The Portuguese Empire at its height had a very close relationship with Rome and the Vatican. It played an important role in the life of the city, and owned a lot of land and palazzi in the very heart of the city. It actually ran one of the most efficient hospitals and hospices here on its own, at its expense.
So it’s ironic that the Portuguese have a bad reputation in the Italian language. Thanks to a 1732 episode in the history of Rome, “fare il portoghese” (=to act like a Portuguese) means you’re a gatecrasher, and it’s gone on to mean more generally someone who doesn’t pay whatever entrance fee is due, including on buses and trains.
The expression goes back to the XVIII century, when Portugal was flush with gold from the colonies, and the Portuguese Embassy in Rome generously sponsored many theatrical events, complete with food served during intermissions. And instead of sending out invitations to members of its own community, they just announced that entrance would be free for all Portuguese. On some occasions, they even offered free after-theatre dinner in the city’s trattorie and osterie. But the numbers didn’t add up when the bills were presented to the Embassy, as word had got round, and crowds of people had passed themselves off as Portuguese to enter without paying.
The Romans were the gatecrashers, not the Portuguese! But History often gets things wrong, so the expression has survived to this day with its original meaning lost in the telling.
I have Portuguese ancestry on my father’s side and last month I was invited to a reception in honour of the new visiting President of the Republic. Official events are part of a past I walked away from, and these in particular are a bit of a challenge to my wobbly mastery of the language – shamefully, Portuguese is not among my strongest, as I never lived in the country.
But I always greatly appreciate being invited, being remembered and also offered a chance to participate in cultural events as these will never cease to be emotional journeys into the past, the roots and history of my father’s fathers. They are not a direct part of my life and experience, but somehow filtered through a patchwork of tales heard here and there in family environments. At home, or in random meetings with far-flung relatives in far-flung places. In the albums of yellowed pictures of villas, celebrations and of the ocean, pictures of my parents visiting the old country, and staying on longer than expected.
As a lifelong multicultural expat, I’ve never quite understood where “I’m from”. Each bit of ancestry is like a strand of DNA that tugs at my mind and heart, but my surname is Portuguese, and this creates a very special link to a country I know so little of. My close encounters with the Portuguese community and the welcome I’m offered always touch a cord and leave me feeling I belong somehow, and I am grateful.
On a closing, somewhat tongue-in-cheek note, the papers ran a news item a couple of weeks ago, according to which a Portuguese super-top-double agent had been arrested in Rome in flagrante delicto, handing over NATO documents to a Russian spy. There were no details, except for a comment that it went against all rules of proper spying for handlers and spies to meet in person – as any movie-goes knows, safe-places and train station lockers or boxes are obviously the way to go. And god-forbid, spies should never ever actually sit down to dinner together. Which they apparently did, in a trattoria in Trastevere: some people just can’t resist the idea of a meal in Trastevere!
But I wonder who paid the bill when they were hauled off?
Do you know of any colourful expressions to describe gatecrashers or freeloaders?