Maggie Ritchie: Compassion and respect – why it felt so good to be out of Brexit Britain

When I arrived in Portugal last week it was like stepping back in time, a world away from bleak Brexit Britain with its petrol pump queues, empty supermarket shelves and labour shortages.

It came as no surprise to read that Portugal is nearing full vaccination with 84 per cent of its ten million people double jabbed, leaving only children under 12 as the largest unprotected group.

A former submarine commander, Henrique Gouveia e Melo, is hailed as the quiet hero of Portugal’s fight against Covid-19. He heads the vaccination task force and was recently greeted by prolonged applause at a crowded vaccination centre and praised for his calm handling of a rare anti-vaccine protest.

I’ve loved Portugal ever since my first visit 37 years ago, when my dad was posted to Lisbon, a place he grew so fond of he stayed for ten years rather than the usual four. When he retired to Edinburgh, he spent half the year in the Algarve with my mum on his boat, relishing the sunshine, great wine, wonderful seafood, and the company of the diffident, pleasant Portuguese, who he insisted were like the Scots in nature.

I was back in the marina, where dad berthed his boat, for the first time in 25 years and had been dreading it, expecting it to have been decimated by the pandemic. But the place was bustling with restaurants and shops, the staff just as cheerful, efficient and welcoming to the happy, smiling tourists as ever. Everyone seemed joyful, liberated after long months of lockdowns and restrictions.

The supermarkets shelves were piled high with every type of fruit and produce and there were no queues at petrol stations. You had to wear masks in enclosed spaces but everywhere was clean and well-tended with regular street sweeping and rubbish collections.

As I followed the news from home – the fights at petrol stations, the dismal forecasts about stagflation, the prime minister’s blithe denials that our difficulties have anything to do with Brexit – I was glad to be in a well-ordered country where compassion and respect are valued.

In the local paper, the Home Office stated that Portugal needs immigrants ‘as a priority’, and that those who arrive ‘irregularly’ should be returned to their country of origin with ‘respect for human dignity’. The Minister for Internal Administration Eduardo Cabrita’s measured words were refreshing after the years of sour anti-immigration rhetoric that propelled the UK out of Europe.

“Portugal is a country marked by ageing and it needs immigrants, therefore it must provide mechanisms for legal, safe and orderly migration as a way to guarantee respect for human rights in such different domains as the right to health, adequate housing and the right to a fair employment relationship,” he told a conference on human rights and forced returns.

More than half a million foreign citizens have acquired Portuguese nationality since 2007, when the nationality law underwent significant changes.

“It’s easy to come to live here,” a Brazilian beautician told me. “There are many Brazilians, Indians, Venezuelans, British, Germans and French people. We come to work, and we stay because it’s a good place to live and bring up a family. It’s safe, there’s very little crime, and the weather is perfect.”

I’ve always found the Portuguese I’ve met kind and indulgent of my imperfect language skills. In general, they are well-disposed towards the British thanks to the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance struck in 1386 – the oldest in the world.

Stephen Powell, who wrote a book about walking the length of Portugal, speaks of the warmth he encountered that persuaded him to leave Wales and move to Faro in 2019.

“The lockdowns were not what you want when you move to a new country. But if you have to live through a pandemic, then give me Portugal any day. In Faro, there was sunshine and the sea, and I felt blessed. There are now more than 40,000 Britons officially resident in Portugal, taking advantage of a good quality of life, stability and plenty of sunshine. It is a country that appeals to both head and heart.

“On one occasion I was walking in steadily falling rain. I was wearing waterproofs, but one woman saw me and decided that this was not enough. She crossed the road and thrust an umbrella into my hands.”

I, too, find the Portuguese kindly. My sister and I were there to clear out my dad’s beloved boat – he died this summer three years after our mum – and it was a difficult, emotional time for us. Sitting in church on Sunday, we remembered Dad and were comforted by the sweetly melancholic Portuguese voices raised in hymn and a sermon by the priest who reminded families to stick together, forgive each other, and above all, that love is the most important thing. I found myself finally being able to grieve and remember my parents as they were in the prime of their lives, walking hand in hand towards their boat in their happiest years, in Portugal.

I’m home now with my husband and son and glad of it – there’s no place like home, as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz – but those few restorative days in Portugal were a poignant reminder of what it’s like to live in an orderly country where people are filled with hope for the future, not dreading a winter of discontent.

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992