I am not a morning person. My day starts ever-so-slowly with coffee, a croissant from the bakery below, and more coffee. I pretend to write, usually doing little more than making a to-do list that I won’t get done. The list is always overly ambitious. I am not.
Mostly I spend my first hour or so watching the water and the people. This morning, the tide is going out and the men (and occasional women) who gather mussels are working, their digging making steady scritch-scritch sounds as they scrape the mud.
I asked a Portuguese man I know what they collect. He said oysters but, while his English is far better than my Portuguese, he had to search for the word. It occurred to me, once again, that I have reached the age of seniority and I still don’t know the difference between clams, mussels, oysters, quahogs, and whatever else type of slimy things humans eat. I do not eat seafood, which to my uneducated brain and palate automatically includes shellfish. Yet, when I tell people I don’t eat fish, they tend to come back with “Even shellfish?” I restrain myself from breaking down the word shell-FISH for them, but to me, they have answered their own question.
I looked it up once—the differences between all these clam-like things. About the only thing I can remember is that oysters make pearls, and really, that’s only because I read Steinbeck’s The Pearl in high school. But once they are out of their shells, how do you tell them apart? And does it matter? Because I can’t imagine that they taste that much different. Is a mussel in garlic butter that much different from a clam or oyster or even octopus (within the phylum mollusca, so they’re family) in garlic butter? I can guaranty that none of them taste like chicken.
Portugal is seafood heaven. The long coastlines are dotted with fishing villages; mine is one of many. While my particular village is known as the octopus (polvo) capital of the world, the daily catch includes all sorts of fish. The boats go out late at night and come back around 7:00 or 8:00 am. They wheel their catch in bright orange trays up to the clearing house. Then they move the boat to its berth, clean it off, and head home for the day.
Down the street, the fish market opens about the same time. There’s always a short line of people, waiting for fresh fish for that day’s meal. There is also a very smart, sleek, satisfied cat who is a regular.
Fishing is both an industry and a culture here. A heritage. The Portuguese are known to be excellent sailors for a reason—many grew up on the sea, as their fathers did before them. You might point out that this is true of coastal fishermen all over the world. I might point out that many of those fishermen have Portuguese surnames.
I often look at the boats here, sturdy, lumbering, practical and built for work, and think about the boats I would see in Sarasota Harbor. Boats—yachts mostly—sit in their expensive berths for weeks and months on end. Someone is paid to check on them and run the engines on a regular basis. But they don’t go anywhere. Tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands into millions of dollars in sea-going vessels sit unused. They are boat owners, not sailors. The sport fishermen go out and the high-paying guests come back with a respectable catch which is cleaned and packed in ice for them. They are people who go fishing, not fishermen.
There’s a vast difference between having something and being something. We tend to identify with our possessions, whether it is a house, a car, even a piano. I have a guitar; my playing reveals that I am not a guitarist.
Wifi, cell phones, pricey running shoes are all available and in use here. But don’t be fooled: These are just modern trappings. The rhythm of this town is bound to the rhythm of the tides. The heart of Portugal is as old as the sea.