To Portugal, I'm Sorry

Portugal Narrative
by Sandra Guedes Jan 13, 2016

Outsiders may know you as a haven of beaches on the western edge of continental Europe. They associate with your dark cliffs, fancy hotels, golf courses and restaurants serving ameijoas à bulhão pato, caldo verde and salada de polvo.

They are the people who visit.

To the insiders, those of us who are used to your grey castles hovering over small white villages, you are not a fancy destination: You are a place of desolation. You represent a lack of financial support and a lack of opportunity.

Since 2010, about 100,000 of us have left you.

When I landed in Lisbon in June 2013 after crossing South America overland, a Portuguese man in his 50s asked me where I had been. I smiled and answered in a playful tone, “Here and there.”

“Another victim of the crisis,” he said. His words bounced back at me in the air. He started speaking in a gloomy tone about the young people who have to leave Portugal because she cannot provide for them.

In vain I tried to explain that, although I had left before the crisis became a daily talking point, I spoke to my family every week, heard RFM every day and read the Portuguese news headlines often. But the old man still believed I was the one in denial, and if you, Portugal, could have provided more I would have never left. I gave up trying to convince him of what I felt to be true. Maybe if I had explained that when I left 10 years before, I earned €800 a month, lived in a one-bedroom flat with a lovely white balcony perched over Caldas da Rainha for which I paid €250 rent per month. Maybe he’d have realised I didn’t need anymore material possessions back then, I was fine.

I was brought up in the most traditional of Portuguese working-class families. My mum worked hard in a factory and my dad was a freelance plumber, who spent most of his time chasing down contractors who owed him more money than they were willing to pay. If he got the money, we’d feast. If he didn’t, some of us, his five children, would spend a few days with Grandma.

Those of us who were sent to Grandma’s would wake up before the sun rose to help her take poultry to the market, then we’d go to the cemetery to place new flowers on the graves of our family members. We’d always go to church with her, to attend the Sunday mass. Grandma would wash our clothes in a tank, water her orange trees and tell us off for climbing them. It was a humble life, but never a life that bothered me.

What troubled me were the Uma Aventura books written by Ana Maria Magalhães and Isabel Alçada and the pictures of my dad before I was born — the ones of him in Egypt on top of a camel, or in Algeria laying in a hammock, or in Iraq working in a steel mill.

At school, I loved learning about how this man called Afonso Henriques dreamt of founding his own country, the country we now call Portugal. I learned how we, his people, fought the Moors to call Algarve our own and how later on, the eager small nation — of fishermen, traders and farmers — learned to build ships and headed off to India to buy tea and spices. But what amazed me the most, was that they were real people, with real dreams.

However, the day I came home, Portugal, you upset me. You greeted me through a man who believed I left because you were not good enough for me. And for that, I am sorry.

I am sorry you cannot see yourself through my eyes, a bridge between the consumer over-civilised world and the familiarity and humbleness of those who do selfless deeds every day. If you could only see the bravery and kindness of your people, the way they cook and the happiness they feel when they share and help others for no other reason apart from the act of giving. Maybe, if the news focussed equally on the benevolence and affection that runs in the veins of those who work hard, as it does on the economics, corruption and the politics, then, perhaps, you’d see a much more beautiful and inspiring side of the same coin.

That year I stayed home for nine months, and I only left you because the idea of walking 800 kilometers across Spain was simply too appealing. Then Italy teased me, and falling in love brought me to the UK.

Portugal, you are my inspiration. Without you, I’d never believe I could drink tea in England, see the Grand Canyon, feel the warmth of the Peruvian desert on my skin, and dive in the Caribbean listening to Mexican Mariachis. This sense of adventure I carry in my blood is your legacy — it’s your blood that runs through my veins. If I push on, regardless of the hardships, it’s because you taught me to stand tall and persevere when the storm hits. You taught me to work, to defy my fears and to challenge the future.

When I travel I use every single thing you’ve taught me. As a dreamer, I believe. As an adventurer, I leave. As a tradesman, I pay my way trading in skills. As a chef, I cook. As a teacher, I share. As a learner, I listen. Then, every six months, when I miss you, I search Youtube for É uma casa Portuguesa com certeza and cry. Because, there is no other house I’d rather be in, and that is the house I hope to build when I stop chasing my dreams.

In the meantime, I do not care when others bully you. Compared to your 800 long adventurous years of age, like me, they are only young. Not all the fame and glory is in the past — you still have an incredible ability to, despite your insecurities, be bold and fearless when the time comes. You have lived eight centuries, you will live many more.

Some will never leave you, and others, like me, only leave to come back again.

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