Portugal’s toxic work culture or why I might have to choose between my loved ones and my sanity

It’s been… a WHILE since I posted here. But here goes…

Scarcely had I been in Lisbon a fortnight when I asked a bright, articulate advanced student why he was learning English (as you do in these introductory ‘getting to know you’ sessions. He gave it to me straight:

“If I work in Portugal, I will work the longest hours in Europe, for some of the least pay. The only way to make a living here is to have a contact who can get you into a cushy job somewhere, or to open your own business, which I don’t have the money for.”

I was pretty shocked and – starry eyed about this beautiful new city that I was just getting to know – I told him that, surely, he was exaggerating. That surely it couldn’t be all that bad?

Dozens upon dozens of students would tell me the same thing over the next 6 years.

At the time, I was working for one of Portugal’s biggest private language school groups. Fresh from a 3-year stint honing my craft in a self-styled training school group in Poland, I was keen to test out my skills in a new environment (and catch some sunshine).

It soon became clear that the school I was working for was less focussed on education as a priority but, in taking a passive approach to management, allowed teachers to be as committed (or not) as they saw fit. I threw myself into my classes, relishing the chance to work with higher level students and to challenge myself and everything went fairly well.

“This is a fine place to work,” my colleagues and I would say in the staff room or over a beer in the town on a Saturday evening, “as long as nothing goes sideways.”

Enter Covid-19.

If the school had previously been more business than educational establishment, it was about to transform into an infinitely more callous and cutthroat version of the same. Student safety was not a high priority. Teacher safety did not even figure on the list. When the inevitable transition to remote teaching came, they were slow to react, attempting to use a chat-based learning platform which would have been state of the art when I was in primary school in the mid-eighties. Classes were cancelled, teachers subsequently coerced into working unpaid public holidays to make up for the school’s mistakes, with the mantra “we must keep the students happy” the reply to each and every question raised.

I decided to get out at the end of the school year, interviewed for another school who painted a rosy (false) picture of a more relaxed environment, where education was the focus. I was naïve. Took the bait. It was a disaster. Remains a disaster. Probably the worst professional experience of my life to date. I’m still undecided whether the multiple, endless phone calls about nothing outside of work hours are a lack of competence or a form of deliberate bullying.

Before teaching, I had a career as a financial/commercial analyst in a number of big companies in the UK. Realising that, though teaching is my passion, Lisbon might be the sort of place where the market is just too saturated with antiquated players. Maybe I could re-start my old career.

I started looking for jobs, many of which were advertised with English as lingua franca, as might be expected for big multinational companies. As I highlighted posts which I might be interested in, I would look up the business on Glassdoor. Some of them were, on a global level, places to avoid. Others were more nuanced.

What I started to notice was that companies which had solid global ratings of 4 to 4.5 out of 5 would have ratings of 3, 3.5 – even 2 – out of 5 in Portugal. The complaints were the same in every case: expected to work 2 to 3 hours of overtime, unpaid, every day. Minimal salaries.

You might read this and think – well if you don’t like it, leave. Fair enough, but I would ask why people would seek to defend a situation like this.

Speaking to others I know who are also frustrated in his job because of inefficiencies and work being dropped on them at the last minute, they put it like this: In Portugal, companies expect you to be grateful to have a job. No matter what it is. No matter how they treat you.

As for me, my choice really is between the misery, lost sleep and elevated stress levels of the last few nightmare months and leaving the country. I’m happily married. I live in a nice apartment. I have a cat who I also love dearly. But I can’t – won’t – live in a situation like this one, less so for a minimal salary.

Like many others, I’m not looking for an easy ride. I’m happy to work hard. But the work culture here is toxically stacked in favour of the employer. There is no sense that ‘we are a team’. There is no sense that hard work, talent, or intelligence will take you anywhere. So, it might have to be good bye.

There is much to love about Portugal: the food, the landscape, the traditional culture. But the opportunity to work in a place which offers decency or respect is not something I recognise here. Sad to say.

Days out from Lisbon – Malveira Da Serra

As the summer tourist season approaches and travellers from far and wide descend on the city of light, I thought it might be a nice idea to start a new feature here on Um Lisboeta Ingles, looking at some of the places that are close enough to Lisbon that you can enjoy them in a day and will really change your visit for the better. There’s a new category “Days out from Lisbon” which will help you find these in the navigation and I’ve trialled 3 of them ahead of time, so you’ll have something to get your teeth into within the next week or so.

First up is Malveira Da Serra. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but it’s remarkably close to the surf hotspot of Ericeira and is a small village in the middle of the mountain range that surrounds Sintra and Mafra.

Why go to a village, I hear you say? Well, it’s not so much the village that you go for, but rather the wide variety of trails you can embark on around it, taking in the lush green surroundings, climbing to breathtakingly high viewpoints and escaping the hustle and bustle of the main tourist sites of the city.

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A word of warning before we start – you will need a car, bicycle or the patience of a saint in order to wait for the less-than-optimal bus services to Malveira from surrounding towns.

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Now that’s over, let’s begin!

The first thing to note about going to Malveira is that there are so many routes there, you really could walk all day. Being inexperienced in the area, I decided it was best to get an app, so I downloaded something called Wikiloc for my smartphone. I got the android version for just over 2 euros for 3 months’ service and it worked pretty well. It’s available on iOS too. There may well be other better options. If you know of any, by all means mention them in the comments, below.

Screenshot_20170505-000446The display on the app is as shown, so you can see your current position, where you need to go next, what your elevation has been and it also records statistics on your times per kilometre etc, if that’s something you’re interested in. You can also expand the map to full screen to see more precisely where you are.

If you do decide to go for this app, I recommend downloading the trail map over Wifi as it’s a good 150MB or so for the trail we did.

The trail we elected to go for was one that went from the centre of Malveira up over the hills to the Sanctuário de Peninha. A religious refuge (which may now be closed) surrounded by a nature reserve is the first major landmark you reach. The building is a block of austere grey stone atop a platform. It’s powerfully striking as you approach. Just before you arrive at it, there is a small sanctuary spring. We saw other walkers there filling their drinking bottles, so I took a much needed drink of icy spring water. I don’t know if it is actually safe to drink, but I’m not dead… yet. Once you get to the top of the hillside, beneath the sanctuary itself, you have a quite remarkable view out across the bay of Cascais and to the beaches of Guincho and Sintra. Once you reach the level of the building itself, you can walk behind it and see what I guess must be the only aerial view of Cabo da Roca possible without the aid of a helicopter.

After this, you head down part of the same hill and into the forest where you’re greeted by birds, bees, flowers, the sounds of untold other animals sniffing (and in the case of the likely wild boar we heard – grunting) at your presence. Birds of prey soar overhead and, even on a sunny day, the air becomes quite chill.

The final part of the hike brings you out of the forest and onto the highest point of the whole trail, from where you can look out towards Lisbon and take in every piece of spectacular scenery on the way.

Bear in mind this is just one of many routes available from Malveira da Serra, so it’s really worth taking a look.

If you do go, it’s worth remembering that you really do have to take sensible shoes, drinking water and, preferably, some snacks or a picnic lunch as once you’re in the forest, there’s really nowhere to buy anything at all.

Have you been to Malveira? Would you like to go? Leave your opinions in the comments.

I leave you with a Malveiran cat.

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Guest Post: Three Pains and Three Pleasures of Learning to Speak Portuguese

As promised at the end of last week, here is the first ever guest post on Um Lisboeta Inglês, by Miriam Malek of Lusa Language School in Lisbon.

 

Learning any language can be tough – but the subtleties in the Portuguese language and its phonetic differences from its Latin neighbours make the journey to fluency that little bit more challenging.

Here at Lusa Language School, we explain three of the pains and three of the pleasures of speaking Portuguese.

 

1.       Oh meu Deus! What did you say?

One of the most challenging aspects of Portuguese is that tricky accent. Though written Portuguese looks deceptively similar to Spanish, Italian or French, spoken Portuguese sounds more similar to the Slavic languages, such as Russian.

This is because of the closed way in which Portuguese is spoken… or mumbled! In northern Portugal, such as Porto and the surrounding areas, the accent is even more closed and slang is commonplace.

Beginners in Portuguese can find it much easier to understand Brazilian Portuguese, because the pronunciation is clearer and Portuguese is spoken more slowly.

Tip: When you’re at a loss, ask someone to slow down by saying, “Pode falar mais devagar, por favor?”

2.       Strange sounds, sometimes scary

One of the other hurdles for Portuguese students is getting to grips with the strange sounds in the Portuguese language.

There are several kooky phonetic differences between Portuguese and other Latin languages – such as pronunciation of the letter ‘s’, which is normally pronounced as ‘sh’ in Portuguese.

This can lead to embarrassing spitting incidents during the first few weeks of speaking – just wipe your face down and power through.

In Portuguese, they also make full use of nasal pronounciation – for example, ‘tudo bem’ sounds like ‘tudo beng’ when it is spoken. Although this sound is not commonly used in English or Spanish, these nasal sounds can be found in French and many Slavic languages.

Tip: The nasal sound in Portuguese is similar to the ‘ng’ at the end of the word ‘bringing’.

 

3.       Tu or você?

Unlike English and many other languages, in Portuguese there is extensive use of formal language.

For the English word ‘you’ there are two tenses – ‘tu’ and ‘você’ . To address friends, relatives, and colleagues, normally it is appropriate to use the informal word ‘tu’, for addressing elderlies or superiors, the form of ’você’ is used instead.

Within European and Brazilian Portuguese, how often the ‘você’ tense is used differs. For example, in Brazil, ‘você’ is much more widely used than in Portugal.

In Portugal it’s common to refer to the person you are speaking to in third person, as a sign of politeness. So if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is referring to a seemingly absent ‘senhor’ or ‘senhora’– that’s you they’re talking to!

The formality of the language varies according to the area of Portugal you are in. In the north, swearing and using informal slang language is commonplace, but be careful, you may receive reactions of shock by using this language in southern Portugal!

Tip: Most Portuguese people will just appreciate that you are making an effort to speak, but  when in doubt, use ‘você’.

 

If you are willing to put in the effort, the pleasure of learning Portuguese vastly outweighs the challenges. Check out these three pleasures of learning the language below.

1.       French? Italian? No problem!

One of the huge benefits of learning Portuguese is that it is a strong gateway language for the rest of Western Europe. You’re sure to find that once you begin learning Portuguese, your understanding of other Latin languages, such as French, Spanish and Italian, naturally improves in tandem.

This is because much of the vocabulary is similar, and if heard phonetically and slowly, the languages can be mutually intelligible. Similarly, the grammar structures between the Latin languages are very similar and involve learning the root verbs and conjugating accordingly, depending on who the speaker is addressing.

Tip: Once you begin learning Portuguese, have a look at some written Spanish or French – you may be surprised by how much you can comprehend.

2. Get a key to the world… or at least to Lusophone cultures

Learning Portuguese can give the speaker a key to the world of Lusophone cultures, which spans four continents. Apart from Portugal, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and several other African islands, East Timor, Macau, Goa in India, and many more places.

Portuguese is a fantastic tool for understanding these cultures on a deeper level – giving students the opportunity to interact with locals, listen to music and read cultural texts and literature.

Tip: Because European Portuguese uses so many closed sounds, it is thought that Portugal is the best place to learn if you’d like to understand Portuguese accents in other Lusophone cultures.

 

3.       Boost your skill-set on a professional level

Portuguese is one of the fastest-growing languages in the world – up there with Chinese and Spanish. But despite this, there are actually very few speakers of Portuguese as a second language.

This means it is highly-coveted within a number of sectors – including trade, business, media and travel. Having the language as part of your skill-set can boost your employability and broaden your horizons on a professional level.

Tip: Learn the basic phrases to use Portuguese in a professional setting. Clients and colleagues will appreciate that you are making the effort!

 

If you’d like to find out more about learning Portuguese or begin your language-learning journey in Lisbon, visit the Lusa Language School website and get in touch!

http://www.lusaschool.com

A Lingua! Learning Portuguese & a Collaboration

It’s been a while, dear readers. Sorry about that. But here I am, in lovely Portugal now for almost three years. It seems like just yesterday that I wrote about the ten things I learned in that first year. But anyway, almost three years in and, you might be wondering – how is my Portuguese?

Well, it’s not bad. I’ve had a lot of help from friends, colleagues, students and more besides (a special shout out has to go to my fiancée’s avó Isabel who puts up with my bad pronunciation at great length and rarely castigates me), which has me at what I’d probably call a strong pre-intermediate level. I can do everything I need to do in daily life in Portuguese. Sometimes I’m quite sure that I don’t do this in exactly the most natural way, but I can do it. I can interact with shop assistants, nuisance calls, the police, and cheerful old ladies who tell me I should really be wearing a coat, all with more than a modicum of success.

Bizarrely, though, I feel like I’m less effective in Portuguese than I was in Polish after the same period of time in Poland. Bear in mind how difficult the Polish language is supposed to be (there are about 60 ways of saying the number “one,” for example) and it’s a bit of a surprise. To me, too.

Why so difficult?

The difficulty in the language is really rooted in a number of things.

First of all, there is the fact that the language simply is difficult. Yes, it’s a romance language, so my knowledge of French and Latin help a lot. But there are also words with Arabic origins and more besides. There are also myriad false friends with English and an extremely complex grammatical system.

Secondly, there is the fact that people here are, broadly speaking, terrific at English. This means that, more often than not, when you’re in downtown Lisbon trying to find out what’s in that soup, the well-meaning waiter will simply say “Oh, if it’s easier, we can use English!” I’ve now begun to refuse such offers of help, politely, explaining that if I’m to live here I must know the language. But for a long time, it was all too easy to say, “yeah, ok”.

Finally, there is that I’ve been a bit lazy. I had some hit and miss experiences with language schools and don’t meet my language partner as often as I should. But all this could be about to change.

What collaboration?

This week, I was approached by some people who run the Lusa school of Portuguese, who are a new school, based in Cais do Sodre, in the very heart of downtown Lisbon. So, from next week, they’re going to contribute some wisdom to these very pages, helping expats like me, or even just tourists visiting the city on how to best acquire this tricky, but beautiful language. I hope you’re as excited about it as I am. In the meantime, take a look at their Facebook page, here.

Até logo! (See you soon!)

Lisboa Iluminada – Christmas Lights

If you’re thinking of visiting Lisbon, but not sure whether it’s worth it during the Christmas period, what with the cold and all, hopefully this post will give you all a bit of encouragement. There are markets and stalls selling everything from the usual farturas (think churros, but stuffed with chocolate, cream or strawberry sauce), to wines, to ginjinha (pleasantly warming on a cold night!), to local craft beer. And lots more besides.

A couple of years ago, one of my first posts about living here was about the amazing Christmas light show that the local authorities put on in Terreiro do Paço. Well, they’re not doing that this year (as far as I know!) but it’s clear that they have been putting the revenue gained from the increased tourism here in Lisbon to good use, as there are some truly spectacular Christmas lights allover the downtown area of the city. Here are some to whet your appetite.

Beer: Fizzing Up From Under The Surface

Flavours are one of the strongest suits of this nation that I call home. Whether it’s the tangy, fishy taste of cuttlefish and its ink, a strong, robust Douro wine, or the fragrant aroma of aged chouriço, flambéed in aguardente, you’ll be hard pressed to visit Portugal without the gastronomy making an impression on you – for better or worse. “And what about the beer?” you might ask. Hmmm. Well, like much of southern Europe, beer in Portugal has served pretty much one single purpose over the past century and more. It’s cold, it’s light, it’s refreshing and it instantly makes you feel cool on the many long hot days. As for the flavour, it was something they never really thought about.

Staple Brews

Go to any bar or café in Portugal and ask for a beer and you will be presented with Super Bock o Sagres. The former is, in my view, superior by far and neither are as bad as the UK’s stock offerings of Carling and Fosters – perhaps the world’s worst beers outside of the USA. That being said, I can’t imagine anyone trying to tell me that Super Bock is the best beer in the world. Even if they work for Super Bock. In the past, both of these brands did make some attempt at introducing variety. Both have a black lager – Super Bock call theirs a stout, but it’s certainly not a stout – and they also had another range, based on northern or eastern European beers, called Sagres Bohemia and Super Bock Abadia. Both were better than the originals. Neither were particularly inspired.

Revolution

Then, in 2015, during my first winter here, something happened. A number of small scale breweries, up and down the country had been brewing beer for a year or two. Real beer. Beer with flavour. Beer with variety. But not that many folks had taken much notice. I hadn’t even heard of many of these purveyors and I’m a Brit who was sadly in need of some decent beer. But then, in January, Lisboa’s Camara Municipal put on an event in Santa Apolonia’s Feira de Ladrões called ‘The First Lisbon Winter Beer Festival.’ I’ll admit to feeling a small sense of scorn about it – how many could there possibly be? – I wondered. But along I went with a few friends and colleagues to check it out. What I found there was a huge surprise. There were around 45 beers, from nine or ten different breweries from up and down Portugal, many of which were excellent. There were enthusiastic owners and brewmasters, both from abroad with an interest in bringing real beer to Portugal and from within the country itself. I tried around ten to twelve beers and left with my eyes open to the growing trade and on the look out for more opportunities to try this growing trade.

Fast forward fourteen months to the second Lisbon beer festival, hosted at LX Factory in Alcanatara, over three days and the industry had exploded. In place of the dozen brewers from the first festival, we were presented with more than twenty – including one from Spain – and instead of 40 or so beers, we were offered more than a hundred. The number of visitors, too, had swelled immeasurably. I visited on two of the three days with friends and was seriously impressed by the number of people of all ages and backgrounds, coming to see what it was all about.

Beer me!

So where do you find all this beer? Well, in Lisbon there are plentiful options now. The supermarkets Continente, Jumbo and El Corte Ingles have committed to stocking a range of beers from smaller breweries, as well as the big boys now. Some of these are imports but, if you want to support local brewers, there’s a decent arrange in mid-sized markets and up. Three breweries are Lisbon based and offer tours of their facilities and tasting packages. Check out Dois Corvos and Oitava Colina – two of my absolute favourites and make a booking. You can also learn more about Musa, whose music themed brews are all excellent, but whose pilsner – Mick Lager – might just be the best lager I’ve ever tasted. And I lived in Poland, people. An honorable mention must find its way up the coast, too, to Mean Sardine, of the glorious Ericeira, whose beers are also great and who are really pushing the boundaries with experimental beverages – their recent Yellow Submarine-based, single hop IPA was astonishingly good.

If you don’t want o visit a brewery, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, there are also some establishments in Lisboa who are making a point of stocking excellent beer all of the time. You can find Oitava Colina’s beer on tap all year round at Trobadores, a medieval themed bar who also sell mead, cocktails and decent food and the daddy of beer halls in Lisbon, Lisbeer has to get a mention. They always have a wide variety on tap, as well as a huge raft of bottled beers from Portugal and around the world. The staff are knowledgeable and can recommend something for (almost) every palate, and they can usually provide you with a glass to match the beer you’re drinking. Finally, one of my favourite places to eat in Lisbon, Ground Burger, not only produce the best burgers I’ve eaten in my life to date, they also stock more than 70 craft beers, the majority of which are domestically produced. I’ll drink to that!

So, the next time you’re going for a beer with your friends in Lisbon, or even if you’re just visiting for a weekend, rather than taking that 1 euro imperial of bland fizzy stuff, why not reach deeper in to your pocket and have something you’ll really enjoy? Cheers! Saúde!

3 Gems You Might Miss if You Don’t Know Where to Look

It’s been a busy few weeks since the start of the school year, hence the radio silence here on umlisboetaingles.

Living and working with people who have, in many cases, been here a fair number of years, it always surprises me how many gems I manage to find that no-one I know has ever heard of. Recently, I’ve happened upon three such places, which I really think anyone living in, or simply visiting Lisbon, could well do with adding to their to-do lists.

1 – 1300 Taberna

Located in the ultra-hip LX Factory, 1300 Taberna is a restaurant offering a range of Portuguese and International cuisine, with the accent on an haute cuisine approach. The restaurant is tucked away in one of the buildings in the middle of the old factory complex and, personally, I had never heard of it. I found myself in the area with some friends who were visiting from England and decided to check it out. I was so pleased that I had done, that I went back with my fiancée four days later. On both occasions all present were bowled over by the food, while the decor, ambience and service are also top. For more information, take a look at the trip advisor entry, here.

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This slab of pork, with peas and ham, and morcela farofa was a prime example of why I went back so quickly

2 – Aromas e Temperos

The discovery of this one I owe to one of my favourite Lisbon instagrammers and foodies, a lad called Duarte. He seems to spend most of his time going to restaurants with the kind of food that makes me hungry even when I sleep and so, when he started visiting Aromas e Temperos every couple of weeks and posting pictures of sumptuous looking Portuguese Brazilian fusion food, I began following them and it was only a matter of time before I found myself there.

The food is delicious, plentiful and modestly priced, with a two-course lunch menu setting you back only 10 Euros, if you choose the prato do dia (dish of the day). I did just that on my first visit and found myself feeling well and truly stuffed with food that was delicious, substantial but also healthy (or not unhealthy, at least!) It’s also located very conveniently for most Lisboetas and visitors alike, just off Almirante Reis, near to the Arroios metro stop on the green line.

I’m told dinner is also great, so that’s next on my to do list. Learn more about the place here.

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Crispy coated fish with farofa and Brazilian style bean and bacon rice

3 – Café da Garagem

Nestled in behind the castle of St George in Lisbon’s ancient Alfama district, Café da Garagem is the basement floor of an artistic exhibition space, known as Quinta da Garagem. The exhibition space always has something interesting going on, be it in the form of sculpture, collage or even fashion exhibits. The real reason I come here though is to find a quiet place, usually on the open terrace looking out to the sprawling mass of decay and rejuvenation that is the Mouraria district, all the way up to Graca’s recently remodelled park and the cathedral.

It helps, of course, that this place does what I think is one of the best cappucinos in town, as well as imaginative and delicious toasts and some really indulgent, homemade cakes. The staff are always super friendly and helpful and there’s usually some nice music playing in there, making it both a great place to go with friends, and on other occasions, to lose yourself in a good book. You can find out more about it here.

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With Views Like These…

 

The Tower at Cascais

It’s been a while since my last post, and that’s mainly because I’ve spent the summer in England where, incidentally, there isn’t really a summer. But just before I went away, I had a friend visiting me from Poland, and we went on some adventures. Some were further afield, while others were closer to home.

One such closer to home day out was in Cascais. Anyone who lives in and around Lisbon will know Cascais pretty well. It’s the little seaside resort at the end of the train line. A haven for expats and holiday makers from all over, it’s picturesque, the birthplace of the famous Santini ice cream parlours, and has a lovely, relaxed vibe to it.

However, one of my favourite parts of the city is the old citadel. Originally built in the 15th century, it was occupied by the Spanish during the reign of Phillip I, by the Napoleonic French in 1807 and it suffered signifcant damage in between, in the colossal 1755 earthquake. Finally, between 1870 and 1908, the citadel became the offical summer seat of the royal family and a grand restoration project saw it renovated to its former glory. Indeed, it became the first building in all of Portugal to feature electric lighting in 1878.

This was not my first trip to the citadel – probably about my fifteenth, in fact – but it was the first time I noticed that the tower was open to visitors. I’ve been trying to establish whether I somehow managed to simply miss it or whether, as I think, it had not been open before. Either way, as I reached the heart of the citadel and the wall overlooking the marina below, I noticed that the tower was open and was delighted to find that it was also free to enter. So we decided to take a look.

There were some staff from the tourist authority inside the tower, who gave us some leaflets with information and showed us the way to go, in a typically friendly way. So, we clambered up to the top and were met by some really incredible views of the whole area.

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180 degree panorama of the marina from the tower

Cascais lighthouse

Also one of the best views of the lighthouse that I’ve seen

So, whether you’re familiar with Cascais or not, I strongly recommend climbing the four flights of stairs to the top of the tower and taking in the view – while the summer sun still lasts!

Here be Cats

I love cats. I mean what’s not to love. The animal that is the coolest and knows it’s the coolest. The animal that receives our love and affection only on its own time and gets away with it. Mankind, master of the natural world, but still asking nicely if you can stroke the kitty under its chin. But, as many of you will know, I’m a travelling English teacher. It’s basically like being a gypsy with coursebooks. It doesn’t lend itself well to cat owning (or belonging to a cat, I suppose).

As it happens, my love of Lisbon, life in Portugal, my job, and meeting the love of my life here means I suspect I will indeed have my own cat before too long. But until now, it’s been almost unfathomable. So how then, does one get over this ‘cat saudade,’ save for hassling your only 2 sets of friends who actually have cats in the city? Aqui há gato! might just be the answer.

Situated on the monstrous hill leading up from Santos into Estrela, on Calcada de Estrela, Aqui Há Gato is a cat café. Not too dissimilar to the ones you might have seen on TV from Japan, the concept is frightfully simple. There’s a café where you can go in and do café things, like drink coffee or tea, read a book, buy and eat a sandwich or a cake, but with one crucial difference: half of the café, sectioned off behind doors, is inhabited by a small colony of cats.

When you go in, you’re asked if you’d like to go in and see the cats. If you would, you pay a 3 euro entry fee, which grants you one hour of cat loving time and a free beverage, be it coffee, tea, water, ice tea or whatever. On coming out of the little cat sanctuary, should you decide to stay and have a bit of cake, or lunch, if you spend over 5 euros on food and drinks, your cat visit is free. With my not having too much time, I just took a bottle of water and headed in to the cat zone. The first thing I saw did nothing to deter me from exploring as I encountered this dozing ginger beauty:

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After giving the sleeping kitty a little fuss, which generated not so much as a flinch from its sleeping form, I decided to have a good look around. You can see immediately that they invest in the place. The cats wants for nothing, with toys, water fountains maintaining a cat friendly level of humidity in the room, as well as drinking water, tunnels, platforms, hiding holes and a little private area, off-limits to human visitors, in case of the cats taking a disliking to an individual or kids getting a bit too grabby. The cats are in luxury cat heaven. The space is also set up as a library. There are a number of books in there, but I found myself too distracted to pay much attention to it.

Perchnig on the sofa opposite the cat scratching/sleeping posts, I met up with this little guy and basically fell in love, so much so that I hardly noticed when my friend arrived to join me, a bit later.

We spent close to our full hour in there, stroking and playing with the cats with some of their toys when they became more energetic. It was a lovely experience. The best thing of all though was, on the way out, discovering that all the cats in the cat café are rescue cats from the shelter and, as well as those there in the café, you can also browse the catalogue of cats which are currently up for adoption. I think I’ve found where I’ll be picking up my cat from!