Monday, 31 October 2011

Portugal, my love and hate for it

I am at present in the city of Porto, as part of a mini-grand tour of the north of Portugal. Before this I had only passed through those regions glancingly, although I know Lisbon, the Algarve and parts of the Centre well. But this coming to know Portugal has not been a happy experience. I have long tended to share the slightly dismissive attitude about this country that is common in England and, although I am part of it by blood, and have felt deeply attached to it in childhood, I have latterly experienced so much unhappiness and negativity here that I long to leave Portugal for good.

But I have been startled this time by the beauty and interest of what I have seen, and today have enjoyed an almost rapturous tour of Porto in the company of a knowledgeable friend. At last I have realised that this is a beautiful country, not just one that I have to be interested in because my mother came from here. It is so full of sights which, if they were in Italy, would be packed with tourists, but here attract only a ghostly few.

As far as I always knew when I was young, my mother was entirely of Portuguese peasant origin, from near the town of Mafra north of Lisbon, the daughter of a man called Cesário dos Reis, who seems likely to have been her father because she was deeply fond of him, and of his wife, Marcelina de Jesus.

But for many years I was puzzled by the fact that, although my mother apparently spoke totally native Neapolitan Italian, her Portuguese seemed to be imperfect. She also appeared to know almost nothing about the region that she was ostensibly from and when I drove there once with her, she seemed totally lost. Since I have been living in Altura, the beach resort in the Algarve that was her last home, many people there have confirmed that her Portuguese was that of a foreigner. And a young Italian that I met in prison, from the region of Naples, once told me that he personally happened to know that my mother had been born in Italy and that I should believe this because it was true.

Last year I was staying with some cousins in the region near Mafra, and they mentioned to me for the first time a woman known only as Ana das Meias, or "Ana of the Stockings", because she spent her days walking around the countryside selling those and other items. She had lived in the farmhouse with Cesário dos Reis,  his wife and daughters, did no work there, and terrorised the household with a gun. She was uneducated, but  knew many languages. It was, however, difficult apparently to understand what she said in Portuguese.

Ana das Meias was also a smuggler and faith-healer (sometimes unkindly described as a witch). She had children by various men, to only one of whom she was married. She smoked. She was a thorough bad hat, and someone totally outside the norms of Portuguese society.

I commissioned a researcher to try and find out about her, but it was impossible to discover anything about her identity, because her name did not appear on the birth certificate of a daughter that she had had by another man in a thieves' warren in Lisbon. The reports of her various children and grandchildren by other men did not tally and it was impossible to determine the number of these descendants.

Ana das Meias sounds much more like the mother of my mother than the timid and deeply religious wife of Cesário dos Reis, for whom my mother had little feeling.

I hope to move from Portugal, if I can sell my house here, and live in Italy. The two countries have equally class-bound, oppressive and unjust social and legal systems, and equally fearsome bureaucracies, but in Italy they adjust themselves to their problems with a smile and in Portugal they endure them with a frown.

However, my mother, a deeply patriotic Portuguese, rarely mentioned Naples, had little feeling for Italy and showed no great familiarity with Italian custom. And because my deepest attachment was to her, I have slightly lukewarm feelings for the land where the lemon trees grow (they grow in Portugal as well).

Before I move to Italy, therefore - if I do - I feel I should find out for certain that Ana das Meias was my grandmother, that she originally came from Naples or somewhere near there, that the presence of her family in or near Naples was substantial and not just a fleeting connection, and that my mother was born in or grew up in or had some significant link with that beautiful but troubled city of the south.

Because I believe that it is only if you are connected with a country by blood that you will ever be happy living there, or even that it is only in that case that you really have the right to live there. For blood is thicker than water, and the relationship between a people and a land is among the most important of all relationships. And it does not make you a Hitler or a Goebbels to believe these things.

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