For I Was A Stranger, In A Strange Land

sao-joao-porto

There are moments of strange unreality, when something someone says aligns with my memories and I go “I’m not crazy, after all.”

(Mind you, this is for a limited definition of “not crazy” considering I woke up with the following sentences running through my head “It’s like wearing pants. No one likes it, but it’s necessary.”  And no, I have absolutely no idea where that came from, either.)

In this case I was reading on São João, aka St. John, who is the patron saint of the city I come from and whose celebration is a very big thing indeed, including dancing in the city streets all night and lighting bonfires as well as launching lighted balloons (not sure why that one.  But dad liked that part.  A lot.  The weeks before would be spent designing the frame work, picking the onion paper to go over it, etc. Had the man been born in the US he’d have been a rocketeer.)

The festival is ridiculously badly advertised, though it should be a touristic high point.  At least now most of Europe knows about it, but in the seventies and eighties, we were often confronted with tourists who had come to town for a week and had no clue what this was and why this was happening.  In the seventies sometimes they thought it was some kind of a revolution, before realizing no one goes to a revolution with giant plastic squeaky hammers and bunches of herbs which is what people carry while forming lines and dancing/running through the city singing.

festa-sao-joao-no-porto

At some point the dime would drop and you’d find tourists looking incredibly bewildered but very happy, along the lines of “Wait till I tell my friends this” joining one of the lines and attempting to sing the (either religious or incredibly off color or sometimes both) songs.

I don’t exactly miss it, but the smells in the air in June remind me of it, as does the “body temperature” air.  And I’d meant to be setup enough to host a barbecue for my friends this year, which didn’t happen.  So I was looking it up on line.

And came across a reference to how in the Middle Ages St. John’s feast was considered incredibly important and also “Christmas in June” which means it ported over a lot of the same traditions.

Now, look, São João has any number of really strange traditions — yes, stranger than hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers that squeak, or rubbing herbs under other people’s noses with or without their permission — there’s jumping the bonfire together (or alone for particularly daring teen males), there’s staying up till the sun comes up and then having cafe au lait and buttered toast, because it’s tradition.  There’s giving each other pots of basil (manjerico) which is not used for cooking, in Portugal as a sign of good wishes for the new year.  (I love cooking with basil, but the smell always takes me back.)  There’s poetry contests over basil (my brother usually wins a couple run by local newspapers, as well as putting verses in the vases of basil he gives everyone, from my mom to old work mates, to his wife.

But the one I remember from childhood, and which was bigger in my parents’ time, I never heard mentioned anywhere outside my own head, at least not by anyone who didn’t grow up with me or someone who hadn’t experienced it.

You made a nativity for São João.  It was done with different figures, because the indoor nativity was often porcelain and expensive, while the outdoor one was often made of the cheapest clay and crudely painted (but charming.  I wish they’d sell those in the tourist areas, instead of the “penis as everything” trend they seem to think pleases the tourists.)

It also had more figures.  Yes, elaborate nativity sets here have camels, etc.  But “Cascata” sets in Portugal had EVERYTHING from houses to vendors (sometimes in Medieval Portuguese clothing) to… everything.

A Cascata was like your very own construction project where you could make an entire miniature landscape.  It was like a nativity crossed with miniature railroads (which some cascatas included.)

The very religious would have a sort of “life of Jesus” theme interlaced in their constructions.

CASCATA+DE+S.+JOÃO

The rest of us went a little goofy on things like, let’s make a very large landscape.

cascata

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I would build the mountains a month in advance, and cover them with moss which I watered till it took (because it looks like grass in miniature) and I no longer remember if I built an artesian fountain or just planned it.  I know boys in the village often had real running rivers with boats on them, etc.

So for us it was a great mid-summer geek fest.  And I didn’t know where the tradition came from and now I know it’s the whole “Christmas in June” thing.

Oh, and see that dish with money next to the saint statue?  The thing was to brandish an image of the saint and say “Penny for the saint” when people admired your cascata.

I don’t know.  I’m now sad my kids didn’t get the geek fest of building entire landscapes for a mid summer festival, and I might find an excuse to teach the grand kids to do this.  Because our sort of people just loves that, and getting really elaborate on it consumed the first half of summer holidays and kept kids out of trouble.  Also you learned interesting things, like how to build a well/fountain with a little plastic bucket and some tubing.

Oh, and next year, maybe I’ll be moved-in settled enough to have a barbecue.

 

174 responses to “For I Was A Stranger, In A Strange Land

  1. In the seventies sometimes they thought it was some kind of a revolution, before realizing no one goes to a revolution with giant plastic squeaky hammers and bunches of herbs which is what people carry while forming lines and dancing/running through the city singing.

    I initially thought: Nobody who has an ounce of understanding about revolutions would try that.

    Then I recalled the effect of the photos published by a complicit press of protesters who who slipped flowers into the barrels of guns.

    Even more amazingly effective were the candlelight vigils held of the velvet revolution, for they faced a government that, if it had used force to retaliate, it would not have been surprised anyone.

    The strangest things have have happen.

    Still? I think it would make for a rather nice comic fiction story, but, tactically, for not a good revolution.

    • Er… look the entire “carnation revolution” in Portugal was a media creation.
      There was both real violence, and the troops were complicit. And what came after was mostly a giving a ton of things to the SovUnion that they wanted, which tells you who was pulling the strings.
      Of course, now the lies are in the history books.

      • I was thinking the cultural revolution in the U.S., where the press helped push the nation hard left … the press also exploited the images of the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 and the National Guard action at Kent State.

        • Don’t get Dan started on Kent. After he got massively depressed and lost his full ride at Case (for some reason early eighties they didn’t identify clinical depression. HE only recognized it after he saw it hit Marshall in Middle School. Mind you, Dan never dropped below B average, but…) he finished his degree at Case. He knew merchants, etc. who gave him their versions of what happens. He once actually lost it, ordered Eric Flint to shut his mouth (He’s a nice man. I’d have said “communist whore mouth” but that’s me.) AND THEN told him the truth. I don’t think EF ever forgave us, which explains much that has happened since in the places his sphere of influence touches.

          • Heh. I said a politer version of the same thing to my boss at the university libraries, back when I was a student worker and relatively apolitical.

            She was a good egg and didn’t hold it against me, but I was astonished to find out just how many people had drunk the Kool-Aid on that topic.

          • Ummm, what about Kent State (and what kind of scholarship requires straight ‘A’s)? Let me guess; the protesters weren’t entirely peaceful; some had guns? I remember the news talking about how shotgun shells all look alike——teargas or buckshot so it was an easy (?) mistake.

            • The protestors were incredibly violent, and the National Guard was mostly badly trained. The protestors had been terrorizing town merchants for days.
              BUT also as we now, someone in the crowd fired a gun (we know that from the released sound recordings) which is what set the shooting off. Can you say agent provocateur? Sure, I knew you could.

            • Oh, the full ride scholarship? They give one each year, or did, and required you to keep 3.9? GPA. I think he fell half a point beneath. And was frankly too young and dumb to realize he could borrow to stay there.

            • My son’s scholarship required 3.5 GPA to keep (above B average). He lost it when he dropped down to 3.4 … FYI. Not medical. Not software either. Just to get into a software program, most require 3.5 or better. Never looked into their scholarships, just paid my way (she who got special disposition to take the upper level classes because of her route there, NOT GPA, not gender, & not without complaints from some faculty).

      • Larry Patterson

        Like a military coup is South America, but instead of shooting the Leader, they put him on a plane to Brazil. An English neighbor told me how billions of dollars were squandered on buying Cuban sugar at above market price and selling wine to Russia for nearly nothing.
        When we came here, there first words you learn are “Não há,” (there isn’t any) and “Aumentou.” (It went up.)
        O Povo Unido
        Jamais Será Vencido.
        It’s a good thing that Frank Carlucci had some balls, and told the Russians where they could go.

      • Could you recommend any more accurate history of it? I presume there are ones in English. Preferably something still available in normal bookstores, buying here from American second hand stores can be pretty expensive, the postage is usually high.

        • No. This is one of those “if I hadn’t been there, I’d think I was crazy”.
          I LITERALLY cried with relief when I met someone who worked in the state dept at the time and I said “I know you won’t believe me, but really this happened.” And he went “OH, hell yeah, I knew that then.”

          • Maybe you should consider writing it, or at least try to find somebody who would. Interview people who were there and so on. Sounds as if somebody should write it or that truth may be forever gone when the people who were there aren’t around anymore. 😦

            • Or write it as fiction at least, but with a foreword or afterwords as to how while the characters and their personal story is fiction, what is happening around them isn’t. Or write a memoir. I don’t know, if there might be some risk it would make it difficult for you to visit there don’t publish it yet, just write it and publish when you are old, or tell your sons to publish it after you are gone.

  2. & hopefully you’re grandkids’ Cascata will have your Bar B Q in it.

  3. That’s an… interesting tradition. Giant squeaky plastic hammers.

  4. My first thought was, well, that explains why Larry Correia’s into the building miniatures and all: some sort of genetic cultural memory!

    Clearly my brain is weird.

    • Nah, but it is a “bend”of Portuguese geekdom. I mean Sao Joao might as well be “Geek fest” what with the building and releasing of miniature hot air balloons, the poetry contests and the building of miniature landscapes.

      • Not to mention the whacking people over the head with squeeky hammers. If that doesn’t sound like something that would be part of someone’s LARP, I don’t know what does.

        • I shall smite thee with my +5 Plastic Hammer of Squeakiness!

          Roll a Saving Throw versus Dragon Breath. Failure requires you to chug a liter of Portuguese alcohol of your choice.

          • Donald Stephens

            “Roll a d20″.”
            “Ahh, a 2. That’s not good.”
            “You are now being circled by a smaller than average, and overexcited, dog. It squeaks constantly.”

            • So help me, there is a place in $HOOTERVILLE with the name “D & D Transmission.” Every time I see their sign, I think, “Don’t roll a one!”

              • Critical Failure!
                Roll 2d10 and consult DM’s table of egregious misfortunes; or just use the top 100 items on the Progressive agenda.

        • Um…. If I ever get a LARP going…

  5. I happened to be in Innsbuck, Austria when St. John’s Eve and Sommerwende (solstice) coincided. A lot of stuff went on that I suspect predated St. John by at least a few centuries, and there were bonfires on the mountain peaks, not unlike that scene in the LotR movie. But no cascatas, or odes to herbs, at least not in the public festivities around the bridge and the river. Lots of fire wheels, and fireworks, and flame costumes, and stilt-walkers with flaming torches.

    When I hear Loreena McKinnet’s “All Souls Night,” what I see is St. John’s Eve/Sommerwende in Innsbruck.

    • Yes, I think the customs around Porto go back to the Celts.

      • I noticed it wasn’t a “big deal” in the Rhineland or Schwäbia, and Walpurgisnacht (feast of St. Walburga in May) is the big night in the Harz Mountain region. Gotta be a Celtic or Romano-Celtic thing.

        • I suspect Celtic. In Portugal it’s mostly in the North, and coincides with blond(ish) hair and lighter colored eyes.
          I believe Lisbon’s celebration of St. Antonio a week later is an echo of Porto’s festa not original.

          • I married a Latvijan (Latvian spelling). Their pagan solstice festival was renamed Jani (St. John’s Day) when Christianity arrived. It’s a really big deal for the whole country. We jumped the bonfire one Jani. And had our daughter. I’ve always argued that we should have jumped another.

            • Bonfire jumping is a thing all across Europe, and in a lot of places in Asia. Basically, it’s what happens when you have a bonfire. Most of the time, it’s associated with good luck or fertility, lots of food and drink, staying up all night or late, and with either a quarter day or cross-quarter day. Sometimes it’s just with a holiday where the weather is good enough or bad enough.

              (There’s also the “driving your cattle/horses between two bonfires,” because livestock don’t play those games.)

              The other common holiday in Europe and most of Asia is “that holiday where you run around dumping water on strangers and friends in the street.” The most common dates for that one are John the Baptist’s birthday, Ascension, and a couple of other summer dates.

              Honestly, it’s not even pagan, in most cases. It’s the time of year when you do fun stuff, in a way fun for the season.

              • … Never heard of the water one.

                • I know. It seems to have skipped the US also. Why, why can’t we have a whole day for water pistols and everybody spritzing everybody?

                  But yeah, it shows up as a Muslim and a Jewish holiday too, but it’s always a day that’s appropriate for a hot climate.

                  • For American? Too high of a risk that you’d end up eating that water pistol.

                    I’ve had to lay down the law with other people’s children, water pistols and basic boundaries. Their daddy did not appreciate his little brat being told that chasing little girls, shoving a water gun in their face and firing, repeatedly, when they have no way to spray back, is wrong.

                    • Apparently up in Franklin OH, they decided that they needed to turn large parts of town into “Wet Zones” over July 4th. If you go to the celebration downtown, you have to be okay with spraying and being sprayed.

                      Man, those people in Franklin!

                    • Heh, sounds like fun! ESPECIALLY if I can avoid it. ^.^

  6. Next year’s challenge: an airport with flying planes.

  7. There are a few Americans who do like to set up unusual and elaborate outdoor nativities. 

    One was on the shunpiker’s route to Philadelphia, bypassing Washington, DC to the east by taking U.S. 301 (before it became heavily developed).   The display spanned the front of a sizable property, with all sorts of lighted figures plastic figures.  There was the nativity at the center, the Holy family and their donkey, the barn animals, the star and the angels, the shepherds with their sheep, and the three kings with an entourage of servants and camels.  As I was always driving at this point, to this day I am uncertain if there was or was not a ‘Bethlehem skyline’ off to the back.  On either side were various common seasonal figures, with such as a Santa with his deer and sleigh and various snowmen.  All this was accompanied by a whole host of characters from Disney movies, including a procession of Snow White and all seven of the dwarfs.  The Daughter, who was a toddler at the time when we first spotted it, was thoroughly entranced.  It became a much anticipated landmark on the trip to Grandpa’s for the next several years.

    The other can be seen on U.S. 58 in a rural section of eastern Virginia.  It features an immense grazing heard of deer made of lights, a number of which are animated.  None of them, unlike some I have seen elsewhere, are decked with huge stiff red ribbon bows.  It is rather enchanting.  

    • Yes, but doing it in summer gives more latitude. 😀

      • Long before concept of shabby chic ever entered the scene The Spouse and I were married in the spring. Shortly afterwards we went to north to visit various relatives. While in NYC we ate dinner in an Italian restaurant in the theater district that, as of a result of a promise to the saints and an answered prayer, kept their Christmas decorations up year round. At they did so least until the government health inspectors got involved. Sure the wreaths and garlands had faded a bit, and I doubt that they were entirely dust free, but there was a certain shabby charm about it.

        When it come to molded plastic figures with internal lighting winter has much to recommend itself. There are more hours of darkness for the display to shine and the cold minimizes fading, and keeps it all from warping or over heating.

  8. Odd reminders happen with the right circumstances.

    $HOUSEMATE made a point of taking me into downtown Philadelphia for some of the local cuisine once upon a time. Was surprised that reaction was it reminded me of a county fair.

    It was a hot Summer day (fair type weather), there were smells of cooking (deep frying being a significant part, it seems) much like a fair, and the truck traffic added that note of diesel exhaust that, at the fair, came from the big generators powering the rides and all the lights.

    (When younger, the county fair used a company that was.. less than stringent.. about covering up moving parts. So riding the Merry-Go-Round wasn’t about the pseudo-horseback ride, it was about looking at the machinery making it all move so. Years and years later, they had changed companies and the new one was more responsible… but, for me, the ride was not nearly as interesting.)

    • Might be a matter of age of the equipment. When I was a kid, exposed mechanisms were the rule rather than the exception. (And the most interesting part of the ride.)

  9. Maybe the lantern balloons come from the Gospel of John’s light imagery in the first chapter especially.

  10. Larry Patterson

    There might be a lot of Porto folks living here. They make loud noise all night long. Some recover by sleeping on the beach.

  11. I suppose the closest we come to Cascata here in the States is among model railroaders and their elaborate train sets that take up the entire living room, basement, garage, or attic.

    • And there are plenty of super-sized versions available:

      EnterTrainment Junction here in Greater Cincinnati
      Roadside America in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley
      The Choo Choo Barn of Strasburg, PA
      Northlandz in northern New Jersey
      The New York Botanical Garden’s stupendous holiday train display

      • A couple of houses east of downtown San Jose (Calif) had unusual yard decorations. One seemed to be a folk sculpture garden, with the driveway paved with old porcelain insulators, and various junk-sculptures.

        Another predated the art-car movement by fastening a boatload of tiny toy figures on some concrete fountain bits.

        One rural business near us has a dragon made of old farm and yard tool/implement pieces. Well, the dragon’s ruff is part of a large circular saw blade, and part of the mouth is from a garden rake. Kind of fun.

  12. Oh, and next year, maybe I’ll be moved-in settled enough to have a barbecue.

    Heh, that one hit me all out of proportion… we’re now on about 12 years of me saying something similar for…basically every big thing. Haven’t stayed in one residence for a full two years since we got engaged, and it’s really wearing on me right now.

    • If you can’t barbecue, make a shish kabob cooker out of charcoal and an aluminum turkey pan. Put a grill on top and kebab away!

      Russians do this a lot… Often out in their apartment parking lot, from online videos.

      • Hehe, we’d have fifteen of the fire control guys here in about ten seconds.

        Not fire department, they’ve got actual pickups they drive around in to check any smoke and call experts if needed…. thought there was a drug bust going down next door, but it was a freak-out over the massive pillar of steam they mistook for smoke.

  13. This year, we got the extra land paid off. Next year, more paying off the house… within 5 yeas I want a patio (and a catio), so we can grill out back. Until then, I just have to talk Jim Curtis into grilling. Yay for men who know how to handle meat and fire so I don’t have to!

    …if, in 12 years, you find me still saying this, feel free to point and laugh. From behind your barbeque.

    • Men, meat, and fire is like little boys and dogs. They just go together. Grilling is one of those atavistic things, I think, that most men at least want to do, if they aren’t actively honing the skillset already.

      • I’m married to a man who believes that “grilling weather” is any weather where the snow isn’t so deep that you can’t get the back door open.

        Ladies, I recommend this policy.

        • Rarely get snow here, & when we do rarely gets more than 6″ (well ONCE we got almost 50″, they couldn’t keep I-5 open). Grill season is 365 &, every 4 years, 366.

          Not allowed near grill. That’s hubby & son’s job. Fine with me. 🙂 They can take over cooking anytime, not that they will, but still.

        • You must be somewhere more civilized. In the middle of a Chicago winter, it would be ridiculously painful to even try to get the grill up to cooking temperature when the high during the day was well below freezing. I do just fine spring-fall though … and love my grill’s ability to take multiple sources of fuel (wood chips + gas for a smokey taste and consistent cooking for example).

      • I’m not a man. I just checked. And it’s still my favorite way of cooking.

        • *grins* Nope, and before I left Alaska, I didn’t have a grill, either – but I had an old roommate, Jeannie, who could (and still does!) do awesome, wonderful things with a grill. Yay for Jeannie and fire-handling skills and meat and veggies and blue cheese and gouda and yum!

        • Just don’t do like my aunt who was cooking fish outside to avoid stinking up the house and French fries inside. She tarried too long with the fish, and the oil in the French fries caught fire. The kitchen was gutten, and the den had heat and smoke damage. OTH, between insurance and donations they remodeled their house—a happy ending.

  14. Now that was fun. I kept wondering if there was going to be a political application, and you know, it’s kind of cheerful to see you do that bit of urban anthropology just for its own sake. A little lightness is good for the spirits.

  15. Look at it this way; you avoid the accumulation.

    I normally do a perimeter spray for insects every six months – but right now, we are doing a full interior spray as well; there are some signs of termite infestation.

    One room at a time. Which that one room somehow occupies three rooms when the stuff is taken out and stacked without careful arrangement. Looks like I’ll have a living room again sometime in August…

  16. My brother would PCS in, set up the grill on the first weekend, and go around beating on doors. “Hey, we’re having a barbecue. Come on over!”

  17. Cart before the horse— you need to get those sons married and having children first 🙂 But a BBQ is always nice.

  18. Speaking of customs; last year the Pennsylvania Legislature changed the laws about fireworks, such that this year ordinary citizens are legally able to buy small rockets and firecrackers. I bought a small brick of ‘crackers and some bottle rockets fr the Fourth, to please my Father’s ghost. He was the (adopted) son of a Methodist Minister and as such was forbidden fireworks as a boy. By the time he was grown, the laws against fireworks were widespread. It always annoyed him that he, a man who had worked (in a minor capacity, to be sure) on the Manhattan Project was not allowed to buy fireworks.

    My lady, however, has asked me to refrain unless I can find a supervised venue. I expected the local governments hereabouts to set up such with their fire departments, but they seem to be hoping nobody noticed.

    Maybe next year.

    • The year I spent the fourth in Portugal for good and sufficient reason, my father (whom I love very dearly) brought me home a pack of fireworks and we set them off on top of the garage.
      “I can see you hurting being away from home on this day of all days. I wanted you to be able to celebrate.”
      Best Dad Ever.

    • I’ve lived in several cities that had fireworks forbidden for individuals. It always surprises me, since California (of all places) allows fireworks of the “safe and sane” variety (which means nothing airborne, but allows fountains that shoot up twenty feet or so.) And California is always a tinderbox.

      • And the suburb of L.A. I lived in, two people in the neighborhoods were launching professional-grade fireworks every year and no one was stopping them. One was right down the street from me and as far as i understood, he had a pyro permit…

      • Oregon is the same way. With ALL Fireworks forbidden in Forested areas, private or not. It’s amazing how many homes go up even without the air “flying” (VS just air ejecting fountains) because people don’t think about proper clean up. DO NOT put into garbage, unless garbage can is metal, & don’t under any circumstances: put on wooden deck, lawn, wood chips, or in garage, all of which people have done, & subsequently got to have fire trucks at their house in the middle of the night.

        Proper clean up is cleaning up out of main street to street curb, NOT parking a car on top of remains (also has happened, not to us). Don’t pickup remains until next day & use your bare hands. (… No, did not loose the house, but did loose a plastic cloths hamper & blackened spot on sidewalk …)

        That said, Oregon & Washington may not “allow” flying fireworks, but … (Reservations) even though state, county, & city, have published #’s so you can turn in your neighbors, & the police agencies patrol “known” areas from years before. Never seen them in our neighborhood & we have some prolific launchers in our area.

        • We’ve always done fireworks on streets (heck, parking lots would be good too) with a hose at the ready and a bucket of sand. My family kicked them into the gutter and soaked them and threw them away the next day; duds were taken apart before being soaked or fired and soaked.

          • Yes. That’s what we did too. Unfortunately it is a rare year that someone else in the city that doesn’t learn that the hard way.

  19. On wearing pants: No adult man who has had to run while naked will question the utility of pants for very long. Or the wanting to wear them, just in case. *chuckle*

  20. here, music to read comments by:

    \m/

  21. I’ve seen video and photos of one of the major sects of Islam (Shia?) where people use real, honest-to-God flails to beat the shit out of themselves (and, JUST themselves) to celebrate one of the high holy days.

    They sell flails on the street, the same way you could buy cotton candy at the Boardwalk.

    The only thing I can assume about what humans will do is that if it isn’t physically possible (and I mean “the laws of physics won’t allow it” physically impossible), somebody has to have done it. I’ve seen all sorts of weirdness, and that’s just from history and National Geographic. And a momentary lapse of good judgement in being interested in the BDSM community.

  22. I love miniatures and we’d make them as well growing up. I discovered this place up the road from me in Alabama. http://www.avemariagrotto.com/

  23. Geoff Withnell

    “It’s like wearing pants. No one likes it, but it’s necessary.” I think that’s one of your saner sentences. Of course, my preferred lower covering is a kilt.

  24. It squeaks when you bang it.
    TWSS

  25. “It’s like wearing pants. No one likes it, but it’s necessary.”
    I like it.

    From a friend of mine:
    So many relationships struggle because of a question about who wears the pants.
    When relationships work so much better when no one is wearing pants.