Sorry seems to be the hardest word   

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.

If it wasn’t for the fact that this was an Elton John number, I’d have shot the messenger. Sorry is not the hardest word. It’s an easy word and we use it countless times a day in a variety of situations, and not all sad ones as the lyrics suggest.

The Portuguese word for ‘sorry’ is desculpe and I’m only sorry that I didn’t put it on my priority list of need-to-know words when I first starting coming to the Algarve.

If you’re a holidaymaker, or a casual visitor dipping in and out of your time-share, then the chances are your vocabulary is pretty slim and essential words like faz favor and obrigado, erveja and vinho, sardinhas and batata fritas become your main concern.

Sorry, or at least the Portuguese equivalent, can be quite difficult to remember in the early stages. Consequently it takes a bit of a back seat.

Those of you who live here, or spend a lot of time here, will know that desculpe needs to roll off the tongue with the same ease as sim and não.

You don’t just use it to apologise for bumping into someone or inadvertently treading on their toes, you use it to explain that your Portuguese is so bad that you need the sympathy and understanding of your listener in order to get your message across.

Whether it’s a policeman, a shopkeeper, or a check-out girl, desculpe opens doors.  I found this out the hard way.

Many years ago, when I was a visitor dipping in and out of my holiday apartment three or four times a year, I had occasion to visit the Finanças in Loulé. I can’t quite remember why.

All our bills and paperwork were taken care of by villa management, an expensive facility of our luxury resort, so I think it must have been something to do with fiscal representation which was a big issue at the time if you didn’t have Residência. You had to turn up in person.

I’d never been to the Finanças before, so I had no idea what to expect. 

In a narrow side street opposite a school, there were two entrances to two separate departments. Naturally we chose the wrong one.

Along with about a hundred other people we waited in an airless room which had seating for ten.

Clutching my file of papers, I looked round anxiously, wondering how on earth anyone knew who’s turn it was next. 

After an age we were beckoned to a desk by a lady in a crimplene suit two sizes too small for her. There were no chairs, so we stood like naughty schoolchildren in front of the headmistress.

With a cheesy grin plastered all over my face, I said “Bom dia!  Não fala Portugueesa”. I still wince at the memory. I’d just told her that she didn’t speak Portuguese, and managed to mispronounce Português into the bargain.

But clearly she got the message. She looked up at me from her rickety swivel chair and said: “You shouldn’t be here then.”

With that she turned away and found something important to do with a photocopier.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I had just waited two-and-a-half hours to be told to bog off by a not-so-Civil Servant with a chip on her shoulder.

The only other phrase I knew was mais duas cervejas, but I knew this wasn’t appropriate, so with my tail between my legs and tears pricking the back of my eyes I trudged out into the searing heat wondering if Portugal was such a good idea after all.

Don’t worry folks. It won’t happen to you. Things have improved dramatically since then and government departments are much more user-friendly.

Multi-choice ticket machines and an affable security guard to help you press the right button if you’re a bit confused guide you to the right area.  

A huge plasma screen in an air-conditioned waiting area with plenty of seating removes the anxiety of ‘who’s next’.  And the staff, who are more casually dressed in an environment which is clearly more comfortable to work in, are more sympathetic to the fact that perhaps Portuguese is not your first language. 

The Finanças website is obviously a useful tool coupled with Google’s translation gizmo. Most payments and enquiries can be done online.

But a word of caution. They have a habit of changing your password – senha de identificação – without telling you, so this can lead to more frustration.

In the final analysis, they want your money and it’s in their interest to make it much more agreeable for you to part with it.

My early experience was a salutary lesson and one which I will never forget. If only I could turn the clock back. If only I’d said “Desculpe, mas eu não falo Português muito bem. Pode ajudar-me?”, it might have been a different story.

Ms Crimplene might have been more inclined to help me and I might have been more inclined to try a bit harder in the future.

I have no recollection of the final outcome of my abortive visit to the Finanças. It’s of little consequence. Suffice to say, I swore I’d never go there again, or to any other government department for that matter.

But life’s not like that, especially if you decide to live here, and there were plenty more bureaucratic encounters in the pipeline. Desculpe is the key to it all.

The ‘open sesame’ to all your problems. Along with com licença – excuse me – (although faz favor is an adequate alternative), you can take on any situation with confidence.

Believe me, I’ve done it. Whether you’re querying a restaurant bill or trying to change your address, desculpe smoothes the way for an amicable outcome.

Desculpe parece ser a palavra mais difícil.  ‘Sorry seems to be the word more difficult.’

That’s the literal translation, but it doesn’t fit in with the tune. And anyway, it’s not true.