this too
Monday, February 21, 2005
  Alentejo


Le Monde had some interesting coverage of yesterday’s general election in Portugal, in which the centre-left Socialist Party took power from the centre-right Social Democrats. A reporter had been to the Alentejo, the flat southern agricultural province, land of cork oaks and rice fields, of vast rural estates, high unemployment and a massive exit of youth to the cities – and heartland of the peaceful revolution of 1974 which ousted the dictatorship and expropriated many of those feudal spreads.

Whilst Portugal has found its balance, veering back towards centrist politics and the European Union, and long since handed back the expropriated farms, it seems that many a town and village of the Alentejo still turns out a majority vote for the Communist-Green alliance and looks back with pride and nostalgia to 1974 as the end of a third world existence in Europe.

We went to the Alentejo in the summer of 1978, just out of college and idealistic supporters of the ‘Carnation Revolution’. We had the best and worst of times. My boyfriend had studied Portuguese at university and spoke it fluently. I did not, but understood a little since I spoke Spanish. H talked to a few people in the bars of the small town where we pitched up and we were soon trundling down rough tracks to a large farm, a cooperative run by its workers, the manor house lying empty while all preferred to stay in their closely grouped toy cottages – pleasant enough, at least in summer, but no electricity, water or sanitation.

This community of 40 or so people took us to its heart. We slept on a straw-stuffed mattress in the barn and a different family fed us every day. In fact they overfed us, in competition for the most lavish hospitality and, exhausted by field work and culture shock, we took it all in – food and much more.

Up every morning at 4, we climbed into the back of a large truck with about 20 women of all ages to ride to the fields of rice, chickpeas (garbanzos) and tomatoes, where we planted, weeded, gathered by hand until a late lunch – a big shared picnic of sardines and potatoes under the trees – before heading back.

Backbreaking work, bending over for hours and hours to hard ground or rice fields ankle-deep in water. Women’s work, while the men conducted business, drove tractors and - it must be said - swaggered a bit. Cooperation did not mean equality. One woman only, the elected manager’s wife, served on the farm's management committee. Shocking to learn that none of the women, not even the bright, confident girls my own age, could read or write.

For work, I was kitted out like the others, in layers – a short skirt over fitted cotton leggings, a long-sleeved shirt, a small trilby hat secured with elastic under the chin over a headscarf. H worked with the women too, since he couldn’t drive a tractor, but was allowed to come as he was.

Work was the only thing H and I did together. On the first day, a group of young men spirited him away on the back of motorbike and returned him with a manly haircut and a shocked expression (he’d had shoulder-length waves). As soon as work was over they took him off drinking, while I was inducted into milking goats (a pleasure) and washing our clothes in the communal wash house (not quite such a pleasure). Sucked utterly into the strongly shared assumptions of a cohesive community, neither of us demurred. We bathed in cheerful friendship and acceptance, grew brown, healthy and blistered. I learned to speak a lot of Portuguese. And alone at last at night in the barn, we exchanged hard looks by torchlight... each drawn back so easily into the separate tribe of our own sex.


Memories, as I read that French article, of dawn over a golden landscape, the feel of prickly chickpea plants in dusty soil and smooth rice shoots in cool soggy mud. Memories, too, of how afterwards, in Lisbon and most of the way home, H and I fought.
 
Comments:
It is a joy to learn both something of your personal experience and world history as well. Your entry made me realise that the ONLY THING I know about Portugal is that Vasco Da Gama first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to find a trade route to India. Your description of that farming community is very vivid and beautiful. The effect it had on you and your friend will have me thinking for a long time.
 
A lovely telling, but bittersweet. It's like the start, or the end, of a novel. More story to tell, I'm sure.
 
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