twice the road toll of Australia although they haven’t yet figured out that speeding is to blame. After all, if you run over a dog or a sheep here it’s not your fault. No, it’s the sheep’s fault. Of course.
The next time the bank puts you on hold, you should thank them. Maybe they will keep you waiting for a couple of minutes but you will have a new credit card in the mail by the end of the phone call. When I was trying to get my home phone connected, I had to walk up the mountain to use my mobile (contracted to the rival company) and Portugal Telecom would keep me on hold for 25 minutes or more. I had to call them a few times a week, as they had clearly informed me on many occasions that they were not permitted to call their clients. Fancy that!?! A telecommunications company who cannot call their clients! As a strategy for any business, one might think that the inability to call clients would be a significant handicap… Anyway, after several months I had made progress. They sent me a letter to say that they would think about connecting my phone, but had no idea how long it might take. It took a year. A long year.
5. Friends, family and other non-transferable prizes.
The Portuguese are very nice, but they haven’t known me for 25 years. The neighbours have me over for dinner and we swap health complaints, but they are not my family. Children grow up so fast, and if you miss a year or two, you might miss the critical transition period between child and 6-foot-giant-with-muscles-and-a-deep-voice. Some Sunday mornings I just think it’s not worth eating breakfast at all if it can’t be with Jem&Kate or Lucy&Adrian or Mary&Fred. The Portuguese just don’t get going out for breakfast anyway.
So what’s a girl to do? Maybe I just need to go back for a holiday? The last time I did that, I went straight from the airport to my favourite old café. I was lost in dreamy heaven with my skim-latte-bowl when someone started shouting at the waiting staff. “This is the worst service and the worst coffee I’ve ever had!” he screamed (hasn’t been in Berlin recently then, I thought). He went on, “and I’m going to tell all my friends not to come here!” The waiter just stood there, speechless. “If your friends are anything like you,” I said, “I’m sure the staff here are very pleased to hear that”.
Only in Sydney, I thought. In two years in Portugal I have never heard anyone make such an egotistical, pretentious and rude spectacle of themselves. The Portuguese would find this incredible. Over a coffee? Just who does he think he is? The Pope? I immediately remembered what drove me away in the first place. Australia is up-itself.
Portugal on the other hand, has so much to be proud about, but sits quietly being creative, charming and delicious on the far edge of the world, like the New Zealand of Europe. It has a rich and romantic history, full of kings, queens and knights, of exploration and discovery. Portugal has been quietly appreciated by foreigners since Roman times, for its fertile lands, natural beauty and its (pre-global-warming) weather. But for the most part, the pleasures of Portugal have been kept fairly secret. The pastries of Portugal, for example, are absolutely mind blowing. The pastel de nata (or Portuguese tart as it’s known in Australia) is just the first of 1000 Portuguese sweets you must eat before you die.
And that’s not all. The cities have strikingly sumptuous baroque architecture, a sign of the great wealth and power of Portugal’s golden era. The people are friendly and down to earth and never see themselves as superior to anyone. There’s no posing here as there is in Spain and Italy. Waiters here don’t have attitude, unlike elsewhere. The Portuguese will never scoff at your attempts at their language and what a beautiful and refreshingly unfamiliar lingua it is.
Their food is generous and tasty, the wine is plentiful and cheap. Portugal is a quiet and unrushed country. I can’t remember the last time I met anyone stressed out. There are no crowds or traffic (outside of Lisbon anyway), no horns or car alarms and no one shouting except for a kilo of onions at the market. The huge open spaces of forest throughout Portugal remind me of home, but the silence and simplicity of the Portuguese countryside is the greatest luxurious indulgence of my new life.
As you can see, I am still in love with Portugal. I couldn’t leave. For better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death us do…