Portugal? Isn't that somewhere in South America?

(from August 10, 2013)

Before moving to Portugal, we admit, we knew very little about the country. But it seemed most of the people we spoke with knew even less. It was unbelievable the number of people who, when discovered that we were moving, asked:

"Ooo... Do you know Spanish?"  

Maybe I (Tiffany) had the advantage since I studied Portuguese for 2 years, but come on.

Another favorite of ours was:

"O wow... are you going to get all your shots?"

I think because many people are unfamiliar with or have never heard of Portugal before, they picture it as a third-world country in the middle-of-nowhere South America. To be fair, there are A LOT of countries on this planet, but to set the record straight:  No, we didn't need any shots. Yes, we do have running water and electricity. And no, we don't know Spanish.

Because Portugal is a smaller country and rarely talked about in world news, it is often misplaced on the globe. And then when it is found on its correct continent, it is often misrepresented because of its proximity to Spain. But Portugal is very different from Spain, not only in language but in its way of life. So, this is our attempt at informing some about this beautiful country and unique culture. 

We have lived in Portugal for 7 months, and while that does not make us experts, it does make us observers. So, these are our top eleven observations about life in Portugal (northern Portugal, that is).

1. Catholicism

Given its history, Catholicism runs wide and deep in Portugal. Evidences of the Catholic faith can be found around every corner. Numerous churches, statues, crosses, and other religious images decorate the entire country. It seems most Portuguese are Catholic, but this is mostly because their parents are/were Catholic. However, many will admit that they do no actively practice this faith or go to church except for christenings, weddings, and funerals. And despite the fact that many do not like the church and strongly disagree with their scandals, they still hold onto the title of "Catholic".

What's more, a good number of Portugal's national holidays are Catholic holidays. When we have asked our friends why the day is celebrated, the response generally ends at, "It's tradition." While the original meaning of the holiday may be overlooked, they still find the day a good reason to gather as family and enjoy it anyway.

2. Coffee

Life seems to run on coffee (i.e. espresso), and it is no exaggeration to say that there is a coffee shop on every corner (these cafes will also sell various pastries, snacks, and meals). If people are in a hurry, often times, they will stand at the counter to drink their small coffee and then quickly head on their way. Other than that, coffee is an event that might last up to 3 or 4 hours. What's more, coffee mugs seem to be foreign and laughable concepts here. I was once asked what I was holding, and shortly after I replied, "A coffee mug," my friend snorted and gave an incredulous look.

Hodge likes to joke, "You can run a car on Portuguese coffee." Their coffee is strong, and they are proud of it. We have been told more than once (accompanied with a look of superiority) that Spanish coffee is too sweet and weak compared to Portuguese coffee. And don't get them started on America's "jugs" full of water-coffee.

3. Driving

Portuguese are statistically proven to be bad drivers. While they are not the worst in the world, they don't match up well against their neighboring countries in western Europe. One of our friends even told us to inform our friends back in the States about how fast they drive. And they do drive fast. However, on the contrary, there are also people how drive incredibly slow. On the highway, it is often this vast difference in speeds that can cause problems. One driver may going 30 mph when someone else flies by doing 100 mph.

And when it comes to parking, anything is fair game. Cars can be found parked on highways, behind other cars, and sometimes right in the middle of the road on smaller streets. Need to run into a store? Need a caffeine kick? Just pull over, throw your flashers on, and go do your business. But drivers should pay attention because if the person that they are parked behind needs out, drivers are supposed to go move their car. However, this is not always the case. Hodge was once blocked in for 45 minutes waiting on a car behind him to move.

Other fun or not so fun facts: They drive on the right side of the road in the left side of the car (like the States). Automatics are a rarity. Roundabouts are an extremely common construction. And pedestrians have the right-of-way at crosswalks except when traffic lights direct.

4. Late Nights

You might have heard about the "late night-life" in Europe. Well, this definitely holds true in Portugal. One night, as we were heading back home around 11 at night, we noticed families walking around town with their very young children as we thought aloud to each other, "Aren't they supposed to be in bed at this hour?" What's more, dinner is generally eaten around 9 or 10. On the weekends, when it is more likely for Portuguese to eat out, many will make it an all-night event by going to the cafe afterwards to indulge in an adult beverage. While there is a percentage of people going to the discos, most will just chill and make conversation at cafes (which really start to fill up around 1 in the morning).

On another note: One aspect that I really like about Portuguese life is that when people get together, they really get together. They can spend several hours just sitting around a table, eating, and talking into the night.

5. Shopping

Malls are frequent occurrences, especially in the bigger cities. There can be two malls within 5 miles of one another, each equally large and impressive. Going to the mall seems to be a favorite pastime for many Portuguese. Not only are they full with a variety of stores, they also hold the large Walmart-like grocery stores and movie theaters. Each has a food court offering a large variety of dining options including a few American places like McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, and KFC.

What's more, the Portuguese are very fashionable dressers. Many women wear high heels no matter the occasion, and sweatpants are virtually nonexistent except in the gym.

6. English

English is literally everywhere. Walk around town and English can be seen in company names, on advertisements, and in graffiti. Turn on the TV and a large majority of networks play shows and movies from the US or UK in the original language but accompanied with Portuguese subtitles. Go to the movie theater and movies are also played in the original English format with Portuguese subtitles. Turn on the radio and it is flooded with English music (recently, radio stations were told that they had to play something like at least 50% of Portuguese music because they were playing too much English music). Go to a restaurant and your server is bound to speak or understand basic English. In fact, many young people know at least some English if not practically fluently. Many others can understand some English given the saturation of it within their culture. With nearly a 70-80% bilingual culture, this country is a paradise for American tourists. But for those of us trying to learn Portuguese, it has proven a hindrance at times.

7. Homes

What do you imagine in your mind when you hear the words "European home"? Do you see clothes hanging on a line? Or maybe brick walls with hardwood floors? As you imagine, allow me to help direct your image by providing a few details about Portuguese homes.

Homes are generally equipped with fireplaces, gas stoves, bidets (which our Portuguese friends have found bizarre that we don't use) and hardwood floors lined with rugs. While central heating is increasing in certain areas, central air conditioning is much less common, if not nonexistent. So, in winter time, we snuggle up with extra blankets and electric heaters, and in the summer, we rely on fans and breezes. Most clothes undergo nature's dryer, but for those who can afford it and desire it, drying machines are an option. In the cities and smaller towns, most people live in apartments. Houses with small yards and more privacy are reserved for the wealthy or for those who live in the countryside.

A friend recently told me that in many aspects Portugal has been slow to enter the modernized world. That being said, while there will always be very old homes with less commodities, we have seen extreme opposites when it comes to some apartments and homes that seem out of place because of their very modern and contemporary appearances.

8. The Beach

Because we live on the coast, it is easy to overgeneralize and say that Portuguese love the beach. So I won't say that, but I will say that for those who live close enough or come to vacation, going to the beach is a favorite activity. In the winter time, beaches lay vacant, but as soon as warmer weather creeps in, beaches have constant company. Little cafes/bars are built right on the beach for the season, and they cater to those who spend all day on the sand and in the water.

What's more, tanning could be considered a sport. As soon as the sun makes an appearance after the rainy season, people are laying out. Even though it might be 60*F outside, they are committed to the tan. And on windy days, they just put up protectors to keep the chill off their skin (remember, we are in the north which means cooler temperatures and colder water).

9. Food/Grocery shopping

When I first arrived, one of the most frustrating and time consuming activities was grocery shopping. I spent hours with a dictionary roaming the aisles and then backtracking trying to translate and find what I wanted. Beyond that, since being here, my food-buying habits have changed drastically due to the culture. Instead of spending 45 minutes at the local Kroger doing all my grocery shopping for two weeks, I have adjusted to visiting the butcher, the frutaria (with fresh fruits and vegetables), and the small grocery store every couple of days if not more frequently. I freeze less food, buy less in bulk, and eat more fresh product.

Frutarias and butchers are almost as frequent as cafes. It amazed us at first as we wondered how each one stayed in business. But because many people, especially older folks, don't go far from home to get everything they need, they visit the same stores most of their lives, keeping the shops in business.

Other fun or not so fun facts: While cold milk can be found, it is most often bought at room temperature in a carton. Eggs are also found and kept at room temperature. The tap water is safe to drink in cities and smaller towns, but many people still buy bottled water. And like most European countries, wine is a regular companion with meals and often costs less than water.

10. Special foods: Bacalhau and Francesinha

Bacalhau (codfish) is probably the most popular and/or traditional dinner choice in Portugal, which is curious because it is imported from Norway. In fact, Portugal is known to be the biggest importer of this fish. But imported or not, Portuguese love Bacalhau. Every grocery store carries this fish which is dried and salted, and it is easy to find given its potent smell. The saying goes, "There are 1,001 ways to cook Bacalhau."

The francesinha is a very popular dish in northern Portugal (more specifically, Porto). For many, it is a ritual to eat at least once a week and/or with friends before or after a futbol match. It consists of beef, ham, and sausage between two slices of bread, covered with cheese and a unique sauce, surrounded by fries. Often times, it is also topped with a fried egg.

11. The 3 F's

The dictator Salazar used to say that Portugal is "Fado, Fatima, and Futbol."

Fado is the distinct Portuguese musical style which is characterized by mournful tones and lyrics. It is often said to be the soul music of Portugal, and it also represents a word very important to the Portuguese, "Saudade." This word is unique and has no direct translation into the English language, but it refers to a deep emotional state of nostalgia and a longing for the way things once were with the repressed knowledge that it will never return. "Saudade" is a state of mind that has come to encapsulate Portuguese culture and is often referred to as the "Portuguese way of life". (For a sampling, visit this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARS7Zi-Zpkw)

Fatima seems to be the most notable and recognizable aspect of the Catholic faith. Located in central Portugal is a shrine dedicated to "Our Lady of Fatima" where it is said the Virgin Mary appeared to 3 pheasant children. Every year, thousands of people make a pilgrimage to this shrine to worship, give money, and plead for help. Beyond that, while many people won't step inside a church, there is a large percentage of the population that have statues of Fatima in their homes (which is who they pray to).

And of course, the love of futbol is most evident in Portuguese life. The rivalries run deep, and the competition is never-ending. At one point during a conversation about futbol, a friend said, "Yeah, I can be friends with someone who supports a different futbol club". That statement alone epitomizes the deep-rooted passion for futbol, as if most people cannot be friends with someone who cheers for a different club. Beyond that, we were told a story in which a family was on their way to a futbol match when fans from the home team saw the 3-year-old daughter sporting the visiting team's jersey. The fans proceeded to rip the jersey of the child and burn it in the middle of the street after punching the parents in the face. While this is not representative of all Portuguese, circumstances like this can still happen. Some of our Portuguese friends have even told us that they envy American fans because they do not take sports to such extremes.


There is so much more we could tell you about this wonderful country and people. Some things interesting and really fascinating and other things are just plain funny as foreigners. But just maybe, you will be curious enough to visit this country and see for yourself :)