I felt a sudden urge to revisit my affection for this land we now call home, especially now that you might say the “honeymoon phase” is over. We’ll have been here two years come January, which is long enough to either fall more in love or start noticing more of the warts.
(As an aside, I’m delighted to report that our own personal honeymoon phase is continuing: despite living together 24/7 and almost 365, Carolyn and I are more in love than ever, and I’m so happy to be sharing this experience with her. My wife is always my number one priority, so this opportunity to live in a new country and “show her the world” makes me feel as if my life is really worth living. We’re having a ball, and are so happy we took this risk and made the sacrifices it has taken to be here.)
But back to Portugal:
The more we learn about these people and this country’s culture, the more I fall in love with them. The other day, we had something of a history lesson from a well-educated Portuguese professor, who pointed out the following:
1. Christopher Columbus first approached the Portuguese royalty to fund his voyage to find India. Portugal turned him down, because they knew damn well that India was in the other direction. So he approached the Spanish instead, who were not as well-informed as the Portuguese. It worked out for Columbus, but only because the Spanish were not as adept at the whole sailing thing. I guess it is sometimes better to be lucky than smart.
2. Portugal did in fact figure out how to get back and forth to India (which brought them tea, which they introduced to the English, and we all know what happened from there). Eventually a Portuguese princess married an English king and as part of her dowry they gave the English the city of Bombay, which ultimately helped England gain a foothold for conquering India and beyond. So you could say that Portugal had a lot to do with the discovery of America and starting England’s rise to world dominance. Hell, let’s throw in an iconic part of America’s history: tossing tea into Boston harbor. That would never have happened without Portugal. It might have been toasters instead, and Boston Toaster Party just doesn’t have the same resonance as Boston Tea Party.
3. Portugal was never that interested in conquering lands, they simply wanted to open up trade, especially since the Spanish were blocking their trade routes over land. Gotta love a people who didn’t set out to kill and dominate the natives just to be macho. Perhaps they’ve always been ahead of their time. In fact, they even had a law whereby if you had sexual relations with a native, you had to marry her. So none of that raping and pillaging stuff. Indeed, they were able to leave Portuguese surnames all over the world without killing people to do it. In fact it was because of lovin’ em!
4. Portugal takes a lot of pride in the fact that Spain, despite their larger size, was never able to conquer Portugal. At one point they did have a Spanish monarch in Portugal, but that was due to marriage, and it only happened because their young Portuguese king went off to war and was never heard from again. The Spanish king was next in line for the throne, and so he sat upon it. The Portuguese waited about 80 years before they finally decided their guy was never coming back and so overthrew the Spanish king. That’s a lot of patience!
5. When Portugal overthrew their dictator in the 1970’s, it was without bloodshed. They simply exiled the bad actors to Brazil (I wonder if that has anything to do with the mess Brazil is now in?). Apparently, it takes a lot for them to get fed up, but when they do get fed up, they don’t go shooting off their mouths… or guns, they just make it happen.
I think these historical facts are important and relevant even today, especially in light of America’s current political dramas. For instance, in Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, he states that Portugal is one of only three Western nations that haven’t recently been poisoned by “populist” political movements (the other two are Canada and Spain).
Personally, I think much of this is due to the same cultural attitude as demonstrated in the way they handled their missing king hundreds of years ago. I really don’t think any strident right wing politics can make much of a mark in Portugal. They seem to be uninterested in outside political influences, and they definitely don’t scream at each other for whatever political differences they may have with each other. It’s so strange to look at everything going on in the United States from the outside while living in a country that is 100 times more peaceful and calm. The Portuguese have always been this way, apparently, and there ain’t anyone shouting political slogans from a rooftop who’s going to change it.
They also have a sort of a negative “Eeyore-ish” approach to life, embracing the melancholic fado as their national music and having a word in their vocabulary, saudade, which is considered more or less untranslatable, but refers to melancholic longing or yearning. Personally, I think this serves to keep them grounded and humble. Since I believe humility is the cornerstone to good human behavior, I would blame the lack of humility as one of the key reasons politics is tearing America apart.
I’m also of the opinion that while the Portuguese are considered poor in comparison with other EU countries, they are an example of why “just enough money” is really more than enough money. Everyone dresses well, albeit casually. There are plenty of cars on the road, and if you don’t have one, there’s plenty of mass transit. There are few homeless. Their basic needs of health care and education through college are covered. Most people are on the same stratus financially. Because their culture doesn’t revolve around money, they’re not stepping on each other’s heads competing for it. You also can watch an entire American TV show without one commercial interrupting it, largely for the same reason. They take their time eating, and talking, and just being with each other. In other words, they have their priorities straight.
If I were still Catholic, I would view all of this as confirmation that Mother Mary did in fact appear to three Portuguese children in Fatima. If history, attitude, and culture were the defining traits of “God’s people,” I’d pick the Portuguese too.
Actually, I guess I already have.
2 thoughts on “Why we’ve fallen so much in love with Portugal and the Portuguese”
It’s great you like Portugal and the portuguese, I hope you won’t change your mind in the coming years. I agree with many of your observations, but I’d like to add a little more information.
I’d avoid telling people from the former colonies that the portuguese were good colonizers, or not as bad as the spanish, british, etc. They know the bad stuff you’ve mentioned happened, and also that the concept of trade included shipping millions of slaves across the world, including to the USA. It seems the professor you spoke with sold you the old theory of “lusotropicalismo”, which was ruthlessly exploited by the dictatorship in order to justify the colonization of african countries. Until this decade this subject was taboo, but over the last few years a national debate has started, which is important since this narrative plays a part in shaping people’s lives to this day. If someone wants to know more, here’s a good source: http://www.contramare.net/site/en/luso-tropicalism-and-portuguese-late-colonialism-part-1/
Regarding Portugal having just enough money, it’s something the hundreds of thousands of portuguese emmigrants (just this decade) would probably disagree with, although it’s true people get a kick out of describing the country as a cross between getting stabbed and burning in hell. I believe americans tend to think that way due to the USA being an incredibly inequal and even cruel society. Very rich countries like Norway and the Netherlands are doing great because wealth is only counterproductive if you don’t redistribute it. Portugal has changed immensely, for the better, but opportunities are still scarce for the people at the bottom of the pyramid. José Mário Branco sang it best: Eu vim de longe / De muito longe / O que eu andei para aqui chegar / Eu vou para longe / Para muito longe.
Thanks for your insight Sergio. I don’t pretend to know much at all about Portuguese history, but ultimately I am always striving to understand cultures, and why they are the way they are. Culturally, I find the Portuguese to be very kind and welcoming, especially to estrangeiros. And of course we all know that in history, most cultures engaged in behaviors we find reprehensible today, especially the slave trade, but ultimately I’ll take the Portuguese history (from what I know of it) compared to that of most, including, and perhaps especially, that of the US. As to the overall economic situation, as you pointed out, things are getting better, which is really all anyone can ask, and I certainly agree with your assessment of the US. I have simply observed that the lack of greed, if you will, may be one of the reasons the Portuguese are focused on more important things, as compared to what they’re focused on in the US. I wish everyone more prosperity, but not at the cost of one’s culture and where it’s focused. But perhaps I’m just looking at the glass half full. Regardless, we have been here nearly two years, and our love only grows, so I am doubtful that we will ever change our minds. Again, thanks for responding!