Dear Auntie Betty

By JUNE LOVER [email protected]

After 35 years in the TV and film industry, June Lover retired to the Algarve in 2006.  Having owned a holiday property here for 12 years she now lives in the hills above Almancil.

As a child I used to dread the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Not only were the Christmas decorations taken down leaving the house looking extremely bare, and the tree planted at the bottom of the garden where it inevitably died two months later, but I was made to sit at the dining room table and write my thank you letters.  

The pink teddy bear notepaper did nothing to inspire me. Neither did my cherished Osmoroid pen with my name engraved on it, bought especially for my junior school where we were taught italic writing by Mr. Sloman.  

“Dear Auntie Betty,” I would write.  “Thank you for my Christmas present.  It is very nice.”  There wasn’t much else you could say about the sensible woolly scarf or warm mittens, wisely bought to avoid being damaged in the post. No doubt Auntie Betty would know that this was written under sufferance, but my childish writing would give her pleasure and the letter would be stored in the bottom drawer of the bureau along with all the other childish letters she received.  

As a discipline, the thank you letter is one of which I thoroughly approve, although obviously I didn’t think this at the time.  As an auntie myself, I have never once received a thank you letter for my Christmas or birthday gifts.  Not even a phone call, or a text, or an e-mail.  It’s not that the kids are rude or ungrateful, it’s just that it’s not ‘done’ any more.  

Letter-writing is a dying art, replaced by more modern means of communication. That’s progress, but I don’t have a problem with that.  In fact, I embrace it as my fingers dance across the keyboard like something from River Dance. Postage is free and so far, the air waves have been unaffected by industrial disputes.

As I grew older, I developed a bit of a passion for letter-writing. Pen-pals were all the rage when I was in my teens and I had several. I would sit for hours scribbling page after page of goodness-knows-what and then wait impatiently for the postman to deliver the equally drivel-filled reply.

Years later my career took me travelling quite a lot, and I would write home regularly to parents, husband and friends with what I hoped were colourful descriptions of my adventures in foreign climes. Even today, I’m one of those people who simply has to write an essay in everyone’s Christmas card and I have a busy few weeks ahead of me, not to mention the all-too-familiar writer’s cramp.

Letter-writing isn’t just about keeping in touch with family and friends though. It can be a very useful tool when trying to lodge a complaint and much less frustrating than being pushed from pillar to post by faceless telephone operators as you hang on for hours listening to Greensleeves until your patience is stretched to the limit and you scream hysterically down the phone before hanging up, having achieved absolutely nothing except a headache.

My first Portuguese letter of complaint was written soon after we moved from the safety of our English-speaking resort, when I wasn’t the least bit prepared for the complication of changing address.  

My first port of call was the Bank. “Not a problem, Mrs. Lover. Congratulations on your new home!” However, it was a problem, and for weeks we did not receive any communications whatsoever from the Bank. Like culprits we snooped around our old apartment to find our private mail scattered on the floor of the entrance lobby just waiting for identity theft and the like.

I wasted no time in pinning the Bank Manager to the wall and demanding an explanation which, if I hadn’t heard with my own ears, I would have thought more suited to a TV Sitcom than real life.  

For reasons best known to themselves, the Bank has it on record that my husband is a writer, and before they could sanction a change of address they needed proof of this. They suggested a copy of one of his books. Equally bizarre is that I am apparently a housekeeper, and evidence of my earnings for the past year were required from the Dept. of Social Security before our change of address could be authorised.  Given that my husband has never written more than a cheque in his life, and my role as housewife is as unpaid as every other housewife in the world, I felt a letter coming on.

Always target the top man is my motto, but I had a sneaking suspicion that although my local Branch Manager speaks perfect English, the head man might not. Clearly my letter had to be in Portuguese, but once I’d written Estimado Senhor, I came to a grinding halt.  So I hit upon the great idea of writing my letter in English and running it through one of those translation programmes on the internet.  In hindsight this is not a great idea, but I wasn’t to know this at the time.

The first thing I noticed was that my neatly typed page-long letter turned into a one-and-a-half page letter confirming my belief that Portuguese is a very wordy language.  However, I read it through carefully, signed it, and sent it off to Head of Money in Lisbon who sent it straight back to my local branch with a post-it saying “Is this a complaint?  Sort it!”  Which they duly did.  So what happened to the so-called evidence that was required.  The book?  The Social Security records?  Had my letter done the trick?  I began to believe it had and was pleased with my efforts.

Shortly after this, Guida came into my life and the long journey to learning the language began.  I proudly showed her my letter one day.  She laughed so much that tears ran down her face.  At first, I was affronted until she pointed out that from the very first line my letter – translated as a letter of the alphabet rather than a communication – was total jibberish.  

The computer translator had treated my carefully composed letter as nothing more than a string of words.  Consequently there was no attention to grammar which, in any language, is essential.  Adjectives, which should come after the noun in Portuguese, stayed in front of the noun.  This is tabu! The all-essential ‘the’ was missing.  My current account turned into some sort of oceanic wave report, my bank statements became declarations, and yours faithfully converted itself into the loyalty you expect from your tail-wagging golden labrador.

Suffice to say, I’ve learnt my lesson.  No more letters unless they begin with Dear Auntie Betty.  May I be the first to wish you Feliz Natal, and I look forward to welcoming you back to my crazy world of pigeon-Portuguese in the New Year.