No Ice

I am slowly recuperating from the disturbances of emigration. Culture shocks had to wear off a little before I wanted to note down new experiences and discoveries. In the future, I intend to write extensively about different Portugal-related subjects. But in the first of my more or less frequent “letters to friends”, I am just unloading trivia. Sort of.

The first discovery. The trains run on time in Portugal. So do the buses that connect smaller towns and villages. So does the Lisbon Metro. All public transport runs frequently and looks fresh and clean. Ticket sellers and inspectors (who still punch holes in your tickets) are talkative and friendly, not avoiding banter and the exchange of jokes. And, public transport is amazingly cheap. For 1.25 you can travel by Metro all over Lisbon, a metropolis of three-million people. A two-hour train ride taking you over 80 miles costs less than 10.00 and half of this amount if you are over 65, like I am. Even taxis are affordable, roughly 1.00 for each kilometer (0.7 mile). But best of all, drinks are cheap, with an espresso at 60 euro cents, or $0.66; a beer in a café for one euro; a full glass of good wine for, say, 1.25. A tapas dinner for two, including two glasses of excellent wine and four bottles of beer, two delicious desserts and two espresso coffees … euro 23.00, tax and tips included. Even after experiencing daily life for seven weeks, the low cost of food and drinks in Portugal (a part of “the wealthy Western world”, right? We’re not talking Waziristan) keeps us looking up at waitstaff with questioning eyes: are you sure this is all we owe you?

The second discovery. I waited seven weeks before I dared to write this down to make sure I wouldn’t fall in the standard vacationer’s behavior of enthusiastically reporting to the home front “how marvelously friendly those people are, all of them.” Now, after observing the Portuguese for almost two months, I do not hesitate and just have to deliver testimony that the average Portuguese are friendly and even rather sweet; they are soft-voiced, they are smiling a lot and their unhurried smiles are spontaneous and sincere, just look at their eyes! They are friendly not just to foreigners but share smiles with their countrymen and women with disregard of gender, age and race. They are ready to assist others, whether it is with heavy suitcases or shopping bags, or giving advice or, as in our case, translation if obviously needed.

We are not alone in our appreciation of the Portuguese and their lifestyle. We hear very favorable comments from lots of others, Dutch and British alike. And a friend from our New Mexico days now living in Mendocino County, California (where he has a free pass to several public functions in San Francisco because he falls below the apparent “poverty” line of $77,000 …) wrote us about his unforgettable experiences in Portugal, years ago. He found “the Portuguese people to have a gentle self-possession that was very attractive, the Spanish variant being far ‘harder’ and sharper edged … as if the Portuguese are the ‘country cousins’ of everyone else in Iberia. Which reminds me: I hope you go, at least once, to a Portuguese bull fight: its distinction from the Spanish one is striking and traces right back to those scenes of ‘leaping the bull’ on ancient Greek pottery–a far more communal exercise than the fiercely individualistic and bloodily fatal Spanish fight.” He also wrote, “I can’t think of Portugal without remembering fado: what an extraordinary art form, so deep and elemental.” We haven’t experienced live fado music yet, but are close to attending a bull fight and seeing Portuguese toureiros in action—from our apartment in Tomar we practically look down into the arena.

Yes, the Portuguese cherish easy-living, take life at a slow pace, are unhurried, patient, cordial even when entering or leaving the busy Metro at rush hour. Not that they don’t work hard; but they make sure to take long lunch breaks, often lasting 90 minutes spent at a café, and not seldom add a good glass, or two, of wine to their lunch. Laborers can be seen having a break in the same cafés as executives; many offices, shops and building sites close at lunch time. Street-side terraces are plentiful and most are crowded from early morning to late at night; their atmosphere adds to the allover impression of a people knowing how to enjoy life. The French and Italian outdoors lifestyle isn’t much different, of course, but Lisbon is slower paced than for instance Paris and much slower than Rome—Lisbon is a good city to cool it. As long as you don’t mind the traffic. Even in small towns such as “our” Tomar, when driving their cars, the Portuguese forget everyone and everything and are ready to act like maniacs, then surprise you by breaking hard as soon as they just think you could be inclined to cross the street, and wait patiently until the deed is done. And vroooom, they are at it again.

Third major discovery, and most crazy: there is no ice! I mean, there are fantastic ice creams, but no ice cubes. There are no ice machines, no ice buckets, no plastic/carton mugs overflowing with cubes to cool a little spurt of cola. No one uses ice (the Portuguese don’t drink much coke either). Their white wines are served well cooled, of course. But water, no. Freshly pressed orange juice, no. If you ask for ice in your drink, the Portuguese shrug and return with three tiny cubes added—that should do it. And if you ask for a large coffee, they nod and say, “An Americano, sure.” For anything that’s not a shot of strong espresso is an Americano.

Four. I am blown away by the small size of the country. Twenty-two years in the wide open spaces of the American deserts and prairies has changed my perceptions. Still in Kansas, I studied the map of Portugal, of course. Intellectually, I fully understood that the distances there would be less, a lot less large, the country being roughly one-third of the state of Kansas, or New Mexico. I knew also that Portugal has a good ten million inhabitants, more than half of them living in the three largest cities, Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra), which fact, aided by many photos of the country and its people provided on the Internet, helped me to envision “how it would be to live there”. Well, no way; even though I grew up and lived for fifty years in a country even smaller than Portugal and even more densely populated, it became clear I had no clue of what was waiting for me. There is no wide open space in Portugal other than, in the west, the Atlantic Ocean.

There is hardly a spot where you are not aware of either a road or a grouping of houses; towns are connected by series of villages or hamlets, or road-lining rows of individual homes; and in many cases, even towns are less than ten, fifteen minutes away from other towns. Many towns are formed by rather small clusters of buildings, with the old town centers dating back to 1200, 1500, or 1800 being very compact and the younger burbs less so, but nevertheless creating quite dense environments. The Alentejo in the southern part of the country is less populated; there, towns are divided by enormous vineyards and endless fields with fig and olive trees, and there are quite expansive views (but nowhere are no structures in sight).

The central part of Portugal is the smallest and feels small also because of the proximity of human settlement literally everywhere you look; the northwest is said to be even fuller. The northeast is high country where sometimes in the winter it even snows; that’s where you can find more space but nothing an American from the Midwest would be impressed of. Our home, smack in the middle of the country, is less than a two-hour drive from Lisbon, just two hours from Porto in the north, one hour from the ocean, and it takes about the same time going east before we reach the Spanish border. Driving from Matfield Green, Kansas to Abiquiu, New Mexico took us eleven hours; in half of that time we could make it from Tomar to Spain’s capital Madrid. You have no idea how life-changing this difference of scale is. A few minutes to stroll to market places or supermarket, to restaurants, to old castles, to the city hall–instead of a forty-minute or longer drive out and back again like we had grown accustomed to in America. The days in Portugal last hours longer.

Five. There is another reason for the days to last longer than in America and especially rural America. Most Portuguese do not sit down at the dinner table before 9 or even 10 p.m. We are trying hard to adjust to this and other for us new regimes.

Ton Haak, August 2016