O Canto da Alma

“If this property were located in Castelo Branco city, not Lousa, it would be worth at least €100,000 more,” the ReMax property agent told us. “Property buyers aren’t looking here … they want to live closer to the city or to live off the land on a quinta.”

There are plenty of places to choose from—including Lousã (Coimbra district)!

Technically, Portugal’s mainland is divided into 18 districts (distritos) formerly referred to as provinces; 278 municipalities (concelhos); 159 cities (cidades); 533 towns (vilas); and 2,882 civil parishes (freguesias). Countless “unofficial” villages, like Lousa, add to these numbers.

Granted, our little village isn’t the biggest, the best, or the prettiest.

Other places in Portugal have those honors. Lousa doesn’t have the tourist attractions. It’s not located in one of the more popular places. With 35.82 km² of area and 621 inhabitants (2011), its population density is 17.3 hab / km². And, apart from two cafes, it doesn’t even have a snack bar … let alone “shops,” except for two competing caddy-corner grocery markets (we’ve yet to learn the history behind that) and a beauty salon open on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Like so many little villages across Portugal, Lousa is an appendage, abolished in 2013 under administrative reform and added to the parish of Escalos de Cima. (Similarly, Escalos de Baixo took on the village of Mata.) Perhaps we in Lousa should derive some pleasure that, at least, we’re annexed to the high “scales,” not the low ones.

Part of the “L” triumvirate – Lousa, Lardosa, Louriçal – surrounding the A23 motorway, just south of the popular Fundão and Covilhã cities, Lousa’s streets (which follow neither rhyme nor reason) are too narrow to cast shadows. Without a stop sign or traffic light anywhere in sight, motorists race up and down these roads with wild abandon … or inch slowly but surely, as the tortoise to the hare. It’s a miracle there haven’t been accidents, as walkers wedge themselves against the walls of buildings and meandering dogs dodge the horseless carriages speeding their way.

Anchored by a standard blueprint church, the village plaza with its fresh water fountain next to the rectory is the trunk from which street stumps and stubs branch out in all directions. You’ll find some truly grand homes here which, in their heyday, must have been primo properties for the privileged. Clustered around them are row houses of varying shapes and sizes. While pride of ownership is obvious in many of these homes, others have withered and weathered, generation after generation, inherited but hardly inhabited. Unlike USA townhouses, no two buildings are alike. There’s no prevailing regularity or symmetry. Some have doors so improbably short that only the smallest of people can fit through them.

Cobble stone streets are simply engineered, higher in the middle mains and lower on the sides, enticing the gushing water to run off and disgorge into the sewers in front of our doors. The village’s perimeter is ringed by large farms (“quintas”), land holdings, and the cemetery.

Lousa has a Centro de Dia where our seniors congregate. We’ve got a Centro de Saúde, too, allowing residents to wait hours to consult the doctor or nurse. A primary school epitomizes the one-room schoolhouse, where twenty or so youngsters (all told) learn their lessons. Our village sports several small parks and an arena of sorts, were children play and adults can compete. Next door to the freguesía building where our junta meets for a half hour or so on Tuesday and Thursday evenings to administer to village’s business is a Casa de Cultura, where special events for the village are coordinated and orchestrated.

People trudge to a sheltered bus stop at the village entrance and sit on concrete benches, waiting for transportation to and from the big city where they work and shop.

Animals abound. Homeless dogs and cats roam the streets in search of morsels of food remaining on whatever’s been thrown out for them. Sheep, too, pass through the streets twice daily, nudged from behind by a man driving a tractor; flanking their sides are two shepherd dogs. Meanwhile, geese, ducks, donkeys and burros, horses, roosters and chickens, and other assorted livestock all contribute to the bucolic cacophony.

Trash bin trios are strategically sited, triaged throughout the village. And a plethora of directional signs point the way to get elsewhere.

Some things truly are special here: Lousarte is the village association, a cultural center and “museum” showcasing Lousa’s traditions and vast social heritage. Lousarte already has two sections, Traditional Dances of Lousa and a Theater, and has published a book about the village’s saints (male and female). We also have the União Lousense, a recreation club where one can exercise with a trainer two nights each week.

In addition to holidays venerating its special saints, Lousa has popular celebrations that bring people together: a chestnut roast, communal tasting of the season’s first wines, and sardine festivals (among others).

We’ve gotten to know the cast – including the village “characters” – and those who routinely stop for their morning coffees, departing the café hacking persistent smoker coughs … and they’ve come to know us. A klatch of women who gather at our mini-market to chew the fat enjoy our attempts to speak their language. Sweetly, they smile and tutor us.

We’re probably the first Americans who have chosen to live in Lousa. As human bodies biologically adjust and adapt to an infusion or a transplant, so, too, have we been accepted and accommodated by the Lousenses as part of their community. Initially, we may have been those two “strange Americans” who moved here, installed fly screens on our windows, walked our dogs on leashes and picked up after them … but we’ve been adopted by the good people of this town and, now, we are treated as their very own personal Americans.

Despite the naysaying property agents, growth is occurring here in Lousa, as new buildings are constructed on the outskirts and “ruinas” are reformed into lovely homes of character.

Probably what attracts us most to Lousa is a sense of community — a genuine spirit of neighborliness — where folks among its 600 residents recognize us, but not know us more than in passing, wave from their cars and greet us as we walk its streets … especially when returning after spending a hefty chunk of time at our second home in Portugal (Vila Boim: population 1,200) or our vacation bolt in Spain (Olvera: population 10,000).

We are part of the local “tribe” in Lousa, a place that we cherish because of what it is, rather than what it’s not: Simpler lives and times — boring or monotonous, perhaps, to some — whose daily routines are the very backbone of the communal spirit.

Lousa, the overlooked stepchild and less likely half-brother or sister, has taught us to understand the song of the soul (O Canto da Alma), a fado that weeps for its past, shrugs off its present, and hopes eternally for better tomorrows.

Soulfully, it’s the “love that remains” here.

Saudade.

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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