In the course of our married life (forty years plus) my wife Jane and I have had a series of holidays at the western edge of Europe – from the Orkneys in the north, southward through Sky, Mull and Iona (but not Lewis and Harris, and little of Ireland), the Highlands, Galloway, the Lake District, Formby, the Llŷn Peninsula and West Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Galicia – and in 2017, Portugal (continental and Madeira). Variety but also similarities – the pounding waves and the prevailing south west winds, often bearing rain.
So, Portugal, albeit visited in its own right, fitted into this life story. It did not disappoint.
One of the striking things about Portugal is the fact (going back several hundred years) is that it is not Spain. (Small countries endeavour to retain their identity vis-à-vis big neighbours.) Similarly, Portuguese is not the same as Spanish. (Jane and I love Spanish.) A second truism is that one can try to read written Portuguese but to speak it and to understand the spoken language require much knowledge and practice.
We went around an informative museum in Funchal about the history of Madeira. The exhibits were well labelled – in four languages – Portuguese, English, French and German – but not Spanish.
I learnt some basic phrases, in order to communicate with the people we met, and to show respect, but I was reluctant to use Spanish.
In the Middle Ages, the Portuguese and Galician languages were similar – “o” for masculine “the” and “a” for feminine “the” – and they still retain this feature (contrast Spanish “el” and “la”). But a superficial look (mine) inclines one (me) to think that they have drifted apart, because of the longstanding political division.
To fortify my appreciation of Portugal, I dipped into its literature – in particular, the epic of Luís de Camões, Os Lusíados, based upon early Portuguese explorations of Africa and India (read in translation), and also the early novel of José Saramago, Claraboia [Skylight], about the residents (ordinary people) of a block of flats in Lisbon in the early 1950s. (Recommended.) (We visited the Saramago Foundation in Lisbon.)
Saramago’s characters are distinct and clearly drawn. They are human, and they suffer the ups and downs (especially downs) of life. Happy and unhappy couples feature, and poor widows, and hopeful young women; one woman is “kept” as the mistress of a businessman; another is abused by her husband.
One wife (Carmen) is from Galicia in Spain, and she has not fully mastered Portuguese, after many years of residence in Portugal. She regrets her marriage to her husband and thinks back to a better offer she had back home. (At the end of the novel, Carmen returns to Galicia to see her family (with her husband’s permission, as required!); and the reader is let into her thoughts about taking advantage of the opportunity not to return to her husband.)
Silvestre, the shoemaker (usually portrayed in a positive light), describes Carmen, unflatteringly, in these terms:
Ela é que é uma víbora. E galega, aind por cima….Mas bem conhece o ditado: “De Espanha, nem bom vento, nem bom casamento.”
She’s a real viper, though, and Spanish too boot…You know what they say: “From Spain expect only cold winds and cold wives.”
[translated by M J Costa, Vintage, 2015]
Do European countries (and regions) remain both friends and rivals to this day?