What Susan Learned In the Woods Behind the University

Waiting for the connecting bus
Waiting for the connecting bus

As I began to have confidence in my ability to find my way around Lisbon, I decided to explore. One day I deviated from my habitual bus route to the University for Portuguese language class. It was broad daylight and the campus was crawling with students and faculty. What could possibly go wrong, right?

At the place where I transferred from one bus to another there was another bus with “University” on the marquee. I looked at it day after day, and wondered why there were two different routes to the school. After long deliberation, I decided one morning  to woman up and satisfy my curiosity.

I may or may not have had a few qualms once I was on board. We were driving in a different direction than my usual bus, of course. As I rode through unfamiliar territory I found myself moving into high alert. I wasn’t sure from where I would be exiting along this route. It was taking longer than my normal transportation, and I nearly missed the exit stop for fear of missing the exit stop.

This bus stopped in back of the University building. Between the bus stop and the University there was a beautiful passage through some woods, and I was the only person walking through it. Due to the longer bus ride, I was moving along with what was for me a brisk clip through the rustling leaves.

Past the halfway point, I felt someone touch me on the shoulder. I jumped, turned around and saw a man who looked like he was “challenged.” He  beckoned me to follow him, and followed up the invitation with some gestures that needed no translation. I moved away quickly and repeatedly yelled in both English and Portuguese, “No!!! Não!!!”

I am more of a meanderer than a sprinter, but on that day I might have come in first in a 5K run. I ran straight to the café in the University and got a “bica” (espresso) to calm my nerves that worked so well I nearly fell asleep in class. Looking back, I think that my admirer probably had gotten loose from The Punchy Lands population.

What kind of close calls have you survived? Do you have any advice about exploring? What is the lesson that Susan learned?

The Portugal Years – Year One: Price’s Pensão Residencial

Portuguese Hostel

When you live in a beautiful place with a delightful climate  and if it is in Europe you can depend on having visitors. If you have extra bedrooms as we did in our first home, you never know to whom you may be offering hospitality next.

Portugal fulfills all of those criteria, and the visitors did come. Family members came, friends came and people we’d never met came.  Occasionally, Harry and I considered naming our home Price’s Pensão Residencial (Price’s Hostel).

One of our first visitors was a young woman who had come to Portugal to do some art work for one of the mission organizations. She bunked on a mattress on the floor in one of the spare bedrooms. She did not want to share meals with us – asked us for to a shelf in our refrigerator so she could prepare her own meals.

A distant relative, Les Stouffer, came to visit us during our first year. He was our family’s perpetual bachelor, and had traveled all over the world but had not seen Portugal. He was an outstanding house guest and we enjoyed having him there.

One summer some basketball players came over from the states to do a basketball evangelism thing with the Portuguese teens. They slept on mattresses on the floor and I had to find my robe for the duration of their visit. It was the hottest summer we had while we were there.

One of our favorite visitors was a former student of mine. He was one of those unforgettable students that all teachers have in the course of their careers. He was smart, and had a great sense of humor (without which you really suffered in my classroom).

One Thursday I gave the students a social studies test on material we had spent three days reviewing. This student failed the test miserably. School policy was D and F grades required a parental signature on the offending test within three days.

On Monday afternoon, I got a phone call from his mother. She was greatly distressed, but I could not understand what she was saying. It sounded like, “We studied for the test all weekend.” I was terribly confused myself because I never administered a test to my students on Mondays and I told her so. She insisted.

When I realized she was talking about the social studies test, I tried to explain. She insisted that it was a test he took that day. When she finally heard me say, “He took that test on Thursday,” she still could not take it in. It took several  repetitions for her (and for me)  to understand that her fourth grade son had tried to scam us.

The Portugal Years – Year One, Language Pitfalls

language puzzles
The Language Puzzle

Learning a new language is fraught with hazards. Not only is it a case of learning what to say, but also what not to say and how to say it (or not.) Your ears are learning to tune in to an unknown audio channel. Your brain is learning how to receive and send.

Then, there is grammatical gender. Nouns, in some languages, are male or female. (German adds a neutral gender.) When you’ve gotten past the obviously gendered nouns, they throw in the word, “photo.” It looks like what you would have every reason to believe is masculine. Nope. It’s from the Greek language so it’s feminine. Once you have all of that figured out you may think, “By George! I think I’ve got it.” That’s a dangerous thought.

Enter:  the idioms. About the time you can translate 60% of what people say, that is the day that something new will come up. You translate it correctly, and you still do not understand what was said.  Word for word you let the phrase roll around in your head while you are trying to make sense of what you heard. Oops. You’ve just tripped over an idiom. Don’t break your head worrying over the words. Just ask the nearest native speaker to explain it.

One member of our team, who shall forever remain nameless, had a real aptitude for language bloopers. I should hand that gutsy person an award. While I was waiting to open my mouth until I could speak Portuguese perfectly, this person just plowed right in. In so doing, this colleague offered an unending source of amusement to both Portuguese and English-speaking people. Following are some of the verbal glitches I remember.

The team had been invited to supper at the home of one of the board members of our group after church one Sunday night. Our hostess gave us a tour of their home. When we got to the kitchen, the unnamed team member wanted to compliment her on her kitchen. What came out of the person’s mouth was not “kitchen” but the slang term for the part of her body on which she sits.

Another time our heroic team member meant to remark on a young woman’s sunburned neck. The remark ended up being about a similar sounding word but meant peach. Not neck.

Then there was the time this person was in a classy restaurant trying to order a bowl of a particular kind of ice cream. Unfortunately, what came out translated to ice cream which had been urinated on.

The classic one, though, happened in a teen Bible study. Our friend’s tongue got  twisted as said friend tried unsuccessfully many times to say the word, “penalized.” I’ll leave you think about that.

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 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 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?

The Portugal Chronicles – Year One: Food Shopping or What Exactly IS That?

The day after we moved into our apartment, Harry handed me a pocket sized English-Portuguese dictionary and a 1000 escudo bill (about $20.00 U.S.) and encouraged me to go to the mil-escudos-d-pedro-v-1980store and to get some groceries. Then he ran off to catch the bus.  My Portuguese at the time consisted mostly of sounds and a few words.  I could say “good morning, ” “good evening,” “good night” and “I don’t speak Portuguese.” However, when I said it, I discovered that it immediately set off a long monologue entirely in Portuguese.

I sat and studied the money.  I cast wary glances at the dictionary in my other hand. And I pondered the plethora of mishaps that might lie before me. I looked up hamburger and discovered it is the same word in Portuguese.  Harry loves hamburgers and I figured I couldn’t go wrong.

cobbleI set out on the cobblestone pavement, and paused outside of the butcher shop. The window was full of meat. Hanging on hooks.  Dripping into puddles of blood on the floor. I decided that there had to be  meat somewhere that didn’t look like a blood sacrifice.

I had been in the small market with Harry the previous year. Would that I had paid more attention. The small market carried a lot butcher shopof packaged foods. They even carried two brands of corn flakes (Kellogg’s and the National brand). But the fresh meat cuts did not look familiar, and my Portuguese did not stretch far enough to ask questions. If that were not enough, the meat was sold in Metric measures. I didn’t speak that yet, either.

Up and down the aisles I trolled until I found a small freezer. I peered at the contents. I couldn’t read the labels except for one package: “hamburger”. Bingo. I picked up some bread, potatoes (two things Harry told me he could not live without) and some milk and cookies. (The milk came in a plastic bag.)

At the check out, anxiety hit again. Was there enough money? How would I know how much money I should give them? What would I do if they talked to me?   At the register, they took my purchases, rang them up and then said something. I handed them the thousand escudos. The cashier asked me something. I shrugged. He gave me change.

The hamburgers were almost a hit. They were heavily seasoned, mostly with garlic and salt. I could foresee that eventually, I was going to have to make friends with the butcher shop.

Next episode: Transportation

The Portugal Chronicles, Year 1 Over the Threshold

We exited the airport building, and hailed a taxi. The driver put our suitcases in the trunk and drove us to Queijas where Harry had rented an apartment.

A little history, if I may. It was 1979 when I moved to Portugal with my husband, and five years or so before on April 25 the military overturned the government and the dictatorship. It was a bloodless revolution called the Carnation Revolution because the soldiers carried carnations in their rifles. Harry first went to Portugal in 1976, and the country was still rumbling in the wake. In fact, the airport was covered with military personnel. revolution

One of the outcomes was the emancipation of Portugal’s African colonies. Public utilities were, to put it mildly, in a state of disrepair. At times, a couple of weeks went by with no water. The Communist Party tried to take over the country at that time, but in the end the Socialist Party took the government under the leadership of Mário Soares.The Portuguese colonists were vacating the African colonies, and some arrived in Portugal with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Harry told me about the apartment on the ride to our new home. He added that he had left another couple from our organization to rent it from him until we arrived. His request was that they make sure the house was tidy for his bride. They reassured him.

We walked up the stairs to the first floor apartment. Harry unlocked the door and then carried me across the threshold. Inside, we shared our first (but not the last) kiss in our new home. It appeared that the couple who had been there had vacated the place in haste. Harry grabbed a broom and started to make up for their lack.

He walked me through the house. The kitchen was roomy and foreign looking to me. There was no stove or refrigerator in the place. But, it was cheerful. The window opened onto a pulley that I would use to hang out our laundry. We had a 220 washer and dryer on the way, but it would be at least a month before they would get through customs and to our home. And we were young and able so it washingdidn’t become an issue to wash the laundry by hand in the bathtub. It did, however, take some time to dry. (The Portuguese had concrete washtubs outside on their veranda that they used to do their laundry, which was probably nicer than the old ways.)

We had three bedrooms – a huge apartment in fact. There was a cupboard in the hallway where we would later put our firstborn to sleep while we packed to move to another house.

Then, there was the living room. The landlady had painted it especially for us. My American eyes could not adjust to the result of her thoughtfulness. It was dark teal paint and she had taken a paint roller with a floral pattern on it and carefully painted it in vertical strips around the room.

Next installment: food shopping, or what exactly is that?

The Portugal Chronicles – The Conference First; Home at Last

airportThe landing in Frankfurt, Germany was ummm…culture shock compared with the departure from JFK. It was more like what we deal with now when we choose to travel by air.

I had my camera, of course. When I tried to take a picture when we were going through customs, the Frau in the uniform grabbed it away from me. She told me in no uncertain terms: Nein! Sie können das nicht tun. I got it. I wasn’t in Kansas any more.

We were shuttled from the airport to a Gästehaus near where the conference was to be held. There were three bedrooms with three couples from Word of Life there. And one bathroom. Our freundliche Frau was an energetic woman and her home was immaculate at all times. She gave us good German breakfasts.

She schooled us, too. She objected to the amount of hot water Americans habitually use to take a simple shower. After the first night, she turned off the hot water heater* after about 30 minutes. I imagine she thought that was generous.

The conference was pretty typical Evangelical fare. It was intended to encourage weary missionaries who had been on the field awhile. It’s unfortunate, however, that I don’t remember anything except the meeting when the men and women were in separate rooms. It was mostly tips on getting along with one’s spouse. I do remember clearly one of the tips about hungry, grumpy husbands: “If he’s hungry, feed the beast.”swiss air

At long last, we took my ‘cello and boarded our Swiss Air flight to Lisbon. A short hop and we were circling around Lisbon. I could hardly wait.

Every city has it’s own smell, and Lisbon is no exception. After we went through customs, my olfactory nerves began to quiver. Though it was comprised of diesel fuel, cigarette smoke, and other components, to me is was eau de home.

hot water

* It was this type of small hot water heater that heats the water as it flows through.

The Portugal Chronicles – Year One: The Cello

hurry-up-and-wait-1My dad always said that the motto of the military is, “Hurry up, and wait.” In our case, it was almost a year of wait followed by a summer of hurry up. One of the last minute foot-caught-in-the-door events was my ‘cello.

When I was in fourth grade, I started taking flute lessons. The lessons got derailed by my inability to play an e flat and my anemia. In fifth grade, in another school, the music teacher handed me a ‘cello, and proceeded to teach me how to play. Every week I walked into the music room to his rendition of “If you knew Susie.”

I wish I had a photo to post of the expressions on my parents’ faces when I walked into the house with the ‘cello provided by the school district. They were never truly reconciled to it because 1. it was a really big instrument, and 2. it wasn’t ladylike. Later, I took up the violin as well, but the ‘cello was my favorite.

I ended up studying and playing the ‘cello for about five years. During that time my grandfather, a fan of Charlotte Harris on Lawrence Welk, took it into his head that I needed my own instrument. He found a used student ‘cello and gave it to me.

I gave up my studies in eleventh grade when one of our many moves landed me in a high school that had only a marching band. Without lessons and performance venues, I had little motivation to practice and play. I have lived to regret that choice.

Plan A for the ‘cello as we packed to go to Portugal was to leave it in the states. My grandfather discovered this plan and offered Plan B: he guilted cellous into taking it.  We had to buy it a ticket. The sad truth was that I never went back to playing it, and eventually the humidity of the Portuguese winters destroyed it.

The day that our wait was over, our families drove us to JFK Airport to see us off. We boarded, and set our faces toward the sunrise. Years later, I learned that my mother had an emotional breakdown that day and ended up in the hospital.

Next post: Adventures in Frankfurt.