It’s curious, but I haven’t been to Portugal for an embarrassing five years.
Embarrassing because I have spent a couple of years, on and off, in Portugal; many years (actually, decades ago)I had a Portuguese girlfriend for eighteen months, speak enough of the language to stave off starvation or thirst, and am generally a Lusophile.
Landing in Lisbon from a short and slightly odd flight from La Coruna the decision was to rent a car or take a taxi to Sesimbra, one of my favourite places in the world, and thirty kilometres south of Lisbon. Quoted €87 for a taxi ride, the decision was simple; head to get the economy car that I had reserved with Hertz.
Now, formerly an Avis fan, I now LOVE Hertz! A fine Saab 93 convertible, complete with perfect weather was waiting for me; a thirty-mile journey grew to a two-hundred kilometre deviation along perfect highways (designed to test such an automobile) and picture perfect back roads and twisty hill climbs until we got to our destination.
It is difficult to adequately describe a place that has captured one’s heart; Sesimbra is such a place. I first travelled there in 1963 with my parents; it was a fishing village and for the next ten years or so we had an apartment there for August each year; I was fortunate, I know, but it was a wonderful way to spend my formative summers. I learned some Portuguese, but I have to say that when I confidently spoke to my then-girlfriend’s family, they howled with a rather scornful derision; they were one of the country’s old families, ruling elites and of the diplomatic corps; my Portuguese was that of the fishermen of Sesimbra.
I digress; it is a town that has grown up, faster than I in many respects. It has seen the massive boom of property development that has reversed itself abruptly in recent years, and its rather lopsided growth is only now balancing itself. One can, as in northern Spain, see the difference between credit-fuelled growth and growth from an organically expanding business; fortunately, my friend Caetano falls into the latter group.
I met Caetano in 1964. He was fourteen, and just starting to work at a small café, while I was an eight year-old brat from London. Why we like each other was never really sure, and indeed if we did think of each other between summers was never clear. I was very aware, however, of his absence in 1969 when he went to Africa to fight in Mozambique. It was Europe’s war in those days, and an absolute parallel to the American’s adventures in Vietnam. Portugal fought brutal and eventually futile wars in Angola and Mozambique to protect some image of the past, and perhaps to justify the country’s future; who knows. In any event, Caetano went, and did his bit for his country. Fortunately he came back.
I remember the summer of 1971 when he returned. Trying to tell me of the horrors that I didn’t understand; sitting in darkened rooms looking at photographs of a war that the world ignored; talking about peace, rights, colonies and the confused discussions of friends that seemed to share more ideas than language. It branded an image that I have never shaken, nor wanted to shake.
The years passed (as they must, (tra la), and I have returned to Sesimbra often; taking our girls there when they were little, seeing Caetano buy and build his café, then restaurant and each year wishing that our language skills were such that we could speak more of our lives, and our influences; we both know, I think, but it would have been better to share. When our oldest daughter travelled through Europe, Caetano looked after her, arranging for her to stay at his aunt’s house, and every year or so we dropped by.
And then, in 2007, we bought a house in France, and Portugal took second place. No visits, no weekends and no lazy weeks enjoying its beach and reminiscing about the past; just France.
And so, five years later, coasting unwittingly but happily in our Saab 93 (did I mention that it was a convertible) we stopped by for a night. A stopover en route from La Coruna to Munich and home was all we could manage, but it was important. As we walked up to is Restaurante Maré, I spotted him;
“that’s Caetano” I said to Andrea, “I could recognise him anywhere!” It was actually Pedro, his son, identical stance and smile to his father, and when we saw him, then then moments later his Dad, five years disappeared into a weekend.
Sesimbra is a wonderful place; it is, of course, the classic example of a place being the sum of its people, and for me, the memories of forty-nine years add up to a quite remarkable village; do I see it through rose-tinted glasses? Perhaps, but isn’t that what memories are for?