Culture: celebrating similarities & differences… Blog #102

Cliffs at Sagres

In my previous post, I expressed the hope that being in a place for four months (as we are in Portugal and then Spain) would afford us some of the cultural insights that are unique to these areas. We have not been disappointed; culture and daily living is different than in Canada. Sitting at a restaurant, on the beach, sipping some delicious Portuguese wine, my husband and I had a great discussion around what we were observing as cultural differences between this location and at home in Canada. We laughed, the very fact that we had been sitting, sipping, for over two hours with no-one hovering wondering when we were leaving, no server coming to offer the conta (bill), or asking if we want anything else, was a stark contrast to what we would have experienced at home. Portuguese people know how to relax and truly enjoy the moment. No one is in a hurry, even if you really do need to leave the restaurant for an appointment! We adjusted, and have learned to ask for the bill a while before needing to leave. It is a joy, however, to have this travel time with a minimal schedule, where waiting to pay is not an issue.

Several of our experiences have caused us to recognize cultural differences, one such phenomenon relates to when places are open, or not. Because of the time of year in Albufeira, many places are simply closed until the arrival of tourists some time around the end of February. When in February? Well, that’s rather vague. Many places were already closed in November when we arrived, with either no signage indicating when they would re-open, or simply ‘closed for the holidays’. What holidays? Not sure…some opened for two weeks around Christmas, but closed again at the end of the first week in January, when once more they were ‘closed for the holidays’. Apparently holidays could be four months, two weeks, sporadic, or even five days a week. One place we kept trying to go to for Sunday pot roast turned out to be quite a challenge. First time we went most menu items were not actually available due to recent restrictions that would have them limit patrons for a predetermined number of days before Christmas until after the New Year. Understandable. The second time we went, arriving for dinner at 4:30pm, we were told they only served food until 4pm. No problem, we would come back next Sunday for their special pot roast, or roast chicken dinner, served from noon to 4pm. The day came, and my husband was pumped! He was salivating over the prospects of yorkshire puddings, bringing back warm memories of Sunday dinners at my parent’s home…Mom had mastered the art of cooking pot roast and yorkshire puddings! We arrived, sat down and were quickly told that the cook decided to take the week off, so they weren’t serving food that week. Really?? 

At this point, it simply became laughable. Even the British culture of the proprietor had been influenced by the Portuguese culture they had been part of for so many years. Seeing our disappointment, and ‘what can you do,’ laugh, they assured us that next Sunday, pot roast would be served up, guaranteed! We were there, and it did not disappoint.

However, as we left the restaurant, I had a real sense of feeling cheated. Not because of the quality of food, or the generous quantity that overflowed the dinner plates, but because I was in Portugal, eating a traditional English Sunday lunch, drinking Guinness, surrounded by British people. I truly missed hearing a cacophony of conversations, in multiple languages.

One of the beauties of Europe is that while you are residing in one country, everywhere you go you’ll encounter folks from many countries and cultures; just be quiet, listen, and take it all in. It can be intimidating and exciting all at once, but there is such a beauty to it. Fortunately for us, the majority of people speak some degree of English (how I wish I had learned a second language!). To give you an example, we were enjoying breakfast at a cafe last week. Over the course of our time there, we visited with people from Ireland, England, Wales, Germany, India, and of course, Portugal. It was so much fun. The common thread of course was travel, and a love for learning about others experiences. Some encounters, however, aren’t quite so successful. 

Yes, that is a man fishing on the edge!

This week my husband and I visited the end of the world, Sagres, at least that’s what Europeans considered it until the 15th century. Sagres is a small village of 2000 people, located on the very south-western tip of Portugal and is a place unlike no other we have experienced. A small place, it’s beauty is truly breathtaking, from the landscape, to the 100 plus species of flora, to the cliff-side walks overlooking vistas of unending ocean, to the 25 isolated beaches with avid surfers, and of course we can’t forget the fearless line fishing happening on the precipice of 200 foot high cliffs! This truly blew my mind! Do these people not know the potential danger and certain death they were inches away from? That several of their co-adventurers fall to their death every year? Well, apparently they do, but it hasn’t curtailed these brave souls from fishing here for many years. These are one of the many sights that remind me I’m from Canada…our authorities would have shut such activity down years ago due to potential danger. I’ve lost count of how many times we have commented on this very thing throughout our travels…apparently we North Americans need someone else to let us know what is dangerous, then set up rules to save us from ourselves. Hmmm!

I digress…while walking around the peaceful Fortaleza de Sagres,  we passed a lovely, elderly couple who were clearly enjoying their time exploring this wonderful area together. By the third time our paths crossed, it seemed right that we should have some kind of an interaction. Which we did. We exchanged greetings, neither speaking the other’s language.. We learned they were from France. When we said we were from Canada, they immediately assumed we also spoke French! They excitedly talked about some of the places they visited in Canada: Montreal, Quebec City, Montcalm, Gatineau, to name a few. However, when we somehow communicated that we were from the West Coast of Canada, and couldn’t speak a word of French, they offered a rather pathetic “Vous ne parlez pas français aussi?” Which I rightly assumed meant they were expressing empathy towards our lack of French speaking ability. (I had to get my multilingual niece to help with this interpretation!). Still, using hand signals, body language, and tiny words, we were able to share a moment together celebrating the awesomeness of the creation we were enraptured with. We said ‘Au revoir’, they said ‘Goodbye’, and we parted company. Even that short encounter brings certain joy when shared by fellow travellers who have a deep appreciation for not only our similarities, but also our differences. 

Fortaleza de Sagres

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