The Portugal Chronicles – Year 1- Living and Learning

Portugal Team
The Portugal Team, 1979 – Harry and I are on the far right. Can you tell which are the Americans and which are Portuguese?

One Sunday afternoon we met up with the rest of the Portugal Team for a group picture. It was early fall, and the weather was cool. Harry wanted me to fit in as well as possible, and had counseled me to leave my bright American clothes in the states. Reluctantly, but with the newlywed desire to please, I did the best I could. Harry fit in except for one incurable problem: he was much too tall.

Another day I met him in town to shop for furniture. While I waited on the designated corner, I noticed that the shop I was standing by was a pet store. A litter of Siamese kittens were overflowing with cute in the window. Harry was not moved by their beautiful blue eyes.

We picked out a sofa, some chairs and a bed frame. We already had a mattress and had been sleeping on it on the floor. Then, he took me to the appliance shop to choose a stove. The first serious culture shock hit. Those stoves were too small for my baking pans. My second shock came when I looked at the front of the stove. There were buttons for the burners, but the oven had only two heat settings: low and high, indicated by a small flame and a large flame. I asked Harry about that. He said that all of the stoves were like that. *mild panic attack* I persevered, though, and eventually found a stove with temperature settings. In Celsius.

The things that we sent by ship (including our 220 washer and dryer) arrived around two months after we did. After about two weeks and some greasing of palms we had our things. It was like Christmas as we opened boxes and set up housekeeping for reals.

One night around ten p.m., Harry and I were cuddling in one of the new chairs in the living room as is the manner of newlyweds. Suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door. Harry pulled himself together to answer the door and I took myself off to another room in the house. It was one of the missionaries from another organization. He had seen a light on in our apartment and thought he’d stop by and say hello.

One fine day we went back to the pet store. Harry, in the way of newlyweds, wanted to please me. We  bought a Siamese kitten and named her Samantha. Animals were not allowed on buses, so we had to smuggle her home in a cardboard carrying box.

Parque Eduardo
The park in Lisbon where the photo was taken. In the distance is the monument to the Marques de Pombal and the Tagus river.

The Portugal Adventure – The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly

What happened after Harry picked me up at the airport….

The Portugal Years

Harry had borrowed a car for the occasion and showed me some of the sights as I watched the traffic fly by.

We were due at the director’s home for breakfasts and Harry did not want to be late. I had not slept on the plane and was ready for a nap. Instead, I was confronted with more people I was ready for.

The Continental breakfast was a novelty and I mostly listened and answered questions. Apparently, no one expected Harry to show up with a woman on his arm. Harry was trying to play it cool. Until he poured coffee into his tea cup.


To sleep, perhaps to dream – Shakespeare

After breakfast, the field director’s wife led me past the puppies to the apartment beneath hers. It belonged to a family who were missionaries with TEAM. They were on leave in the states, and had agreed…

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Taking the Bus at Rush Hour

Portugal’s fine transportation system is always most packed to capacity  during the rush hours. My classes at the University began relatively early, and I often had to stand in the bus for the second leg of the journey. When one is that close to other people, some sort of body contact is to be expected. However.

One morning I was standing in the aisle of the bus that would eventually stop by the University. Someone bumped into my backside. I glanced back and discovered that it was a man who was pointedly not making eye contact. I moved as far away as I could to give him more room. He bumped against my backside again. I moved away again as far as the crowded bus allowed. And I waited.

The third time he bumped against me, I was ready. I “accidentally” and forcefully brought the heel of my shoe down hard on his instep. I wasn’t familiar with the words in his verbal response, but he found another place to stand


The Portugal Chronicles – Year One: Of the Learning of the Language

faculdade de letras
Faculdade de Letras (The College of Languages or Letters)
My diploma
My diploma

My husband still likes to tell his story about his first day in Portuguese language

English-Portuguese Dictionary
English-Portuguese Dictionary

school in Lisbon. The University of Lisbon offered  a course of Portuguese for Foreigners (Português para Estrangeiros) taught by a native speaker of the language. There were people from many countries in the class. Harry fortified himself with two words and a phrase that he was certain would keep him out of trouble: Sim (yes) Não (No) and Eu não sei. (I don’t know.)

The first day in class he learned that the teacher spoke only Portuguese and French. Imagine learning a second language from a teacher that did not speak your first language! She began by asking each student a question. Harry was flummoxed. When his turn came, he went with “Eu não sei.” The teacher’s angry response needed little translation. Afterward, the Dutch woman sitting next to him leaned over and said, “She asked you what your name is.”

Harry’s error helped me be prepared.  However, trying to learn a language from someone who knew no English, and whose language you don’t speak, is challenging at best. Learning the words is easy. Picking up on all of the nuances, idioms and slang may take years. You haven’t really arrived until you stop translating in your head before you talk, you dream in the second language and you are able to understand the puns.


Fortunately, I also had a private tutor during that first year, Dona Isabel. Her mother was English, and she spoke both languages fluently. I spent an hour each week with her. My only fear was of her terrifying Chihuahua, “Sniff” whose stentorian barking began when I buzzed my teacher’s apartment, and subsided into disgruntled growls for the duration of the hour. Agatha Christy’s books that were translated into Portuguese were my other “tutors.”

 I was speaking basic, simple Portuguese well at the end of six months, but I still had a hard time hearing when someone spoke to me. Harry had no trouble hearing the language at first, but struggled with correct pronunciation.  The first year was the most difficult, especially because I knew how to ask the right questions but had to ask over and over to understand the answers. It was four years before I felt comfortable praying in Portuguese. And, oddly enough,  sometimes I still use Portuguese when it expresses my thoughts better than English. 

Learning a new language, and immersing yourself in a new culture is a humbling experience. It will change who you are – and how you see the world – probably forever.

Portuguese verbs
Portuguese verbs

The Portugal Adventure – I Love Coffee, I Love Tea

Post four from the beginning of the Portugal Years. One of my favorites!

The Portugal Years

It may have been the seven-hour flight over the Atlantic. Perhaps the loss of seven hours of my life added to it. I was in a place where my ability to speak English fluently was of minimal benefit. Or it could have been the shock of a handshake instead of the expected kiss factored into it.

My senses went on overdrive. It went beyond the whiff of diesel fumes. It was just something for which I had no olfactory memories. To this day, if you were to blindfold me, and open a jar full of Portuguese air under my nose, I would immediately iria começar a falar Português. The language reverberated in my ears. Sounding like a merging of Spanish and French. I kept trying to hear the conversation. Unsuccessfully! The golden orb in the azure sky gently warmed the morning without the harsh summer blast to which I was…

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Portuguese Cuisine: Grilled Sardines (Sardinhas Assadas)

Preparing fish is one of the Portuguese fine arts. With approximately half of the Portuguese border lying next to the Atlantic Ocean, this should not come as a surprise. Sardines are plentiful along the coast, and fortunately they do not put them in tins; they grill them.

Every summer pretty well every region of Portugal has its own sardine festival. Vendors set up their grills along the streets and cook the freshly caught fish. People buy and enjoy them.

It’s an easy recipe:

Season freshly caught sardines with salt, lemon juice and cilantro on the outside and the inside. Carefully place the fish on a very hot grill. Turn when the first side is a golden brown. When well cooked, place the grilled sardines on a platter and cover it with a “sauce.” Take two peeled and chopped tomatoes, three tablespoons of olive oil, crushed raw cloves of garlic to taste, thin slices of onion to taste, salt and pepper and the juice of a half of lemon. Sauté the onion and garlic then add to the other ingredients and mix lightly. Serve with grilled potatoes sprinkled with olive oil.

Grilled Sardines
Grilled Sardines

Do you like sardines or other fish?

The Portugal Chronicles – Year One: How Do You Get There From Here?


“Mass transportation is doomed to failure in North America because a person’s car is the only place where he can be alone and think.”

So wrote Marshall McLuhan. And he most likely was right. In 1979, Portugal had a comprehensive public transportation system. There were buses (some of them were double deckers) trollies, trains, an elevator and taxis. If you had a schedule, you could go nearly anywhere and back during transit hours; taxis were available almost anytime for a fraction of what a New York City cabbie would expect.

Double Decker
Double Decker

With Harry already an expert in getting around Lisbon, I learned quickly how to navigate public transportation. I carried my little notes and bus schedules with me at all times during the early years. Frankly, I was happier in buses than I was in a car. The inhabitants have some, erm, creative driving habits. Think of that movie with the cars driving around the Arc de Triumph in Paris.

Harry fit in well in Portugal with his dark complexion and hair.


His height, however, was another story. But it was clear by my looks, that I was not Portuguese. The Portuguese were curious and  had to find out if I could speak the language.  For months I arrived at the bus stop where someone would test his or her theory on my country of origin by asking me the time.  It was always the same question, but it was expressed in several different ways. Mostly it amounted to “What time is it? Do you have the time? Do you have the right time?”  After a few weeks, when someone addressed me at the bus stop, I assumed it was about the hour and simply held out the arm adorned with my cheap Timex. (Though it’s possible that they just wanted to know the time.)

If you noticed that I listed an elevator with the other transportation, it’s not a mistake. Here’s the thing: Lisbon was built on some seriously steep hills. The Santa Justa Elevator in Lisbon was built to facilitate downtown Lisbon shoppers in their persuits.  Raoul de Mesnier du Ponsard designed it. He was an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel, whose name you should recognize.

Elevator in Lisbon
Elevator in Lisbon

The only caveat about public transportation is that one must be vigilant about one’s wallet and other valuables, and especially when the transportation is crowded. Pick pockets can move quickly and stealthily; they are professionals.

Talk to me – do you have any questions about transportation in Portugal? What is your favorite way to travel?

Portuguese Legends – O Galo de Barcelos

The Portugal Years

Galo de Barcelos

If you visit Portugal, you will see multiple variations of these colorful roosters nearly everywhere that you go. One of the popular (but unofficial) Portuguese symbols, the story of the Cock of Barcelos goes  so far back in history, that it would be difficult to discover the exact origin. Some place it in the 16th century. There are several permutations of the story. This one features a Spaniard from Galicia, who had come to Portugal to make a pilgrimage to a shrine. Given that any truce between Portugal and Spain at that time was, at best, an uneasy one I can imagine something like this happening.

A Spaniard from the province of Galícia, Spain, was making a pilgrimage to a Portuguese holy shrine. He stopped in the village of Barcelos to rest from his journey during the heat of the day.

That afternoon, a horrible crime was…

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Portuguese Cuisine – É Canja ! (Portuguese Chicken Soup)

I made some of this yesterday. Without the chicken feet. See if you feel like it seems easy to make.

The Portugal Years

Have you ever said, “It’s easy as pie.”? If you’ve ever made a pie from scratch, you know it isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Portuguese saying is, “É canja!” It’s as easy as making chicken soup. I think making chicken soup is much easier than making a pie from scratch (let alone one made from flour, shortening, and all the rest). It does, however, take time to do it right. This is not a microwave recipe. But it is good. Additionally, a popular proverb states: “Cautela e caldos de galinha nunca fizeram mal a ninguem.” (“Caution and chicken broth never did anyone harm.”) This is a basic recipe. Most cooks have their own signature touches they put in their Canja.

1 large stewing hen (You can make chicken soup with a fryer, but it does not come close to the rich flavor of a…

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