Party time for Swiss-based Portuguese at Euro 2008

10th June 2008, Comments 0 comments

They may have lived in Switzerland for 20 years, but the Portuguese have never forgotten their roots as they cheer for their homecountry.

10 June 2008

GENEVA - The calendar says Tuesday is Portugal Day, the country's most important national holiday. The reality is that every day in June is Portugal's day in this part of Switzerland.

The young, vibrant and fast-growing community of Swiss-based Portuguese leaves little doubt who is having the best European Championship party.

Into the early hours of Sunday, towns and cities up and down the Lake Geneva region rang to the sound of blaring car horns and jubilant chanting as red-and-green-clad families celebrated Portugal's stylish 2-0 victory over Turkey.

On Tuesday, they will celebrate Luis de Camoes, their home country's most beloved poet, who died on 10 June 1580. And on Wednesday, their devotions will return to Cristiano Ronaldo, the skillful Manchester United winger who is probably the world's best footballer and definitely their poster boy.

"They worship Cristiano Ronaldo in a certain way," Julio Jose Vilela, Portugal's consul-general in Geneva told The Associated Press. "They see someone who has gone to play in England and is full of success. He is an idol and an example for those that are working outside our country."

His words are well chosen. Most of the near-200,000 Portuguese living in Switzerland came to work long hours without any of the low-tax benefits which lure so many millionaire musicians, auto racing drivers and tennis players.

Many arrived in the 1980s when Portugal - which even today is far from being among Europe's wealthiest nations - was much poorer and Switzerland was eager to welcome guest workers to do its construction, cleaning and manufacturing jobs.

Entrepreneur Carlos Dias has employed many of his compatriots in Geneva for 12 years in the most traditionally Swiss business of all, making watches under the Roger Dubuis brand.

"I am not born in Switzerland so it is more difficult," Dias said. "But it is easy to understand the success story of Portuguese.

"They are simple people, modest, they are hard workers. They come to Switzerland and other countries to work without problems, to be integrated into communities with their families."

He believes his people's openness to embrace other cultures is a tradition that can be traced to the 15th century navigator Vasco de Gama, who voyaged to Africa and India.

Dias will be at the Stade de Geneve on Wednesday to see Portugal play the Czech Republic, when he expects the fans to communicate again their love of life and football "with enthusiasm, happiness and friendship," as they have since Ronaldo and company landed on Swiss soil on June 1.

The adulation started with a convoy of cars and motorcycles trailing the team bus from Geneva airport to the players' hotel in Neuchatel, where a noisy welcoming party of 10,000 fans had gathered.

A similar frenzy attended the two squad training sessions opened to the public at the Maladiere stadium, attracting capacity crowds of 12,000 spectators each paying CHF 16 Swiss to get close to the practice action.

"It's just incredible we are getting a chance to see our national team here," said 21-year-old Marlene da Silva as she prepared to watch the session on Sunday. "There are so many of us here and it's wonderful they are doing this near where we live. We are just loving the atmosphere. It's not always like this in Switzerland."

She said she came to Switzerland 18 years ago with her parents from the Santa Maria da Feira region in Portugal. They now live in Bevaix with their four daughters.

Silva's younger sister, Lilibette da Silva, was born here and speaks very little Portuguese. But she knew enough to express her pride.

"I'm Portuguese, for sure," she said.

Celia Costa, 31, was wearing the red, green and yellow colours of the Portuguese flag during the practice session. She has been living in Lausanne for 20 years and also was clear about her national loyalty.

"There is no doubt at all, we are Portuguese and there is no changing that, no matter where we live," Costa said.

Sunday's practice was the centrepiece of an early start to Portugal Day festivities in Neuchatel, organised by the embassy in Bern with exhibitions of traditional dance and costumes.

"It was an extraordinary event," Vilela said. "People are using the fact the team is here to express their feelings for their country in a very colourful and enjoyable way."

He believes Euro 2008 has been something a coming-of-age party for the community, and an excuse for families to be reunited. Yet as the second generation grows up in Switzerland, the teenagers and children who make up nearly one-third of the Portuguese total need never lose contact with their native culture.

The government back home funds 150 teachers to lead classes in language and culture which are held outside of normal Swiss school hours.

"All the secondary Portugal system is available to the students who are here," Vilela said. "It is very important not only to keep the language and affinity to their country but also a means to integrate into local society. The relation with the teacher can help students to understand better the country the live in and the society where they live."

This month so far, Swiss society is certainly understanding how the Portuguese like to party.

[AP / Expatica]

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