Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Portuguese Village Bar

The last section of our drive back from Guarda the other day was along a fairly small road through the mountains (around 1500 M), the twists and turns along the precipitous edge of the slopes requiring some very alert driving, as well as some heavy praying over the alertness of the oncoming drivers.

Twisting into a small village (the mountains are dotted with them, clusters of 2-300 houses, a church, a bar sometimes, a restaurant rarely), we slowed down to admire a flock of goats belling their noisy way through what seemed like a v. large vacant lot or a v. small field right in the middle of a residential block. Anticipating my request, Pater pulled over to park, and encouraged me to get a picture, so I headed over with my camera, past the old goats of the human variety that were sitting on a wall nearby -- these latter old goats (and their younger counterparts occasionally) are a feature of every village as well, especially from noon onwards when they seem permanently fixed to their seats, keeping watch on everything that passes.

As I set the camera to video mode and panned the field of goats, Pater caught up to me and called out something which I answered. Nearby, a solitary smoker's ears perked up and he engaged us both, speaking in English. Even more surprising for these parts, he continued to chat in v. decent English and then expressed "what a pleasure it is for me to speak English." repeating "It gives me great pleasure." Obviously, we were happy enough to indulge him in this and chatted for a few minutes about this and that, weather and geography and goat-wise. Just as we were getting ready to head back to the car, though, he asked us if we would drink a beer with him, his treat. I'm not sure which surprised me more, his request or Pater's barely-hesitating acceptance, as Pater, though friendly enough, is often assessed as reserved, and he's never been the guy to go for beers after work. But he sensed an opportunity here, to get to peek inside local life, and he also sensed a need, a loneliness of language in someone whose English (one of many non-native languages held by a man whose world travelling was always driven by stresses of economy and politics rather than desires and whims) revealed aspects of personality generally tucked away from his Portuguese neighbours.

So we went with Edouard around the corner to this tiny, smoky bar -- just a large room with tables, a pleasant young woman serving drinks, bicas (coffee), bottled rather than draft beer, simple snacks, and a variety of patrons behaving, as E. pointed out, as if they were in their own homes. Two old fellows played dominoes at the window table as they apparently do each day from 3 p.m. on(that's the domino table, E. pointed out, the one we sat at because it was the only other spot that would host 3, was the "cards table".
We got our Sagres (that and Bock are the beers to order in Portugal) and chatted with E. about the village's size and qualities (perhaps 500 pop., most worked nearby, main industry textile-related historically and even now), his own history (he was fairly evasive but was born to Mozambiquan parents, learned his English in Johannesburg, had worked in shipping many places, and was hoping to put together some possibility for retirement within the next few years).

But his pleasure in speaking English was soon under threat -- along came a good friend of his, described by him as a v. good man with a good heart, the richest man around these parts . . . And this man had lived in France for many years, working there as so many Portuguese did during economic struggles in Portugal, and was pleased to speak French with Pater, delighting in some variety, I suspect, to the regularity of village bar life. E. was equally comfortable in French, so the next beer (our treat by now, although that took some arm-wrestling) was enjoyed in that language while curious villagers drinking around us tried to figure out who we might be and what we were all talking about.

One of them would not be deterred by his lack of English or French, but shuffled over to join us, enthusiastically telling us something important in a Portuguese I couldn't have understood even if it had been enunciated through more teeth than this old fellow possessed. His charm was still in full force, though, and E. introduced him as "the oldest man in these parts, 91", which clearly delighted him even if he couldn't follow us. Despite my repeating "No fallo Portuguese" he continued to rattle off something which had the other men laughing and trying to shush him. Apparently, dementia was part of the picture and he was telling us how happy he was to see Pater, given that he'd worked with his father for many years, long ago. Pater just played along and hugged the old fellow back.

Then stood for a photo with him, for which the old guy took off his hat. Both he and Pater, you might be surprised to learn, are standing for this photo -- Pater is just six feet; Mr. Oldest Man might be 4'10" . . . What a life he's probably lived . .

By now, of course, everyone is best friends at our table. Still, we were surprised to receive a very generous, emotional, sincere invitation from a somewhat drunk "richest man" (who, I suspect would have been embarrassed and self-deprecating at this description by his admiring, English-speaking friend). Apparently, he had a beautiful big house, gardens, and piscine (swimming pool) and if we had our maillot de bain and our caleçon, we were welcome to come home with him where we could visit more, swim, and eat the meal he would prepare for us, staying there overnight before continuing our journey -- he had lost his wife seven months earlier and found the large space sad and empty without company. A moving appeal, for sure, and Pater told me later that perhaps under different circumstances he might even have accepted. As it was, we had another 90 minutes driving ahead of us before getting back to our maillot, etc., never mind the bed we'd paid to sleep in, and, after all, we're not in the habit of going home with complete strangers. Still, we regret just slightly the missed opportunity but drove away v. content with the momentary connection we'd made, the marvels of travel and language and friendship.
This post is scheduled for publication early Tuesday morning. Today, Monday, we're headed to Paris by train, our Portugal sojourn over for this year. Now to hit the road . . .


  1. Wonderful story. I had a conversation with my mother and friends last Saturday (in an Italian restaurant in Glasgow) about this very phenomenon ie. the friendlines of the Portuguese. We all had stories of drinks bought for us, invitations to eat,lifts given, the excellent French of old men who have lived in the Belgian Congo. It's a wonderful country and we're lucky enough to have a Portugueuse quarter and many Portugueuse restaurants here in Bordeaux.

  2. Pater must have some English in him too, because we are very very reserved, I am always expecting to be mugged and so rarely even make eye contact on holiday. Yet it is I who lose out because your adventure sounds fun and I bet if you went back in a years time you would be remembered!
    It is funny how people fom farming communities are so small, In Emins village it is the same and would you believe a large chunk of my family (400years of farming) is under 5" tall!

  3. Heartwarming and friendly...holiday adventures that will become cherished memories. The people do seem very gregarious and they have embraced you and pater!

  4. As I read your post on Gaurda yesterday, I was thinking about the twisty mountain roads through the mountains in the area. My G always adored driving on those roads (and I always had my hands clenched on something, usually a map, trying not to crumple it irretrievably.

    Your adventure sounds wonderful. We always found the Portuguese to be warm and incredibly hospitable. What fond memories you will have, so much richer than just driving and touring, for the warmth of the human connection.

  5. this is an amazing story mom. I was smiling the whole read through. :)

  6. Lesley: Interesting, isn't it, when a first impression might easily be of the Portuguese reserve -- yet once they opened up to us, we found nothing but friendliness.
    Alison: Still chortling at your comments on my "prick on the coals"post -- but really, you come from a short family? I am surprised.
    Hostess: Warm memories, yes, indeed.
    Mardel: Glad to have you commenting, especially as someone who's visited this very special area -- and you make me realize how much we (Pater and I) need to appreciate and take advantage of the health we have right now, for travelling. No guarantees . . .
    Girlcook: Dad wondered if you'd be reading - can't you just see him there??

  7. Such generosity of spirit on both sides; I often think travel and encounter with strangers brings out the best from both sides. Just lovely.

  8. ahh .. it's these moments with people in other places that add so much to travelling .. i'm enjoying your trip ..

  9. Duchesse: I, too, think that aspect of travel is quite powerful -- we let down our usual guards, I suppose, out of our normal milieu, even as we are more vulnerable in some ways -- an interesting apparent contradiction.
    Jane: these seem to be the moments that remain strongest in our memory of our travels, don't they?!


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