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Popular anthropology for everyone.

Ten things I've learned about the Portuguese

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Since I moved to Portugal just over a year ago, countless Portuguese people have insisted to me that they are not at all like the Spanish: neither in food, language, nor behaviour. Is this true? If so, what makes them distinctive? As I was to discover, quite a lot, actually – even their animals have a different culture. Here’s a list of some of the weird and wonderful peculiarities that I have discovered.

  1. Portugal has the laziest pigeons I have ever seen. I call them 'rats of the ground;' they cannot be 'rats of the sky,' because they are never in it. I am sure that the Portuguese pigeons have their own ornithological culture.
  2. Portuguese people mostly live in small apartments, but own huge dogs. This contrasts with Australia where small dogs have become very popular, even if people have spacious yards. Does this mean that the Portuguese walk their dogs more? Quite possibly – they are far less finicky about where dogs can be taken and are often seen in restaurants or trains.
  3. One must never, ever, enter the supermarket through a check-out lane. In Australia, so long as you are not getting in people's way, nobody cares. Here, even if you are entering through the far wider self-checkout aisles and there is nobody using them, a staff member will chase you and try to make you exit the store and enter the proper way.
  4. Eating or drinking while walking is uncivilized. You can buy a Coke from a vending machine and drink it standing there, but once you are mobile, you must put it away. However, cafes have adapted their service to suit this culture. When in a hurry, let the person serving know that you would like to eat at the bar. They will know that you are in a hurry and serve you your coffee and pastel de nata quickly (Portuguese tart). Another time-saving device that appears in many middle class homes is the Bimby. This machine is a marvel – simply throw in the ingredients, press a button, and voilá! It makes your bacalhau com natas (stewed cod with cream) for you.
  5. The average Portuguese person speaks far more English than they will let on. Don't be surprised if, after weeks of struggles to order your coffee, the vendor breaks into perfect English, all the while apologising for not speaking your language. It appears that, far from trying to be difficult, they are actually very modest and shy.
    A view of Lisbon. Copyright by Erin Taylor.
    A view of Lisbon. Photo by Erin Taylor.
  6. Portuguese is not Spanish. I was constantly informed of this, despite the fact that when I first arrived, I would have very successful conversations by speaking Spanish to people and listening to their answer given in Portuguese. Apparently Spanish speakers from Spain don't have this ability – the Portuguese understand them, but they don't understand the Portuguese.
  7. How you dress matters, and dressing correctly doesn't always mean dressing better. Displaying ostentation tends not to be appreciated. When living in inner-city Lisbon, I found that strangers were generally friendly to me, except on the odd occasion that I wore business-like clothes (even though they are not expensive). But dressing down is also a bad idea; it displays a lack of respect for social rules. As a result, there is a very specific wardrobe among the Portuguese, with the men mostly wearing trousers and collared shirts, while the women wear wedge heels, skirts and casual-but-nice tops.
  8. At the national level, the Portuguese are amazingly consistent with their material culture. Just about everywhere you go in the country, the footpaths will be cobbled with the same white stones, which take a great deal of work and cost to lay. All streets seem to be named with pretty tiled signs, and waterfront paths lined with more modern grey pavers. Having spent time living in Australia, England, the USA, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, to my eyes their efforts seem incredibly dedicated.
  9. The Portuguese tend to underestimate their own country. They will tell you that it is always in crisis, that it is badly managed, their bureaucracy is a nightmare, everything is so expensive, and so on. But actually, despite the current crisis, it compares very well to most other countries I've spent time in, so much so that I'd quite happily see out the course of my natural life here. You can buy fantastic bottles of wine for a few euros, the transport system is well-designed and aesthetically pleasing, it is constantly sunny over summer, and people are very polite and helpful. The result of all this is that many Portuguese want to escape to another country, while everyone else seems to want in!
  10. Finally, inexplicably, the Portuguese love Australia. In fact, it borders on a national obsession. It's so popular that bumper stickers on cars bear Australiana, and the local telecommunications company, Optimus, names their internet plan 'Kanguru' after our hopping, pouch-bearing, joey-carrying marsupial. Perhaps they love it because it is so far away from Spain?

So, if you plan to visit Portugal, practice your South American Spanish, bring kangaroos and a healthy appetite for Portuguese tarts, and leave your ostentation and small dogs at home. You will find yourself at home in no time.

Many Portuguese want to escape to another country, while everyone else seems to want in!

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The Praça do Comércio in Lisbon. Copyright by Gawain Lynch
The Praça do Comércio in Lisbon. Copyright by Gawain Lynch