The King of Portugal’s Coconuts

“The King was happy with his coconuts

Thought they would last for many moons

But when he went away, the Queen had a field day

And turned them into macaroons!”

The King of Portugal’s Coconuts, calypso, © no-one else to blame for this lyric, 1998

Bread hangs on door handles. A dirt track leads to an outdoor home, with a too-small tarpaulin. Very short people with moustaches go about their business, or stand stock still, in smart shirts at 7am, looking askance at me.

I feel lonely. Ten railway employees stand around, as a woman carrying a bread basket on her head boards the local train. I feel fragile on disembarking from the Madrid-Lisbon night train in the small station of Abrantes, so close to dawn. I head for the town centre, with only cats and birds for company. A café owner smirks at the way I order a coffee, and all his questions seem to get half-swallowed in his moustache before reaching my ears. It’s going to be my job to understand this language soon. 

Somehow time passes and the temperature rises, and before I know it, I’m in love.

“Even when she was laughing, she seemed sad. I knew the Portuguese language would be my next love” …

It’s hard to define my Portuguese experience. It messes with my insides. It makes me somehow respectful of mild manners, and quiet and subtle reasoning- an easily overlooked surprise if you are tuned to the higher frequencies of repetitive bonhomie of the Mediterranean. I learn to appreciate rueful smiles. If the food isn’t faintly imbued with wistfulness, it’s not worth having. I feel brutalised by my deep but brash love affair with Spain.

I am also newly single, and wondering what to do with my life. My latest Edinburgh show is interesting the media, and I jet back to London a few times for meetings at the BBC and Channel 4. But the fact I have accepted this period of all-expenses-paid “study leave” has entrenched my long-term commitment to being a full-time European civil servant- the return on their investment will be that in a few months’ time, an interpreter with 3 languages will have become an interpreter with 4- on the same staff pay scale.

Late at night I prowl the streets of Lisbon’s bairro alto, with its cybercafés where it takes 1 hour for your Hotmail inbox to load, so that you have to pay twice if you want to reply to anyone. Toothless crones on street corners screech “Fados? Fados?”-  apparently an alternative to the heroin also widely on offer, only enhancing the connection between essential Portuguese-ness, and a deep, mind-altering, lie-down-for-a-day, hit.

And one gets all this feeling without having to go for the full-strength repressed Nordic noir. Wine flows, olives are delicious, portions of everything are even huger than in the neighbouring shout-land. Meals start at an earlier hour, but are just as complex, leisurely and seductive as anywhere in the Mediterranean.

I start to despise the tone-deaf Northern European I used to be- one who was immediately seduced by Spain’s bright colours, and their tapas of simple, strong flavours. Now I have coriander in everything, salt cod permeates its surroundings as it bakes, and clams plump up as they simmer in garlic and wine. English tourists baffle the locals by trying to speak Spanish to them. Spanish tourists do exactly the same, gesticulating and shouting, emboldened and lordly, over-ordering and marvelling at the value, so unlike their tongue-tied, self-conscious, and price-conscious selves in Paris or London. Bring Me More Prawns, Boy.

Some Brits might have difficulty remembering that Portugal is that “bit of Spain that isn’t actually Spain”- but Modern Britain has only Portugal to thank for Nando’s. History is near the surface, or in the case of piri-piri sauce, smothered all over it.

Within living memory, Portugal had a nationalist dictator. Salazar claimed that 500 years ago, his ancestors had defended “Christian civilisation against Islam”. You might be forgiven, in modern Portugal, for reflecting thankfully that they clearly left the job unfinished. Early 20th century poet Fernando Pessoa wrote of Portugal’s “great Arab tradition – of tolerance and free civilisation… We are the keepers of the Arab spirit in Europe… Let us revenge the defeat inflicted by those from the North to our Arab ancestors. Let us redeem the crime we committed when we expelled from the peninsula the Arabs that civilised it.”

Portugal was neutral in the Second World War, and managed to keep Britain as its “oldest ally”. Portugal, like Britain, has of course committed more recent crimes too, of ethnic cleansing and slavery, especially in its African colonies. But the pseudo-fascist régime of Marcelo Caetano, Salazar’s successor, fell in the 1974 Carnation Revolution, and it is a different, often progressive, country now. It has decriminalised all drugs (including “Fados”) and recently offered to take more than 6 times its quota of Syrian refugees.

I study at the University of Évora, established in 1559, but closed completely from 1779 to 1973 when the Jesuits were out of favour. It is an enthusiastic symbol of the new democratic country, in the heart of a wine and cork producing region with high illiteracy amongst the older generations. Contrasts are everywhere, but optimism is in the air. I make friends of all ages, chat, and slowly feel readier to be the English voice of a Portuguese minister of agriculture. Facial hair permitting.

I have some humbling mishaps anyway, and frequently turn back to Pessoa.

“Não sou nada.

Nunca serei nada.

Não posso querer ser nada.

À parte isso, tenho em mim todos os sonhos do mundo.”

(“I’m nothing,
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t even wish to be something.
Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.”)

Fernando Pessoafado-street-art


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