por A-24, em 18.01.12
An old woman in a plain gray dress and a shopping bag full of oblong orange squashes called out to me from down the street. I had no idea what she was saying – and that couldn’t have made me happier. After all, I had come to her rural village – Malhadas, in the northeast corner of Portugal – with the specific hope of not understanding anyone.
Seth KugelA local woman in Malhadas, who thought the author was in town to read the electric meters.
“Ah, you don’t speak Mirandese,” she said, switching to Portuguese, a language I speak fluently after living for several years in Brazil. “I thought you were the guy who comes to read the electric meters.”
It was a reasonable guess: strangers in isolated Malhadas are not common. But in fact I was there to take a reading of sorts. I wanted to hear as much as I could of Mirandese, Portugal’s second official language — whether from the customers at the nearby Café Córdoba, old men chatting on a bench, or a woman on her way home from shopping. People build trips around all kinds of things: scenery, wildlife, food, folklore, music. Why not language?
I didn’t plan to learn Mirandese, mind you. Three days wouldn’t get me very far, and the language, spoken by just 10,000 or 15,000 people on what is known as the Planalto Mirandês (or Mirandese Plateau), who all also speak Portuguese, is hardly a useful tongue. But I had often run across references to isolated linguistic pockets in Europe, and this time I wanted to explore one first hand. And I could think of few defining travel concepts more frugal than a language: some say talk is cheap, but in fact, it’s free.
In 1999, Mirandese became Portugal’s second official language, thanks to regional lobbying and a lawmaker sympathetic to the cause. That doesn’t mean much in practice, but symbolically it was a matter of great pride to just about everyone I met; the distinction all but stopped dismissive talk of Mirandese as a dialect of Portuguese. A Romance language in the Astur-Leonese family, it is now taught as an elective in the region’s public schools, and bookstores sell a handful of books written in or translated into Mirandese, including a translation of the epic Portuguese poem “The Lusaids” and that oft-translated children’s classic, “L Princepico” — “The Little Prince.”
The entire region spoke Leonese, a language that predates Mirandese, when the area was part of the kingdom of León in the Middle Ages, explained Carlos Ferreira, a Mirandese speaker who runs a regional tourism organization. After Portuguese independence in the 12th century, the Mirandese region became distant and isolated enough from the rest of the country that efforts to preserve the language began.
The language is least in evidence in Miranda do Douro, at about 2,000 inhabitants the region’s largest town. But I did visit the beautifully preserved old city, where the Andrade book store sells Mirandese books and a museum, Museu da Terra de Miranda, celebrates the region’s agricultural and cultural traditions with exhibits of ancient handmade furniture, farm and artisan tools, and a collection of capas de honra – traditional and oddly religious-looking robes that until early last century were daily dress for men.
Instead of staying in Miranda do Douro, as the mostly Portuguese and Spanish tourists who come every summer do, I searched for a room in one of the surrounding smaller towns. I chose the cheapest option: the Restaurante Residencial Gabriela in Sendim, about a half-hour from Miranda. For 25 euros (about $30) a night, breakfast included, I spent two days in one of a dozen or so immaculate, modern rooms that would easily fetch two or three times as much in other parts of Europe.
As I found out that night at the inn’s restaurant, I was not just the only guest at the hotel, but also the only diner. It took just a few minutes for Lurdinhas Fernandes, who runs the place with her sister, to invite me to eat with the family in the kitchen. They were gathered next to the fireplace that simultaneously warms people, grills meat and smokes the homemade alheira sausage that hung overhead.
The centerpiece of dinner was posta Mirandesa, the region’s signature dish. It’s a veal steak cut from the hind quarters of Mirandese cattle, served with a vinaigrette sauce that Lurdinhas claimed was invented by her grandmother for whom the restaurant is named. It came with quartered and fried potatoes, salad, a pitcher of red wine, and for dessert, a mild cheese of mixed cow’s and sheep’s milk served with exquisite homemade jams in seven (!) flavors: pear, squash, fig, plum, cherry, sour cherry and quince.
They would end up charging me 21 euros, but it was more than worth it, especially when you include the value of the hours-long Mirandese lesson I got at the table from Lurdinhas’s husband, Altino Martins.
Altino, who had grown up speaking Mirandese in the village of Paradela on the Douro River bordering Spain, helped me through a children’s illustrated vocabulary book I had bought in Miranda do Douro hours earlier: “Las Mies Purmeiras Palabras an Mirandés” (“My First Words in Mirandese”). We worked on pronunciation and he pointed out words that were quite different from their Spanish or Portuguese equivalents: sheep is canhona, knee is zinolho, snowflake is farrapa. Most memorable was how Mirandese distinguishes grandmother and grandfather, both of which are spelled abó. When necessary, grandfather becomes l abó de las calças (grandparent of the pants) and grandmother is l’abó de la saia (grandparent of the skirt). Insensitivity to male cross-dressers and female jeans-wearers notwithstanding, can we all agree that that is adorable? (Another favorite: the phrase for rainbow is cinta de la raposa, fox’s belt.)
Altino explained how isolated the region had been even in the 1950s, when he was a small child. He did not see his first motor vehicle until he was 5 or 6; later, Spanish engineers building a hydroelectric dam on the river “zoomed” through town in cars going 20 or 25 miles per hour, delighting and terrifying the children. He also said that when local donkeys were no longer able to work, villagers would lead them to the cliff by the river and push them over, their bones to be picked clean eaten by vultures.
As I wandered the villages over the next two days, I found fluency in Mirandese to be more common among older villagers, but one of many exceptions is Duarte Martins (not related to Altino), a young man from Malhadas who is a Mirandese teacher. “I speak Mirandese to defend my way of being, my way of interpreting the world,” he said over beers in the Rochedo Bar in Miranda do Douro. Indeed, he added, there are locals with whom he only speaks Mirandese.
I was welcome to attend his class, he said, but school was out for Christmas break. Instead, he gave me several editions of La Gameta, the annual journal of student works in Mirandese he has professionally published. (“La Gameta” means “The Lentil.”)
Because written Mirandese resembles Spanish and Portuguese, I could at least catch the drift of the stories and essays in the journal – some of which were clearly personal and others which seemed to be recounting folk tales told by family or neighbors – stories of hens and monsters and shepherds and religion. History lent a poignant note to the texts: Mirandese had been forbidden under the Portuguse dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (who ruled from 1932 to 1968); many of the students’ parents had not learned to speak Mirandese, let alone write it. Now their children could see their own Mirandese works in print.
The day after I met Duarte, I set off to visit more villages. In tiny Paradela, Altino’s birthplace, I stopped in a little cafe called O Paradela. They weren’t serving lunch, but a friendly young woman named Teresa seated me by the fireplace and said she could make me a plate of housemade chouriço (the local sausage), ham and cheese (4 euros). I thumbed through an edition of La Gameta as I waited.
As she brought me the food, she saw what I was reading. “Hey, I wrote something in there,” she told me. “That’s from 2004, right?” It was. She leafed through until she found a short story called “L pastor i l spagnolo,” (“The Pastor and the Spaniard”). At the bottom, it read “Teresa Preto, 9th Grade.”
I couldn’t make it all out, but the gist was clear: a Mirandese shepherd was tending his flock near the border and was approached by a Spaniard. “Who eats more, the white sheep or the black sheep?” the Spaniard joked. The shepherd, preferring not to be bothered, responded with a racy nonanswer involving kissing the sheep’s posterior, and the Spaniard learned never to pester local shepherds again.
It may not have been great literature, but its setting could not have been more local: the Spanish border was just a few hundred yards away. I drove up after lunch, stopping at the edge of a striking cliff overlooking the Douro River and, beyond it, Spain. No shepherds or Spaniards in sight. I wondered, though, if this was the spot where old donkeys met their sad fate. My gaze wandered to the still-functioning hydroelectric dam, which brought the first cars (ls purmeiros carros, if my Mirandese is correct) to the village little more than half a century ago.