Friday, September 22, 2006

Still scaling fences

In a flurry of feathers and light, our silver car flew south, along with a flock of other silver cars (so many of the cars in Portugal are silver), landing at the birthday destination. I'd been warned of the overcrowding of The Algarve in summer, but I'd also heard whispers of sweet, still heat. I was determined to uncrease myself on a lost beach.

A friend of mine recently returned with his girlfriend from a visit to the village in Greece where he passed the first five years of his life before his family moved to Australia. Many of the relatives who knew him when he was a tiny tot still live there and Nik's girlfriend reported to me that Nik was a changed creature during their time in the village. His usual bossy confidence was replaced by timid, little-boy mannerisms: yes, yes whatever you like Auntie Mimi, he'd say, leaning forward for his hair to be ruffled. It was as if his childhood was an old kite, long trapped in a village tree, just waiting to be reclaimed on his return.

After hearing this story I wondered if H was going to be subject to the same kind of regression once back in the arms of his mother country. But rather than reverting to a child-like demeanour, I was pleased to see that he became more like a football player - a bronzed figure, flourishing in the heat like a native plant, more confident, the kind of person who can kick goals.

As for me, I've just passed my 33rd birthday and the changes I thought would have happened by now, haven't taken place. When I was younger I thought by the time I'd reached today's height I'd certainly be wearing sensibly ironed clothes, not sitting on the ground or scaling fences, perhaps even mothering someone else. Oh yes, of course, I look after myself, I pay my way, I take myself to the doctor (perhaps more regularly than necessary) and drive a car if pushed (but due to a tendency to drift off with the pixies there is a label on me stating that this is generally not advisable). But I do wonder if I'll be forever sleeping with an overstuffed teddybear, ensnared in the transition phase.

The birthday came and went with all the usual jigs and giggles. I was still overwhelmed with childlike glee in the morning with the presentation of Les cadeaux! Les cadeaux! – a birthday kimono and books books books. Then there was a breakfast of honey toast for the honeybee, all on our balcony at the most westerly european point, overlooking a windy beach used mainly by surfing types who spent most of the day far out in the waves.

Further east along the coast between red rocks where the waters weren't as wind-whipped, I wanted to swim to the grottos in search of ghostly apparitions. The beach was splattered with people but despite the heat the water was so cold they stayed on the sands. Determined to have the birthday swim I skidaddled right in and within moments I was at home in the water, H. calmly on the shore waving to his little heroine, the only one who could brave the ice-breathing dragons of the sea.

And later that night over sangria and curls of pasta loaded with sea shells we talked of whatnots, little flowers of conversation sprouting between us. Over-drinking together, champagne and chocolate cupcakes and giddy laughing through sugary teeth into the wee smalls.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A bird in the hand

I've grown up with a fear of birds. In the same way that my fear of the telephone derives from a film, my fear of birds perhaps commenced with Hitchcock's The Birds which I saw at a young and malleable age.

While I'm an opponent of totalitarian laws which prevent people from meeting en masse, I sometimes wish we could impose such laws on birds. Every time I see a bunch of birds together I can hear their tweets of mischief. The word flock gives me the heebie jeebies. Give me a bird in the hand any day, two birds concealed in a bush are clearly plotting. Reading a children's book - the Winter of the Birds - where metal birds attack a town - didn't aid me to overcome my fears.

And though I don't want to give FUP a bad name by calling birds sinister, it hasn't helped matters that beyond the realm of film and literature, I've had real life examples of bird-attacks. On my trot home from the school bus stop, magpies used to swoop during a year long nesting season. My aunt has a small, diamond-shaped piece out of her nose where one of these magpies got lucky.

I'm sure the Paris pigeons have singled me out as a worthy victim as they fly directly towards my nose. Although several people have assured me they do exactly the same thing to their button and snub noses, I'm not convinced.

But i'm no cowardly lioness padding around on kitten paws, when we were in Portugal I organised our road trip so that we could spend a day on the Ilha Berlenga. This is a very small island ten kilometres off the coast of Portugal and only a dozen or so fishermen are permitted to live there because the island has been declared a natural reserve for thousands and thousands of seabirds.

The boat trip only takes an hour but I knew something was a-twitter when someone in charge handed out plastic bags to every one of the 150 or so passengers, without discrimination. Plastic bags for the small, the fat and the bony. The initial heaves of the sea were greeted by whoooos and cheers from everybody, as the boat rocked from side to side like one of those rides people take for kicks at Wally World.

Within ten minutes the whooos had become blurps and it was no longer just the sea that was heaving. Not many people were spared, it doesn't matter how pretty you are, on this boat you would join the throng of happy upchuckers. As one wise father seated in front of me said to his son at the start of the ordeal: the aim isn't to try not to be sick, but to see if you can be the last person to be sick.

I was simultaneously laughing and crying as all around me I could hear the sounds of sickness of all shapes and sizes. Amid the mess, a couple of youngish lovers embraced and kissy coo-ed, oblivious to it all.

When we arrived the little boy in front of us proudly held up his heavy bag and asked Havi: how much did you vomit? No time to admire the crunchy brown rock and green sea just made for swimming, the heap of bodies just off for the boat filed for the toilets, listening to the piping exclamations of the young couple who had embraced for the whole journey: It's beautiful! Wow! as they hiked off for a round of frisbee on the beach.

But in any case, I must admit that i'm feeling rather loveable as I think it mustn't be hard to love someone like me, who only purged a little bit.

I'd read that we could expect to see puffins, cormorants as well as seagulls. But we only saw seagulls, thousands upon thousands of them, many more than the fiesty birds that attacked Hitchcock's school.

Here birds rule the roost and people are their subjects. We were required to stay on the marked pathways and not stray on to the bird's turf. Happily most of the people that came over on the boat clung to the beach and H. and I had bending pathways all to ourselves, transported to a primitive place where all that existed were birds and one rabbit. We even came across a platform which served as a flying school with twenty or so baby birds being taught to fly by a couple of professional gulls.

This post really just needs to be filled with twitters, squawking, flapping, and crowing to show you what it was like to be in Bird Land. A tension, a feeling of foreboding, like we're all just preparing for something to happen.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lisbon is a loveable pooch

I’ve got Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbonne in my hot little hands at the moment, and although he wrote it in the 1920s, reading through his description of Lisbon, I’m re-seeing the city in which I spent a few days last week. The book is really just a guide to the city, but a guide written by one of Portugal’s most renowned poets and writers, adorned with heavy chandeliers of adjectives which light up the pages in praise of Lisboa.

When he was eight years old Pessoa left Lisbon with his family to live in Durban, South Africa and he lived there until he was about seventeen years old. According to someone who probably knows better than me, during this period, Pessoa missed the city like we miss the loveable pooch of our childhood years which we are forced to abandon because our mother is a naval officer who needs to move frequently. Having a pooch in every port won’t compensate for the loss of the first pooch of our childhood.

In Durban (which doesn't rhyme with Pessoa), Pessoa felt alienated, surrounded by people whose brains weren’t cluttered with memories of Lisboa, people who didn’t understand his cobweb covered background. He dreamt of going back to Portugal. When he finally did get back to Lisbon he burrowed into the cobblestones and lived there for basically the rest of his life. For Pessoa, Lisbon was where it was at, the rest of Portugal could just be considered suburbs of Lisbon.

In a street by street account, Pessoa's guide on Lisbon makes use only of the positive adjectives. He probably would have written a less idealistic, different kind of guide if he hadn’t been forced to rupture with the city in his childhood. From a distance you can’t see pus and pimples, nose hairs and stretch marks.

The guide is a defiant homage. We can feel an undercurrent of Pessoa’s belief that Lisbon should be the most talked about and appreciated city in the world. He nods at the boutiques of 1920s Paris, and then dismisses them, saying that the boutiques in Lisbon were just as good.

I’ve now got a proper crush on Lisbon. Obviously as I’ve only spent a couple of days there I’ve also got an uneven view and I could sing you all to sleep with lullabies about the river and city views from my loft bedroom window near the castle, pineapple milkshakes and fish sandwiches in laid back bars full of reclining patrons, azulejo winking in dark alleys, haggling and laughing like hippos, parks for ducks, african beats and a sun that parts buildings in order to be with you.

Looking at Pessoa’s book it seems I did miss many of the statues and landmarks here and there, and I smile to myself seeing that I took a photo of a sculpted elephant’s well-shaped butt when I should have probably been taking a frontal photo of the important Signor so and so who was standing next to the elephant.

But I did see some of Lisbon’s blemishes and scars, such as frequent graffiti saying Go home Brasiliens - racism seeping through the city walls, you hit me, I’ll hit someone else. I’ve talked about racism towards Portuguese immigrants in France now I see racism towards Brasilian immigrants in Portugal, and on and on.

But I haven’t seen enough of Lisbon and my hot little head is now steaming with schemes to live there one day or at least go back soon.

There is a Portuguese saying: Coimbra studies, Braga prays, Lisbon shows off and Porto works. I’ll go with the show pony any day, but I need to keep this under wraps as H’s family are devout followers of Porto, as both a city and a football team – it doesn’t seem possible to support one without supporting the other.

We see strong regional loyalties in lots of countries. In France the rest of the country makes snide remarks about Parisians. It’s the same in Portugal. H’s sister made a telling comment while chewing on her plate full of nothing (mysteriously H’s sister would set a plate for herself at the dinner table each night - even though she clearly was going to eat out later with her boyfriend - and each night we’d put the plate in the dishwasher to clean the nothing off it). She lives near Porto and during our tales about our days in Lisbon she interrupted: “Oh Lisbon as a city is ok, it’s just the Lisboetes I can’t stand!”

Football fever never leaves Portugal. You don’t need a World Cup in order for every television to be broadcasting football matches and if there is no game on they will just play re-runs from 1970s World Cups or else other derivatives of football such as beach football, indoor football, water football etc.

Rivalry between the cities of Porto and Lisbon comes to a head in the form of football. Walking through a flea market in Lisbon, H was sporting a Porto club football t-shirt which gloats over Porto being champion five times. Various boyz in the market directed disgruntled comments at H which seemed like jest to me, but in the end H said that wearing his t-shirt in Lisbon was really an act of provocation and that he was actually upsetting people.

Makes me wonder if H’s family would be as welcoming with all those plastic spiders and stuff if next time I show up dressed to the nines in the Benfica red (the football club of Lisbon).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hello cocky

We drove from the north to the south of Portugal last week, occasionally swerving around a renegade galo de barcelos which had escaped from its legend and was lolling about on the road.

As I pecked at crumbs of bolo rei, my stick legs tanning in the rays of a beating sun and strong Atlantic winds reaching through the window of the car to feather my hair, I began to understand the landscape of Portugal. However, when it comes to the terrain of the Portuguese language, I remain little more than a trained bird reciting the phrases Havi has handed me and mimicking the words of the people I encounter, an obrigada here, a bom dia there.

I've finally got to the point where i'm not struggling as much with the French language and the events of my days in France are no longer completely overcast with mystery. [One incident which epitomises these past days of mystery springs to mind. I was with French and some of his neatly-tucked cronies on a weekender in Brussels. Somehow knowledge of the existence of most European singers had managed to escape my life up until that point and from the words I picked out of the flying french conversations around me it seemed we were all shaking off last night's sleep and getting dressed to go to an afternoon performance by this Belgian guy called Jacques Brel. I was looking forward to a lazy afternoon being serenaded by a weeping guitar and so I nearly wept myself when we arrived at the venue and I discovered with my eyes rather than my ears that Jacques Brel was long dead. In fact we were going to an exhibition of his work where I would be forced to interact with cardboard cut outs and background tapes. Obviously a seance to summon him from the dead would have been better than that.]

In Portugal, particularly in the part of the voyage we spent in the north with Havi's family, i'd once again flown into a situation where i was flapping about, trying to fly in the current of conversation. Words and everyday activities were little mysteries.

Havi's aunts and uncles and family friends who have lived all their lives in Portugal don't speak any French (or English) and so at those dinners where the table was extended to cater for the extended family, I found my words flopping around in the air like flying fish and falling heavily to the ground.

After an initial, confusingly warm welcome from two old aunts, complete with kisses all over my arms and heading rapidly towards my legs (H later explained that i'd been mistaken for Cousin Natalie - who i was disappointed to learn also has a cumbersome nose), my conversation was reduced to a tiny ball of nods and smiles and I had a constant elbow banging against H: what did they say? why are they all laughing?

Of course H's parents speak French, but his mother speaks with such a heavy Portuguese accent, particularly when she is on her home turf, that I often think she is speaking to me in Portuguese when she is speaking in French. Some of the time, unperturbed by my blank face, she is actually speaking Portuguese, caught up in the beauty of her own language she wants all language barriers to tumble and everyone to share its sugary tones with her.

H's father speaks a timid French, so timid that often this French is not addressed to me at all, but to H: [in French] "Make sure elle has enough vegetables because I've noticed elle doesn't eat meat. Make sure elle eats some goat's cheese. Do you think elle needs a jacket?" I forgot that my name is Pinochiette and I started thinking of myself as Elle. Je m'appelle Elle.

When H's father does actually address me directly it's usually not even in French at all, but rather through the medium of plastic spiders and I'm expected to scream in response. I'm pleased to say I did let rip some fairly boisterous screams at least the first and second time he put one of these spiders on my plate (as the saying goes: first time is funny, second time is silly, third time is a spanking).

I guess the thing that struck me the most about once again being out of my depth in terms of language is that suddenly French became my language. In this world encircled by pine trees in the north of Portugal where English had been forgotten or never invented, I was suddenly grateful for conversations that were in French. When we came across French travellers I felt an affinity with their language, this language which bumps against me in Paris and gives me no end of bruises. It amuses me to think that a language which I botch - where I sometimes call a she a he, or say "they is" and where often I call a spade, a hammer - could feel like home. But it did, briefly.