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January 12, 2011


I'm not sure what I was really expecting this Christmas.... I must admit I was pleasantly surprised that Portugal displayed quite a bit of festive holiday decor in the streets, the malls, and the office where we work.  For a place that I feared would embarrass me with its lack of holiday cheer, Portugal shone and sparkled this year!

For the sake of all those who wonder about daily life in Portugal, I captured a fairly detailed account of our Christmas here, both at the clinic where we spend our days and at the traditional dinner with the family.  The Cerebral Palsy Association of Coimbra hosts a big lunch, both potluck and catered, to celebrate the last work day before Christmas.  They decked their halls with a few trees...

Don't ask why the tree is roped off?  To protect it from small children in wheelchairs, perhaps?

And please don't ask why this one's decorations consist mostly of large bouquets of
spraypainted rose and hydrangea bouquets.  [This is not typical].

Also not typical, but completely adorable, is the tree that the kids created in their art class, or so I assume.  Please note the composition of the shot to include the nativity!

The APCC also hosted a lunch with leitao (little piglet)...

... fruit, breads, and appetizers... all cold, of course... one thing I still haven't gotten used to!  [And no, these are not the only apps... my camera just didn't capture them all!]

...and desserts!

Cerebral Palsy Association Cake
American cookies made by yours truly... and subsequently not touched until after all the Portuguese cakes have been eaten
Portuguese "sweet rice" : rice pudding that only slightly resembles vomit with a dash of cinnamon
We loaded our plates, mine specifically with the most delicious European delight that has touched my lips since I stepped foot on this continent... it's a cheese spread, and it's heavenly.  (super easy recipe to come).

And then we sat at all the children's tables in the cafeteria.  Because that's how we roll. 

Here we are with two of our colleagues that I volunteer with, Graca and Mario.  And no, I don't love them only for their English-speaking abilities... but I cannot lie... because of that I might love them more!

It also should be noted that this party was not the only chance I gave myself to indulge in sweets.  I pretty much have freely and intentionally lived uninhibited in this area since I stepped foot on Portuguese soil.  I mean, I have to get to know the food of this culture, don't I?  How could I possibly do that with rules and restrictions, especially in a place where it's entirely too difficult to count calories???  And so, while my occupational therapist friends Ana Raquel and Marisa are snacking on apples every day, I usually have some sort of cookie, cracker, or the like.  I thought it was necessary to catch Ana Raquel and Marisa with sweets in their hands, since it is a very rare occurrence!

These girls, along with countless others, have been quite diligent in welcoming me with open arms, even though I'm still just a volunteer here.  The girls on Luis's team are so kind and hospitable...

... and our other occupational therapist, Francisco, is just a big teddy bear... even though he won't smile for a photo to save his life!

And of course I couldn't forget to mention that in my very small Christmas box that I brought from the States, I had no hesitancy when packing my candy cane striped Christmas All Stars and light-up Christmas tree socks.  Mario shot this photo and I'm glad he did... I need to have these shoes documented properly!  [If you look closely, you can see the red lights on the trees on my socks!]

And now, why don't you go ahead and take a nap, or perhaps get up and stretch or get yourself a snack?  This is the longest blog entry in the history of the universe and I'd like you to be rested before you head into the second section!  Go ahead... indulge yourself!

Of course, on the first Christmas in which I escaped the wintery north of the United States, Portugal sets records with cold temperatures.  Of course.  Christmas Eve brought us to Pinhel [pronounced "pin-yell", not "pin-hell], Luis Miguel's hometown, to pick up his parents, then a hop, skip, and a jump over to Guarda, the "big city", for dinner with aunt, uncle, and cousins.... and puppies.  Much to the disappointment of my future children (and present husband), I am not really a "dog person".  My mom always said she "wasn't a dog person", and I never really understood it... until I myself acquired the same trait.  These puppies, though, triggered no allergic reaction, were insanely adorable, and provided hours of distraction during a time when I really couldn't communicate much!  I also thought that our favorite American dog, Hula, would enjoy seeing some of our new Portuguese puppy friends!

Whenever anyone asks me about Portugal, wither they are Portuguese or American, they usually ask about the food.  Our family dinner was, (for me), equally delightful and equally strange.  In addition to codfish, they just love octopus here.  When visiting a relative earlier that morning on our way into town, we walked into the kitchen as she was cutting the long legs of the octopus, separating the other parts of his body, and then dipping, rolling, breading and frying them.... and this is not your average restaurant calamari.  These guys still have their tentacles, and they were very much alive just a short time earlier.  (As much as it would add to my story, unfortunately I don't think his aunt actually speared them from the ocean herself ).  Thank God that Luis's family already likes me and I don't feel the need to impress them by eating octopus... because I just don't think I could do it.  Delicacy schmelicacy.

The table did offer me one of my favorite dishes here, bacalhau com natas (codfish with cream).

It's about as close as Portugal gets to a classic Midwestern casserole -- small pieces of codfish, potatoes, cheese, and a delicious cream sauce all baked together.  Comfort food for sure.  Thank God Luis's mom made that, because the octopus stew (or whatever it was) did not look super appealing, with its large pieces of cooked cabbage gracefully floating alongside rice and octopus legs.  See the tentacles??  You can click on the photo to get a bigger version for the full effect.

The Portuguese sure love their cooked cabbage as well!

The dessert table, though, offered many delicious options, including a few traditional Portuguese desserts...
Cake:  calchao de noiva ("Newlywed mattress"... because that's what it looks like)

And nothing says "Christmas" like thinking about newlyweds on their mattress!!!  :)

Rabanadas... which are basically stiff french toast with crunchy edges and cinnamon and sugar on top (almost an elephant ear??), usually served a bit soggy in the middle... not my favorite.

 Additionally there were cavacas, the homemade pastries from Luis's aunt... 

coscureis... [not really sure what these are...??]

 ... Bolo de Rei, "King's cake", a super traditional Portuguese Christmas cake, very similar to American fruitcake.. except the Portuguese actually eat theirs instead of letting it sit in the pantry for years!

...and last, but not least, a post-dinner coffee with few American cookies, which I have learned are not technically "dessert" to be eaten after dinner, but rather a "snack" to be eaten with tea in the afternoon.  (This now explains why they went untouched at the office Christmas lunch!)

Dinner was a bit late considering that a fuse in the oven went out (of course... kind of like the record cold!)... but other than that, fairly uneventful.

Except for grandpa.

Though he's only a distant relative to Luis by a cousins's marriage, I referred to him as 'grandpa' all night because of his genuine laugh, his teasing of the grandkids, and because of his singing.  Do grandpas always sing?  My grandpa was always singing or whistling.  It was quite charming when 'gramps' started singing old traditional songs - cantar desgarrada - with Luis's dad and uncle.  Each guy takes a verse and sings to the others, then the next follows, and so on.  And occasionally they break out the harmonica, as Luis's dad, Jose, is playing here...

It was another one of those times that I felt like I was in a movie.  With a bunch of old men.  Like in the movie "Return To Me". (Anyone?  Anyone?)

As I mentioned, it was quite charming.  Until grandpa's singing continued while we waited for the oven.  Then while everyone was eating.  Then after we ate but some were still "digesting" at the table.  I must say it was quite humorous to watch the faces of those around the table, hoping this would finally be the last refrain of "Jesus... in the clouds... in the sky", but it surely wasn't.  I was expecting a fist to come flying at one point, but all the kind Portuguese kindly waited it out.  From an outsiders perspective, it was completely hilarious, so of course I took photos, which only encouraged him.  Too bad Luis didn't have my camera at the time when he put his face an inch from mine and declared loudly in Portuguese "She is beautiful!  I know a beautiful girl when I see one!!!!". 

Guess you had to be there.

We ended the night by talking to my family via Skype, and Luis and I both thouroughly enjoyed watching our dad's try to talk to each other, so I snapped a quick photo of them!  We are so thankful for this technology, and that Luis's cousin had internet at her house!

One Salewski family tradition, at least since I moved to MN to go to college, has been to take a photo together after the Christmas eve service at church.  Since I wasn't able to be in that photo in Wisconsin this year, I made sure to get one with the Almeidas, who thought it was a little silly at first but completely loved it after I asked my mother-in-law to sit on my father-in-law's lap.  Tee-hee!

I also added an extra ornament that we had to their tree... and of course, put it right next to Jesus... because that's where the Packers belong!

Returning to Pinhel that night, the lights at the city entrance welcomed us and reminded me that even though Christmas wasn't really marked by anything "special", that even though no one dressed up for dinner or attended church, that even though gifts were opened all at once without regard for another, and though Christmas overall seemed to be missing a bit of the sparkle I was used to, the lights still shone bright and really, truly, the only part that matters is Who we honor in our hearts!


  1. Hula loved the puppies! So sweet and tiny! Can we also please talk about the cleavage you have in the picture where you are showing your festive socks and shoes? I mean, forget the Christmas socks, check that cleavage!

  2. HAHA! Lana... what a eye!!! I need to go to the ophtalmologist, because I saw that photo before but I didn't get it :) Kisses for Hula, the pupie was smaler than Hula head :)


  3. Well... you know what they say... Sometimes a new culture just grows on you! :)