What is it about Stephen King books? Forty years ago I (stupidly) chose to read The Shining whilst working as a night porter in a Victorian hotel which has closed for winter.
This week I finish reading the follow up, Doctor Sleep, and find myself in an off the beaten track rough car park surrounded by RVs. In Alentejo in October you don’t expect to find RVs in a rural car park beside a reservoir unless they’re a) the True Knot, or b) northern Europeans. The NL on the number plates identifies them as the latter (phew), as does the fact that one of them is wearing a bikini doing some sort of Power Ranger sequence on a concrete block. One of them is wearing a bikini and we’re decked out in light fleeces about to head off on a walking route. Only northern Europeans would sunbathe in a parking lot when it’s cloudy and 22C. Only northern Europeans… or maybe members of the True Knot.
17km and four and a half hours later we return to the parking lot where the Power Ranger and her husband are still sunbathing. As I do end of hike stretches on a wobbly breeze block the husband speaks.
“Was it a good walk?” He asks in very good English.
“Pretty decent, through cork forests and olive groves,” I speak slower than usual, as I do when talking to people whose first language isn’t English. We chat for a few moments about the difficulty of walking in this area (no waymarks, lots of fences blocking what should be paths) before I ask him if he’s driven all the way from the Netherlands.
“No, from Wales,” he laughs.
“God, sorry,” I splutter, embarrassed as hell. “The Dutch speak such good English, better than me, that I assumed you were part of the NL convoy.”
They’ve been touring Portugal and had moved south from Figueira da Foz in search of warmer weather.
At that point his Power Ranger wife joins us and what had been a pleasant conversation turns into a one-way display of her trying to show just how much she knows about Portugal. She knows a lot, but maybe not quite as much as she thinks. She bombards us with opinions about Britain (all bad) and Portugal (all great) as though we know not a jot about either. Whenever we do manage to interject something, often contradictory, her immediate response is “I knew that, I knew that.”
To be fair, the conversation isn’t dull, it whizzes about from one subject to another, changing tack when gaps in knowledge are exposed.
“We love Setúbal,” she tells us. “We’d have stayed at the port except coronavirus is so bad there.”
“It’s not really.” I try to remember the latest figures, wondering if there’s been a sudden spike since two days ago. “Setúbal is a huge municipality and it’s the commuter towns across from Lisbon where there’s a problem. The town itself and the general Alentejo side of the municipality aren’t bad.”
“I know that, I know that,” she replies, somewhat snappily. She clearly doesn’t like it if someone comes across as maybe knowing a bit more.
Them, when she hears we live in Palmela.
“I know Palmela well, it’s very affluent.”
“Not where we live, or the bits we know,” I laugh, thinking of Senhor Zé and his cronies – wee men wearing flat caps and checked shirts who tend to be the general handymen for fixing anything that goes wrong in the neighbourhood. As she blusters on about its affluence, I visualise the locals and their 20 year-old cars with sun-blistered paintwork; the wee women in housecoats and headscarves gossiping in the local shops; the toothless shepherd who does a David and Goliath with any juggernauts which happen to be on the road as the same time as his flock of sheep; the slightly run-down streets leading through the old town to the Moorish castle; and the Communist graffiti on walls whose plaster is peeling off, making the images look as though they’re part of a jigsaw.
“No, affluent is definitely not how I’d describe it.”
We get on to the subject of COVID again, talking about the differences between restrictions in Britain and Portugal. Portugal has generally shown common sense regarding its approach, except when the summer holidays started. In a bid to reduce positive cases post-holiday period, the government have introduced further restrictions, including supermarkets not opening until 10:00.
“It’s crazy,” I say. “You’ve got the same number of people trying to shop over a shorter period. It’s now far busier when we go shopping than it was before. I’ve no idea why they would do that.”
“Oh, I know, I know,” I’m sure she almost raises an arm. “It’s because of the yummy mummies. Didn’t you read the bulletin from the prime minister?”
“Go on,” I did read a press release from the PM, but it didn’t mention yummy mummies.
“It’s to stop all the mothers from congregating for coffee after they drop the kids off at school.”
There’s two things that surprise me about this. The first is I didn’t know yummy mummies were responsible for the spike in positive cases. The second is ‘yummy mummies’ is not a phrase which has ever entered my head whenever we’ve shopped at supermarkets in either Setúbal or Palmela… or anywhere else around Portugal we’ve been. Grannies and Grandpas by the aisle-blocking cartload yes.
Finally the subject of communicating with the locals comes up.
“Portuguese is a difficult language to learn isn’t it?” I say, having struggled with it for three years.
“Not for me,” she replies before saying something which bamboozles. “I find it easy as my first language is Welsh.”
I don’t know Welsh so it may very well be more or less the same as Portuguese. Then she mentions the name of a place in Setúbal we don’t initially recognise.
“You don’t know Calle Hosé Mourinho?” She repeats it a bit more slowly.
“Ah, José Mourinho.” I pronounce the J like I do with Jack.
“That’s what I said, Hosé Mourinho.”
“It’s pronounced José in Portugal.” I’m not letting this one pass. She’s saying it the Spanish way, plus he was manager of my football team Manchester United, I know how they say his name here.
“I know, I know, that’s what I said… Hosé.”
Nope, there’s no correcting this woman. Neither A nor I point out ‘calle’ is Spanish as well, or that it’s Avenida José Mourinho anyway.
At this point A decides enough is enough and says we have to go, as we have a fifty minute drive home. We say our goodbyes and leave the two to the last of the muted sunshine.