Fado, fish and football: ‘português é muito difícil’

It took me 3 hours to do my homework before I went out yesterday. My mother in law who is my marker said I’d got the grammar correto (correct) thoughtfully adding  ‘português é muito difícil’ so hopefully I am making progress. Just to make sure, our apartment is littered with yellow sticky notes so I can remember for example that when I wash my hands in the lavatória it is the wash basin and not the sanita (toilet)!

It’s a week since I traded the autumn and drizzle of Lewes for the late summer warmth and sun that is Lisboa in October. What’s happened?

For a start Portuguese Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar upset many here with new austerity measures that will impact most on those with high (relatively speaking) household incomes of €150k+. Delivered in a monotone voice with the demeanor of an undertaker with a bad toothache he just about got away with it as he is seen to be doing what’s in the best interests of the country.  That there will be a backlash in the form of more strikes is not in doubt and already business leaders are urging tougher action on reducing state expenditure. What was of more importance; the global financial market response was positive and Portugal managed to rollover some bonds at less than the penal rates it attracted before, a precursor to reestablishing credibility when serious borrowing is required in a few years time. The outlook is far from certain as I write this with unemployment predicted to be 16.4% in 2013.

The train drivers (who I am told are well paid) have taken umbrage at austerity so all rush hour trains from Cascais to Cais do Sodre (Lisbon Terminal) via our stop at Algés were cancelled for three mornings.  There are frequent ticket checks on trains, trams, buses and the metro to prevent fare dodging though I’ve been impressed by the civility and patience of the inspectors when dealing with estrangeiros (foreigners, mostly Americans) who are unaware of the need to swipe the ticket before boarding.

The daily commute to classes has been instructive requiring ingenuity and adaptability.  On two days there have been accidents that impacted tram route 15. On both occasions almost miraculously a bus appeared (with number 15 on it) and became the tram so it could avoid the incident and get us to work on time. All conducted with a minimum of fuss and good humour completely at odds with the common perception of life here.

Tuesday saw me at the estádio da luz (Stadium of light) home of Benfica for the UEFA champions league fixture with Barcelona; surely one of the great matches. A fuller report with pictures is available here: (Benfica-vs-Barca: an englishman’s perspective). Suffice to note that it was an extraordinary evening from start to finish. Take a close look at the picture and the skyscraper behind to see how high up the spectators are!

Thursday night the language school organized dinner at a casas de fado (fado house). I met ‘my’ classmates in one of the main squares, as I was worried about some of the younger girls wandering around on their own in the Bairro Alta area of the city that can be a bit bohemian and in your face. More by luck than good judgment I got our party there in good time unlike the main party that arrived 1 hour later. The downside: we had to down copious quantities of Superbock (local beer) without food. The upside: Alexander the shy German from a town with an unpronounceable name was sufficiently inebriated that he was moved (at my prompting) to join in with the singing, displaying an astonishing talent that surprised everyone. And I shall forever treasure the look of incomprehension on the face of our empregado (waiter) when one of our party asked for fish with no bones!

It was fortunate then that we had a public holiday on Friday (Republic Day) so no classes. People went off to see relatives: I went for a coffee with one of my fellow classmates and then walked back along the seafront ending up at the most visually stunning modern architectural masterpiece just as the sun was going down.

The buildings were constructed using donations made by the foundation established by one of Portugal’s richest families and form a research centre that attracts the world’s best ophthalmologists.


One of the buildings has a restaurant with a view that is unsurpassed while the centerpiece comprises two columns surrounded by an infinity water feature that face due west towards the US.

Truly amazing!






iTranslate (a wonderful little iPhone app) has come in very handy for those moments when my feeble attempts at conversing with my mother in law in her native language have come to a dramatic halt. Now she has mastered the art of speaking into the iPhone so the app can understand her voice we’ve got over the periods of interminable silence that were a feature of our meals on the first couple of days.  Last night was an amusing example: having told her about meus pais (my parents) I asked about her father and mother (pai & mãe) and what they were called.  Like many words (especially names) there is no effective translation witness the outcome: ‘woody roach’, hardly an endearing term with which to address anyone.

Sabado (Saturday) after homework I went to Lisbon’s Fado Museum. It is a must see if like me you are drawn to the haunting melodies that characterize this special form of indigenous Portuguese music that dates back to the early 19th century and was originally sung by the lower classes as a way of telling stories about their lives.  A few bits of trivia: in 2011 Unesco classified Fado as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ whatever that means; Fado is typically performed with a singer and two guitarists one playing the Spanish guitar, the other the Portuguese guitar (see below); and Mariza (probably the most popular Fadista – fado singer – today) has toured the world selling out in each location – I’ve been to two concerts and cannot speak too highly of her.


It being Domingo (Sunday) today like many I went to the Praia (beach) at Estoril just a 20-minute train ride away along the coast.  Out of the station and onto the beach it was lovely to be bathing in clear water in October (even if it was a tad cold – frio).


‘…go and find work overseas…’

Pedro Passos Coelho’s exultations to his countrymen certainly made an impression.

I am in a taxi from the airport in Lisbon to Rua Damião De Góis at Sta Maria de Belem, where we have an apartment, and in conversation with the taxi driver (a Benfica supporter with a profound dislike of Ronaldo) who tells me about this now infamous line delivered in July by the Portuguese Prime Minister.

This is a country that is hurting – on October 1st fuel has risen again by 3c a litre, motorway charges are being universally introduced, many of the other austerity measures are biting, the country has been protesting (peacefully) and the train drivers are going on strike despite being among the better paid.

Pedro’s wife like many has a full time job (at one of the up market malls), the easyJet flight over was full to brimming and there is little evidence of the vast swathes of empty shops that characterise Athens. In the main people are well turned out and the women chic despite the average wage being €600 per month. People are polite and helpful.

It’s a strange feeling, being a student again after 35 years. I am here for a two week beginners course in Portuguese; a language everyone (including my wife who hails from Lisboa) tells me is difficult.  The Day One lessons are to confirm that assertion!

Maria Piedade my mother in law greets me warmly though our exchange is brief since her English is as good as my fledgling Portuguese.  A sumptuous meal is served: frying steak with a spinach, feta and nut mixture (I am already regretting the steak bavette I had at Cafe Rouge Gatwick); and morangos, accompanied by a lovely half bottle of Alentejo Branco wine. She declines the offer of a glass!

I attempt my first complement: Isto esta delicioso (‘this is delicious’) which is well received.  Feeling confident I throw in Gosto de morangos (‘I like strawberries’) which also strikes a chord. Off to an OK start then so I go for the home run excusing myself with an Estou cansado (‘I’m tired’) and go to my room to listen to the last hour of Europe’s Ryder Cup win over the USA.  Thank’s to Vodafone’s Euro Traveller deal it only costs £3 per day to hook up to my UK tariff which includes a big slug of ‘free’ Internet time.

I am awoken by a text from my wife Ana who says Maria (her mother) is very pleased I found her to be delicious! I feel like I’m Colin Firth in the scene from Love Actually when he proposes to his Portuguese wife to be.  In fact Ana is winding me up – she has a history – and my comments were accurate and not as misreported!

I slept well despite the sound of the tram clunking along nearby.  Our apartment just across from the Teju river is on the historic 15 tram route: it passes many of the ‘must see’ monuments and sights but when I leave at 7..45am most of my fellow passengers are off to work and dressed for mid winter even though its 15c and the forecast is 25c and sunny.

The tram is of the vintage variety and inadequate to cope with the demand. Some elect to wait for the much bigger modern version that will follow in 5 minutes (they alternate) but drawing on 25 years of commuting I leap on board and end up standing next to the driver for the duration of the 20 minute journey. I always wanted to drive a tram!

Alighting at the bottom of Avenida Liberdade I decide to walk not realising its uphill for the next 2 1/2 kilometres. Though hot when I arrive I time the walk to the language school to perfection and get there 2 minutes early.

Orlando is the teacher. A man in his mid 40’s with the bearing of someone who’s been there and done this many times over.  Despite that he does a good job at introductions. We are 8: two German men (career moves the driver for attendance); two Swedish woman (one a communications head of a golf travel business); a Finn; an American (Emily) from Boston; and two Englishmen (myself and Christopher who is a football supporter who wants to go to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup and is learning the language in the hope that England qualify).

We are of varying ages and ability but seem to gel even though the others master the intricacies of feminine and masculine (O and A) and informal vs formal vs very formal (Eu vs Tu/Voce vs Snr /Snra) quicker than I do.  I stay behind after the morning to do homework, practice and try to comprehend why the former Portuguese colonies should be addressed differently (de) than say Suica (da).

Having finally mastered A Ana, e de Portugal. Entao ele e Portuguesa e fala Portuguese,Its 3 when I leave and its hot. A quick double espresso and cake (I realise I’ve not eaten anything all day) provide fuel for the walk back down Avenida Liberdade. I vow to sort out the Lisboa travel-card so I can travel on all transport.

Marques Pombal Metro station has a queue some 50 deep – I don’t do waiting!  So I go to the tourist information place at the end of Avenida Liberdade. Joao is helpful but it proves a fruitless visit. Nao (No) ‘the ticket you have is for the metro and rail only not tram and buses, you need to go to the Post Office up the road’.  I do that.  ‘You have 7 Metro rides but no we don’t sell the bus and tram ticket, you have to go to the kiosk’.

The Kiosk lady is lovely. €15 for 12 journeys and after a lovely walk through Praca do Comercio to the Teju river I am ready to board the train back from Cais do Sodre to Alges along with other ‘workers’ heading for their homes in the fashionable resorts of Estoril and Cascais.

Praca do Comercio Lisboa