The families have gone

Bless their hearts, the families are gone. Now that the kids are back in school all around Europe, the States, and even most in Portugal, the number of tourists clogging the beaches and jamming the roadways of the Algarve has dropped precipitously.

There are still plenty of golfers demanding 10am tee times; or people driving very slowly in their rented cars because they don’t know where they’re going; or nymphs of all sizes and shapes playing in the waves in skimpy swimsuits; but the numbers are much more manageable in part because the ones getting off the tour buses are mostly adults.

Don’t get me wrong, Ol’Pat loves kids – just not the ones who run through restaurants because mom is on vacation and apparently no longer responsible. The beach is much quieter now that a bunch of kids don’t scream every time a wave rolls in. There are also fewer tables of 12 taking up your waiter’s time, because there are fewer families sharing a villa for a month and going out to eat.

Actually, I love watching the traditional vacationing family out for a meal and having some quality time together. Dad, resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt, sits, as he should, at the head of the table. He always looks calm and confident with an air of “I can afford this” about him (even if he can’t, he has no choice, since there’s no food in the suite). Of course, Portugal is one of the more affordable places to pick up the cheque, certainly compared to Honolulu, Miami or London.

Mom sits to his right and looks pleased because she is – she doesn’t have to cook. The kids have never seen her before in an off-the-shoulder sundress and sandals with rhinestones, but that’s nice. Directly across from her is her sister, which means dad will be nodding often and saying little. Auntie is showing a bit more cleavage than the nephews were hoping for and she does look just a tad sun burned.

Then there’s the college-age son, a handsome young man in a shirt with an insignia of an almost life-size polo player. The young man looks happy because he probably is since he knows that, right after dinner, he’ll be allowed out on the town possibly with some friends, who are concurrently being very polite at their family gatherings. Hopefully, they won’t have so much fun that the Albufeira police will need to be called.

Of course, there’s also a teenage daughter, pouting under a ton of “Goth” makeup and sighing through her nose ring, who never looks happy and seldom takes her eyes off her phone even to eat. That’s what the rest of the siblings, nephews and nieces, are doing – staring at their smartphones. Ol’Pat doesn’t quite remember what his family did before Apple took over the world, but I think we might have talked to each other. At least we looked up from our plates when dad asked a direct question. #whome?

The main reason the Algarve is so popular, in-season and out, is that there are wonderful beaches all along the coast bathed in relentless sunshine. That’s why they were here – to enjoy family days at the beach. This is no small undertaking, by the way, with logistics becoming a major concern. Unless you’ve booked a beachfront property, getting to and from the sandy shoreline is a major undertaking. There are so many essentials that must be considered from towels and sunscreen to beach blankets and umbrellas along with books, beach balls, goggles and flippers, and flip-flops; to cameras, gallon bottles of water plus sodas, juices and beer; to spare tee shirts and of course an appropriate selection of headgear.

I don’t know when exactly the rule was written, but it is clearly and universally understood that dad and mom must wear silly hats while on vacation. For mom, it is basically a straw sun hat, which makes plenty of sense, even though it doesn’t need to be the width of a sombrero. Dad, who does get to play golf two or three times during the visit, often sports such a cap at other times. Often, however, he has a sillier chapeau in reserve, such as some sort of inverted bucket (which has to be floppy), or maybe a safari hat complete with flaps covering his ears and neck that he apparently kept from his days in the Foreign Legion. I have seen pith helmets and cowboy hats.

(A hat note: In Panama, where my lovely wife and I lived for over a decade before discovering and immediately moving to Portugal, tourists were easy to spot because they all wore – can you guess? – that’s right … Panama hats. No locals, native or expat, ever wore a Panama hat, ever. A fun trivia fact is real, authentic Panama hats are all produced in Ecuador. Go figure?)

Another fashion trend that Ol’Pat has noticed with mixed emotions is that the bottoms have seemed to drop out among women bathers. In the olden days, they used to be called G-strings, which were worn by exotic dancers at “gentlemen’s” clubs, or so I’ve been told. Now they’re simply the lower half of a two-piece swimsuit. Besides the extra-added expanse that is exposed to dangerous ultra-violet rays, the wearer probably should have remembered a beach blanket, because sitting on the scalding sand is virtually impossible. Quite a bit of discreet dusting off is almost always going on. Reports about how dad feels about this development are varied. Auntie, however, seems to have embraced the concept.

Before we retired, my lovely wife and I were teachers for most of our careers. My lovely wife had a 44-year career guiding young people toward a more educated and enlightened life. That, of course, meant that we always had to take our vacations when the schools were out, and that wherever we went, families followed.

It’s difficult to describe the exhilarating feeling of going to the beach for the first time on a nice sunny September weekday and strolling through the still warm surf with not a single giggling, crying, running, shouting child anywhere in sight. No worried moms called out warnings; no stern dads shouted commands. The only sounds were of crashing waves, distant seagulls and the laughing bark of a black lab accompanying another couple walking hand-in-hand in the warm glow of sunset.

Okay, I’ll stop waxing poetic, but it is pleasant, yet again. As we residents of the Algarve cherish all too well, this southern tip of Europe is a delightful place to be in September and October.

By Pat, the expat
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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.