Lies

“The Internet started as a bastion for free expression,” a former Reddit C.E.O. wrote. These days, “the trolls are winning.” Illustration by Javier Jaén.

It would appear that we are surrounded — swallowed — by lies, untruths, distortions, and alternative realities or interpretations and understandings. Lies come in all shapes and sizes … spread from pulpits, political podiums, and public squares. I’ve selected three here which must be turned on their heads, despite how gigantic and rampant they are.

The Big Lie:

Donald Trump won the USA’s 2020 presidential election; Democrats, dilettantes, and demons conspired to deny and deprive him of office.

The Bigger Lie:

The best defense against bad people with guns is good people with guns.

The Biggest Lie:

The US Constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to have and use guns.

Trump did not win the 2020 election. Umpteen challenges, court cases, recounts, and eye-witness testimonies show quite the contrary: He lost. But he used every tool — from lies to blackmail, conspiracy and terrorism to rile up his followers … which, ultimately, led to the Great Insurrection. On January 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporter attacked the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., seeking to overturn his defeat by disrupting the joint session of Congress assembled to count electoral votes that would formalize President-elect Joe Biden‘s victory. Yet this heinous moment of American history wasn’t yet over … in fact, Trumpism has been spreading by Trumpsters intent on destroying democracy.

There’s no need for gun control in the USA? Bullshit. The lie propagated by the National Rifle Association advocating for additional guns, not fewer, has become the mantra of the country’s Republican party fed by egregious sums of financial contributions and favors to their campaigns by the NRA. Even as massacres and killings — of children! — continue to rise, politicians blame (other) people rather than the weapons of mass destruction. The height of hypocrisy was only recently reached when politicians like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott addressed the NRA’s recent annual convention in Texas in the same state and time that a gunman killed 19 school children and two teachers at an elementary school.

“The rate of gun ownership hasn’t changed. And yet acts of evil like we saw this week are on the rise,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told crowds at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston. Cruz’s claim about stagnant gun ownership (which is factually misleading), is among the trove of inaccurate claims made by GOP officials at the NRA’s annual gathering, making clear that the string of mass shootings in recent weeks has not influenced their pro-gun convictions. On the other side of the world, much as I cringe and cry at loss of lives and homeland during Putin’s war against Ukraine, I can’t help but shudder at the billions of dollars in assembly line armaments sent continuously by the USA to Ukraine. (In the long run, I believe, it will be the sanctions against Russia by a steadfast European community of nations and the Russian people clamoring for change that will be the determining factors for Putin and his enablers’ defeat.)

And the Constitutional basis for bearing arms? I’m neither a historian nor a Constitutional scholar, but I cannot understand how these words upon which rest vigilante injustice and bloodshed aplenty have been interpreted and blessed by the government–executive, legislative, and judicial branches alike.

Second Amendment to the Constitution:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

For decades, the US has been locked in a reckoning over the breadth of the language in this amendment protecting the right to keep and bear arms. But in recent months, national attention has instead shifted to the lesser-considered subject of its first clause: “A well regulated Militia …”

Armed self-described militia members have shown up with growing frequency this summer to racial justice protests held in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. Their appearance, usually carrying rifles and dressed in military-style gear, has ratcheted up the tension at demonstrations and the risk of confrontation. Militia groups also attended gun rights rallies and demonstrations protesting coronavirus lockdown measures. Militia groups have, for years, argued that their actions are constitutionally protected. But legal analysts say the Constitution does not protect private military groups that are unconnected to or outside the authority of the government. In fact, all 50 states prohibit and restrict private militia groups and militia activity with several different kinds of laws as well as provisions included in most state constitutions.

If militias can be defined and defended these ways, is there any doubt that legislators and courts will accede to “pro-life” group demands to do away with abortion, denying women control over their own bodies? Or that same-sex marriage and adoptions will be redacted (at best) or overturned (at worst)? And that even issues concerning data privacy will be applied?

This is an unprecedented time we live in. We are living through climate change, a pandemic on pause, and an international conflict that has the potential to turn global. People around the world are struggling with conflicts and atrocities, at times due to the American military’s involvement, while hundreds more are dealing with increasingly dangerous heat waves as a result of the climate crisis. Still, others are trying to face the consequences of the pandemic, including the devastation left behind due to the loss of lives and the increasing financial insecurity that continues to widen the inequality gap between the struggling and the affluent. War in Ukraine wages on with what seems like no end in sight, while the Pentagon discusses options of US involvement in the fight against Russia.

This regression of rights in the democratic nation which has claimed countlessly throughout history to “spread democracy into the world” seems beyond ironic and hypocritical.

Although an ordained pastor, I’m certainly no Bible literalist. But when the same words are repeated nine separate times in one book (Deuteronomy) of Hebrew Testament Law and echoed at least once in the Christian Testament (I Corinthians 5:13), it’s time to take note:

You must purge the evil from among you.

I doubt that any of us disagrees about the importance of ridding ourselves and our society of evil; the problem arises because of our different values, beliefs, and interpretations of what constitutes “evil.”

In terms of the nine commands in Deuteronomy to remove evil, such “evils” are said to include liars (false witnesses); children who are stubborn, rebellious, gluttons and drunkards; idolaters; kidnapping and human trafficking; purity, unity, and promiscuity; showing contempt for judges and priests; prophets and dreamers advocating rebellion against God; and God’s so-called jealousy.

Moreover, Deuteronomy 17 describes three apparently disconnected aspects of justice:

  1. How to handle an allegation of idolatry. (Verses 2-7)
  2. How to handle a case that is too difficult for the local court. (Verses 8-13)
  3. How to ensure a king remains humble and accountable to God. (Verses 18-20)

I say “apparently” because they are connected by more than the overall theme of justice. For example, the sequence illustrates the roles and responsibilities of various members of the nation as their relative authority increases. The picture begins with individuals, moves to the community, then to the nation, and finally to the king.

You must purge the evil from among you.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the current issue and subscribe, free of charge, to the magazine on its website:
https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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The Sheep

Feeding my three miniature schnauzers their morning meal, the youngest one goes through the same ritual every day: While gulping food from his bowl, he invariably misses one kibble that falls to the floor. He stops what he’s doing and searches for that kibble before casting an eye at all the chow still in his bowl waiting to be eaten. He ignores the bowl, however, until he’s swallowed that one errant nugget.

As he went through his routine this morning, for some reason the parable about the “lost” sheep came to mind. I couldn’t shake it all day. Like so many of the parables Jesus tells, I believe there’s more than one take-away or meaning to this one.

Conventional wisdom has it that even one silly sheep out of a hundred is important to the good shepherd, who leaves the 99 in search of the one. We all will be saved!

Doesn’t that make you feel good? That none of us “sinners” will be abandoned until we’ve all been brought back into the fold. That God so loved the world that …

But, wait a minute.

Aren’t we making some assumptions about this parable? That the shepherd is good and the sheep isn’t? That the 99 were respectful, while the one may have been resentful? That the one responsible for the incident was the sheep, not the shepherd?

Perhaps this parable is also about responsibility?

The Parable of the Lost Sheep appears in the Gospels of Matthew (18:12–14) and Luke (15:3–7). It is about a shepherd who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep to find the one which is “lost.”

Lost? Who is lost and who is responsible for the loss?

In the Gospel of Luke, the parable is as follows.

He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends, his family and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (World English Bible).

It’s interesting that, in Luke’s Gospel, the one responsible for the sheep being lost is the shepherd, who wasn’t keeping watch when the sheep happened to wander off somewhere. Look how the verse is translated by different biblical versions:

(NIV) “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

(NAS) “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?”

(Complete Jewish Bible) “If one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, doesn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?

(KJV) What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?”

(MSG) “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it?”

(Living) So Jesus used this illustration: “If you had a hundred sheep and one of them strayed away and was lost in the wilderness, wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine others to go and search for the lost one until you found it?”

Only the Living Bible translates the verse such that the sheep had strayed and was lost, until the shepherd sought and found it. The other verses put a more mercantile twist to the story: The shepherd was responsible for the care and welfare of 100 sheep. Maybe he was napping or day-dreaming; perhaps one shepherd wasn’t enough to watch over 100 sheep. Nonetheless, one of the sheep was gone—leaving only 99 accounted for.

Perhaps that “lost” sheep was of critical importance to the flock—a leader, innovator, “heretic,” visionary, prophet whose role is essential to all the others? We assume that the errant sheep had wandered off … but what if that sheep had left to escape? Who’s at fault here: the shepherd or the sheep? In every single translation, the man has lost the sheep (i.e., the fault is his), rather than the sheep has gone astray (the sheep’s fault).

Remember the Napoleon character in George Orwell’s Animal Farm?

Sheep symbolize the masses. A clever and designing leader can easily lead them anywhere. Their numbers count in getting things done, but they never want to know the reason for any change. They are content to do what the leaders want them to.

Napoleon was quick to realize that they could be of great use to him in his struggle to attain supreme power. He therefore pays attention to their education, and teaches them to repeat the slogan “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

Another animal on the farm, Snowball, is addressing a meeting. This interrupts the meeting at crucial stage and Snowball fails to control his audience. When Napoleon expels Snowball and announces that there will be no Sunday meeting in future, four of the pigs voice their protest. At that, Napoleon’s dogs begin to growl and the sheep start bleating “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

The sheep are part of the massive propaganda machine that Stalin set up as he came to power in Russia, and they’re also the people who were swayed by that same propaganda. Instead of thinking for themselves, they just repeat slogans over and over.

The sheep represent the duped citizens of a totalitarian state.

In the New International Version, the words of Matthew’s Gospel tell the story a bit differently … such that the sheep caused the problem by leaving the flock:

(KJV) “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?”

(NIV) “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off.”

(NAS) “What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying.”

(Complete Jewish) “What’s your opinion? What will somebody do who has a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go off to find the stray?”

It’s a matter of responsibility—individual and collective.

Atlas Shrugged, a 1957 novel by Ayn Rand was her fourth and final novel; it was also her longest, and the one she considered to be her magnum opus in the realm of fiction writing. Rand described the theme of Atlas Shrugged as “the role of man’s mind in existence.” The book explores a number of philosophical themes from which Rand would subsequently develop her Objectivism philosophy: reason, individualism, capitalism, and depicts what Rand saw as the failures of governmental coercion.

The book depicts a dystopian United States in which private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws and regulations. Railroad executive Dagny Taggart and her lover, steel magnate Hank Rearden, struggle against “looters” who want to exploit their productivity. Dagny and Hank discover that a mysterious figure called John Galt is persuading other business leaders to abandon their companies and disappear as a strike of productive individuals against the looters. The novel ends with the strikers planning to build a new capitalist society based on Galt’s philosophy.

In Atlas Shrugged, she shows that without the independent mind, our society would collapse into primitive savagery. Atlas Shrugged is an impassioned defense of the freedom of mankind’s mind. But to understand the author’s sense of urgency, we must have an idea of the context in which the book was written.

Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism,” describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The world is best served, she believed, when individuals act entirely in their own rational self-interest. In other words, when they act selfishly.

This, of course, is contrary to the basic tenets of Christianity and most other faiths based on living out the Golden Rule.

The “absolute,” when taken together, is that we truly do need each other. It is both through community and leadership that we survive. With leadership without community, we have Putin’s aggression against his neighbor and brother. With community without leadership, we are lost and without direction.

Like that one missing sheep.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. Read our current issue online and subscribe at no charge (free!) at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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Just Give Me the Book!

When referring to “The Book,” most Christians are talking about the Bible. For Jews, it’s the Talmud. Muslims generally assume it’s the Qur’an. Those who belong to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints reference the Book of Mormon.

But here in Portugal, whether mentioned with reverence or threatened as restitution, the holy “Book” of judgment is the Livro de Reclamações (Complaints Book), “a legally enshrined instrument of citizenship,” according to its website.

Not only is the Book accessible for use online (www.livroreclamacoes.pt), but, by law, it must be available upon request by any consumer in every Portuguese shop and business.

The closest those in the USA come to this instrument of justice is the BBB (Better Business Bureau); to the best of my knowledge, however, there’s no real equivalent of Portugal’s Book or the USA’s consumer rights group in the UK. Yes, there is Trading Standards and Citizen’s Advice (which offer consumer advice). For businesses, the closest equivalent is probably a professional trade association or another membership body. There are also supplier directories such as MemberWise and great.gov.uk.

But none are as awesome and powerful as o Livro de Reclamações.

Every legitimate business must have one of these books.

If a shop refuses to give you the book, call the police (112). Seriously! Each business entity can be liable for fines from €3,500 to €30,000 for refusing to let a customer complain, because it is deemed “concealment of fraudulent practice.” The police actually have the power to close the establishment. If the police do intervene, there is a minimum fine of €15,000 euros. The threat of calling the police is often enough.

The book, itself, is A4 sized, and also available online.

Every business category has a designated Competent Authority which oversees and regulates its practice. If there is no singular government agency for it, the default regulator is the Ministry of Justice. The power of this book is that if you feel you have a valid reason for an official complaint, you are encouraged to write in the book.

Moreover, each business must also display the Complaints Book poster visibly — either in the shop window or at the payment counter – that displays the business entity’s legal name and identifies which authority governs its business practices.

Since July 2017, according to its website, some 357,684 suppliers of goods and registered service providers have been regulated by the Book; 625,084 claims have been made; 23,365 requests for information have been received; 3,801 entries of satisfaction and praise were contributed; 1,800 suggestions made; 35 regulatory entities and/or registered inspectors reviewed the complaints; and user satisfaction is rated as 3.2 out of four possible stars. In terms of activity, these are the top ten industries or services and their number of complaints in the book—online or in print:

1: Internet Providers/Electronic Communications Services (209,040)

2: Postal Network and Services (103,060)

3: Electricity (49,498)

4: Appliances, electrical and electronic equipment sales and assembly (25,358)

5: Financial Services (21,889)

6: Combined Utilities (Electricity + Natural Gas) (17,284)

7: Airplanes & Carriers (10,478)

8: Insurance Companies (9,671)

9: Informatics, Computers & Related Devices (9,507)

10: Department Stores, Large Retailers & Hypermarkets (9,374)

The Complaints Book is bilingual (Portuguese/English) but can be completed in whatever language you want. If it is not one of the major European languages (Portuguese, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German), you may need to indicate that fact somewhere on the form, so that authorities can find someone to translate it for them.

You will need to provide your personal details and contact details if you wish to receive notification on the progress of your complaint. You need not be a resident of Portugal to use the Complaints Book—with a valid reason, anyone can write in it. If you write in the book itself, a staff member must also sign the form to witness your claim.

There is space for a business to write whatever defense against the claim it may have. They can write whatever they want … the business Regulator will arbitrate the issue at hand.

Carbon paper is used to triplicate the sheet you write on. One copy is retained by you, one by the business establishment, and the final copy is sent to the Regulator within five working days. The Regulator then has ten 10 working days to uphold your complaint and compel the business to redress your issues.

Naturally, a business manager will plead to resolve the issue before or while you write in the Book. If you do find yourself in a situation where s/he has resolved the matter with you, you will need to cross off your complaint (two diagonal lines across the page) and write “complaint cancelled” or “reclamação anulada.”

Personally, I have used the Livro de Reclamações twice in the four-going-on-five years that we’ve lived here:

● I purchased a barbecue grill at a major retailer “superstore.” Nowhere – not in the window, by the cashier’s line, on the sales slip, or even near the lavatories — was the store’s return policy shown. When I tried to return the grill – box unopened, receipt in hand – two days later, the service attendant and then the manager offered to let me buy other stuff in the store and credit the amount of my earlier purchase to the bill then and there. Or, I could be issued a credit voucher for that amount … good for 30 days. Trouble is, we were just visiting friends in the area and had no plans to return anytime that soon. My issue wasn’t that the story wouldn’t give me a refund or credit my debit card; my primary complaint was that nowhere in the store was its returns and refunds policy posted.

Within two weeks of filing my complaint, I heard back from the competent authorities. Bottom line: “The store, in good faith, attempted to resolve the refund (problem) according to its policies.” I, however, was unwilling to accept those policies without proof. Case closed.

● My second use of the Book happened just recently. We were planning to buy a new car, which were few and far between. Depending on the model, color, and equipment, it would take anywhere from four months to a year for the car to be delivered once ordered. After discussing our options with nearly a dozen dealerships across Portugal (and one in Spain), we were now negotiating with two different dealers in two different districts. Dealer one’s order sheet showed that it would have the car and color we wanted, hopefully, six months later. He emailed us a “propuesta” (proposal) showing the car’s description, its cost, Portugal’s 23% “sales” tax (IVA), road tax, dealer preparation, administrative costs, and transportation charges, as well as the amount they would give us in trade for our current car.

“If you want it, I advise you to send a deposit of €3,234.17 immediately,” he said. “You can come in anytime to complete the paperwork and sign the contract.” The next morning, however, we heard from the second dealer two, who had been trying to confirm a car on order with his manager—who wasn’t around (until after we sent more than three thousand euros to the first dealer). The second’s offer was much better: Though comparably equipped, his was a limited edition, the top model in the line. Plus, he offered us €250 more for our trade-in, while his administrative, dealer preparation, and transportation costs were €250 less. Our total cost savings would be $500—for a superior model that would be delivered a month earlier that the other. Confirming with our lawyer that we could back out (with a full refund) as we hadn’t signed a contract, we went to the dealership to explain the circumstances surrounding our change of mind. Obviously, the salesman wasn’t happy and tried to talk us out of our decision. But we were firm.

“When can we expect a refund of the €3,234.17 we sent you?” I asked.

“We have a girl who comes in once each month – on the 17th, I believe – to do the accounting and pay all our bills and obligations,” he replied.

“That’s three weeks from now,” I countered, “and you’ve already had our money for a week. I paid you immediately upon your request and expect our money refunded and in our bank account by the end of this business week,” I insisted.

He shrugged and suggested we go home and send him an email explaining why we weren’t going ahead with his offer, which he would show to his boss and see if payment could be expedited. Following two more weeks of waiting, we decided to use the Complaints Book. (It’s yet too early to tell how they’ll respond.)

My point here is simple: The Complaints Book is a very powerful instrument provided for your protection. It can be used in almost all measures of life with justification, though consumers must also play their part to not abuse the system.

As long as you remember that this is Portugal … and don’t become too impatient!

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the country’s only full spectrum, English language magazine for those considering relocation, newcomers, and long-time residents. Read our current issue and order your free — no cost! — subscription via this link: https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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Driving Supply and Demand

There aren’t enough boots on the ground, planes in the air, boats afloat, or heavy artillery for Ukraine to combat and defeat Putin’s War.

Not enough water is causing draughts in too many places, just as a scarcity of food are keeping too many people thirsty and hungry.

Climate crises are creating more hurricanes, floods, typhoons, mudslides, ice melts, and earthquakes than the earth can handle.

The Israelis and Palestinians are at it again, India and Pakistan continue their disputes, and tribal feuds around the world are doing away with entire populations.

Covid is still rising, ebbing, and hovering like the flu, without enough masks, vaccines, doctors and nurses to staff hospitals and treatment centers.

The soaring cost of housing has increased rents in Portugal by 25% and house prices by 65% over the last ten years.

And new cars are almost nowhere to be found.

According to a report by CNN Portugal, the government hopes to gain a further €59 million with the Vehicle Tax (ISV), which is paid when you buy a new car. But the market has a different perspective from the government.

Because there are several factors that negatively influence the car-buying sector.

Starting with the semiconductor crisis, which is “far from being resolved,” thus limiting supply. Then there is the impact of the war in Ukraine, as exemplified by the “Ukrainian factories that stopped due to the shortage of cabling.” Raw materials are in short supply. Finally, the uncertainty generated by fuel prices may also delay the decision of many Portuguese people to buy a new car.

“Reduce the taxes to reasonable levels, sales may increase and might very well result in higher tax revenues,” commented one reader of the story published by The Portugal News from which the above paragraphs are quoted. Said another, “With ridiculously high vehicle taxes, accelerating inflation, rapidly rising fuel costs, very high vehicle prices, low wages and low wage increases, why would anyone try to help the government coffers?” 

Hyundai’s Santa Fe model starts at €58,950 (US $63,750) and the median price of a Kia is €36,000 (US $39,000)–neither including IVA (23%), road taxes (between US $250 and $500 or more), transportation and administrative expenses including matriculation costs (upwards of €1,000). That’s not cheap for “entry-level” cars. How much do they cost now in the USA?

Inflation is back, with too much funny money chasing after not enough goods and services that people need to live and economies to survive.

It’s said that confession is good for the soul, so here goes mine:

We decided to buy a new car—all things considered, probably the worse time to do so.

Nonetheless, I can’t have what we want or need … at least not now.

Because it just ain’t available!

“It” is a 2022 Dacia Duster, requiring about 10,000 euros out-of-pocket after adding in IVA (23%), Portugal road tax (about €375), transportation, dealer preparation, matriculation, and administrative costs (€1,150) … less whatever they’ll give me for my humble, hard-working minivan.

First it was the supply chain, now it’s the lack of “raw materials” needed to build the car, combined with mobility difficulties of transporting such relatively large heavyweights manufactured in the eastern part of the EU to the west.

Yeah, if you want one of those upscale vehicles costing > €50,000 or more, you may be able to get a Peugeot, Renault, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, or Volvo – let alone cherry pick the top of the line on some of these pristine brands selling easily for €100K, €150K, €195K … and more.

How do they afford it, I wonder, in one of the poorest per capita countries in the European Union? (I’m told by banker friends, people who ought to know, that most of these high-priced ego-boosters are leased, not purchased. Still, paying upwards of €500 per month on time seems like doing time when it comes down to it.)

Mark my words: we’ve already experienced a huge hike – 30% or more – in the cost of used cars. Once new vehicles begin trickling through the supposedly barrier-less countries comprising the European Union, we’re going to see a major jump in new car prices, as well.

To be sure, so that we’re clear: Vehicles are, perhaps, the only major commodity not included in the free movement of trade across national boundaries. They’re subject to taxes, import fees, regulations, and retrofitting between one country and another (or several).

“So, why don’t you just buy a decent used car?” you may ask. “After all, unlike elsewhere (i.e., the USA), they’re generally covered by two-year guarantees imposed on dealerships by government mandate.”

Yeah, well …

First: previously-owned cars with low mileage in good condition at fair and reasonable prices are few and far between. Second: That “guarantee” requires you to return a car needing repairs – by hook or by crook or by tow truck – to the dealer you purchased it from, regardless of the distance. Insurance companies usually won’t pay for long-distance towing costs and who knows how or with whose parts the dealer will meet that obligation? Third: my grandmother, in her wisdom, warned me, “Never buy a used car. Why inherit someone else’s problems? Better to purchase a lower-cost new car than a fancy frock covering who-knows-what blemishes?”

We learned that the hard way after buying two used cars from dealers and “stands” during our first six months living in Portugal.

Hence, we decided to buy a Dacia Duster. Good reviews. Great history. Ample space for passengers and baggage. And all the extras – air conditioning, push buttons to open or close windows and doors, plenty of headroom and space for your knees as legs, comfortable and reasonably attractive. All for less than €22,000 ($24,000)—including IVA, road taxes, and all those assorted fees.

Trouble is, none are to be found. Nowhere in Portugal.

“We are living in a time of real car shortage,” said Nuno, one of the dealer reps I spoke to (in Portuguese–the quote is translated to English). “In addition to production delays, there is now a lack of raw material, which leads to a lack of vehicles for delivery. Finding a Duster like this is a real find, as I have no forecast to receive another of these vehicle.”

The dealers (who have access to exactly what cars are here and where in in the country) are estimating six months to a year, maybe even longer, from the time you order a car until it’s delivered.

Which brings us to supply-and-demand economics and the inability to cut corners or negotiate a better deal.

These are things to know before buying a vehicle here:

● You can’t go out and kick the tires of cars on the lot.

● That’s because there aren’t really any “lots,” except for used vehicles.

● Those cars you see in front of or surrounding car dealerships either already have been sold, are “service” cars and used trade-ins for sale, or belong to employees or customers.

● In Portugal, there are no taxes when you buy an used car – you’ll only pay the registration fee (about 55€/65€, online/offline). There are no state, province, or regional taxes, either.

● More often than not, new car dealers don’t hang onto their trade-ins. Usually, they’re quickly wholesaled to Portugal’s used car trade.

● Trade-in values are exceptionally low. We were offered €3,800 for a car that typically retails between €11,500 and €15,000 on the used car stands. Truth be told, though, we accepted €7,500 for our car from the dealer who ultimately sold us the Dacia.

● Unlike the USA and (maybe) some other countries with huge inventories of new vehicles in different colors and with a variety of options just waiting to go on sale – especially right before the next year’s models arrive – typically, only one car of a given make or model is in a Portuguese showroom. Dealers are required to hold onto these “tester” or viaturas de serviço (“service” or “courtesy” cars) for at least four months become they can sell them.

● Most new cars are ordered by the customer, not selected from available inventory, and customized to his or her specs. Then begins the interminable wait from order to delivery.

● Prices are set by the manufacturers, not the dealers, so there’s often very little room to negotiate. Dealers have only a little leeway in their “administrative” costs and how much they’ll give for your trade-in. So, ultimately, the search for a dealership to buy from has more to do with how much it will give you for your car than what they’ll charge you for theirs.

● Unlike nearly everything else in Portugal (and Spain), the advertised price of new vehicles doesn’t include sales tax–IVA (23% in Portugal, 21% in Spain). That’s a hefty chunk of change–about a quarter of the designated sales price must be added onto the vehicle’s price to cover the costs of IVA and Portugal’s road tax.

● “Matriculation” (i.e., ownership as evidenced by your license plates or tags) in Portugal is visible on license plates—which stay with the cars, regardless of how many times those cars change hands. With your matriculation number, dealers already know a lot about your vehicle, even before inspecting it.

● If you decide to purchase a “service” car from a dealer, remember that it will already have been registered and you will be considered the second owner–even if the car has only 500 kms. This may or may not matter to you, but it will affect the vehicle’s value if and when you decide to sell or trade it in later on.

● Due to the uncertainty of when new cars will arrive, dealers are hesitant to quote prices on trade-ins. After all, how many miles (kilometers) may actually be on your odometer six months … eight … a year or more after you place an order? Surely, the value of your old car decreases as the wait for your new one increases.

● The car of your dreams can take six months to a year (or more) from the time that you order it until the keys are in your hand.

Across the border in (Badajoz) Spain — just 15 minutes from our house in Elvas — there’s also a paucity of new cars to be had. But the prices for identical vehicles are substantially lower there. Why? For one thing, there’s IVA: Spain’s 21% sales tax can make a lesser dent in the cost of a car. Then, too, Spain doesn’t have the “road tax” Portugal imposes. Deduct another €250-€500 (or more). In addition, manufacturers “package” their options differently. What already comes in the base price of a new car purchased in Spain may be option(s) in Portugal. Our Duster in Spain would come with everything included, except metallized paint.

Bottom line: The same car in Spain would cost us €1,700 (US $1,850) less than in Portugal.

Why not buy the car in Spain, then, you may wonder. Lots of reasons! For one, Spanish car dealers can only sell you a car if you have proof of residence (a property owned or rented) in Spain and an NIE–Spain’s fiscal number equivalent to Portugal’s NIF. Since we’ve owned a pied-a-terre in Andalucía for over 15 years, we qualify. The challenge, though, is getting the car legally across the border and driving it daily.

Portugal prohibits that.

Technically, in Portugal one can own and drive a car with another country’s license plates for no more than half a year (183 days–consecutive or not). During that time, you can expect to be pulled over by the police and GNR, asking to see all your documents–both yours and the car’s. “How long have you been driving this car in Portugal?” they’ll ask. “Why do you have residencia and a driver’s license issued by Portugal?” You better get those answers right or you’ll be subject to very expensive fines and lots of embarrassment. Don’t forget, too, that no insurer will provide the required coverage for cars matriculated in another country. And review all the “accessories” — like flashlights, first aid kits, and paperwork — required to be at your fingertips under Portuguese law.

Why not buy the car in Spain and then register it in Portugal? That will work … if you’re willing to be double-taxed: Spain’s 21% + Portugal’s 23% + Portugal’s road tax. But first, you’ll need to go through all the red tape and inspections of importing the car (which, technically, is what you’re doing).

Since border towns are so close to each other, perhaps the dealer will be willing to register the car you bought from him in Spain with the financial and tax authorities in Portugal, simply if you pay Portugal’s additional IVA and road taxes?

Nope.

But, what if I buy and pay for the car from the dealer in Spain and take all the paperwork showing my bill of sale and documentation to ownership to Portugal? Maybe I can register the car directly in Portugal myself?

No way, José.

I might not be particularly patient, but I am persistent using the Internet for all it’s worth in my search for a new Dacia Duster in any of the available colors except orange.

P.S. I just heard back from two dealers: Nuno will have what we want, but in a gas-powered version, next month. It’s one of his service cars. Total price, all inclusive: €20,990. The same Friday, I heard from another dealer who is expecting a new car sometime soon. How soon? Who really knows? This is Portugal. But he promised to call me on Monday with whatever information — ETA, color, options, price, etc. — and an “offer” approved by his manager. I’m still waiting for that call …

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. Read the current issue online and subscribe to the magazine free of charge via this link:
https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue

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Rise and Shine

Sometimes I feel like Jacob, wrestling with an angel of God.

Especially when I can’t grasp an unqualified answer that satisfies me; I continue plunging on, like Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel because he demonstrated that he was willing to let God prevail in his life. In response, God then promised Israel that all the blessings pronounced upon Abraham would be his.

Remember the story?

Jacob got up in the middle of the night and took his wives, eleven children, and everything he owned across to the other side of the Jabbok River for safety. Afterwards, Jacob went back and spent the rest of the night alone.

A man came and fought with Jacob until just before daybreak. When the man saw that he could not win, he struck Jacob on the hip and threw it out of joint. They kept wrestling until the man said, “Let go of me! It’s almost daylight.”

“You can’t go until you bless me,” Jacob replied.

The man asked, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

The man said, “From now on, your name will no longer be Jacob. You will be called Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won.”

Jacob said, “Now tell me your name.”

“Don’t you know who I am?” he asked. And he blessed Jacob.

Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and I am still alive.” So he named the place Peniel. The sun was coming up as Jacob was leaving Peniel. He was limping because he had been struck on the hip, and the muscle on his hip joint had been injured. That’s why even today the people of Israel don’t eat the hip muscle of any animal.

The Lord never told Jacob his name.

There’s plenty of questions I have for Him, but I know He’s not ready (or, maybe, it’s me) to tell me my name or my story.

Take Easter, for instance. There are those who swear that unless you confess the bodily resurrection – that, after being dead for three days, Jesus rose to live again – the Christian faith means nothing. It’s all based on that singular miracle that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Did God?

Who knows? I certainly don’t. But neither did the people who spent their time walking and talking with Jesus. Did he really die? Why didn’t those people walking on the road recognize him? Was Mary really the first to see him? Then ran to share the good news with the other disciples? And what about Thomas, the one we refer to as “doubting?”

So many theories have historically buzzed that Jesus never died. That it all was part of a Passover plot. That there was no resurrection—at least not in bodily form. That it’s all meant to be a metaphor or a basis for building the faith. That the primary Gospel left out the resurrection, while the latter ones added and embellished it.

On the other hand, we also read about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to new life. And Elijah, who stretched himself three times upon the widow’s son … “And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:21-22).

Not that it matters.

Our beliefs shouldn’t be “eithers” or “ors,” fact vs. faith, allegorical and/or historical.

Truth be told, most people hang onto their religions for one of two reasons: They’re afraid to die and cease existing as they know it. Or, they’ve been clobbered with verses to avoid sins-or-else-hell and enticed by angelic choirs, streets paved with gold, and celestial reunions with their loved ones.

Apart from certain curiosities and circuitous circumstances, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has died and returned to talk about what it’s like on the other side of the paradise we’re hell-bent on destroying.

That’s where Easter comes in …

The Easter questions comprise our belief that hope springs eternal.

It’s not about faith. Nor love. Nor tradition. Nor creeds and confessions. Neither is it about recognizing a masterful act to validate our experience and what we believe.

Instead, it’s about our determination to persevere, hoping that our hearts and what we hold most dear will prevail. Against tyrants like Vladimir Putin. Oligarchs and capitalists who create a special kind of autocracy that absolves them of any resolve to repent and be merciful. Or democracies gone bad when the greed factor turns to prejudice and hate, special interests and injustice.

Whether I know, instinctively, that the Son of Man was or wasn’t killed and did or didn’t rise again to life, isn’t that important to me. That he was martyred, however, was … as it beckons me to his words and ways, deeds and indeeds. I want to know his story. And do my best to follow his path.

“How does us appreciating spring help the people of Ukraine?” asked Facebook friend Anne Lamott. “If we believe in chaos theory, and the butterfly effect, that the flapping of a Monarch’s wings near my home can lead to a weather change in Tokyo, then maybe noticing beauty — flapping our wings with amazement — changes things in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It means goodness is quantum. Even to help the small world helps. Even prayer, which seems to do nothing. Everything is connected.”

At my age, I ache. So, as I rise each morning to new days full of promise and potential, I am thankful. I’m still alive and kicking. As I follow the news and see trends – the ups and downs of the stock market, the urgent desire to help others against all odds, the Covid crisis taking a back seat to other “Breaking News!” of the moment, the small advances that dedicated scientists and philanthropists are making against the behemoth that is climate change, even the blessings that progressive theologians have brought to enliven the hitherto hold fundamentalists and literalist bondage to the Bible “just as God wrote it” – my faith surges and is restored … bit by bit.

When it comes down to it, that’s what Easter is really about and gives reason to rejoice: Hope restored.

“I will celebrate that I have shelter and friends and warm socks and feet to put in them, and that God or Gus found a way to turn the madness and shame of my addiction into grace, I’ll shake my head with wonder, which I do more and more as I age, at all the beauty that is left and all that still works after so much has been taken away,” Anne Lamott concludes.

It’s rising and shining beyond all the grit and grief … and I say hallelujah to that. Because, like Jacob, we too have been blessed!

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the magazine’s current issue and subscribe — at no cost! — via this link:
https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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Illegitimate, Illegal and Condemnable:

Portugal Decries Russia’s War with Ukraine

Let’s be clear: In the early hours of 24 February, Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine, hitting cities and civilians with airstrikes and shelling. As a result, thousands of innocent people piled into trains and cars to flee the unprovoked aggression, while Russian tanks and troops continued to roll across the border launching a “full-scale war” that could rewrite the geopolitical order of the region.  

At the request of the Ukrainian authorities, Portugal agreed to provide military equipment such as vests, helmets, night vision goggles, grenades and ammunition of different calibers, complete portable radios, analogue repeaters and G3 automatic rifles.

Speaking at a televised news conference, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said that the country would be sending 175 military reinforcements to help Ukrainian soldiers on the ground secure their borders as this “is a war against the freedom of self-determination of a democratic country and therefore it is also a war against … democracy.”

“It’s been reported that close to 1,800 additional Portuguese military could be mobilized to take part in NATO’s dissuasive mission within allied countries on Ukraine’s borders. The soldiers will be made up of contingents from all three arms of the military (Air Force, Navy and Army),” reported the Portuguese Journal American. “In a second phase, another 472 military could be dispatched, along with 36 tactical vehicles and two Naval war ships.”

In addition, the United States has been reinforcing its use of Portugal’s Lajes military air base on Terceira island in the Azores, including storage and maintenance of munitions and explosives.

Ukrainians in Portugal, the second-largest foreign community in Portugal, are living in fear for their family and friends back home.

Citizens, residents, and expats of one of the world’s most peaceful nations expressed their frustration and anger, decrying Russian President Putin’s decimation of the world order.

Outside the Russian embassy in Lisbon, thousands of demonstrators held signs and waved flags to protest the Russian invasion and Portugal’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Additional protests in Porto and Algarve called for military support from European countries to Ukraine, as well as urged the Portuguese to not purchase products from Russia.

“Portugal supports Ukraine, which is defending itself against an unjustified, illegal, and unacceptable invasion,” Defense Minister João Cravinho tweeted.

On behalf of Portugal, Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva also expressed his solidarity with Ukraine and condemnation of Moscow:

“We have to be prepared for all scenarios. I am sorry to say it, but I cannot say anything else: today we have to work with all scenarios on the table because what is happening is that Putin’s action is not only exceeding his words, but Putin’s action at every moment is also exceeding the maximum that we had foreseen as possible …”

Santos Silva remarked that “whatever the objective” of the Russian offensive, “it is illegitimate, it is illegal, and it is condemnable,” describing it as “the biggest security crisis that Europe has gone through since World War II.”

Prime Minister Antonio Costa condemned the Russian invasion, adding that any Ukrainians who have family, friends, and acquaintances in Portugal are welcome in Portugal. Instructions to facilitate visas to those feeling the Russian invasion were given to embassies in Ukraine, as well as neighboring countries. The Portuguese Embassy in Ukraine urged Portuguese citizens in Ukraine to leave through European Union borders, particularly enroute to Romania or Moldova.

“While refugees are usually allowed in Portugal through a case-by-case analysis of the danger each applicant faces, the government acknowledged that all refugees from Ukraine are facing dangerous conditions,” wrote Lara Silva in Portugal.com. “The only reason someone might be denied asylum is if they have committed crimes against humanity or serious crimes, according to the Minister of Internal Administration and Justice, Francisca Van Dunem.” 

Unclear whether any changes will be made to the Portugal Golden Visa, “the war in Ukraine is likely to affect Portugal’s state budget for 2022,” Silva predicted. The Prime Minister, however, said it was too early to assess whether this is the case; some Portuguese economists, however, have stated that it will – directly and indirectly – impact the state budget:

“Oil and natural gas prices will continue to skyrocket, as Russia is one of the main energy suppliers to European countries. GDP is also likely to decrease in Portugal and there could be increased military spending attributed to the budget, depending on the course of the conflict.”

The Foreigners and Border Service previously announced that it would stop the Golden Visa scheme for Russian citizens. In addition, Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva stressed that more Russian citizens inn Portugal would be subject to sanctions.

“SEF has suspended the appreciation of any dossier of candidacy for authorization of residency through investment, commonly known as golden visas, for Russian citizens,” he pointed out.

In addition, Santos Silva stressed that the scheme was also suspended for citizens from Belarus.

According to Portugal’s Immigration and Border Service (SEF) data, investment from citizens from Russia brought a total of €277.8 million to Portugal’s economy in the nine years since the program was created.

With a view to receiving refugees from Ukraine, Portugal’s government recently published in the Diário da República the amendment to an ordinance that regulates the regime for granting temporary protection to refugees. In a press conference after an extraordinary Council of Ministers, the Minister of Social Security announced that Ukrainians who arrive in Portuguese territory “are guaranteed to stay regular,” being immediately assigned a user number of the National Health Service, Social Security number, and Tax Identification Number (NIF).

The official also announced that the Institute for Employment and Vocational Training (IEFP) has created a “task-force” “to accompany people in a personalized way and manage to find ways of real integration,” through accommodation and a platform where companies will be able to upload job offers.

According to the Minister of Justice and Internal Administration Francisca Van Dunem as quoted by CNN Portugal’s Barbara Cruz, the regime will have an initial duration of one year, renewable for two periods of six months “provided that conditions are maintained that prevent people from returning” to Ukraine.

Although no one in the West is quite sure what Putin’s intentions are, a weakening or breakup of the European Union is suspected of being one of his primary goals, says Len Port, a journalist and author based in the Algarve who writes for the Portugal Resident.

“Fortunately for Portugal, unlike much of the rest of Europe, it is not dependent on natural gas supplies from Russia, which it is feared the Kremlin might be using as a weapon in the current stalemate. Portugal’s gas originates in Algeria, Nigeria, and the US,” Port wrote on 26 January.

Nonetheless, Portugal has concerns even though it is the most distant EU country from Ukraine and, thus, perhaps the least vulnerable should dialogue fail. It is situated more than 3,000 km west of Ukraine. In past years, top Russian warships have passed along Portugal’s coast, at times as close as 26 nautical miles from the Algarve’s shores.

“As distant as it is, defence minister João Gomes Cravinho told his 26 EU counterparts at a meeting … in Brest, France, that he was delighted with the ‘absolute refusal’ by all EU member states to give in to Russia’s attempts to divide the Union by threatening Ukraine,” Port added.

“It’s clear that Russia’s attitudes seek to divide–divide the Europeans and divide the Europeans from the North American,” claimed the defense minister. He described it as “a very worrying situation that must be dealt with firmly, with a clear purpose, and in unity among all Europeans.”

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, thanked his Portuguese counterpart, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, for the support Portugal has provided to Ukraine.

Zelensky said on Twitter that he spoke to Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, whom he thanked for the closure of Portuguese airspace to Russian planes, Portugal’s support in excluding Russia from the Swift international interbank platform, and for “concrete defence assistance.”

The Ukrainian head of state called the President of the Republic, who reiterated Portugal’s “strong condemnation” of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and “solidarity support for the courageous Ukrainian resistance,” according to a note published in official website of the Portuguese Presidency.

Portugal also aims to accelerate its energy transition and increase the proportion of renewable sources by 20 percentage points to 80 per cent of its electricity output by 2026, four years earlier than previously planned, a transition that is being accelerated after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” according to a 2 April report by Reuters.

Unlike central European countries, Portugal does not depend on Russian natural gas pipelines, as it mainly imports liquefied natural gas from Nigeria and the USA, not importing Russian crude since 2020.Committed to become carbon-neutral by 2050, Portugal currently gets 60 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources—one of the largest proportions of green energy in Europe.

Elsewhere, Pope Francis prayed for peace in Ukraine in a ceremony that harkened back to a century-old apocalyptic prophecy about peace and Russia sparked by purported visions of the Virgin Mary to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.

The pontiff invited faithful from around the world to join him in the prayer, which opened with Francis entering St. Peter’s Basilica before an estimated 3,500 people and concluded with him sitting alone before a statue of the Madonna. There, he solemnly asked forgiveness that humanity had forgotten the lessons learned from the tragedies of the last century, the sacrifice of the millions who fell in two World Wars,” noted Nicole Winfield for the Associated Press.

“Free us from war, protect our world from the menace of nuclear weapons,” the pope prayed.

The service was Francis’ latest effort to rally prayers for an end to the war while keeping open options for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church and its influential leader, Patriarch Kirill. “Francis has yet to publicly condemn Russia by name for its invasion, though his denunciations of the war in Ukraine have grown increasingly outraged,” observed Winfield.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. Read the magazine’s current issue online and subscribe at no cost via this link:
https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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A Seat at the Table for Elijah?

For many of the same reasons that Christians celebrate Easter – being released from bondage into freedom – Jewish people traditionally celebrate Passover as a series of observations passed down from generation to generation. It’s a holy day to recall how God saved his called people from plagues and the death of their first-borne sons, the latter by painting the lintels framing their doorways with the blood of sacrificial sheep so that the angel of death “passed over” their homes while the Egyptians suffered an entirely different fate.

One of the central themes of Passover is telling the story of oppression and the journey to liberation.

“Let my people go!” Moses repeatedly pleaded with Pharaoh.

And finally, with the death of his own first-borne son, the story goes that Pharaoh relented. Miracles of the water parting so the Jewish people could walk safely through while, later, as Egyptians had second thoughts and pursued the Israelites through that same water, it gathered back together and drowned the Egyptians hunting their hostages. Even the matzoh – the unleavened bread – is part of the Passover story, reminding us of the haste in which the Hebrews fled (with not even enough time for their bread to rise).

While we may understand that spiritual maturity means accepting that life is the integration of the bitter and the sweet, the matzoh sandwich also reminds us that we live our lives “in-between.” We hang in the balance, alive, but not immortal, sandwiched between a fragile, limited, carnal self and our eternal Divine DNA.

For both faiths, Easter and Passover have the same significance: remembering our freedom from bondage. We gather together, observe certain rituals, and share a communal meal while passing down these remarkable legends.

For Christians, Easter Sunday is preceded by Palm Sunday which, in turn, is preceded by days of Lent, preparing ourselves for worship in church. Often, there are processions (especially in predominantly Roman Catholic countries) with banners, floats, and flowers. For Jews, however, Passover is a home-based, solemn festivity, worshiped around the family table … with a very interesting tradition: one of the chairs is always left empty.

It’s Elijah’s.

Jewish tradition teaches that Elijah the prophet will be the harbinger of the coming of the Messiah and the world’s redemption. It is a chair of hope. Elijah’s cup, in Judaism, the fifth ceremonial cup of wine poured during the family (seder) dinner on Passover is left untouched in honour of Elijah, who, according to belief, will arrive one day as an unknown guest to herald the advent of the Messiah. His presence signals the messianic era: a time of redemption, peace, and spiritual bliss. The full cup ―one for the future ― remains untouched to honor and offer hospitality to Elijah when he ultimately appears. Symbolically, he is also welcomed when families open their doors during the Passover Seder.

During the last generation, however, Elijah’s chair and cup have been taken.

By cell phones and digital devices.

How ironic that holidays which are supposed to lead us by faith from bondage and oppression to freedom and peace have been usurped by humans putting their faith on hold should they be beckoned by a telephone call, Facebook message, or Instagram photo.

Each year, the chairs around our table are filled with different individuals who join together to retell, once again, the story of our enslavement and redemption. The Passover seder is more than a history lesson, for each of us is instructed to see ourselves as if we had personally been freed from Egypt. It must become our own story, told in the context of our family’s generations and community. We add new layers as each new year’s experience melds with the memories of the past.

Some years are painfully different. A beloved family member or friend has died during the past year. A country has been destroyed, whether by politics, war, and division. There is an empty chair – Elijah’s – at the table. How can we go through the same rituals when life has been so drastically altered? What if we begin to cry at the seder table? What if everyone is so afraid of pain and grief that they ignore the empty chair? Are we even allowed to bring our sadness to the seder, which seems like it should be a happy occasion? Sometimes death changes family/social relations, also the empty chair at the table.

How do we find meaning in the holidays now?

With God’s grace, hopefully beyond our fleeting “new normals.”

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the current issue and subscribe — at no cost! — by clicking on this link:

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Parable, Extended

Whoever has ears, let them hear:

The Kingdom of God beckons like a splendid real estate listing for a sprawling property still under construction. But, instead of a firm or non-negotiable asking price, its Multiple Listing Service (MLS) description states, “All offers considered.”

From near and far, many people looking for a new place to live decide to visit this extraordinary place. Some are newcomers to the neighborhood, while others are old-timers who have lived here much of their lives but, for one reason or another, have decided that the time now has come to change their residence.  Although a number of those interested in the property are first-timers entering the market, more than a few are quite experienced with making monthly mortgage payments including the PITI: principal, interest, taxes, and insurance.

Approaching the entrance to the building, a sign has been tacked to the front door:  “Open. All are welcome here. Please come in, make yourselves at home, and look around our habitat.”

Inside, it’s a marvel to behold.

Off the entry way referred to by the broker’s brochure as the “Gathering Room” leads a meandering corridor with rooms on the left and to the right. People introduce themselves, hang up their outerwear, and laugh about such a remarkable property on which they have been encouraged to make an offer. 

All offers considered. Really? What is expected and how much is enough?

The Great Room beyond the Gathering Room is filled with extraordinary antiques and lovely old keepsakes. The scent of wax from candles and on heavily polished wooden seating areas permeates the air as clusters of people “ooh” and “aah” over the leaded stained glass windows which filter prisms of light. They bow before vintage figurines or larger statues, murmuring softly and reverently. By the look in their eyes and peaceful demeanor, some people appear to be touched by a ghost or holy spirit amid all the hallowed icons amassed here.

Adjoining this room of antiquities is another room—not quite so old, yet classic and traditional. Here, the people cloistered seem a bit more reserved as they pay homage to the place in a pristine and orderly fashion.  They all know the specific reply to each statement or comment made, as everyone echoes the proper response promptly and with great precision. Though, to some, this seems somewhat stifled and/or silly, the appointed words and common traditions underscore a sense and sensibility resulting in a bond enrapturing quite a few people in the semblance of hearing a holy, holy, holy celestial choir.

Several visitors to the property are held spellbound by these two rooms and find themselves passing back and forth between them. In some ways, both rooms are similar although, quite naturally, certain folks are more beholden to the antiques and heirlooms while others are bound to their more customary rites and rituals.

The formal rooms continue to unfold as we step into the Library. Silently, one of the men seated around one of several large tables looks up as we enter and points to his lips, making the “Shhhhhhhhh!” sign that we are not to speak while here. If the other two rooms we had been through were warmed by the touch of flesh through handshakes, a squeeze to the shoulder, or pat on the back, this room seems fundamentally cold and foreboding. Those seated at the tables here have their eyes glued resolutely to the pages in front of them. Their fingers follow the words on each page with Talmudic scrutiny, parsing laws and prohibitions. Every so often, someone nods in affirmation with the book or glances up at the ceiling as though the Holy One can be found ensconced there. While a few linger here acknowledging whatever truths (evidently) cause the readers to follow in thanksgiving and submission, others are very eager to move on.

Passing a series of Dormitories whose doors are slightly ajar, we peek inside. Time blurs in these bedrooms where we expect peaceful people to be sleeping. Instead, they are silently meditating on some noble truths, softly chanting their mantras, or stretching contemplatively in yoga positions—reaching reflexively toward a higher moral principle, perspective, or purpose.

Next, we approach the grand Fellowship Hall where people seem to enjoy getting together. Music plays as we smile back at those grinning our way; yet something seems amiss—odd and out of sorts. A measured “all for one and one for all” aura appears like icing to a cake—except there is no cake and the sugar is really saccharine. Squinting for a closer look, we notice close cliques and distinct separations among the people present. What’s more, apparently they’re oblivious to anyone outside of their room. Despite the frivolous camaraderie, some people evidence a heavenly joy, as if being together in a general store surrounded with all its goods.

To the left of the Fellowship Hall in an open-concept Family Room, people are listening to a lecture that follows a movie shown here earlier. No rules or regulations are enforced here, just respect for each person’s uniqueness and a hallelujah chorus of diversity, social justice, and emancipation proclamation. The emphasis here is on leaving the room a better place than how you found it.

We cannot help but put hands over our ears for all the hooting and hollering coming from down the hall. In this room, people are shouting and clapping, dancing and singing with words that don’t make any sense (to us).  As quickly as someone stands and utters a string of unknown sounds, another interrupts, prophesying praises and/or condemnations. There is neither rhyme nor reason, and, despite people lying jubilantly helter-skelter across the floor, a sense of mystical satisfaction seems to permeate the activity here. Who can say that, miraculously, they aren’t swept up in some sort of spiritual ecstasy? 

You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, as only a few rooms are left before the backyard door which is wide open.

The next room our group comes across – those who haven’t stayed behind in one of those rooms we’ve already been through – has a bright, neon sign above its portal flashing: “Bonus Room!” But the door to this room is closed and locked. We knock and the door opens from the inside. “You have to pay – spend your money as well as time – in this room,” a voice intones.  “How much?” a member of our group asks. “That depends on what you want,” quickly comes the reply. “You need to sow seeds in order to reap a harvest.”

We are allowed to peek into the room without crossing the threshold. Truth be told, the room looks more like a bank or investment firm, with people standing as best they can – some holding tightly onto canes, the blind being led by guides gripping their hands, and others waiting impatiently as nervous tics ravage their faces – all awaiting their turn at the convenience counter.

“Do you have faith? Do you trust God? Do you believe God’s Word? Will you confess and claim it? Are you willing to put God to the test and prove that you’ve been promised health, wealth, and happiness?” asks the well-dressed proprietor behind the window grills. “Yes! Yes!! Yes!!!” cries each person approaching.

“Then, plant a seed.  Put a deposit, a down payment, on the riches in store for you,” the hawker urges, as people peel off $50, $100, and $500 bills … or more.

Shocked as we are at the nature of these “covenant” transactions, it’s amazing how some of those believers are being blessed in the process of their dealing!

Two rooms remain for us to see in this cathedral of a house.

One, we decide to bypass as it seems too reminiscent of the Family Room. This one, though, is named the “Play Room,” and it’s obvious why: Entertainment is the focus here. There are video games and sound stages with bands blasting contemporary gospel music (variety shows and theatrical performances), with plenty of young, exuberant faces eager to soak it all in. Keurig coffee makers and bagels with cream cheese are set out as snacks here. At the end of their time in this spacious room, people hug and say, “See you next week,” as they leave the room and go merrily on their ways. Yes, they have given a dollar or several during the collection and were reminded to be back a week following.

And, in between? That’s their time, to do with as they please.

The Kitchen, warm and welcoming, is full of joyful volunteers who charitably cook and clean up after themselves to feed those hungry and/or homeless. It’s truly amazing how the pantry here is never empty—each time groceries are removed and divided among the guests, the food multiplies so that even more can be served. A banner strung over the serving area subtly reminds folks that, “Joy shared is doubled. Sorrow shared is halved.”

Strangely, the last room before our exit is quite stark and quiet. People here sit in a circle on simple chairs, without the grandiose décor found elsewhere on our tour. Nobody speaks or acknowledges us as we look in; they continue in a reverie of prayer and contemplation. There is no coffee hour or refreshments here, no glad-handing or promises of prosperity, just a solemn serenity begging for peace.

Tired as we are from previewing this property, we need, at least, to take a quick look around the outside. We are standing in front of an open door that looks out on a back yard stretching as far as the heavens. People continuously coming and going from this expanse of nature are both kind and helpful to those they know or don’t know, as they bend beneath the weight of carrying another’s burdens. Here, they lay down parts, parcels, and packets of their lives for others to take while picking up pieces of wood and kindling to fuel the fires of friendship. Children and animals romp together as sunshine and rain nourish the ground, rendering it friendly and fertile.

“So, what do you think of my parents’ house?” inquires the heir and agent apparent, suddenly standing there among us.  “My family’s house has many rooms. Didn’t I already tell you that?”

We all agree—in principle, at least.

“Can I prepare a place – a room – for you here?” he asks, offering each of us our choice of no-money-down, obligation-free reservations.

It seems too good to be true to us wayfarers, as there’s faith abounding here for everyone to live together harmoniously—despite whatever our differences.

Bidding adieu, we remember the words in the property’s listing:

“All offers considered.” Yes, all offers truly are considered by the householders. This house is called The Gospel, it’s fully furnished, and the ageless rock of its cornerstone is grace.

Nothing in Common (Anymore)

A couple of months ago, I received a private message from a Facebook friend who had stayed with us for a few days about four years ago, when we first moved to Portugal.

I had almost forgotten how much he got on our nerves back then, despite being a rather friendly, outgoing, boisterous American.

How best to explain how we felt around him? Try this, especially if you remember vinyl records and their players: Since moving to Portugal, our lives have been running at a comfortable 33 RPM; after spending a couple of hours with him, we rotated faster and faster, spinning at 78 RPM.

Anyway, he was returning to Portugal to reconnoiter places he hadn’t been to in planning his eventual relocation here, and wanted to see us and stay with us again.

But we had downsized and our home was too small for someone with such an oversize personality … along with me, my spouse and our three Miniature Schnauzers.

So, I tried to explain (gently) the situation in messages flying back and forth through cyberspace between us.

“I promise not to get in your way,” he wrote in a hodge-podge of upper and lower case letters, with — let’s call them typos — when I actually suspected they were spelling errors and a lack of care (speed was of the essence) that many of us take when writing emails, sending messages, and posting online. “I can crash on your couch, no worries!” he continued.

“No,” I replied. “That just won’t work. But we’ll be happy to find you a hotel or B&B nearby.” There are a couple of really charming small hotels we’ve stayed at right in central, downtown Castelo Branco. But he wanted to stay closer to us.

The offer wasn’t mentioned as he signed off and logged out, telling me that he’d be in touch when the date of his travel approached. I received one email when he landed in Porto from Amsterdam, informing us that he’d come visit us in Castelo Branco either on Wednesday evening or Thursday afternoon. A second email arrived Wednesday afternoon, saying that he was taking the “scenic” route and should be at our place by 18h00 (6 PM).

“Have you made reservations somewhere?” I replied, before informing my partner that we’d be having company for dinner. “No, not yet,” he answered, asking if I could find him either a low-cost hotel or B&B in our town. I knew there were no hotels (yet) in Alcains; so, I researched AirBnB and other sites listing home-style lodging. There were two right here in Alcains that appeared to be clean, comfortable, easily accessible, and reasonably priced (US $49 per night). I sent him links to the properties, along with a “pin” to our house.

A new message from him suddenly appeared: “I’m here!”

Though not particularly tall, he loomed large in our Portuguese doorway, casting shadows from the street light overhead. Reaching in to shake hands, he switched to bear hugs while our dogs tried to sneak past us and out the front door.

“Come on in and have a seat,” I greeted him, pointing to the sofa with chaise in our hobbit house living room. “Can I get you some wine?”

Over the course of the next three hours — including a homemade meatloaf dinner with corn, mashed potatoes, gravy, and biscuits on the side — we learned reasons why we had nothing in common beyond Facebook friendship as he rapidly told us too much about his life:

• This was his seventh trip in four years to Portugal. Two were with his wife. This and four other visits, he had come around to scout areas and properties.

• His plan was to move to and retire in Portugal … four and a half years from now. He expected to live off the rental income generated by two houses he owned in the USA. The four-plus years took into account his wife’s time required before retiring from her job with the state’s government. He still had no idea where in Portugal they wanted to live (except that it had to be considerably cooler in the summers than where we are), but envisioned renting, not buying, for six-months to one-year intervals. Then, they’d move somewhere else. For this he needed to make seven trips four and a half years before being able to move here?

• Not only didn’t he wear a mask in the street (still advised by Portuguese law) or asked if we’d prefer to put them on in our tight dwelling, but he stated, matter-of-factly, that neither he nor his wife had been vaccinated (“Except for my mother taking me for a polio shot when I was a kid, I’ve never been vaccinated for anything–not even the flu.”). Both of them had come down with Covid (“the worst … very painful … aspirin and Ibuprofin only made it worse … still,I went to the gym almost every afternoon to work out, because it made me feel better … until I crashed, later each night.”). My dander was rising: He had had Covid, wasn’t vaccinated, didn’t wear a mask, and was in our faces–literally! Not particularly up on travel conditions and restrictions, I wondered how he had been able to fly from the USA to the Netherlands and onto Portugal, given his history. No idea.

• Although he had booked a room for the night, texting while driving high in the Serra da Estrella mountains, he hadn’t bothered to pull off the road and check the owner’s check-in times and requirements. It wasn’t until nearly 11PM (23h) that we suggested he make the call. Speaking in English to his mobile device, it recorded his voice and saved it as text … which he then used Google Translate to create a Portuguese message that he sent to his host. “No problem,” he recounted, assuredly, saying that the proprietor only wanted to know how soon he’d be arriving there. Russ and I looked at each other and jointly declared, “Within 15 minutes.” We still had to clean up, wash all the dishes, and deal with the dogs, before retiring for the evening ourselves.

“Thank you, gentlemen, for a terrific evening,” he said as he was leaving. “What are your plans for tomorrow … and the day after. I finished the northern part of my journey early, so I’m not in any rush to move on.”

“We’re working!” my partner and I echoed in unison.

“Well, at least you have to let me take you to lunch tomorrow,” he said while re-lacing his shoes by the door. “Just pick a place and send me the link. What time’s good for you two? How about one o’clock?”

We nodded numbly.

Three private messages on Facebook: (1) a thumbs up when we sent him the name and location of the restaurant where we’d meet for lunch; (2) a “sorry, running a bit late …” just as we locked up the house and headed to our car; and (3) “never mind, all is good, I’ll be there at one.” He arrived at 1:25. No big deal. It’s Portugal and we were enjoying glasses of wine.

Translating the nine items offered at the cafeteria-snack bar-restaurant from Portuguese to English, we ordered. Rather, I did. Russ can understand some Portuguese when spoken; but he’d rather that someone else speak it. Our luncheon companion had a hard enough time asking for “mais pão,” after grabbing and grubbing most of the bread in the basket.

Again, the subject came up about our plans for the rest of the day (and the day after).

From there, the final nails of our “friendship” coffin were driven:

• He had voted for Trump (“he’s a businessman, not politician”) in 2016; in 2020, he didn’t vote. For anyone. Blind to the monsters #45 had created, he was right in pointing out the divisiveness spreading around the world, but wrong, I believe, in the reasons.

• The television in the restaurant was showing a caravan of Portuguese ambulances, fire trucks, and other red vehicles headed to support Ukraine. Which opened another can of worms. He didn’t know — or understand — the differences between NATO and the European Union, believing it was up to the European Union to take up arms for Ukraine, not the USA.

• Nor did he understand how impeachment works in the government of the United States, insisting over and again that Trump hadn’t been impeached. Neither once nor twice. Because, he maintained, that when the Senate didn’t ratify or concur with the House’s indictment, it effectively erased those impeachments from the record. “No, that’s not how it works,” I explained. Once impeached, always impeached. It doesn’t go away–regardless of how the Senate votes. His impeachments will always be recognized.” Flabbergasted, he asked, “So that means Clinton also was impeached?” Yes it does.

Russ and I glanced at each other, kicking each other’s shins not to get further entangled.

Anyway, it was about closing time for the restaurant and we were the last ones left seated, as the owners cleaned tables and picked up chairs, sweeping beneath them before placing them on top of the tables. Catching the owner’s eye, I mouthed, “A conta, por favor.” Within minutes, a handwritten receipt showing €27.50 was handed to me (after all, I was the one who spoke Portuguese and did the ordering). Our acquaintance pulled an American Express card out of his wallet and handed it to the proprietor, who shook his head and pointed to a sign taped to the wall: cash only, no plastic cards. Honestly, I hadn’t known. I pulled thirty euros out of my wallet, gritting my teeth in the process. “I would use the ATM and get cash,” offered our (now former) Facebook friend, “but I’m having trouble with my PIN.” Determined to let me know that he wanted to make good on his promise to pay for our lunch, he asked me whether he could pay in British pounds. He had £25 in his wallet. “Doubtful,” I said. Russ thought he’d have to go to the airport to exchange them for euros, while I thought one of the local banks might accept the currency and hand him euros in the process. Whatever.

As we left and said our goodbyes to each other, I could tell that Russ was really annoyed.

“How many times has he been to Portugal? Seven? How do you come to Portugal without euros and only one credit card that’s not working? How did he buy all the junk food that he’s been eating in the car? How many pit stops and mini-mercados accept credit cards, let alone American Express? You can be Facebook friends with him, if you want,” Russ said. “But I’m unfriending him as soon as we get home. My hands are still shaking from the past 18 hours!”

What more could I say? I felt the same way. Catching his hand under the umbrella as we walked the three or four blocks to where we’d parked our car, my heart overflowed with love and gratitude for my partner who always put others first. How fortunate — blessed! — I have been to live with him for 30 years and move to Portugal together.

“I love you,” I said. “I love you, too,” he replied.

It’s good to know that we still have so much in common.

Circumstantial Heroes

The picaresque novel (Spanish: picaresca, from pícaro, for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a type of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish, but appealing hero, usually of lower social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.

Most picaresque novels incorporate defining characteristics: satire, comedy, sarcasm, acerbic social criticism, first-person narration with an autobiographical ease of telling; an outsider protagonist-seeker on an episodic and often daunting quest for renewal or justice.

The Pickwick Papers (Charles Dickens), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Confessions of Felix Krull (Thomas Mann), and Dead Souls (Nikolay Gogol) are classic examples of the genre.

So, too, is Miguel de Cervantes’ epic Don Quijote (Quixote), which parodied the popular books of chivalry then in vogue.

After being dismissed as another picaresque novel of its time, scholars and readers concluded that the book was a lot more than that … probing the vagaries of reality and illusion. Where the visionary man of la Mancha saw giants to be toppled and a lovely damsel in distress, his loyal companion, Sancho Panza, was more pragmatic: the giants were simply windmills and the object of Quijote’s affection was merely a sturdy, lackluster peasant girl.

Despite Sancho Panza’s common sense and no-nonsense approach to their travels and life with his meandering master, we find ourselves rooting for Don Quijote and his impossible dreams.

Perhaps it’s human nature – of civilized people, at least – to cheer for the underdog … but seldom does the victim actually reach heroic proportions.

Sometimes, though, it happens.

In a biblical story, the diminutive David slays a seemingly invincible Goliath, saving the Israelites from the Philistines, who flee the battlefield.

Elsewhere in the media, ever-suffering good girl Jane the Virgin at once mocked the sudsy Spanish telenovelas so beloved by many Latinos and Hispanics … as her tales of woe evolved into the quintessential soap opera. We liked her, loved her, and cried when we believed she lived happily ever as the series concluded following 100 episodes.

Because of her diary, dear, sweet, innocent Anne Frank’s surreptitious life (and death) made her a hero to millions upon millions of school children throughout the years.

In a world dominated by systems, bureaucracies, and belligerent players with politics for the rich, we hunger and thirst for mere mortal heroes … as is the case now with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and all his people, staunchly defending their motherland against a despot intent on annihilating them.

Ironic though it may be, before becoming his country’s president, the Jewish Volodymyr Zelensky had been a comedian who starred in a TV series in which he portrayed Ukraine’s president.

Servant of the People, the satirical series that launched Zelensky’s political career, follows a teacher (Zelensky) who unexpectedly becomes president after a rant against corruption goes viral on social media. The show ran for three seasons and ended when Zelensky decided to run for president of Ukraine in 2019 under the banner of a new political party … also called Servant of the People.

He’s known as president, actor, showman, voice of ‘Paddington’ and a mean pianist, but friends close to Ukraine’s leader say the fighter we see today is the real deal.

Despite the demolition, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that there would be an independent Ukraine “a lot longer than there’s going to be a Vladimir Putin,” as the Russian leader continued his unprovoked invasion of the country. “One way or the other, Ukraine will be there and, at some point, Putin won’t.”

Blinken’s comments came as new satellite images showed widespread destruction across Ukraine.

Whether or not Volodymyr Zelensky is ultimately named Time’s “Person of the Year,” he’s my hero here and now.

I hope that he inspires you, too.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the magazine’s current issue — and subscribe, free of charge — at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/.

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