Growing up in Portugal — Biji
When I was a kid in Portugal, we lived in a pretty pink bungalow that had once been an Olive pressing facility. It perched on top of a slight hill, in the middle of a substantially large garden. Our view was the Atlantic ocean on one side and the mountains called Sintra on the other. Farm fields and vinyards surrounded us.
In that garden we had an assorted collection of fruit trees — Lemons, Oranges, Grapefruits, a few peach trees, a huge old Fig tree and a few grapevines. We also had a few Olive trees.
On one side, our neighbour was an unpleasant and eccentric alcoholic old lady who lived in a dilapidated stone house which was rumoured to be a relic from Roman invasion times. We hardly ever saw the old lady, but every Saturday night we heard her. She would lean out one of the windows and scream out curses on the heads of the neighbourhood children. She hated them because they allowed their herds of Sheep to nibble on her vines.
Our neighbour on the other side lived in a large and lovely house, with maids and gardeners. She was a glamorous (I thought) person who was the mistress of the local Casino owner. A slimy sort at least twice her age.
Her name was Biji and she had a lovely daughter, same age as me, called AnnaMaria. Rumour had it that AnnaMaria was actually the daughter of the Casino owner. I never found out the truth. But that would certainly have explained the big house and his unfailing generosity to AnnaMaria!
I was fascinated with Biji. She had long reddish blonde hair which she wore in a stylish up-do. She wore huge sunglasses and her dresses were always a bit too short and a bit too tight, and high heels to die for.
She always wore lots of makeup and used a lovely floral perfume (way too much of it, my Mother said). To my childish eyes, Biji was the absolute last word in stylish. She reminded me a whole lot of Bridgitte Bardot whom I greatly admired. (Biji was not a Bardot fan and disliked the comparison.)
I compared my poor Mother unfavorably to Biji, which was of course very mean, but I really wanted my Mother to dress in a more stylish way and not go about in messy home made dresses. My Mother didn’t care a bit about how she dressed. I however, was very concerned with appearances.
Biji’s daughter, AnnaMaria and I became good friends, mainly because Biji and her boyfriend thought it was a good plan to have a sort of mini chaperone for Anna Maria, and although I was a far cry from “cool”, I was safe. She would cart me, or me and my Mother, all over the place: to the beach, to the glamorous and trendy swimming pool at the fancy hotel, where we would hang out on deckchairs — Ana Maria and Biji in stylish bikinis or swimsuits,
my Mother and I in whatever ratty old thing we had. Tanned young men would cluster around Biji to flirt, but were deterred by my Mother being there. Precisely according to Biji’s boyfriends plan.
Biji would also take us to the movies at the theatre in the Casino. Anna Maria always looking perfect in her pretty dresses and lace pinafores, me always looking kind of messy in whatever was handy to wear at the time. Unfortunately pretty white lace garments never worked for me. I quickly made them grey. I was far more comfortable in casual clothes.
Bijis’ Casino boyfriend was pleased to have a quiet American family living next door. He would often call on my Dad, whom he considered old and respectable, to drive Biji around to various places she needed to go. My Dad became a companion/chauffeur/chaperone. This way Biji was free to go shopping or visiting, without the danger of handsome flirts trying to get near her. In this way, decorum was observed and having a respected American journalist as a companion for Biji was very suitable.
Biji was always gracious to my Mother, but it was clear neither one had much to say to the other. I’m pretty sure that Biji also wished my Mother would dress better, especially if she was along for one of Biji’s outings.
When not forced to do lessons, or chores for my Mother, or visiting with AnnaMaria, I would spend my time in the garden, looking after my small collection of hens, turkeys and rabbits. I also had my own small garden patch which my Mother encouraged me to look after, and from which I got my passion for gardening. I used to climb trees a lot. My fave climbing tree was the big old Fig tree.
Anna Maria was very envious of my freedom and wanted to hop the wall and join in. This however was not allowed. Getting dirty was not an option for AnnaMaria. We could play together only at her lovely house, and I always had to arrive via the front door. No wall climbing to Anna Maria’s place for me!
We continued to be friends even as we became teenagers. We both became interested in boys and over time, saw less of each other. Anna Maria became a very lovely and elegant young woman, I remained a tomboy.
When I turned 21 I left home to go and stay with my bad cousin Nick in England. (Nick was considered bad because of his influence on me which led to my leaving home.)Anna Maria was really jealous, thinking that this was an amazing escape. I wrote to her and told her all the stuff I was doing. Somehow I ended up with a disfunctional old MG. I sent her photos of me in it. She was envious. When I went back to see my parents, I called her and we had a lovely visit. She was now engaged to be married and we knew that with me in England and her getting married our childhood friendship was over. A pity, we thought.
I always wondered what happened to them. I suppose that once Biji lost her looks and got old, her boyfriend left her high and dry. AnnaMaria probably did alright, the person she was engaged to was quite well off.