(Wo)man or mouse?

This year’s annual summer jaunt to the motherland included a few happy days spent with old friends in a beautiful part of the country. In this small city, there are more Tudor beams than you can shake a stick at and the high street was proudly displaying voluminous hanging baskets. What more can you ask for from ye olde worlde England?

Equally, dining out there one evening was the complete opposite of any experience I’d had in Lisbon in recent living memory. Our waitress, a bubbly young thing, seemingly untouched by boredom, impatience or cynicism, greeted each of our requests rhapsodically: garlic bread – “amazing!” A burger with cheese and lettuce, but no tomato – “amaaaaazing!”. Solicitation of a roast chicken, plucked by a maiden at midnight while Jupiter was aligned with Saturn and roasted in twice-filtered truffle oil: “AMAZING!”. OK, I made that last bit up, but nothing was too mundane or complicated for her to countenance. Later, dessert and coffee orders were taken and when my friend simply stated that she wanted nothing, this too was “AMAAAZING!”. By this point I think we’d all lost the will to live, owing to the fact that this dinner was clearly going to be the high point of our lives and no other event would ever eclipse it…..

What especially tickled me about this encounter, was how starkly it compared to similar exchanges at home in Lisbon. I’ve been mocked for using the polite form (which literally translates as “I wanted”) when ordering a coffee; “Did you want a coffee yesterday or today?” – oh how I laughed politely – again. But the Englishwoman in me can’t bear to demand anything using the imperative. My inability to roll my Rs when ordering a “bolo de arroz” once was at first greeted with an irritated “o que?” (WHAT?), and then ridiculed. And even recently, while placing an order for minced lamb (a slightly off-piste request in Lisbon, admittedly), the truculent local butcher felt the need to explain that he’d need to cut the meat off the bone prior to mincing it, which foolishly I had assumed was obvious. Evidently, here, my ordering skills fall far short of being “amaaaazing”, and the young woman serving food in the Home Counties was blowing smoke up my proverbial.

In fairness, I have become aware that in response to frequent off-hand customer service (by British standards) in Lisbon, I have cultivated an equally brusque alter-ego. These days I am capable of efficiently commanding the attention of café staff in order to procure a coffee pronto, whereas in the past I would have languished, ignored and caffeine-deprived, interminably. I have launched into an angry tirade at the health centre, having waited an unreasonable amount of time, while others have pushed in front of me. Knowing how these situations often played out, I took my then-18 month old daughter with me to the equivalent of the immigration office when renewing my resident’s permit. I tactically withdrew both biscuits and dummy when I felt I’d been consigned to the bottom of the queue, concerned that someone had taken the view that being English, I would be unlikely to complain. I admit that the presence of my crotchety baby was a passive-aggressive preemptive strike – but it worked.

Obviously I still always mind my manners, but these days I’ve given up apologising for everything, including my mere existence, particularly when attempting to utilise a service. For me it’s been a Darwinian transformation: if you can’t beat them, join them and only the fittest survive. Shrinking violets rarely get what they want and the English rose that arrived here 14 years ago has since developed a few valuable, not to mention necessary, thorns. Living here has cultivated my inner grit and for that I will be forever grateful – so thank you Lisbon, you led me on a personal journey I never foresaw, which has been *searches for suitable adjective*…..amazing.

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