Sunday, October 24, 2010

My love of Maria-A Very Long Story

I love the people of Lisbon! From the beginning of our visit until now, I feel they are the most gracious of all peoples. It is amazing how many of the Portuguese townfolk we have become close to. On many days it is the local butcher, the restaurant manager or the shop girl that calls out to us by name. I have made it a priority to remember their names and often we will hug and kiss (both cheeks) on the street.

Adjacent to our flat is the escadinhas that we must walk down to get anywhere. When we first arrived here last August I met a woman sitting on her doorstop. At first I thought her to be elderly. Gray haired, she wore her apron- covered house dress, sturdy black shoes and she looked very much like my own grandmother who arrived from Russia in the early 1900's. Unsure of her age, I was still certain she was older than me. However, there were no lines on her face.

Each day (and I see her at least once a day) I would say Bom Dia and she would, in turn, wish me a Bom Dia with a big smile on her face. I got very use to seeing her familiar face on my treks up and down the stairs. In the warmer months I dreamed of her inviting me in for a cold drink before my last grueling stair steps back home. I told Steve that my goal was to be invited into this woman's little house on the stairs before leaving Portugal.

As the weeks wore on I would stop to talk to her before heading UP. My knees would be aching and I would moan and point to my tired legs as I passed her. She in turn would point to her own body parts that were old and tired and aching. She even raised her skirt (after looking both ways on the stairs to make sure no one else was there) and showed me her two scars from her hip operations. Finally, using many hand signals, I told her my name was Ellyn and asked what her name was. This was the start of my wonderful friendship with Maria.

I have always found it fairly easy to communicate with people from different countries without knowing their language. My own beautiful daughter- in- law is from the Czech Republic and when I first met her mother, Kristina, she spoke no English, and I, no Czech. Yet we managed to spend hours together laughing and yapping away in our own languages, somehow making ourselves understood. We started with food (of course). Cooking in the kitchen is always a great ice breaker. We taught one another many words (first, all the curse words)...and now I consider her a dear friend. I knew I could do the same with Maria.

As days passed I found myself disappointed if I didn't see Maria. So, as I passed her apartment each day I would call to her through her open window. I would hear her little voice talking to herself as she would run to the door to see me, unlocking at least five locks. Her greetings now were always the same.... multiple kisses on each cheek with tight hugs. She smelled wonderful, just like my Nanny (grandmother) did. I am not sure what her perfume is...but I bet it is Tabu, which is the dusting powder my grandmother used.

my greeting each day from Maria

Ten days ago, my brother Robert and his wife Helen arrived for a visit. I, of course, told them all about Maria and as we trudged down the stairs I called out to her. I managed to make the introductions and she seemed to understand who everyone was. She particularly loves Steve and goes on and on to me in Portuguese about how handsome and strong he is. Before long, she was kissing the rest of them and that routine continued throughout their visit. One day Helen and I knocked on her door to bring her some pasteis de natas and some chocolate heart cookies that I bought from the bakery. I attached a note (written in Portuguese) telling her she was the sweetest woman in Portugal so I was bringing her some sweets. She seemed quite overwhelmed with her present because there were tears in her eyes as she gave out her wonderful kisses to us both.

The following evening I decided to invite Maria for dinner. I wrote her a long note in Portuguese (with the help of Google Translate) and knocked on her door. A young friend had also stopped to talk to her. When I handed Maria the note she handed it to her friend who read it out loud. It was then I suspected that Maria perhaps could not read. Having been brought up during the reign of Salazar, Maria's education was limited if not non-existent. During his dictatorship, Salazar frowned on any education and only an elite few managed to attend grade school and higher education. I found it quite sad to learn about his government. (check out: Salazar). After getting the invitation, Maria refused...going on and on about my living in a palace...(which of course we don't)...and making some other excuses I couldn't understand. Hoping she would change her mind, I went to pick her up at 7pm only to find her in pajamas and fuzzy slippers. She hugged and kissed and sent me on her way.

The next morning before even showering, I quickly dressed and Helen and I brought Maria some leftovers of frango and arroz (chicken and rice). Much to my delight, Maria invited Helen and me inside her home.

Maria's tiny bedroom
This beautiful, tiny woman with a very large heart began sharing her life with me. She showed me family photos and talked about her love of her dad. Surprisingly, I was beginning to understand her as she talked slowly in Portuguese. I learned that she is 64 years of age (only four years older than me.) I learned that she has lived 40 years in this tiny home with large pieces of furniture that I found difficult to maneuver around. Everything was immaculate and she even opened bureau drawers to show her underthings neatly folded and strangely, a huge number of bath towels folded in the dining room hutch drawers. If I had to guess I would say her home is less than 400 square feet, but every inch was filled with beautiful things that told me so much about her. It was warm and comfortable and perfect for Maria who lived there now all alone.

Yesterday we were all walking up the hill from one of our last expeditions before Helen and Robert returned to the U.S. Ahead I saw my wonderful friend trudging to her home with some groceries. I ran up to her,  took her arm and insisted that she come to my apartment for a drink...NO EXCUSES. The poor thing probably thought she was being kidnapped, but Steve took her arm (she can't resist him) and led her up to our flat.

Once there, I filled these miniature chocolate cups with Ginja and Maria, Helen and I sat on the porch drinking and talking. I brought the computer out with me and once again using Google translate, asked her more questions in Portuguese about her ife. How she understood me I will never know. My accent is horrific, but I did manage to find out she had a husband that died 16 years ago of some stomach ailment, the number of siblings she had and what her children do for a living.

We had a wonderful time and I even showed her pictures of my children and grandchildren and she asked many questions about each of them. I told her I would so appreciate her helping me with my Portuguese and she readily agreed. Immediately she pointed to different things in the apartment naming them in Portuguese. Now I have a teacher!!!   Finally, it was time for her to leave and after the expected warm hugs and kisses, she walked on home. It was a lovely afternoon!

So now, I know have a friend for life. It will be sad when I have to leave Portugal for many reasons, but mostly, I will be sad to leave Maria.

Eu adoro minha amiga, Maria


  1. Ellyn - what a warm, beautiful story - how lucky for both of you that you took the time and made the effort - thanks for sharing such an endearing tale - enjoy all your adventures :) Roni

  2. Thank you for sharing this lovely story - how wonderful to find such a dear friend so far from home. ~Peggy

  3. I have enjoyed all your stories but this one brings tears to my eyes!
    I'm rereading everything to take notes this time since my husband and I are going to be in Lisbon in June.
    Elenita y Howard Arturo, friends of Linda and Ron Felton