My 3 months of lockdown in Portugal was both challenging and rewarding. The most challenging was the language barrier. Hands down. Full stop. I’ve been traveling abroad as a solo traveler for nearly two decades and my monolingual limitations have never been a barrier. Until Covid-19 happened.
I’ve pondered this a lot. Frankly, I had little else to do. I believe what made this experience more challenging was anxiety. Anxiety felt by me as a stranger in a strange land and by those I had to interact with an obvious foreigner during their own personal and collective crisis. Nowhere was this felt more keenly than when I had to make my weekly visit to the butcher (cue ominous music here).
Google translate only works so far and is quite literal as I discovered during my first visit to the butcher. I had rehearsed and rehearsed how to ask for 400 grams of ground beef in Portuguese. When it was my turn (only 2 people allowed in at a time) I entered the shop and confidently said, “Quattro centos gramas de carne moida por favor”. I was very proud. The butcher was not. He just stared. Pretty much like this…
So I resorted to my tried and true method of international communication – I walked over to the case and pointed. As it turns out (which I actually knew from my UK travels but forgot), hamburger is called minced beef, not ground. So carne picada. Sigh. Doggedly, I returned weekly. Chicken wings: frango and flap your arms. Pork: just point. Then sometime during my long isolation fugue after binge watching an Australian cooking contest, I decided that I wanted to cook lamb. Food triggers. A blog post all its own.
As you can imagine, lamb is not part of the south Florida list of proteins for obvious reasons. In fact, the first time I tasted lamb was when I was in college and part of a study abroad in Israel. We were studying Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and this particular night we ate at an Arab restaurant. The meat served was yummy, but odd. So I asked the waiter what it was and he said, “camel”. From my bubbly enthusiastic response, he must have felt guilty because he then told me it was lamb. To me, that was as foreign as came. During the early days of my marriage, I decided to try and cook lamb myself. I think we belched it for a week; not sure what happened there but I didn’t try it again and it became a long-standing joke.
Fast forward decades later, I decide to give it a shot while self-isolating in Portugal. After again rehearsing, I marched in and asked the butcher for cordeiro. The stare. I showed him google translate on my phone. Nothing. So I bleated like a sheep. Twice. I’m trying not to burst out laughing. He still just stared. Luckily the other customer figured out my odd form of communication and said something in Portuguese. My friend, the butcher, nodded, walked to the back, returned with a WHOLE leg of lamb. Without a word, he started whacking on it with his huge cleaver. After about 4 whacks, he turned and looked at me expectantly. I think I was sweating by now and just meekly nodded. These are the cuts I ended up with. No idea what they were, but I figured they must be tough since they were the top part of the leg. I found this recipe by Mary Berry and it was freakin’ amazing. https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/lamb_fore_shanks_with_73979
It would be easy to assume that the butcher had some bias against foreigners, but he was the same with all the customers. He was just a grumpy butcher with a big bloody cleaver. He became my weekly challenge and, over time, I just went in and laughed when I left. My other interactions were lovely.
My favorite place was the green grocer. Gorgeous Portuguese produce and friendly faces who greeted me like an old friend every time I went. As I move on to the next stage of my adventure, I leave with a profound sense of gratitude to Portugal for providing me a sanctuary during their own time of fear and uncertainty. I look forward to going back when I can see the country properly. Until then, obrigada 🇵🇹.