Sunday, March 31, 2024

Azores 2024 – Tia Ana, Exponential Portuguese Loudness, Crazy Cousins

It’s Easter Sunday. The clouds have parted and the sun is out after two days of rain. John and I go for a walk in the neighbourhood. The houses here are unique, often attached to each other, and despite most of them being very, very old, they look modern. Many have huge stone fences built around the properties and an incredible variety of trees popping up above them. One house has an enormous cactus sprouting up among a sprawling plantation of banana trees. They can grow nearly anything on this island. We stop at the corner grocery store (Pingo Doce) and I buy a beautiful loaf of warm artisan bread for one euro forty and a bunch of Portuguese buns for twenty-two cents each. Breakfast is served.

Ana had contacted her aunt Ana’s caregiver friend (Ana Margarida) and arranged for us to visit them at her home this morning. But first we drive to the Parque Atlantico, a shopping mall, and buy Tio Manuel a new microwave as his cacked out yesterday.

By 11:30 we are at Ana Margarida’s home and are welcomed in by her husband as the two Anas are still at church, but they arrive soon afterwards. Tia Ana’s had a rough go of things. Her and her husband Joe were never able to have children and she would have been a perfect mom. Her husband became an invalid and she was his caregiver for many years and rarely left the house. He passed away and she only had a few years of relative freedom until she started developing dementia and has gone downhill rapidly in the past couple of years. Ana and her aunt are very close so it’s been tough on her hearing about this decline, and now about to see it in person.


Tia Ana slowly, ever so slowly enters the room with the help of a walker and sees us all sitting there but doesn’t recognize anybody. John begins talking to his little sister and after a few minutes it finally clicks and she remembers and gives him a huge hug. Same thing happens with Ana’s mom and Ana. Everybody is crying. She doesn’t remember me until I start speaking to her in English then she remembers right away and hugs me. It’s heartbreaking to see her like this. We stayed with her at her house on previous visits to the Azores and got to know her so well. She deserved so much more in her life but her religious faith has enabled her to bear these crosses. And she’s lucky to have such a good friend in Ana Margarida who has been supporting her and taking care of her for many years.

Before leaving we make plans to see her again during the week and next weekend. Ana Margarida’s husband tells us that after an hour or so she probably won’t remember our visit. But that’s okay.


We get back to Tio Manuel’s house for 1pm and things are really happening. The cousins have been to Sete Cidades to pick up a massive amount of cooked food, and people are arriving rapidly – similar crew as Friday night, but this time the cousins’ partners are also here. The cupboard has been emptied of dishes, and chairs and tables have been improvised to accommodate everybody. It’s not just a lot of people in a small house - remember, this is a house full of Portuguese people, and even worse, Portuguese Island People who are even louder than the continental ones, and worse than that, Rapidly Deafening Old Portuguese Island People who can’t hear shit, so everybody screams all the louder to make sure they get their point across. The noise level is deafening.

The aluminum trays are uncovered to reveal the food – pork slices, beef slices, spiced chicken, potatoes, stewed octopus with octopus-marinated potatoes, Portuguese bread stuffing, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t bother leaving any room on my plate for. Because it’s Easter there’s also chocolate eggs, chocolate rabbits, Ferrero Rocher chocolates
, plus a bunch of desserts – flan, rice pudding, two kinds of cake, and a whipped cream jelly roll thing. We dive in and eat merrily.


As we’re eating, I think of something I want to ask Tio Manuel in Portuguese. I craft it over and over in my head until I’m sure it’s right. I know it will really impress all the cousins. So I wait for a break in the conversation to deliver my awesome question.


Here’s a tip if you plan on spending any significant periods of time with Portuguese people: don’t wait for a break in the conversationYou’ll be waiting a long time. You will probably be waiting forever because there’s never a break in the conversation. It doesn’t happen. In fact, there’s never just one conversation; there’re a whole bunch going on at the same time. Sometimes one of them will be having two simultaneous conversations, then those two people are also having multiple conversations and this results in exponential loudness and confusion. You know how cell phone signals are everywhere, bouncing from phone to tower to phone, through people, buildings, and animals, and these millions of signals somehow miraculously make it to the right phone and everybody understands each other? That’s what Portuguese parties are like, but instead of silent radio signals it’s loud voices. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think the Portuguese all inherited the same genetic mutation where they can breathe through their ears, because they never seem to stop for a breath.


Anyway, Ana ends up asking Tio Manuel the exact same question I was going to ask so I give up after that and instead just focus on eating and drinking as much as possible.


At some point I realize that cousin Tony had disappeared with all the kids and I find out he’s taken them over to the park to play soccer. So Ana, her cousin Carmelia, and I walk over to see what’s going on, and to enjoy the beautiful sunshine that’s flooding the island. 


We find them and join in for a rollicking game of Keep-Up-The-Volleyball with all the junior cousins and some other neighbourhood kids they picked up along the way. I manage to keep my Easter dinner down where it belongs despite the jumping and stretching and am feeling a lot better than I would have collapsing on the couch and watching the Portuguese Ten Commandments on tv.


We return to the house for more desserts and drinking and eventually the crowd slowly starts thinning out. Around 9:30 the older contingent started comparing the back cremes they use for the aches and pains, then all of a sudden everybody’s whipping off clothes showing off scabs, rashes, discolorations, and all manner of skin abnormalities and I’m sitting there pie-eyed thinking, Goddamn everybody’s getting old – this sure as shit never used to happen around here. By 10pm only Paulo and Natercia are left and Natercia’s on a roll. We’ve been playing music real loud on the portable speaker and dancing and laughing, and Tio Manuel signals it’s time for everybody to leave when he flicks on the tv and tunes it into the Lisbon Weather Channel. He even turns up the volume, but it can’t overpower the speaker so we ignore the signal and carry on and Natercia even gets him dancing, sort of, for a brief moment.


I must tell you about Natercia. She’s crazy. In the best way possible. In my family, on the Olson side, we have Cousin Nicole who’s crazy and awesome. Natercia is the Azorean version of Nicole. And Nicole is the Canadian version of Natercia. If I ever managed to get the two of them together, I think the universe would experience a cataclysmic event, and it would totally kick ass. And Natercia’s husband Paulo Fernando is the chillest dude imaginable…just like Nicole’s beau Mark.


Natercia tells a story about her last trip to Canada, which was a long time ago, but it comes out fresh. It’s delivered in rapid fire Portuguese and animated pantomime and takes about 40 minutes. I can pick out bits and pieces, and there’s parts there about somebody trying to buy her fancy shoes at the airport for two hundred bucks, and some other part where she slipped on ice and faceplanted at Walmart, then she switches to English to explain the valuable items she brought home to the Azores from Canada – eighty cakes of Irish Spring soap, fourteen blocks of marble cheese, four enormous bottles of Sam’s Club pickles, and two jars of multi-coloured jalapeno rings. She’s crazy.

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