(at least when they’re not driving)
When we first talked about moving to Portugal, our main considerations were the weather, the location, the cost of living, and the safety. Much to our surprise, we’ve discovered that our favorite thing about the country is none of those.
In a previous blog I wrote that the Portuguese reminded me of Eeyore, who is completely lovable and yet oblivious to the fact. Somehow, he manages to be morose, self-deprecating, and continuously depressed, and still be totally adorable.
The Portuguese are not quite so gloomy, of course, but they love to flail themselves over their negative nature. I’ve had multiple Portuguese self-criticize their culture as pessimistic. They tend to be a little somber and reserved. They are not overtly humorous, and they’re quick to criticize their own people collectively.
But as an American who enjoys pondering the differences in cultures and wondering how they got where they are and how it all works, I actually look at the Portuguese pessimism and find it endearing.
Typically, pessimism is categorized as a negative word. But that’s just because people doing that categorizing are being pessimistic, ha! Seriously, one of the cornerstones of my personal philosophies centers around humility. The employees at the company I ran for years can attest to that. I ranted about it and built programs around it until they were begging for me to become arrogant.
Almost every negative personal interaction I’ve seen has at least one of the combatants suffering from a lack of humility. A lack of humility can mean arrogance, or it can mean a lack of self-confidence, which often looks like arrogance. A lack of humility causes many people to decide what’s right for everyone else, and they often stop caring about contrary thoughts and ideas. A lack of humility usually results in the judging of others, and self-justifies all sorts of bad behavior.
So while pessimism might be a worrisome trait for some, it’s a flip side from the lack of humility. And if you believe, like I do, that the lack of humility is at the core of almost all bad human interactions, you tend to embrace the pessimism and love the people for it. If nothing else, I’d take it hands down over a culture of arrogance any day of the week.
That said, not every cultural behavior here is the best. The Portuguese tend to be pretty pushy and a little bit rude in stores. I’ve had people step right in front of me while I’m standing in front of a grocery store display with nary a “desculpa” (excuse me). We’ve watched them bully to the front of the line multiple times. I’ve offered up a “desculpa” probably 20 to 1 for inadvertent contact, they usually just ignore it all and keep going.
We were told by the prior owner of our house that it might take five years for a neighbor to greet you, and another five years before they engage in a conversation. Four and-a-half years to go, and he’s right so far! They also don’t tend to greet strangers with a lot of initial and overt warmth, but they’re almost always polite. It’s rare that I’ve passed a stranger and not been the first to wish them a “bom dia,” although they almost always respond in kind with a nice, sometimes shy, smile.
But it’s on the road where some of them can be quite aggressive or downright rude. Especially, and I kid you not, females in Peugeots. It’s a running joke and oft proven true that if someone cuts us off or tailgates us while chomping at the bit to pass, it’s probably a female in a Peugeot. We once had someone honk repeatedly at us simply for slowing down to look for a parking space. That time it wasn’t a female in a Peugeot, which actually surprised us a little.
Recently, Carolyn and I were crossing a street. When we entered the street, the walk sign was green. By the time we got to the other side, it had already turned red (they apparently don’t time them the same way as they do in the states). The driver waiting for us to cross (and we weren’t walking that slow… we may be retired, but we’re not decrepit!) gave us a significant piece of his mind. Our Portuguese isn’t good enough to understand streams of invective, but we got the gist of it. Being delayed two additional seconds in a car is enough to irritate many Portuguese for some reason.
I’ve also had high beams flashed at me even as I am passing a car on the right. Take a chill pill! For some reason, once some Portuguese get behind the wheel, all their pent up aggressions come to the fore. Even fellow Portuguese have complained about this to me.
But, the warmth is there as soon as you engage them one on one. Other than the above, we’ve found most of them to be basically decent and kind, and more than willing to assist when asked. Once you peel back that shy veneer, they’re humble, gracious, and generous. They have a basic decency about them, which I think is just one of the reasons Portugal is considered one of the safest countries in the world.
They do get a little baffled about the American sense of humor, as well as our casualness. They’re generally a little more proper than Americans, I suppose. Although I do really like the cheek-kiss greetings. They convey warmth and a willingness to share personal space.
I’ve been asked by other Americans what the Portuguese think of Americans. Aside from the virtually universal detesting of Trump (a fact that is true of most Europeans), they love America, and they love Americans. It’s pretty funny that in Portuguese “trumpa” literally means “shit;” I’ve heard it exclaimed with vigor more than once when the subject of politics comes up. They also know more about American politics than most Americans, and all without fake news, imagine that!
The best analogy I can come up with about how they feel about the US is how you might feel about living in the same neighborhood as a very wealthy family. This family has a house so big they need hired help to keep it clean. They drive fancy cars that can go far faster than the law allows and gobble up fuel like cruise ships. They have all the toys their hearts desire, and want for nothing.
Except they’re miserable. They work too much. Their kids are on drugs. They’re constantly fighting with each other. The company he owns pays barely enough for the employees to make ends meet. They have affairs, and the man even brags to his buddies about the women he can grope because he’s rich and famous. Despite being given all the worldly possessions they’d ever want, or perhaps because of that, they appreciate very little, and act very entitled. A recent study proved that empathy weakens as wealth and privilege grow. Poorer Americans think if they could just get there they’d be different. I think the Portuguese know that’s simply not true.
I think that in the end the Portuguese look at America just like that, and while they’re quick to acknowledge that having all that stuff might be kinda cool, are pretty much just content to be living in Portugal. I know we are.
Anyway, I never would have thought that one of the most endearing things about Portugal would’ve been its people. They fly well under the radar, so no one seems to give them a lot of consideration. But I feel right at home among them, and in all my travels, I’ve never encountered a culture that made me feel so comfortable.