Mário remembers that moment as if it happened yesterday. He’d been working for a few days as a home appliances salesman and he was asked to seek out new clients in Felgueiras. ‘I got to a crossroad and I stopped. I didn’t know if I should go left, right, forward or turn back. I didn’t have a set course.’
This memory is still present in Mario’s life, at 55-years old. In 2011, he lost his job. And his wife, Júlia, 52, who’d always worked in clothing factories, had lost her job 5 years ago. It was then that the ordered life of this family from Vila Nova de Famalicão started crumbling. They stopped having money to pay the mortgage for their 4 bedroom duplex apartment and started accumulating debt. Pedro, the oldest son, quit his college in Oporto, and Susana, now 19, gave up on applying to college. Before long, Mário had to turn to personal bankruptcy.
They’d come to a crossroads. What followed was not a choice, but rather a wandering path. Friends moved away from them; they moved away from friends. Mário still meets his dad daily at a café after lunch. He’s his greatest confidant. ‘I usually say to my father that my family seems to be living on a boat. Occasionally, there are moments, long ones, when we sail very troubled waters, we go through dire straits to keep the boat afloat. In those moments, the boat seems it’s going to sink, we experience hunger and hardship. And there are other moments, like this one now, when we sail smoother waters.’ In October last year, the waters were troubled. The family was living with 419 Euros from the unemployment allowance attributed to Mário; they paid 240 Euros to rent an apartment they found a few kilometers from Famalicão, and they had 179 Euros left for food, gas, electricity and water. In that Summer of 2013, Júlia didn’t manage to buy a piece of fruit. ‘I felt very sad’, she says, ‘but sometimes, when we went to my in-laws’ on Sunday afternoon, we managed to eat some fruit. We only had money enough for the basics.’ And the ‘basics’ were milk, bread, rice, pasta and olive oil. Sometimes, Júlia performed ‘miracles’, Mário says. The refrigerator was empty, but at mealtime there was always food on the table . With 2 or 3 Euros, Júlia was able to buy a couple of potatoes, onions and green beans at a fair. On other days, dinner was limited to boiled potatoes and egg.
Nine months later, on the second story of a four stories apartment, few things have changed. The living room, spacious and luminous, remains the same: one sofa, two armchairs, a television set on its stand and, in a corner, close to one of the windows, three bookshelves with the volumes of an encyclopedia, spy novels and police thrillers. In the morning, Mário went running in the park close to home. It’s a habit from his youth. And now he likes to do it ‘even more’, because running can also be soothing. ‘I notice it helps me release some pressure’, he says, indicating he goes running three times a week.
He managed to get a few months extension on his unemployment allowance, but he didn’t give up looking for a job, even though the answers are ‘always the same’. For almost three years now, looking for a job has become a routine: ‘I fill in the forms, deliver them, wait, and then they say no.’ Other employers warn him straight away that they don’t hire people of his age. That wasn’t what happened a few months ago, when Mário heard the people in charge of a beverages warehouse, who needed a salesman, telling him they ‘would think about it’. He was anxious for a few weeks. But the answer was negative – they needed someone younger. ‘It’s a shame that employers don’t value people with experience. I can understand that some areas require younger people, but it’s the years of experience that count in sales.’ Mário seems to be talking with some anger, but it’s soon replaced by the exhaustion apparent in his face. Júlia comments that her husband has lost some of his patience, especially when he has to wait for hours in some public department without enough personnel to assist people speedily. ‘I think I’m no longer as tolerant’, he says.
Júlia is sitting down next to Mário. She says that, in the morning, the owner of a grocery store near their home gave her a bag of peaches that were so ripe they were destined to go to the chickens. She laughs. ‘They were good to make jam’, she says, on her way to the kitchen. She comes back carrying a bowl of peach jam, still warm, and serves it with salt crackers. The family still takes a calculator when they go shopping, but in the previous nine months some changes happened in that home.
In December, Júlia got a job working at a restaurant as a cook. She went in at 9a.m. and got off at 3p.m., going back at 6:30p.m, without a fixed hour to get off. Initially, they offered her a full time position, but shortly after they told her she would only be staying for three months. In March, she was once again at home, unemployed, with free time to help a friend, the owner of a pet hotel that, in return for a few hours of work, gives her food and clothing.
About a month ago, she started bringing some money home: on weekends and sometimes on Wednesdays, she works in the kitchen of a barbecue restaurant. She earns between 30 and 40 Euros a week and some days she brings home dinner for the entire family. ‘It helps’, she says. But that still isn’t enough to pay the condominium fees, because there are more pressing bills to pay, namely the debt regarding the water supply at the old house and the new one, that built up and required the negotiation of a payment plan. In that building with four stories and 8 apartments, Mário and Júlia know almost no one. ‘He’s ashamed to face the neighbors because he hasn’t paid the condominium fees’, she explains.
This afternoon, Pedro and Susana aren’t home. A month ago, they both managed to find jobs with three-month contracts. On weekends, Pedro still works, ‘when he can’, at a culture center in Guimarães – last year, after he quit his college education, that was his only occupation. But now he’s working on a company where he’d tried to get in several times before. It manufactures machines and does laser processing on metallic materials. ‘He has friends at the factory and the last time he went there he got lucky’, his father says, worried because his son goes to work every day on his bicycle and because of the ‘hard work’. ‘His passion is drawing…’, he continues, stating immediately afterwards that he constantly asks his son to give his best. ‘He gets home tired, we see that, but he never complains. He just wants to be active, he wants to help’, Júlia says. Pedro’s first salary, the minimum wage, contributed greatly to the family budget: part was used to pay the water and phone bills and to buy food; he kept the rest.
Then there was Susana’s salary, equally minimal. In October last year, she was about to be admitted to a call center belonging to a telecommunications operator where she would be paid 200 Euros. She didn’t last a week there. On the first day at work, she seemed excited. But after her training and when she was left alone to try to talk someone on the other side of the line into contracting or buying a product, her timidity blocked her. ‘She felt intimidated and told me she no longer wanted to do that’, her mother remembers. She left the call-center just as she got there, without any money in her pockets.
But she didn’t stop sending out resumes and, on a job offer website, she found out that a family company located near Famalicão, dedicated to ceramic decals, was looking for employees. They called her to an interview and liked that quiet young woman who one day would like to be an elementary school teacher. ‘She’s very happy’, her mother says.
Susana earns the minimum wage, she bought the bus pass for 48 Euros to come and go to work and every day she takes the lunch her mother prepares. From her first wages she took out money to give to her parents for the house bills, she bought a blouse and a bra for her mother and some clothes for herself. Mário jumps in to say he doesn’t need any clothes. He shows the shirt he’s wearing, an expensive brand, and says it was a gift, just like his pants, from the lady who owns the animal hotel. ‘She’s the one who usually gives me clothes.’ The problem, according to him, are the shoes. The ones he’s got on, black varnished shoes, are the only ones he has. And they aren’t in good shape anymore: Mário lifts his foot and shows a hole in the sole. ‘I’m not ashamed to say they have a hole’, he says laughing, and remembers that until it starts raining they are the only shoes he’s got.
During her three month apprenticeship, Susana hopes to put aside enough money to finally get dental braces. Júlia says her daughter has ‘many complexes about her teeth’ and for that reason, ‘she rarely goes out with her friends’. ‘Didn’t you notice she covers her mouth with her hand when she laughs?’ But there’s another obstacle stopping Susana, and Pedro as well, from going out at night with their friends: it’s money that, counted down to the last cent, doesn’t allow for any spending on dinners, drinks or taxis.
’We know what it’s like’
After a phase when the needs were more apparent, the family is now living, as Mário says, a ‘quieter’ period. Although he admits this ‘tranquility’ is ‘temporary’. ‘When things are quieter, we can look around and listen to the birds singing. I began downplaying what used to be a problem but no longer is comparing to the ordeals we went through.’ In December, when Júlia got a job at the restaurant, the family thought life could get better. ‘Suddenly, we knew that wouldn’t be the case after all.’ Then came troubled times, but when the children got jobs, tranquility came back. ‘We just need enough money to pay the bills and that’s pretty good’, Mário says.
But other needs still exist. Mário stopped having friends, ‘the usually called drinking buddies’. He spends a lot of time with his father and some of his brothers. But he needs his friends. ‘We need to talk to other people, to have friends, and I no longer have that.’ He feels that need more than Júlia. Although he confesses he’s moved away from some people because of his life’s new circumstances. ‘I’m a true friend and I help out if I can, but when that doesn’t happen from others I can’t keep silent, I have to say it. We’re not expecting anyone to give us things, we’d just like that they didn’t disappear, that they didn’t stop calling.’
Mário starts sinking down on his sofa with teary eyes: ‘It’s surreal. When you tell people… We know what it’s like.’