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Popular anthropology for everyone.

Remarks of a Portuguese returnee on his own country

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It has been more than three years now since I've returned to Portugal from Scandinavia. Less than one year after my return, the so-called Troika (the European Commission, the International Monetary Bank, and the European Central Bank), a non-elected entity, 'moved' to Portugal too.

If things were already looking weird to me after having lived five and a half years in Denmark, some events now appall me: a former member of the current government (Miguel Relvas) got ninety percent of his academic degree by credit transfer for his professional qualifications, and a banker (Fernando Ulrich) appeared on TV saying that there was always a possibility of him becoming homeless one day–just to give a couple of examples.

Portugal had the longest dictatorship in Europe during the last century and the country has only been democratic for the last four decades. She is celebrating her fortieth anniversary as a democracy this year. Today, there is an obvious inverted class war on the subaltern, the working-class, peasants, and even small businesses, and despite massive demonstrations and many strikes not seen for decades, many Portuguese have been forced to migrate.

In the midst of these dreadful times in Portugal, here follow some things that have become unfamiliar to me, some remarks on 'my own country.'

  1. I found it extremely weird that everyone was speaking the same language all the time.
  2. Some Portuguese are fast learners and they've understood quite well a basic aspect of modern finance. Popular culture, through the medium of jokes, demonstrates it. Word was already spreading in Portugal: the best way to rob a bank is to administer one.
  3. I almost had a heart attack each time someone from a public institution asked me to pay for something. People pay for public services in Portugal! (Education, health care, bureaucratic papers, even the citizen's card.)
  4. Latin countries are considered very libertarian (in the European sense), but normally in public institutions, mostly in Lisbon, there is a guard watching out for the place. I believe it tell us how accustomed people are to enjoying and taking care of the public space. They aren't used to it: there is always a perceived need for authority and control.
  5. There are smart alecks everywhere! Beware of taxi drivers, kiosk salesmen, mechanics, and so on, especially in Lisbon.
  6. The sun shines often and it's really nice, pleasant and warm. However, it seems that it is everything in life, that it suffices that the sun is shining. It also seems to be the answer to every single problem in Portugal (I've been caught up in it too): life's awful … but the sun shines! Portugal is more than Lisbon, despite the saying "Portugal é Lisboa, o resto é paisagem" (Portugal is but Lisbon, the rest is landscape). In some regions winter temperatures reach below zero (celsius) and it even snows sometimes. Interestingly, in Denmark the sun doesn't shine that often but she is sometimes considered the happiest nation in the world, whereas sunny Portugal is characterized by her melancholic music, fado (fate).
  7. In Portugal I have to spend twice the time worrying with things that I didn't have to in Denmark, even though my life there wasn't a bowl of cherries. In general terms, Denmark is highly bureaucratic but things work rather smoothly; Portugal is highly bureaucratic but dysfunctional, and when things work it is always rather late.
  8. Personally, I've never felt so mishandled in my entire life as in 'my own country.' Unbelievably, a few weeks after returning to Portugal, and after two hours in line, a bureaucrat from a public institution didn't care about my passport or old ID card (I hadn't got the new Portuguese citizen's card at the time yet), and he just changed my address and actually wrote on the piece of paper, on nationality: "país desconhecido" (unknown country)! In another case, some months after returning to Portugal, I received an email by someone from my university department to pick up a letter. When I got there, this person had opened the letter sent by a city hall, an envelope with the city hall's insignia, addressed to me!
  9. Contrary to Denmark, and many other countries, in Portugal academics really enjoy their official titles. Interestingly, however, the people who insist upon using academic titles the most are the people who don't have their own. I suppose they feel socially obliged to do it.
  10. Some people are really mentally backward in Portugal, but not the usual suspects (uneducated, working-class, rural, etc.). The most backward people in Portugal are the well-educated political and economic elites who are nostalgic (saudosistas) for an aristocratic-feudal-totalitarian-dictatorial state of affairs.
  11. I don't know what to call those dispersed parts (15 metres here, 20 metres there) where one is supposed to cycle in Lisbon, but I am quite sure they are not cycle paths. According to a leaflet, in Lisbon there are 47 km of them and six million euros (!) were invested. I do not get a single one on my way to university and back home. Besides being very dangerous to ride a bicycle in Lisbon (I felt unsafe most of the time), in some places a cyclist rides in the same lane with buses–which are just the biggest and largest vehicles on the road… The only cycle path I've enjoyed riding was the one in Algarve that goes from Monte Gordo to Vila Real de St. António and back.
  12. The majority of the Portuguese normally depict themselves as soft, well-intentioned and good-hearted, and the Portuguese former empire, colonialism and fascism are depicted in the same terms–comparatively softer than others.
  13. Some people live in constant fear in Portugal! Near Carcavelos, I was shocked to hear drivers locking their own cars from the inside while stopped at some crossroads just because I was passing by at daytime!
  14. Portuguese people normally thank the drivers who stop at pedestrians crossings. Why would they do that? It is actually the driver's obligation to stop at such a place, it is not like they are being nice or kind.
  15. The working-class has lost so much power that in Portugal those who have higher education have taken to hiding their qualifications in their CVs just to get a job interview (4).
  16. The barriers one has to cross by validating one's ticket in the metro in Lisbon (and in other European cities as for example Barcelona and Paris), or in the train too, seem more the type of thing one constructs to non-human animals than to humans who use transportation services.
  17. Porto's bus terminal is just crazy. To me it looks like a pedestrian suicide. Buses have to cross the pavement to get in and out of the terminal, a bus barely fits through the entrance, and people walk on the road along the path the buses take. At times there is a bus entering and people entering and exiting with their many suitcases and they almost get crushed by the bus.
  18. Danes are more 'Latin' than the Portuguese in many aspects. When the weather is good in Copenhagen, people grab a bottle of wine, a six-pack, an engangsgrill (a disposable grill), and some food. They meet their friends in some park, sometimes they take their children too, and it's time to hygge sig (to have a nice time / to be cozy)–the wildest dream of the Portuguese, I would suggest. Moreover, and especially at night, many Danes drink until they can't stand up and they fall on the ground. This behaviour is accepted.

Needless to say, I've completely forgotten 'Portuguese' established social norms and rules of conduct, and most times I just feel like an extraterrestrial in 'my own country.'

Editor's note: This is the third article in a series of reflections on Portugal, following on from an Australian and a Russian who are both resident in Lisbon.

Danes are more Latin than the Portuguese in many aspects.

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A strike in Portugal. Photo by Mauro Rodrigues.
A strike in Portugal. Photo by Mauro Rodrigues.