What does the word “negotiation” bring to mind? Two parties sitting down and discussing what each would be willing to give and take? Executives arguing across the boardroom table? Lawyers sending off letters in an effort to find mutual agreement with the other party?
Forget all that.
Instead imagine a converted garage that has found a new, improved function as a small wine-making facility, complete with shiny fermentation tanks, wine presses, rows and rows of bottles and a bewildering array of tools you probably don’t know the names of. This is where we found ourselves a few months ago for a critical piece of negotiation.
Situation, Complication, Negotiation
Property rental law in Portugal is strongly pro-tenant and generally home owners don’t want the hassle of trying to evict non-compliant tenants. Once you start researching long-term rentals, especially in more rural locations, you come across countless horror stories of tenants who simply don’t pay and a legal system that makes it difficult to kick them out. As a result, the pool of potential long-term rental houses is ridiculously small and you have to resort to trying to convince owners that there are benefits to signing a longer contract.
Our challenge was exactly this in that garage-cum-winemaker’s paradise. Yes, this was our chance to secure a new rental house. After several months of searching, we’d actually managed to find a contender in the village where we’d bought our land. Its location was ideal, but before you get excited, you need to know that this was one of the ugliest houses I’d ever seen in my life. And old, cold and very, very empty.
But in my mind’s eye I could already see Tom buying a camper van (or something far worse) and parking it on our property, proudly announcing that this would be our home for the next 18 months. Desperate times call for an attitude of compromise and I knew I could live in an old, ill-equipped, unsightly house if it meant I would be surrounded by actual walls.
Grapes vs. Gringos
The owner of the ugly house and also the home winery (let’s call him senhor Alvares) had invited us to talk about (=negotiate) a rental contract. On arrival, he led us into his winery and introduced us to his sweet wife, dona Constancia. We were so charmed that we didn’t notice immediately that this was to be a ritual of sorts. Before we knew it, senhor Alvares placed two beer mugs on the counter. Just as quickly he filled – truly FILLED – them with home-made wine. (Allow me to pause here and mention that most home-made Portuguese wine is fairly undrinkable. At this point we’d had several encounters with the beverage and had never been able to consume more than one sip. Allow me to also mention that we’d rushed out the door without having breakfast that morning). I didn’t dare make eye contact with Tom, because it was entirely possible that senhor Alvares would read the horror we would undoubtedly signal to one another.
In a flash dona Constancia disappeared into the house and reappeared with home-made chouriço and chunks of fresh bread. This was good. The food would dilute the taste of the wine – hopefully. Besides, wasn’t it all part of avoiding a potentially epic battle between camper van and house-with-four-walls?
Things took a turn for the worse when we discovered we were on our own with the vinho. Senhor Alvares had a health issue and dona Constancia was too good a woman to be caught drinking before 12. As I should have been, but I couldn’t let Tom do this alone. So we took a deep breath, took a sip and waited for the shock. And guess what? The wine wasn’t a disaster at all while the chouriço was a delight. We could do this. Valiantly we drank and ate as they looked on. Halfway through, senhor Alvares brought out two more glasses from underneath the counter – luckily not beer mugs – and filled them again, this time with jeropiga wine (a sweet unfermented, fortified wine also known as jerepigo or jerepico). It was delicious. Then again, at this point most things would have been enjoyable…
It’s a good thing senhor Alvares wasn’t a more cunning man, because in our diminished state he could have sealed the deal without us even registering half the crucial details. With promises of talking again soon, we kissed dona Constancia’s soft cheeks and stumbled outside. The sun was high and we had a decision to make. Lunch on the town square in Caminha seemed like the perfect way to reach that decision. Because that, just like protracted negotiations, is what you do in Portugal.
Postscript: We did miss a crucial detail: apart from the fact that the house was old, lacked appliances and fixtures, it also had no hot water. In the end, due to the costs involved, we decided not to take it, but every time we see senhor Alvares in the village, we stop to say hello (after making sure he’s not anywhere near his cellar).