I am Portuguese. My parents and grandparents are Portuguese. My partner is Portuguese and his parents and grandparents are Portuguese. Both my children are Portuguese. Yet, I do not fit in my own country, Portugal, especially as a mother.
Despite being Portuguese, my childhood years were spent abroad and at international schools. I celebrated Halloween when it wasn’t popular here yet, and I loved Thanksgiving dinners. My views of the world have always been interwoven with different cultures and customs. I expected to fall in love with a foreigner and have a multicultural family and lifestyle. Fate gifted me instead with a Portuguese man with a huge heart and an incredible open-mindedness. That combination steers me away even further from the traditional mindset of the Portuguese. Being 100% Portuguese, I am somewhat labelled “alternative” or “hippie”.
To start with, my children have unusual names – Giani and Noah. My partner and I had to browse a 400-page list of authorised names until we found Giani. In Portugal, names have to be authorised by the state, so you either pick one from the list or you submit a request. We did not opt for a traditional Portuguese name like Martim or Francisco or a trendier one like Benjamim. When asked about my children’s names, the second question is “So, your husband is… Italian? British, perhaps?”. No, my partner is Portuguese and we just decided on a different name. That’s a strange concept in this country, so I am automatically labelled as an “alternative mother”. In fact, names represent the social or economic status of the parents.
When my son was six months old and started eating solid food, I went the usual, traditional route recommended by the paediatrician: pureed fruits and veggies. My super calm and laid-back child turned into a monster as soon as he would see the spoon approaching his mouth. I dreaded mealtimes. The paediatrician’s suggestion was to force it in him because he needed the nutrients. That did not sit well with me so I stopped feeding him, offering him breastmilk exclusively while searching online for an answer. Baby-led weaning was the answer and it seemed very natural to me. My son soon began to devour steamed broccoli, potatoes and carrots. I also began potty training him at eight months old. These options were completely frowned upon by the paediatrician and my more traditional friends thought it was strange. Some thought I was endangering my child. Some thought I was crazy. At the time, I didn’t have so-called hippie friends so I really had no one other than my partner to truly support me.
Until my son was about six months old, I felt insanely lonely. All my friends were either single or had no children. By chance I ran into a friend from one of the international schools I attended in Lisbon and she introduced me to a weekly playgroup organised by international, expat mothers. I started attending with my son and it was delightful to be around so many different mothers who were all naturally open to different views towards child-rearing.
Socialising in Portugal the standard way is extremely hard and frustrating for me. Most of our couple friends with children have a very busy schedule during the weekend, shuffling between in-laws. We see them at birthday parties. If the couple has one child, we will socialize with them once a year, if they have two, we will socialize twice and so forth. I miss the spontaneity and openness of my international friends when I lived abroad. I miss sharing cultures (celebrating Thanksgiving, Halloween, Easter, etc.) and creating a community with friends.
I feel this sense of being foreign in my own country almost on a daily basis. I leave the park when the Portuguese mothers arrive, my children’s mealtimes are almost at the same time as their afternoon snack, and my children go to bed much earlier than the standard time.
The more traditional friends find my views strange and consider me a hippie and I find the views of my “alternative” friends a bit too extreme for me. So, I sit in the middle, on a tiny island. Fortunately, I found a group of international mothers and fathers, all with different backgrounds and origins, where I fit in perfectly. I am able to enjoy my “Portuguese-ness” subtly without any pressure. I take comfort in knowing that I am now part of a community, a small family. We meet up regularly and I am accepted without labels. I am not a hippie, I am not Portuguese – I am just the mother of two sons with non-Portuguese names who speaks Portuguese perfectly.
If you’re an expat, have you ever felt this way when coming home?
This is an original post for World Moms Network written by guest poster, Sofia Caessa, in Portugal.
Sofia Caessa grew up by the canals of Overschie, the Netherlands, the skyscrapers of São Paulo, Brazil and the beachs of Cascais, Portugal. Her love for Theatre took her to New York City, where she intended to pursue a career in Theatre. Instead, she became involved in Film and writing. After a few years in the USA, Sofia decided to move back to Europe. In Brussels she worked for Violeta Lab, a cultural organisation she founded, and in film production. There, she founded the Little Film Academy. Now living in Portugal, Sofia is the mother of two boys and works at Lêleh Land, a creative space that fosters imagination, free play, exploration and discovery. She also has a blog, Mami Coração, where she shares homemade activities for children, and homemade natural products.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: September is the best month to be in Portugal.
You see, every year there is this strange phenomenon. On August 31 the beaches are packed, heaving with tourists from Portugal and abroad, the queues to the ice cream parlors wrapping around the block, all restaurants booked out. Then on September 1st, silence. Peace. The heaving masses are replaced by the occasional family waiting for school to start or pensioners making the most of off-season deals.
One explanation is that most schools in Europe start up around September. But there’s something else. For Portuguese people, summer simply ends with the last day of August. It might be just as hot as the day before, but as of September 1st going to the beach is no longer an option. It is now autumn and summer activities need to wait until the next year. I remember a few years when I came to Portugal on holiday how tourist office staff smiled indulgently at me when I asked about surfing lessons in September. Didn’t I know the summer was over?
Luckily for us, even though the Portuguese people believe the hot days are gone, the climate thinks otherwise. Most years (or rather every year except 2015 which is marked in everyone’s memory as The Wet September) the sun continues to shine well into October and the only hint of autumn is the cold breeze that makes you wish you’d remembered your cardigan on the way out. The skies are still clear, the beaches are still warm…and the Atlantic water is as freezing cold as always.
September is the month I remember how much I love living in Portugal. August can feel quite frenzied: too hot, too sticky, too many people. In September, Portugal returns to its gentle rhythm. Restaurants have time to take care of their customers and without a steady influx of tourists take more care over your order. The streets are empty. There is no holiday traffic.
But this is the first year I’ve noticed a downside. Along with all the tourists, the other children have disappeared from the beaches and parks. I don’t know where they’ve gone – some probably live in countries far away, others have gone back to their home town, schools and daycare centers. I don’t really miss them that much, but I worry that my son does. He is now 2 years old and doesn’t go to school. Although he seems happy just in my company and we of course have lots of play dates throughout the week, I miss the spontaneity of playing with a 2-year old from Germany at the water fountain or running after a group of Portuguese older kids at the park. And as much as I enjoy an empty beach, I miss seeing other parents out with their kids. September makes it all too clear to me how my decision to keep my son at home deviates from the norm.
Sometimes I question my decision. I see my friends meeting each other for kid-free coffees in town, their kids telling stories from daycare…But then my son and I manage to sneak out to the beach on an early weekday morning and put the first footprints into the pristine sand. And I realize that, for me, these moments are still worth 100 quiet coffees.
How do you feel about back-to-school season? Do you sometimes wish your kid didn’t have to go to school (or vice versa if you homeschool)?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Julie Dutra in Portugal.
In case you hadn’t heard, Portugal won the European Football Cup last week (or soccer for those of you reading this across the Atlantic). It’s a big deal because Portugal’s national team has never (ever ever) won a major competition. I was in a park watching the match on the big screen with family and friends but even someone hidden away in their closet all night would have heard the shouting, honking, banging and clashing celebrations going on all over Portugal once the referee blew the final whistle.
I’ve never really been into football, partly because my parents used to groan every time their precious news programme was postponed due to extra time but also because I found it difficult to decide where my allegiance lay. It seemed like true fans were so fervent about their club or their country. I had no idea who to support: I was born in Germany to an English mother. It was abundantly clear to me that being English was no better than being German – it was just different, so why would I want the England team to win over the German one? For a long time I avoided the question of “Who’s side are you on?” by saying I just wasn’t into football.
Then I married a Brazilian. Brazilians are really into football. I mean REALLY. It was easy to support my husband’s club because it represented the Brazilian state I first moved to and, well, he is my husband. During the World Cup 2010 we resolved any possible conflict by rooting for Uruguay, a better fit for my southern-born husband who identifies much more with Argentinian and Uruguayan Gaúcho culture than the carneval and samba of Rio de Janeiro. Plus, I always love supporting the underdog. In this manner, two World Cups went by without a glitch (well…unless your Brazilian!). And then we moved to Portugal.
Now the main event was suddenly the European Cup and once again my allegiances felt split. Should I support Germany? I hadn’t lived there in a decade and didn’t identify much with the team’s powerhouse approach. England? As a foreign-born British national it always felt odd to support “England” rather than “Great Britain” but supporting Scotland or Wales would have been even odder. What about Portugal? Once again it didn’t feel quite right. We live in Portugal but none of our family is Portuguese, I don’t know any of the players except for Ronaldo. So, once again, I sat on the fence and simply ignored the football events around me.
And then Portugal won the quarter finals. Then the semi-finals. Something was in the air. Splashes of red and green, the colours of Portugal’s flag, began appearing all over town, in windows, on cars, on people’s clothing. I commented on a stranger’s lovely vibrant red top and she told me it was “in honour of Portugal”. The day of the finals I was walking along the beach with my son. Everything was red and green: vendors were selling Portuguese scarves, all the bars had a flag in the window and I even saw a whole family of four decked out in Portuguese team shirts.
Something inside me shifted. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy to ignore the fact that I’m living in Portugal. I’m surrounded by expats, my family and few Portuguese friends. Expat life ALWAYS comes with it’s fair share of annoyances and it’s so easy to imagine that “home” (wherever that may be) would be better, faster, cleaner, easier. But that day on the beach I realised how many good things Portugal had brought me and my family. It had become a home, a place full of laughter and friends, sunshine, walking in the hills, jumping in the surf, drinking wine under the setting sun.
It deserved my support.
I wish I could say I went to watch the final game that night decked out in red and green. I didn’t or rather couldn’t. But although my wardrobe is decidedly monochrome my heart was beating for Portugal. And when the crowds stood up to cheer, my little Brazilian-Anglo-German family was cheering right there with them.
Have you ever supported a national or local team while living abroad? What about your kids?
This is an original post written for World Moms Network by Julie Dutra in Portugal.