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Tales from a Madeiran Village
In this batch of tales I expose the entrails of Boaventura, a Madeiran village. The point of view you are getting is of an outsider but grudgingly accepted as an insider by everyone by virtue of birth, family connections and property holdings. In these sketches I go beyond the Madeira of the tourist and open a window into the people in the country, giving you a view of its social fabric.
While writing this, it repeatedly stuck me of how difficult it is to transmit the exact sense, ethos and mind-set of a place and people. In basic Portuguese, a word, a simple phrase, some slang achieves with great trenchancy what is only possible with awkward circumlocution in English, and vice-versa. This is not particular to writing about Madeira but forms part of the “universal translation problem”.
1. A little about Boaventurans
Boaventurans are neither inferior nor superior to people anywhere, they’re quick to let you know. They might be poor, but they have categoría (class) they’ll tell you. Boaventurans don’t tell you their names when asked. They tell you what part of Boaventura they’re from and their parents’ names instead. “I’m a daughter of so-and so from the Laranjeiras. You won’t know them.” “Yes, but nonetheless, what is your name?” It seems a person is nothing if he doesn’t belong to someone. Also, there are no addresses in Boaventura, certainly not in my dad’s vicinity. If you want to get to my dad’s house, you have to know his full name, Senhor José-Maria dos Santos Pestana. Even better, you have to know the name he is known by viz. José da Luz. Having this, you enquire in places around the church square. Someone will point you to the valley where my father lives. Once you’re closer, you enquire further until you arrive at his house by gradual approximation. But nowhere will you find an address or a street name.
In Madeiran culture, feeling trumps reason every time, and is never questioned. Example:
Questioner: “Why are you sitting outside at 2AM in the morning having a smoke and a drink and staring into space?”
Answer: “Because I can’t sleep / don’t feel like sleeping.”
Calvinist/Anglo-Saxon Capitalist Entrepreneurial/First World Get-ahead reply: “But you should go to sleep because if you don’t go to sleep you will not be able to function properly tomorrow and you will underachieve.”
Madeiran reply: “Oh? OK.”
2. Village idiot
Me, stirring: “So Mum, where does the proverbial village idiot live in Boaventura? They say every village has one.”
Mum: “Village idiot you ask? Village idiot? It’s village idiots! They’re all over. Haven’t you noticed? They’re falling out of the houses, they’re crawling over the fields, climbing up the valleys and into mountains. They pollute the landscape. They come here to your aunt’s house at nine in the morning and start pissing it up. The only reason you haven’t heard them yet is that she’s sold out her five vats of wine this year, else they’d be there. By ten in the morning they’re drunk and loud and start talking rubbish-rubbish-stupid-stupid-dirty-dirty. They are a bunch of mal educados (ill-breds). Your father of course joins them at times. For entertainment he says. Ha! I keep threatening to leave. No-one believes me. But I’m leaving, one of these days I’ll be gone forever. Just you wait. I’ve told your father I can’t take this any longer. I’m going straight back to the Free State. They’ll all wake up one morning and I’ll be gone, they’ll see.
Me: “Yes mother.”
Age has not withered nor custom staled her infinite temper…
3. Francophones, Anglophones, Hispoanophones, Lusophones.
The community of Boaventura, as of all Madeira, is comprised a large number of emigrants who have returned after years of supplying labour to various economies of the world, chief among them being Venezuela, South Africa and France. These returned émigrés have a habit to pepper their Portuguese entre eux with expressions in the language of their country of emigration, if not to revert entirely to the language of their “other country” with various degrees of fluency.
It’s as though they are little clans that wear their second language as badges of subtle distinction, and they refer to themselves as Venezulanos or Sul-Africanos a.k.a (Cabeiros) or Franceses. They will even arrange themselves into teams along these lines when they play each other at cards on Sundays around the churchyard cafés. I luckily speak all these languages so stand at no disadvantage to anyone.
One fine morning before lunch I’m sitting on my father’s verandah when “Monsieur” Manuel Domingos Andrade walks past. 37 years in France, now a colourful denizen of the valley. In moments of vainglory boasts he once had 19 million francs in France. “But I lost it all, I lent the money to a friend in trust for a project sight unseen, and he lost everything. So did I. And here I am.” He is about to invite me to a glass of wine at a drinking house once again, but strangely addresses me in Portuguese today.
“Morning Monsieur Andrade. I notice you’re addressing me in Portuguese today, not French.”
“Well yesterday I was drunk, so I spoke French, but today I am sober so I speak Portuguese. What about a drink. Can I stand you a glass?”
“Haven’t you already had a drink or two today?”
“Yes but only six glasses. You know I don’t like cooking. I eat wine. It’s my food. I eat three to four litres of wine a day. Keeps me going. Pour m’encourager. So, Monsieur Alexandre, venez-vous?”
“Mais oui, merci Monsieur Domingos, avec plaisir. Let’s go!”
4. The devil in Boaventura.
People still fight when they get drunk in Boaventura, says Dad, but today people are much tamer. The younger crowd don’t drink that much and are on the whole more civilized. People don’t kill each other that much. But in his time, says Dad, when he was a young man, it was the devil!
There was a crazy crowd that was always fighting, especially a few hours after Sunday mass when the liquor had flowed. Beatings, knifings and retribution were common occurrences. It used to be blood all over, blood on all sides, it was the devil. They stabbed each other to death. The police were always carting them off to jail, says Dad. They would be taken to jail in São Vicente where they would be thrown naked into damp cells with water underneath. There they would be beaten senseless until they confessed. Thieves also got the same treatment until they revealed the whereabouts of the stolen goods to the police. But they were hard men and needed to be softened to a quivering pulp before confessing. There was respect for the law in those days, in the time of the dictator Salazar, says Dad.
Of course they’d be released after a while but like all recidivists, they’d be back in the slammer a few weeks later for further correcting, unless they killed someone of course, in which case the courts got involved. But it was the devil in those days! – says Dad.
5. Taste-Off: Grand Marnier vs. Poiso Poncha.
I’m party to a taste-off conducted by six Boaventurans in my father’s kitchen on a cold morning between:
(i) The world famous liqueur Grand Marnier, Cordon Rouge, based in Cognac, France; orange essences, amères exotiques, grand liquer de France, Louis Alexandre Marnier l’apostolle creature. 40% alcohol. A complex liqueur of fine balance and elegance. Cost 50 euros/litre (Heathrow duty-free price), versus
(ii) The local Poncha da Madeira, based in Poiso, Madeira, honey rum and liqueur, bottled by J. Faria & Sons Lds, Funchal, 25% alcohol. A simple, one-dimensional punch of forgettable impact sold in plastic 1-litre bottles with cheap labelling. Cost: 5 euros/litre, including tax.
The unanimous verdict: The Poncha, from Madeira, won, of course.
6. Probing questions to Boaventurans.
You can find out much about a place, or for that matter a business or a person by asking what their three biggest problems are. You’ll get different answers depending on who you ask.
Question 1: What is the biggest problem around here?
Answer from (i) Cousin who works at the bank: The impending financial crisis. Hardship is already here, and more is coming. No government in the world can relieve the hoe from these people’s hands. They’ve even stopped construction work on the tunnels. Boaventura will continue to depopulate. How many young people do you see around here? Hardly any. Portugal has one of the lowest female fertility rates in the world and it’ll continue to plummet.
Answer from (ii) Mother: Your father’s uncle down the road who surreptitiously steals land from people. He is ninety and still works the fields between bouts from hospital, that lout. Also there are my aches and pains and life disappointments. But let’s not dwell on these.
Answer from (iii) Barfly No. 4. Last year’s harvest. Too much rain. Bad grapes, poor wine.
Answer from (iv) Barfly No. 5. The general ignorance around here. It’s shocking. As a man who has travelled all around the world, including Africa and insalubrious parts of Asia I hear, you surely can’t have encountered a greater, a more crass ignorance than here. Surely, please tell me!
(You dare not agree with him. This is a trap, you’re meant to remonstrate vociferously at this and say that on the contrary you find Boaventurans uplifting and intelligent. If you don’t, word will soon have it that you’re a conceited maleducado (ill-bred) who looks down on everyone.)
Question 2: What is of interest in Boaventura, what is exciting?
Answer from Barfly No. 3: What? You mean you haven’t noticed? You’ve been here a week and you haven’t noticed? The answer is nothing. There is nothing of interest around here. Zero!
7. Labour lost
My dad, aunt and I were having coffee on the balcony overlooking the fields where a woman was hoeing.
Me: “What’s the cost of labour in Boaventura?”
Tia Maria-José: “It depends on the job, but for the work that woman is doing, 30 euros a day. It’s too little for the one who earns it, and it’s too much for the one who pays it.”
Me: “In what sense”.
Tia Maria-José: “Well, 30 euros doesn’t buy much. The minimum wage is 300 euros per month but no-one earns it around here. If you work your land yourself you can live off it, but the moment you pay someone a day’s work you’re better off buying what you’re toiling to produce. It doesn’t pay.” I immediately realise that the microeconomics of subsistence farming in Boaventura is utterly marginal, and understand why so much land lies fallow.
Me: “How many man-days does it take to dig up this 25m*10m piece of land? One?”
Dad and Tia Maria-José in unison: “No, three.”
8. Warming up the Engine
A strain of chronic alcoholism runs through our valley. Some men start drinking early in the morning and continue till past nightfall. They go to the drinking houses that sell the sulphurous, over-pressed, sour home-made wines made from the banned Herbemont and Jacquet grapes. It stirs your insides and shakes you up and gives you cirrhosis. Don’t confuse these with the great Madeira wines. These drinking houses are called “little Chapels” and there are four within a radius of 200m from my father’s house. My aunt runs one and she starts selling when the first customer of the day comes knocking. On my way to the road one morning I pass Senhor Adelino sitting on Tia Maria’s outside bench, already at it, lifting his elbow which lifts the hand which lifts the glass.
“Bom dia Senhor Adelino.”
“Bom dia if God so wills it.” Inch’Allah operates here too.
“I notice you’re already “baptizing” yourself so early this morning.”
“My machine, Senhor Alexandre, cannot work properly in the morning without being warmed up. It’s like a car on a cold day. You can’t just ignite and drive. So here I am, warming up my machine, looking after it, lubricating, making it last. Surely you approve?”
“What about having a little aguardente with me to warm yourself up?”
9. Party political.
My aunt Maria-José Dias was sporting a party political T-shirt of the Portuguese Social Democrats.
Me (stirring): “Aunt Maria-José, what party is this you’re supporting? You spend the day in the fields with a sickle in your hand, and I’m sure you pick up a hammer from time to time. Hammer and sickle, those are your tools, that’s more your style. Given that, I would have thought that the Portuguese Communist Party would be the one for you, closer to your heart.”
Tia Maria-José (65): “Well yes, hmmm, there’s something to what you’re saying, but this is my party. You know, the political parties all come around during their campaigns and dish out T-shirts, caps and the like. I wear them all. I have a cap at home of the Portuguese Socialist party which I wear from time to time. Would that be red enough for you?”
10. The refreshing flight of the accidental colonialist
I come across Tio (uncle) José Dias on the path on the second day of my stay.
Me, complying with the formulaic greeting required of every bem educado Madeiran the first time in the day they see a family elder, a custom rapidly falling away: “Tio a sua bênção! (Uncle your blessing please!)
Tio José Dias (65), giving the obligatory formulaic reply: “May God bless you my son.”
Me: “Lovely day today.”
Tio José Dias: “Indeed. So, did you have a refreshing flight? What aeroplane did you fly across in? When I came back from the war in Africa I came in a Boeing 707, they say it’s far more refreshing than a 747 in which I’ve never been. Did you have a fresh and refreshing flight?”
Me: “Tio José, you were in Africa, fighting wars? Did you see combat?”
Tio José Dias: “Of course. What do you think? Here I was, working in these saintly fields, minding my own business when the Portuguese army came by forcibly recruiting for the colonial cause in far away Africa. I was sent to fight people I personally had nothing against, fancy that. Some of us were sent to Mozambique, some to Angola, I was sent to Guinea-Bissau. But well, once in the bush, either they shoot you or you shoot them, and frankly, I preferred shooting than being shot at. Either you gave them bullets or they gave you bullets, hot ones. Choose. Freedom fighter, terrorist, what’s the difference if he’s pointing an AK47 at you? Hey? Learn this; the proper title of a person pointing an AK47 at you is senhor (sir). Senhor, you hear! Sim Senhor, não Senhor! After two years of skirmishing in the bush the army brought me back just before the 1974 revolution, luckily all intact. Some men from around here died in the African wars, and some are maimed. But tell me, did you have a refreshing flight?”
Me: “Why yes uncle, I came across in an Airbus and my flight was very refreshing, thank you for asking.”
11. Tea for Two
Primo (cousin) José-Alexandre took me to the neighbouring, more prosperous village of Arco de São Jorge for tea. Arco de São Jorge is more prosperous than Boaventura because they have a flatter terrain, they make better wines, they have a fancy tea garden with a Khoi fish pond and have recently established a little wine museum there. Tourists stop at São Jorge, they don’t stop at Boaventura, they simply pass through. Our village really does not have much to offer. Sorry. We stop off at the tea house and what teas do they have! Darjeeling, Earl Grey, all sorts of others, and even two varieties of Rooibos tea, one from the Cape and one from Namibia. What? I settle down at a table opposite primo José-Alexandre to one of a dozen cups of tea I drink in a year, and immediately realise I’ve come to the tea-house with the wrong person. Primo José-Alexandre, who doesn’t touch alcohol, overcompensates for it by adopting the most civilised of auras when drinking tea, as though he were a grand participant in a Japanese tea-ceremony.
I would much have preferred to have gone with a character like our grandmother had she still been alive. The monologue would have gone something like this. Granny: “What? How much are you paying for this tea? 2 Euros 50? Are you mad my boy? And here in conceited Arco de São Jorge of all places! It’s not town, despite what they think. What’s wrong with granny’s teas? You know that granny has infusions, herbs, potions etc. that she herself picks from the mountains and brews – at the fraction of this price! Whenever you want a tea my boy, just ask granny and granny will brew it for you with love my child. We don’t have to come to São Jorge for it. What a sin, what extravagance, may our God in Heaven forgive us for this! My boy, what’s come over you?” To which I would have replied “Yes, granny”.
12. Low scoundrel
Mum (69): “You remember Tony da Luz, the guy you liked so much when you were last here in 2001?”
Me: “Of course mother, I remember him fondly.”
Mum: “Well, he is a scoundrel and a thief. He stole land from Maria Casca that was rightly hers, increasingly planting it with his crops row-by-row until he stole it completely, that corno. He robs people when it comes to the division of land, does that 88-year old monster. Francisco Bastos gave us use of a piece of land on which to build a garage and that thief blocked us. I don’t greet him any more, that low villain. I ignore him, totally. There are those who say that he’s going to the hottest part of hell where the most vicious devils are. I don’t know much about hell and things like that, but those around here better acquainted with such things attest under oath that he’s going straight there, straight to the very centre of hell. A total scoundrel he is!”
Me: “Yes mother.”
How reassuring. The fight is not out of the old girl yet.
13. Food, Boaventura Style
Well before arriving in Madeira I phone mum ordering the foods I want to eat, foods I remember from my childhood and that I no longer eat but still crave, having changed eating cultures half-way though my life. All is arranged by the time I arrive.
One morning you have goat’s liver served in special slow cooked red onions and eaten on the freshest Portuguese rolls. A little wine to wash it down rounds off things, how else, why not.
For lunch there is wild boar and maize meal in a goat sauce, not the soft Madeiran variety but the stiff indigenous South African staple – a concession to fusion cuisine. Saboroso! Black beans and cabbage fresh off the lands accompany the boar. Oh, this was prefaced with a tomato, lettuce and cucumber salad, fresh off the land, drizzled in vinegar and olive oil as one does and accompanied by a light rosé wine.
How good is life? You could eat fancier at Reid’s Hotel but not better. If I had time I would tell you of the yams and chouchous with peas to accompany fried rabbit, crisped to perfection. Sun-kissed pumpkins off the trellis, leeks just pulled out of the ground. Scabbard fish caught in the sea that morning from Cousin Oscar’s boat. Parsley, a little garlic. A simple plate of Herbemont grapes for dessert. Chouriço and freshly laid eggs from my Aunt’s coop for breakfast the following day with crusty bread bought from the itinerant baker at 07H30. A little calde verde later in the morning to allay the chill, a little punch to round it off…
Neither does Mum let me off the hook when I’m there.
Mum: “Son, don’t you want some tremoços (lupins)? Have some tremoços, these are exceptionally nice.”
Me: “No thank you mum.”
Mum: “What about some espada (scabbard fish) then? Nice and fresh, caught early this morning?”
Me: “No mother, we’ve had lunch two hours ago.”
Mum: “What about some arroz de muelas (chicken gizzard rice)? I spiced it myself, it’s well seasoned.”
Me: “No thanks mummy, I’m not hungry.”
Mum: “Here, have some pasteis de nata (custard pies) then. You come to your mother’s house son and you don’t eat anything.”
Me: “OK mother, I’ll have just one.”
14. Perfectly said, imperfectly heard
Senhor Mendes of the bank is talking to me. Senhor Mendes speaks excellent Portuguese at which I marvel. I am currently studying Spanish, a language to which Portuguese is structurally related, and am acutely sensitised to grammatical aspects of language. There goes Senhor Mendes again, talking straight at me, but I don’t hear what he’s saying for it’s not meaning but pure grammar that issues from his lips, which my mind furiously parses against my will. Indicative, subjunctive, subjunctive, pluperfect, imperfect of the subjunctive, future imperfect, conditional, imperative, indicative… I eventually hear him when his lips suddenly stop moving.
Senhor Mendes: “So, Senhor Alexandre, which option is it to be then?”
Me, feeling totally stupid: “Ah, Senhor Mendes, would you please go over my options again, I’m a little confused…”
15. Ginja anguish
Primo José-Alexandre took me to a café to have ginja. Ginja is a medium strength short alcoholic drink (20% alc.) flavoured with ginjas, which are a type of cherry that impart the characteristic flavour to the drink. I had to have a shot. Barmaid: “Ginja com ellas ou sem ellas? (Ginja with or without them?).” Her question took me back over thirty years to the kitchen table of Pinto Leite’s farm outside Kempton Park. I remembered my Dad and Pinto Leite endlessly discussing the ginja poser. One has the option, they said – at the same price – to have a tot of ginga without cherries, in which case there’s more liquid to drink, or a tot with two cherries in it for which you give up the equivalent volume of liquid they displace. What’s a man to do? You either have more to drink, or less, but if you drink less you can spend the next thirty minutes munching alcohol-soaked gingas. This was a cause of endless deliberation and heartbreak for my father and Pinto Leite, who would reason over it deep into the night and through their fifth bottle of wine. I would watch them from their elbows as a ten-year old boy. They would come at the Ginja problem from all sorts of angles, starting their thinking afresh when falling into the myriad logical traps the problem posed. Who says there’s nothing to talk about in the world? And here I was now, decades later, facing the same dilemma.
16. Briga (quarrel)
I overheard an exchange of shouts between two women below the balcony early one morning. One was in the field in front of us, the other was at a lower elevation in a backyard next to Dad’s compadre João Inez’s house. The two were engaged in an intense briga over a distance of 50 metres.
Woman 1: “And your sisters? Your sisters are putas (bitches) of the worst sort, but small putas, not a big puta like you.”
Woman 2: “Your mother’s ars_e_hole.”
Woman 1: “What about my mother’s ars_e_hole? Do you think your mother’s ars_e_hole is cleaner than mine, you squinting witch!”
Woman 2: “Shut your maw you contorted cabra (she-goat).”
Woman 1: “Your father’s balls.”
Woman 2: “You twisted open-legged bitch! Low whore, come say it here!”
The conversation was so familiar I thought I was back on the streets of Cape Town.
Me, to Mum and my sisters: “Mummy, Fatinha, Hirondina, come quick! There’s an interesting conversation outside.”
They, running out with coffee cups in hand and looking furiously around for the source of the action: “Where? Where? Where?”
17. Paupers and Priests
Dad, after a good meal: “Shoo. As we say around here, I ate like a priest.”
Me: “Yes, Dad, we ate well. Leta’s father would say they had eaten like a king. Why do people around here say they ate like a priest and not a king?”
Dad: “A king? When do people around here see a king? Or what he eats for that matter? The people here imagine a king to be a grand person, who lives in a palace as big as our local church say, but they’ve never actually seen a king. I didn’t know Leta’s father or how many kings he knew, but a king, who lived in far away Lisbon or thereabouts, was just too far removed from us for us to have any notion of what he eats. Now priests we locals know well. And we know priests don’t exactly go hungry. For us, to eat like a priest is a grand thing.”
My sister Fatinha, quick to the grasp: “Can’t you see it’s a quantity versus quality thing, silly.”
18. Latest news
Deolinda Teodoro was ploughing in the field below our veranda when mum beckoned her over.
Mum, to her, conspiratorially: “Listen, do you know who cut the pumpkin creeper over the orange tree last night? It’s shrivelling up.”
Deolinda Teodoro: “My God of Heaven, what are you saying? Don’t say that too loudly otherwise people may think it’s me and put me in jail. I who work the field right next door, I’ll be the prime suspect. Look what of all things had to befall me, Hail Mary full of grace!”
Mum: “Good health to the person who did it I say. It was blocking our view. What’s the latest with the couple in the house down the road? I believe there’s been fun.”
Deolinda Teodoro: “My God of this World, haven’t you heard? They fight like cats all the time. There’s talk of divorce, heavenly crosses! But fight like cats they do! You should hear them. I sometimes listen. (Sotto voce) There’s even talk of porada (beatings). You should see them, my God of All Things.”
Mum, to me as soon as their conversation ends: “I’m not nosey, but I needed to catch up with the latest developments around here. It pays to stay abreast of the latest developments at all times.”
19. The Categoría of Carlos
Mum, rambling on in a stream-of-consciousness to no one in particular while washing the dishes as I’m reading, each of us in our own world (we’re Freudian fodder): “You know, your primo (cousin) Carlos has much categoría (class). Of all your cousins, he’s the best. He has the bearing and character of an Englishman. He is an Englishman like the Englishmen of old, that is, those who used to visit Madeira in the old days, he is not like the Englishmen we nowadays see on TV beating up people outside soccer stadiums. Those Englishmen are rubbish, rubbish. Primo Carlos is like the Englishmen of old, nice and polite, with class, not like the new ones.”
Me: “You mean a gentleman, mother.”
Mum: “Yes, yes, I had forgotten the English term, a gentleman, he is a true gentleman. It’s the only way for a man to be. You yourself can learn a lot by observing primo Carlos. Carefully.”
Me: “Yes mother.”
20. Morning glory
Teresa Baptista, here on a visit from Funchal, was joking in a way that us village people dare not do.
Teresa Baptista: “It’s good for one to have lovers. As a psychologist, I can tell you it’s good for the psyche. The best lovers are married ones, they’re less maintenance and are less clingy. But we shouldn’t see our lovers at night when they’re exhausted. No, morning is best, when they’re fresh and eager for us. I had a married lover recently. I would arrive at his house just after his wife would be leaving. It would be her leaving, and my arriving. Perfect synchronicity. One has to be precise in these things.”
Me: “Indeed, one can’t be exact enough in life.”
Teresa Baptista: “Or clever enough. A guy I know got a car exactly like his lover in case he ever got followed, to confuse potential chasers.” Teresa was showing us glimpses of city morals, as practised in Funchal.
Me, loudly: “I endorse every word you say. One cannot take one’s mental health too seriously. Continue!”
21. Religious conversion, the quick way
Dad is mild-mannered in most things until he gets behind a wheel of a car. Then, like most Portuguese men, he undergoes a character change and drives insanely. Decades of religious preaching/attempted conversion/crude persuasion has failed to budge me from my entrenched agnosticism. But Dad’s driving lead me directly to prayer, palms clasped in white-knuckled supplication, lips murmuring for divine protection. “Whoa there Dad!”, we three kids would ask/beg from him after he’d race to a hairpin bend on a 600-metre cliff, only to furiously brake again, “please slow down, stop, we beg you!!!”
Dad: “What, at this speed? What are you talking about? This is not fast.” Another gut-wrenching acceleration.
We three children: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, please!” He’s always been a good driver, but now and then cuts it fine to the irritation of other drivers who are quick to road rage. “Velho caralho! (old cock)” a driver insults after he once again cuts a corner too sharply.
Dad: “What’s the hell’s he going on about?”
23. My gallant protectors
I longed for a walk along the levada grande in the mountains. The levadas are water canals integral to the water supply of the island. People come from all over the world to walk along them. Around a fire one evening I let slip my intentions of going walking alone in the mountains early the next morning.
Tia Maria-José (65) and Agostinha Correia (67) in unison and alternating with each other: “What? Are you going to walk in the mountains by yourself? Alone? Are you mad? Do you know that a wild pig can attack you at any time? What are you laughing at? It happens! Just you ask the guys at the house next to the brook. They hunt wild pigs in the mountains. One of them got attacked by a pig last month and nearly lost his hand. No, no, we can’t let you go alone. We’ll just have to go with you.”
So early the next morning the three of us set out for the mountains with walking staves in our hands, the two grannies and I, they walking ahead to shield me from any boar that might suddenly have the insolence to rush at me out of a thicket.
Along the levada we spot a lot of dead wood which draws Tia Maria-José to remark “Bless all this wood – when I was young, this wood wouldn’t have been lying around. We’d have to go high up into the mountains to get it during the Time of Misery. That was when the population was young and Boaventura was overpopulated before mass-emigration, unlike is the case today where one sees the odd young person.”
That evening I ask Dad when the Time of Misery ended. “Five years after I emigrated”, he says.
24. Literacy, sort of.
Mum: “People around here are illiterate. Many of them can’t perceive a letter the size of a donkey. Or they say they can read, but when you test them you find they can recognise individual letters, but they can’t join them into words, that’s their slight problem. Apart from that, they can read all right. Ha. In my day, in the time of Salazar, everyone was forced to go to school. You paid a heavy fine if you didn’t attend school for a day. (My microeconomics get working furiously: to serve as a proper deterrent, an effective fine would have to be set at a rate marginally higher than the proxy value of the child’s labour in the fields). The school authorities enforced the fines, so everyone went to school. After the 1974 revolution they relaxed the requirement for a few years, and guess what, people stopped going to school. So there’s a group of people around here that can’t read. That’s the problem with this country. Its machine is always broken. The new government has however instituted a programme of adult classes to get this generation to read.”
Me, later, to Dad: “Dad, how many people in Boaventura can’t read.”
Dad: “Of the over 50’s, I’d say around 40% can’t read. Overall, I’d say that 20% of the 1500 people in Boaventura cannot read.” The illiteracy rate was disputed by Primo José-Alexandre, but his figures weren’t much lower than dad’s.
25. Spaghetti, right up to scratch
We were eating a pasta soup and dad again told us of neighbour Manuel Aguiar’s time in the army. They once served a very thin soup in the army mess, with a few strands of pasta in it, not like the rich one we were busy eating. When Manuel Aguiar came back to his mother’s house to eat a more substantial pasta soup, he complained that the army’s pasta soup was so thin he had to shove seven spoonfuls into his mouth before swallowing in order that the little pasta in it “scratch his throat, scratch his gills”. At this point dad tilts his head, stares at the ceiling, swallows hard and scratches his throat pensively for a minute, then looks at us with big eyes, swallowing imaginary strands of pasta down his gullet. “Ha ha ha ha ha!” we all roar. “Ha ha ha ha ha!” we laugh ourselves silly. “Imagine all that pasta scratching Manuel Aguiar’s gullet! Ha-ha-ha!” We then collectively come up with various foods, spoonfuls of which would best scratch Manuel Aguiar’s throat. “A knotty curry! A thick chouriço (sausage)! Tripe and beans, that’s sure to scratch Aguiar’s grumpy throat! Ha ha ha!” I know, I know, but this is extremely fine Madeiran humour, to be retold to your children’s children, the stuff of folklore. Its theme of inverted gluttony in a land of little strikes all the right chords.
26. Shared bounty
Poor as they are, there’s a strong sense of communal life in Boaventura, and people live with due consideration of their family and neighbours. During the course of a day a meio-grogue of aguardente (tot of brandy) was forced at me at 07H30 in the morning by my uncle; Orlinda Viera brought us a green pumpkin from her garden, Agostinha Correia brought us a plate of Herbemont grapes and Tia Maria-José brought us some fresh green beans she had just picked. Someone, I think it was Babiana Vicente, brought us corn on the cob straight from her fields. Luckily mom had made a huge number of malasadas (a type of doughnut) that morning, so we had something to give in return. Not that anyone expects to get anything in return, no, not at all. But. These little country rituals of give-and-take are more about entrenching social cohesion than material exchange, and are therefore vital to the lifeblood of the village. One therefore has an obligation of exchange some time later. What is far more obligatory to return than material presents are favours. You’ll often hear someone say that he doesn’t owe so-and-so anything, excepting for favours that he has to return. “If I could pay him the favours I owe him, I’d owe him nothing!” you might hear someone saying of someone with whom he might have quarrelled.
27. The customer isn’t king!
On a walk around the houses on the hill I suddenly hear the unmistakable death cries of a pig being slaughtered ringing out across the valley. The cries came from the guys next to the bridge at the brook, who specialise in catching wild black pigs in the mountains and then feeding them on vegetables for a few months to get rid of the ‘savage taste’. The pork is excellent, much better than the domesticated white pigs brought up in sties. I walk quickly to their terrace, at first hearing the pig’s desperate high-pitched squeals, then gradually lower-pitched grunts as its blood pressure drops from the knife wound to its heart. As I approach, the stench of singed rind wafts all around as they blow-torch the hair off its skin.
Me (to the three men involved in the slaughter standing around the dead pig on the ground): “Hello. Nice pig. Do you sell pork or is this for your personal consumption?”
They: “We could sell you some. But we sell the pig in quarters.”
Me: “Oh. That’s far too much. I was thinking more along the lines of a ham.”
They: “Hmmm. We don’t really do that. But OK let’s see what we can do, I suppose we can sell you the hind leg or something. Who are you?”
Me: “I am the son of José da Luz”.
They: “We know exactly where he lives. We’ll drop it off in the afternoon.”
When I came back from a walk in the late afternoon, there was a quarter of a pig on the kitchen table, promptly delivered, and not the smaller ham I was hoping for. I could take it or leave it. There was no point in leaving it as I’d have to deal with them sometime in future again… and they have the goods. It’s like this; the seller, not the buyer, is king, as it has been for centuries, for supply is short and demand is high. Transportation costs between villages have historically been expensive, so that producers of specialist products are little insular monopolies, with the mild contempt for buyers that goes with it. The French understand it perfectly, and you’ll understand the French mentality when you grasp this point. The French have a monopolistic small producer mind-set. Have you ever been slighted by a French salesperson? I have. Whenever that happens, I calm down by saying it makes a refreshing change from the fawning American service industry.
28. Photo shoot
I spot the most beautiful woman I’d seen anywhere in ages in Boaventura. I thought she would not have been out of place on the cover of a glossy magazine. Elegant, beautiful, striking, svelte, high cheekbones, perfect structure, with a beauty spot at the right place on her cheek, in fact all ingredients perfectly poised. She is Mr Elias’ daughter from the café off the church square, all of seventeen I’d say. She is drawing coffee from the espresso machine and was serving it to customers at the counter. I have my camera on me and decided to snap. A camera is a very intrusive thing, and wherever in the world I go, people intensely resist having their photograph taken, excepting for Americans. Some resist so fiercely you’d think a camera were a rifle. I’m sensitive to this and always ask before snapping, a courtesy that has cost me some fascinating shots. Today I decide to ask for forgiveness instead; she’s simply too striking. So I aim at her but, too late, she spots me and subtly twists her body, deliberately spoiling the shot. I try again later but she’s now self-aware, and tilts her face away. Another aim at her, she foils me again. What a tart little spoiler. I’d have to resort to asking after all.
Me: “Ah, Menina, would you be so kind as to err… (clearing throat) allow me to take a photo of you, just here, err… (gawping and dawdling)… drawing coffee, if it’s not to much trouble Menina. I must say I find you, if I may say so, most intensely charming.”
She, in high defiance, half-turning and walking away: “You want a photo of someone drawing coffee? You do? Then there, take a photo of my father. He’s at the coffee machine now.” And with that she pivots around and makes off to the back. You dirty old man, she’s obviously thinking. Her father is right there and has overheard the conversation, so there was nothing to do but point the camera stupidly in his direction and give him a wide grin. Mr Elias, who unlike his daughter, is rather unprepossessing, has the sense to say: “A photo of me? No thanks”.
29. Land Sub-text
Dad, let’s buy this piece of land.”
“We’ve already got enough land here. Why should we buy it?”
“So that the two pieces we own get contiguity. This piece will consolidate everything around our house into one plot.”
“But it’s already so much, it’s over-enough for us, we’ll never be able to eat what it produces.”
“Really? What about a garden then?”
Then I hear from my sister that the existing land requires a lot of work and that daddy isn’t up to working it any longer. He worries that he won’t be able to manage it. I should not burden him with custody of more land. So I tell my father not to work my land, it is not expected of him at his age, that he should plant fruit-trees on it instead but do you think he listens? I watched as he planted a patch of onions. “For the Winter”, he said, toiling away hoe in hand.
30. Honest Butcher
Senhor Isidro came by to drop a quarter carcass of “wild” boar we had ordered from him. He had caught the black boar in the mountains, penned it in, fed it on pumpkins and chouchous and sweet potatoes for a month to remove the gosto bravio (wild taste) and had slaughtered it that morning. He had carried the carcass on his back to the lower kitchen of the house. I was there to meet him.
“Senhor Alexandre, is your father at home?”
“No, he is not, but I can give you a hand if you want.”
“Good. I’ve got my tools. We need to chop up the thing. If we put it on this table – yes it’s sturdy enough – we can start chopping right away. Here, can you please hold this leg for me, like this, at this angle so I can give it a chop along here. Until when are you in Madeira?” A deft chop from an axe splits the joint into two.
“Until next Friday Senhor Isidro.”
Chop, slice, cut, chop. We continue talking without looking at each other, intently focussed on our task.
“I was also in the ultramar (overseas) for a few years but I was clueless and didn’t use my brains so I landed up back here. Please hold that hind quarter for me like this.” Chop, cleave, chop. How fragile is flesh. “You know how it is when one is young. Reckless. Senseless.”
“Youth is wasted on the young”, I say, quoting Oscar Wilde. Chop, cut. Would he have a glass of wine? Indeed he would. This is downed in one gulp, Madeira-style.
“Now look here Senhor Alexandre” he says, lifting the cheek off the teeth of the animal. “Do you see this tooth here? This is a type of tusk, one that the domestic pig doesn’t have. People who will fool you by selling you pork for boar. The way to check is to check the cheek, for this tooth, a type of tusk actually. Always insist on looking at the teeth when you buy boar. I treated this boar well and kept it fit – look – there is hardly any lard on it at all – this is quality meat! A lot of people will sell you lard for meat – you don’t want that. Be careful with whom you deal! Now look at this meat, look. Pure class!” Chop, chop.
“Senhor Isidro I can see your meat is good.”
“Yes and you’ve been a good customer. I’m bringing around the kid (goat) you ordered at around lunchtime tomorrow. The most tender meat you’ll ever taste. 12 kg of joy. While I’m about it I’ll also bring you a rabbit as a present as I’m slaughtering a few tomorrow. For you.”
“Why thank you very much Senhor Isidro.”
I offer him another glass of wine and he downs it. In one gulp, Madeira-style, as you know.
[Price of whole carcass wild boar in Boaventura Oct 2011 – 5Euros/kg. Price of whole carcass kid – 10 Euros/kg. Price of sulphurous, bitter house wine – 1,25 Euros/litre]
Some announcers on the Portuguese TV channel RTP (Radio-Televisão Portuguesa) irritate the gall out of me. They beam to the nation in superior Portuguese and with it beam out their inflated self-importance. The idiot box is a constant presence in Dad’s house at night. It’s a force against which I’m powerless. I hate TV but given the volume thrust out and a lack of escape I’m irritatingly involved with it here. What especially galls is the RTP station-promoting sound bite that is beamed out a few times a night. There it is again, a forceful, imposing, overconfident male voice that reminds you of the worst of Portuguese machismo and its opinionated self-importance in the world. You’d think Portugal were America and that it had won the Cold War and had put a man on the moon. The voice informs you that you are tuned in to rrrrrRRRR-TTTTTT-PPPPP!!! in an ascending roll that brings out the yellowest bile from your guts. You’re excused to soil yourself. As for the quiz-master on the Portuguese version of The Weakest Link, dear friends, you don’t know cutting arrogance, you don’t. Yes I know quiz-master arrogance is the programme’s worldwide formula but this is too much. You daren’t forget that the second official language of Portugal is Mirandese else he’ll slash you with sarcasm. He is also young, good-looking, dapper, and worse, knows it. Over-accentuates the sneer. Dresses far too smoothly, making the ensemble insufferable.
A brick, a brick, my kingdom for a brick! To shove through the TV screen.
32. Fishmonger Cheat.
Stopping his van alongside us on the road as we pass him, the itinerant fishmonger beckons us over. “The freshest fish, come look, it costs nothing!” We hesitate and then look. The fish is indeed fresh, and he has variety. I enquire as to a fish or two and his helper hauls out a balance on which to weigh them. The balance gets perched precariously on some plank. It drops off at an angle. I immediately foresee problems. No bureau of standards in the world would pass this one. The fish get weighed and the prices are ridiculous. Slick operators, these. I remonstrate. “Well if you don’t buy, then you don’t eat, he says. “So then I don’t eat”, I say. We walk away and he screeches off.
On the way home I pass Tio José’s house and tell him. “That guy?” Tio sneers, “he is a cheat, a trafulha! Never buy from him. I swore at him the other day. I reckon that scale of his inflates the weight of the fish by at least half again!”
“My exact thoughts.”
“If you have to buy, buy from the other fishmonger we all trust around here, or even better, buy at the fish market in town.”
33. Property transacting, Madeira-style
I bought a crumbling cottage in Madeira two years ago but must buy a piece of land with two crumbling rooms on it that abuts directly onto my cottage before I start renovating. Without that land my property has no privacy. The problem is the piece of land belongs to three inheritors, one who lives in Venezuela, one in Funchal and one in Boaventura. The two who live in Madeira are not on speaking terms. This is a typical Madeiran trait. An incident happens and people stop talking to each other for years thereafter. The type of cultural sulk is called se-amoar (sulk). Tia Celeste says that that is the problem of Madeira, especially in the country: People spend their lives sulking and being envious. They bear grudges for decades. No-one dare apologise for risk of losing face. And so the whole of the village subsists in an impossibly intricate web of injuries and counter injuries that have long histories. Now and then one hears of so-and-so resuming contact with so-and-so. The unburdening is cause for celebration but it happens far too infrequently.
One day Dad points out one of the inheritors to me, who happens to be passing by. “Oh, Senhor André, I call out, what about the land, my father has spoken to you about it, have you made a decision.” I know they’re holding out for a huge offer from me. It’s true that the land is worth more to me than to another person, but what they’re expecting is crazy. 75000 euros for barely 150 square metres is what they expect, I hear. The villagers keep on telling the heirs that they have a pot of gold there, that José da Luz’s son is going to pay a fortune for it. They’ve got a think coming.
Senhor André at first ignores us, then turns around, then tells us that he is not really interested in selling… Then in the same breath says that his sons are in France and are not really interested in coming back and they don’t want the land, so what must he do with it? Then he tells us that it’s not up to him but up to the heir in Venezuela to sell, and so on in an incoherent babble. I tell him I’m in the village until Friday. He says he will try to get his wife to talk to the heir in Venezuela with whom the main decision rests.
Friday comes and goes and nothing happens. Neither do I chase up on anything. Time must pass. Patience. The heir from Venezuela is coming to Madeira sometime in December I hear. I’ll wait until then… and perhaps longer. Much longer, I feel.
34. Rotten View
I come across Senhor Martins on the path. Senhor Martins used to live in South Africa but has come back to retire in Madeira.
Senhor Martins(72): “So, are the pretos (blacks) still killing padeses (Afrikaners) and people in South Africa? Hmmm. The pretos killed many people in the thirty years I was there. Baptista for example, after he had the courtesy of opening his safe for them with a gun to his head and giving them all the money. And many others. I had a shop in Johannesburg – what do they call it today – Rauten? Rawten? Rotten?”
Senhor Martins: “Yes, Rot-ten.” (The Portuguese cannot pronounce the guttural g which features in Spanish and Afrikaans). “People were being robbed and killed all around me. Lapa’s son and Narcisso’s brother were also killed, but they had turned bad and it was actually the police that shot them. What the heck are you still doing there? Flee! Get out! And I heard it was desperately expensive to go to the FIFA Mundial (World Cup). German television ran this story that their tourists had to employ two bodyguards each or something to ensure safety. That must’ve pushed up touring costs! Apparently Japan or some country played in bullet-proof vests. Sensible people, the Japanese. How long is you stay this time around? Swing by my house whenever you like.”
Me: “If I have the time, Senhor Martins.”
35. Soccer sickness.
Every man in the village is into soccer, and everyone watches it on TV. It’s the worst encroachment of civilization onto village life. And that’s all men seem to talk about at times; both on- and off-field aspects of the game. Like how top soccer players have to sexually abstain days before an important match for our salvation, or something like that. My heart pumps custard for them. It’s certainly all Portuguese sport-TV seems to bother with from day to day. I’m a cricket, rugby and squash fan, and I fully plan to flee to a cuboid universe incompatible with spheres during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. There, look, RTP1 sports now crosses to some remote corner of Portugal where a soccer reporter is giving an in-depth run-down of some promotion-relegation game from League L to league K. Would someone please bash in his silly smug face! I’m sick of it! They’d reported for hours that glamour side Benfica had lost 2-0 to Sporting Braga, and that the Spanish “galacticos” Real Madrid had lost 4-0 to some third division side, how shameful, the whole of Madrid was in mourning, as attested by four million madrileños they interviewed. Now that coverage of those games had been saturated to puking point, they’ve got nothing to report on, so they turn to this lowly game… Who gives a fig? In one of my sweeter dreams, a shi_t filled soccer ball repeatedly explodes on the pitch during a game, covering players, officials, coaches, spectators, in fact, the whole stadium – in layer upon layer of stinking shi_t. It’s the closest I’ve come to a wet dream.