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.)

pine

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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 Long Year Part 5 The Money Mystery

Twenty-Dollar-BillMy teaching salary during the ’78-’79 school year was $6000 before taxes. The average salary nationwide in 1979 was $17,500.00. Yes, I was teaching in a Christian school, and it was considered ministry. Ministry jobs seldom come even close to national averages at the best of times. I chose to live  at home, and paid my parents room and board as well as helping out with odds and ends of things. My mom and I had a deal where I did the cooking and she did the cleaning according to our gifts.

I never really worried much about money in my life. Even on that salary, I had enough for my needs and some to share. I also knew that my wedding would have to happen on a shoestring budget.

Also, I was pretty clueless about wedding planning. Enter, my friend, Karen. She asked me how my wedding plans were coming along. She suggested that now that we had our attendants, we might look for a wedding gown, tuxedos, plan menus, and other mundane details like reserving the church. Karen had known me for at least six years, and so she brought along an appropriate gift: two bridal magazines. My rose colored glasses changed to a more practical color: strictly business blue.

Karen knew then, (as my daughters know now), that I only get into the mood for clothes shopping about every other blue moon. Karen had talked me into buying some clothes before my trip to Portugal the summer of ’78, so she knew she would have to put some muscle into getting me to go wedding shopping. She wouldn’t leave me alone until I set a date with her to go look at and try on wedding gowns. She left me a list of things to do. (sigh)

The next day I grabbed my purse and got ready to go purchase some food to cook a treat for dinner. I made a list of ingredients and put it into my wallet. When I opened my wallet, the $20 that I had put in there after depositing my paycheck was gone. That twenty was approximately a quarter of my income for a week. I made a loud and noisy fuss, but no one owned up.

A few days later, I found a twenty-dollar bill in a shoe under my bed. About that time, my parents found the personal safe in their bedroom closet had been robbed, and the money they had saved up to buy Christmas presents was gone. Dad called the police, and they picked up fingerprints on the penny-loaferssafe. They belonged to  a family member who was living in the house at the time.

Charges were not pressed, and the money was not recovered. My parents were devastated. I was shaken to the core. Before the day was out, I had bought and installed a padlock on my bedroom door. I knew it wouldn’t keep out anyone who was determined to get in, but it might slow them down.

Harry was such a faithful correspondent during this time we were apart. This man who spoke only about ten words on our first date in 1970 now filled pages of words in weekly letters. He took all of my family’s quirks and spasms in his stride, and reassured me that they made no difference to him in our relationship nor in our future marriage together. I knew then that he was a keeper for sure.