The Portuguese people will steal your heart – but they won’t do it with the grand gesture or a sweeping statement. These warm, curious and sweetly shy people reveal their depth, their soulfulness, the very thing that makes them so special, layer by layer.
The first time I visited Portugal, it was as a tourist, and I was smitten. Its art and architecture, food and wine, its history and culture, the beaches, the sunshine – thousands of books, magazine articles and blog posts have been written that sing its praises. They are not wrong. These things abound here. But what makes Portugal unique from any other place I know is impossible to capture on paper.
Let me try.
Now that I live here, I’ve made friends, I have family and I (finally) have the places in my neighborhood that I depend upon — my pharmacy, my tasca, my cafe and my pastelaria. As such, I’ve been able to observe and interact with people here on a deeper level. As an American, these are some of the things that I adore.
Portuguese faces. They say that eyes are the window to the soul. I’m not sure where this saying came from, but it must have been written about the Portuguese. I find the people here to have a gentleness, a sweet shyness at first glance – but their eyes tell a different story. Their eyes carry within them centuries of sadness and longing, of love and loss, of warmth and connection. There is a whole world written across the Portuguese face and they are able to express a multitude of emotions with one look, one gesture.
Personal space. Maybe it comes from living in a small country, but the Portuguese notion of personal space is virtually non-existent. On the street, in the store and certainly with friends and loved ones, there is a lot of touching. They walk close, they talk close, they want to make sure you understand whatever it is they are trying to say. I’ve seen Portuguese people approach a police officer to ask a question and hold the officer’s arm while they talk. Meu Deus. This would never happen in the States. I’ve totally embraced this way of life. I love the closeness and connectedness that I feel daily. Except in the car – I break out in a cold sweat when I think about the Portuguese and their driving habits.
Pride of place. Sit around a table with Portuguese friends for long enough and eventually someone will say “you know, the Portuguese invented that / discovered that / are responsible for that…” And then even if they have to go back through the millennia, they will explain why, for example, British fish & chips, Jewish challah bread or Japanese tempura are of Portuguese origin. While they are quick to poke fun at themselves, they have a deep love, respect, and knowledge of their history and heritage.
At the table. Which brings me to the Portuguese national sport, and no it’s not futebol. It’s food. These are people who have a passion for talking and a passion for eating and a passion for talking about eating. We spend hours talking about food – the best fish in Algarve, the porco preto from Alentejo, Serra da Estrella cheeses, wine from the Douro, the chestnuts from someone’s grandma’s village. It goes on and on. And in fact, this would be my single best piece of advice for expats who have recently moved to Portugal and are starting to make friends – ask anyone about their favorite foods or the best foods of any region. Even better – ask a group of people. Then sit back and enjoy — the magic is about to begin.
A love of language. The Portuguese are the best English speakers I’ve encountered outside of the United States (and even then…). They have an aptitude for language that I think is hardwired into them from their years as the greatest explorers in the world. They are delighted (and amused) by my shaky Portuguese and always encouraging. It can feel stressful as an expat to try to speak their language, cringing at every mistake. The Portuguese people never make me feel like an outsider, and in fact, often reward me with a sweet use of their own language for example by calling me “menina.” It warms my soul – and reminds me daily how lucky I am to call this beautiful country home, and these beautiful people, friends.
PS: Maureen Ferguson is an American national, who found the love of her life when she met a Portuguese guy called João in Philadelphia. Since their recent moved to Portugal, Maureen as has been soaking in everything about Portugal. These are her first words about the Portuguese. And what beautiful words they are.
Feature photo credits to Emanuele Siracusa