Driving without “ze scum-drill”

Thinking and writing about Portugal, it is hard not to compare our newly discovered country with the United States, our previous habitat. So, what follows are a few comparisons. Rest assured I will refrain from touching political, socio-economical, or moral issues – my American friends are in enough deep shit already and do not deserve to be on the receiving end of more insults and added injuries coming from an “escapee” like me. Not now the golden eagle has landed and proven to be a turkey vulture, O Trunfo, as he is called in Portugal; if the Portuguese try to convey their opinion about “that scoundrel” in English, it sounds like “ze scum-drill”.

Enough already, there are other differences of a more innocent nature I’d like to dwell on.

Travel in Portugal vs travel in America. I do well understand Portugal is a small country, just twice the size of the Netherlands, not yet half the state of Kansas. My Michelin map of Central Portugal is similar of paper size to the AAA map of Kansas, which is confusing even though I fully grasp the meaning of different map scales and the difference between kilometers (Michelin) and miles (1.6 km, AAA). When planning a trip, I catch myself at automatically reading the Portugal map as if I were still looking at Kansas or New Mexico. For a road trip from Tomar to say Ēvora I start packing for a few overnights. It is 10 a.m. when I leave; I expect to arrive after sunset; but at half-way point the realization sets in that I will reach my destination at 12:30 p.m. even if I continue cruising on the rural, slow roads of my preference. I also understand that if I would continue south and take a ferry to North Africa, I could eat dinner in Tangier, Morocco and if I pushed on a few more hours have a late dinner in Casablanca. It will take a little longer than expected to fully appreciate the conditions of life in my new “old” world.

Recently, I drove south, indeed from Tomar in the Ribatejo to Ēvora in the Alentejo. Tejo is the quite mighty river Tagus, which after journeying the whole narrow breadth of Portugal enters the Atlantic Ocean near Lisbon; riba in Portuguese is family of arriba in Spanish and means high, or up (as I should know because, when in New Mexico, I lived at 6,500 feet, up in Río Arriba County); alen comes from the Portuguese além which means something like: on the other side (compare alien in English). See? Ribatejo on one side and Alentejo on the other side of the river. Portuguese isn’t such a difficult language after all. Yet eight months after my arrival in their country the Portuguese still speak in mysteries to me. It’s not so much the words; many I can recognize when seeing them in print. It is the pronunciation and the speed of speech that kick me off-track. I hear sounds I never heard before in a rhythm that is also unfamiliar; sometimes I think I am hearing voices in Czech or Finnish. The good news is: I am making progress, I am beginning to get which syllables are toneless; where, and with the help of which accent marks they receive emphasis or just the reverse; where sounds are shifting. I see this as an important step towards a future of bright and shiny timbre-control. From then on, it will be just learning words and syntax and grammar. Easy. Great language. Great people, the Portuguese. Amazing. I love them. Fact.

Driving in Portugal differs from driving through the Midwest or Southwest in America. There are few freeways and they do not attract many drivers because they are not free but quite expensive toll roads the Portuguese people decided to boycott en masse; the fight for toll-free roads has been going on for years already and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the end, the people will be victorious. Meanwhile, driving on the toll roads is a wonderful experience if you do not want to be bothered by other traffic or are in a great hurry; then you can try and keep up with the incidental co-user, who in most cases will be breaking the official speed limit of 125 km/hour (80 miles) by some 60 to 80 klicks. One day I was dreamily progressing at 125 in the right lane, with an empty freeway in front and behind me, when suddenly, out of the blue, a shape appeared in my rear mirror and instantly showed up next to me. An itty-bitty 4-door Smart (!) was overtaking me fast enough to let me eat its dust.

Most other roads in Portugal are single-lane country roads winding leisurely through woods, agricultural lands and the heart of towns, and following the lay of the land over hills and mountains and through canyons and valleys. These roads, not long ago dirt or cobble-stone, now mostly blacktop, give testimony of Portugal’s past. Until the 1970s they attracted mostly horse- or donkey-driven buggies and carts. It is only since the end of Salazar’s fascist regime that the Portuguese, slowly rising out of long forced poverty, got smooth asphalt roads and the vehicles to drive on them. Often, their two-lane highways have the narrowness of the old trails; they kept their old trajectory through the heart of towns and villages (which, how wonderful, helped save the businesses in the town centers). The passage is often narrow, so narrow that, in the not uncommon case of absence of sidewalks, one can almost touch doors and walls from the car window; and sometimes there is only space of one lane for both directions and traffic lights have to direct the flow. Traffic lights are abundant in Portugal even in the smallest of towns and in hamlets. The lights are on green most of the time; they turn to red when an approaching car is speeding; don’t drive through red or you are photographed and heavily fined. A wonderful rule to keep drivers in check and through-roads quiet and safe(r). If only Matfield Green, Kansas or Abiquiu, New Mexico would have such punitive traffic light system, vehicles roaring through town on Highway 177 or Highway 84 respectively would soon be history.

In Kansas I could drive the 40 mile long road from Cassoday to Newton without once turning the wheel and find even longer stretches of straight lines in front of me elsewhere in the West. Most rural highways in Portugal lead me through uncountable curves and switchbacks. Doing so, they mess with my compass; they also force me to see the sights, all the sights, and there are many. Vineyards, cork oak forests, olive tree farms large and small. Storage sheds from back in the early 1800s. Mansions from the same era or older, kept in good shape or falling apart – whatever their condition, they are a sight to see. Aging rock walls. Uncountable old and even ancient churches. Small, old laborer’s homes and fairly new apartment buildings, many of them built under Salazar on the cheap in the 1950s and 1960s and ugly, but the newer ones of more attractive design. Splendid old, richly ornamented villas. New villas, many of a somewhat brutish design with severe horizontal and vertical lines executed in concrete, and with deep porches and balconies and larger windows than the older habitats have. They do not signal the old oh so charming Portugal of the vacation guides but, personally, I much like their clear and clean architectural presence and the space they offer. The Portuguese love building with concrete and plaster. They paint the surfaces often in bright colors but white walls dominate; and if they repaint the walls in time the homes are kept looking fresh and attractive. If not, the clear lines are disappearing and the houses slowly start to resemble structures from bygone eras. Luckily, old in Portugal means picturesque – a sensitive (camera) eye can catch amazing patterns created by rust, dust, dirt, wild growth; by aging in progress.

Many homes have large gardens with citrus trees, a score of grape vines, a few olive trees, palm trees and a vegetable plot. So many people grow their own veggies that I wonder how the ever present communal markets can continue to flourish. I learn that home gardening is an old tradition; in the days of great poverty, when the Portuguese didn’t have the money to buy produce, many toiled in their own plot of the earth. Also a tradition is hanging laundry to dry street-side in front of houses and from balconies or windows of apartment buildings. Most Portuguese do have washing machines but no dryers and while adding color to the already photogenic scenery leave the job to the sun and the wind.

I cross pastoral creeks and mighty rivers and notice how even during the winter Portugal’s landscape is very green. Some trees do lose their foliage, others remain lush and the farther south I get, the fewer seasonal changes are visible. I see eucalyptus, birch, juniper, and many shrubs I recognize from between Southern California and Oregon. There are savannah woodlands, pine trees, many oak species, chestnut, poplar, elm, ash, beech, hazel, lime, tamarisk, and mimosa to cover the hills and roadsides in the brightest of yellows just before spring arrives. There is a diversity of palm trees too; and there are more than 3,000 species of vascular plants alone. Portugal is one of the twenty-five biodiversity hotspots of the world. Along the roads I see cattle grazing among the trees, though not as many as in the treeless Flint Hills of Kansas. Sheep, boar and goats do have a presence. Now, early in spring, I see baby lamb galore, yummy… Chickens roam. Bird life? No ravens, hardly any vultures show up; but along a surprising number of roads the power line pylons or tree tops are adorned with nests of cegonhas, storks. One after the other, and sometimes three or four big nests resting on one pylon’s arms. Now, at age 73, I finally understand where babies are coming from. From Portugal!

Ēvora is a magnificent town in the heart of the Alentejo, a province with rolling, flowing hills and endless views very different from the steep mountains and deep canyons of “my” Ribatejo. May the landscape of the Ribatejo be harsh, sometimes stark, and of a darker complexion, the more southern wide lands of the Alentejo are sweeter, very peaceful, rather dreamlike, serene, pastoral. The wine- and olive-producing Alentejo is less populated, with all towns dominated by brilliantly white-washed houses carrying red roofs, by white-spired churches, and almost in all cases by a huge fortress or castle dating back to the 800s, 1100s or 1300s sitting on the highest hilltop; add the immense monasteries from the 15th and 16th century and you’ll get the picture: all you see are visual chronicles of the past. After more than twenty-two years of living in the efficiently arranged new world of America, the monumental scenery of this Iberian country presents itself as an astonishing fairy tale. Its sleepy atmosphere is soothing. I find that, contrary to custom, I am continuously trying to preserve the different landscapes and townscapes as well as the amazing details of the architecture and ruins on camera. If in the American West I was struck dumb by the vast emptiness of the space, here in Portugal it is foremost the contrasting habitation of the land, whether ancient, old, or newer, that silences me.

As does the cuisine. But that’s another story.

Ton Haak, March 2017