For Whom the Bells Toll

The rhythm of life in the villages of Portugal and Spain’s small towns is measured more appropriately by “ding-dongs” than “tick-tocks.”


That’s because church bells – not timepieces sans striking mechanisms or apps on digital devices – effectively (and efficiently) call us to come and go, awake and sleep, to accommodate time … with chimes whose claims remain diligent reminders in the background of our lives.


After a lifetime living near the deafening roar of airport jets taking off and landing; the blaring alarms of late night and early morning trains approaching crossings closed by mechanical arms; and the deeply mournful bass horns of ships passing in the night harbor, we sought a simpler life with sounds that relax and reassure, rather than jolt or jar.

Our favored vision of an idyllic retirement was marked by two indelible images: meandering cobble stone streets for walks and wandering. And church bells nearby, easing our todays into tomorrows with yesterdays’ bygones … periodicity to their perennial peals.


Peals before swine?


The church bells at our village’s central plaza echo the pulse of the people, their ebb and flow, undertaking life’s daily tasks and rituals. They summon morning strollers and diesel drivers; elderly men that sit on the church walls to jawbone about this and that; women who rise and shine to stop and shop for necessities at the local market; and youngsters going to or coming from school.


The bells ring four times right before each hour to alert us that the full hour count(down) is forthcoming. They toll once at 15 minutes after the hour, twice on the half hour, and thrice every 45 minutes past the hour. At sunrise and sunset, they peal serially: three times three. To alert the village of urgent news and “special events” – the beginning and end of Sunday services, the baptism of a new life or a cadence for the dearly departed – the bells ring rapidly, continuously.


Minutes apart, earlier or later, bells of the other churches in our village momentarily repeat the offbeat chant.


Elsewhere, church bells play a major musical intermezzo at 7:30 and 18:30 each day, calling the faithful to prayer. Some swear that their own village bells play Clementine, an American folk tune, albeit with medieval disco vibes.


It’s said that, originally, the bells rang to let workers in the fields know they had a few minutes to begin work, break for lunch, and finish … ringing a couple of minutes before the hour to let them know it was nearly time. And that there were different timbres so, when out on the land, you recognized which of the bells to listen for—yours.


In some places now, the bells don’t ring between 22:00 and 5:00.But not here in Lousa. They’ve become biorhythms, conditioning us to sleep through their nocturnal and diurnal tirades.


Based on a sermon by John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls is the title of Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel about the 1930s Spanish Civil War. The phrase refers to church bells that are rung when a person dies.


Donne says that, because we are all part of mankind, any person’s death is a loss to all: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


Hemingway suggests that we should not be curious as to for whom the bell is tolling—it’s tolling for us all!


Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Ding-dong.

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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