It’s that time of the year again. The weather is hot, school is out, and Luso-Americans are contemplating their summer holidays in Portugal. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s this was my favorite time of the year. I marked the days off as we approached our departure date.
Like many Portuguese immigrants, my parents saved their vacation allotment during the year, so they had 4 to 5 weeks to visit Portugal. They worked through illness, inclement weather and whatever came their way just to have a decent chunk of time to spend with family and friends.
Before the advent of live video chats, Facebook and cheap international calling rates, visiting Portugal was much more than a vacation. It was the only opportunity to see family and friends in Portugal.
Immigration split families across North America, Europe, and Latin America but in the summer they all flocked home driven by “Saudade”. For those weeks’ families were re-united, old friendships rekindled and memories were made.
The build-up to the departure date was exciting. It began with my father selecting his vacation schedule. He worked at Public Service Electric and Gas, and vacation selection was based on seniority. In the early years of his career, he only had 2 weeks of vacation time and not much in the way of prime summer dates to choose from. So, early in my childhood, it meant we traveled to Portugal in the spring or fall, and only for a short time. As he gained seniority we eventually traveled in the summer.
My mom’s work was more flexible because there weren’t as many employees. The PSE&G vacation schedule was set in February so every year around President’s Day my dad came home with his vacation schedule.
The process of purchasing tickets and renting a car was all done as soon as he got this. We marked the days on the calendar eagerly awaiting our departure and dreaming of Portugal in the summer even as snow, ice, and brutally cold temperatures punctuated our daydreaming.
The next crucial time was the last day of school because it meant we were getting close. Once school let out my mom would assess the clothes situation. We needed to look our best in the “old country” so my parents would go to the mall and buy us new clothes.
We also purchased gifts to bring to family and friends. It was like we were Santa Claus in the summer. It wasn’t so much that people in Portugal liked the gifts, but rather they enjoyed getting American things like clothes, sweets, and electronics.
I never really saw my parents’ splurge in my life except on two occasions: Portugal trip shopping and when my dad bought a brand new 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme fully loaded.
Looking your best in Portugal was key for my parents. They were going to see family and friends and wanted to impress. This was an odd character trait for them because in America we never really “showed off”. Apart from my dad’s automobile purchase in 1978, we lived a frugal lifestyle.
My dad drove used cars for most of his life. Our house, while fully renovated inside, looked dreary and dull from the outside and we never wore designer clothes.
We lived a muted social life as well. My parents rarely went out to eat, and apart from a fundraiser, wedding or christening, we didn’t attend social events.
They preferred to entertain at home, and I can remember some amazing dinners and parties for family and friends in our basement… heck, we even had dancing on certain occasions.
My father never hung out at bars or cafes, preferring to stay home and tinker in his workshop. My mom was the same, apart from her Saturday afternoon shopping on Ferry Street, where she would bump into friends and chat for what seemed like hours, while I held the heavy grocery bags.
In Portugal, they changed. We went out to eat, wore our new clothes and even hung out at the beach cafes after dinner. They “let their hair down” so to speak, in a way I didn’t understand until I was much older. This “rapture” was the result of enjoying the hard work and sacrifice they endured for the rest of the year. They toiled hard to feed, clothe and school us and this was their reward.
For my sister and I, the plane ride was its own special unique experience. Right from the start of our journey, it was magical. Walking into the JFK Airport TWA Terminal 5 in the 1970s and 80s was a life-changing event.
The Eero Saarinen designed building was something out of a Jetsons cartoon. It was like visiting a modern museum with airplanes and passengers as exhibits.
We marveled at all the different looking people from all over the world and the planes that ferried them about.
Air travel in the 70s and 80s was markedly different than it is today. Air travel was luxurious even for economy passengers. There were no TSA lines, stringent baggage rules, and no 3-ounce liquid limit. It was fun to travel.
The flight took only 5 hours because TWA used a four-engine 747 jet, unlike current trans-Atlantic flights which take up to 7 hours on a two-engine plane. The seats were wider, they actually fed you, and kids got wing pins, playing cards and, if the pilot was in a good mood, a visit to the cockpit.
My sister and I marveled at the food trays with their compartmentalized miniature items, the tiny soaps in the restrooms and the view from 30,000 feet in the air. I loved the plane’s entertainment service which, back in the day, consisted of 7 music stations and the one movie that they offered to the entire plane on a very small screen.
Despite my parents’ best efforts, we couldn’t sleep on the overnight journey. We didn’t want to miss anything on the flight.
Upon landing in Lisbon, the entire plane clapped and the next part of our journey began. After collecting our bags, we made our way to the rental car desk.
As I mentioned earlier, my dad drove used cars so renting a car was fascinating. We loved the smell of the vehicle and all the new fancy features in it like a cassette player. My dad’s 1978 Oldsmobile, that he drove well into the 80s, only had an 8-track player.
The ride from Lisbon to Murtosa was probably the worse. Before the A-1 highway was fully completed, linking Lisbon to Porto, took 5 hours to get to our destination on the Estrada Nacional (N-1). The N-1 was a two-lane highway (one lane in each direction) so if you got behind a truck or slow driver you were stuck until the passing lane area which were few and far between.
The ride on the N-1 was exhausting because we were jet-lagged and the road conditions were downright dangerous in some areas. I don’t know how my father did it. When the A-1 was built it cut the journey to 2 hours and 38 minutes.
When we finally reached our destination, we were greeted with such love and affection, the likes of which I never experienced. From my grandparents to my great aunts we were literarily crushed in hugs.
Beyond the happiness of a reunion, the occasion marked something more profound. The reception was a manifestation of belonging. It was a homecoming even though it wasn’t our home per se. I felt that I was among my people, my kin and my cultural home.
While my parents unpacked, I began to explore. The vacation meant different things for my parents and me. Their main priorities were to see their family and friends and relax for the duration of the trip. The experience was markedly different for my sister and me. While I looked forward to seeing my family, going to Portugal had a whole other aspect to it. Portugal meant freedom to explore, an occasion to experience new things and soak up my culture and heritage.
The Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey was a much safer place to live back when I was a kid, but it wasn’t exactly like a “gated community”. Like any city in the world, there were dangers like busy streets with heavy car volume, drugs, crime, and violence.
My parents were stricter than those of my friends, so I had rules growing up. I only played on my block (so my parents could check up on me from a window), coming inside when the sun went down and limited places I could visit (the park, library and visiting the homes of family and friends).
In Portugal, I could do much more. Murtosa is a small town in the Aveiro region where the major street threat was cow dung. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, but only to point out that avoiding it was the only thing you worried about.
It was a farming and fishing community, and everyone knew each other. Many didn’t have cars and the major crime was pickpocketing when the town held its weekly open-air market on Thursdays.
As I grew older, my parents allowed me to go virtually anywhere, and I only had a few rules: I had to be home at 12 noon and 6:00 PM to eat.
While I took full advantage of this freedom, I probably spent more time just toiling around my grandfather’s small farm.
I followed him as he went about his chores, asking questions and learning about growing vegetables and raising animals. Eventually, I helped him weed the fields, till the land, and process the animals destined for the dinner table. Much of the time we just talked about anything and everything.
He told me stories about his time in America and the hardships he faced in getting there. My favorite story was how he made his way through Europe in the middle of World War II.
My grandmother couldn’t do much physically, due to her health, but as she sat in a chair under the grapevines, she ran the whole operation.
From the outside looking in, many said that my stoic grandfather was a hard man who oversaw his affairs, but they were wrong. It was true that he was “hard” in a Clint Eastwood sort of way, but she really pulled the strings.
She did so because he simply adored her. When I wasn’t with my grandfather, I sat with her and talked about life. She had a way of just listening and making you think you were the center of the universe.
When I got into trouble and my father yelled at me, with cause, my grandmother jumped to my defense, and held a finger to her lips, telling my father to “shut up”. I loved that… here was my father being shushed and not able to do anything about it.
Looking back at that time, from an adult perspective, that was really the best part of going to Portugal. While the roaming about, the dining and sightseeing were fun, the truly best part was spending time with my grandparents. Even then I got a sense that these precious moments were to be treasured because they weren’t infinite. The vacation would end and someday soon my grandparents wouldn’t be around (my grandmother died in 1986).
It was this notion of fragility that tinged our farewell. On the day of our departure, the mood was always somber. It was like a funeral in many ways.
We quietly awoke in the early hours of the morning, ate breakfast, got dressed and methodically collected our things. Not much was said until the final moments. Even writing about it now makes me sad. Those clutching hugs and tear-soaked kisses were gut-wrenching. It wasn’t simply the sorrow of longing for their company but the fact that you didn’t know if this was the last time you would see them. The worse was August 1993 when I said goodbye to my grandfather. He had cancer and the doctors had given him about a year. I didn’t want to let go, and I cried all the way to the airport. He passed away on April 1994.
The journey back to America wasn’t as fun but it had its own moments. The closer we got to America the more we began to learn about what had happened while we were away. Before the Internet, we were simply isolated from American events. Unless there was some major news story, Portuguese television didn’t carry any American news.
The first thing my father did at the airport was to buy an American newspaper. He gave me the sports section and I read the latest New York Yankees news. On the aircraft, we scoured the free magazines to catch up on events at home. Upon arrival at JFK airport the familiar smell and sounds that we were accustomed to returned.
When we arrived at our house on Elm Street another homecoming greeted our return as neighbors and family welcomed us back. My father usually got us pizza or Italian hot dogs from the pizzeria around the corner on Lafayette Street.
As the evening got darker, I watched the Yankees’ game and eventually fell asleep but just before surrendering to it I quickly did some math and figured out how many days to February when my dad chose his vacation schedule.