Sunday morning traffic in Santa Luzia.
I have two sets of sliding glass doors in my living room that look out over the street below and afford me an almost panoramic view of the Tavira Canal and the Ria Formosa. I spend too much time (perhaps) watching the ferry go back and forth to the beach, the fishing boats offload their catches, and the people and cars coming and going.
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know what it’s like to honk and wave to people as you pass by in your car or stop for a minute to say hi. The main drag in the village is just wide enough for two cars to pass. Trucks are a bit trickier. The restaurants and cafés have outdoor eating areas protected from the hot Algarve sun by colorful umbrellas advertising Sagres beer and Nestle products.
I have two restaurants and a bakery café almost directly below me. There is no shortage of friendly honks and waves from drivers to diners and walkers. But what I absolutely LOVE most is that a car will stop in its lane for minutes while the driver (and sometimes passenger) catches up with friends who are dining al fresco. I have also seen pedestrians chatting with the driver of a stopped car in the street.
I’m not talking about a quick 30 second “Hi, how are you doing?” I’m talking five or ten minute conversations where the car is blocking one of the two very narrow lanes of traffic. Here’s the fun thing:
No one honks impatiently. They just wait a few seconds and when the other lane is clear, they go around the stopped car and continue on their merry way. (Once or twice, during season, there were occasional honks, but truly, they were not “our people.”) No one gets upset; no one yells or shakes a fist.
I’ll tell you another fun thing. You know how in the US cars are supposed to stop for people crossing the street at a crosswalk, but there’s no way in hell you would trust a car to actually stop? Cars stop here. They positively JACK UP if it looks like you’re stepping into the crosswalk. Not just in my little village; every place I’ve been (only The Algarve region so far, but I’m betting it’s all over Portugal), drivers respect crosswalks.
There’s an older gentleman, quite the natty dresser, too, who walks very, very slowly. He is that slow walker that is parodied in comedy sketches when someone is in a hurry. I probably see him cross the street (very slowly) several times a week. NEVER has anyone gone zooming by in their lane when he is halfway across. They wait until he is safely across (or at least three-quarters of the way across) before they slowly start driving again.
My picture of our Sunday morning traffic (above) is not unusual. I seldom see more than five cars pass in a row. During July and August, traffic is heavier, less patient, and sometimes outright stupid, but even then, it was not anywhere close to what you might see in a suburban US town. It just dawned on me that this village does not have a traffic light.
Now, with season winding down, the beach tourists are not as plentiful and while parking is still precious, there are more and more moments when there is no sound of a car. Not even in the distance.
Are drivers like this all over Portugal? Probably not. I am very sure in the larger cities it is a more hurried pace and there is a lot more honking of horns. In some of the Facebook expat groups I have heard people complain about Portuguese drivers. (Or try to. They usually get shouted down.) A lot of people worry about whether they will feel comfortable driving here.
I haven’t driven since January. After my residency permit appointment (two more weeks!) I will start the process of changing over my driver’s license. I am looking at getting a scooter and I will rent a car from time to time. I have no need of a car right now—Uber and Lyft have me covered. The toughest part will be figuring out where the heck I am going and navigating the roundabouts.
But I have a secret weapon and I think the drivers in my little village have it, too. It’s patience. Very few people are in a hurry here. If they have to stop for a few seconds so someone can cross the road or say hi to a friend, that’s okay.
Every country has a culture. In the US, the culture is one of constant movement. Everyone is going somewhere IMPORTANT; everyone is in a hurry. We all have to get THERE, even if “there” is just hitting a Starbucks for our 3:00 pm mochaccino. Heaven forbid someone gets in line ahead of us. It’s a constant competition to be first.
Here, not so much. Or maybe I just haven’t seen it. Perhaps it is because I have chosen to live in a small village where the people know each other and chatting with friends, for men and women, is an important part of life.
It’s an adjustment, coming from a country that runs on adrenaline, where coming in second means you’re a loser. I get my work done most days and I look around thinking, “I should do something more” and then I realize I don’t have to do something more. I have done enough, at least for the day. It’s an odd feeling, this lack of frenzy. But I think I’m getting used to it. It feels pretty good.