Seasons in the Sun
There's nothing like living in a different country to shake your
So many of us grow up in one country and get used to how things go on
there that they assume that's how it is everywhere else. But of course,
Even such obvious things seem to be anything but obvious a thousand
miles away, when the weather is different, the language is too, and
just about everything seems to be upside-down.
Portugal is a great place to experience the upside-down life. People
often ask me what it's like here. I used to say: 'It's just like being
Alice after she's fallen down the rabbit hole'.
Yes, everything appears totally different. Mind you when I first came
here so many years ago I was on my way to Morocco, but the ship docked
at Lisbon, and we had half a day with nothing much to do, so I got off
and wandered around. That in itself was a strange experience. I could
have sworn the place had died. There were people around, but not many,
and it looked as if the place had been hit by the plague. It was mostly
shuttered, terribly filthy, quiet, and a bit dismal. The tenements
looked as if they were falling down. Everything looked as if the main
mob had moved out and there were just a few stragglers left behind.
I tried to find somewhere to buy a drink, but I couldn't make myself
understood, and no-one seemed keen to serve me. Wherever I went I was
simply ignored. In the end the spookiness got to me and I walked back
to the ship.
I couldn't understand what my friend saw in the place. I'd been
travelling with a guy roughly my age who was on his way to the Algarve
to build his own house.
"How are you going to earn a living?" I asked.
"No problem," he said, "I write. I can do that anywhere."
Naturally I asked him what he wrote about.
"I write pornography for a Swedish magazine," he said, which rather
stopped me in my tracks.
Anyhow, he walked off to the bus station to get some transport south,
and I got back to the ship. I didn't envy him.
It was half a lifetime before I came back. Lisbon had certainly
but I did wonder about the rest of the country.
The first thing that struck me was the ludicrously high prices of the
real estate. Perhaps I should have built a house back when my
pornographic friend built his. Then I started using the local currency,
the escudo. I was a little surprised to note there were 315 of them to
the Pound. Hold on. That's a lot. I did a bit of research and found
that there were about 60 to the pound when I was last here. Wait a
minute, that's a whacking great crash in the value of the currency.
That means house prices would have to rise 500% just to keep up with
the crashing currency. Wow! What is this place I've come to? It sounds
like a bit of a disaster.
Actually, my second arrival was similar in many respects to that first
arrival all those years ago. When I first walked round Libson it was
dreary and quiet and everywhere looked closed. When I arrived the
second time it was exactly the same. Our idiot airline dumped us off in
a shut airport. Apparently the staff were on strike, and we sat in the
plane for two hours, then we were decanted into an underground corridor
for another three hours before being bussed out to a hotel.
My first real introduction to the infrastructure was when I tried to
use the phones to try and find out what the heck was going on, as
no-one had warned us of the disaster we'd walked into. None worked. In
desperation I lifted the handset of an emergency phone. I dialled the
required number and was switched through to an answering machine.
I soon got used to this kind of thing.
I required local currency so I went to the hole in the wall. In
Portugal it's called a Multibanco. It worked tuesdays wednesdays and
thursdays, but not the rest of the week. Now this is a tourist place.
What happens when the happy holiday mob descend on a saturday and look
to go out for the evening? They cant get any money till next tuesday!
Instead they have to queue for ages at a bank.
I noted that it was hopeless trying to get anyone to take credit cards.
"Sorry, our card machine has broken" was the usual reply. And this is a
I used to waste hours in banks while people verified my identity, or so
they said. And they would never let me have more than €1500 on any one
day. Once I demanded to speak to the interbank section, which,
curiously was called Unique. They asked me how much I wanted. I said
€10,000 (I had to pay a builder). They said that would be no problem,
and I handed the phone back to the clerk, who wrote down the inter-bank
guarantee number, and then calmly counted me out €1,500.
I did a double-take. "But they agreed ten thousand. You have their
"Yes, but we cant give you ten thousand."
"We are concerned about fraud. We dont know for sure if this is a
"It doesn't matter who I am, you have the interbank guarantee."
"No, we cant give you the money….." and they kept saying the same
thing. The fact that they had their own interbank system guaranteeing
the transaction didn't seem to penetrate the brain.
Back at the beginning of the century, getting money from the bank was a
nightmare. It was easier to drive to Spain. But then so many things
were easier if you simply drove to Spain. I used to get my building
supplies from there.
The first time I tried buying floor joists was surreal. But then so
much in Portugal is surreal if you aren't Portuguese. The situation
developed like this.
I was in what appeared to be the biggest builders' merchants in
Portimao, which is the biggest town in the Algarve. I pulled at the
chipboard. It wouldn't move. I gave another mighty heave and it slid
slightly towards me most reluctantly. Good god, how big is this darn
thing! It seemed to go on for ever. In the UK chipboard is simply eight
by four. I got out my tape measure. This chunk of wood was nine feet by
six feet, almost twice the size. I couldn't get that home on the roof
of the car. Krikey, it was going to be difficult getting it in thru the
door. Actually, come to think of it, there was going to be the small
difficulty of actually lifting a sheet of the stuff to get it as far as
I put the problem to one side for a moment and went to look at what
timber they had for the joists. The state of the timber was
unbelievable. There were sheets of the stuff that looked as if they had
been stacked flat in the rain for months. If you lifted the top plank
you uncovered a plank below that was still wet and covered in mould. I
shifted about four of them, and all were absolutely sopping wet, and
all were covered with great blotches of greeny-black mould. I couldn't
use this stuff.
I went to another section. There were hefty chunks of timber that would
obviously make excellent joists. Some were a bit twisty, but they
looked solid and dry. Unfortunately there was a problem. There were
only nine joists the right size, so I went down to the desk to make an
order to be delivered from their depot.
The girl at the desk carefully wrote it all down, then went to find
someone else, who promptly went to find someone else, and so we were
four who all trooped up to the wood section to look at the joists. The
girl counted them. It came to nine. "There's only nine," she said. "Do
you want nine?" She looked at my order for thirtyfour.
"No, I want thirtyfour," I said. "Haven't you got any more in stock?"
There was a silence. One of the guys counted the joists. It still came
to nine. He seemed surprised. "We have to order," he said.
His companion looked hard at the wood, and then counted out the joists
very slowly. It still came to nine. He looked very puzzled. "Muit
complicad," he said. He shook his head as if he had never come across
anything quite like this before. And there we all stood, staring at the
offending nine joists.
"You have more at the depot?" I asked.
One looked at the other, until there weren't any others to look at.
"Muit complicad," agreed one of the guys.
This was ridiculous. I was standing in the largest building materials
store in the town, and they only had nine joists. What happens when a
really big order comes in?
We went back to the office and one guy telephoned somewhere else. "You
leave the order here," he said as he put the phone down. "We will have
the wood next week."
I didn't believe him, but I went home anyway. There is, after all, a
limit to the number of times one can count nine joists in the hope that
they would somehow spontaneously grow a few more; and there is also a
limit to the number of times one can mutter "muit complicad".
The following week I chased the order. The guy behind the desk looked
very unhappy. I thought he was going to say "muit complicad", but
instead he made a phone call. There followed a shrug of the shoulders,
"Maybe next week?" he said. Or maybe not, of course. I needed a plan B.
Things were just as weird when I finally found another place selling
timber. They had joists but none the right size. I thought I could get
away with using a particular size if they were cut down the middle. I
explained what I wanted.
Foolishly I only measured two or three joists. I was thinking along UK
lines. Here be the 100mm joists, and they are 4 metres long.
The following day a guy came out in a little truck and delivered the
joists. I wont go into the description of how he counted out the money
or how long that took, but the essential fact was I now had the right
number of joists, and I set to work constructing my floor. All went
well for a while, but when I was half way across the room something odd
occurred. I couldn't get the joists to line up with each other.
It took some time before I realised that the only problem had to be
that the wretched joists were different sizes. I measured them. There
were no less than five different depths to the joists. What the heck
was going on?
I went back to the store, with no less than 17 joists that were the
wrong size, almost half my stock, sticking every which way out of the
car. There were joists tied to the roof, joists sticking out the
windows, and joists strapped on the outside of the car to the window
handles on the inside. I'm surprised no-one stopped me and booked me
for some obscure driving offence.
I strode down to the place where I'd bought the offending items, dumped
them on the floor and went back for some more. The pile grew, customers
dodged out of the way, and staff looked worried.
I thrust the bill under the nose of the nearest clerk, and asked him
what he thought he was doing.
"But you asked us to cut the wood in half."
"Yes," I said cautiously.
"But we cut it in half."
"Yes, but did you drink a bottle of vodka before you cut it?"
The guys looked pained.
"Look at these joists. They change width all the way down."
"Yes, but those were the joists you wanted."
"Yes, but I'm building a floor. Every joist needs to be the same depth
otherwise the floor will go up and down like mountains."
There was a puzzled silence. "Yes, but those were the joists you
This is where one has to start thinking out of the box. What is going
"But if the joists are different sizes, then someone must have made a
mistake measuring them before cutting, or someone didn't cut along the
I was accusing them of inefficiency. That wouldn't do. They fiercely
denied any such thing.
"Okay, then the wood must be different sizes."
"But of course," he said calmly.
It was to him perfectly natural that the joists could be any size so
long as they were roughly right.
By this time my brain is boggling on all cylinders.
"And another thing, some of the joists are too short."
"Yes, but some of them are longer."
"Yes, but…. how can I use the extra on the longer ones when I need it
on the shorter ones to reach the other wall?"
"Yes, but…" There was a trail into silence.
"I suppose they are not all the same length as well as not all being
the same width."
"Then you tell me how I build my floor."
This charade went on for half an hour. I eventually got them to take
back 17 joists and give me 17 more that were the right size, but I'm
sure they thought I was weird.
Another little oddity which caused no end of trouble was the electric
supply. It came, it went, it came again, and of course it went again.
You could be standing in a queue in some store, and the power went, so
down went the computer. They couldn't sell you anything without it
going through the computer, so we all sat down and waited and waited,
sometimes five minutes, sometimes half an hour. Then the lights came
on, and we waited again while the computers were re-booted, and
connections re-made, and on we went again. Each deal took about five
minutes to process. It was a nightmare. I despaired of going out to buy
There are other problems which just dont make sense. A builder charges
a certain amount for his work, then because work dries up he charges
more. His idea is simple enough. As he is now working only three days a
week he needs to raise his charges by about 30% to take home the same
money. Only now he is no longer competitive so he gets even less work,
so he has to raise his prices even further until he has no work at all.
I was travelling on the train back from Lisbon. It's a long way and the
train takes its time. It take four hours to do the journey.
You have to book your seat. So there we were, settled in with our
sandwiches, when I noticed a gentleman further down the coach. There
was a problem. Some blighter had taken the wrong seat and then probably
gone off to the restaurant car leaving his bag on the seat.
The chap who had booked the seat was very worried. He couldn't sit on
another seat as he hadn't booked it. He couldn't sit on his own seat as
someone else's bag was firmly in the way, and he didn't want to move it
as it wasn't his. He was also responsible for it because it was on his
seat. There was a fifteen minute curious pantomime acted out over this
Another curious situation unfolded when we were at a boot fair. My
friend has a table at these fairs, and one we attended was supposedly
being vamped up a bit. They wanted more custom, so they had employed
this girl to go round and smile at everyone. So far so good.
When they got to our stall Julie suggested that they advertise the
market in the local papers. The girl smiled sweetly and said that
wasn't her job, she was only concerned with advertising.
Ummm. Well, what can I say? You tell me what the next line is.
Every country has it's little quirks, but there is a different logic
going on here. I dont understand it. I say something, they say
something, and I dont know if we are speaking the same language. Maybe
we are, but we certainly aren't using the same logical system.
There is one other very noticeable difference between Portugal and the
UK and that is the seasons. Portugal has some strange seasons. It's
nice to have such a short winter, but is it winter? In fact, does
winter come in the summer in Portugal?
I know that sounds an odd question, but look at it this way. Summer
starts at the beginning of May and it continues right through till the
end of October. November is autumn, and winter begins in December.
Spring starts in February and runs to May when summer is back with us.
Or does it?
Let's do it all again. Spring actually starts in December when the
jonquils come out. We have a series of springs, because there is a more
pronounced spring starting in february when the mimosa is in bloom. The
odd thing is that in a certain sense summer may very well begin in May
when spring is over, but certainly by july we are into winter. It may
be a hot winter, but how are we defining these seasons?
It doesn't rain after the beginning of may so the land dries out. By
the end of june the grass is brown, the fields have gone into
hibernation, or is that aestivation? Everything is dead. It's like
winter in the UK. Things only liven up when the rains come again in
November, and the grass starts to grow and the vegetables spurt back to
So, let's re-write the seasons here. December is when the cold spring
starts. The warm spring starts in February. Summer starts in May, and
the hot winter starts at the end of June. The hot winter doesn't end
until november when we get a conjunction of spring and autumn, and the
stuff up top (leaves on the trees) falls, whereas the stuff down below
(grass and vegetables and things) take up the water and all start
Fun isn't it?