By DAISY SAMPSON
THERE ARE many cultural differences between the Brits and the Portuguese and often these are to be embraced, however, Christmas is sacred and cold salty fish does not enhance my love of cultural diversity.
After living in Portugal for a number of years, I have come to terms that I should not squeal as my daughter eats another fish eyeball and can now contort my face into a semi smile as I chew down an enormous sea snail – but I just can’t do Portuguese Christmas.
It was instantly apparent that I wasn’t from around these parts when I walked into my first Portuguese Christmas eve celebrations. There I am, sparkly make up, Christmas earrings and party dress. There they all are in jeans, t-shirts and trainers.
I burst in full of Christmas cheer to find almost 20 members of my Portuguese family gathered in silence in the kitchen watching the TV. I am not sure if we have missed the entire event (it is on the wrong day after all) as everyone has their coats on and looks as if they are about to leave but I soon discover they are watching the final episode of their favourite soap, hence the silence.
I realise that all the coats were because it was freezing in the house. Tiled floors, concrete walls and a distinct lack of soft furnishing hardly helped the lack of Christmas atmosphere and also meant that I was developing frostbite. No one had told me I had to wrap up Baltic style.
At my first Portuguese Christmas, my grasp of the language was still at the “Um copo de vinho tinto” stage, so not only was the entire event a culture shock but the vast majority of the evening was spent gazing vacantly at the TV (which remained on throughout the evening).
My lack of Portuguese was not an issue, though, when it came to eating the Christmas Eve meal. Words were not required as the platters of what could only be described as fish faces were placed down in front of me. My face said it all.
“Just eat a bit, if you cover it in oil, chop enough raw garlic onto it and then drench it with lemon juice it tastes OK,“ said my husband. It didn’t. It tasted of fish head, now cold, covered in oil, raw garlic and lemon juice.
Picture the scene: my poor mother-in-law, now mortified, scavenging in the cupboards for something for me to eat. Me, red faced, embarrassed, 20 pairs of Portuguese eyes on the foreigner. Needless to say, I ate the fish face.
You will be pleased to know I behaved myself for the rest of the evening. I pretended to lose at cards, didn’t do a face as all the women were left to do the dishes while the men went out to the bar and even changed a random child’s nappy (not something I can usually bring myself to do).
I did struggle though when the clock chimed midnight and we were ushered into the best room to open our presents. I wanted to shout “No, you can’t” but it was too late, paper was flying and presents exchanged.
My mother always told me you had to wait for Father Christmas to come down the chimney in the middle of the night and only when you woke up on a crisp Christmas morning could you open your presents. That was the final straw, Christmas had been officially ruined.
Finally, it was time to leave the in-laws but, by the time we were ready, it was already past 2am. We travelled into the town and went home with all the presents. As my husband collapsed on the sofa, I made myself a consolation cheddar cheese and pickle sandwich (very British) and set my alarm for the morning of my Christmas day.
However, six hours is nowhere near enough time for either my husband to sober up or for me to prepare for the marathon that is my British Christmas.
As we start the second leg of our dual nationality Christmas, I can see my husband’s eyes roll as a glass of bucks fizz (with gin and sugar to spice it up) is foisted into his shaky hand by my grandfather.
But now I am happy. All dressed up, scoffing my face with Quality Street in-between smoked salmon sandwiches and mince pies with piles of presents, the shiny dining room table and Christmas specials on the TV – a proper Christmas on the right day.
“I do Christmas day with your family,” says my husband as if I should perhaps try to be a little more tolerant. Very true, but I can’t help but think that he rather enjoys the crackers, the party frocks, the eating until you nearly pop, funny hats and silver cutlery.
This year I have already had the look from husband when mother-in-law asked us what we would be doing. I hear myself saying “Of course we will come to your house, we would love to” and, in truth, I suppose I do.
The strange thing about my Portuguese Christmases is that they are generally not bad experiences – they are just different and isn’t that why we choose to live here in the Algarve anyway?