The Portugal Years – Year 1: Our First Christmas

Roasted Chestnuts
Roasted Chestnuts

In November, the weather was rainy and cold. Black umbrellas, black clothes and long nights were the new normal. We moved from fall into winter. Few Portuguese homes had insulation, and none that I knew of had central heating.

I started baking more often to keep the house warm. There was a portable gas heater, but I was concerned about it using up all the oxygen. We layered our clothes according to the temperature. Our tea kettle whistled often and we made tea. Being newlyweds, we didn’t need a good excuse for extra cuddling for warmth. And that was when we learned not to combine making tea with, um, cuddling.

One liter of milk
One liter of milk

By mid-December long lines of people were waiting patiently for their bacalhau (dried codfish).  Boiled dried codfish is a Portuguese Christmas tradition.  That year it was scarce.

The cows went dry in December as was their custom. Until then, we had been buying fresh milk in disposable plastic bags. Our only milk resource after that was boxes of milk with a shelf life. That was a shock to my culinary expectations.

chestnuts roasting
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

There were comforts for the season. One was roasted chestnuts. The smell of them roasting was a come hither fragrance. I’d never had them before, I but took to them like an ant does to sugar. Along the streets the vendors had their little brazier of chestnuts. They were an inexpensive treat that came wrapped in a paper cone, satisfied your hunger and warmed your hands.

About a week before Christmas, Harry borrowed a car and we went looking for a Christmas tree. We found a long-needled pine tree that we thought would look nice in our apartment. The ceiling was high, so we picked a tall tree. Too tall as it turned out. We cut it down, but it still brushed the ceiling. The next job was to decorate. All we had was a handful of ornaments that my former students had given me. What we did have were hidden in the pine needles. But, as long as Harry had his favorite cookies, he was good.

I was looking forward to the holiday break from language school. I had plans to read  books, play with my Samantha cat and just kick back. Didn’t happen. Right before Christmas day, Harry announced that he was coming home with a family of Americans who had just arrived. They would be working with a missions organization in Portugal and needed somewhere to stay until they found a place to live.

They were some of the most delightful folks I have ever met, but I was selfish. I really didn’t want to share our first Christmas together with anyone. Eventually, I got over it. Mostly. It wasn’t long until we become friends with them. But Harry and I did talk about how important it is to make sure that we communicate with each other before making major decisions. (We still haven’t agreed the definition of “major decision”.)

One other memorable thing happened that winter. In December, color television came to Portugal. And color TV created a revolution. When the favorite Brazilian dramas turned up in living color, the women’s clothing industry began to sell lighter, brighter clothing. And there I sat with all of my new dark wardrobe. 😀

Dona Xepa, Brazilian Soap Opera
Dona Xepa, Brazilian Soap Opera

What is your most memorable holiday that you’ve experienced? Why? (It can be any holiday, not just Christmas.)


The Portugal Years – Year 1: Thanksgiving and My Curiosity (O dia de ação de graças)

The autumn days were pleasantly busy with language study and immersion in the Portuguese culture. We called family rarely –  it was very expensive. (And for the record, it took me a long time before I would even answer the phone  after I learned the proper way to greet someone: “Está?”(Are you there?) I was afraid they would expect me to understand them.  The temperatures crept down to “need a sweater and wool skirts.” And it rained often as is the custom of autumn weather in Portugal.

By the time November rolled around I was accustomed to purchasing meat from the butcher. In that shop where all of the bloody meat was hanging on hooks in the windows, I discovered that a pound of ground beef (ground on the spot) was a little less than a half of a Kilo. So, I asked for half a kilo to keep it simple. It took awhile to get used to it; it was very lean meat.

One of my adventures in cooking involved a cow’s tongue. (The cow was dead

Cow's Tongue
Cow’s Tongue

when I got the tongue in case you were worried). Like the elephant’s child, my curiosity had no end. I pulled out my trusty cookbook and fearlessly went where I’d never gone before. Harry got through that meal, but asked me politely to lose that recipe.

We lived near a farmer’s market that was open once or twice a week. Most of the food was produce – and it was lovely.


One stall caught my eye week after week. They sold rabbits. I knew I had a Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook that had a recipe for Hasenpheffer. One Saturday, my curiosity got the better of me again. I asked for 2 rabbits. The lady who owned the stall pulled two out of the cage, murdered killed them, and put them in a bag for me. I had a few queasy regrets as I carried the warm rabbits home in the bag. This experiment eventually turned out much better than the cow tongue. But I couldn’t bring myself to make it again. I did, however, start buying stewing hens when I wanted to make soup – I even put the eggs into the soup.

When Thanksgiving was just around the corner, I began looking at the turkeys in the butcher shop. They looked scrawny compared to the Butterball Turkeys I was used to eating. They were, however very good. (Long years later I learned about free range poultry – we never appreciated what we had when we had it.)  The Portugal team gathered together for the meal at our house. We were voted in because we had the most room and the biggest table. Everyone brought food that they liked when they celebrated Thanksgiving in the states. Of course we had turkey. Someone found a store that sold imported food and we had cranberry sauce. Sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, vegetables, pumpkin pie – all were there in abundance. And there was one thing I’d NEVER seen at a Thanksgiving meal. Our secretary was from Miami, and she brought deviled eggs.


Have you ever had any extraordinary food adventures? What do you like to have on the table for it to be Thanksgiving?

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 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 Adventure – Into the Wild, Blue Yonder

(Disclaimer: this is by way of being a memoir. After 33 years, memories tend to get a little fuzzy around the edges. If you notice something that you remember differently from me, please don’t disillusion me. Thank you. 🙂 )

(If you missed the earlier posts, you can find them here: one and two.)

Any hesitation in making a decision to fly to Portugal in the summer of 1978 lay in the necessary financial commitment on my end. VISA credit cards were still somewhat of a novelty, and I was certain that the airline would not accept my Strawbridge’s credit card. When you make around $6000 per year (before taxes), even in 1978 the necessary expenditure was an impossible commitment. I nearly had to say “No.” Then, my dad stepped in and offered to lend me enough to supplement my budget. He said that I could pay him back when school started back up in the fall.

I went to a travel agency in town which took care of my passport photo, and my travel arrangements. I had never flown anywhere on my own, and was all in a dither getting things together. No one wanted to drive me to New York City, (go figure) so I reserved space in an airport limo.

In late June, or early July my whole family spent two weeks at the beach. Someone my dad worked with had a cottage on Fenwick Island, Delaware. We had been going for several summers. Our routine included cooking meals ahead, and keeping it simple when we were at the cottage. Another ritual included my mom putting together a jig-saw puzzle, and my oldest brother taking one of the pieces and hiding it. My oldest brother had joined the army by that summer, so someone else had to carry on that tradition. I can’t quite recall who it was. 😉 Mostly, we just kicked back and enjoyed sun, surf, and sleep. We kept the possibility of one more family member missing by the next summer in the back of our minds.

TWA Flight Center

Somehow I managed to keep both feet on the ground until the day of departure. The sad puppy eyes that my dad used when he looked at me might have helped that. When the airport limo arrived, it looked nothing like what I had pictured. But, the driver did his job well, and we arrived with time to spare before I needed to board the plane.

The direct flight to Portugal left in the early evening. As we queued up for takeoff, I had time to ponder Harry’s last letter. It was full of the detailed information I needed to get through the airport, and customs. He could not come in and help me get through, but his directions lacked nothing. When I got to the exit, he wrote, he would be waiting for me. He added that I should try to sleep on the plane, because it would be a long day after I landed. Right. At the end of the letter before his signature, he wrote: “I love you” with no further explanation. That pretty well freaked me out. But not enough to keep me from going.

Lisbon at sunrise

The flight was about seven hours. I wasn’t thrilled about being in a jet hovering between sky and water for seven hours, let alone doing that while trying to sleep, but I tried. I passed the hours reading, thinking, watching the inflight movie, and eating. Shortly after our on-board continental breakfast, the sun came up over the horizon, and we were circling over Lisbon. It was about 7 a.m. Lisbon time.

Even though I knew no Portuguese, Harry’s instructions were clear, and I had no problems. I was a little stressed when I didn’t see him immediately upon passing through customs, but it was only a short moment before he walked in the door with a big smile on his face. He walked over to me, reached out his arm, and shook my hand.

Next installment: here