I wrote the following last year a few weeks after I arrived in Northern Portugal to do my field work. I was alone in a foreign country where my language skills were not very good at all. The hospitality of the family I write about helped me tremendously to feel like I fit in and that I could live and work there.
I have always cringed a bit when students who have returned from exchange programs abroad refer to members of the families they stayed with as my “French Mother” or my “Spanish sister.” And who actually addressed the adults of the family as Mother and Father in the appropriate language. This always seemed to be to be a bit forced, overly contrived. And I couldn’t fathom how I could call anyone ‘Mother’ who wasn’t actually my mother.
Imagine my surprise then at my own words when I announced that Lourdes and Almeno, and Teadora (Dorinha) and her baby were like my family after a few days of staying at their Quinta do Poço in northern Portugal. But they were like my family. I was frequently invited to family Saturday dinner, just like a member of the actual extended family which included brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, etc. Lourdes constantly urged me to eat more, I was too skinny, just like my actual mother. Almeno smoked a cigarette after dinner, offered me endless glasses of vinho tinto or vinho do porto, talked to me about American politics, cattle raising in Portugal and America and about whether men in the US helped clear the table and shouldn’t he not be required to help since my dad never did either, even if my boyfriend did help me. All essentially Dad-like topics. Dorinha chatted with me, helped me with my telemovíl and its incomprehensibilities, laughed at some of my Portuguese pronunciations, I teased her about some of her English pronunciations and her fear of cows, and we even shared our own inside jokes. Once on a steep roadside hill we were helpless with laughter and had to cling to each other to keep from rolling down the hill and into the path of oncoming cars. All the best parts of having a sister, as I always imagined them. I played with the Bebe, who was named after his father but always called simply “Bebe.” I allowed him to kiss me, snatch my pens away. I indulged him in crankiness and danced with him in the family living room. I think they all became fully my Portuguese family when they insisted on doing my laundry. My t-shirts and jeans and bras hung out to dry right next to theirs, surely a sign that I was one of the family.
I never did call Lourdes and Almeno “Mai” and “Pai” but I was strictly instructed to drop the “Sehnora” and “Senhor” that should automatically come before their names in polite Portuguese society. But perhaps had I been ten or fifteen years younger and staying with them as an exchange student I probably would have succumbed to calling them my Portuguese mai, pai, irmanha, irmão, nieto, tio, tia, etc.
Update: This year when I was in Portugal for a week and needed a place to stay I ended up staying in my Portuguese family’s actual house, instead of just the rooms they rent to tourists. There was a long weekend and the Quinta was all booked up. So, rather than turn me out, they put me in the Bebe’s room (who is now referred to as Ruca, nickname for Rui, his first name). Dorinha is becoming more and more of a mother- she now urges me to eat more, just like her mother does! My Portuguese has gotten a lot better so I am able to participate more in family-wide conversations at the dinner table. I told them that everyone at home refers to them as my Portuguese Family. They thought this was very funny, but I think they were also touched.