It is does us all good to listen to another person’s view on your own country and customs. All too often we are quick to dismiss our heritage and we grumble about our politicians and our way of life. Sometimes it takes a foreigner to highlight what they believe to be bad in their country and to point out how your own can be so much better.
We were walking along the seafront from Alges to Belem in Lisbon when we passed a large war memorial and we happened upon the changing of the guard. We stood to watch the ceremony and after the retiring guards had moved away, the sailor (I assumed) who was now ensconced in his guard box, beckoned me over and indicated that I should have my photo taken with him. I teased him that he would get into trouble as in the UK the guards were supposed to stand very still and be serious but keen to break the monotony of his day he proceeded to chat with us for the next twenty minutes.
His name was Juan and he was a Marine. The Marines are a relatively young branch of the Portuguese services and were set up when a small group of their armed forces came to the UK to train and to learn how our Marines functioned. Juan had served in Somalia and Afghanistan (did you know that the Portuguese had troops there) and was now serving a period of time on ceremonial guard in front of the war memorial. Whilst he believed that it was correct to have a guard present he felt that it was an activity beneath the esteemed Marines. The large marble walls listed many fallen Portuguese with the majority of the deaths taking place during the 1960’s in the Portuguese colonies in Africa. There were thousands of lives lost in Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea during that decade.
Juan was trying to come to a decision. He had just about served his initial eight years in the Marines and was being pressured into signing up for a further term. This is when he praised the British system and society for its forward thinking and appreciation of the role of its service personnel.
Like Britain, Portugal does not have compulsory national service, but unlike Britain it does not allow its military to sign up in chunks of time which may or may not be extended or opted out of. Having served eight years he could now only sign up and remain in the service until he was sixty five. He had enormous respect and pride for his country but could not begin to imagine how his politicians could consider an elite member of the forces would be able to continue until that age. He wanted to remain in the services, but not until he was that old, and he was therefore looking to terminate his career and return to university.
He was also full of praise for the British people and their support and pride in their troops. Juan explained that in Portugal the population generally considered people who went into the armed forces or the police to be civil servants and they refused to acknowledge their part in wars on the world stage such as in Afghanistan. He was so pleased to be able to thank me and BF for our pride in our armed forces (we are British therefore it was a given) and by proxy, our acknowledgment of his work.
Juan continued to highlight the differences between the decisions that the leaders of the two different countries had made when deciding to enter the European Union and choosing whether to adopt the Euro. He believed that both past and present British governments were fiercely protective of their rights, our currency and were strong and correct to stand up to Angela Merkel whereas the Portuguese governments had given away too many rights and privileges in the past and now the population were paying for it. He was scathing about the German prime minister and her attitude to the poorer nations in the EU and could understand why so many young people wanted to leave his country.
Politics aside, I am proud to be British and extremely proud of our armed forces and this was reinforced listening to Juan. We may have many things wrong in the UK but things are not always as rosy as they appear elsewhere.