How are you? If you are Portuguese, the chances are that you aren’t well. You have aches and general pains and you likely haven’t been sleeping well. If you are feeling well then someone you know is not feeling well or you are worried about some financial or legal issue in your life.

Rest assured, a Portuguese person will always have something to complain about. If they don’t, they fret over the fact that life is good which portends an ill wind ahead. A recent European Union (EU) survey found that Portugal was the most pessimistic member of the EU. I didn’t need an EU survey to tell me what I already know.

The main cause of Portuguese pessimism stems from health issues. We are obsessed with our health and we are hypochondriacs. The moment a pain or twinge is felt we immediately think the worse and believe this is finally what is going to kill us.

I am not immune to this. I recently underwent a barrage of tests after a checkup revealed a problem. In the end, it was benign, but I moped around worried for weeks leading up to the verdict.

When it comes to health the Portuguese have an unnaturally high occurrence of diseases and maladies. I came upon this realization early in life when I helped my mother with her weekly grocery shopping. As we walked down Ferry Street in Newark, New Jersey she ran into friends and when asked how they were feeling the responses were never positive.

I gained all sorts of knowledge about female reproductive organs and gynecological issues. The women detailed the latest disorder affecting them and the treatment. If it wasn’t gynecological issues it was problems with their vesícula (gall bladder). It was the number one problem that every Portuguese woman suffered from.

For a long time, I assumed that Portuguese women had a genetic deficiency that predisposed them to gall bladder problems for almost all my mother’s friends suffered from it. If they were healthy, they complained about crime in the neighborhood. Indeed, it seemed that all Portuguese women in Newark, New Jersey were amateur detectives. I think that my affinity for Sherlock Holmes stemmed from the fact that these women seemed to be able to solve crimes.

My father’s Portuguese friends were equally plagued. They were beset by gout, back issues, and knee problems. Every Portuguese man was also tormented by liver problems. They stroked their right side as they described it. They described how incredulous they became when told by doctor’s that they should cut back on alcohol.

“Henrique, they want to take away my little cup of wine with dinner,” they said to my father and would then invite him to go “matar o bicho” at the local bar. (Matar o bicho is an expression meaning to take a drink and cure what ails you. In early medicine, a shot of hard liquor was believed to cure bichos or bugs that made you ill.)

They were also deeply vexed by labor union issues and politics. Hearing them talk about it made me think that Portuguese construction workers were illtreated and discriminated against. There was always an “Americano” boss/supervisor that had it in for the Portuguese.

Matar o bicho

We are so obsessed with health that we augment our medical treatment with homeopathic alternatives. In many Portuguese families, there is an elder woman who takes on the role of apothecary, chiropractor, and necromancer. This family member knows all sorts of homeopathic remedies, usually in the form of curing teas and herbs.

Some are said to have the ability to massage misaligned muscles, tendons and nerves. When dark forces bring misfortune some of these women are said to possess the ability to conjure healing spiritual forces. Often the cause of misfortune is an “evil eye” or spell that was cast upon the victim. Charms, medallions and other decorative trinkets are deployed to ward off the evil.

I never understood why a healing or “good eye” could not be deployed as a countermeasure. While these women go to doctor’s to be diagnosed, they tend to be skeptics and augment their treatment with their own concoctions. Upon marriage, you gain an additional “wizard” since your spouse has their own family member that is “gifted”. If they don’t get along the women tend to accuse each other of being a “bruxa” (witch).

There is a certain ease in the way we freely and openly discuss our maladies. This “openness” in describing medical or personal problems was vexing to me because Portuguese people tend to be very private and secret.

Growing up I was told that what is discussed in the house is not for public consumption. My Portuguese friends described similar philosophies in their homes, yet everyone was out there unburdening themselves to anyone that listened. As I became older, I spotted a theme. The Portuguese seemed to focus more on the negative things in their lives over the positive. While they boasted about an accomplishment they never went into as much detail as when describing a setback. I think it has to do with the nobility of suffering and not wanting to tempt fate.

There is a certain nobility in suffering. Enduring pain and anguish in a dignified way isn’t something that is unique to the Portuguese. The English notion of “a stiff upper lip” is well known but it differs from the Portuguese. The English notion is that one quietly and bravely endures what life throws our way and sees it through no matter what. Similarly, the Portuguese endure life’s troubles, but they want everyone to know about it. The suffering, therefore, becomes something we utilize to uniquely identify us. It becomes our defining characteristic.

We like it when people say we nobly endure life’s problems. We dare not tempt fate and boast too deeply about our well-being. If we do share an accomplishment, we temper it by listing the hardships that await us.

I dare say that if a Portuguese person wins the lottery, they will play it down by saying “easy come, easy go” and claim a long list of debts that will drain their new-found fortune. I suspect that this “nobility” may even discourage treatment.

When I tagged along with my mother and father and heard all these people complaining I never understood why they didn’t seek a cure. For instance, a common condition among the Portuguese is carpal tunnel syndrome. Many suffer from this because the work they performed was labor intensive and involved the repetitive use of their hands. Contrary to popular belief there are cures for carpal tunnel syndrome in the form of physical therapy, medication (analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs), cortisone shots and surgery. Yet despite the access to medical care many of my Portuguese relatives and friends continue to endure pain and discomfort. They relish at the opportunity to tell you about it. I sometimes get cross with these relatives because I too suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and receive cortisone shots as treatment.

As I grow older, I too struggle with health issues and I fight to fight the urge to openly talk about it. Indeed, as I wrote this, I deleted several drafts in which I listed my conditions. I caught myself the other day responding to the question of “how I was” when I began to respond that I wasn’t well.

I complained to a colleague at work about all sorts of things. I reminded myself that most people ask the question of “how are you” as a conversation starter. While they may care about your health and well-being, they don’t want to listen to you list your problems in detail.

The expected answer is “I am OK” or “I am not OK, but I will get through it” because no one wants to hear about your medical issues in detail. It makes people uncomfortable because they are compelled to tell you about their issues despite their reticence to do so. Illness and misfortune are not unique to anyone and it shouldn’t define us.

So, the next time you are asked “how are you” defy the urge to be pessimistic and focus on the good things in our life. You are in fact Portuguese and that alone is reason enough to be optimistic for we are enriched with tradition, culture and delicious food.


About Author

Nelson De Sousa is a Portuguese food blogger and creator of the Facebook Group “Cooking Portuguese Food” and its companion website . He has been cooking since the age of thirteen and is passionate about food in general and Portuguese food in particular. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey Nelson spent most of his summer holidays helping his grandfather with his small farm in Murtosa, Portugal learning animal husbandry and agriculture. While attending Pace University for his bachelor’s degree Nelson was the morning disc jockey at 640 AM WPUB. Whilst studying for his master’s degree in international affairs at Rutgers University Nelson went on the intern at the Permanent Mission of Portugal to the United Nations from 1998 to 2000 and was also a former contributor to the Newark, New Jersey based newspaper "The Portuguese Post". In 2010 Nelson interned at O Lagar Restaurant in Union, New Jersey where he worked under Chef Agostinho (Augie) Gomes, who is the chef de cuisine at Taste of Portugal Restaurant in Newark New Jersey (consistently voted best Portuguese Restaurant in New Jersey). Nelson is also the winner of the Rumba Meats recipe of the month for his Portuguese Oxtail Stew. In his spare time Nelson is an avid ham radio enthusiast operating under the callsign KD2CYU. He lives with his family in Raritan Township, New Jersey.

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