Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hey There Stranger! Highlights From The Last 4 Months!

The American in Portugal has been busy and tied up with things in the past 4 months, but now that things are starting to smooth out again, she has ventured back to try again!

It's not that I haven't had anything to talk about, life goes on here as usual and thankfully every day gets better as my surroundings become more familiar and more at home for me. And that's what it's got to be for me since I am still "stuck" here for almost 2 years now and continue to wait for the residency approval that will allow me to leave the country without penalty to go back HOME to visit family and friends and FINALLY allow me to go tour some of these other lovely European countries around me!

Since it's been so long then, I thought I would give some little snippets of the most interesting things that have been going on for me here:

Evora and Some Interesting College Traditions:
I took my first visit to the town of Evora back in June for a graduation dinner of a friend of my boyfriend's. Evora is right smack in the middle of the country-like Alentejo and in June of course it's already SWELTERING HOTTTTT. I didn't stop sweating from the time I got out of the car there until nightfall. Fortunately though this beautiful old town's sights and monuments made it more bearable to walk around and explore and then dinner was thankfully in a well-air conditioned restaurant. The dinner was definitely the highlight of my visit, it was a full, 4 course traditional Alentejo meal complete with tons of appetizer plates to start off with which included pickled pigs ears mmmmm hahaha :p And of course there was plenty of good, STRONG Alentejo wine to go around, which can put you to bed quite quickly if you know what I mean ;) We were entertained during the meal by the college graduates themselves, who also happened to be in the school's tuna so there was lots of music and singing and chanting, with the most amazing musician and singer being a blind graduate! All college students have a traditional student's uniform (same as the Tuna uniform, see past article) that they dress in for important ceremonies like graduation and this particular Evora college went even further with some interesting looking "staffs" that students carry around that are hung with tons of little "congrats" ribbons given by friends and family. But the oddest tradition that this college has is the late-night ceremony after everyone has dined where they gather in the school's plaza where there is a wading pool set up in the middle and each graduate is ceremonially carried by his family and friends up to the pool and thrown in! Once all the graduates from each major had been dunked, they huddle together in a circle and do this primitive-like chanting and dance. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before! Glad that wasn't my school's tradition haha :D

Caramulo Vacation:

In July, my boyfriend and I took a 3 day trip up to the Caramulo mountains, about a 3hr drive north of Lisbon and an hour off the coast. We stayed at the only real hotel up on the mountain in the actual town of Caramulo, called Hotel do Caramulo which is a 4 star hotel and spa with the most SPECTACULAR VIEWS of from the mountain overlooking the valley. Knowing this, we reserved a suite which had a balcony overlooking the valley and I must say, I could have spent my whole time out there just enjoying the view :) There's not much in the town or surrounding towns but it's a great area just to drive around and admire the beautiful views and tiny picturesque villages. But if you drive a little further, you can check out the city if Viseu, which was nice. The crisp mountain air is also the best, the place actually used to be the center for pulmonary lung disease treatment so you know that's some good air. By far, it was the most relaxing vacation I've had :)

Clams in Alcochete:

We frequented the little town of Alcochete this past summer as it is right across the river from Lisbon (on the side where the Vasco Da Gama bridge is) and is known to most people as where the huge outlet mall is located. We decided to explore the actual town one day and liked the cuteness of its old part and nice views of the river which has made us return a couple more times.
But the best discovery in this town was a cafe we went to in one of their squares that had THE BEST clams you could get for your money. Yes, 12 euros is a bit expensive for a plate of clams but these were completely worth it at they were drenched in fresh garlic, butter, lemon and parsely, with fresh bread to mop it all up after! They were so good, we had to order another plate of them :p And now, we'll definitely have a reason to come back to Alcochete!

Day Trips to Nazaré and Tomar:
Sundays are usually our only complete FREE days here right now, so to quench our adventurous spirits, we've been picking a new place on the map to drive to for the day where we have lunch, walk around exploring the area and see what interesting things we can find! So far, we've been to the beautiful coastal town of Nazaré, about a 1.5hr drive north up the coast where they have the COOLEST funicular I have found that goes straight up the mountain there! And of course the view at the top is incredible :) We also went to Tomar, a 1.5hr drive northeast; it's a World Heritage site as it was the home of the Templar Knights.
The old part of the town is a bit small but just got up the hill to visit the Convento do Cristo and we easily spent 2 hours in there exploring this huge Templar monastery with some fascinating tilework and art.

We finally decided now was the time to organize a BBQ that we had all been saying we wanted to do. So last weekend, 10 of us gathered at Parque de Campismo Fort do Cavalo, just up the hill from the town of Sesimbra where we found a grill with built-in picnic tables to party on :) We grilled homemade burgers by me, some chicken, small, Portuguese sausage called linguiça, the fatty pork parts called entremeadas and febras as well as some fresh sardinhas brought from the docks down below mmmmmmmmm :)
At the end, I introduced all our Portuguese friends to the American campfire treat of s'mores! Yea, can you believe that most Portuguese have never tried or even heard of marshmallows, let alone s'mores?? So I demonstrated how to roast the marshmallows perfectly then put the s'more together and they loved it! I think everyone had at least 4-5 s'mores on their own :D It was a "once in a lifetime" opportunity for them, as you can't find marshmallows or graham crackers in any supermarket here! Thanks to my mother, I had had them shipped to me ahead of time :)

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Long Time, No See......New Posts?

Hello to all of my readers, my apologies for not having any new posts in the last month, I have been very busy taking care of some important issues that I have been waiting a long time for and keeping my fingers crossed that they will all turn out ok and be accomplished very soon!

I have also embarked on many a new social endeavors so I plan to post some of these interesting experiences within the last couple months on here as soon as I find more time to write more than this tiny snippet!

Please stop by and check around in the next month and I hope to grace you with some more entertainment then :) Thanks for reading!


Friday, 22 May 2009


That's Portuguese for Storks! And as much as we Americans hear about them in the very misleading tale of "How Babies Are Made" when we are children, I don't think any of us have actually ever seen one in person! That is, until I came to Portugal and was out driving through the southern regions of Ribatejo and Alentejo and spotted these giant nests on the huge power lines! I asked Miguel, "What dumb bird decided to build a nest on these??" And he replied "Those would be the Cegonhas Andrea, or you may know them as Storks." Wow....glad they really don't deliver babies if they like to live on power lines!! But he explained that the nests that I see around there now are actually made on non-electrical perches that the government decided to add on after they kept having the Storks dying while trying to make their nests on there. So apparently before that, they would find tons of barbecued Storks on the side of the road.....geezus those birds sound pretty retarded!

But of course they don't know any better, you see because storks like to make their nests on really high perches to protect their young from predators. They do find sometimes find other less dangerous places to nest but unfortunately the power lines are usually the highest they can find here. So the government also built some of their own high perch towers for them, along with adding them to the power lines so if they did still end up coming there, they would hopefully reduce the risk of them electrocuting themselves! Poor guys hahahaha, thankfully though you can enjoy seeing these magnificent looking birds safe in their nests now all throughout the area :)

Saturday, 9 May 2009

"Writings On The Wall"- Lisbon Graffiti In Style

When I first came to this country, I was surprised at how much graffiti there is around Lisbon and most cities. To most people who aren't affiliated with graffiti in some way, it usually is a symbol of a poor or rough neighborhood and shameful that they are vandalizing and defacing public or private property. But as I've passed by a lot of graffiti here many times and began to look at it more closely, there is a significant amount that is not bad at all and actually quite artistic. When you think about it, there are so many extremely old buildings and walls here that are brown and gray and disgusting with age that they really could benefit from some color!

Take this one long wall near my neighborhood in Lisbon, that starts right after Amoreiras Mall and winds up into Campolide; this wall is where it seems the "Style Wars" take place. Or at least that's what I've come to conclude from what I've observed over time. Every year the wall is painted over and various graffiti artists or groups come and take a large section of the wall which they do up an impressive work to "represent" their people. Each one is like a puzzle, trying to figure out the hidden message or symbol of their words and illustrations with what is going on in their world. Some seem to have references to world issues while others represent loved ones that were lost or something completely abstract in itself. As I strolled down the sidewalk along the wall checking out each section and taking photos of some of my faves, it was like walking through an art gallery....with the best part of it being free! Below are some of the most memorable from this year's wall, some are a bit silly while others are quite moving:

Cool Dragon

Not sure what these little guys represent but I found it funny that the railing hit just the right spot from where I was standing to take the photo to censor a certain part on one :p
Somehow I believe they meant "humor", which is common to find misspellings here when people try to write in English..... though I could be wrong since the face does resemble a bit of a known Simpsons character (but with 3 eyes?)

The Shell gasoline sign caught my eye in this one
I like the bright colors and the shininess of this one.

"Poison" This was the largest mural on the wall, an obvious memorial to a member of this team who died....

“Even far away, you continue to be present, you woke up who was sleeping, to see the future that was in front. You drank from your own name and raised it so high that you have become impossible to reach….”

“Down here we continue to wait, we scream really loud that I wish you could be here! But what is time after all? Small fragments of life, at any moment everything could end. You lived it well, to everyone you touched, your magic lasts, your voice won’t shut up!! Thank you Miguel”

Well done and well written guys.

Friday, 17 April 2009

The "Knife Piper"

Almost everyday here in my neighborhood, I am awakened to the sounds of a high pitch pipe flute outside my window. When I first heard this awhile back, I obviously had no idea what it was coming from and was quite perplexed laying in bed listening to this pipe flute. It was calling out a tune every 5 seconds of about three notes, one very long to begin with followed by two descending short ones. It would go on usually for about a half hour, stop for awhile, then continue on again for about another 10-20mins. all throughout late morning and early afternoon.

Well, I finally remembered to ask my boyfriend about it one day and he told me "oh, that's just the amola tesouras", Uhhhh, the what? "It's a guy who rides around on his bike to sharpen knives and scissors for people." Really?? That's sooo cool!!! So instead of the Pied Piper, he's like the Knife Piper eh? "Knife...what?" Oh nevermind, you Portuguese obviously don't know that story then :p

Ok, maybe it's not as exciting for many of you people but coming from a culinary background where regular sharpening is essential for proper use of your knives, I am totally fascinated by these guys. Yes, there is more than one, as I've come to observe when I was finally able to spot them walking down the street with their bikes calling out on their flute. And the tune is quite lovely I think, it may be high pitched but I don't mind it at all, it's so out of the ordinary, almost old-fashioned to me, I've come to enjoy hearing them come around :) This kind of service would obviously never be allowed in the US (god, can you imagine?? lol) so it just shows one of the many ways people are very trusting of each other here (though I'm sure they don't offer this service here in the projects thankfully :p)

It's a shame all of my good chef knives are still at home for obvious airplane security reasons but if I had them here with me, you bet I'd be one of their frequent customers (my sharpening skills were never that good!). I did happen to spot them one day at work from my balcony, sharpening some knives on a steel wheel they have hooked up to their bike which turns by the power of pedaling their wheels! I've concluded now why I never actually see them riding their bike, as it's used for a different purpose in this case, and a very clever idea I must say.

One of these days I'll get around to either attempting to bring my knives over here (with special permission of course) or purchasing an inexpensive but decent chef's knife and then finally, I'll be able to call upon the Knife Piper for his services!

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Fun Times Around Town and Country!

So it's been a little bit of time again but I have been out and about more (yay!) for various things so I've decided to recall some of the highlights from the past couple weeks :)

Another Crazy Tuna Night!
It had been awhile since we had gone to one of the tuna gatherings, mainly because of poor weather, but we finally got out late last month for a "Fado Night" hosted by the tuna's university-NOVA. There were actually no tuna performances, supposedly local fado groups, so the tuna went to their usual watering hole hangout- the restaurant across the street from the school, to drink and eat bifanas (pork cutlet sandwiches, typical ballpark food here). We met up with them there and joined in the beer drinking and "box" white wine shots? (first time for me, quite odd but tasty) and by the time we arrived at the NOVA's courtyard, they had already finished the fado and brought in a DJ which turned the whole place into a hoppin' open air club haha. And man, did that place get packed! We continued our beer drinking there while enjoying the music and the cool night breeze and then all I can remember is falling asleep on the way home and collapsing into bed....always the same ending after a night with the tunas :p

Reaching New Heights, with Great Views!
We've been exploring a lot of the cliff areas on the coast here, mainly around Guincho again, up on Serra da Sintra. During the past couple weeks, we found another little restaurant in Azoia with by far, some of the best food and service around! We decided to take Gabriella and Ryan Opaz, my Catavino bosses there while they were visiting Lisbon last week and we had an incredibly delicious lunch :D Afterwards, we took them to another cool place we found, just down the street actually; a Mexican-themed cafe/bar with a funky decorated interior and a beautiful outdoor garden seating area overlooking the ocean. Great place for afternoon coffee, cocktails and scones (yes! another scone place!) which we enjoyed outside in the crisp, mountain air. We also enjoyed an impromptu visit from a local stray dog, looking for love....or maybe food? hahaha :p

Then last weekend, we packed a picnic lunch and drove over to the southern shore to check out the cliffs near Sesimbra, which are a lot more remote than the other, with some pretty rough dirt roads to go up, but once we got to the top it was worth it! We parked near the edge and feasted on homemade pasta, salad and garlic bread with a bottle of wine that we spread out in the back seats of the car (was waaay to cold and windy to dine outside hehehe) while overlooking some spectacular ocean views :D

Cheap Beer Alert!
Last Friday night, I went out with the boys down to Santos, a great Bairro Alto alternative with tons of little bars/clubs to explore. We all had been around there plenty times before but this night, we just so happened to come across a little back alleyway with a couple bars and a jazz/rock club and right at the very end was a sign hanging out of a bar for 50 CENT BEERS! Ok, I'm by no means a beer-chugging hoodlum (but the boys are haha) but during the midst of an economic crisis, this is totally my kind of thing!!! And by beer, we mean draft beer, Portugal's Sagres, Superbock or Tagus straight from the tap into half-pint plastic cups, called "uma(1)Imperial" (plural: duas(2) Imperiais) here in Lisbon (in Porto it's "Fino"). So chilled out there in the alleyway, drinking our 50 cent beers while listening to the quite decent rock band inside the club playing covers from Pearl Jam and other 90's hits. By the way, the 50 cent beer "mini-bar" had an awesome DJ as well :)

Ok, so that's some of the cool stuff that's been happening here in my life lately and glad things are continuing to improve, promise to update this thing more often again, cheers!

Friday, 20 March 2009

A Little Piece of the Old Country

Ok, I'm a bit late in my weekly posting that I've come to get into the routine to (so much for daily postings hahaha :p) but my computer last week decided to go retarded on me in many ways so I spent a lot of time off line running anti-virus and anti-spyware and looking up tech support but I managed to fix it all (I think) by myself! Don't worry though, nothing too exciting has happened during this time since I've been so busy with that crap......but I did have one highlight :)

In the center park of my neighborhood here, there is always some sort of open market or antique sale going on over the weekends. But last week there had been stuff going on during the weekdays, a poetry book sale holding many works of the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa and also a little bake stand next to it which attracted my interest first of course ;P Not that you can't find plenty of fresh baked goods in the many pastelerias around here but this lady happened to be selling some regional selections from up north that you can find around here. She had two types of Queijadas de Sintra, several sweet breads that looked divine, homemade suspiros (merengues) some good sized bags of Broas and a couple other neat little things. But what made it surreal for me was the lady's mother whom she had brought with here, completely dressed like a little granny from the Old country, sooo cute! It reminded me of some old photos my family has of my great-grandmother out in the little Italian village where my family is from.

Now maybe this is nothing out of the ordinary for the nativos but I just loved this neat little blast from the past and I talked up the lady about her products and how her mother still helps in the fabrication of most of them (even though I watched her aimlessly wander around the park like she was in her own little world :p) and I told her I was American and wrote about Portuguese food and wine and we just had the loveliest little conversation that afternoon. And at the end she gave me a deal on a loaf of bacon chouriço bread (meat breads are hard to find!) and a discounted package of Queijadas, she even threw in a little peanut brittle-like bar for free! In return, I had them pose for a photo to remember the occasion, thanked them kindly and went home to enjoy all the goodies I got over the weekend :D

So, nothing too exciting like I said, but something indeed special to me :)

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Daily Nightmare on the Street.....

Lately, I spend a lot of my weekdays stuck in my apt sitting in front of my computer here with the work I do, so unfortunately I haven't been able to catch a lot of the interesting things that can happen out in the neighborhood. But of course, not day passes here without a chorus of horns honking below to bring me out to see what the racket's all about.

Something that is guaranteed to happen daily around here is a traffic jam, and man is it always noisy!!! I'm sorry to say this but after much observation, I have concluded that Lisbon has some of the worst selfish and careless drivers I've ever seen.....and I'm from the Washington DC area so that's pretty bad! But there are two major factors that seem to have turned so many drivers bad here: 1) There is NEVER enough parking anywhere or at any time, and 2) There is hardly ever any ENFORCEMENT of parking regulations. Put these two together then you have people parking their cars in any little space they can squeeze into, and that includes "ping-ponging" with the cars on either side if necessary! And it never ceases to amaze me where people leave their cars here, sidewalks and crosswalks are a norm (what? people actually use them to walk on?? :p), fields, medians, squares, stairwells.......everywhere!

The worst by far is when people get fed up trying to find a spot or are just too lazy so they double-park, which includes when people stack their cars out on a corner, which always blocks part of the passage through the street and these streets aren't big to begin with. The huge blindspot is also creates for other drivers trying to pass through the intersection has already caused two accidents within a 1 month period at the intersection below my apt, it's crazy. The rule here is that if you double-park, you're supposed to leave a paper with your cell or apt# to contact if you need them to move but of course people only do this maybe 50% of the time and many that do, aren't even around when you call! This leads then to many of my mornings being awakened by someone laying on their horn for 10-20mins at a time because they got double parked and are now late for work, ughhhh, you're not sure whether you want to kill them or the person that blocked their car in the first place! Then there are the delivery trucks that come around from late morning to late afternoon, who obviously have no space to stop and unload or pick-up stuff so they inevitably block traffic flow in the street, which causes another series of honkings and Portuguese drivers love to honk A LOT so you can imagine how annoying it can get VERY quickly. And if you're pedestrian, GOOD LUCK , because many times you're risking your own life trying to cross a street while manueuvering around parked cars and cannot even see if other cars are coming, I've had some close calls myself!

As I write this, I can already hear my noisy neighbors below, and I'm sure it won't be the last I'll hear today! I know back at home, we all despise the "parking nazis" who ticket for any and everything but after living here, I've come to appreciate what they do, because they actually end up preventing a lot of unecessary accidents and traffic jams which I'm sure has saved lives that are being lost in Lisbon. And of course, my ears wouldn't be ringing by the end of the day from all that %#*(#$)*#$ noise!!! So next time, you get some measly little ticket for parking enforcement, just remember, it could be a hell of a lot worse! The honking here has stopped finally, so time to get back to work before something else happens and the chorus begins again.....yay.

This is the second accident I witnessed from my balcony in late afternoon where two cars hit each other coming in opposite directions. Notice right up the street from them, some idiot decides to stop right in the middle and took 10mins to drop off his kids and meanwhile traffic is building up behind him and people had already started honking of course. I also see another car double parked ahead of that guy. And this isn't even that bad for parking on my street, it's normally a lot worse!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Interesting Little Cultural Differences

It is probably assumed that the Portuguese culture is quite different from American culture; being a European culture in general, things go at a much more relaxing pace than the fast-food pace of the American world of course. Like most Americans, I grew up with the impatient tendency of wanting things done now, right away or even yesterday haha, so naturally, I had to adjust a bit when coming here, knowing that I would have to wait a bit for things. However, I don't think any American could ever be prepared enough to realize just how much WAITING you have to do here! And I mean for everything and everyone, but since I have slowly become adjusted to these slower things, waiting is not always bad.

"I have to PAY to piss here?!"
A perfect example is going out for a meal, which what would normally be 30mins-1hr for lunch and 1.5-2hrs for dinner in the US converts to 2hrs for lunch and 3-3.5hrs for dinner here. I normally enjoy these much more leisurely meal periods to begin with, being able to savor my food and wine as well as digest it properly by sitting longer. Though there are also times when meals exceed my patience limit, for example when the server is always nowhere to be seen when you are ready to ask for the check (keep in mind they will never drop the check at a table here, you must always ask for it) or when the company I am with have been sitting and chatting so long after even the drinks are gone and the check paid that I'm thirsty again and my butt is so sore I could scream, but maybe that's just me haha.

But enough about the waiting, there are other cultural differences that are actually quite nice to have and make us Americans seem quite rude! For instance, whenever you enter a building, shop, bus, even an elevator, you greet the people there with either Bom Dia (Good Morning), Boa Tarde (Good Afternoon) or Boa Noite (Good Evening/Night) and you do the same when you leave. This can also apply when just passing people in the street or going through a door at the same time. In many situations, an added Hello and Goodbye are used with the greeting. Now I must say, it has been a rare occasion for me in the US to get on an elevator and have everyone greet me and say farewell when they got off, and if you do something like that there, many times Americans will kind of look at you weird and think you want something from them, how sad is that?! Though I admit, I did feel a bit the same way when I first encountered that here and hadn't realized it was custom, and I also thought at first to be quite annoying to say hello and goodbye to strangers all the time. But now I've come to appreciate such politeness and many times it comes off more friendly than just polite and makes me feel a lot more welcome :)

But to add to this, one thing I still find odd and unnatural here is the custom of saying Com Licença ("Excuse me") when hanging up the phone after talking to a business or after when someone comes to my apartment door, be it my neighbor, servicemen or solicitors. It still makes me want to say "Excuse you for what?" like if they had just bumped into me or something, but what they mean out of politeness is that they are excusing themselves to leave/hang up. Americans only seem to do this when getting up from a table with a group of people to excuse themselves to go to the bathroom or take a call, etc, but it is meant because we are interrupting something. I guess I never thought I was interrupting someone hanging up the phone at the end of a conversation or going back inside my apt, and I will probably always find it strange but hey, it's never bad to be polite! hahaha.

So even though another country's cultural customs can be new and "foreign" and hard to adjust to at times, there are always good things that should be embraced. They have made me realize how much of a "typical American" I could really be, and glad to have my opened my mind just a bit more ;)

Monday, 23 February 2009

An Amazing Find With Truly A Bela Vista!

This past weekend, I found a restaurant/cafe with THE BEST VIEW around. Ok I admit, I didn't find it by chance, I was actually recommended to this place by one of my BES students who lives near the area (my students seriously rock with useful tips :D) and the area with no surprise to me is Guincho, my favorite beach area that I just recently raved about on here. And one of the reasons I gave for liking this place so much is that it's the best to watch the sunset here. What I didn't know though, was that the absolutely most perfect spot to watch it I had not yet discovered, until now!

I was instructed to turn onto a small road right across from the last old fort on the coast just after passing Cascais and right before you round the tip towards Guincho. I can't believe I never noticed this road before, but it's quite inconspicuous due to all of the surrounding roads being private for the rich mansion communities there. Driving a bit up a hill with nothing around, you finally reach a dead end where the prettiest little restaurant/cafe sits at the top of the hill. This is Restaurant Casa de Chá de Oitavos, a fine dining restaurant on the inside and acting as a tea house on their outside deck in between meal periods. After climbing the steps onto their deck, we immediately saw why this place was such a gem, we had a panoramic view of the ocean with the sun beginning to slowly set, niiiiiice :) As soon as we sat down, a waiter came came over to take our order for our espressos and recommended their scones for something to eat with them. Impressed with such prompt service, we were surprised when our order seemed to take longer than usual. But we then we found out why, we were presented with a basket of 3 fresh, WARM scones, along with a plate of assorted marmalades and butter. And the scones were DELISH, smothered in melted butter and peach marmalade, we were in heaven! I never knew Portugal could make such nice scones, it was like being at a hotel for afternoon tea! Except we had gotten coffee (still good) so next time we'll get their tea as it is a tea house hehe. And with such an incredible view with an incredible sunset in front of us, I couldn't have asked for more :) I am now completely in love with this place and I promise anyone who visits me will get this treat as well. I repeat, so in love, wouldn't you be too? :p

Portuguese Suspiro-For The First Time!

I have become a die-hard fanatic here of having a daily espresso, either in the morning after classes or late afternoon as a break from my database work. Since my sensitive stomach won't allow me to have coffee on an empty tank, I always get something to eat with my espresso. I always order one of two things then- a savory meat turnover (Folhado de Carne) in the mornings as brain fuel for the day and in the afternoons, an egg-custard pastry (Pastel de Nata).

But one afternoon last week, I finally decided to try something different for my sweet pastry. I went to one of my fave pastelerias situated on a busy corner by the park here where this time instead of sitting right down, I went up to the glass bar counter to browse their delectable assortment for something new. My eyes were drawn to the fluffy pink clouds of Suspiro (merengues), which I have tasted various types before back home but never had the ones they make in Portugal, which are quite popular actually. I told Julio-César, the Brazilian waiter who knows me, to bring one of the pink suspiros with my cafe then. The pink colored strawberry suspiro ended up being soooo good, crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside like a typical merengue with a maraschino cherry in the center to my delight. But this suspiro was definitely not on the lighter side for a dessert, it was quite rich with almost a cotton-candy flavor mixed into it as well and because it was so large, it was the first time I had to get something wrapped up to take home with me! It was just as enjoyable the next day too, but I think next time, I'll get it to share with Miguel :) Glad I decided to alter my addictive routine for once hahaha, and maybe I'll start doing it more often! Mmmmm, suspiro :p

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

TUNAS! And I don't mean fish!

As a former HS band geek from back home, I felt that I had to present Portugal's equivalent to our marching bands. These musical groups are called Tunas, found mainly at universities all over Portugal as well as in Spain (where they first started) and all of Latin America. Their origins seem to date back to between the 10th and 13th century, from medieval troubadours and minstrels who had to sing and perform to make money to live on or upon their return home after a long journey or vacation. The name name "tuna" then supposedly comes from the French roi de Thunes or "King of Tunis" which was the title used for leaders of such vagabond groups. But there are still several other argued theories as to the origin of the name, even specific to the Portuguese tunas. The first Portuguese tunas were organized in the 19th century in the famous university city of Coimbra after a visit from a Spanish tuna of Salamanca. The tradition of traveling university tunas (to raise money for survival) eventually spread to the rest of the country. Virtually every university now has an organized tuna, usually representing a specific major. There are non-university tunas for older members or alumni but they are a lot less common (more predominant in Spain).

The traditional Tuna "uniform" is definitely more formal than a marching band uniform but can range from very classic medieval attire to a more modern black suit from the 16 and 17th century Iberian students attire. Portuguese tunas mainly use the modern version with a white collared shirt, skinny black tie and long, narrow coat. Instead of pants, girls wear either knee or ankle-length narrow black skirts with black stockings and conservative black pumps. The outfit is always completed with a large, ankle-length black cape wrapped around the entire body like a vampire or folded and slung over the shoulder when warmer out. Others like to proudly display their badges from previous Tuna festivals all over their capes for some added color to their black ensemble.

In Tunas, you won't see any of the musical instruments played in a normal marching band, string instruments are actually the main ones used, consisting of classic acoustic guitars, lutes and bandurrias for most Tunas around the world. However, Portuguese Tunas normally opt to use mandolins and a special Portuguese guitar (used in Fado music) instead of the latter two as well a tall bass. Tuna performances are usually done in an auditorium of the hosting university for the Tuna festivals or competitions scheduled all throughout the year or outside on the streets when raising money for the group. There is no marching involved but the groups will mark time together swaying back and forth to the music in a semi-circle with a someone usually banging on a rope drum or tambourine to keep everyone together. All tunas sing in their performances as well as incorporating flag work and rhythmic tambourine dancing, which makes is easier for students to join with no musical instrument experience.

My boyfriend Miguel happened to be one of these students and did the flag work for his Economics Tuna, called "ForTuna" which was the first Tuna I was introduced to on the first day of my first visit to Portugal 2 1/2 years ago and have been following and learning about them (Tunas)ever since. Now I know what you band geeks are thinking when you read about a "straight" male doing flag work or color guard hahahahaha and trust me, I gave him enough crap for it in the beginning :p But I came to learn that it's not really like color guard at all here, most Tunas only have one flag person (for holding their Tuna flag) and it's normally a male position and they can do some pretty challenging moves performing solo in front of the circle. Girls usually opt to practice the rhythmic tambourine dancing instead along with guys as well and these dances can be quite skillful and impressive to watch! The music Tunas play in general ranges from upbeat classic and modern songs to slow and moving Fado lullabies with vocalist and instrumental solos.

One of the most entertaining part of Tunas is the social celebrating involved before and after festivals and throughout the year and at Tuna dinners hosted at some (unfortunate haha) local restaurant. Though unlike regulated marching bands, drinking is a big part of the Portuguese Tuna culture hahahaha, combined with lots of wild singing and chanting toasts. But it's all in good fun and very rarely are there any problems caused by their celebrating. Beer is the Tuna drinking staple which flows like water at festivals and dinners. Some Tunas are found already half drunk (or worse) by the time they get on stage to perform. This may not make for a very skillful performance but it's certainly an entertaining one! Some "rules" are involved with drinking during Tuna dinners such as "Right Hand is Penalty" meaning one can only hold their drink in the left hand and if caught in the right, they have to chug the whole thing. Members will also be randomly singled out and are chanted on by the group to chug their drink with a traditional "initiation" song for being a part of the group. The drinking continues then after dinner and after the festival is over to celebrate awards and normally goes ALL NIGHT, the stamina that these kids have is incredible hahaha :p

After attending many dinners and festivals of my boyfriend's Tuna over the past year, I've grown to love and appreciate the unique differences these musical groups have compared to my background in marching band. At the same time though, I can also relate in their excitement and anticipation when waiting to perform or waiting to see if they won an award, especially since their Tuna is a smaller one like how my HS band was so I've come to share in their common experiences of triumph as well as loss and/or frustration when judging was believed to be unfair. I recommend to every American, especially you band geeks, to find a Tuna performance to watch if you visit Portugal, as an experience so significant to Portugal's culture is something not to be missed!

You can find a lot more detailed info about the history and traditions of Tunas on Wikipedia or in Portuguese on Wikipedia: