house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

In Wait

Some people wait better than others. A few things come to mind: ferry terminals in the Maldives, queuing for food in Communist Romania, bus stops in Scotland. (I am not counting the refugee camps of the world, where waiting fills the space between fences and flowers into a formidable way of being.)

Now I realise North Portugal can also claim to know the peaks of pointless patience. Go to the tax office, any post office, the hairdresser, the stationer – everywhere, waiting rules. It is what you do and then, when your turn comes, what you inflict on others (by asking as many questions as possible, sharing personal stories, never finding your purse and then returning for the pen you left behind). A subtle balance is achieved this way, and you can move on with total satisfaction, seemingly unaware or merely unconcerned that minutes, hours have been draining from your day...

I did have ample opportunity to observe, and found queues fascinating: first, there is no reliable rhythm to reassure you; they go faster (you brighten up, get your stuff ready), then they unaccountably slow down or stop altogether (you slump); conversations are struck with strangers; on a good day you may meet startling people, learn something, make friends; you can get all sorts of advice, because there is nothing else to do; once, waiting for a meal in a restaurant, a big discussion started - about food - with full recipes and culinary tips swapped; everyone contributed: customers, waiters, at one point the chef popped out of the kitchen to tell everyone how she made the rice. Queues are also hot houses of tics and quirks: nails are bitten, chewed and swallowed, hair is twisted between fingers, lips licked, moustaches pulled, teeth sucked.

A feeling of solidarity flows through a queue. Sometimes there's shared compassion for the person at the top (who forgot a piece of paper and turns to go home empty handed), sometimes there's deep hatred of those who ask too many questions, or vendors who are too slow. Friends of the functionaries, who use twelve minutes to catch up and another five to ask after old aunt Maria dos Santos are fervently and patiently loathed. A calm collective disgust is reserved for people with ladders in their stockings, greasy hair or stained clothes. Equal vitriol for the few who rebel and complain – far from being instant heroes, they are scum. Heads turn, eyes narrow, feet shuffle and if small grunts could kill...

Waiting for a haircut (since appointments only indicate when you must turn up to START your wait!) I scribbled my umpteenth treatise on waiting. I wondered grandly how much energy dissipates and disappears while waiting in a queue? How many ideas flicker by and vanish (a few good ones among them)? How many thoughts are processed or tolerated? How much pain endured (all those ingrown toenails, wedgies, cramps, heartache)? How many insects fed? Worries spinning and growing by the minute? Rage smouldering? Imaginary speeches made? Egos inflated? Egos crushed?

And so on. To wait well, you need to be either very strong or completely vacant. Anyone in the middle is at the mercy of the Fates. Watch me, still waiting to have my hair cut. A friend of the hairdresser's appears, they exchange kisses and gossip. I wait, the person with hair dye and aluminium foil plastered in her hair waits, the other waiting people wait... Maintaining an impeccable immobility, we all learn, among other things, that the weather is going to change, that cod is cheaper at Coca, and that Madalena is going to a party. The hairdresser giggles and pushes her towards the wash basin, shouting a few words to an assistant. What? Madalena, who has just arrived without an appointment, is at the front of the queue. Around me, no complaint, not even a twitch. Worse, do I see a few little smiles? It's more than I can bear. I jump up to make a fool of myself in terrible Portuguese, to knowingly burn my bridges and bear the curse of bad hair forever.

I turn to point a trembling finger at Madalena, then stop. She's only having her moustache removed, squirming a bit, wincing. I sit down with a sigh and a small smile. Nao faz mal. I am relieved and ready to wait a little more.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Monday Countdown

Monday was a day off, no school, no work, all out of the blue (no school memo). Ecstatic of course, we celebrated with another day trip. We are becoming experts in this. The key is not to plan much (which suits us just fine). Instead, we just go, usually to that ever-gripping place called “somewhere”. One more priceless tip: before we drive off, we go into a brief frenzy and load the van with everything we think might be required. This results in having too much stuff we don't use, and usually missing the one thing we really need.

But it's become a habit, almost a travel form in its own right, and always exciting. Take the Monday countdown:

10 – mentions of Galizia, perhaps more? We see the name on road signs or scribbled on walls and bridges. It's everywhere, and it seems to ache or itch – it's never left alone. When they put 'Galizia' on a road sign, it's crossed off and replaced with Espana. When Spain is up there on the sign, it's blanked out and 'Galizia' written underneath. Graffiti proclaims Galizia free and fighting.

In Portugal they seem to be a bit more laid back about it. They'll say they're 'galegos' when it's fun or the 'in' thing. They joke that Salazar left the Alto Minho out when he referred to Portugal as stretching “from Caminha to the Algarves” - so we'll all be galegos then, nao e?

9 – bits of wood picked on our walk; a new task, elevated to the rank of obsession; like all the poor in winter, we have started to develop a sense for what will burn well, what will be easy to carry and cut and store. We can't take two steps without inspecting every twig and dragging dry branches out of some thicket.

8- minutes of hail drumming on the cobbles. It caught us outside the local spa. First, the sky went entirely black; we paid no attention. Then it poured and rattled, like someone emptying a bucket of ice marbles. Throughout the storm, we glimpsed grey curtains of rain falling along the river. And we could clearly see the sun somewhere in Spain, in a village halfway down a lovely green hill. There and nowhere else, like a golden finger pointing at the map. I wondered (briefly) if they knew how lucky they were. I wondered (much longer) how lucky we were to see it all.

7 – breathtaking glimpses of the Minho, slow and swollen. On the banks trees fretted and magpies chased each other in swift upward loops. The Minho just languished like a well fed dragon.

6 – hours our house was wide open; we must have left the door ajar after we carted half of the garage into the van (surf equipment; climbing stuff; food; walking boots; winter hats; chainsaw, just in case; etc); from the few possessions left behind, nothing had been touched. Good neighbourhood? Or maybe they chop thieves' hands around these parts? Our stuff, not good enough? Or just luck. Oh, new theory: if you leave the garage door open, potential thieves will be deterred, thinking you must be at home. To Moona: please don't try this at Christmas.

5 – times Moona started conversations about renewable energies and the state of the planet. Fascinating stuff. Each of these dialogue threads was extinguished by a combination of kids' remarks, interesting traffic events, and me 'not paying enough attention' (not true!).

4 – rainbows we glimpsed. One rounded rainbow end, almost incandescent and bursting with colours, rested on the top the hill. One, long and thin, fell from a black cloud. Wider rainbow ribbons lit up another corner of the sky. Our squealing inside the van made the orange shimmer and the indigo hide.

3 – times we cross the border between Spain and Portugal, all at Vila Nova de Cerveira and all within 5 minutes. It was a traffic mix-up. I said turn right, Moona said left. As a result he drove on, round a roundabout, and back over the bridge. And so we continued until we reached the roundabout on the other side, went around it and came back again. This accounts for three glimpses of the Minho, three pleasant theories about drivers and navigators, and three minutes of sulking (not mine).

2 – failed sessions at the local 'termas' (spa?). We tried on Sunday, but were tempted into a coffee shop along the way. We tried again on Monday. We walked in and, when they told us how many people were inside, we turned around and walked out. I don't mind: we wouldn't have seen the hail storm and rainbows from the hot bowels of a Turkish bath. Still, the place sounds amazing, and looks great. One day, one day...

1 – police stop, the first on Portuguese soil. A very large group of police-people on the side of the road, stopping lots of cars. We thought oh-uh. They had a brief deliberation before one officer was nominated to approach us. He looked like the funny guy in “The Office” . His first few words seemed kind but alas, were not intelligible. Did I hear some Spanish in there, a twang of English? If it was English, then that's possibly how Joao the Great sounded the first time he discussed the weather with his English bride... In Portuguese, we asked if the 'senhor' wanted to see our documents. He sighed with open delight and we knew that this time, regardless of what we had done, we were not in trouble.

We hadn't done anything, apparently, and he wasn't looking for trouble. This 'police operation' took place at the improbable 'order' of Sarkozy. We established that yes, we were all talking about the president of France (!!) and left the subject alone. I was incredulous, Moona was amused. The policeman was disgusted. In the middle of this dialogue, Kira took off her seat belt, picked up her booster seat, threw it onto the back seat and dived after it. She did this without a word and pretending to be invisible.

In the meantime, we continued our pleasant chat. I asked for the reason for this public holiday. The policeman's face lit up with pride: the “restauracao” of the Portuguese state. Territories “stolen” by the Spanish were given back to Portugal on December 1st (funny, Romania also commemorates the return of a province, Transylvania, on this day).

How long ago was this, I admitted my ignorance. At this point another policeman joined our man and they had a torrid discussion on the topic. Our car documents were waved about and slapped against a thigh; they pointed at the Minho and helped scratch a beard. They finally turned to us with twin smiles and an answer: “Oh, thousands of years ago”.

Perhaps this is where the countdown should have started... 1000 (or so) - years ago, Portugal reunited with territories formerly conquered by Spain... I'm sure I'd have found 999 more things to talk about!