The flying pigs of Portugal
My first fight in school was with a girl named Joana de Sousa , the dispute was over a basket-ball court.
Basket-ball was the rage that year and the 2 half-courts in the playground were woefully insufficient to meet the needs of the hordes of enthusiasts .
The unwritten rule of the land was first come first serve , but the finer point of the rule was that the ball had to be placed squarely on the midpoint of the freethrow line to be counted .
That particular lunch time we were trying a new tactics : first we coerced the girl sitting nearest the door to change places with Kitty, our fastest runner, then rolled the ball to her across the classroom from under our seats . The moment the bell rang Kitty was out of the door, with me closely behind her .
Kitty ran well and we reached the freethrow line primeiramente .
As we stood panting and waited for the other girls who were buying sandwiches and drinks , a voice bellowed behind us, " Get out, we're here first ! " and our ball was kicked off the court . We swung round and there was Joana, looming over us, arms across her chest .
Kitty paled and shrank back, but I was too furious to care : that one kick had skewed my sacred juvenile notion of Fairplay out of spin .
" No you're not ! We're here first ! " I shouted back . We started shoving each other, intermixed with clawing and pulling of hair and garments. By this time the playground was jammed with on-lookers , and the commotion brought forth the nun on duty . She tore us apart and ordered us to share the court .
Sister Agnes kept me behind after school .
" Joana is a Portuguese from Macau and may have difficulty fitting into our school, " she said "couldn't you find it in your heart to be nicer to her ? "
I stared at her in disbelief . Grown-ups were either blind or extremely extremely stupid !
Sine her arrival in school 6 months ago Joana had become the leader of a band of girls distinguished by being wealthy, fluent in English, and not only talked and laughed louder than any other group of girls , but also somehow managed to bend the "skirt rule" of our very strict Italian Convent School by having their hemline 3 inches above the knee , with no impunity !
Nevertheless the words " Portugal " and " Macau " stuck with me, words synonymous with Foreign Smartness and Priviledges, and I longed to see those places for myself. But I was 13 and poor as a church mouse, and those places might as well be on the moon.
Now I'm grown-up and to the best of my knowledge achieved neither blindness nor stupidity, but I've seen both Macau and Portugal.
Mr Wong Tin, a world renowned scholar on historical Japanese- Portugal relationships and a Macau resident , told me that the Protuguese left a meagre 106 million dollars to the new administration when Macau was reverted back to China, in stark contrast with the 4,460 million that HK was left with . The reason was even in the face of nagative growth in the 4 years prior to the handover , a lot of money was spent on the conservation of the historical buildings in Macau , because the Portuguese Government deemed it more important to leave behind cultural heritage than bank notes. That just blew my mind !
The Study Tour of Medieval Portugal took us to Proto , Coimbra, Fatima, Lisbon , Evora , Ponta de Sagres , Lagos Sines and Palmela , and we diligently plowed through a long list of fortresses and castles . Grandiose and magnificient though they are, they are but relics of the past , while I'm a student of the living present .
Now that I've the time to reflect I'd have to say what I love most about Portugal are the trees , the people, and the way of life . In that order .
I adore trees and Portugal has plenty of them. It was a particular joy to see orange trees dotted everywhere : in the middle of the commercial districts , in people's yards and on side walks , instead of just in orchards . Oranges have been cultivated in China for several thousand years , and the sweet orange was brought from China to Europe during the 15th century by the Portuguese , thus it is also known as the "Chinese apple" in many parts of Europe .
Orange is the favourite fruit of many HK people but relatively few has ever seen the real tree. It would be inconceivable for profit minded HK to have a cash crop so carelessly strewed all over town seemingly with no plan for harvesting , and the fact that this ancient fruit tree can be as common a part of modern metropolis as the lamp post makes my heart smile .
Contrary to the mournful nostralgic sentiment depicted by the melancholy traditional music, Fado , I find the Portuguese people generally to be pragmatic, hospitable, and possess a set of excellent life values .
The first day in Proto I sneaked off to go to the Modern Arts Museum , and got waylaid at the entrance by 3 young guys who insisted that I had a free beer with them.
" Why ?" I asked.
" Because you're the most beautiful Japanese lady we've ever met " they said , which caused a momentary confusion as I'm neither beautiful nor Japanese. Then it dawned on me : the guys were drunk !
Well, a free beer's a free beer and I wasn't going to blow it by quibbling over false representations !
"Arigatoc ! " I said . It's too exhausting pretending to be beautiful, so I pretended to be Japanese . One out of two's not bad .
" Is it OK to drink beer on a Sunday morning before lunch ? " I asked uncertainly.
" Oh, in Portugal it's OK to drink beer any hour of any day ! " they proclaimed gallantly.
Mmmm........... I'm going to love this country .
It was the month of the European Cup and Portugal had won 2 matches in a row, I guess that's reason enough for a beer , if ever a reason is needed !
Portugal, though ostensibly a Catholic country, only 10% of the population are regular church goers nowadays, and most of them elderly people.
Fatima , the town which lives off the religious fervour of pilgrims, had a relatively dry spell of business during our visit. Fatima's claim to fame is the shrine called the Basilica, built to commemorate the events of 1917 when three peasant children were supposed to have seen the apparition , "Virgin Mary of the Rosary" .
Pilgrimage sites drew a strange crowd , and I was busy people-watching when a woman collapsed not 10 feet away from me . Pat spotted me before I could skulk off . " Doctor Kwok, come help, a woman's fainted ! " There's nothing for it but to run through the ABC's of examining the semi- conscious . I was explaining to the priest who turned up to find out the worst that the breathing, pulse and colour of the woman was good, when her hand suddenly shot up and grabbed my sunglasses in a tight grip . The next tense minute was spent prying open her sweaty fingers to retrieve my rather expensive Gucci sunglasses, and at that she sat block upright . On questioning I found that she was from Spain and visited Fatima a few times a year, at each visit she'd swoon when the emotion hit her . As I said, pilgrimage sites drew a strange crowd !
Portugal is rated one of the poorer of the EU countries but you'd never know it, the cities are clean and well kept , the roads good , and all the basic essentials appear to be readily available . One of our members sprained her ankle badly and the ambulance was on the spot in a jiffy, the service was good and professional, and all free !
The reality is what makes life sweet does not always come out of the wallet . Take family for instance . Alvaro our driver had been on the road for over a week and missed his children badly, so the wife packed up their 2 small children and drove 1/3 the length of the country to catch up with us at Fatima, just so he could spent one night with the kids . The next morning she loaded up the kids and drove the same way back with not a murmur .
Children are apparently highly treasured in Portugal , I visited a local hospital and was astonished to find a section in the Emergency Department designated the " Paediatric AED ", the interior of which was brightly painted , and stuffed with toys .
If Alvaro is typical of the Portuguese working class , then we in HK still has a lot to learn. He had excellent work ethics, was courteous, hardworking, cheerful and considerate , but what impressed me most was his respect for the rules . Union rule dictates drivers cannot act as guides and he was extremely careful that we shouldn't ask him questions when we were outside the bus .
In contrast , some members of our group behaved badly . Take a random example :
The visit at the Ponte de Sagres took a mite longer than anticipated .
I was hurrying back to the bus when I ran into Janet, one of our students .
" Come on ! We're going to be late ! " I said to her as I broke into a trot .
" Are there still a lot of people behind us ? " she asked
" I guess ," I said, " but if I'm late it's on me, if the others are late it's on them . Just because others are late doesn't make my being late OK ."
It's a common mentality among Chinese that as longer as there're others worse than them then it's OK for them to be bad . Why won't they ever compare with people who're better than them is a mystery to me .
But being late is not just a puntuality issue, it's a matter of fundamental lack of respect and consideration for others , it is putting oneself first with total disregard of how others might be affected .
It's the same sorry state at dinner. If the dinner's called for 7 o'clock , you can be sure people ( not just students, but some old folks who should know better ) would still be straggling in an hour later, then expect the waitress to serve them individually from the first course on . I makes me so cross that these people spare not even one thought for the poor waitress whom they've made to run so many more times carrying the very heavy trays of food, all because it suits them to do so .
There were complains against one restaurant because of slow service , it later turned out the manager was actually waiting for all the group members to arrive before starting dinner, so the fault was with the group ! In another restaurant the manager was called rude , admittedly he could have expressed himself better, but my contention still is respect has to be earned, and there wasn't a lot from our group that'd inspire respect in others .
Evora was a beautiful Medieval city but my mind was set on shopping . As always the first stop was the earring store.
" Antique !" The shopkeeper drew me to a counter .
"Wow !" I was impressed . " What year're they ?"
" 1986 ! " the shopkeeper said
" 1986's not antique !" I almost wailed . If 1986's antique then I'm fossil !
" 1986, antique ! " he was adamant .
I dared to hope : maybe the word "antique" means something different in Portuguese , like " young and hip " ?
" No ! Antique ! Old ! "
Heck , sometimes I wonder why'd I even bother !
I have a penchant for legends , and the rooster of Barcelos is a nice tale . The story goes like this :A travelling minstrel was wrongly accused of stealing and was sentanced to death . He was brought before the judge who was having a roasted rooster for dinner . The minstrel made a supplication to Virgin Mary then said ," If I'm innocent , the rooster will rise up from the plate and crow ." Thereupon the rooster rose up from the plate and crowed , and the minstrel was released . The Rooster of Barcelos is now a symbol of Portugal , standing for justice .
Before I went to Portugal I was told by friends who'd been there that the food was atrocious, I'm happy to report the rumour's not true . Portugal's a seafaring nation and sea food's abundant, the most important being cod, e.g. bacalhau , but for myself I prefer fresh fish and meat , so the dishes I like best are sardines and pork . Both the Chinese and Portuguese are pork eating people , in Portugal pork is said to be a culinary obsession .
In China pigs are despised , but in Portugal stone statues of pigs already existed from Paleolithic times, and the pig or boar is a symbol of fertility and abundance . Unexpectedly the pig also came to be the enduring image I have of Portugal .
We were travelling through a small town when I chanced to have a flitting glimpse of a stone statue , a long pole with a small pig perched on top, mouth open in a broad grin and small arms and legs spread wide , gleefully ready to take off. We whizzed through so fast and the town was so small I didn't even have time to ask Alvaro the name of the town . But it was such a happy happy statue I couldn't put the image out of my mind !
An old nursery rhyme came to mind :
When pigs fly / and pigs might fly.
When hell freezes over.
On a cold day in hell
Not in a month of Sundays.
Whatever else life has taught me so far it is that the seemingly impossible can and does happen , and if we work hard enough we could even make it to the cities on the moon .