When in doubt, follow your dog.
Adapting to life in Lisbon can be hectic in ways that I hadn’t considered. Sometimes I feel like my dog whose nose hasn’t stopped twitching since we arrived. We are both in the same boat; trying to make sense of it all and to find our bearings.
Dogs are more suited to this and simply sniff everything, taste whatever smells particularly interesting, piddle on everything else, and become intimately informed of others of their species.
We, on the other hand, have to conform to social norms that change from place to place, but I suppose it’s true for dogs, too. Back in Canada, the dogs sniffed each other’s faces first. Poor Baxter; she’s had to sit tight and snarl to dissuade some of these Lisbon hounds.
And then, just when she was beginning to assert herself into the dog pack at the local park, we moved. However, right after unpacking we took our first walk around the new hood and met the most dignified and elegant collie. She wanted no part of us and I can only assume that Baxter must have picked up some inappropriate habits while strutting through the streets of Mouraria. I would worry about that but she usually displays better sense than I and will adapt.
There is something happening here.
Lisbon, I am finding, has its own logic that seems to make little sense at first but becomes more rational with understanding. I suppose that is true about most places but it does escape the tourists who seem to expect life to rearrange itself to their expectations —the “Holiday Inn” mentality that a familiar sameness is required with enough local flavour to identify which holiday photo is which. And while I have only been here for three months, I am beginning to develop a sense for the depth and beauty of life here.
Reading about Lisbon, I came across two things that have given me much to ponder on. (I do that—I ponder a lot.) Lisbon, probably in honor of its Phoenician past, and the golden age of the Navigators, is often referred to as the “City of the Sea.” It was from Lisbon that ships set out to “discover” the new world.
It was also a city that suffered devastation from the sea when, in 1775, a tsunami followed an earthquake that destroyed the city and turned Portugal from an externally focused, expanding empire into the more insular nation it has become.
It also allowed for the redevelopment of much of the downtown region so that the current city combines many of the evolving lessons of urban planning. Broad avenidas link parks and squares and are lined with elegant houses that are part Romanesque, part Arabesque, a little pompous but, for the most part, practical with a few wedding cakes thrown in.
In the rebuilding, older lessons were also remembered and while there is always a hill in Lisbon—no matter where you are trying to get to—there is always a breeze and some of them are fresh from the sea. Good thing too because there have been a few days when my body, finally thawed from the Canadian winter, became a little seared around the edges.
Then comes the night, cool and bright with memories on the air . . . but then there are these mosquitos that are very impartial to mostly thawed, slightly seared, Irish blood. We had them back in Canada but for the most part, they left me alone. These Lisbon mosquitos are mean little buggers. I blame the Portuguese people—they are far too nice and accommodating, except for some of the bureaucrats we have had to deal with.
You are nothing without a NIF
Without the Número de Indentificação Fiscal, all that is magnificent about this place would shudder and collapse again. It is a government issued number that allows the good people in whatever taxation department to keep in touch with every single resident in their day-to-day lives, but you can win a car.
“Fair enough” we said to each other. “Let’s be getting one of them.”
It is never that easy. The first time, we took a number and waited. Others took their numbers and wandered off down the street for coffee; even the man in wicket 5, the one that was dealing with NIFs that day. Finally our number came up, but the kind gentleman, who had just returned from lunch, regretfully informed us that the system was down. He was kind enough to hear our problem and replied in a combination of Portuguese and English. My wife, who was from the Azores which as I was to find out later “Is not a part of Portugal”, did her best but her Portuguese clearly wasn’t adequate.
He talked and he listened along with the woman at the next wicket and offered condolences with a shrug. The system was down and he was so powerless that he seemed to deflate in front of us.
My wife went alone on the second day and the system was back up but the deflated gentleman was not dealing with NIFs. The hard faced woman in wicket 3 was; the one that wore D&G glasses. My wife explained her situation with nodding approval from the woman in wicket 4 who had heard it all before. Ms. D&G insisted that my wife was in the wrong place and suggested she go to Immigration. (Later, we concluded that it must have been the language issue.)
Anyway, undeterred, my wife produced her national identity card—the one she had painstakingly secured before leaving Toronto—splendid proof of identity despite the awful mugshot. Except for one tiny detail; there was nothing in the little box labelled Número de Indentificação Fiscal. They could not issue that in Canada but everything else looked good.
Looking a little piqued, I have been assured, Ms. D&G held the card in her long bony fingers like it was a specimen of something catching.
“You have to give it to her now,” the woman in wicket 4 joined in.
“Very well,” Ms. D&G reluctantly agreed and began to tap her way into the system. “What parish were you born in?”
That was when my poor wife learnt that all she had been raised to believe in, all the proud Portuguese stuff about exploring and discovering, and being the first and best at everything, and that the cream of all things Portuguese are from the islands, was a lie. According to whatever corner of the system Ms. D&G had tapped into, Angra do Heroismo, on the island of Terceira, the third largest island in the Região Autónoma dos Açores, was not a part of Portugal.
Even the woman in wicket 4 took up the Azorean cause but to no avail. My wife was to be considered some type of alien until she could produce sufficient documentation – which my wife was not carrying. (Something I put down to the Azorean sense of autonomy.) Home she came, without a NIF and made to feel like an immigrant instead of a home comer.
Naturally, I went the next day as the muscle if such was required and because I never miss an opportunity to study absurdity in all its glory. We took our number and waited. Ms D&G was attending to other matters and so was wicket 5. Wicket 4 was our only hope and when she returned from coffee break, she smiled, clicked a few times at the system and gave us a NIF.
That weekend the local square was filled with folk dancers and celebrations of the good things in life. They might have been there for other reasons but it made my wife smile again.
Eu não falo Portugues
It is the only phrase I have mastered so far and I have said it so often that I am trying variations in tone and timbre, timing and delivery. Someone laughed at me the other day and said: “You just said that in Portuguese.”
I will learn the language but, as I have reminded my critics, most of the Portuguese took 18 to 24 months to say their first words and I am way ahead as I, after only 3 months, can pop up with a few of the basics of civility. Please, thank you, good day, good afternoon, and goodnight. I can almost order coffee but I am still buying cigars in sign language. Food is easy because it all tastes great and most of our neighbours are gracious enough to speak to me in impeccable English laced with just a touch of accent. Lisboetas can be a very cultured and dignified lot.
Still, I will learn the language because it is the least I can do for the generosity this city offers, once you have a NIF.
Now getting the dog one; that’s going to be fun. Though she already has her European doggie passport, good for entry to the whole continent—even Greece, for now.