How To Be Portuguese

You can spot — or hear — them a block away. The confident swagger. The booming voice (and for women, the tone that reminds one of a lovelorn goose). The demands and needs. The impatience.

I occupy both worlds, flowing between being American and being Portuguese, as a salmon may slither between salt and fresh water. 

I was more American when I arrived here, I think. My voice cackled above the quiet murmur of restaurants. I rolled my eyes impatiently when a patron took too long at the cash register. I tapped my foot, anxious for someone to get to the damn point. 

Like many Americans, I would lead a dialogue with the transaction, the request. To the bus driver, “Does this bus go to Cais de Sodré?” To the person behind the counter, “Do you carry sunscreen?” To the hostess at a restaurant, “Can we have a table for three?”

During my first year here I was barked back from these abrupt opening salvos. The person would stop me mid-sentence. “Olá. Bom dia.” And I would catch myself. I had committed the worst of sins: being rude. I had not greeted the person, recognized them as a human. People first, transaction second.

Over time, I have softened. I make a point to greet the person, to start with a gentle set-up before I make my request or ask my question. I wait in line for my turn as the old lady ahead of me catches up about the attendant’s family. I know that when I am the counter, I will also enjoy the full attention of the person. 

Recently I had to go to the bank — never, ever a short visit — to attend to some issue. After my number finally came up, I sat across the banker, my documents neatly organized in a plastic folder.

I started.

“Hello. How are you?”

He had a tired, dull look in his eyes. I soldiered on. I introduced myself. Then I started with my situation.

While he was plugging in numbers on is computer, another customer leaned into his cubicle to ask something. He admonished the person to take a number and wait his turn.

Then he turned to me. “These people!” he scowled under his breath. “Just bursting in here. You, at least, had the decency to greet me, to introduce yourself. True politeness,” he smiled. By the end of the transaction, we were sharing our favorite foods from the Azores — he had detected my accent.

I know his name now, and I know I’ll receive excellent service the next time I have to go there.

Photo by Diego García on Unsplash

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