Public transportation and how it reflects the Portuguese mentality

When thinking about a cultural practice normally the first thing what comes to mind are prejudgments. Invalid, generalised assumptions and mostly discriminating in nature. When I was considering doing my exchange semester in Lisbon I automatically associated the Portuguese mentality with the mentality of southern Europe countries like doing “siesta”, being kind of lazy and taking the life with the attitude of “anyway, in some way everything is gonna be okay”. I believe we are doing this process of categorizing because we don’t like to be confronted with unaccustomedness. Therefore, we are using unjustified prejudgments to pretend to know something about a specific culture. As in every myth there is a little truth even in prejudgments there are too. But by looking at it from another perspective and experiencing the culture by yourself can lead you to different perceptions and insights.

As Swiss we are used to go to a bus station and expect that the bus leaves on time. If the bus is not punctual, we are fond of talking badly about the inability of our public transportation system. But living in Lisbon and depending on the public transportation is a totally different story. To be fair I must distinguish between the bus system and the other public transportation in order to prevent from wrong allegations. But surprisingly, I realised how this system reflects the Portuguese mentality in some way.

So how exactly is the bus system and the mentality in any kind related to each other? Let me give you an example: While I am waiting at a bus station, having no idea when the next bus departs because the timetables are missing and my mobile phone bus application says that the bus should have already left two minutes ago, I am getting slowly nervous and start considering if I will be able to get to the group meeting on time. The only thing which does make me a little bit more confident is a group of locals waiting patiently besides me. Finally, when the bus arrives there is no hustle to get on the bus. On the contrary, there is a queue at the front door to validate your bus ticket. Interestingly, even the queue has its own order. Once, an elderly woman granted me the precedence because I was waiting already longer for the bus than she was. Not only to get on the bus is an adventure itself but to get off the bus you must be lucky or have faith in your GPS and google maps because the stops aren’t labelled at all.

“As long as you reach your destination, it does not matter how long it takes”

I would like to emphasize two aspects by this example. Firstly, there is the unreliability of the buses and hence the patience and calmness of the locals which came along with it. This might explain the different awareness of the time handling. Is it at the university by the start of the class or is it an arrangement among friends what time to meet? If you are around 30 minutes too late, it is still fine. The Portuguese do not see it that narrow minded as the Swiss do. A sentence which a local once told me describes this mentality accurately: “As long as you reach your destination, it does not matter how long it takes”. But for me it does not work out in this way. I knew that the Swiss or at least I am obsessed with being punctual and observing us making fun of the SBB is perfect example for that. But I didn’t realise how strongly it is actually anchored in our behaviour. I still feel guilty if somebody needs to wait for me because in the meanwhile, they could have done something better. I believe being punctual has a lot to with being polite and not wasting somebody else’s time. Therefore, I try to avoid taking the bus in Lisbon if not necessary and decide to walk instead.

Secondly, I am thankful that I can witness the kindness and friendliness the Portuguese express in their daily lives. As an example the mentioned precedence. I thought with the emergence of the mass tourism the locals might be fed by the tourists and strangers even if a lot of business are nowadays depending on them. But not at all, they still appear open-minded and glad about the opportunity to invite a stranger to their circle of friends. For me as a Swiss it is amazing. Normally we have this closed mentality amongst our friends, and it needs time to adopt a person in a peer group. I don’t know why but I know that I feel sad about it because we are missing out on so many opportunities to widen our horizon by getting in contact with stranger and being open for new perspectives.

By looking at the prejudgement at the beginning like “laziness and unreliability” you can see that there is a relation between them and the mentality  of serenity and cultural practices like the public transportation. But it is important to keep in mind that those are caused by different interpretation and perception regarding cultural values and perspectives.

Paco Buxtorf

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