Because the train stopped here

While strolling through Santarém’s old town, between Lisbon and Tomar, I notice a man walking a bicycle on which carrier some tools are installed. Only as he rings a hand bell with an uncommon clang, I look closer. He is an old-fashioned knife grinder offering his services door-to-door. The gizmo on his carrier is the honing wheel. It is October 2016 in a rural Portuguese town. This survivor of old times does not look at all out of place, surrounded as he is by ancient houses that line narrow, cobblestone streets.

It’s not just the architecture that is ancient in Portugal. Even if its society no longer holds on to many ancient customs and most contemporary conveniences are in place, many of its members are living what in other “civilized” countries would be considered an old-fashioned lifestyle. Probably because for them modern times only began way after 1974, after the slow start of their recovery from forty years of Salazar’s fascist dictatorship. Portugal was already a poor country before Salazar, after being reigned by practically feudal kings for centuries, and successively governed by a military junta. The Portuguese had a lot of catching up to do and that’s what they are still doing. As a consequence, for instance private car ownership came late and many people still walk, a lot; even if they have to carry their groceries home. But if they drive, many pretend they are on a Formula-1 racetrack. If, sometimes, I forget to keep to the speed limit of 120 kilometers (roughly 80 miles) on freeways, but advance to, say, 140 km, I still feel I am hardly moving compared to the cars that vroom zoom impatiently past my vehicle. Participation in traffic demanded some adjustments from me also because few roads here are as endlessly straight as in Kansas. Zigzag is common, switchbacks are abound. Old rural and local roads are often so narrow that I have to be careful not to scrape the walls of village houses. Boring, road travel is not.

Tomar, our town. Less than 20,000 locals and another 20,000 live outside the city limits in its district. A home to cafés, terraces and restaurants practically every 150 to 250 m (450’ to 750’) and with most menus priced to … peanuts. In general, their dishes and drinks are great and their service is gallantly well; it must be, because the Portuguese do not entertain at home, their social life takes place in the streets, at the popular cafés and restaurants, where sobremesa is honored — the hour, or hours after finishing the meal used to talk and discuss, and to savor both the food and the company. I still cannot figure out how so many of these competing places manage to survive but they do not disappear, and most of them have a long (family) history. Same goes for other businesses. I think I can name thirty or forty beauty salons and hairdressers in our small town. I know four big supermarkets with three of them of comparable size and quality to anything I was accustomed to anywhere in America and one just even with our medium-sized Dillon’s in El Dorado but, like all other grocery stores, selling alcohol too, from a huge selection of great wines to many whiskeys of the world, cognacs, and anything you might love to be hooked on (Portugal doesn’t have liquor stores, only wine tasting shops). Now and then I even find my favorite after-dinner tequila.

Then there are at least thirty small pop-and-mom stores also selling wines, veggies, meats, cheeses and all sorts of household stuff. Their signs announce “Alimentaçãos”. The old Dutch journalist comes to mind, who swore he would never set foot in France again because all grocery stores carry the sign “Alimentacion”, each time reminding him of his monthly payments to his three ex-wives (alimentatie is Dutch for alimony). What else? Scores of little bakeries are offering really the best of fresh breads and pastries. The weekly, huge municipal indoor and outdoor fresh market (with lots of seafood and freshwater fish; and piglets, local hams, lamb, and steaks galore; plus freshly baked breads; and all the produce and fruits you may desire) attracts thousands from all over the area. As if it is the only place you can buy foodstuffs. Then there are optical shops in amazing numbers, even if I don’t see many Portuguese wear glasses; scores of pharmacies that are no Walgreen’s, but small and often delicately decorated shops resembling perfume stores or beauty salons, all offering a very individual service. In supermarkets and shopping areas, and even in Lisbon’s underground stations, you may find a small booth where you can get your clothes mended, or washed, dried and ironed. Most services are astoundingly cheap.

Marketing in Portugal uses all contemporary techniques but also applies some old-fashioned tools. Posters go up literally everywhere for each and every festival, film screening, concert, or bull fight. Leaflets are put under parked cars’ wipers and into one’s mail box more than once a week. Cars are driven around town with messages and music coming loudly from their speakers, inviting to join or attend this or that. Not many billboards can be found along the freeways, but if you see one, near larger cities, it is not to advertise national fast food brands, but great regional wines.

Trash is daily collected from bins dispersed every couple of hundred yards all over town and also in the countryside; same goes for recyclables, no one needs to keep junk at home for longer than one or two days. Bus drivers connect local areas in towns or go “interlocal” between smaller towns a few times a day for little money. Train inspectors punch holes in tickets more than once between destinations; tickets are sold mostly through windows by men and women who are friendly and helpful also to foreigners. Taxi drivers don’t hesitate to pick you up for a mere 5-minute ride and smile after you pay them their due (E3.60) and leave them a little tip. One of them, Joao Mourão, became our favorite chauffeur in Tomar, who we can call on also during his off hours if we need his services after a wild night on the town. One evening, we arrived very late from Lisbon and did not want to disturb Joao. Finding no taxi at the railway station, we (carrying heavy bags) were deliberating what to do when a man who had picked up his wife backed up, stopped at the curb and inquired if he could help us, did we need a ride? And he helped load our bags and dropped us off at home.

What more do we experience? Drug use doesn’t lead to long prison sentences; instead, users get free government help to become less or not dependent at all, and daily substitutes, at a much lower total cost than incarceration while keeping the criminal circuit small (traders and dealers do end up in jail). The national health care system provides everyone with no-cost help especially in case of serious, life-threatening issues, and no deductible, no co-pay. Amazing (for us, coming from America). What else? Respect is paid to anyone who serves others professionally. There are no jobs being looked down on, just as there are no races or genders that receive frowns. An ideal society? Well, in many aspects: yes – or rather, a surprising relief after living in a blatantly money-obsessed, always in a hurry, “ideal consumers’ society” for so long. Not that the contemporary Portuguese do not eagerly consume; the day after Americans traditionally celebrated Thanksgiving we were in Porto, the second largest Portuguese city (two million people), and we were shocked to see “Black Friday” advertised (we discover the crazy custom was also “imported” with success by the U.K. and reached other European countries as well). Notwithstanding, Portugal is wonderful, although the Portugal’s bureaucracy can be taxing; luckily most individual functionaries are just nice, helpful and sweetly smiling. The system still suffers a little from the days that the fascist government tried to control everything in their citizens’ lives just to make sure they wouldn’t dream of rising up, ever. Today, old systems and procedures are stubbornly kept in place and I sometimes suspect they keep them going just to provide jobs for as many Portuguese as possible. As a result, or one of the results, some 75% of Portuguese women of all ages work outside the house and not just to improve family income; they are evidently an appreciated and esteemed part of society.

I learn that Portugal ranks 8th on a list of 144 countries in terms of opportunities for girls, ahead of even Switzerland and Germany, and well ahead of the United States (at 37th), the nation I fear to have call Trumpistan after January 2017, when “War will be peace” and “Ignorance will be power” (as predicted George Orwell already). Only all Scandinavian countries, Belgium and the Netherlands score better in this recent report by Save the Children. Free to live, free to learn, free from harm. The index is based on statistics of child marriage, schooling, teen pregnancy, maternal deaths, physical assaults, and career opportunities, to name a few criteria.

Yet, the EU is not too happy with Portugal. Probably not because the powers in Brussels are upset about the low income level as such; they are more worried about the Portuguese state and nation employing too many people in jobs that should make place for machines or be abolished completely. Efficiency and austerity are what is called for to get the budget balanced. Well, even with the high standard of efficiency realized in the US, to single out my previous habitat, there seem to be quite a few problems with balancing the budget, not to mention paying off the national debt. So, what I think is, maybe the Portuguese way is not so bad, keeping people happy in not too stressful jobs; respecting all professionals even if their professions are “out of date”; paying them little, yes, but also keeping the price levels comfortably low. And (how civilized) accepting that workers need a 60 to 90 minute lunch break and a glass of wine, or two, with their meal. What a difference a country makes.

Ans and I felt totally at home in Portugal already within two months after our arrival; my only serious adjustment problem was: managing the countless steps and stairways. After walking mostly level for so many years in the US and especially in Kansas, in Portugal, where my curious eyes hit interesting views wherever I looked, I stumbled on, and from steps all the time; they are everywhere because not much is level in Portugal; low and high hills dominate towns and villages. Anyhow, months later, I can handle the ever-changing pavement elevations well and both Ans and I are very happy and content with having found Tomar as the place to settle. “Why Tomar?” is what the Portuguese want to know. Our truthful answer, “Because the train stopped here,” first receives unbelief, then amazed hilarity; it guarantees that we are remembered favorably by the locals. Which makes life easier for us, who do not understand or speak the Portuguese language.

The Portuguese language is really difficult to handle. Almost all words are pronounced differently from what we expect by basing the use of accents on the French language, or looking for similarities in Italian and Spanish. It is not easy to find the right emphasis and if you make mistakes, the Portuguese send you a confused look; because we too will be looking quite bewildered, many meetings lead to basic communications with both parties using hands, smiles, and a mixture of words borrowed from the English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German neighbors. In the Portuguese tongue, many z’s and s’es become “sh”, c’s become s’es or k’s, but not all. Sometimes, vowels just disappear, to return in other words where you do not expect them. Even words we recognize when written down are a mystery if spoken by the Portuguese. What a difference this country’s voices make.

Luckily, many Portuguese speak at least a little, or even perfect English. I don’t know how come, but they recognize me from a distance as not being a homeboy and straight away address me in English or German they learned in school or while working in the Portuguese hospitality business or as a student or a “guest worker”. I thank them much for their effort and promise them I will be able to return the courtesy soon.

Well, maybe a little later ….

Ton Haak, November 2016