Whether expat or immigrant – however you see yourself as an English-speaking “foreigner” in a new country and culture – you’re fortunate if you have a local, native friend (or more). Not necessarily a neighbor. Nor a merchant, contractor, or service provider.
I’m referring to someone who truly cares for and about you, looking out for your welfare and “sponsoring” you, without ulterior motives or a hidden agenda. A person who enjoys spending time with you and is helpful when it comes to navigating the ins and outs of the country’s ways and means. He or she is happy to assist in your assimilation, as well as to help with the intricacies of a new language and its usage. Such a friend shares meals, coffee, wine or beer when you’re out together … and may actually feel comfortable passing the threshold of your house to join you in the kitchen, dining room, and the sala.
Sounds simple and convenient, easy enough to arrange?
Despite their inherent goodness and welcoming nature, the Portuguese and the Spanish tend to be rather private people. A “bom dia” and “buenas tardes” shared while walking in the street or a passing wave from the car are appropriate as neighbors; but associations more intimate than acquaintances need time to cultivate, which isn’t easy when coming from a different culture and speaking another language. As anywhere, they often are the province of longtime companions.
We have been truly fortunate – blessed, if you will – to have developed and cultivated a friendship with two very special Portuguese people: Olga and Alex: our advisers, advocates and personal ambassadors.
Outgoing and personable, Olga “friended” us on Facebook while we lived in the USA, before moving to her village in Portugal. She’d heard we had planned to open a snack bar, “Tapas Americanas,” in Lousa and shared that information liberally with her village.
Our Facebook page soon had plenty of attention.
It was on this Facebook page that Olga contacted us to inform us that contractors working on our house had inadvertently left the outside doors of our living room unlatched. With heavy winds and rains, there was danger of more than water damage.“But we are here in the USA now, thousands of miles away,” I groaned. “What can we possibly do?”
Olga went into action, sending an “SOS” to everyone in our new town. More than a few people offered to help, but it was Alex (according to Facebook, she’s “in a relationship” with him), who did the dirty work … driving over with a large ladder, climbing onto the balcony buttressing the living room doors, entering the room and securing the doors. Olga messaged us his every step, letting us know in the end that our front door was locked from the inside and Alex couldn’t get out. He had to leave as he came in, off the balcony and down the ladder, shutting the doors tightly behind him.
An artist in every sense of the word, Olga was born in the small village next to ours, but spent part of her childhood in Paris, where she learned French. Returning to Portugal, her family settled in the village where we now live. As with many of her contemporaries who live close to the Spanish border, Olga learned Spanish by watching the TV.
“We had two stations, channels, here in Portugal,” she explains. “With antennas, we could watch more than 40 from Spain: cooking shows, telenovelas (soaps), game shows, and movies made in other countries but then dubbed in Spanish. That’s how we learned to speak and understand Spanish!”
Realizing the shortcomings and awkwardness of Google Translate’s (Brazilian) Portuguese, I communicated with Olga in Spanish and body language, augmented by my expanding Portuguese vocabulary … grateful for her positivism and patience with my pronunciation.
“Veeeeeeeeeee … nyo,” she’d say, holding up a glass of tinto and biting gently on her lower lip, correcting my Spanish tendency to pronounce it “Bean-o” (of course she’ll insist that she said “viiiiiiiii … nyo”).
“Peace and love,” she maintains. “Live and let live,” best summarize her religious views. No longer a practicing Catholic, she still enjoys the intrinsic beauty of some of its rituals, pageants and processions.
Olga loves the heat and dislikes air conditioning … rain, in its season, is just fine with her. As are all creatures great and small—from bees to bulls and everything in between. She embraces life whole-heartedly and loves all living things—even insects and rodents.
“Sou como sou …”I am what I am, she admits. Dozens of previously homeless dogs and cats call her quinta home, along with a gang of geese.
“Salt of the earth,” we say in English about unpretentious people to whom goodness is natural. Olga and Alex personify these qualities.
As Alex does the cooking and Olga the dishes, I wouldn’t be surprised, though, to learn that someone’s goose had been cooked for dinner.
“I hate those geese,” says Alex, complaining about their honking noise and nasty attitude towards him. “They bite!”
He’s the one who first dubbed her “A Bellísima,” a tongue-in-cheek term of endearment used much the way we Americans affectionately call someone a “princess.” Loosely translated, it means “The Truly Beautiful One.”
And that she is!
Olga works for the government, in another cámara (not ours) where she makes the hour-long drive each way daily. She earns 730 euros per month, slightly more than the minimum wage, even though she’s earned a promotion and worked there since nineteen-years-old.
“O governo congelou as nossas carreiras desde que entrámos em crise,” she explains, noting that the government had frozen salaries since the financial “crisis” (in 2008)… until recently.
“After all the accounting, I was left with another five euros—a fortune,” she laughs. “I don’t even know where to spend all that money!”
Knowing her, it will probably be donated to an animal welfare group.
Or, to another cause about which she is devoted.
I hope each of you has a special “bellísima” in your life!
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.