PORTUGAL may have just lost out to Greece in the football stakes last year, but a recent worldwide study has now crowned the Portuguese world champions at…not sleeping!
According to research carried out in 28 countries, involving 14,100 subjects, by the multinational AC Nielsen, not only do the people in this country sleep less than anyone else, they also go to bed later. In fact, a whopping 75 per cent admit to not hitting the pillow until well after midnight, something Teresa Paiva of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Lisbon attributes to people’s general life style and television programming. To me, these findings make sense and explain a lot!
Anyone brought up in Northern Europe, as I was, normally has deeply ingrained habits drummed into them by their parents, from an early age, that set them on a permanent collision course in countries used to a different rhythm, no matter how much you have chilled out and adapted.
In the old days, when I came to Portugal purely on holiday, the first thing I did on arriving at the airport was to take off my watch and bury it somewhere in my luggage, until it was time to return to my life controlled by the second hand. At first it was difficult to relax and the whitish stigma on my wrist burned easily, but, as I began to tan, the need for accurate time-keeping began to diminish.
Taking the bus became less stressful. Whereas, in the past, I used to arrive at the terminal sweating profusely only to find that it had departed early or was not coming at all, I now sat in the shade outside a nearby café reading a book until my transport appeared.
Now living and working here, I once again rely on my watch to get me through a tight daily schedule combining several unrelated activities. This is where I am forced to return to the aforementioned “collision course” and the late nights. Have you noticed that, during rush hours (these can occur at any time of day), everyone is speeding, driving recklessly, combing their hair, on the phone or, more likely than not, combining all four activities? That is because everyone is always late – late to bed, late to get up, and hence late for work, the dentist or whatever. Having one of the highest death rates on the roads is a direct consequence.
Kids here are taught this latest skill very young. If you go out at a “normal” hour, perhaps to get away from the kids, forget it. There is no watershed. Screaming children and benignly smiling parents will turn every selfish visit to any given watering hole into a circus. More often than not, your planned visit to the toilet will be blocked cunningly by a group of wily urchins camping out there and, should you ever need to over indulge, a drooling infant will immediately send up shafts of guilt, even well after midnight.
It is no wonder then that these children grow up to consider it normal to go out for coffee at 11pm, when your eyes are already glazing over, and ensure that no self-respecting dance floor gets going before 3am. Portuguese days are structured to facilitate this abhoration with open-ended lunches, which can involve anything eaten in the afternoon and dinner commencing anytime after 9pm.
Weekends are different, of course, as one does not have to go to work. Early afternoon becomes breakfast time, after which the car is taken out for a leisurely stroll, a practice that stands in stark contrast to the tyre-squealing weekdays, if not just as dangerous. Anyone finding themselves at the tail end of one of these long “processions” will be driven to distraction. Single cars, too, indulge in this erratic behaviour, sightseeing on wheels, prone to abrupt stops, or not previously advised left or right turns. By the way, make sure you fill up during the week as petrol stations are one of the “Meccas” of the Portuguese auto-tripper, who is now even able to get a “bica” there.
The worst offenders of all, however, are the “emigrants”, who get up everyone’s nose and are proud of it. Usually much in evidence in August, these are hoards of Portuguese living and working abroad (there are over a million in Paris alone!), who return during the summer to quench their “saudade”.
Justifying the betrayal of the country of their birth with the quest for a better life, they demonstrate their comparative wealth with ostentatious symbols and have actually started believing that they are somehow superior. Taking up three tables in a small, family-run restaurant, they haggle over the price of a small bottle of water without the remotest show of shame. Even worse, these discussions take place in any other language than Portuguese, a policy that is supposed to confirm an attitude of cultural resistance. Come September, an audible sigh of relief sweeps the country.
Sleeplessness has also influenced Christmas and football. Have you ever spent Christmas Eve with a Portuguese family? In Germany, you get your presents when it gets dark, eat, then sleep. In Britain, you go to bed, wake up refreshed and plunder your stocking. In Portugal, you sit around for hours and hours, with relatives you would rather do without, waiting for midnight. And you eat and eat. Drink is available in abundance and, if you have kept to your lifelong habit of greeting the sun as it rises, rather than waking at around three in the afternoon, the witching hour never comes, much to everyone’s disapproval. My only advice is to stick to coffee and avoid the omnipresent whiskey.
Football – a religion institutionalised by the dictator Salazar to keep the masses from thinking about politics. The most important games do not happen at 3pm on Saturday afternoons but late on Sunday nights. Now, almost exclusively shown on cable television, a bar is a must. Ensuing discussions involving the relative merits of Sporting, Benfica and Porto often carry on deep into the night. In the probable absence of any women, the obliging landlord then closes the curtains and switches over to a porno channel. Monday morning absenteeism is common, stress causing insomnia being the most common reason given.
Have you ever stood outside a shop with the “Volto já” sign on the door that stays there for the rest of the day? You now know why it remains there for the rest of the week too.
Don’t get me wrong – I love it here, I love the optimistic Portuguese mentality. In a tongue-in-cheek way, I am only saying: start going to bed later!