Thank you to Josef Butler who is working as a tour guide for Madeiran Heritage who sent me this article about his experiences on the Island.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a major city in the UK will immediately recognise the sight of men and women in ill-fitting suits clutching Styrofoam cups of flavourless coffee whilst rushing down busy streets at 8:45 in the morning. It will therefore come as a surprise to the estimated one million tourists who visit Madeira every year, many of them British, to see the cafes and eateries that line the streets of Funchal overflowing with customers during the morning commute. Drinking coffee whilst sitting down. The nerve of it.
The northern European tourists that flood to Madeira all year round normally stick out like particularly sore thumbs; the oversized cargo shorts and ruby red faces, audibly sizzling in the near-equatorial heat, tend to negate any attempts to blend in, either by learning some of the lingo or by appropriating a traditional hat. But the most cardinal sin committed is a basic one: an inability to understand the concept of Portuguese Time.
It’s a lazy stereotype that continental Europe can be divided on a horizontal line around the Pyrenees between workshy Catholics in the south and fastidious Protestants in the north. Beer versus wine, tomatoes versus potatoes, the eternal battle between olive oil and butter. And while many of these stereotypes come crumbling down under even a modicum of scrutiny, the pace of life in Madeira is drastically different to the UK. Time moves differently in Portugal. This is doubly true for Madeira, which has been a dominion of the Iberian country since its discovery in 1419. If you are asked by a local to meet for a few ponchas at 9pm, it’s advisable not to show up before 10 unless you’re fond of your own company. Life runs at a different pace in Portugal, and the effect of Portuguese Time is arguably exacerbated by the more laid-back, island nature of Madeira and its inhabitants.
Initially I was bemused by Portuguese Time. Having grown up in London and recently underwent the dreaded ‘fear year’ (the final year of an undergraduate degree), I felt all at sea on this tiny Atlantic Island. No one was rushing around like the demented ants that littered the streets of London or the university libraries I was accustomed to. No one except the tourists that was. Having now lived in Funchal for several months and acclimatised, I am constantly amused by the flocks of tourists dashing about the streets of Zona Velha like they were starring in their own remake of Keanu Reeves’ 1994 epic Speed. If they don’t tick at least ten items of their to do list for that day the bus will blow up and destroy their holiday.
I understand that people have many different reasons for visiting Madeira. Maybe they yearn to replace the bleakness of Basingstoke with the vibrant scenery that provides the backdrop to the popular hiking trails that accompany the island’s iconic levada network. Perhaps they’re eager to waste €5 to traipse around The Cristiano Ronaldo Museum of Vanity. They probably just want to have something to stop Ian from next door droning on and on about the minibreak he went on two years ago in Antwerp. But surely the best reason to come to a place like Madeira is to escape, if only for a week or two, the stress of modern life.
Portuguese Time has always been a facet of life in Madeira. Reading the personal effects of the Levadeiroes, the men who built the aforementioned irrigation network known as the levadas, this is apparent. They filled their work with joy, singing songs and playing pranks on each other. And contrary to popular thought in northern Europe this didn’t impede their work, as the near 1,500 miles of levadas throughout the island demonstrate. This stands in stark contrast to the Navvies who worked in literally backbreaking conditions to build the early parts of the London Underground in the 19th century. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from Portuguese Time in the UK.
The nature of hard work is a touchy subject in the UK, with the term having been heavily politicised during the last thirty years. While there is a general expectation upon people to join the rat race, work-related stress has been linked to serious health conditions such as heart disease, depression and lowered cognitive function. Therefore it is important for us all to find the opportunity to relax, enjoy ourselves and keep Portuguese Time. There is no better place to do this than in Madeira.
About the Author
Josef Butler is a tour guide and editor working in Funchal. For more information on guided tours visit madeiranheritage.pt or call +351291705060.