Freak or unique?

Some people believe that travel broadens the mind. I’m inclined to agree with this sentiment, although having immersed myself in a different culture for the last fourteen years, I’ve also been exposed to ideas that my British sensibilities find very hard to give credence to. I’ve also seen things I never imagined in my wildest dreams and to this day wish that some of them could be un-seen.

During my first year in Lisbon, I lived in a flat-share on one of the backstreets close to Avenida da Liberdade, one of the swankiest avenues in the city and home to many high-end stores. Two parallel lifestyles co-existed in close proximity: on the one hand there were Armani customers swarming the main avenue, and on the other, Lisboan versions of Nora Batty* hobbling down the narrow, cobbled streets behind it, replete with wrinkled tights or socks. Once, while waiting behind one of these women at the cash point, I noticed that she’d ingeniously accessorised this look with a slug that was clinging onto her mohair cardigan for dear life. I was both horrified and fascinated and either way completely unable to tear my attention away from the mollusc that had made the old dear’s winter garment its home. Given the inclement weather, at least the slug was keeping warm, I reasoned at the time.

This was not a lone incident of freakery either. My metro journey to school was populated by an equal ratio of average people going about their daily lives and an outlandish tribe who were attempting to procure money from fellow passengers in various ways. Most memorable was an accordion player who performed with a tiny chihuahua strapped to his body. The dog had beseeching eyes and a money box permanently clamped between its jaws and the pair would roam the carriages day and night. Their earnings surely couldn’t have amounted to much, but this didn’t seem to deter them.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, further horror awaited. During my second year, and by this point living a little further out of the city, I customarily caught the bus to my teaching job. Happy on this particular occasion to have found a seat, I became less than delighted when the older gentleman next to me proceeded to not only remove his denture, but then scrape at it with his fingernails. Trying not to identify what he might have eaten for lunch, based on the evidence in front of me was an effort in itself. Once again I was mesmerised by the scene unfolding before me. Thankfully it came to an end when he popped his teeth back into his mouth, just as unselfconsciously as he’d taken them out.

Similarly, several of my students over the early years have provided me with a captivating insight into the workings of the human mind. I have attempted to drum the Present Perfect into all manner of slightly unhinged intermediate students, ranging from depressives (likely depressing them further, as it’s a tricky tense to master) to insomniacs (probably adding to their woes, keeping them awake even later into the night, for the same reasons).

I will never forget the slightly hard-of-hearing and foul-tempered sextagenarian who constantly scowled at me throughout class. I later learnt that he had some shrapnel lodged in his ear dating back to his time in the military, which in hindsight accounts for both the scowl and the deafness.

Another student held the conviction that the lost city of Atlantis was right on our doorstep, hidden on the bed of the River Tagus. She was so convinced of her theory that she was writing a PhD thesis on it, but whether her ideas ever reached general academic acceptance, I have no idea.

One consistent complaint among both students and teachers was the temperature of the classrooms. Right up to my my final day of teaching at the language school, the air-conditioning was a hot topic. What always baffled me though was the received wisdom of my students that if the air was too cold, they’d catch a cold, seemingly bypassing modern medical breakthroughs which had categorically proven that the common cold is a virus. I understand that sub-zero temperatures can induce hypothermia, but temperatures in the classroom were never that extreme….

It followed therefore that I came to be familiar with a number of intriguing Portuguese old wives tales. The fact that, as far as I can ascertain, there is no translation for “old wives tale” means that most of the locals actually accept them as truth. Fruit and when you can eat it is a thing. The main culprits are cherries and oranges, which if eaten at the wrong time of day, will result in your instantaneous demise. Similarly, drinking a glass of too-cold water may make you feel a bit peculiar, or, worst-case scenario, also result in instant death. There are also very complicated rules about contact with water and eating, which could mean that your day at the beach would consist of spending the majority of your time there digesting your picnic, as opposed to frolicking in the waves (which is surely the point of the beach anyway?).

I spent a large proportion of the early years residing in Lisbon agog at all that was happening around me. I was by turns morbidly fascinated and amused. As the years have gone by, I began to see less and less that would startle me. Lisbon was becoming more polished as it played host to an ever-increasing international audience. However, one morning this summer, I met a new student at a pavement café and I was instantly transported back to the good old days, in which I had attracted extraordinary occurrences like a magnet. Engrossed in a discussion about learning objectives with my prospective client, a frail old woman, swathed from head to foot in black, approached us and went on to demand money. I explained that we were in the middle of a discussion and politely asked her to let us continue. The speed at which she transformed from one of life’s victims to demonic harridan was phenomenal, as was the vicious verbal assault she launched into. Shocking as this onslaught was**, I smiled inwardly: the quirkiness inherent in Lisbon survives to this day and as a result, and much to my relief, there’s never a dull moment.

*Female character in British sitcom “Last of the Summer Wine”, renowned for her ill-fitting hosiery.

**Hugely insulting, alluding to me being a woman of loose morals, her sentiments emphasised by a few choice profanities.

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