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By Inge Perreault  e-mail Inge at ladyauthor@sapo.pt

12/27/2006

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 Azores-Journal 02

IT’S A NEW YEAR IN THE AZORES BUT LITTLE CHANGES……………

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Writing the beginning of the journal on an ancient mill-stone.

Well, the Ano Novo celebrations were as low-key as the Christmas festivities compared to US standards. Yes, there were some fireworks to be seen but mostly it was celebrated in the home with heavy emphasis on family, otherwise no big deal. Little seems to change and the Christmas lights strung across every street in towns and villages promptly came down after the Feast of the Epiphany.
Life has returned to normal quickly. The weather, though off-season, is delightful and I spent the afternoon sitting outside in the garden under the blossoming Camellia bush taking notes for this journal.
After just two short months I have gotten used to waiting my turn patiently at the post office, bank or any other governmental institution.
To be frank, I sort of like it, I am being slowed down by force! There have been more invitations to “parties” by local Azoreans and eccentric expatriates who were most delightful. We met some really interesting folks and an amazing amount of really nice and open-minded Germans to boot.
Last Sunday we attended a free piano concert of pieces by Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Strauss and some Jazz thrown in for good measure, performed to two female Russian pianist virtuosos(four hands) that was exquisite. The concert took place in Ribeira Grande and we were in the company of our new British friends as well as a German couple who just retired here. Naturally we heard plenty of stories about the “fun” of having belongings shipped via container to their old remodeled Azorean house by an Italian Shipping Company. They have been coming here since 1997 and decided to leave the larger
Munich area for better shores as well as more pleasant weather conditions.Bretanha is the favorite place for German, Swiss or Austrian expatriates, a bit too remote for us and offering less beaches than the south side of the island has as well as a rather long distance to the capitol of Ponta Delgada. Likewise there are less flowers and more humidity on that side of the island which has many mini-climates. The mix of local Azoreans and expatriates in the Azores seems to work extremely well, the trick is to assimilate.

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Avenida in Ponta Delgada so nice for a stroll.

The concert was given free of charge at the newly refurbished baroque-style theatre in the above  mentioned town of Ribeira Grande. Not only did we have our own box, we picked-up a program for free cultural events for the rest of the year plus returned to see more of the town and the wonderful architecture the very next day. It is only 20 minutes by car from Caloura, thus the high gasoline prices don’t hurt you as much here as they did in the States even though this is the largest island of the archipelago.
While on that side of the
Atlantic closest to the United States we also took a look at Rabo de Peixe, the largest fishing port on Sao Miguel, where we encountered  enormously high waves on that dayone could only marvel at but would make a surfer’s heart pound faster.
So this afternoon taking notes for this journal entry, I was sitting outside around a table made of an old mill-stone with the sky as blue as the ocean and flowers blossoming in profusion while my wash was flapping in the breeze on the clothes-line. Taking my chair out of the garage I noticed that our landlord had filled-up our bin with yet more “batatas” (sweet and regular potatoes), coracon negra (a fruit that is delightful and in translation means “black heart,”) fresh bananas which are “mini- Chiquitas but more flavorful, cebolas (onions) plus various other treasures I could not identify but will certainly cook-up this week.
The flowers continue to be spectacular in temperatures ranging from the low to high 50ies during  the night to the high 60ies and low 70ies during the day. Veggies grow while you watch and I am not exaggerating, I’d better start picking Kale before it goes to seed.
While I thoroughly enjoy the flowers I have stopped picking Hibiscus and Camellias (they attract fruit
flies like mad) enjoying them outside as well as the Bird of Paradise, Calla Lilies and Clivias growing wild all over the place. So does honeysuckle in white, bright red and orange as well as Narcissus which seem to have naturalized somehow in the most unlikely places. Sometimes I forget it is January, easy to do, and just today more German tourists with knapsacks crossed my path chatting amicably while heading for the mountains in the center of the island.

If this is off-season and the WORST, I can’t wait for in-season and the BEST. Maybe I shall venture to the “praia nudista” where the Germans and Scandinavians go after all, something to ponder.

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Flowers and more flowers everywhere

One plant I have relearned NOT to touch and to avoid is the stinging nettle (Brennessel) I remember well from my childhood in Germany. Now I know what gave me the rash I had two weeks ago which itched like mad and created little blisters!!! But that is the only plant creating any discomfort – none of the American poison ivy family etc. exist here nor do any poisonous insects, snakes or other creatures you have to fear. I am delighted to see the hedgehogs again I remember so favorably from Germanynocturnal but totally harmless and consuming a lot of insects that might do harm to vegetables.
Should you be tempted to visit these shores,
.
I thought it might be advisable to enlighten you about some of the rather odd customs practiced in this part of the world. My friend Mechthild (they have adorable bungalows for rent at Quinta Altamira on a 16 acre estate with tennis court, swimming pool and wonderful flora by the ocean) filled me in recently and I thought it wise to share some of them to spare you the embarrassing moments I experienced.

First off, I have become Dona Inge and my spouse Senor Roland. You can be a menina (unmarried), a senora (a woman who is married) or a dona once you reached a certain age commanding respect. If a friendship develops or even an acquaintance, the proper way to address a person is by their first name preceded by one of the above.

Then there is the “kissing and hugging bit.” Unlike the French who air-kiss, Azoreans tend to be more outgoing in their greetings, a kiss on the left and then on the right cheek but only between women/women, women/men and men/woman. Some men tend to take advantage of that privilege but you catch on fast and avoid the hug that squeezes the breath out of you by keeping your distance. I am a fast learner in this regard. Let it be said that this ritual not only applies to good friends but also extends to mere acquaintances as I have experienced in Ponta Delgada, when suddenly being recognized by someone I once met, wondering who that was ……….so don’t be stand-offish or offended.

Going out to eat to a restaurant required more finesse that might seem particularly vexing to a German/American. The first item you are being served will be a round piece of farmer’s cheese with a spicy red pepper sauce on the side and fresh bread – not as an appetizer but standard fare and once used to this treat it is quite tasty. Next is the choice of wine, which is very good and rather inexpensive. Vino Cheiro is red wine that has not had a long time to ferment, comparable to an Italian Chianti. Then I recommend you ask for the specials of the day which are usually very tasty. If you do not like fish served with the head and all plus lots of bones you have to work your way through, do not order fish. The grilled sardines are eaten often even with the bones but they are not to my taste. I do miss the large pieces of flaky cod, scrod or haddock but they do not exist in these waters. The cod is salted and imported from Norway in dried form but very tasty in a good Bacalau. Tuna, shark, grouper and other fish are available but unfortunately like in the rest of the word’s oceans, even out here in the middle of the Atlantic, they can be polluted with mercury to some extent. Such is life in the 21st century. Pork, chicken and beef are delicious, free or hormones and antibiotics I understand if local and prepared well done unless ordered otherwise regarding beef. By the way, don’t be surprised at several TV screens in the most exclusive restaurants with the sound turned on or off, that is the Azorean way. One might miss a game of futebol, as soccer IS the national favorite sport!!! It is a passion and much of the national past-time like football or baseball are in the States. Every little town has a soccer stadium and a team, they play in any kind of weather and Azoreans are virtual “soccer fanatics!”

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Wave action during the winter.

While we are mentioning TV, don’t be surprised either if the minute you enter the home of an Azorean the TV will either be already on or switched on. While this may be considered rude in other countries, the technology came late to the Azores and it has become a way of life to have the TV on in the background, even at formal parties or events such as Christmas dinner. Nobody might be watching but obviously to show the honored visitor that the family is modern and well off. So just ignore it, everyone else will likewise (unless it is a soccer game).
Once the meal arrives at a restaurant, you will find a huge portion on your plate virtually hanging over the

sides. Now this is when it gets tricky especially for apost-WWII German like me who was indoctrinated early on in her childhood to eat everything on her plate. In the Azores is considered downright impolite to do so and an insult to the chef because apparently you did not have enough. So should my children or grandchildren ever come to visit us they shall be delighted at NOT being reprimanded but being encouraged to leave something on their plates because the chef takes that as a compliment.

Do NOT complain because your vegetables are lukewarm or even cold. That is the local custom because the chef is concerned you might burn your delicate palate and would be very insulted should you complain about the temperature of your vegetables. Yes, it is a strange custom since meat and French fries are hot but veggies are quite a different aspect of the local cuisine. Mostly they are used in “sopas” (soups) or stews with beef bones to which tender and tasty meat is attached, but you regularly get corn, peas, carrots or beans that are at best lukewarm. Naturally I committed the Faux Pas by pointing that fact out to the waiter. However, in our favorite restaurant he knows we are “weird Americans’ and the chef has actually started actively teaching us Portuguese. Meanwhile I am continuing to give English lessons and tutoring pro-bono……..go figure.

Nobody will rush you, eat, stay as long as your heart desires and enjoy the congenial atmosphere. The desert menu will be presented and by all means, try some of the delicacies you have never heard about. It is well worth the adventure. Their flans and custards are excellent in tropical flavors, as are their baked goods to be topped off with a tiny cup of coffee (similar to Italian Espresso) also available in decaf which I prefer at the late hour Portuguese eat their big meal. Most restaurants do not even open until 7pm and like in Spain, people tend to eat  Late, well into the night with little children at the table, well behaved and sometimes falling asleep.

Once you have really had your fill (and by the way, Germans and those of German descent will enjoy the local beer which is quite good as well) ask for the bill (conta). Unless you pay by credit card, be prepared to have change on you and leave a 10% to 15% tip, then get up immediately and leave. That is the custom, you do not get change back or if you do, it is supposed to be left something that is simply understood.

When ordering a couple of beers, remember that they do not start with the thumb when it comes to counting if you give a gesture by hand. They start with the index finger and the thumb is the LAST. So if you wish to order two beers or drinks of your choice, hold-up your index and your middle finger, NOT YOUT THUMB, otherwise you will end-up with ONE. I did not know that either and when ordering two coffees I was surprised to only receive one after having held-up my thumb and the index finger; lesson learned! However, let us not underestimate the importance of holding-up your right thumb as an indication of approval. It NEVER fails to generate a huge smile, give you the right of way and convey your appreciation if you hold-up your right thumb – you immediately made a good impression and possibly a new friend.

Parking in a city like Ponta Delgada is another experience American citizens need to get used to. Instead of individual parking meters you have ticket dispensers which you drop coins in receiving a parking permit for a certain amount of time depending on your input of coins (those are usually easily accessible and distanced no further than every few hundred feet), then place the ticket where it is visible to the police on your dashboard. If you do not, you will have a fine upon your return that will run you about 25 Euros and you will be in the computer system, definitely not worth it! This is not only a cost-saving measure but also encourages you to walk a bit, practice your math and be back on time to insert more coins if you did not do so initially. The streets in the old parts of towns everywhere on Sao Miguel due to the age, need to keep a good system to prevent double-parking plus it is good revenue for the police department. By the way, after 7pm or on weekends there is no need to pay for parking any longer unless you park in one of the underground garages. We just found that out the other day after inserting out coins and getting the ticket since some friendly locals pointed this fact out to us.

Likewise look out for speed bumps to slow you down when entering or exiting a major city like Ponta Delgada. I promise you, they WILL fulfill their purpose. By nature Portuguese are fast European drivers ahead of Italians in their “machismo” (German drivers are not saintly either) and the roads being narrow and rather curvy have  made my heart pump faster a few times due to who was passing me or coming the other way at the speed they did.

So far but for a few US “imports” of young men addicted to drugs, deportees with Portuguese or dual nationality, we have not met a person we did not like. Drug-dealing is carrying a stiff prison term and I have seen people, once the deporting and emptying of American prisons started inject themselves with drugs in a park or sidewalk  without bothering anyone or being bothered. Naturally it is not something Azoreans like and a lot of the deportees  do not speak the language being a product of the American/Canadian society. Thus they feel trapped here and often take the first plane out to Lisboa and the mainland. Since these mostly young criminals are not eligible for sustainable social services though they can enter rehabs free of charge and receive free medical care, it is just a matter of time before they end-up in jail for petty crimes or leave for mainland Portugal. This is likewise a scourge of the 21st century worldwide, but at least we do not encounter or hear about daily drive-by shootings as we did in Massachusetts, the police is very strict regarding the possession of weapons and I hope it stays that way!

Guess what, I made a new friend today the local donkey but about that next time………

Also about the farmers’ market and the local fishermen with a special chapter thrown in on Lagoa do Fogo.

Ate logo,

Tumbleweed

Tumbleweed Journal Copyright – 2006, Inge Perreault – All Rights Reserved

The Tumbleweed Journal reflects the views, opinions and experiences of the author.

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