Shabby background

October 29, 2011


I do believe that if asked to describe me, few would say that I’m an “observer”.  Most would probably say that I’m a talker, one who interacts constantly, and, perhaps, one who inadvertently draws undue attention to herself.  Admittedly, it’s all pretty much true. 

Since coming to Portugal, though, it seems that I have slowly shifted to the back of the room, moving out of the spotlight and into the shadows, mostly to observe.  Though stepping into an unfamiliar culture with little preparation has made me feel just a teensy bit inhibited and a not-so-teensy-bit intimidated, I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed seeing this culture from the ‘outside’.  Or maybe I just like to analyze everything inside and out.  Admittedly, this is true of me as well.

Though over-analyzing may not be my most attractive quality, I must admit it has given me great insight into myself as a person while I observe this foreign world around me. And let me tell you… these insights aren’t always pretty!

As we look back on an entire year living in Portugal -- my first time truly living abroad, as my longest stay had only been 30 days on a university trip -- I could probably write a book on all the observations I've made.  For reasons stated above though, I will start with my observations about Portugal and gently lead into all the scary things I’m learning about myself.  Also, please note that while these may be honest observations of situations that I encounter regularly, my opinions are 100% subjective and these things may not actually be universally true of the entire Portuguese culture or its people. Most phrases could probably begin with "At the non-profit organization where I work..." or "In our condo building..." or "At the stores where we shop..." [End disclaimer].

Então... vamos.

1)      The Portuguese excel at many things, like painting pottery and singing fado music, but I think my favorite characteristic of these wonderful people is their use of name affirmation.  If you are unfamiliar with it, it is the act of using the person’s name that you are speaking with while you are speaking with them.  For instance, “How are you, Kim?” or “Hey Kim, do you know how to say "buchecha" in English?”  If you have ever spent time with me, you are probably aware of my strong affection for name affirmation in its many forms: with friends, customer service representatives, waiters at restaurants, hotel clerks and flight attendants when traveling… the list goes on.  You can only imagine my delight when I realized that the Lord sent me to a country that lives in a constant state of name affirmation...

2)      The Portuguese speak incredibly loudly, and often with so much force that a foreigner may mistake a simple conversation for a heated argument when, in fact, the two speaking are actually discussing if there will be sun or clouds at the beach this weekend.  I laugh at Portuguese people who tell me that Americans speak loudly, which they love to tell us about once per week.   Though I do admit that Americans are often slightly obnoxious and unnecessarily loud in public, they do not compare to the Portuguese when it comes to the amplitude of their speaking!  In this same category is also the fact that they have no problem talking on a cell phone in an office where someone is already on a desk phone, or staying within a group of people while taking a call on a cell phone, meanwhile others in the group are trying to continue the conversation. I sat in on a very professional meeting recently, and at one point, 5 of the 6 people at the table were speaking at the same time.  (Bet you can guess the one who wasn't!)

3)  The Portuguese interrupt a lot while in a conversation.  And by "a lot" I mean in every conversation. Numerous times. At first, I thought this was just because of my limited language skills, for example, as if they felt the need to continue their own conversation since mine was too difficult to understand.  This is not, however, how it works here. Regardless of age, gender, social context, or conversation topic, when one person is talking to another in a group of 3 or more, there is free license to interrupt and it happens regularly.  Drives. Me. Crazy.

4) And they stand really close to you.  When talking to you.  When waiting in line. While approaching a crosswalk. In the grocery store.  Kind of reminds this communication major of case studies of proximity.  Yeesh.

5)      Portuguese women can wield a knife like they were born with it in their hands.  Men can too, but I have noticed the women more.  While cutting fruit at lunch, peeling vegetables at home, cutting appendages off of an octopus to cook, and while cutting or peeling various other things, none use a cutting board – all cutting is done while holding the object being cut in one’s hands.  For the Portuguese, it is completely foreign to think about using a potato peeler to peel a potato/carrot/cucumber or a cutting board to chop a vegetable.  Hold it in your hand, peel it over the sink, cut it over the pot, and you’re done.  After one year, I am still feeling incompetent in this area!

6)      Everything comes in small packages.  Of course I expected this at the fast food places – anything would be smaller than American super sized fries and drinks.  I didn’t, however, expect it for everyday packaging such as milk, flour, and sugar.  I thought my husband might faint the first time I brought home 3 packages of flour in one shopping trip (approximately equal to one 5lb. bag typically found in the States).  He couldn’t imagine in what situation I would ever use that much flour.  Guess he didn’t realize how many cups of flour he’s eating in the cakes and bars I’m always making!  Without an actual American flour bag to compare it to, here’s an approximate size comparison (with a wine bottle behind them to relate to):

L to R:  flour, milk, grated parmesan cheese, ketchup, powdered sugar, and white sugar
For those of us Americans who love Costco and Sam’s Club, buying large quantities of small packages just seems… tedious.  (sigh).  Maybe it’s because here, so many people walk home from the grocery store, so they make packages more manageable to carry?

7)      Along the same lines, and perhaps as a direct result of #4, most Portuguese (and from what I hear, most Europeans) grocery shop approximately 5 times more frequently than Americans. (I just made up that statistic). I have a bit of a skewed opinion of this, since there is a major grocery store just around the corner from the rehab center where we work, and most days that we need something, we can walk over on our lunch breaks.  It is also one of the bigger chain stores, so it not only has groceries, but also clothing, household products, cleaning products, etc.  And it's located in a small mall.  I compare it to a small Wal-Mart considering the variety of items and the competetive prices.  Unfortunately, with the close proximity of this store and with one of the two of us being European, we visit it more times per week than I would prefer, or than what is normal for me… so I haven’t yet infused my husband with my American blood… but some day, I hope that we lessen our number of trips, which will probably increase the numbers in our budget as well!  Here are some pictures of the store, per a specific request from my mother (to make sure we're not living in the sticks or the jungle, perhaps?) :

A shot of just a few of the 20-some registers, taken from the escalator to the 2nd level
Who do you know in this photo?  Surely it's not the man on the sign hanging from the ceiling...
Bountiful Easter candy (I've been working on this blog entry for a WHILE!), but sadly, no jelly beans!
8)      Most grocery stores (both small and large) smell like fish.  This is why:

The Portuguese are known for their codfish, have 1,001 ways to cook it, and receive it from Scandinavian countries that preserve it by packing it in salt.  Using this method of preservation, the raw, yet preserved, fish can sit here in the middle of the produce section for months at a time without spoiling.  You definitely know when it’s fish delivery day, as the smell hits your nose as soon as you open the door.  Even on the other days, there is always a stale fishy smell permeating the entire store.  Think Milwaukee lakefront or the 10,000 Minnesotan lakes that purge themselves of all their dead fish that winter killed when spring arrives. Now don’t you just want to come smell it for yourself?

9)  From what I have observed, the Portuguese dislike/are afraid of/don't know about the self-check aisles in the major supermarkets. On any given day, you can walk up to any open cash registers of the 20-some that exist, and there will be people in line... when they could clearly walk 10 paces to their left or right to arrive at the 4 empty self-check-out lanes.

Please note the serious stink eye that I was receiving from the self-check attendant, and how she has already started moving out from behind her counter to tell me that I am not allowed to take photos here.  Like all the customers in front of me would care??

10)      The banana clip is BACK! 

That, along with various other nostalgic items of days gone by... the fanny pack:

...women’s pleated dress pants:

...Mickey & Minnie, or Donald & Daisy, or Betty Boop, or even the Care Bears on clothing, pajamas, wallets, and jewelry:



... Timberland boots:

This pretty little lady was super excited to model her Timberland boots for her parents
 in front of the Parliament building in Madrid...
...and one of my classmates really prefers hers electric blue...

... but maybe you prefer heels? really big fat 80’s-style bows… on everything from shoes to dresses to shirts to hair clips. 

Pretty sure I also saw a stylin’ mullet the other day… WITH a fanny pack!  What a combo!  Too bad I didn’t get a picture…. Hope my mom won’t get too disappointed by that picture being left out!

11)  Sometimes it's cool to just wear one earring.

For this one, I had to take a photo of the TV, which, if you've ever tried, is almost impossible to do without getting the invisible scrolling ghost bar.  I have yet to see one this big on a real person, however, I have seen many people wear single earrings that are studs and don't hang.

12)  Aside from the grocery stores, most places have ticket machines and anyone waiting needs to take a ticket instead of just getting a line.  This pertains to not only the deli and meat counter, like in the US, but also the pharmacy, post office, etc.

[somehow this photo disappeared]

13)  Lots of dogs and cats run freely in the streets and local areas, even in urban areas, kind of like squirrels and rabbits in the US.

14)  Very few women wear make-up, especially if they are over 30 years of age.  Those that do wear minimal amounts.  Not sure if this is a direct result of the insanely high price of facial make-up, or if the insanely high prices of facial make-up is a result of the small amount of women that are actually purchasing it.

15)  Flies... flies everywhere!  And they bite!  [Gross, I know, but it makes up for their small amount of mosquitos and complete lack of roaches!]

16)  Hydrangeas... hydrangeas everywhere!  This was good news for me, since hydrangeas are my favorite flower!


17) No one brings coffee with them in the morning or juice/Diet Coke with them while running errands anywhere... but coffee breaks are common occurances!  The Portuguese are crazy about their coffee (espresso style only, straight or with sugar, and only the weak among us add a splash of milk).  And then repeat two more times during the day.

18)  It's still cool to go to McDonald's, even as an adult.  And they have a coffee bar inside.  It's also still cool to drink out of juice boxes, even as an adult.  Especially at a picnic or on a road trip.

19)  Children stay up way late, especially in summer.  It is not uncommon to see children running around outside a cafe while their parents sit on the patio to have a coffee or dessert at 11.30 or midnight.

20)  A good majority of Portuguese women frequently have their nails painted.

And... just to make it an uneven 21) There are 7-minute intermissions during movies in the theaters.  Convenient bathroom break?  Yes.  Annoying if you don't have to use the ladies room?  Yes.  Do I always appreciate a potty break?  Yes. (And Portugal just might survive this crisis with all the people refilling sodas and popcorn during the internmission!)

Since this blog entry has become slight long, I will have to save the rest of my notes about Portugal (and about myself!) for “Observations”, round 2.  I wonder how I’m going to add “round 2” to a blog with one-word titles???