Dear Nosy Neighbour

The same guy who coined the famous “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” quote in 1824 (Charles Caleb Colton, in case you’re interested), also said – “If you would be known, and not know, vegetate in a village; if you would know, and not be known, live in a city.”  Which holds some truth even today, but also highlights the difficulty for those of us who really do not wish to be known, but still find ourselves, while not exactly vegetating, still having to live, even if temporarily, in the middle of a village.

Village laws of privacy…what laws?
After living in three cities around the world, this last move has pushed our comfort levels in many ways.  We are undeniably, and very uncomfortably, visible to anyone who cares to take the time to look up.  And the villagers do look up.  Whether I hang my laundry, sit on the deck to read a book, open the front door (or any door for that matter), they can see us.  When we drive out of the village, we have to pass at least two of the three cafés.  If you’re not familiar with Portuguese café behaviour, allow me to enlighten you: everyone stops what they’re doing to stare.  It’s like a national sport, or rather an infinite loop of chatting-pausing-staring.  How can they possibly be so interested?  How do they have time to scrutinise and consider every person that enters their field of vision?  Haven’t they already seen everyone who lives around here a million times?  Or is it simply that they’re afraid they’ll miss that one exhilarating thing that might, just might, happen one day?  I imagine their dinnertime conversations after a long day of nosy-parkering…

Did you see how dirty so-and-so’s car is today?  They drove past at 11 this morning.  And rather fast, too.
This morning they bought bread.  Or maybe it was pastries, I couldn’t tell.
Did she/he greet you?
The postman delivered a letter today and yesterday – so much post!
They really have to paint that house now, there’s another streak on the wall today, just above their bathroom window.
Oh, and I saw she was doing laundry again today.
I wonder if foreigners ever drink coffee?
(we do, just not at the café 50 times a day)…

So fine, I of the “keep your head down”-tribe may not understand it, but even if uncomfortable, it’s essentially harmless.  Lately, however, there’s a development that drives me quite, quite crazy.  First let me explain that our rented pad is a lovely, but unusual renovation of two small antique stone houses.  Each of the resulting four levels has one to one and a half rooms.  At the very bottom is a lounge, which also functions as my work space.  Unfortunately it has a major deficiency not spotted by these unsuspecting city folk when we first saw it – a large window on street level.  It’s on the road many villagers take – on foot – to get to their own houses higher up on the hill, and also, perhaps more pertinently, down to the cafés for their endless coffees, conversing and people-watching.  We’ve managed to create some privacy with good old Ikea stick-on film to make at least part of the window opaque and for a while this seemed to work, but these irrepressible villagers seem to like a challenge.

The shadow isn’t moving, what now?
Normally when someone walks past, a shadow would pass across the window, but when that shadow doesn’t move, someone is either
1) having a natter or
2) something far worse
Meeting for a chat is totally fine and mostly tolerable, even when they’re having their conversation across a distance of several hundred metres:  “Bom diiiiiiiaaaaaaa!  Oláááááááá!  Entãããããão, como estááááááás?”  There’s one woman in particular – the scrawniest, sweetest, most endearing, hardest working villager, and also the one with the biggest voice – whose deep, gruff bellow is enough to wake you up in a cold sweat.  While the deafening greetings and happy cackling do at times cause a certain amount of noise pollution, the thing I really have trouble with these days is when the shadow in front of the window is both stationary and silent.  That means one thing only – someone is stopping for a good, long look.

Here’s what I see once I realise that the shadow hasn’t moved for a while: feet pointing towards me, hands shading eyes and a nose eagerly pressed against the glass to see what these foreigners are up to.

Photograph by Jeff Bettens at

I have a great deal of affection for the locals, but when they peer into my house so shamelessly, my goodwill evaporates in an instant and I feel a sudden, intense sympathy for zoo animals.  If the nosy parkers see that I’ve noticed them, they hurry off immediately leaving me with some unkind thoughts about them.  I’ve even called out to an old woman from inside, asking her if I could help her with something, as if I ran an outfit that could somehow improve the viewing experience for her.  I’m fairly certain she didn’t apprediate my sarcasm, because I never received a reply, just witnessed an impressively hasty departure, legs pumping, skirt flying.
At this time of year, after having survived the annual 10 days of boisterous festa celebrations (even worse than last year) and nursing some disappointment in the moving target that is our move-in date, my mood hasn’t improved and I’m considering painting the window with sneeze-inducing agents or an itching powder.  It’s either that or I’m really going to have to give them a peep show to talk about long after I’m gone from here…


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