Tuesday, December 11, 2012

137 - A Survival Guide

Contrary to advertised wisdom, moving to Lisbon (or anywhere else in Portugal) is not for the faint of heart (tourists don’t count, they take superficial impressions as the holy book). Underneath the friendliness of some of its people, there is the roughness of a port city that has seen travellers from the whole world, come and go, ever since before history was written. Some of them have liked it and settled down. Others didn’t and left as fast as they could (or were pushed to...).
After having lived abroad for an extended period, even the Portuguese themselves, as much as the newcomers of other nationalities, complain bitterly about all the problems associated with moving back and settling down. Entire bookshelves are filled with the impressions of famous authors, on this subject.
Like everywhere else, it is safer to adapt (or re-adapt) to the ways of the locals than to fight them. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Here are a few tips, learned the hard way:
- Waiting for your turn, whether in line or until your number is called, shows civilized behaviour anywhere, but skipping it is a local capital offense. A busy minister (now former minister), who tried to finesse ahead of his turn, was exposed endlessly and shamed with delight by the media.
- If you don’t intend to assemble yourself the furniture (or can beg, or cajole, or bribe your other half into doing that...) then don’t buy stuff at IKEA. It is easier and may be cheaper to buy the finished thing somewhere else.
- The higher up you go in official contacts, business meetings or cosmopolitan professionals, the more punctual your counterpart is and expects you to be. This is a recent improvement, which does not extend to the larger part of the population.
- For a regular appointment, time is just a statement of intention: “see you between three and four” is still very common and typically means the time when they will start thinking about it. Therefore, the one who asked for the meeting should be there first, say at four o’clock, carrying the iPad or a magazine and prepared to wait anything from 15 minutes (local friends) to several hours (prominent doctors or public services) depending on the circumstances.
- For deliveries, be sure you are their first stop in the morning, or you would wait for the tardiness accumulated during the day, well beyond the optimistic time they quoted for expected arrival, or even the reasonable understanding of the word “late”.
- For workmen, take note of the day and time (if any) they promised to come, but in practice go about your life unconstrained. The likelihood of any of them coming at the appointed time is close to nil.
If you are lucky, they will call you on the phone after ringing the bell at your door, either at a much later time or at a random later date. Then, you can go through the totally useless routine of scolding them for not keeping their promised schedule. Otherwise, if you happen to be in town (and are of a revengeful disposition...), say you will be back home in five minutes. Make them wait on your doorstep for whatever time it takes until you eventually arrive.
If you are not lucky, you will not hear from them again, or at least not until you call their supervisor or the administration of their company, to complain.
Portuguese, like people of every other nationality, do not hesitate to gripe about their country and their compatriots’ shortcomings, but will hesitate less than most in pointing out the equivalent failings of any foreign critic. Being famously prone to wander the wide world, they wrote the book about the foibles of others. Examples?
- On the one hand, Americans in France will enjoy the artsy way of life, but get grumpy about things like having the WC separated from the bathroom, the casual acceptance of nudity in ads, TV and movies, or the unblinking reference to politicians’ affairs as private matters.
- On the other hand, French in America will circle their wagons together, should they not be tainted by the local rustic habits: like having a sandwich at the office for lunch, instead of a full course meal at a restaurant with a glass of wine or two; or to be seen anywhere close to a fast food joint serving pre-chewed ersatz meat.
Changing habits is always difficult to or from any culture.
It does not take long to get used to the local ways and harden the soul. In time, foreigners will get it, and the day they return home can sometimes be a dramatic experience.
Portuguese can be friendly, but usually sensitiveness to criticism does not even penetrate skin deep: Yeah, right, it is irritating when foreigners do not understand us, but that is their problem; we have been at the cusp of civilizations when each of their countries, in turn, either broke down in pieces like the Roman empire, rose from barbaric life like the English or joined the family of nations, like the new countries of the Americas or the isolated Asians. After all, most of them have been touched by our past bold wanderings, occasional excesses and all time failings, whether they like it or not.
Lisbon and Portugal as a whole always seem to have had Chronos, the god of time, on their side. The motto is: keep rowing bravely until your sails catch the wind and then you are sure to get to destination (hopefully, without much further effort...). Eventually. So, what is there to be hurried about, today of all days?

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