Folding my underwear in Portugal

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2008

On my first week in Portugal, I was dumbstruck when I was handed a stack of my clean laundry.

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Courtesy Of Luis Arcanjo
Courtesy Of Luis Arcanjo

My underwear was folded. The tank tops were starched and ironed, the jeans hanging flawlessly, crisp and ready, each on their own hanger. It was art, pure and unwrinkled. I could barely bring myself to un-tuck my socks from their perfectly positioned union, though the smell of wearing my old ones soon won over my hesitation.

I felt I was not worthy of my newly rejuvenated clothing; yet I was grateful to whatever deity had arranged such a favor.

Portugal is a country of contrast. Tradition and the old routines of freshly baked bread and Sunday lunch, late dinner and early breakfast still stand strong next to fast food and wireless technology.

My grandmother, though she still makes her clothes by hand, has 15 chickens and believes in corporal punishment. She also has the hottest new cell phone and can text message faster than me.

McDonald's serves duck and watercress soup, along with whoppers and apple pies, because that is what people want to buy. The Saturday morning market, bustling with old women in patterned shawls, greasy men toting carts of walnuts and rabbits that they will slaughter before your eyes, is held in the parking lot of Ikea.

There are differences that strike me every day, some minute - such as how everyone has a watch on their left hand - and some obvious - such as how everyone, despite their watches, is always more than half an hour late. The streets are cobbled in white pebbles. People of Portugal don't take showers after dinner. They have an extra meal. They don't use salt. And they drink coffee strong enough to slap you in the face. Halfway around the world is a long ways, but sometimes it seems like I am farther.

The bell rings for class to start at school and no one bats an eye, let alone starts getting to class. Everyone simply stays where they are, carrying on with their conversations and frantically messaging on their cell phones.

Minutes pass, and I wonder if I was the only one that had heard the earsplitting clanging of the bell. I turn and head toward the classroom, figuring that it's every man for himself and I don't want to be counted absent. Fortunately, this is far from a problem, as my teacher waltzes in 15 minutes late, yelling about soccer but not the least bit preoccupied by his own tardiness.

Having been here three months, I must shamefully admit that I have started folding my underwear. The disparities between my foreign Alaska ways and the ways of this lively little country are slowly becoming less and less.

I go to my grandmother's house to feed her chickens, bring her clothes to mend and check out her new flatscreen, while grandpa is smoking his pipe and playing Playstation.

What was completely unknown and strange is now, at times, as drearily normal as unsalted codfish. New habits are slowly coming to me, just as a new era of technology is gradually coming to traditional Portugal.

This country is adapting to high-speed internet and hybrid cars, and I am adapting to expected tardiness and spotlessly clean clothes. And we are both getting along just fine.

• Adrienne Bosworth is a high school senior on exchange in Portugal. She is graduating early, after completing her coursework within three years. For an independent study this spring, she is writing regular features about her experiences abroad for Ali McKenna's "Writing for Publication" class. She plans on attending college next year and is awaiting responses from schools.

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